Historical Ithala Game Reserve Revisited – by guest author Gwynne Howells
The historical Ithala Game Reserve must be scenically the most beautiful protected area in South Africa. The deep forested gorges and valleys, grassy plateaus and rugged cliffs confront you at every turn. It is certainly a land of wood and water with many perennial streams and rivers rushing down the face of the Ngotshe Mountain to join with the Pongola River a kilometre below.
A haven for birds, especially raptors, it also has a wide range of animals including four of the big five (no lion). The vegetation is also special because of the variety of habitats at different altitudes and aspects.
Beginning from a generous donation by the Louwsburg Town Council in the early seventies, the reserve has grown by the acquisition of a number of farms to some 30 000 hectares. The ancient and historical Ithala Game Reserve presents the visitor with glimpses into both the earth’s and mankind’s past.
The Pongola River has carved its way deep into the past, exposing some of the world’s oldest rocks dating from a period called the Mozaan. Quartzite, gleaming with iron pyrites and gold litter the hillsides. There are two old gold mines in the reserve. Banded ironstone is found in abundance and was used by the early uMguni inhabitants to smelt into iron to make weapons and tools. Smelting sites are found throughout the reserve, as are stands of the African olive, Olea africana, which provided the hot fires needed to extract the iron ore from the banded ironstone.
Some of the deeply eroded gullies near the main gate have exposed middle Stone Age tools. The Middle Stone Age of African prehistory dates back some 250 000 years. In the granite koppies in the east of the reserve are examples of San rock art.
This ancient landscape has been home to man for an enormous period of time, long before Homo sapiens left Africa to people the world some 70 000 years ago.
Superimposed on this diorama of man and planet is a protected area of unsurpassed beauty and variety. With its range of accommodation, auto trails and walks it is an absolute must and should be on everyone’s ‘to do’ or ‘bucket list’.
I had not been to Ithala Game Reserve for 12 years so it was with great delight that I seized the opportunity to stay in Thalu Bushcamp for 5 days. Though Thalu is fairly rustic and needs a bit of love, it is still a delightful spot. Perched on a shelf next to the Thalu River it consists of two bedrooms and central lounge, dining area and kitchen. The lights and kitchen appliances are run by gas, which work well and there is a good supply of crockery and cutlery.
The bathroom and toilet are in two adjacent buildings, so it is advisable to be well supplied with torches, especially head torches, for late night excursions. A garden table and chairs, overlooking the river, provide a wonderful shady spot to enjoy meals or a braai. Bird life in and around the camp is prolific and a constant delight.
The Thalu River, slightly discoloured after several big thunder storms, provides excellent swimming holes; especially the deep sandy bottomed one below the red cliffs. As you drift down at the base of the cliffs, the rock figs and other vegetation arrayed above you on the red rocks, provides a startling contrast to the blue sky.
Sitting quietly at breakfast, two magnificent Waterbuck males appeared out of the dense vegetation below the camp and walked through the river, stopping every few paces to sniff the air before disappearing under the trees on the far bank.
Jotam, the gentleman who tidied the camp every morning, warned us to put all our food away each night as the field mice are opportunistic and will eat anything left out. That’s of small concern because the best thing is that no monkeys or baboons visit the camp, unlike many other places where they are a huge nuisance.
As we set out each day to explore different areas of the historical Ithala Game reserve, the hillsides were awash with the nodding heads of Ox-eye daisies, Callilepis leptophylla, their white petals surrounding the dark centres. With spring and good rains, the grassy uplands were full of wildflowers and there were splashes of colour wherever you looked.
Warthogs and ostriches, zebra and wildebeest waded through this colourful blanket. Tsessebe, red hartebeest and small families of white rhino dotted the landscape. It really was a most delightful return!
A group of reserve staff and senior Natal Parks Board officers are gathered in Ithala’s east section house at Kwasambane in about 1990. The topic under discussion is animal introductions. What, in the past, had existed at Ithala and what would be appropriate in the current situation.
The subject of elephants came up and was roundly rejected. We will never release elephants here. The fencing is inadequate and we can’t fence the Pongola River. End of discussion!
Some six months later we took delivery of six baby elephants from the Kruger Park. This was the first of three introductions that took place over the next few months. Housed in an electrified boma in the Ngubhu valley, the elephants learned to avoid electric fences and settled into their new environment.
When it was considered that they had settled down, eighteen baby six and seven year old elephants were released from the boma into their new home.
These young animals, coming from the trauma of the culling program in the Kruger and with no adults to guide them, set off to explore the reserve. They went to just about every part of Ithala, even to places that you would never believe an elephant could get to.
Fast track to the present, some twenty two years later. My wife and I are heading back to the bush-camp after spending most of the day driving round the reserve. I decide to take the long route home and traveled down to the site of the old elephant boma near the Ngubhu River Bridge. As we descend the hill we sight some elephants. As we get closer, more and more elephants appear.
Eventually we count nearly one hundred of all sizes, including a lot of tiny babies. This is the positive culmination of that discussion all those years ago and it fills me with a sense of joy. This wonderful reserve is finally coming into its own.
Just to let me know that they still resent the unpleasantness of their past, a bull gives me a full on charge, trumpeting and flapping his ears. I retreat, still filled with wonder and leave them in peace.
Historical Ithala Game Reserve Revisited by guest author Gwynne Howells