I had not been to Umhlanga Rocks since I was a little kid. I cannot remember when it was but I know my parents took us to one of the big hotels on the beachfront. I remember it being a very “privileged” holiday as Umhlanga was the place to go.
When planning our trip I had settled on Sani Pass and Zululand quite quickly, but I knew that if I didn’t come up with something that had a little more balance to it, I was not sure I would have been left to organize our road trip the following year. I figured that Umhlanga was just about right. There were some nice restaurants, some swimming pools, a beach and hopefully a nice hotel room which would tick quite a few of the boxes on Jeanie’s list of spring holiday requirements. I had also made contact with a herping expert that lived nearby so I would be happy as well.
We were planned to stay four nights, but as we drove into what now resembles central Sandton, we both looked at each other and wondered whether we would last one night. Our arrival at the hotel did not make things any better with a battle to find parking anywhere near the reception and our room allocation on the 16th floor.
Not ideal for a young family and huge amounts of luggage.
Our room was also the size of our bathroom at home and whilst we were happy to squash into a single room to all be together, it felt like we were a family of gypsies all squashed together in a tiny little space.
We decided there and then that we would change our stay to two nights and try make the most of it.
We did have a date with the manic Spur on the night we arrived as it was Adam’s birthday and the Spur was his chosen destination. It was “burger special” night and we had to queue for a table from 5:30 and it reinforced our decision to cut our time short in Umhlanga. Adam, however, loved his ribs and certainly enjoyed the attention from the waitresses as they sang him his birthday song.
Our agenda for the first morning had been set for weeks in advance. We would be taking the kids to uShaka Marine World and we would engage in some good old-fashioned water slide fun. I was pretty convinced that I was likely to have just as good a time as the kids, despite the fact that the only birds that we would see would be the occasional Common Mynah and Rock Dove.
Whilst Jeanie and Emma spent a leisurely morning at the shallow pool, the four boys ran around frantically trying to make sure we made the most of our R100 entry fee.
I reckon I rode each of the rides about 10 times and by the time we left we were all pretty exhausted. We earned ourselves a bit of the break in the afternoon and I insisted the boys have a sleep as we would be heading off with Tyrone Ping for some herping in the sugar cane surrounds of Umhlanga.
I had come across Tyrone’s name as a herper extraordinaire and, through some e-mail correspondence, Tyrone had very kindly offered to take us out to find some of the local specials. As it got dark we were picked up in the Atos and we headed north into the sugar cane. Our targets would be a mixture of frogs and reptiles and I was looking forward to an excursion where the likely outcome was more than one or two species. In the Cape the frogging is particularly hard work and, although the weather conditions were not great, we would hope to see something special.
Our first species was way too easy, but it was a lifer for the three of us. It was a Black-headed Dwarf Chameleon sitting happily on a reed stem. We took a few pics and headed onwards.
The next spot was a small little wet patch which not only held a few frogs but a White-browed Scrub-robin sitting tucked up ready to go to sleep. It was unusual to find a bird whilst out frogging in the dark.
We found three species of frog at that first spot. The first was the wonderful looking Natal Tree Frog. I suspect this frog is like our Clicking Stream Frog in the Cape, in that there are probably thousands of them, but for us it was great to see such an attractive frog. It posed nicely for some photos before we moved onto the next one.
The next one was a real special – Natal Leaf-folding Frog. This was a very range-restricted species and it was my first leaf-folder. They are such attractive little frogs and so neat and tidy in appearance. They are identified by the tiny dots on their skin, which are called asperities, and separating Natal and Delicate is a thing reserved for experts. Tyrone was quick to give us the go ahead as a Natal, which was a very special one given that so much of its habitat is on the decline.
Our third frog in that little patch was quite different. Unlike the other two, this one was not a reed dweller, but rather a puddle-dweller. With the appealing name of a Snoring Puddle Frog it was a cute little thing. We spent some time taking some pics and then it was time to move on.
Our next spot was a bit of rocky habitat, which was unusual for this part of the world. Tyrone indicated that the precise reason we had come here was that it was the only patch of rocks in the area and it meant that it was home to Pondo Flat Geckos. Also a very range restricted animal. We had to do a little bit of work to find one but we eventually found at least three of them. Photographing them was pretty tough but eventually we got something.
Herping in the Western Cape involves a lot of rock turning. In the slightly more tropical climes of KZN, the snake activity is very dependent on the ambient conditions. Warm evenings, it seems, are the best for “road cruising”, which is the little known pastime of slowly driving quiet dirt roads, watching for snakes crossing the road. We had coincided our time in Umhlanga with a bit of very cool weather and Tyrone was not particularly hopeful of seeing any snakes. It seems as if rock turning does not feature as highly in this part of the world and so Tyrone did not spend any time doing so and, therefore, neither did we.
There was, however, one nice flat rock right at the base of the rock face we had been working for the gecko that just looked right for something interesting. Tyrone decided it was worth a turn. As he lifted it he shouted across to us: “snake!”
I rushed over and saw a relatively small, very active, mostly black snake slithering in the cavity left by the lifted rock. Tyrone wasn’t offering too much at that point so I asked him excitedly: “what is it?”
I clearly had no idea.
There was a pause, and a hesitation, whilst Tyrone decided whether he should pick it up or not (which was a very useful behavioural display considering Adam still has a lot to learn about how unidentified snakes should be handled) and then suddenly, in an excited voice, Tyrone identified the snake as a Black File Snake and picked it up with confidence. He had just been making absolutely certain it was not a Stilleto Snake, which would not have been handled so readily.
I have pointed out many times recently that my herping hobby is in its fledgling stages. I have been birding for almost all my life and through that time I have read almost every Southern African bird field guide from cover to cover. I have a very good idea about what birds are special and which ones are not only special, but are rare and hard to find. If I go out into the field and hear a Striped Flufftail calling in the Fynbos I will know immediately that it is something that merits excitement. With snakes, however, I am none the wiser as to whether a Black File Snake is any more exciting than a Centipede-eater.
Tyrone quickly put it into perspective. He is someone who knows more about snakes than I know about birds and although he is quite a good deal younger than me he has probably spent more time, cumulatively, looking for snakes and handling them than I have spent time looking for birds. He now told us that this was the first time in his life that he had seen a live Black File Snake. This was his snake equivalent to our Golden Pipit.
It was probably quite frustrating for him to have three herping “muppets” with him, but I am certain he would be deriving a great amount of pleasure distributing a few shots of this great find to some of those that would really have appreciated it.
Photographing the file snake was an absolute nightmare. The reason these snakes are so seldom seen is because they are fossorial in nature in that they are burrowing snakes and spend most of their lives underground. As such it spent the entire time trying to burrow into the ground making our lives extremely difficult in getting a good angle. What’s more is that it releases the most awful smell when handled so Tyrone “took one for the team” by being the only one handling it which made me happy, since our arrival in our tiny hotel room, later that evening, smelling of snake malodour would not have gone down too well with Jeanie.
I suspect Tyrone was pretty happy to live with the smell on his hands given the rarity. He did remark that he would be getting some strange looks at work the next day as the smell takes as long as 4 or 5 days to fade away.
After the great excitement of the file snake it would be hard to replicate that with any other animal so we decided to call it a night. We had also received a frantic call from Jeanie at about 9:30 wondering whether we had been abducted by some locals, so it was a good time to pack it in. On the way home we stopped at a good spot for Flap-neck Chameleon and, once again, on demand Tyrone produced the goods. Not only is a Flap-neck Chameleon not the rarest of animals but this one did not even bother to wake up when we found it, so the pics remain pretty ordinary. We would have plenty of opportunities in the future to find Flap-necks so I was not too bothered.
Soon after our next packing exercise the next morning Adam and I went to the Umhlanga Nature Reserve for an hour of birding before heading north. We had some nice birds to add to our list despite the short time we had.
The packing exercise was an interesting one. I told Jeanie to head off for a long run whilst I packed the bags. I think Jeanie feels that the packing responsibilities are a little out of kilter where I pack my stuff and she packs hers and all the kids’. I felt that I could make up for it a little by giving her a chance to breathe the fresh air whilst I dealt with the admin. It was quite an experience, in Durban humidity, to try and pack for all 6 of us whilst trying to keep all the kids entertained. As I sweated litres through the process I was suddenly told by Tommy that Emma had thrown one of her Crocs shoes out the window from the balcony. It plummeted 16 floors into a flower bed and so I promptly sent all three boys on a mission to find the missing shoe. They returned triumphantly with the missing shoe but from then on the door to the balcony was closed, which only increased the extent of my sweating.
Despite our initial misgivings about our time in Umhlanga we had made the most of our time there but we were pleased to be moving on to slightly quieter surrounds.