Well, folks, let me take you on a wild ride through the Pongola Game Reserve, a place that’s not just your everyday park! Situated in the northeastern part of South Africa, this natural wonderland is nestled alongside the Pongola River and Lake Jozini, in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Now, getting there, let me tell you, is half the adventure.
If you’re coming from Piet Retief, it’s about a 2.5 to 3-hour drive, depending on traffic and road conditions. But hey, that’s nothing compared to the epic adventure that awaits you. And if you’re setting off from the bustling city of Johannesburg, well, be prepared for a longer journey of around 5 to 6 hours. Trust me, it’s worth every mile.
But before you hit the road, here’s a crucial tip: make a reservation before you even think about embarking on this safari escapade. The reserve’s opening times are also essential to remember, as they’ll dictate your action-packed schedule.
Driving around this park isn’t a self-drive extravaganza. Nope, not everything is accessible by car. You can only take your trusty wheels to the lodges and glamping tents.
Speaking of tents, we opted for the glamping experience at White Elephant Camp. Now, don’t get me wrong; there are luxurious lodges from Africacamps for those who fancy a plush pad. But we wanted a little more adventure in our lives, so glamping it was!
Entrance fees, overnight possibilities, and all of this will be clear further down this article, let’s talk about our adventures first!
Our journey: Entering Pongola Game Reserve.
Our first moments at Pongola were quite the comedy of errors. You see, this place is like a maze, and our rental car wasn’t exactly an SUV 4×4, only a light version.
So there we were, zigzagging through the reserve, missing a road to the right nearly ending up at the Jozini lake! Note to self – the next time you ask directions from the person at the entrance of a park, take your English-speaking partner with you, to listen to his explanation, in this case, that would be me, the wife ahahahaha!
At a certain point, the road was getting quite dangerous for our rental car, so we decided to humble ourselves and go back to the Africacamps lodges to ask where to go, and boy, did they set us straight. “You’re driving way too far, folks,” they chuckled. Lesson learned – always ask for a map and precise directions at the entrance.
So, after our own personal game drive, LOL, we found our stay for 4 nights at White Elephant camp.
Talk about the nights! They are very loud in these types of game reserves, filled with noises from frogs and other animals! Turn on the sound for the video below!
Now, let’s dive into our glamping tent – a cozy little haven in the wild. I’ll spare you the details and just show you a quick video tour. Check out the deck with a built-in braai, the kitchenette, two comfy beds, a snazzy shower, and all the amenities a nature-loving heart could desire. Seriously, this place is the perfect blend of rugged and comfortable.
It was fantastic to stay in this glamping experience, we did have some load shedding though during the day 🙂
Fast forward to the next morning, and we’re all set for our first adventure – a boat ride on Lake Jozini. Let me tell you, folks, the excitement was palpable.
1. Our First Activity: A lovely Boat ride on Lake Jozini.
Ah, the next morning, our adventure continued with a boat ride on the mesmerizing Lake Jozini. Let me tell you, it was a “wow” moment! The guide conveniently picked us up right at our tent, and off we went to the lake. The boat itself was a picture of comfort – open but sheltered by a canvas ceiling, and our guide brought along a coolbox filled with refreshing beverages, just in case we got a bit parched.
As we glided along the lake’s tranquil waters, the wildlife put on quite a show for us. On the banks, we spotted a big, sunbathing crocodile, elegant white herons taking flight, and other birds, graceful kudus, and even towering giraffes grazing amongst the trees.
But the real stars of the water- show were the hippos and boy, were they a sight to behold! These colossal creatures, sometimes called “river horses,” lazed about in the water, occasionally grunting and showing off their impressive tusks.
Did you know that they can stay underwater for about 7 to 8 minutes long?!
It was like they were “playing” with us, boat people, coming above water, just not enough time to take a picture or video, disappearing underwater again, to re-emerge somewhere else totally LOL! It’s a miracle that I even HAVE pictures hahaha!
Now, for those who are angling enthusiasts, you can try your hand at tiger fishing on Lake Jozini. These fierce fish are quite the catch, known for their striking appearance and powerful fight. But here’s the twist – it’s all about catch-and-release. They reel in these mighty fish, snap a quick picture, and then send them back into the lake to continue their aquatic adventures.
After the excitement of the morning, we decided to kick back and relax at our camp in the afternoon. The hot tub was a godsend, and we found ourselves captivated by the vibrant birdlife, like the savanna swallow, that surrounded our tent.
The Savanna Swallows
Of course, the comical warthogs and elegant impalas made their appearances too, creating a lively backdrop for our downtime.
As the day drew to a close, we opted for an early night’s sleep – a surprising transformation from night owls to early birds. That’s what Africa does to you, my friends.
Sunset over the Pongola park, followed by an early night:
And what better way to start the next day than with a full breakfast basket delivered right to our tent by the resort? Africa had turned us into morning people, and we couldn’t wait to see what the day had in store.
2. A Terrific game drive with an Elephant-in-Musth-Twist, OH MY!
On our third day in the Pongola Game Reserve, we had an exciting itinerary planned. The morning was supposed to feature a foot safari for my husband, but alas, it didn’t pan out.
You see, he was the only one signed up for it, and understandably, organizing a solo walk isn’t quite practical. (again, it may be better to make reservations for such things beforehand).
However, our spirits remained high because we had an afternoon game drive at 3 pm to look forward to. And let me tell you, it more than made up for the morning’s disappointment. There’s something truly beautiful and breathtaking about driving through the savanna along the shores of the lake.
Now, you might be wondering about the famous “Big Five.” In Pongola Game Reserve, they may not have all of them (“only” 4 of the big 5), but they do have their own cast of captivating creatures.
Let me give you a quick rundown of the animals that we saw in person:
- Buffalos: We spotted these formidable herbivores during our game drive, often seen in herds, from a respectful distance, as they can be quite dangerous!. (1 of the big 5)
- Giraffes: Towering and graceful, they stretched their necks to reach the juiciest leaves high in the trees. These we already noticed the day we entered the park.
I have another video from the giraffes at Pongola Park, this time it is a family of giraffes, including one about 5 months old! (park rangers can inform you very well about these kinds of details, hence the reason why I prefer this over self-driving!)
Nyalas: These antelopes are known for their striking appearance, with vibrant coats and spiral-shaped horns.
- Wildebeest: Their large herds can be quite a spectacle as they graze the plains.
- Warthogs: With their endearing yet comical appearance, warthogs are a common sight in the reserve. In the Lion King Disney movie, the most famous warthog is called Pumbaa and the rangers seem to always call this funny animal Pumbaa now instead hahaha!
- Kudus: Elegance personified, these antelopes are famous for their long, spiraled horns.
- Hippos; as said above, we saw plenty of them in the lake!
- Ostriches: the fastest non-flying bird in the world. Our guide just stepped on one of those Ostriches eggs, and it didn’t break or move!
- And of course, our elephant(s). And we saw one passing by our glamping tent on the first day! (another one of the big 5)
Other animals you can spot in the park:
In Pongola Game Reserve, there are even more fascinating creatures to discover beyond what we saw:
- You can also spot Rhino at Pongola Game Reserve, even a black one, but unfortunately for us, we didn’t spot any there, we did so in Isimangaliso Wetlands Park.
- And let’s not forget the incredible birdlife. We were treated to sightings of the intriguing secretary bird. Now, picture this bird with long legs, a distinctively tall crest of feathers on its head, and a purposeful strut. It’s a captivating sight, to say the least.
- zebras: Striped zebras are often seen grazing or moving across the plains
- Impalas: These antelopes are known for their agility and are quite common in the reserve
- lots of cheeky monkeys (beware to close your tent very well, as those little thieves can pass through the smallest hole!), and more. It’s a rich and diverse ecosystem that showcases the wonders of the African wilderness.
- Cheetahs: Cheetahs, the fastest land animals, can also be found in the area, but they are very rarely seen, so I gathered
- African Wild Dogs: These endangered canines roam the reserve’s landscapes.
- Waterbucks: Waterbucks are well adapted to aquatic environments and can be spotted near water sources.
- Gemsboks (Oryx): Gemsboks with their striking horns are sometimes seen in the reserve.
Our game drive had a little close encounter!
But here’s a little humorous twist to our game drive adventure. Picture this: our jeep was filled with several ladies, and wouldn’t you know it, nature called for all of us at once. Luckily, I had some toilet paper on hand (always be prepared, right?). So, we did our business in the wild and climbed back into the truck.
Just about 500 meters down the dusty trail, so right after the toilet stop, our eyes widened with amazement. There, right in front of us, was a colossal elephant, taking a leisurely dip in the lake! It was as if this magnificent creature was putting on a show just for us!
As we spotted that huge elephant in all its majestic glory, our sense of wonder led us to find a path through the bushes and thorns with our jeep and game driver, getting us closer to the action.
Now, it’s worth noting that this particular elephant was a single, large bull. You see, during the time we embarked on our adventure, these solitary bulls can be in a state called “musth,” which can make them quite aggressive.
So, there we were, admiring this incredible creature from a respectful distance. But then, out of nowhere, the bull decided to charge our jeep! The driver had to spring into action, revving the engine, and we raced through the thickets to escape the impending threat.
I managed to capture a bit of his daring charge on my phone – a heart-pounding reminder of how close we came to something truly terrifying. (watch the first seconds of this video, and then again at the end you see closer what he looks like)
The moral of the story, my friends, is crystal clear: in this untamed realm, the animals are the true rulers of the land. We humans are merely guests in their world.
To cap off this unforgettable day, we were treated to a spectacular African sunset. It was the perfect conclusion to a day filled with awe, adventure, and a dash of adrenaline.
A quiet and peaceful elephant after the charge, LOL!
3. The Museum of Pongola game reserve: a must-visit!
On the fourth and final day of our visit to the Pongola Game Reserve, we embarked on a journey of enlightenment at a small museum nestled within the reserve.
Our welcoming host, Suzette Boshoff, was a remarkable lady whose passion for conservation, particularly concerning elephants and rhinos, knew no bounds. She had the remarkable ability to talk for hours, and we were eager to listen.
Inside this unassuming museum, we discovered a wealth of information about the reserve’s history and its dedication to preserving its remarkable wildlife. Among the exhibits were the remains of elephants and photographs of these majestic creatures, each bearing their own names.
These elephants had been relocated from Kruger Park back in 1997, a pivotal moment in the reserve’s conservation efforts.
After the tour, you can also watch a video of how these magnificent creatures were transported to the reserve, quite impressive!
Suzette regaled us with tales of the challenges and triumphs faced by the Pongola Game Reserve in its quest for conservation. We learned that the reserve had ambitious plans to expand its size fivefold, nearly rivaling Kruger Park and even extending into Swaziland.
The skull of an elephant requires a smaller brain, otherwise, the elephant wouldn’t be able to carry the brains.
However, political and human population pressures had thwarted this grand vision. Just three decades ago, the reserve was a barren landscape, with its wildlife decimated by trophy hunters and poachers.
However, the tide began to turn when a group of dedicated biologists took action. They electrified the reserve’s fence and, in 1997, introduced elephants from Kruger Park. This marked the beginning of a remarkable transformation. With tremendous effort, the park evolved into the thriving ecosystem we were fortunate to witness today.
While not all of the Big Five had made a return, lions were the only exception; the rest roamed freely in the reserve once more.
But, as we discovered, every day remained a battle for the preservation of nature, especially for the elephants. In early 2022, a tragic incident occurred when 26 elephants were poached after they managed to breach the reserve’s fence.
This heartbreaking event had political ties as well. South Africa’s preference for exporting coal over using it for domestic electricity production led to daily power outages lasting several hours. During these power interruptions, the electrified fences lost their charge, and the elephants sensed this vulnerability with their innate intelligence.
Our passionate guide, Suzette, emphasized that elephants were and are crucial to maintaining a healthy habitat.
As we reflected on Suzette’s words and the remarkable journey of the Pongola Game Reserve, we couldn’t help but be humbled by the profound responsibility of humanity in safeguarding our planet’s treasures (and even some tears and hugs).
The museum visit not only enriched our understanding of the reserve but also left us with a deep sense of awe and a renewed commitment to conservation, and this goes for the rhinos as well. ( we could understandably not take any pictures of the rhinos, for they still are being poached for their horns 🙁 ).
My gosh, human kind!
There are a few more things to do at this reserve, but we didn’t have enough time to do those, so here’s more info:
Go tiger fishing at Pongola Game Reserve
Tiger fishing is a popular activity in Pongola Game Reserve, particularly on Lake Jozini, known for its abundant tiger fish population.
Lake Jozini provides the perfect habitat for these ferocious and striking fish. Guided fishing excursions are available, led by experienced local guides who provide gear and expertise. Catch-and-release practices are encouraged for conservation purposes.
Tiger fishing is known for its excitement and challenges, with tiger fish offering thrilling battles. It’s an opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty of the reserve and observe diverse birdlife.
Local guides offer insights into the area’s ecology and enhance the overall experience. The best time for tiger fishing may vary by season, so check with your chosen operator for suitable timing.
Some more info on Lake Jozini
Lake Jozini is a significant water body located within the Pongola Game Reserve in South Africa. It is often referred to as Lake Jozini, but it’s technically a man-made reservoir, which can be described as both a lake and a dam.
This reservoir was created when the Pongolapoort Dam was built on the Phongolo River in the early 1970s to manage water resources for irrigation, hydroelectric power generation, and to support the surrounding wildlife and ecosystems.
Key Facts about Lake Jozini:
- Wildlife in Lake Jozini: The lake is home to various wildlife, with its most famous residents being hippos and crocodiles. Hippopotamuses are often seen in the shallower parts of the lake, while crocodiles inhabit its waters. Additionally, Lake Jozini is known for its tiger fish, a prized catch for anglers.
- Birdlife: The lake and its surroundings offer excellent birdwatching opportunities. It’s not uncommon to spot a wide variety of waterfowl, waders, and birds of prey.
- Size: Lake Jozini is relatively large, covering an area of approximately 16,000 hectares (or 160 square kilometers). It’s a sizable body of water that adds to the scenic beauty of the Pongola Game Reserve.
- Is Jozini a dam or a lake? Lake Jozini is a reservoir created by the Pongolapoort Dam. So, it can be referred to as both a lake and a dam.
Lake Jozini’s beauty and ecological significance make it a captivating part of the Pongola Game Reserve, offering visitors the opportunity to observe wildlife and enjoy a range of recreational activities in a stunning natural setting.
There are over 300 bird species at Pongola Game Reserve
In addition to the diverse range of mammals, Pongola Game Reserve is also home to a wide variety of bird species, making it a birdwatcher’s paradise.
One BIG advice if you are a birdwatcher, is to just take the day off from any game drive, just sit in the hot tub with a savanna and plenty of these birds will just pay you a visit!
While I can’t list all 300-plus species individually, here’s a mention of the rich birdlife you may encounter:
- African Fish Eagles: Recognized by their striking appearance and distinctive calls, these eagles are often seen near water sources.
- Savanna Swallows: These agile birds can be observed darting through the skies, catching insects in flight.
- Secretary Birds: With their long legs and crests on their heads, secretary birds are distinctive and fascinating to watch as they move through the grasslands.
- Marabou Storks: These large and unmistakable birds can be seen near water bodies, foraging for food.
- Hornbills: Various species of hornbills, with their unique bills and striking plumage, are common sights in the reserve.
- Kingfishers: The reserve’s waterways attract different species of colorful kingfishers.
- African Jacanas: These birds are known for their long legs and unique ability to walk on lily pads in search of food.
- Vultures: Different species of vultures can be seen soaring high above, often indicating the presence of a predator’s kill.
Suzette Boshoff from the Pongola museum told us that the vultures are in decline, also because some local “healers” believe that if you eat the brains of a vulture, you can get the “eye of clairvoyance”
- Ostriches: As said above, we saw quite a few ostriches and their eggs, and this world’s largest bird, can be spotted in open grassy areas.
- Weavers and Sunbirds: Various species of weavers and sunbirds add vibrant colors to the reserve’s landscape.
- Herons and Egrets: Elegant waders like herons and egrets can be seen along the water’s edge.
- African Raptors: Keep an eye out for African eagles, hawks, and other raptors soaring in search of prey.
- Owls: Some nocturnal species of owls may be heard or seen during night drives.
These are just a few examples of the diverse avian life you can expect to encounter in Pongola Game Reserve. Birdwatching in this reserve can be a rewarding experience, with opportunities to spot both common and rare species against the backdrop of South Africa’s stunning landscapes.
3 types of accommodation at Pongola Game Reserve:
Here are the three places to stay at the reserve, if you want to stay near water (in total there are over 40 places to stay):
1. Mvubu River Lodge:
Location: Situated in the Pongola Game Reserve on a hill overlooking the Pongola River, where various animals often come to quench their thirst.
Accommodation: This 4-star lodge, designed in a colonial African style, offers chalets with air conditioning, ceiling fans, a minibar, coffee and tea facilities, and a private veranda.
Activities: The lodge provides a range of activities, including game drives with professional guides, boat trips, guided walking safaris, and Rhino Tracking, where you follow rhino tracks on foot with an armed guide until you spot the animal.
Unique Experience: Guests can also go fishing for the ‘Tiger Fish,’ the South African version of the Piranha, with a guide and boat from the lodge.
Facilities: Mvubu River Lodge features a Hippo Hole bar, a TV lounge, an open covered lounge, a dining area, a swimming pool, and a souvenir shop.
Age Restriction: Children must be 12 years or older to stay at Mvubu River Lodge.
2. Nkwazi Lake Lodge:
Location: This lodge is also located by the water, offering views of the reservoir and the Pongola River.
Accommodation: Nkwazi Lake Lodge accommodates 32 guests in various chalets, including 12 standard 2-person chalets and two family chalets with 2 bedrooms and a living room. All chalets feature air conditioning, a minibar, coffee and tea facilities, and private verandas.
Activities: The lodge offers activities such as game drives, guided walking safaris (including Rhino Tracking), boat trips on Lake Jozini, and tiger fishing.
Note: Nkwazi Lake Lodge is built on a steep slope, which may not be suitable for small children. The lodge manager may allow children to stay if they are under adult supervision.
3. White Elephant Safari Lodge and Bush Camp:
Location: This 5-star accommodation is located at the base of the renowned Lebombo Mountains on the shores of Lake Jozini.
Accommodation: AfricaCamps at White Elephant camp offers luxurious safari tents with private verandas, bathrooms, bars, and outdoor showers. A breakfast basket is available on request and is very expanded!
Bush Camp: The Bush Camp provides a relaxed experience with spacious chalets equipped with a kitchen, dining area, swimming pool by the reception desk, a hot tub and spectacular views.
Activities: Activities include guided walking safaris (including Rhino Tracking), game drives, boat trips, cruises with tiger fishing, a visit at the small museum, and more.
Family-Friendly: Children of all ages are welcome at White Elephant Safari Lodge and Bush Camp.
These accommodations offer diverse options for experiencing the Pongola Game Reserve and its breathtaking surroundings.
There are more places where you can stay overnight in this reserve, but I will expand on this later, as I wanted to get this story written before it is forgotten from my memory! 😉
More Things to know about Pongola game reserve:
When staying at Pongola Game Reserve, there are several important things that visitors should know to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. Here’s a comprehensive list of tips and information:
- Reservations: Make reservations in advance. Pongola Game Reserve is a popular destination, and accommodations can fill up quickly.
- Entrance Fees: Be aware of the entrance fees, and make sure to have the necessary funds to cover these costs upon arrival. These fees can vary, so check the current rates on the official website or contact the reserve directly.
In September 2023(almost october), we paid about €1OO per night for the glamping tent. We were only 2 people staying for 4 nights, but 5 people could sleep in one tent!
Also, beware that we organized everything through Booking, so they do take a commission.
- Park Hours: Familiarize yourself with the reserve’s opening and closing hours.
Plan your activities accordingly, as wildlife viewing is often best in the early morning and late afternoon.
We did the boat game drive at 7 am, for example, but an afternoon drive is also possible. The same goes for the regular game drive. To visit the museum, you need to go to the reception desk so that they can contact Luzette, the passionate lady telling you all about the elephants and rhinos to get you invited to the museum.
This can take a while, because the phone connections in that area aren’t always reliable haha!
- Guided Safaris: Pongola Game Reserve typically offers guided game drives and safaris conducted by experienced guides. These are the best ways to see and learn about the local wildlife. Self-driving is often limited to certain areas.
In this case, we could only drive to the lodges, the glamping tents and the museum.
- Accommodation: Research and select your accommodation well in advance. Options range from glamping tents to luxurious lodges. Consider your preferences and budget when choosing.
- Weather: Check the weather forecast for the time of your visit and pack accordingly. South Africa’s climate can vary, so bring appropriate clothing for both warm and cooler conditions. (at the beginning of October, it was already very hot for us until 36 degrees and more the day we left!)
- Health Precautions: Ensure you have any required vaccinations or medications, and be aware of health precautions, such as taking malaria prophylaxis if necessary. Consult with a healthcare professional before your trip.
We were in a season that didn’t have malaria yet and the water from the hot tub and shower is safe and filtered. Also there has never been a problem with Schistosoma Mansoni in the area.
- Wildlife Safety: Always follow the instructions of your guides and adhere to safety guidelines. Maintain a safe distance from wild animals, as they are unpredictable.
- Respect the Environment: Respect the natural environment and wildlife. Avoid littering, stay on designated paths, and do not disturb animals or their habitats. Leave no trace!
- Photography: Bring your camera or smartphone for wildlife photography but remember to enjoy the moment. Avoid using flash photography, especially at night, as it can disturb animals.
- Power Adapters: South Africa uses Type M electrical outlets, aka “load-shedding”. Make sure you have the appropriate power adapter if you plan to charge electronic devices and bring pocket lights.
- Food and Water: Check whether your accommodation provides meals and beverages. If not, bring sufficient food and water, especially for self-catering accommodations.
We were advised to bring our own drinking water to drink, although the water is safe to shower and cook with.
The glamping tents can be provided with a full breakfast basket, but there are no restaurants in this area for the glamping tents, but there is always a place to braai.
You can have lunch and dinner at the lodges though!
- Safety: Keep your valuables secure, and lock your accommodations when you’re not present. Be cautious of wildlife, especially in the evening and at night. (if you can get your hand through a hole in the tent, monkeys can too!)
- Emergency Contacts:
Make sure to place a contact number in your phone in case of any emergency (or if a snake needs to be removed from your tent, for example haha)
- Maps and Directions: If you plan to explore independently, request a map and clear directions from the reserve’s entrance to your accommodation. The reserve can be large and navigation can be challenging. (boy, do we know LOL!)
- Travel Insurance: Consider purchasing travel insurance that covers medical emergencies and trip cancellations.
Remember that rules and conditions can change, so it’s essential to stay updated by checking the official Pongola Game Reserve website and contacting the reserve for the most current information before your visit.
Have a safe holiday at Polonga game reserve!
- Our visit at Isimangaliso Wetlands Park.
- Our visit to Sibuya Game Reserve, “do you need some weed”?
- Our visit to Addo Elephant National park: elephants time!
My Final Conclusion.
It was my first time glamping in Africa and the visit to Pongola as well and I honestly loved the experience of being right near the animals, but still comfortable and having the freedom to cook and have breakfast whenever I liked.
I just want to go back ASAP haha!
I hope you enjoyed my journey to the Pongola Game reserve and if you have any more questions, please feel free to leave them down below in the comment section or join me on (one of) my social media channels or Facebook group for more pictures and videos of my travels!
I wish you happy travels!
I now have a YouTube channel as well!YouTube