Somkhanda Game Reserve, KZN
Trail Review

Words Stephen Smith, Images David Van Den Bergh & Stephen Smith Words Stephen Smith, Images David Van Den Bergh & Stephen Smith

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A buffalo lumbers out of the mist. It’s a muted spectre emerging just metres in front of us, crossing the road and fading away again within seconds, disappearing with that typical, slow motion
gallop of the species. Its muted hoof-steps fade away quickly; the whole episode surreal and fleeting.

We’re somewhere in Somkhanda Game Reserve. Exactly where is hard to say, because, although we aren’t lost, we also don’t know where we are or where we’re headed. The mist doesn’t help matters. But you’re not lost when you’re exploring, and Somkhanda is an exploring kind of place.

Not that we hadn’t been lost... earlier that very morning we had headed out of camp before dawn to visit the opposite side of the reserve, made a number of definitely correct turns, and somehow ended up driving past our camp again. No one had witnessed this incredible feat of navigation, so we’d carried on and somehow ended up here, with the mist and the buffalo; this time, not lost.

That said, it’s easy to take a wrong turn when there are over 100km of 4x4 track on a reserve of more than 12 000 hectares (that’s 30 000 acres!), but isn’t that part of the fun? Exploring, finding things for yourselves, and not being guided around a track by blue arrows or yellow footsteps? And that’s the aim of Andrew Anderson, managing director of African Insight, the company in charge of the tourism aspect of Somkhanda – he wants people to come and explore the reserve, to bring their 4x4s and (responsibly) make the most of the myriad of tracks, but also to appreciate the beauty of this biodiverse piece of land, its fauna and flora.

A little later, we find ourselves parked on the top of the mountain, enjoying coffee as the sun rises. In the distance, Jozini (Pongolapoort) Dam glistens, and for 270 degrees we have views of seemingly endless mountains, covered in grassland and thorn veld. In the morning light, a mixed herd of impala and wildebeest glows on a neighbouring mountain top. Even from here, it’s difficult to get your bearings; never mind when you’re nestled in one of the valleys below and confronted with a crossroad in the middle of the bush.

So, we do the wise thing, probably for the first time that day, and download onto our phones the ‘Tracking the Wild’ app that Andrew had told us about. It’s a clever little piece of software and includes downloadable maps for a number of reserves across southern Africa. The best thing is that, once you have downloaded the map, the app doesn’t need cell reception − only GPS signal, which is brilliant in a remote area such as Somkhanda where reception is patchy, at best. Immediately we see where we are and where we want to be (lunch, ultimately, at the restaurant), and plot our route.

At first it goes swimmingly. We enjoy a variety of tracks, up hill and down dale and across plateaus − first enjoying views, then the intimacy of a close forest; and we are constantly struck by the beauty of this wild, relatively-unknown reserve.

Then we hit an intersection and can’t decide which way to go. Right looks easier, but it joins up with a road we’ve already seen. Pointless. Left is also easy and goes in a loop to where we were the previous afternoon. Pointless. In front of us is a rugged track that seems to plunge down the side of the mountain. It looks challenging; a bit tight. (Dave and I have different memories of the
conversation that took place at this point. Well, we remember the same words; we just have different opinions about who uttered them.)

“It’ll open up around the corner,” one of us (Dave) said. “Let’s give it a whirl.”

You will have guessed by now that the track didn’t, in fact, open up. And, by the time we realised that it wasn’t going to, we were too far down the steep, rocky track to reverse, and there was absolutely no space to turn a LWB bakkie around.

For the following two hours, we ‘trimmed’ thorn trees by clubbing them into submission with a stick, just to keep the scratching of the Isuzu to a minimum. Our tempers shortened, our hunger and thirst grew. Our blood slowly leaked from innumerable scratches in our reddening skin. And, to make matters worse, Dave was about to be late for lunch. It was at this point that I decided that Somkhanda might not be the perfect 4x4 destination for new cars or fussy owners.

Andrew, though, has a solution. “It’s not feasible to keep all 100km of track perfectly trimmed and groomed. We keep the ones we use most in great condition, but the more remote tracks do get a bit overgrown. So, I plan to have a little ‘pruning pack’ – a saw, some loppers and a panga, maybe, in a canvas bag like you keep your braai utensils in − to give to 4x4 drivers who want to explore. I hope that, after a while, the tracks will stay clear through use.” I think it’s a great idea; one that will add to the adventure of the place. If only we’d had that pack on hand when we were on the side of that mountain…

We finally emerge from the thorny scrub after a climb up the other side of the valley, where we join a much better road on the plateau. And, as with most little adventures, looking back on it is far more fun than living the moment. We consult our app map, and we are back at the restaurant within half an hour, enjoying venison burgers with Andrew, while he tells us more about the reserve and his plans for it.

Somkhanda has an interesting history: not long ago, it was a collection of commercial farms, farming mostly beef and game. The tracks we were traversing were mostly old farm roads, carved out
of rock and thornbush, and reaching most points on the farms. These days, though, the land is owned by the historical owners, the Gumbi tribe, thanks to a series of successful land claims. The internal fences of the farms have been taken down, more game has been introduced, and the reserve as a whole seems to be flourishing.

“Wildlands Conservation Trust has been managing the conservation side of the reserve for a number of years now, since just after the Gumbi community won their land claim. Thanks to Wildlands, the ecology is healthy, animal numbers are up and the reserve has been able to introduce a number of new species,” Andrew continues.

One of the projects that Somkhanda has become part of is the Black Rhino Range Expansion, in which Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has introduced a healthy population of black rhino to the reserve.
These join the existing white-rhino population. To cope with the ever-present reality of poaching, the animals are regularly dehorned and the reserve is continuously patrolled. (We actually met
up with one of these heavily armed guards on our morning meander – he came to check out who was wandering aimlessly around his section of the reserve!).

Andrew also tells us about the herd of buffalo that has recently been introduced, and that elephant are on the cards for later in the year. Then he tells us about introducing black-backed jackal to the area. I’m amazed, assuming that the jackals would already be thriving on the reserve.

“Zululand’s jackal population was wiped out in the ‘70’s by an outbreak of distemper,” Andrew explains. “Only now are we reintroducing them to the area, and it’s proving tricky. But it seems that
we’ve done it successfully. I’d love to introduce some side-striped jackal too, at some stage, as they are also indigenous to the area.”

This is what is so impressive about the way this reserve is being managed. It’s not being done purely as a money-making tourism venture, but as a sustainable, holistic venture where a healthy reserve is seen as the bedrock of financial success. And Somkhanda isn’t just another private reserve with larney food, game drives and charming rangers who deliver their eloquent spiel for tips. This is a place of scientific learning, where you can come to be educated about the environment while still enjoying freedom to explore.

“We want people to discover Somkhanda for themselves, as you did this morning, but also to tap into the unique activities and opportunities the reserve has on offer,” Andrew says. This includes
night drives and the like, but also guided walks or mountain-bike rides.

Then there are the more scientific and fascinating opportunities, like visiting camera traps in the reserve or joining a rhino-monitoring team on foot. Every year, Andrew and African Insight take
on three ecology interns who take part in meaningful projects on the reserve and in the communities surrounding it. One example is the camera traps that are used to monitor specific animal populations, such as leopards; and this project is run by the interns. It is also possible for visitors to join the interns in maintaining the traps, as we do after lunch.

It starts as a normal private game reserve game-drive on the back of an open Land Cruiser. We potter along the dirt roads, while Ursina (who is in charge of the African Insight intern programme)
points out animals as we drive. Then she pulls up at a clearing in the bush. We get out, and follow her along a game trail. A hundred metres or so later, we stop, and she points out the camera
traps on either side of the path. Ursina (a scientist with a master’s degree in zoology) then explains the science behind the traps – which animals are targeted, how different animals are targeted by the placement of the cameras, and so forth. As a result, we begin to ask questions, and learn so much more than we would have if we’d been on a normal game drive, or even a normal guided walk.

Ursina then points out where a black rhino has marked his territory at a midden. She shows how he would have done so, and explains how scent-marking works for these territorial animals: the dung gets squashed into the cracks on a rhino’s feet, and then traipsed around his territory. Ursina then roughly measures the distance between the rhino bull’s footprints.

“This is a big guy,” she says.

“Really big! We’ll have to be careful coming out here from now on,” she laughs.

I take a surreptitious glance over my shoulder in the evening gloom, imagining a belligerent mbhejane bull lurking with intent in the scrub, waiting for the moment to trample us into his scent markings…

The rhinos are constantly monitored by a team of conservationists from Wildlife ACT Fund who keep an eye on their health and welfare. Once again, a sign that this place is scientifically and responsibly managed – it’s a proper reserve where conservation is prioritised.

We’re up early again the next morning, and are again greeted by a cool mist which has the canopies of trees poking through it. The views from Kudu Camp, where we are staying, are truly lovely; it would be very easy to while away hot summer days here, playing backgammon and watching the raptors circling in the thermals.

It’s not expensive, either. “We want to be affordable to the public,” says Andrew.

“Even the government reserves are becoming so expensive that South African families battle to afford to visit them. So we’ve priced our accommodation accordingly.”

One of the programmes run by Ursina and her interns is weekly community cattle-dipping just outside the reserve’s borders. This fosters community spirit, but also helps to keep diseases in check.
We go along to witness the programme in action, which is another of the activities African Insight offers to interested tourists. It’s an interesting thing to see, and a great way to interact with the community.

The perfect host, Andrew shows us around the reserve for an afternoon; we follow him and his Land Cruiser along the maze of tracks. (Even he got lost a few times, I’ll have you know.)
A ranger with decades of experience, Andrew is a great guide, continuously telling us about things we drive by. I ask him why there are so many nyala skeletons littering the bush, assuming that it has something to do with the drought that Zululand is currently experiencing.

“The drought actually hasn’t hit us too badly yet,” Andrew says. “Do you remember the cold snap we had a few weeks back, when it snowed in the Cape and on the ‘Berg? Nyala can’t cope with
sudden drops in temperature. They are very susceptible to pneumonia and many don’t survive.”

Another fascinating insight into the African bush that you would only get from an experienced ecologist like Andrew.

He leads us down to a dam, and we are lucky enough to spot a pack of wild dogs lazing about. Not many reserves can boast a resident population of wild dogs, and we are incredibly fortunate to see them. We watch for ages as they potter around and interact with each other. I would come back to Somkhanda just for another chance to see this bunch of canines.

As a game reserve, Somkhanda is definitely worth a visit. And, as a 4x4 destination, Somkhanda is a unique prospect – where else could you access over 100km of tracks of varying difficulty with relative freedom, with very little traffic, and enjoy spectacular scenery and good game viewing at the same time? The best thing about it is that all this lies about four hours from Durban and about 5 hours from Jozi! For me, it’s something special.

What vehicle were we using?

ISUZU KB250 D-TEQ LE 4X4 SINGLE CAB

My co-driver wasn’t impressed with the bumpy suspension of the KB. But we were on a very bumpy, rocky reserve, we were driving a singlecab with no load in the bin, and he did have a cracked rib… (The rib’s another story.)

Single cabs are designed for graft, not comfort, and the KB did jolt us around a bit; but, other than that, we had very few complaints. It coped superbly with the rough terrain, with the rear diff-lock coming into play a number of times on steep, rocky climbs.

The engine, a 2,5-litre turbo diesel that produces 100kW and 320Nm, is a great unit, but is starting to fall behind in terms of power output when compared to the major competitors. Toyota’s new 2.4 GHD engine produces 110kW and 400/450Nm, while the Ford/Mazda 2.2 TDCi delivers 110/118kW and 375/385Nm.

The five-speed gearbox is also becoming outdated, with most competitors sporting six-speed boxes. But fuel consumption was quite impressive – over our entire trip, which included a lot of highway driving as well as some proper offroad driving, including a fair bit of very slow low-range work, the KB used an average of 9,7l/100km.

A handsome beast, the Isuzu sported rugged Goodyear Wrangler AT/SA+ off-road tyres, which probably saved the trip for us. Anything less rugged would probably have been cut up by the countless rocks on Somkhanda.

The interior is not flashy, as you’d expect of a model that is one up from workhorse. The two bucket cloth seats were comfortable, though, and the driver’s seat is height adjustable. Standard features include air conditioning, electric windows, a lockable cubbyhole, a few storage bins, and a sound system that has Bluetooth and MP3 functionality, as well as auxiliary and USB input. BUT, the USB slot is a mini one... which is a bit peculiar.

Safety in the KB is taken care of by ABS brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist and electronic stability control, as well as two airbags up front.

From the outside, the LE model differs from the base model by having colour-coded front bumpers, mirrors and door handles, and an anthracite-grey radiator grille. Obviously, this was the 4x4 model, which means a low-range transfer case, with 4x4 and low range selected via a rotary dial, and a rear diff lock. You can select 4x4 High on the fly, at speeds of up to 100km/h. I was very impressed with the KB off road, and it’s great to drive a basic, fairly uncomplicated vehicle off road for a change; one that doesn’t have too much to be damaged, or fancy paintwork to be
scratched.

Ground clearance is a credible 224mm and we caught the bottom of the vehicle only once, on a rock.

The Isuzu KB 250 D-TEQ comes standard with a 5-year/90 000km service plan and a 5-year/120 000km warranty.

What astounds me, though, is that a 4x4 single-cab bakkie now costs what it does. Our test vehicle, which has no extras fitted, is priced at R382 900! That’s an awful lot of money for a basic, if rugged and dependable, vehicle. I’m not picking on Isuzu, either – all the major brands charge a similar amount for a similar vehicle. It’s a sign of the times, and it is worrying.

TRAIL INFO

AFRICAN INSIGHT

African Insight, led by Andrew Anderson, runs the tourism side of Somkhanda and shares a long-term vision with the Gumbi community. They also run a number of different educational programmes, hosting groups of learners as well as interns from overseas and local school tours.

WHERE TO STAY

Somkhanda Game Reserve

We stayed in the Kudu Bush Lodge, a little camp on a ridge with beautiful views of the hills and bushveld. One great thing about Kudu is that you can book the whole camp, even if there are just six of you. The chalets are en-suite, and there are braai facilities and a fully equipped kitchen. If you don’t feel like cooking, meals can be arranged at the dining room, which is a short walk or drive away.

Another option is Schotia Camp, a safari-style tented camp in a patch of riverine forest under a magnificent ancient Schotia (boer-bean) tree. There are hot showers and flushing loos, and all camping equipment is supplied, including a kitchen tent and dining gazebo.

Prices start at R120 pppn at Schotia Camp (R540 full board) and R380 at Kudu Lodge (R775 full board).

PLACES OF INTEREST

Somkhanda is one big place of interest, especially if you join one of the knowledgeable biologists in the field. I found the camera-trapping fascinating, but I would also love to do the rhino monitoring on foot. Andrew is planning multi-day guided wilderness trails.

FUEL

Fuel is available at Mkuze village, about 40km from Somkhanda.

WHERE TO BUY PROVISIONS

You can choose between self-catering or full-board options, or anything in between. If you need to stock up, you can do so at Mkuze or Hluhluwe villages. The kitchen at Somkhanda produces great quality meals, though.

ESSENTIAL GEAR

Binoculars and a camera are the first two things you should pack. After that, you should think about a panga and loppers, a GPS (unless you use the ‘Tracking the Wild’ app), sunscreen, and mosquito repellent. Also take good walking shoes in case you decide to join one of the walking activities.

CONVOY OR SOLO

Somkhanda is a safe place to explore on your own. There are a few spots where you could possibly get stuck, but you should be able to reverse out of most of them. That said, I was there in the middle of the drought – it might be quite different in the wet! Even if you do get stuck, you are never too far from help, or at least cell reception.

MAPS AND DIRECTIONS

You can print out a map of the reserve, or you can use the Tracking the Wild app on your smart phone or tablet. It’s not 100% accurate, and the good roads look the same as the goat tracks, but it’s more than enough for the job.

Somkhanda itself is just 45km from Mkuze village. Follow the N2 from Durban until you pass Mkuze. About 20km later, turn left onto the R69. Somkhanda is about 25km along this dirt road, on the left.

ROAD CONDITIONS

Somkhanda is a rocky place, and a lot of the roads are rough and rocky tracks. But there is also a network of more refined, smoother dirt roads. The trick is identifying them before you get to them.

VEHICLE REQUIRED

To explore the reserve fully, you definitely need a pukka 4x4 with lowrange. Similarly, there are a few roads I wouldn’t tackle if driving a brand new vehicle, but there are still many to explore without these. A softroader can easily get to the lodge and traverse certain roads, and there is always the option of game drives and similar activities.

TYRES

The rocks on Somkhanda can be quite harsh on tyres, so proper all-terrain tyres are recommended. Our vehicle was fitted with Goodyear Wrangler AT/SA+ tyres, which have cut-resistant sidewalls, and we had no problems.

MUST-DRIVE ROADS

It’s hard to describe a network of roads with no names, but there are several standout routes that follow the crests of mountains and give incredible views.

RISK

There’s always a slight risk when driving and walking in areas with big game; but, if you keep your wits about you and use common sense, you’ll be fine. Watch out for the buffalo, rhinos and elephants, especially. And keep an eye out for ticks and mozzies!

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