Olifants West Nature Reserve (OWNR) covers nearly a quarter of the 42 577-hectare Balule Nature Reserve, one of the private reserves to the west of the central area of Kruger National Park, South Africa's greatest natural treasure-house. Balule, Timbavati, Umbabat and Klaserie make up the Association of Private Nature Reserves, which forms part of one huge ecosystem that combines the two million hectares of the Kruger National Park with several hundred thousand private hectares. With no fences to confine them, an abundance of wildlife roams freely throughout this area, creating what is known as the Greater Kruger Park.
OWNR's western boundary runs alongside the R40 trunk road that links Nelspruit in Mpumalanga to Phalaborwa in Limpopo. To the north, it is bounded by the Olifants River, the perennial watery artery that flows through the Kruger and on through Mozambique to the Indian Ocean. Across the river and to the south and east, lie the other sections of Balule: Parsons, Grietjie, York, Olifants River, Olifants East, Mohlabetsi River and Mohlabetsi South.
Unlike many of the private reserves in the Greater Kruger, OWNR is easily accessible. The gate is just 17 kilometres from Hoedspruit, a fast-growing town that serves as a hub for the many nature reserves and lodges in the region, and 60 kilometres from Phalaborwa. Hoedspruit and Phalaborwa Airports each have two or three daily flights to and from Johannesburg and there are thrice-weekly direct flights between Hoedspruit and Cape Town. In addition, there are daily road shuttle services between Hoedspruit and Johannesburg, with direct drop off and pick up at the Olifants West gate.
There are many scenic and wildlife-related attractions and activities in the area, not least the escarpment and Blyde River Canyon to the west and Kruger National Park to the east, accessible via Orpen Gate (85 kilometres) or Phalaborwa Gate (70 kilometres).
But there's more than enough to keep you occupied within OWNR itself. Some 8 500 hectares in size, the reserve conserves a diversity of species, including at least 300 recorded bird species and more than 40 mammals, ranging from the mighty elephant to the woodland doormouse. If you're lucky, you might even spot something very special and seldom seen, like an aardvark, a wild dog or a Stierling’s wren warbler.
The land that now makes up OWNR was first tamed around the end of the 19th century when 4 000-hectare farms were allocated to private individuals. Because the farms were surveyed by a Scot, most were given the names of British and European cities. In the late 1940s and 50s, some of the farms, among them Cambridge and Rome, were sub-divided into approximately 400-hectare pieces. Finally, in 1972, the owners of Cambridge 5 and 6 subdivided those sections into 25 morgen (just over 21 hectares) pieces.
At this time, the properties were mainly used as hunting farms or holiday retreats and the area was cut by fences. Over the years, landowners started to cooperate, bringing down internal fences, ousting domesticated animals and creating a game reserve. The process gradually gained momentum in surrounding areas and the Kruger Park boundary fence came down in 1992, opening up Timbavati, Klaserie and Umbabat so that the animals could roam free.
After the upgrading of the western fencing, the fence separating Balule from Klaserie finally came down in 2004 and Balule Nature Reserve was formally divided into its current sub-sections to allow conservation activities to be separately managed within each of its traditional parts. Today, the Olifants West section of Balule has its own Warden and conservation team, including anti-poaching personnel and a scientific research base, and is managed by a committee elected from its landowners.
Privileged to be here are 50 landowners overseeing 62 separate properties. Two-thirds of these properties are approximately 21 hectares in size, lying in a north-south strip and collectively known as Takazile. The remaining properties range from 85 to over 1 000 hectares. With only one camp per property, covering a maximum of one hectare, OWNR boasts vast tracts of unfenced bushveld.
You can experience this conservation jewel by staying at one of 11 commercial lodges within the area, ranging from backpacker-style to five-star.