KwaZulu Natal Tourist AttractionsHlatikulu Vlei
Where? Hlatikulu Valley, Drakensberg, KwaZulu Natal
Hlatikulu Vlei lies 32 km west of Mooi River in the foothills of the Drakensberg, between the Kamberg and Giant's Castle Nature Reserves. It is bounded on one side by Highmoor, whilst its other borders adjoin private land.
The South African Crane Foundation has its headquarters at the vlei, unsurprisingly as all three of the crane species found in southern Africa make the vlei their home. Three pairs of the globally threatened wattled crane base themselves at Hlatikulu, whilst a flock of about 30 individuals are often seen in the area. Breeding blue crane, grey crowned crane and a small colony of southern bald ibis also make the vlei their home.
Wattled cranes: critically endangered in SA; only about 245 survive in the wild, and they are totally dependent on wetlands for breeding. More info here: Wattled Crane
Blue cranes: South Africa's national bird is endangered; some of its range has suffered a 90% population drop. More info here: Blue Crane
Crowned cranes: the most adaptable, living in farmland, parkland, gardens and golf courses. More info here: grey crowned crane
Hlatikulu is managed as a sanctuary for waterfowl and grassland birds. Its series of grasslands and wetlands make it a prime birding spot. It thus forms part of the Southern KwaZulu-Natal Birding Route.
Best walks for bird spotting include: the trail that heads up Mount Lebanon, the extensive reedbeds on the larger dam, the other side of the dam (for wattled crane), the large mistbelt forest on Hlatikulu Mountain, and at night look out for African wood owls and freckled nightjars.
The cranes that frequent the area have found their natural environment severely compromised by ridge and furrow agriculture. They naturally live in grasslands, particularly wetlands, often threatened by agriculture.
The habitual passage of water through the upper reaches of the vlei has been interfered with, including the construction of numerous dams. Many of the cranes have thus moved to Hlatikulu as a retreat when not breeding and the vlei has had to build rehabilitation facilities and breeding pens to cope. All the birds here are rescued or injured cranes and none are held illegally.