We just got back to Mkhuze town after a three-day sojourn to Ndumo Game Reserve in the far northern part of Zululand. It feels like we have returned, like Livingstone, from a journey to the darkest Africa. I hadn’t been to Ndumo for a very long time. The last visit was around 15 years ago and I can confirm that a lot has changed in that time. Nothing was more blatantly different than the state of the town of Jozini, which I had always remembered as the gateway to Ndumo. It is the last major town after heading northeast from the N2 and winding over the Lebombo mountains with the Jozini dam down below. We were not prepared for what we found as we crested the last hill to get there. It was the first Saturday after payday and social grants and the entire town was in gridlock. There were taxis, buses, trucks, cows and people everywhere. Roadside stalls, offering everything from cellphone repairs to haircuts to braaied meat, turned what was already mayhem into something even more chaotic.
I still feel as if we were lucky to survive the ordeal. We had to fill up with petrol, which was an unfortunate detour, but nerves of steel and a fair degree of pushy persuasion got us back into the traffic flow where there was precious little patience and kindness on show. Eventually we were spat out the other side and we descended to the Jozini Dam wall, where after we hit the plains that ultimately lead down to the Indian Ocean.
The town of Jozini was an urban mess but the plains were basically a rural shambles. It was a depressing reality seeing the cold southerly wind whipping up the red sand and blowing it across the drought stricken villages and subsistence plots with nothing to pick up but piles of litter that really had no where else to go but to stick on barbed wire fences. I had thought that every human being was visiting Jozini on this miserable Saturday morning, but there were more than enough unemployed young people wandering the side of the road on the way to Ndumo to make me feel like there is not much hope for this part of the world.
What kept us going was the thought that we’d be in Ndumo Game Reserve shortly thereafter, but that was even an uncomfortable feeling knowing that such poverty exists around a place of such natural beauty.
Anyway, enough depression and onto something positive.
Ndumo was more or less just the way I had remembered it. It is a tiny little reserve but it is the envy of many places that are so much larger. It sits in a hotspot for birders where a number of habitats seem to merge in one place. The reserve is dominated by relatively impenetrable sand forest, but there is also a decent spread of other habitats – riverine forest, thornveld, open lakes with plenty of shoreline and parklike woodland in the camp. The diversity of habitat is the reason for the diversity of birdlife and within minutes of entering the reserve we had left behind the bleak and barren windswept plains and entered a space where birdlife was evident all over. Bird parties are the order of the day in winter and we arrived knowing full well that we would seek a far shorter list than one would hope for in mid-summer, but we were pleased to exchange the unbearable heat and humidity of summer for the mid-20 degree days and cool mornings and evenings.
I think Jeanie thought that three days was maybe just too many nights in the rather basic camp, but it allowed us plenty of time to explore the full extent of the reserve. Many of the roads are self-drive, but to get a really good feel of the place it is vital to enlist the help of one of the extremely knowledgeable guides. We had Bongani take us on two walks and one game drive and since he has been leading walks and drives for 24 years there didn’t seem to be anyone better qualified. His knowledge of the birds and the calls was exemplary and many a bird was called up by imitation. His patience was unending and he managed to take us to the right areas for some of the birds we were looking for. A walk around Shokwe Pan, as well as the famed Pongola River Walk, and a drive around Nyamithi pan for sundowners. Our list rattled along at a decent pace and we managed about 120 species in our three days.
We all found that the best place for birding, though, was in the camp itself and our last morning was spent wandering the lawns of the camp and just enjoying the photography and the hive of activity around the various bird baths.
I guess it was truly ironic that the birds had better access to water in the camp than did the humans. We woke up on our last morning to be welcomed by taps that did not deliver any water. We weren’t quite sure whether the pump had broken or whether there was simply no water left to pump. We suspected the latter.
Panic set in amongst our group of relatively city-slickified glampers. The first major problem was that we had tried to fill the washing machine the night before with a load of dust-laden clothing. As an aside, it is worth mentioning that Jeanie has a bit of a fetish when it comes to clean clothes. We carry a laundry bag with us wherever we go, but it never gets more than a quarter full as washing must be done everyday. I think that Jeanie genuinely believes that our clothes will turn into pumpkins if not washed immediately. I think it frustrates her just as much that I can go a full week of wearing the same clothes and, dare I say it, that even includes a few underwear repeats.
Anyway, our washing was now wet and semi-washed and with a broken dryer we were in a bit of a fix. I am almost certain I had suggested the night before that it may be a mistake to wash our clothes the night before leaving as we may end up with wet clothes, but I can assure you Jeanie wasn’t in the mood for “I told you so’s”.
Far worse than this seemingly first world problem was the fact that, without water, none of the toilets would flush (unless, of course, you were one of the early birds catching the clean toilet “worm”).
Morning ablutions is a non-negotiable for most of us so, as they say “’n boer maak ‘n plan” (a farmer makes a plan) and it was Jeanie (the farmer’s daughter) that had all of the kids (and her husband) walking up and down to the swimming pool, filling buckets and taking them to fill the toilet cisterns. So, it was her ingenuity that brought a significant amount of relief to most of the glamping party. Loads were lightened and moods were lifted.
It was a few minutes later when the camp staff realized that there was actually something they could do to make the lives of their guests more bearable and all of a sudden there was a truck down at the swimming pool, with large bottles being filled and, shortly thereafter, the toilets were permanently back in working order.
As much as I enjoyed the birding at Ndumo, I do think that it is a relatively niche destination. The mammals are relatively thin on the ground and the amenities are more basic than your average Kruger Park camp. Jeanie did manage to get her run in when I took her to the gate and followed her in the Quantum along a dirt road just outside the park. I was happy to be recognized as the chivalrous husband but, just between you and me, it gave me an opportunity to expand my atlas list outside the park.
Speaking of atlassing I was very happy to complete three full protocol cards for the park. The main pentad covers the eastern half of the reserve with the main camp as the focal point whilst the western half contains the more open thornveld and the road that Jeanie ran. The southeastern pentad has the Pongola River walk.
We had many non-birding highlights as well. The picnic lunch at Red Cliffs overlooking the Usuthu River into Mozambique was extremely special, not least for the fact that we all thought the “loo with the view” outstripped the communal ablutions at the main camp by some distance.
Our evening braais on the stoep of our bungalow were hard to beat. Roosterbrood, chops, boerewors and microwaved sweet potato were shared with some of the nightlife. We had a Large-spotted Genet wander past the braai and one of Emma’s middle-of-the-night toilet sessions almost involved a head-on collision with a giraffe.
So, I left Ndumo with a mixture of relief to be returning to some semblance of civilization (given the lack of water) and a sadness that it would be a long time before I would be able to convince the rest of my family to join me on a return visit. The drought has reduced the pans to almost empty and the pressure on the reserve from the surrounding communities and the spectre of rhino poaching is in your face. Mozambique is no more than a hop, skip and a jump away and there is virtually no hope that the surviving population will continue to be survivors. We were told there were thirteen rhino left but that statistic was given to us with some trepidation as it is likely that they are losing animals as fast as the water is evaporating.
And so the road trip moved on to the Mkhuze area where we would continue adding birds to our list.
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