Level 3 Lockdown restrictions are back in place, and that means that all beaches in KZN, except from St Lucia northwards are closed. This has meant that’s lots of families who used the beach as their main source of escape and relaxation are now turning to other options e.g. game and nature reserves to fill the void. If you live in Durban, Pietermaritzburg or surrounds, the big 5 game reserves of Zululand are just a bit too far to go on a relaxing day trip, especially if you have young kids. The other options are the closer private nature reserves, but due to the limited number of them and the fact that they do a very good job of advertising themselves, they are often very busy on weekends and command quite a price for entrance fees. My wife has had quite a few enquiries from her friends and family as to where the best place to go is (people must see we are always at nature reserves). Our answer is always and without hesitation, why don’t you go to Thurlow?
Thurlow is the name given to the game reserve that lies on the southern side of Midmar Dam. Most people who go to Midmar, for overnight stays, boating and water skiing etc. go the northern side of Midmar which is the resort side. However the real gem of Midmar is the largely undisturbed and pristine game reserve on the southern side.
You will be pleased to know that Thurlow do not charge any entrance fee at all. I really have no idea why, but I have been going there for years, and have never been charged anything. I actually wish they did charge a nominal rate to help with upkeep and conservation etc., but they don’t. As I eluded to earlier the other aspect I love is that there are no crowds. If I am driving around, and I see something I want to stop for and get out the car to take a closer look, I don’t even pull over, I just stop in the middle of the road and get out as there is usually no one else there to bother me.
Now that I have covered the logistics, what is there at Thurlow that makes it special? Firstly I have to mention that Thurlow is an ever changing landscape, and that it is fascinating to see how it transforms from season to season. In Spring there is an eruption of wildflowers scattered among the newly sprouted grasses, Summer brings in lush and dense grasses, and then as we move into Autumn the grasses start to die out allowing high straw like fields to dominate, in the Winter the grasses are usually burnt and a patchy barren black landscape prevails. For me as a birder this is really great, as the changing conditions bring with them different birds at different times. Some birds will only venture in when the grass is freshly burnt, whilst others only arrive when the grasses are lush and marshy. Ok let’s get to the animals.
Thurlow is a great place to take your kids to see some iconic animals up close. At the top of the list is Zebra. As Thurlow consists mainly of grasslands the animals are easy to see, and the good road network means you can drive within metres of them. There are also Blesbok and Impala which are fairly tame. Then there are also some animals which if you are used to the Zululand big 5 game reserves that you might not be too familiar with. Black Wildebeest, Red Hartebeest and Oribi occur in good numbers, with the latter being one of the best place in the country I believe to see and photograph them.
Once you have spotted some of the animals, you can start expanding your horizons and see what else Thurlow has to offer. I am just getting into butterflies, and there are definitely quite a few there. Of course being a dam, there are also plenty of dragonflies and damselflies if that’s your jam. Speaking of the dam, look out for two species of otter, the more common African Clawless Otter and the rarer Spotted-necked Otter.
You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned any of the species of birds that are found there yet. Well, guess what, I usually don’t do this, but this time I’m not going to mention any of them. My gift to you is to let you explore this wonderful place yourself, and you will have many great adventures. My best birding experience ever occurred at Thurlow, and you too can get to make your own memories. No two trips to Thurlow are the same, I already mentioned the ever changing seasonal landscapes, but even a time frame of a couple of hours will make a difference. I went to Thurlow last Saturday and racked up a few good specials early on. As I was leaving I bumped into my friends EJ and Barbra who were just entering. They didn’t see any of the specials I had seen, but they manged to see an equal if not better list of some other specials I wish I had gotten.