Review: Ezemvelo Nature Reserve

02 May 2024
If you’ve ever wanted to get out of your car and walk off into the veld during a drive around the Kruger National Park, we’re glad you didn’t – but at Ezemvelo Nature Reserve near Bronkhorstspruit, you can.

The relative absence of large predators on the reserve makes this possible, so what you lose in big cat sightings, you gain by being immersed in the environment, walking in the footsteps of zebra, wildebeest, antelope, and jackal (there are leopards on the property, but their solitary nature makes them people-shy, while the brown hyenas are equally elusive).
A blesbok strolling through the grasslands. Photo: Jessica Hunkin.
Fascinating plant life populates this reserve. Photo: Jessica Hunkin.

Wildlife is abundant on the reserve, well-populated with more than 30 types of game and upwards of 300 bird species. Between the gate and reception, we stopped often to observe the mixed herds grazing in the veld. Ezemvelo’s unusual biome contributes to this wealth of fauna and flora. Being part savannah, part grassland makes for a habitat rich in biodiversity. And just a short drive from Johannesburg and Pretoria, we love that so much pristine nature is accessible on a whim. 

After an easy check-in, we stashed our belongings in chalet number four and, armed with a map of the 4,500-hectare property, set out straight for the rock pools. It’s about a 30-minute drive to the parking spot and around a 1.5km amble down to the pools. A quick splash in the cool, clear water was enough to make it back to base camp in time to watch a magical sunset over the dam, swallows swirling overhead, followed by a crackling fire and the hypnotic chorus of insects at night; a wild and welcome respite from the energetic city.
As above, so below. A glowing sunset over the dam. Photo: Jessica Hunkin.

The rock pools we reached by car are the same ones you’ll pass on the longest of Ezemvelo’s three self-guided hiking routes, the Burkea Trail. At 21km, you’ll be glad to have a chance to splash off midway through. We opted for the slightly shorter Protea Trail, which is 14.5km. If you walk at a steady pace without much stopping, expect to be back within three and a half hours. For us, with a few breaks to appreciate the scenery along the way, it took just under five hours. We set out before sunrise, and gratefully so. Although we were back before the heat of the day, the longer trails are largely exposed and so there’s little-to-no sheltering from the sun’s harsh rays.

This particular morning, long-tailed widowbirds were out in their hoards, a variety of wild buck were about, there was much huffing and puffing from a lone black wildebeest, while the more stoic blue wildebeest and clans of zebra gazed at us soulfully. Even when you’re travelling on foot, the animals here aren’t tame; the quieter your approach, the greater your chances of a close encounter. Hardy little ferns growing out of rocks, dung beetles doing their daily duties, oxalis flowers colouring the veld, and incandescent spider webs are a few of the more inconspicuous beauties you may encounter along the way – an added benefit of hiking at a slower pace.
A frequent sight while hiking at Ezemvelo. Photo: Jessica Hunkin.
It's wonderful seeing these dignified creatures up close. Photo: Jessica Hunkin.
All things great and small. Photo: Jessica Hunkin.

On both the Burkea and Protea trails, one crosses the Wilge River which demarcates the boundary between the Gauteng and Mpumalanga provinces. A tributary in the greater Oliphants River catchment, it plays an important role in supporting the surrounding ecosystem.

The Protea Trail isn’t too technically challenging with plenty of long, level sections and gentle-to-moderate climbs. For its length, however, endurance is required, and steady enough footing to navigate one particularly steep descent with loose rocks on the North side of the reserve. If orienteering is not your strong suit or you're a first-time trekker, the routes are well sign-posted with colour-coded markers showing the way.

Full up on nature therapy and with one final koppie to conquer before the end of our day’s hike, we were nothing if not ready for a strong cup of coffee. But first, a much-needed swim in the pool while vervet monkeys swung from the surrounding treetops.
Meeting a curious vervet monkey. Photo: Jessica Hunkin.

This isn’t the place to visit if you’re planning to spend much time indoors. The chalets at Ezemvelo are a comfortable place to rest your head and wake up to the sounds of exquisite birdsong, at which point you’ll be strapping on your boots and filling up your flask for the day’s first adventure.

The self-catering units can accommodate two to three people, with a double bed downstairs and a single sleeper in the loft bedroom. The steep staircase and low ceiling make this more of a kid-friendly option unless you’re feeling particularly sprightly. The kitchens are basic but well-equipped and each chalet has its own braai area and outside seating, which we made ample use of. The fireplace is a cosy touch for the colder months. 
The chalets at Ezemvelo are basic but comfortable. Photo: Jessica Hunkin.

Bigger parties can set themselves up in the reserve’s popular campsite or use one of the tented camps. For something more remote, construction will soon be complete on Ezemvelo’s new Eco Mountain Huts. We saw a few of these in progress and they’re wonderfully secluded in the heart of the reserve, built with large stoeps (patios) for taking in the cliff-side views.

Our visit to Ezemvelo was in March, in the last throes of summer. We were lucky to find many wildflowers and an abundance of grass in bloom, which lit up like candles with the setting sun behind them. If you’re staying here for a few nights, pack your camping chairs and a cooler box and take a drive to the viewpoint for sundowners. It’s a treat to see so much sky when you’re coming from the city, in a place where every evening is a show more sublime than the one that came before.
The spellbinding views make it hard to leave this place. Photo: Jessica Hunkin.
A spectacular light show. Photo: Jessica Hunkin.

The morning of our departure we rose early for the 5km Ochna Trail, which shares a starting point with the two longer hikes, traversing small koppies and a grassland area. This route is relatively easy-going (we completed it in two hours without rushing) but you still get to enjoy diverse flora, with great opportunities for animal sightings.

While our stay wasn’t long enough to partake in all of them, there’s no shortage of activities at this family-friendly reserve, from fishing to horseback safaris, canoeing, guided game drives, and mountain bike trails. For the scramblers, Ezemvelo has over 50 bouldering spots, and there are ancient San rock paintings to explore. As well as the swimming pool, there’s a children’s play area and putt-putt course near the campsite and chalets.
One last adventure before we go; the start of the Ochna Trail beckons. Photo: Jessica Hunkin.
The morning sun illuminating dried protea flowers. Photo: Jessica Hunkin.
If you love hiking and the bush in equal measure, you'll adore it here. Photo: Jessica Hunkin.
Beauty abounds. Photo: Jessica Hunkin.

Ezemvelo was donated to the Maharishi Invincibility Institute (MII) – a non-profit, skills-to-work educational institution with its base in Joburg’s City Centre – by the Oppenheimers, a fact which even regular visitors to the reserve may be surprised to learn. This relationship has taken various forms over the years, from educational programmes in eco-tourism and conservation to meditation retreats for MII’s students.

True to its name, which means "return to nature" in isiZulu, the more time you spend at Ezemvelo, the more the beauty of the place opens up to you. It’s a reserve we’d like to visit again and again, with fresh wonders every season.

For all bookings placed this month (May 2024) visitors to Ezemvelo will receive 20% off select accommodation. The discount can be applied to stays between May – August 2024. Email or call +27 83 308 4000 to redeem the offer.
This one looks stately, but once black wildebeest start prancing they earn their name as the 'clown of Africa'. Photo: Jessica Hunkin.
Little ferns are prolific on Ezemvelo's koppies. Photo: Jessica Hunkin.

Tips for hikers

- Get an early start so you're hiking less in the heat of the day, and take breaks when needed. 

- Sign in and out of the reserve's log book, and make sure you've got Ezemvelo's emergecy contact (+27 83 308 4000) saved on your phone. 

- Carry plenty of water with you when hiking; Ezemvelo's staff recommend a minimum of two litres for the 5km Ochna Trail, four litres for the 15km Protea Trail, and six lites for the 21km Burkea Trail. 

- Much of the three trails are unsheltered so sun protection is advised. A wide-brimmed hat and long layers in breathable fabrics are a good idea and carry sunscreen with you to apply as needed.

- You'll want comfortable, sturdy, and waterproof shoes for this adventure as the terrain varies seasonally. Mud is not out of the question.

- Check and re-check yourself for ticks – they thrive in the long grasses. If you suspect you’ve been bitten and are experiencing headaches, muscle pains, fever, fatigue, or swollen lymph nodes, consult your GP. Symptoms can show up three to seven days after exposure.

Planning your visit

- A car with high ground clearance is helpful and will give you access to more of the reserve's roads. However, the main paths are doable in a city car if you're confident navigating dirt roads.

- Accomodation at Ezemvelo is self-catering. The reserve shop only stocks the basic: snacks, cool drinks, firewood, and some tinned items. If you're unable to pack food for the duration of your stay, the Pick 'n Pay in Bronkhorstspruit (about 30 minutes away) is fully stocked. 

- Day visitors are welcome without prior booking. Out of peak season, day rates are R85 per adult and R65 per child or pensioner. Over Easter and Christmas, day rates are R100 per adult and R80 per child or pensioner. The reserve is open Mon – Sun from 07:00 – 17:00.

Find directions to Ezemvelo Nature Reserve here

*We were invited to Ezemvelo Nature Reserve by the owners. The views expressed here are our own. 


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