North-east Zululand (Elephant Coast) – Hluhluwe Game Reserve

About the Birding

Originally proclaimed in 1897, the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve is one of South Africa’s oldest reserves and is the birthplace for conservation in KwaZulu-Natal. The reserve is incredibly diverse in both topography and habitat and is broadly split into the Hluhluwe and Umfolozi sections. The latter ranges from the lowlands of the Imfolozi River to steep hilly country and includes several wide and deep valleys dominated by grassland and woodland. The Hluhluwe section is generally more undulating with altitudes ranging from 50 to 540 metres above sea level.

The highest ridges in this section support coastal scarp forests, which drain into the valley bushveld sections lower down. Given the immense habitat diversity, it is of no surprise that the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve supports a bird list well in excess of 340 species, making it one of the richest reserves anywhere in South Africa. At least two days are recommended to explore the reserve in sufficient detail to find most specials and visitors can expect a daily list in excess of 110 species during the summer months. The reserve is traversable by an extensive network of roads and includes several attractive picnic sites and hides. While it is permissible to self-drive through most sections of the reserve, guided trails and drives are available as well as multi-day wilderness trails.

Begin your explorations of the Hluhluwe section in the vicinity of Hilltop Camp. The camp itself is excellent for forest birds and it is permissible to walk in this section of the reserve. The Umbombo Trail should produce a healthy list of forest species including the Trumpeter and Crowned Hornbills, Lemon and Tambourine Doves, Narina Trogon, Green Malkoha, Sombre and Yellow-bellied Greenbuls and an assortment of Cuckoos in the summer months. Both Gorgeous and Orange-breasted Bush-shrikes are vocal but require luck to see, given their reclusive nature. Other notable species include the Red-capped Robin-chat, Cape Batis, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Black-bellied Starling, and Eastern Nicator. The diminutive White-starred Robin is a winter visitor, together with the sweet-singing Chorister Robin-chat. Search the forest edge of Bar-throated and Rudd’s Apalis, both of which are common, and watch overhead for Jackal Buzzard and African Cuckoo-hawk. Buff-spotted Flufftail is regularly heard calling from thickets in the summer months but requires luck and patience to see.

The road south from Hilltop Camp descends a long steep ridge and finally meets the Nzimane Stream at the Siwasamakhosikasi Picnic site. The sandstone cliffs here support a small colony of Southern Bald Ibis, and hold a nesting site for the immense Southern Ground Hornbill. Look also for Lanner Falcon, perched on the exposed cliff face, along with Mocking Cliff Chat, and Striped Pipit. Check the stream for the shy African Finfoot. Fruiting forest trees attract diverse frugivorous species including Red-winged and Violet-backed Starlings, Crested Barbet and Crowned Hornbill. An alternate suggested route is to follow the Nzimane Loop from Hilltop Camp. This route passes Crocodile and Hippo Pools and traverses areas of open savannah where Red-billed and African Firefinches and Green-winged Pytilia are all common. The pools themselves support Hamerkop, African Jacana, Squacco Heron, and occasionally African Finfoot.

The Seme loop provides access to drier areas of the reserve where Secretarybird and Black-bellied Bustard both occur. Other species that may be seen in this area of the park include the Crowned Lapwing, Red-throated Wryneck, Flappet and Sabota Larks, and African Pipits. Birds-of-prey abound in this section and birders should watch overhead from Bateleur, Tawny and Wahlberg’s Eagles, and both White-headed and White-backed Vultures. Summer visitors include the Amur Falcon, Harlequin Quail, European Roller, Red-backed Shrike and Spotted Flycatcher.

A boat cruise on the Hluhluwe River may yield the African Darter, Reed Cormorant, Squacco and Grey Herons, Water Thick-knee, African Jacana, Black Crake, Spur-winged Goose, Yellow-billed Duck, and the Giant, Malachite and Pied Kingfishers. This is also the best approach to finding both White-backed Night-heron and African Finfoot, both keeping to dense overhanging vegetation. Guided night drives may also produce Bronze-winged Courser, both the Spotted and Water Thick-knees, Verreaux’s Eagle-owl, and Fiery-necked Nightjar.

Key species:

Rudd’s Apalis, White-backed Night-heron, African Finfoot, Gorgeous Bush-shrike, Eastern Nicator

About the Birding Site

The Zululand Birding Route in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa was the first of BirdLife South Africa’s avitourism projects and has now been running for nearly two decades. The specific objectives of this project were to promote birding tourism within northern KwaZulu-Natal, which in turn would assist in helping to conserve the birds of Zululand by giving them direct financial value. To date the birding route has trained and mentored over 35 community bird guides, making considerable progress in developing the birding infrastructure within the region.

With more than 600 species recorded, this region is also by far southern Africa’s richest birding hotspot featuring a high diversity of endemic and range-restricted species. Thus, in the interest of birding routes, the region is divided into four main regions altogether including a network of 16 self-drive routes that will thrill even the most seasoned of birders. These groupings are as follows: north-east Zululand (Elephant Coast), north-west Zululand, Southern Zululand and North Coast (Zulu Root) routes.

The north-east Zululand (Elephant Coast) route is arguably the richest route within the greater Zululand region, featuring five key bird areas as follows: Hluhluwe, iSimangaliso (St Lucia), Mkhuze, Sodwana, and Tongaland. Each of these subdivisions has its own unique character and set of special bird species though, collectively, these are widely regarded as the richest bird watching areas anywhere in South Africa.

Hluhluwe derives its name from a river, which in turn was named after the thorny monkey rope called umHluhluwe. The region is perhaps best known for the Hluhulwe-Umfolozi Park, which has been internationally acclaimed for its efforts to conserve Zululand’s rich biodiversity. Featuring the ‘Big 5’ and rated as one of the top wildlife destinations anywhere in South Africa, the Hluhulwe-Umfolozi Park also supports an incredible diversity of habitats and well over 350 bird species. Moreover, the nearby Bonamazi Game Park and the reserves on the western shores of Lake St. Lucia (False Bay Park and Falaza Game Park) offer abundant water and forest birding with great walking trails and breath-taking scenery. Understandably then, this is one of the busiest tourism areas in all of KwaZulu-Natal featuring an abundance of top-quality accommodation facilities ranging from peaceful camping sites through to luxury 5-star rated game lodges. Most sites are easily accessible, and many species are common across all the reserves within this sub-route, though several days are recommended to maximise the chances of seeing all top specials.

Key species:

Rudd’s Apalis, White-backed Night-heron, African Finfoot, Gorgeous Bush-shrike, Eastern Nicator

Other Related Information

The Hluhuwe Game Reserve is well sign-posted from the N2 freeway and the town of Hluhluwe. The recommended route from either the north or south is to turn off the N2 at Hluhluwe Village and follow the tarred road to Memorial Gate. An alternate route is to turn off the N2 and Mtubatuba on to the R618 and to follow this road for 27km to reach the Nyalazi Gate.

Notable points of interest include the:
Memorial gate to Hluhluwe Game Reserve: -28.0686, 32.1415
Nyalazi gate to the Umfolozi Game Reserve: -28.0071, 31.6858

Other related information:

The nearest towns to Hluhluwe Game Reserve are:
Hluhluwe: 28km
St Lucia: 80km

Access and facilities:
Hluhluwe Game Reserve is accessible both by day-visitors (self-drive or guided) and overnight guests. The reserve offers Big 5 full or half day safaris as well as multi-day packages including several activities. Day trips leave from St Lucia including complementary transfers, alternatively guests are required to meet at the Nyalazi gate. These activities include a conservation levy, breakfast and/or a traditional lunch with refreshments. Boat cruises and walking safaris are also available within the reserve.

Gate times are between 06:00 and 17:00 daily and conservation fees are payable at the main entrance as follows:
South African residents – adults: R120pp
South African residents – children aged 4-12: R60pp
International adults: R240pp
International children aged 4-12: R120pp

Recommended accommodation nearby:
A variety of accommodation options are available in the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve ranging from camp sites, self-catering options to more luxurious lodges and resorts. For more information to make a reservation, contact Hluhluwe Game Reserve using the details listed above.
Moreover, numerous Birder Friendly Establishments are available in the nearby towns of Hluhluwe and St. Lucia.

For more information, please view Birder Friendly Establishments using the following link:

Local guide information:
Lodges within the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve have a number of in-house field guides, all of whom have exceptional knowledge about the local flora and fauna (including birdlife).
Several community guides also operate within the wider Hluhluwe/Mkhuze/St Lucia areas. For more information, please use the following link:

Text prepared by:
Daniel Keith Danckwerts (Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Tours)

Key species:

Rudd’s Apalis, White-backed Night-heron, African Finfoot, Gorgeous Bush-shrike, Eastern Nicator

Contact details:

For more information, contact:

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve
Tel: +27 (0)35 590 1555