Written by Ariadne van Zandbergen
Mpumalanga province is South Africa’s top wildlife destination. It is home to the world-famous Kruger National Park and to a cluster of exclusive private game reserves bordering the renowned national park. There are also many other nature and game reserves in the area worth exploring. Some of them offer great wildlife viewing, while others will appeal to nature lovers looking for an uncrowded, authentic experience. Bird watchers are in for a treat, and hikers can stretch their legs on some of the country’s most exciting trails. The area is worth visiting throughout the year, but the shoulder months of May and September are particularly favourable.
Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve
The Blyde River Canyon is one of Mpumalanga’s most iconic attractions. Extending across almost 27,000 ha, it is the world’s third largest riverine gorge, after the USA’s Grand Canyon and Namibia’s Fish River Canyon. Known for its incredible beauty and lush foliage, it is also the largest ‘green canyon’ anywhere on the planet. Drive along the well-known Panorama Route, stopping at viewpoints such as Pinnacle Rock and the Three Rondavels, to appreciate the vast scale of the canyon from above. For a more intimate experience, some lovely day trails winds through the cool forested slopes, while an undemanding footpath provides access to the geologically fascinating Bourke’s Luck Potholes at the canyon’s southern extremity.
Loskop Dam NR
The 23,000 ha reserve is located on the shore of the man-made Loskop Dam. The dam wall was built across a natural gorge in the 1930s to provide a water supply for the surrounding farming area. The reserve was established 20 years later and re-stocked with indigenous wildlife. Today, it protects more than 70 mammal species, including three of the Big Five: white rhino, buffalo and leopard. Other animals to look out for on a self-drive safari are giraffe, zebra, eland and greater kudu. Some unusual antelope species, such as sable and tsessebe are present too. The reserve is a bird-watcher’s paradise, with more than 360 species recorded. Look out for rarities, such as the endemic southern bald ibis and re-introduced red-billed oxpecker. A boat trip on the lake is a great way to see animals interacting, including hippos and crocodiles.
Songimvelo Game Reserve
This little-known game reserve has lots to offer. The dramatic scenery encompasses the Barberton/Bulembu mountains and its valleys feature spectacular gorges and waterfalls. The wildlife viewing is outstanding too; four of the Big Five are present. White rhino, elephant and buffalo tend to steal the show, but many other species are present, notably giraffe, hippo, blue wildebeest and zebra. A great variety of antelope can be spotted too – you can see herds of eland (Africa’s largest antelope) on the grassy plains, while you might be lucky to get a glimpse of a diminutive red duiker scurrying off in the undergrowth. Lions are absent, but predators, such as leopard, African civet and honey badger are some of the shy nocturnal creatures here. The geology of the reserve is perhaps its most important feature – some of the rocks are 3.5 billion years old and preserve fossils of the earliest life forms on the planet. Unsurprisingly, the area is known as the ‘Genesis of Life’.
This low-key nature reserve is located between the famous Kruger National Park and the high-profile Sabi Sands and Timbavati private game reserves. Although not a Big Five destination, the reserve is a nature lover’s paradise and there is plenty of wildlife around. The road network is suitable for all cars and you’ll be able to spot giraffe, plains zebra, greater kudu, and other antelope. Take your time watching a troop of Chacma baboons – their social interactions are comparable to our own with some extra drama thrown in. Birders can expect to see a good variety of bushveld species, and the hippo pool is a popular spot to pick up some waders. For a real bush experience, a guided nature walk offers a great opportunity to stretch your legs, and it’s the best way to see some of the smaller creatures that inhabit this incredible ecosystem.
Verloren Vallei Nature Reserve
Verloren Vallei (Lost Valley) is a 6000-ha nature reserve located 13km outside the quaint town of Dullstroom. Despite being as little visited as its name suggests, it has gained international recognition as a RAMSAR Wetland thanks to its high aquatic biodiversity. The wetlands are an important breeding site for a trio of endangered crane species, namely: wattled crane, crowned crane and blue crane (the national bird of South Africa). Other alluring birds include southern bald ibis, southern red bishop, mountain chat, ground woodpecker and Cape rock thrush. You might be lucky to spot some mammals too, notably reintroduced herds of zebra, wildebeest and blesbok.