Most people don’t know that there is a large new private Big 5 Game Reserve being established in the Babanango area in KZN. At around 22000 hectares it is similar in size to KZN’s other well-known private Big 5 game reserves in Nambiti, Manyoni and Phinda. There are 3 lodges at present on the reserve, the luxurious Babanango Valley Lodge, Zulu Rock Lodge, and the self-catering Matatane Camp. Last year I was part of the Birdlife Port Natal contingent that visited Matatane, and I have just come back now from a three night stay at Babanango Valley Lodge, the latter of which will be the main focus of this article.
Babanango Valley Lodge is a luxurious lodge with an infinity pool and stunning vistas of the Bababnango Valley. This is truly the definition of postcard perfect.
I’m only getting warmed up now, as I can also tell you about the elegant rooms, the out of this world service, and above all the multitudes of mouth-watering and stunningly presented meals.
Getting to the birding now. What is the birding like at Babanango Game Reserve? The answer to that, is largely undiscovered. When I look at the atlassing records for the area on SABAP2 I see that Adam and Zach Simpson were the last ones to atlas in the area, and that was over a year ago, and before that nothing for two years. I myself lazily didn’t atlas as I found the game drives to be a bit bumpy and fast for my liking to concentrate on atlassing properly, but I did record the more interesting sightings. Now the Bababnango Game Reserve is in Zululand, but it’s really in the least desirable part of Zululand for birding, that being the drier South Western part. It’s not to say the birding isn’t good, but it’s not excellent and lacks many of the so called specials of the more North Easterly venues such as Manyoni, Mkhuze, St Lucia and Ndumo. Having said that though you do start getting birds that you would only find in the more interior places of KZN, for example I had sightings of Blue Cranes, Bokmakierie and a Striped Pipit, all birds that you would not usually associate with Zululand, and I know that Adam and Zach got White-bellied Bustard last year which is a bird usually associated with higher altitudinal grasslands, and is probably at the edge of its range in Babanango. Other notable species I encountered were Bushveld Pipit, European Roller, Jacobin Cuckoo, Brown Snake Eagle, Greater Honeyguide, African Marsh Harrier, Croaking Cisticola, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Acacia Pied Barbet, Cinnamon and Golden-breasted Bunting, and lots of Common Buzzards.
I said that Babanango Game Reserve is in the process of becoming a big 5 game reserve. At the moment they have introduced Buffalo and Rhino, and are busy putting up a new boundary fence around the reserve. The plan is to then introduce Elephant and Lion, and Leopard already occur naturally in the area. This is obviously a massive undertaking and presumably requires millions of rands and lots of effort. I hear that the reserve has German owners obviously with very deep pockets to fund this endeavour, especially in the light of Covid19 which has meant that very little money has come in this year.
Part of the land seems to be owned by the local community and there are still people living on the reserve at present, although I am told that once the fence is up they will have new houses built for them outside the reserve. On the website for Babanango Game Reserve they proudly say that they are community focused and want to uplift the local community and provide employment and skills for the people. This will appeal to most people in South Africa who are socialist leaning and where the issue of land is sensitive. I do appreciate that without the support of the community that the game reserve would probably have not been able to be established. I however have my reservations about this arrangement. Sure in the boom times when the reserve is making lots of money and employing people it will look like a triumphant success, but I worry about what is going to happen in the bad times. I know from other private community focused game reserves that poaching has increased this year because of Covid19 and the lockdowns. A community is also not a homogenous entity, there will always be rogue elements and I just feel that this approach creates an additional layer of complexity that will likely hold many headaches for the reserve management to come in the future.
So what does the future hold for Babanango Game Reserve? It seems that initially money is no object. When you see the state of the art lodges, the equipment and infrastructure that has already gone into the reserve, the staff contingent including anti-poaching personnel with daily helicopter patrols, it is mind boggling to think about how much it must all cost. They really must be playing the long game here. At some point though the reserve will have to become profitable to survive I would assume. I think a large part of their future success could come from their service levels. The staff I encountered were very well trained and I had exceptional service. They obviously have a very talented chef and the meals I had were better than I have had anywhere else in the world. Another factor in their future success is the fact that public parks in KZN in are in decline. Ezemvelo seems to be in a total mess, plagued by corruption, cronyism, financial mismanagement and ineptitude. I see many tourists changing their destinations from the public to the private game reserves in KZN, especially among the foreign tourists who are after the Big 5. And the foreign Big 5 focused tourists are where I see the market for Babanango.
At the moment though because of Covid19, lockdowns and a bad SA economy they seem to be getting very few guests. For half of my stay my family were the only ones at the Valley Lodge. I joked to my wife, that we were like royalty and that they had reserved the whole lodge just for us. There was an army of staff waiting upon my every need, and spending hours cooking us delicious meals, including an opulent spread for Christmas day. I want to thank all the staff at Babanango for a wonderful stay, and I wish them well for the future. I will always remember the Christmas I spent at the Valley Lodge, as I was indeed the King of Babanango.