North-west Zululand – Umfolozi Game Reserve

About the Birding

The Umfolozi Game Reserve is the larger of the two sections within the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Complex and is a well-known and frequently visited destination, in north-western Zululand. Although probably better known as a ‘Big 5’ reserve, the park is rich in birdlife and is considered one of the top birding destinations in all of South Africa. Umfolozi is home to more than 45 species of raptors and, for this reason alone, it is worth visiting the reserve.

Lion kills attract the White-backed, Lappet-faced, White-headed and Cape Vultures. The Martial and Crowned Eagles both nest locally within the reserve while the Tawny, Wahlberg’s, Lesser Spotted, and Steppe Eagles, Brown Snake-eagle, African and Gabar Goshawks, Little and Black Sparrowhawks, and Shikra are all resident.

The reserve is dominated by open grasslands where one should search for the Flappet and Sabota Larks, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Southern Ground Hornbill, Secretarybird, Croaking Cisticola, Red-crested Korhaan, and Black-bellied Bustard. Harlequin Quail is common in wet summers and is frequently flushed from the roadside. Areas of mixed savannah and thornveld support the African and Jacobin Cuckoos (summer), Arrow-marked Babbler, White-fronted Bee-eater, Lilac-breasted Roller, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Acacia Pied Barbet, Greater Honeyguide, Bearded Woodpecker, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Orange-breasted Bush-shrike, Brown-crowned Tchagra, and Green-winged Pytilia. Summer migrants to this habitat include the Red-backed Shrike, Icterine Warbler, Sedge Warbler and European Bee-eater.

Areas of thicket and woodland – mainly along the rivers – support the Tambouring Dove, Purple-crested Turaco, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Red-capped and White-throated Robin-chats, Grey Tit-flycatcher, Grey-headed and Gorgeous Bush-shrikes and African Firefinch. In the spring and summer months, the Weeping Boer Bean trees act as magnets for sunbirds including the Amethyst, Scarlet-chested, Collared, White-bellied and Marico Sunbirds. The river itself supports the Half-collared Kingfisher, African Finfoot, and White-backed Night Heron.

Key species:

Southern Ground Hornbill, Flappet Lark, Sedge Warbler, Gorgeous Bush-shrike, African Finfoot, White-backed Night Heron

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 Umfolozi Route is situated within the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park and is one of South Africa’s oldest reserves, famous for its efforts to protect the White Rhino. The two reserves are treated by a corridor reserve and, together, these parks cover an immense area of over 100 000 hectares making them one of the larger reserves in South Africa. Some 400 species of bird are known to occur in the area as a whole, making it one of the best bird-watching routes in South Africa. The Umfolozi section is situated at a higher altitude than the Hluhluwe section and is therefore treated separately. This section is characterised by rolling hills, with riverine forest covering the drainage lines only.

Key species:

Southern Ground Hornbill, Flappet Lark, Sedge Warbler, Gorgeous Bush-shrike, African Finfoot, White-backed Night Heron

Other Related Information

There are two entrances to the park, one from the west and one from the east. The western gate is the main gate, situated on the R618. From Durban, take the N2 highway northbound to Mtubatuba. Turn left on the R618 and continue for about 30km. Nyalazi Gate is situated on the left-hand side of the road, and the park is well signposted.

Other related information:

From Johannesburg, travel via Piet Retief and then south on the N2. Turn right at Mtubatuba, and follow the directions above. The western gate, Cengeni, is situated 30km east of Ulundi, off the R34 Richards Bay/Vryheid road. Although the route is signposted, the last 30km is located on a dirt road and it is not a recommended route.

Notable points of interest include the:
Memorial gate to Hluhluwe Game Reserve: -28.0686, 32.1415
Nyalazi gate to the Imfolozi Game Reserve: -28.0071, 31.6858
The nearest towns to Hluhluwe Game Reserve are:
Hluhluwe: 28km
St Lucia: 80km

Access and facilities:
The Umfolozi 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-Imfolozi Game Reserve ranging from camp sites, self-catering options to more luxurious lodges and resorts. For more information to make a reservation, contact Imfolozi 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-Imfolozi 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:

Southern Ground Hornbill, Flappet Lark, Sedge Warbler, Gorgeous Bush-shrike, African Finfoot, White-backed Night Heron

Contact details:

For more information, contact:

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