North-east Zululand – Lower Mkhuze including the Mpempe Pans

About the Birding

Lower Mkhuze constitutes a large wetland floodplain system down-stream of Mkhuze Game Reserve including the Muzi Pans. The area is controlled by Ezemvelo KZN Widlife and forms part of the Greater St. Lucia Wetlands Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Mkhuze River crosses the main Hluhluwe-Sodwana road and heads into Yengweni and Muszi Swamps areas before ultimately filtering into the northern parts of Lake St. Lucia.

The pans and swamps are a haven for birdlife supporting an plethora of interesting species. Among these are the stately Goliath Heron and Saddle-billed Stork, which occur here alongside the Yellow-billed and African Openbill Storks. Pink-backed Pelican can usually be sighted on the Muzi Pans together with an interesting assortment of waterfowl, regularly including African Pygmy Goose. This latter species has a preference for areas of well-vegetated shallow water, where it occurs alongside the uncommon Lesser Jacana. Reedbeds support large breeding colonies of the localized Southern Brown-throated Weaver, identifiable during the breeding season by their striking golden plumage. The surrounding grasslands may yield the Yellow-throated Longclaw, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater (summer), Grey-rumped Swallow and Lemon-breasted Canary. Search thornveld in the Lower Mkhuze area for the Rudd’s Apalis, Pink-throated Twinspot, Burnt-necked Eremomela and a host of warblers (late summer).

Bridges over the Mkhuze River, down stream of Mkhuze Game Reserve, are fringed by rich forest. These habitats hold Brown-headed Parrot, Purple-crested Turaco, White-eared Barbet, African Emerald Cuckoo (summer), Trumpeter Hornbill, African Green Pigeon, Eastern Nicator, Gorgeous Bush-shrike, Grey Waxbill and Green Twinspot. The fortuitous birder may stumble upon a pair of Pel’s Fishing Owl, roosting high up in a dark forest tree, while careful scrutiny of the dense riverside vegetation may too yield the shy African Finfoot.

The nearby Mpempe Pan, situated south of the main Hluhluwe-Sodwana Road, is part of the Lower Mkhuze region and is highly regarded among birders. The grasslands here regularly hold both Senegal and Black-winged Lapwings, and both the Yellow-throated and Cape Longclaws. Grey-rumped Swallow feed acrobatically above the grasslands together with both the Banded and Sand Martins. In summer, Western Yellow Wagtail is regular. Check Lala Palms for the near-endemic Lemon-breasted Canary which is common in the area.

The Lower Mkhuze region has produced a number of national rarities over the years and birders should always remain mindful that this site may deliver the unexpected. Previous records from the surrounding areas include the White-throated Bee-eater, Pacific Golden Plover, Rufous-bellied Heron, Golden Pipit, Black-tailed Godwit, Pectoral, Green and Buff-breasted Sandpipers, and Long-toed Lapwing.

Key species:

Pink-throated Twinspot, Saddle-billed Stork, Goliath Heron, African Pygmy Goose, and Lemon-breasted Canary

About the Birding Site

The Mkhuze area, situated just inland from iSimangaliso Wetlands Park, is world-renowned as a mecca for birders laying at the ecotone between two distinct climatic zones and supporting a high diversity of habitats. Habitats in the region include cliffs, rocky ridges and scarp forests on the eastern slopes of the Lebombo mountains, through to acacia savannah, mixed woodlands and grasslands surrounding Lower Mkhuze. Numerous large pans are also scattered throughout the region and, although water-levels vary from year to year, are widely regarded as the most important waterbird breeding sites anywhere in South Africa.

This habitat diversity translates into an extraordinary diversity of plant and animal species, including well in excess of 450 bird species; one of the highest lists for any region in South Africa. Among these are a number of highly sought-after localized species including the Pink-throated Twinspot, Neergaard’s Sunbird, and Rudd’s Apalis. Other notable mentions include the Pel’s Fishing Owl, Gorgeous Bush-shrike, African Broadbill, Pink-backed Pelican, African Pygmy Goose, and Lesser Jacana. Most habitats are easily accessible at a number of sites along this sub-route and a two to five day stay is recommended in the area, with lists in excess of 200 species being a reasonable target. Birding sites along this sub-route include the Mkhuze Game Reserve (now included into the Greater iSimangaliso Wetlands Park), Leopard Mountain and Lebombo Game Reserves, and Phinda.

Key species:

Pink-throated Twinspot, Saddle-billed Stork, Goliath Heron, African Pygmy Goose, and Lemon-breasted Canary

Other Related Information

To the bridge over the Mkhuze River: From the N2 highway, take the Hluhluwe off-ramp 50km north of Mtubatuba. Turn right back over the freeway and drive into town. Take a left turn at the T-junction, proceed for about 2km, and then take a right-hand turn to False Bay. Proceed up the R22 tar road for about 50km, taking care over the frequent speed control bumps. The bridge is not sign-posted, but the riverine forest will make it quite visible. Stop just before or after the bridge and walk back onto it.

Other related information:

To the wetland and thornveld: Turn left onto a gravel road just before the bridge and follow this road for about 1km. The wetland lies either side of the road and is flanked by fever trees. To reach the Muzi Pan, turn west along the D820 in the direction of Mkhuze Nature Reserve and travel for 1km until the road crosses the pan.

To Mpempe Pan: travelling south from Muzi Pan in the direction of Hluhluwe, turn east towards Lake St. Lucia shortly before Giba. Follow your nose on the many tracks to reach the pan, roughly 1km east of the R22.

Notable points of interest include the:
Muzi Pan: -27.6560, 32.4050
Bridge over the Mkhuze River: -27.6629, 32.4197
Turn-off to Mpempe Pan: -27.7136, 32.4596
Mpempe Pan: -27.7217, 32.4858

Access and facilities:
Lower Mkuze is well-developed featuring a number of small settlements and is easily accessible. However, there are few facilities available to birders.

Recommended accommodation nearby:
Basic self-catering tented accommodation is available within Mkhuze Game Reserve, along with a campsite complete with communal ablutions and braai facilities. Visitors are required to be entirely self sufficient and carry their own food, cooking utensils and fuel.
However, numerous Birder Friendly Establishemnts are also available within the wider Hluhluwe, Mkuze, Pongola, St Lucia and Sodwana areas.

For more information, please visit:

Local guide information:
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:

Pink-throated Twinspot, Saddle-billed Stork, Goliath Heron, African Pygmy Goose, and Lemon-breasted Canary

Contact details: