Vryheid Hill Nature Reserve
This 900ha reserve is situated just north of Vryheid in municipal lands. The KZN Wildlife service have been managing the reserve since 1986, and an entrance fee is payable on weekends and holidays only.
Lancaster Hill, as the mountain is known, consists of forested south facing slopes, mixed woodland below, and open, rocky grassland above. Many small wetlands, cliffs and gullies complete the picture.
Entering Vryheid from Melmoth or Durban, continue along East Street, up over the railway bridge and turn right at the T-junction. Follow the road up to the reserve gate. Travelling from Dundee or Paulpietersburg, continue along Church Street and turn left into East Street. Follow the rest of the directions above.
All types of accommodation are available in Vryheid, 1km away. The Ntingonono Environmental Centre provides accommodation in the reserve in the form of all weather safari tents.
Vryheid Hill is well known for hosting a combination of upland and lowland specials. A number of endemics occur, and to date 230 species have been recorded in this small reserve.
Entering the gate, travel up to the T-junction. Look out for Grassbird in the tall grass. At the T-junction, you have a choice of turning left to enter the mixed woodland and right to drive up through the forest and onto the grassland plateau.
The mixed woodland from the T-junction to the Enviro Centre is good for Bushveld Pipit, Brimstone Canary, Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike, Southern Black Tit, Red-throated Wryneck and Swee Waxbill. The area around the small dam and picnic site annually hosts Broad-tailed Warbler, and interesting sightings at the dam include Dwarf Bittern, Lesser Moorhen and Black Stork.
The thicker bush around the Enviro Centre provides Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Red-capped and Chorister Robin-Chats, Forest Canary, Bush Blackcap, Black Cuckoo and Black Cuckooshrike. Listen for Striped Pipit on the rocky slopes above the Centre, as well as Buff-spotted Flufftail (in summer) around the tents.
Chinspot Batis, Blue Waxbill, Brown-backed Honeybird, Cardinal Woodpecker and Golden-breasted Bunting are fond of the area west of the Enviro Centre.
The steep drive up through the forest could yield Bush Blackcap, Cape Batis, Olive Bush-Shrike, Olive Thrush, Bar-throated Apalis, Purple-crested Turaco, Tambourine Dove and Olive Woodpecker. When the road passes through the large forest patch, stop to look for the African Crowned Eagle nest in the trees on the left. The grassy slope on the right is home to Drakensberg Prinia. Check all the aloes and bottlebrushes for Greater Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds.
Other raptors often seen include African Harrier-Hawk, African Goshawk, Black Sparrowhawk, Jackal Buzzard and in summer, African Cuckoo Hawk.
Driving up onto the grassland, look out for Cape Rock Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat (very common) and Stonechat. The grasslands are super productive for cisticolas and pipits, especially in summer. Wailing, Croaking, Levaillant's and Zitting Cisticolas prefer the longer grass while Wing-snapping and Cloud Cisticolas prefer the shorter grass. Lazy Cisticolas prefer the areas with scattered bush and rocks, while on the damper grasslands further west of the radio towers, the Pale-crowned Cisticola is present. On the lower plateau. Neddicky is found wherever there are scattered trees among the grassland. All in all, 9 cisticola species can be found in this reserve.
To add to the LBJ list, 6 pipit species are regularly recorded. Bushveld Pipit occurs below the forest, Striped Pipits reside on the rocky slopes, while Plain-backed, Buffy, African and Long-billed Pipits are found most often on the flatter plateau, where the road loops around. Check any burnt areas, as they are a favourite with these confusing birds. Long-billed Pipit is often found among the rocks on the drive down to the loop road. Bald Ibis and Black-winged Lapwing are fond of the lower plateau as well.
Other species found in the grassland include Secretarybird, Long-tailed Widowbird, African Quailfinch, Sentinel Rock Thrush (winter), Coqui, Shelly's and Red-winged Francolin, Rufous-naped Lark and Cape Long-claw.
OTHER POINTS OF INTEREST
A variety of plants and game occur in the reserve. Eland, Burchell's zebra, blesbok, impala, common reedbuck, mountain reedbuck and the rare oribi are all present. The grassland hosts a number of orchids and the moist areas host the carnivorous drosera plant. The common cabbage tree, common wild and broom cluster figs, Cape beech, buffalo thorn and flame thorns, (some of the largest in the province), are among the common trees found in the reserve.
Lancaster Hill was also the site of a battle during the second Anglo-Boer War in 1900, and a memorial grave of an English Lt. Colonel as well as a Boer soldier, are present in the reserve. Numerous rock walls and forts built by the resident 900 English troops are still visible.
The Royal Family visited Lancaster Hill in 1947, and a picture of a ship drawn on a rock by Princess Margaret is still faintly visible.