The beauty of Ongoye Forest is its combination of textures – the velvet-like grassy hills fringed by tall dense forest with great granite domes emerging at random along the ridges. The 3 900-hectare forest runs for about 10kms on a high ridge parallel to the ocean and is about 4kms wide. Botanically rich as it contains plants from the temperate Eastern Cape forests as well as the forests of tropical Africa, Ongoye is a ‘must’ for the discerning nature lover.
Ongoye Forest is home to rare and endemic animals and birds such as the Red Squirrel, the Green Barbet, the Yellow-streaked Bulbul and the Green Butterfly.
It was also home to the magnificent giant Wood’s Cycad (Encephalartos woodii) which has been extinct in the wild since the early 1900’s.
The many tree rarities include magnificent giant umzimbeets (Millettia sutherlandia), Forest Mangosteen (Garcinia gerrardii), Forest Waterberry (Syzygium gerrardii) and the Pondoland Fig (Ficus bizane) amongst others.
There are no fewer than nine varieties of fig growing in the forest and this abundance of fruit could be the reason the Green Barbet can only be found in Ongoye Forest.
19th Century plant collectors in Ongoye Forest with the only Wood’s cycad ever found.
of the Forest’
These palm-like plants are ancient relics of a once widespread and dominant ancestry. Often referred to as ‘living fossils’, cycads were abundant in the Mesozoic era and reached their zenith in the Jurassic Period some 160 million years ago.
Today only about 200 species exist and they are found mainly in Central America, South Africa and Australia. The demand for these plants as garden specimens has pushed them close to extinction in the wild and they are now specially protected.
Their appeal is not only their rarity and ancient lineage but also their sculptural shapes, the symmetry of their foliage and the colourful fruiting cones.
Removed from Ongoye
In 1895 the curator of the Durban Botanic Gardens, John Medley Wood, was on a collecting trip in Zululand and found a solitary clump of cycads in the vicinity of Ongoye Forest which turned out to be unique – it was later named Encephalartos woodii in his honour. Over the years the entire clump was removed from Ongoye and it is now considered extinct in the wild.
The single specimen Wood identified was male and no female is known to exist.
Suckers from the original cycad continue to provide new plants and the species is represented in many of the major botanical institutions of the world – including Kew Gardens in London where it is labelled as ‘perhaps the rarest plant’ in the Kew collection.
Good birding can be enjoyed by walking along the tracks through the reserve and there is usually a lot of activity in the first 2kms.
Access to the forest has been greatly improved with concrete strips leading to the forest but sections of the road between the R102 and the forest are severely potholed and a robust vehicle is recommended. Pockets of the Reserve in the west can accessed on a good tar road from Obanjeni on the P240.
There are narrow tracks which lead from one side of the forest to the other but they can be obstructed by fallen trees. Unless travelling with a guide, it is best to park outside the forest and walk along the tracks through the forest.
Driving from Eshowe there are two options of getting to Ongoye Forest. The western entrance is accessed from the P240 off the P230 and gives visitors easy access to pockets of the forest and the western grasslands. The roads are in better condition and parts of the forest can be accessed by car. The eastern entrance is the more popular with birders and takes one into the heart of the forest. However it does require a 4x4 due to the condition of the roads. Drive on the R102 from Road Island Service Station outside Mtunzini towards Empangeni for 11,6 kms. Turn left into the D525 and follow this road for 4,5 kms before turning right into D1554. Continue on this gravel road for 4,4 kms and just after passing Manzamnyama School (on the left) turn right into the Ongoye forest road. For the next 2 kms difficult sections of the track have been concreted. At the top of the hill there is a track road to the right leading to the Ranger’s office where all visitors must report before proceeding with their visit to the forest.
All visitors need to report to the office on arrival where a minimal gate fee and community levy can be paid.
Gate opening & closing: