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Forging Bonds, Exploring Wilderness, and Charting Future Adventures

02 June 2024 - Clint Mason
From 17 to 20 May 2024, a solo Landy braved the distance visiting Ithala Game Reserve in an effort to forge a new and cohesive relationship between the Club and Ithala.

After finalizing arrangements with Hayden, our enthusiastic contact and gracious host for the weekend, we eagerly embarked on our journey in the pre-dawn hours of the 17th, our Land Rover pointed towards the expanse of Ithala Game Reserve. Laden with anticipation for the adventures that awaited us, we set off into the darkness, the headlights piercing through the night, illuminating the winding road ahead. With every kilometer traversed, the anticipation grew, fueling our excitement for what promised to be a remarkable weekend immersed in the wonders of the reserve.
Navigating our way through the South African countryside, we followed the path of the N4, passing by towns and landscapes that seemed to blur into one another in the early morning light. As the kilometers rolled by, we found ourselves on the R33, a ribbon of asphalt cutting through the heart of the countryside. From the town of Middleburg to the tranquil stretches of road leading through Carolina and Amsterdam, each turn brought with it a new vista, a new story waiting to be discovered.

Our journey paused briefly in Mkhondo (Piet Retief), where we found respite from the road at a charming local restaurant, indulging in an early lunch that invigorated both body and spirit. Energized by good food and great company, we resumed our travels, setting our sights on Vryheid, a town steeped in history and charm. With each mile covered, the anticipation of reaching our destination grew, until finally, we made the pivotal turn onto the R69, our path leading us ever closer to the captivating wilderness of Ithala Game Reserve.

Nestled within the rugged embrace of northern KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, lies the breathtaking expanse of Ithala Game Reserve, a true gem of natural beauty and ecological diversity. Established in 1973, this pristine sanctuary stretches across an expansive 290 square kilometers, offering visitors a captivating tapestry of landscapes to explore and immerse themselves in.

From the tranquil banks of the Phongolo River, where the land gently unfolds at 400 meters above sea level, to the lofty heights of the Ngotshe Mountain escarpment, towering majestically at 1,450 meters, Ithala embodies a stunning topographic mosaic unlike any other. But it’s not just the dramatic elevation changes that set this reserve apart; it’s the rich tapestry of geological history woven into its very fabric. Here, amidst the ancient thornveld, visitors can trace the footsteps of time back an astonishing 3 billion years, as they encounter some of the oldest geological formations known to humankind. Truly, Ithala Game Reserve is not just a destination; it’s a journey through time and space, where every vista tells a story as old as the Earth itself.

Wildlife enthusiasts are indeed in for a real treat within the bounds of Ithala Game Reserve, where nature’s grandeur unfolds in all its splendor. This sanctuary boasts an impressive menagerie of creatures, each contributing to the rich tapestry of life that thrives within its borders. Among the most iconic denizens are the mighty African elephant, their imposing presence a testament to the wild majesty of the African savanna. Joining them in this untamed realm are the formidable buffalo, their sturdy frames a reminder of nature’s unforgiving grace.

But the spectacle doesn’t end there. Ithala is also a sanctuary for both the white and black rhinoceros, offering a precious opportunity to witness these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat, their prehistoric forms a living testament to resilience and adaptation. Giraffes, with their graceful necks and elegant strides, are so abundant here that they’ve become synonymous with the spirit of Ithala itself.

In the absence of apex predators like lions, a sense of tranquility reigns supreme, allowing the denizens of the reserve to roam freely and without fear. Zebras, adorned in their distinctive stripes, mingle with the herds of blue wildebeest, their synchronized movements a symphony of life against the backdrop of the African plains. And amidst this harmonious dance of nature, an array of antelope species, from the graceful impala to the elusive oribi and the regal kudu, find sanctuary, each adding its own unique hue to the vibrant canvas of life that defines Ithala Game Reserve.

For bird enthusiasts, the skies and cliffs of Ithala are patrolled by the regal black eagle and the scavenging vultures, while the ground may feature the swift-footed ostrich and the unique secretary bird. Indeed, Ithala’s diverse ecosystems support this rich tapestry of life, making every game drive an unpredictable adventure.

While our journey was imbued with the intent to fully savor the splendor of this reserve, it also encompassed a more serious aspect. Meeting Hayden, one of the Ithala Honorary Rangers and an enthusiastic nature lover who had initiated contact with the Club, was a pressing agenda item.

Upon our arrival at Ithala Game Reserve, I found myself instantly captivated by the sheer magnificence of the landscape that unfolded before me, a breathtaking vista that seemed to stretch on endlessly in every direction. But it wasn’t just the natural splendor that greeted us; it was also the warm hospitality of the people who welcomed us with open arms, their smiles as bright as the African sun.

Our presence had been eagerly anticipated, and without delay, we were swiftly ushered to our accommodations for the weekend, a cozy haven that had been thoughtfully pre-booked for us by Hayden, our gracious host and liaison at the reserve. As we settled into our lodgings, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of gratitude for the seamless arrangements and the warm reception that awaited us, setting the stage for what promised to be an unforgettable adventure in the heart of the wild.

Nestled on the eastern fringe of Ithala Game Reserve, Square Davel emerged as our tranquil sanctuary, our home base for the duration of our adventure. As we arrived in the gentle embrace of the mid-afternoon sun, there was an undeniable sense of anticipation in the air, a palpable eagerness to immerse ourselves in the splendor of this remarkable location. Set against a backdrop of rolling hills and verdant landscapes, Square Davel promised respite and rejuvenation, a haven where the symphony of nature awaited to serenade us with its melodious tunes.

With the day winding down and the golden hues of dusk painting the sky, we eagerly anticipated the opportunity to unwind and bask in the tranquility of our surroundings. And true to its reputation, Ithala did not disappoint. From the gentle rustle of leaves to the distant calls of wildlife echoing through the air, every moment spent in Square Davel was a testament to the untamed beauty and boundless wonders of the natural world.

We slept well that night!

Meeting Hayden in person was a truly memorable experience, one that surpassed the expectations set by our previous telephone conversations. His enthusiasm for Ithala Game Reserve was infectious, his passion for its preservation and promotion boundless. As we gathered for our morning rendezvous, anticipating a brief exchange of pleasantries, we found ourselves drawn into deep discussions that quickly delved into the heart of the matter.

It was remarkable to witness the synergies between the ethos of our Club and the tireless efforts of the Honorary Rangers at Ithala unfold before us. Hayden’s fervent dedication to conservation resonated deeply with our own values, sparking a lively exchange of ideas and visions for the future. What began as a simple meeting soon evolved into a shared exploration of possibilities, as we eagerly explored avenues for collaboration and mutual support.

In Hayden, we found not just a host, but a kindred spirit, united by a common passion for safeguarding the natural wonders of Ithala and ensuring its legacy for generations to come. As the morning sun cast its warm glow upon us, illuminating our animated discussion, it became abundantly clear that our encounter was more than just a chance meeting—it was the beginning of a meaningful partnership forged in the fires of shared purpose and boundless enthusiasm.

After the indulgence of a few cups of coffee, rusks and the invigorating conversation, Hayden shared with us the keys to a hidden gem—an exclusive 4x4 trail reserved for the adventurous souls who dared to venture off the beaten path. With special permission granted, we eagerly accepted the challenge, fueled by the promise of exploration and discovery.

The trail winds its way through the valleys and cliffs that mark the eastern perimeter of the reserve, guiding you on a captivating journey in a north-northeasterly direction until you arrive at the banks of the Phongola River. With each twist and turn, you’re immersed in the breathtaking beauty of untouched wilderness, surrounded by nature’s splendor in all its raw magnificence.

As I navigated the trail, I couldn’t help but be swept away by the sheer grandeur of the landscape unfolding before me, each vista more awe-inspiring than the last. The rugged terrain, punctuated by ancient rock formations and lush vegetation, painted a picture of untamed beauty that stirred the soul, and its with great excitement that I share with you the possibility of this trail becoming the location for our Introduction to Wild Camping Event, should negotiations prove successful.

After our dusty drive, we reunited with Hayden and met his wife Amelda at the bush camp, which the Ithala Honorary Rangers are diligently restoring its former glory. Over the flicker of an evening fire, they shared with us the harsh reality facing the reserve: rampant poaching in nearby reserves has diverted funds towards anti-poaching initiatives, straining efforts to maintain park facilities. Despite these challenges, their commitment to safeguarding Ithala’s beauty remains unwavering.

Once again, we found ourselves enveloped in spirited conversation. Hayden, Amalda, Michelle, and I exchanged eager thoughts on the park’s splendor, and the unmistakable synergies between our Club ethos and their conservation efforts. With each word exchanged, it became increasingly evident that our shared passion for wilderness exploration and preservation bound us together in a common purpose.

These discussions have laid the groundwork for an extraordinary opportunity currently under exploration. As we delve deeper, it’s becoming evident that our members may soon gain access to exclusive privileges, unlocking unique experiences and deeper engagement at Ithala Game Reserve. I’m thrilled about the prospect of introducing these membership benefits to you all in the coming months as we finalize understandings between all parties involved.

The warm conversation spilled on late into the night as we sat around the fire.

Hayden had arranged for us to explore the western section of the park on Sunday, cautioning us that a full day would be necessary to truly experience all it had to offer. Unfortunately, we learned that Hayden and Amalda had to depart early on Sunday, returning home to ensure they could start their workweek refreshed come Monday morning. Despite their absence, their hospitality and dedication to sharing the wonders of Ithala Game Reserve with us remained deeply appreciated.

After bidding our farewells to Hayden and Amalda, we set out to explore the western side of the reserve with a sense of anticipation. Our objective was clear: to evaluate the facilities and offerings, considering it as the recommended alternative to Kruger Park for the Club’s Long Weekend Getaway, scheduled for 19 to 22 July 2024. With our sights set on uncovering the potential of this lesser-known gem, we embarked on our expedition, eager to discover what awaited us beyond the horizon.

The western section of the park unfolded before us in all its breathtaking beauty, its landscapes adorned with an abundance of wildlife, particularly vibrant during this time of the year. However, despite our hopeful anticipation, we were not among the fortunate few who caught sight of the elusive Ithala Elephant. The history surrounding these magnificent creatures, now residents of Ithala, carries a somber origin. Yet, amidst the sorrow, there’s a glimmer of hope—a testament to humanity’s capacity for remarkable endeavors when met with determination and willingness.

The effects of funding shortfalls have left a noticeable impact on both the campsite and the nearby bush camp. However, despite these challenges, the natural beauty of the area and the rustic charm of the reserve remain undeniable. While our initial visit may have prompted some adjustments to some of our more pressing event planning, it has only strengthened our resolve to explore this magnificent area further. The Club is already in the process of planning future visits, starting with the Introduction to Wild Camping event. With preparations underway, we look forward to embracing the spirit of adventure and discovery in the months to come.

With the campsites explored and facilities assessed, as the day progressed towards afternoon, we made a pit stop at Ithala’s main camp. There, we indulged in much-needed milkshakes and a scrumptious meal, refueling ourselves for the journey back to Square Davel. As evening descended, we savored the final night of this unforgettable adventure amidst the untamed beauty of Ithala.

Our departure from Ithala was early, greeted by the soft glow of dawn as we set out on the familiar road back to Gauteng. While retracing our steps from the past three days, we embraced the chance to infuse our journey home with a touch of newfound charm. One such highlight was stumbling upon a hidden gem of a campsite nestled on the outskirts of Piet Retief—a delightful find promising a convenient stopover for future adventures.
Our stop over at this campsite led us to the venue’s restaurant, where we were introduced to the culinary delight of savory waffles—a delightful surprise that added a new dimension to our gastronomic experiences. As we savored each bite, it became clear that these unexpected encounters had transformed our return journey into a memorable extension of our Ithala adventure.

As is often the case after such a remarkable adventure, the drive home stretched into the late hours of the evening, the road weaving beneath the canopy of stars. Though weary from the journey, our spirits remained buoyed by the memories of the past four days—an exhilarating whirlwind of discovery and exploration in the heart of Ithala Game Reserve.

Despite the fatigue, there was an undeniable sense of exhilaration coursing through our veins, fueled by the anticipation of future adventures and the prospect of returning to Ithala once again. With each passing mile, we found ourselves already plotting our next expedition, eager to share the wonders of this spectacular park with our fellow Club members. For in the camaraderie of shared experiences lies the true essence of adventure, and we cannot wait to embark on the next chapter of our journey together.

As some may recall, in last month’s newsletter, we discussed the possibility of amending the Kruger Park Weekend Away to Ithala. While there is still strong support from the Executive Committee for this venue change, upon closer examination, it has become apparent that the short duration of the proposed event and the limited facilities available at the campground make the venue swap impractical at this time.

While Ithala offers its own unique charm and breathtaking scenery, including ample opportunities for adventure and exploration, logistical constraints must also be taken into consideration.

As such, after careful consideration, we have made the difficult decision to cancel the Kruger National Park Weekend Away, which had previously been amended to rather feature a visit to Ithala Game Reserve.

We want to assure you that this cancellation is not the end of our exploration plans. Rather, it is a necessary step to allow us sufficient time to properly plan an event at Ithala Game Reserve. Our goal is to create an unforgettable experience for all participants, and we believe that by cancelling the Kruger Park trip, we can dedicate our full attention and resources to ensuring that the Ithala event exceeds all expectations.

We understand that this news may be disappointing, and we sincerely apologize for any inconvenience it may cause.

We look forward to introducing you to the wonders of Ithala Game Reserve. Thank you for your understanding.



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