Somkhanda Game Reserve provides stunning wildlife, good food and tranquility. Picture: Jo Shepherdsmith.

It was one of those you have to have seen it to believe it moments. No sooner had we rounded the bend, skidded to a stop and started snapping the pack of African painted dogs than another hound hove into view... the leader of its own pack, a small Jack Russell. 

Doggedly walking past the game viewing vehicle, tail tucked between its legs, Quazie, the reserve manager’s dog, headed towards home, looking rather sheepish as the pack of hardened hacks attempted to shoo her into the "landy", trying not to draw attention to her in case she was pounced upon as dinner. 

A couple of the chalets, nestled under the trees provide solitude and respite from the Zululand heat. Picture: Jo Shepherdsmith.
Inside one of the comfortable chalets. Picture: Jo Shepherdsmith.

But, it was back to the wild dogs, edging nearer to get that perfect shot as they ran, chased, groomed and played together in the fast fading sunlight. Once the sun had set, and sundowners downed, it was back to camp to eat.

And the food is glorious… the kitchen, run by Faith Zungu and her devoted team, created fresh, tasty and inspiring fare from veg kebabs, venison sirloin and peppermint crisp tart to home-made rusks, malva pudding and veggie wraps. And French toast and fresh fruit for breakfast - sublime. 

There is a large communal kitchen/diner near the accommodation for those who choose self-catering, with all the necessary equipment and utensils. There is a braai area with skottel and a fridge/freezer and cupboards to store food.

A view of the Mkuze river which runs through Somkhanda. Picture: Jo Shepherdsmith.
The pool is a cool oasis close to the chalets but far enough for privacy. Picture: Jo Shepherdsmith.

Also within easy reach of the rooms is a swimming pool to slough off the hard-earned fatigue acquired while walking in the early morning with veteran guide and activities manager Abe Nzuza, knowledgeable in all from insects to birds and trees. Three hours just rushes by.

The chalets are cool and dappled with sunlight, the beds comfortable and the finishing touches quirky - the hand basins are fired pottery and look to be hand-made specifically for each room; there is a branch used as a towel/facecloth rack; tea and coffee-making facilities with milk and water for beverages of the soft kind, and a mini-fridge to keep a brew cold when the sun is at its peak, or after a long, hard drive game viewing.

We saw giraffe, zebra and wildebeest but only heard lions at night, safely ensconced in our comfy beds. Most of Somkhanda's “dangerous” game are collared in terms of an agreement with the community, and its rhinos have been dehorned. 

Wild dogs take a break from their playing. Picture: Jo Shepherdsmith.

Bird spotting was incredible. We watched as six African hoopoes flitted and dived and led us on down the road, perching provocatively before darting farther into the forest. We also managed to catch the elusive brown-hooded kingfisher on the wing.

Somkhanda Game Reserve, a four-hour drive north of Durban, is rapidly becoming the go-to place to see the wild dogs – and other wildlife it has introduced on to its 12 500 hectares of proclaimed game reserve, owned by the Gumbi clan’s Emvokweni Community Trust who recently won it back in a larger 35 000ha repatriation claim.  The tourism concession is managed by Insight Africa, based in Howick. 

A dehorned rhino we were lucky to find using telemetry. Picture: Jo Shepherdsmith

It is more than a game reserve with the Big 5, though. It is the vision of the iNkosi Zeblon Gumbi and the Emvokweni Community Trust, that Somkhanda conserves their cultural and natural heritage and creates jobs and stimulates the local economy.  

Most KZN game reserves are surrounded by communities and can no longer be run as the island fortresses they once were. On Somkhanda it's a people and parks philosophy, where conservation, the environment and all species - flora and fauna - are fiercely protected for the benefit of the community.