North-west Zululand – Pongola Game and Nature Reserves

About the Birding

The Pongola Game and Nature Reserves are two distinct but adjoining areas, supporting a very similar assemblage of bird species. Pongola Nature Reserve was the first proclaimed Reserve in South Africa, though has been de-proclaimed and reproclaimed. These reserves surround the Jozini Dam, a large impoundment of water on the Pongola River. The Lebombo Mountains form the eastern boundary of the reserve and contain numerous forest patches and steep cliffs. Pongola Nature Reserve is managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, while the Game Reserve is privately owned.

Several species reach their southern-most limit here including the Bennett’s Woodpecker, Burchell’s Starling, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Magpie Shrike, Pearl-spotted Owlet, Red-headed Weaver, Brown-headed Parrots, both Grey and Southern Red-billed Hornbills, Levaillant’s Cuckoo, and Purple Roller. Most of these species occur in the dry bushveld where the Arrow-marked Babbler, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Red-crested Korhaan, Jameson’s Firefinch, Marico Sunbird, Flappet Lark and Grey Penduline-tit may also be seen. Patches of thicker bush along the shores of the Jozini Dam and along drainage lines support the White-throated and White-browed Robin-chats, Purple-crested Turaco, Bearded Scrub-robin, and Gorgeous Bush-shrike. Several low-altitude species occur including the Pink-throated Twinspot, Neergaard’s Sunbird, and Rudd’s Apalis. Summer visitors include the Red-backed Shrike, African Pygmy Kingfisher, African Cuckoo, Violet-backed Starling and Red-breasted Swallow.

Open grasslands provide habitat for the Lilac-breasted Roller, Yellow-throated Longclaw, and an array of larks, pipits, and cisticolas. Where Lala Palms occur, look for Lemon-breasted Canary. The dam itself may yield the Goliath Heron, Water Thick-knee, and an assortment of waterfowl. This is also one of the few sites in South Africa where Yellow-billed Stork breed with any regularity. Flooded grasslands in the summer months may also yield the Black Coucal, Lesser Moorhen, Rufous-bellied Heron, and Greater Painted-snipe.

Pongola is one of the better places in Zululand for raptor watching. All three large eagles occur including the Martial, Verreaux’s and Crowned Eagles. Other regular species include the Tawny, Lesser Spotted, Steppe, and African Fish Eagles, Bateleur, and the Brown and Black-chested Snake-eagles. Smaller raptors include the Gabar Goshawk, Peregrine Falcon, Shikra and (in summer) chances for the Pallid Harrier. The White-backed and Lappet-faced Vultures are attracted to the vulture restaurant within Pongola Game Reserve, where Egyptian Vulture has also been sighted.

Key species:

Pink-throated Twinspot, Rudd’s Apalis, Neergaard’s Sunbird, Lemon-breasted Canary, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Brown-headed Parrot, Purple Roller, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Burchell’s Starling

About the Birding Site

North-west Zululand is one of the most varied of the birding routes in KwaZulu-Natal ranging in habitat from high altitude temperate grasslands in the west, to low lying subtropical thickets in the east including several large wetlands. Given this incredibly high habitat diversity, it is no surprise that the route also boasts an impressive checklist of birds including 58 of Southern Africa’s endemic and near-endemic species, many of which are confined to the extensive grasslands and wetlands.

Birding is generally best in the warmer summer months (September-April) when the resident species are supplemented by the influx of migrants, though the dry winter months often facilitate large congregations of birds around several nationally important wetlands. Many sites on the route are easy to access on fair roads though drivers are cautioned that gravel roads may become impassable during the wet season limiting access to a few sites. Moreover, given the size of the sub-route in general, the region is further divided into five distinct birding areas each treated individually. These include the Louwsberg, Pongola, Ulundi, Umfolozi, and Vryheid areas.

The Pongola sub-route covers much of the eastern coastal plain including the immense Jozini Dam and several areas bordering the Lebombo Mountains. These regions feature the only examples of Sweet Lowveld Bushveld, supporting a vast array of species including several species that are rare in other parts of KwaZulu-Natal. Among these are the Burchell’s Starling, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Levaillant’s Cuckoo, Purple Roller, Magpie Shrike and Red-headed Weaver. The route includes small areas of habitat which are more characteristic of eastern Zululand, in which several of the coastal plain endemics may be seen including the Rudd’s Apalis, Pink-throated Twinspot, Lemon-breasted Canary and Neergaard’s Sunbird. Notable sites along this sub-route include the Hlatikhulu Forest, Lebombo Cliffs, Pongola Game and Nature Reserves and the Mkuze Falls Game Reserve.

Key species:

Pink-throated Twinspot, Rudd’s Apalis, Neergaard’s Sunbird, Lemon-breasted Canary, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Brown-headed Parrot, Purple Roller, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Burchell’s Starling

Other Related Information

To access the Game Reserve: travel up the N2 from Durban. Pass the “Mkhuze” turnoff, as well as the “Jozini” one. About 35km further north, on the right-hand side of the road, lies the well-signposted entrance to the Game Reserve. Travel a further 5km, turn right at the sign “Golela”, drive into the small town and follow the signs to the Nature Reserve.

Other related information:

Arriving from the north (Piet Retief or Johannesburg) drive through the town of Pongola on the N2 and turn left to Golela after about 25km to access the Nature Reserve, or proceed for another 5km and turn left to the Game Reserve.

Notable points of interest include the:
Phongolo Nature Reserve campsite: -27.3413, 31.9059
Pongola Game Reserve Leeukop entrance: -27.3958, 31.8365
Pongola Game Reserve entrance: -27.3558, 31.8428

The nearest towns to the main intersection on the N2 are:
Pongola: 26km
Mkuze: 59km

Access and facilities:
Pongola Nature Reserve is accessible by day-visitors and overnight guests and features a campsite and a network of roads through the reserve. Given the presence of big game, visitors are required to remain within their vehicles at all times. Pongola Game Reserve is open to overnight visitors only.

Recommended accommodation nearby:
Pongola Game Reserve offers a range of self-catering and fully-catered accommodation options at a number of different lodges within the reserve. Basic camping facilities are available within the Pongola Nature Reserve. However, White Elephant Safari Lodge and Bush Camp is the only listed Birder Friendly Establishment in the Pongola area, situated within Pongola Game Reserve. White Elephant features 12 ‘glamping’ units, and self-catering accommodation for up to 17 people split across seven 6-sleeper chalets or the Umkhaya Cottage.

For more information or to make a booking please contact:
Tel: +27 (0)34 413 2489

Diverse accommodation options are also available within the town of Pongola itself including caravan and camping, self-catering, B&B and more luxurious options.

Local guide information:
Lodges within the area offer diverse activities including guided game drives, boat cruises, rhino tracking, guided walks, and fishing.
The nearest BirdLife Community Guides operate out of Mkuze and Lower Mkuze, to the south of Pongola. For more information, please visit:

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

Key species:

Pink-throated Twinspot, Rudd’s Apalis, Neergaard’s Sunbird, Lemon-breasted Canary, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Brown-headed Parrot, Purple Roller, Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, Burchell’s Starling

Contact details:

For more information, please contact:

Pongola Game Reserve
Tel: +27 (0)34 435 1123
Fax: +27 (0)34 435 1104