Just 35 minutes from Ballito on the south bank of the Tugela you’ll find Harold Johnson Nature Reserve, a genuine Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Reserve, that’s so close the number plates are still NT and you’ll know where to look out for the regular traffic cops en route. While it’s not home to anything with teeth or tusks, it packs a punch for its modest 100 hectares.

This past Saturday I took a few visiting Jolburger friends up there for a morning walking trail After meeting for a quick breakfast at Tiffany’s we nipped up the N2, took the Darnall offramp and three turns later found ourselves at the gate of the reserve – complete with a bonafide Parks Board sign showing gate times – how ‘bout that?!

A very helpful conservation intern met us (let’s call her Amy because I’m an awful clot who’s forgotten her actual name), and promptly issued us with permits for the princely sum of twenty South African Rand per adult. Let’s be frank, you’d battle to add a pepper sauce to your steak dinner for that amount.

I’d been to the reserve many years ago, but Amy eagerly, upon hearing that we were keen to walk around the reserve, walked us down to the trail head and explained the map and routes.

There are two trails in the reserve, the short uMuthi Rituals & Remedies Trail (about 1.5km) which, along with a pamphlet from the office, gives insight into the indigenous plants historically used by locals for traditional medicine and ceremonies, and secondly, the Bushbuck Trail – about 7km and our choice for the morning.

Right from the outset, the reserve offers beautiful views of its own grassland and natural bush, as well as the Tugela River right down to the mouth along with rolling cane fields on the North bank of the river. Almost immediately on setting off we startled a small herd of Impala who bounded off into a stand of trees. The clearly marked trail lead us down toward the river, alternating between open grassland and densely forested valleys. The reserve is home to Bushbuck – which we glimpsed fleetingly, Zebra – which evaded us on this occasion, Porcupine – whose quills we picked up and Red, Grey and Blue Duiker as well as various species of Mongoose. What astounded us all was the sheer number and variety of Butterfly, for which the reserve is well known.

Taking the trail at an exceedingly measured pace, we wondered back into the camp around two hours after setting off – and looking at the outstanding views wished we’d brought a bag of charcoal and some meat along for a sneaky braai. I firmly believe this is one of the most picturesque picnic spots on our North Coast, and at the same time one of the most under-utilised.

The reserve also incorporates Fort Pearson and The Ultimatum Tree, both significant sites from the Anglo-Zulu war, which can make a handy bolt-on stop to your day trip. Camp sites with full ablution facilities are available, and bonafide school groups are allowed free entry to the reserve by prior arrangement.

In all, we spent a morning in a reserve, an hour or so on Thompson’s Bay and still made the 2:30pm kickoff of the Super Rugby Semi-final. Who’d have thought it possible?

Next time you’re looking for a quick escape from the bustle of Ballito, consider Harold Johnson – you won’t be disappointed. Click here for a map, or phone the camp on 032 486 1574.