Zululand – not a moment to stand still

The Buckham family on tour

After a frantic packing session, we had a quick breakfast, stocked up at the Gateway Woolies and left the concrete jungle of Umhlanga behind us.  We were soon past the North Coast One Stop and we were on our way into Zululand.

Zululand is a special place.  I suppose there are hundreds of great birds but more than that there is just something magical about the extensive wetlands, surrounded by fever tree forests, with beautiful Nyala coming down to drink.  That is always my romantic notion of Zululand and we certainly would not be disappointed with what we saw.

We would not be going too far north into Zululand.  We would be based at Malala Lodge just south of Hluhluwe town giving us access to as many of the sites as possible.  We would be looking for game, adding to our bird lists and expanding our frogging horizons.

We had sandwiched our days at Malala by a night on each side at St Lucia.  I had last visited St Lucia when I was about Adam’s age, almost 32 years ago, with my parents on a fishing trip.

I seemed to have remembered that it was a quaint little town with the only access to the island by way of a bridge over the estuary.  I am not so old that I first went there when the only way across was by pont.

I knew I would love the place but I was concerned that it wasn’t quite Jeanie’s cup of tea.  I needn’t have worried.  St Lucia was as quaint as I had remembered it with neat rows of streets lined by lush tropical vegetation and a main street that was pretty touristy, but just so appealing.  As we drove into the town Jeanie’s eyes were wide with excitement.  There were restaurants with decks overlooking the streets, fruit sellers, biltong shops and a supertube theme park.

A meal in St Lucia

Our guesthouse was situated within a stone’s throw of the iGwalagwala Forest Trail, which was perfect for me as it would give me easy access to a few great birds.

Our first activity was a boat trip on the river with one of the tour companies and the focus was most certainly on the most noticeable animals on the river – the hippos.

The Buckham family in St Lucia
Adam on the boat
Jeanie, Jacky and Emma

There were few birds to look at, with the exception of a fly-by or two from some of the resident African Fish Eagles.  I was quite relaxed though – I would get my turn to walk the trails the next morning for a few birds.  Jeanie was in her element with a drink in her hand, the breeze in her face and the warm afternoon sun allowing her to forget about the scrum in Umhlanga.

African Fish Eagle
Yellow Weaver
Giant Kingfisher
Lots of hippos

The birding in St Lucia is magical.  The forests are hard work, though, and we learnt that our main target bird, Woodwards Batis, was not as easy as I had expected.  We walked the iGwalagwala trail several times over searching for it but we heard absolutely nothing.  We were compensated by plenty of other birds including a number of lifers for the boys.

Tommy and Adam on the iGwalagwala Trail

The head of the estuary was also a great place to expand our list and our time in St Lucia was over all too soon.

St Lucia Estuary
Pink-backed Pelican

We would stop here on the way back and perhaps catch up with some of the things we missed.  We did manage to add a frog and a reptile to our list on our night at Little Eden guesthouse.

Greater Leaf-folding Frog
Greater Leaf-folding Frog
Moreau’s Tropical House Gecko

Before leaving the island we took a drive north to Cape Vidal.  It was a multi-purpose activity giving Jeanie and the kids some much needed beach time, and I would be happy as we would get a chance to look for a Southern Banded Snake Eagle.  The eagle was ultimately very obliging, sitting on a telephone pole about halfway to Cape Vidal, whilst the beach didn’t disappoint either.

Southern Banded Snake-eagle

We even made use of the braai facilities for a lunchtime braai, which was mostly spent fending off the Yellow-billed Kites, who were after our boerewors, and the Vervet Monkeys who had their eye on our fruit and vegetables.  I felt like I was in an Alfred Hitchcock movie as I ducked under the swooping kites as their talons came agonizingly close to my boerewors roll.  I had less desire for fruit so I wasn’t as concerned about the monkeys.

Avoiding the kites and monkeys

Interestingly the Vervet and Samango Monkeys tend to co-exist at the campsite at Cape Vidal.  Somehow the Samangos are just that much more appealing – they seemed less inclined to make a play for our provisions.

Samango Monkey

After all too brief a time at St Lucia we headed further north to Malala where our time was well spent.  Malala is just south of Hluhluwe town, within a stone’s throw of the world famous Bonamanzi Game Reserve (okay, world famous in birding circles), and within a short drive from some of the Zululand’s beautiful game parks.  I am often accused of being unable to sit still for a second but I will say that I was ably followed for 3 days by the rest of my family as we squeezed in just about all we could in our time available.  There was not much room for slow, lazy afternoons spent at the pool as we rather chose to criss-cross the countryside, ticking off viewpoints, national parks and plenty of birds and animals along the way.

I had heard that the Ezemvelo parks were deteriorating but we found the experience to be quite the opposite.  We visited False Bay Park and Hluhluwe Game Reserve and they were both neat and tidy, and seemingly well visited and very competently staffed.  A sunset drink at Lister’s Point at False Bay Park was a true highlight of the trip whilst a morning spent in Hluhluwe was equally as enjoyable.

The Buckhams at Lister’s Point
The family tree
False Bay
Grey-headed Gull

I made sure the kids appreciated the White Rhinos that we saw, knowing full well that they may not be around for that much longer.  We spoke to a ranger about the ongoing battles against poaching and unfortunately the numbers just don’t stack up.  There seems to be far more funding on the “dark side” and one wonders how they have even managed to survive this long.  The horn poisoning that has been instituted in some of these parks seems to be an inevitable method to stem the tide, but will it be enough to reverse the enormous losses?

White Rhino
Southern Black Flycatcher

Besides the Ezemvelo parks I was determined to spend some time at Bonamanzi for all the sand forest specials.  I had been to Bonamanzi about 15 years ago and I knew that we would have our best chance for the most localized birds of the trip.  All the field guides make it quite clear that day visitors are most welcome, so, on a very warm, humid morning, I took a drive with Tommy and Adam and approached the gate nonchalantly, expecting a simple sign-in process to get in.  Our spirits were high as we had just ticked the ever-reliable Lemon-breasted Canaries that seem to love the area around the railway line.

Lemon-breasted Canary

The gate guard seemed to have a very different idea about day visitors to what I had seen advertised.  His first reaction to our request to come in was a simple, but slowly delivered and hazy “no day visitors allowed”.  I was puzzled, but was not deterred.  I pointed at my two boys and told him that it would make their day if he were to let them in.  There was much puzzlement and contemplation that followed until he eventually agreed to phone reception from his gatehouse and enquire whether it would be okay.  He disappeared for several minutes and eventually dragged himself from the security of his shed holding the sign-in book.  Things were looking up.  We quickly signed our names and handed back the book, rushing off in a cloud of dust into the park before he could change his mind.

On arrival at the reception area, from where we would embark on our species hunt, we suddenly became aware of why our entry had been so grudgingly allowed.  The entire area was filled with police vehicles, shiny BMWs and Mercedes’s, security guards and nattily dressed staff rushing backwards and forwards speaking into walkie-talkies with great purpose.

Something fancy was afoot and it was given away as we drove past the main parking area, which was entirely cordoned off by bunting with a big sign saying “Presidential Parking Only”.  I remarked to the boys that I wondered what kind of president would be arriving at Bonamanzi to justify all this fanfare.  That question was answered when a particularly harassed staff member rushed to us as we got out of the car and told us to move our vehicle as President Zuma was arriving within 20 minutes.

As it turned out he only arrived a lot later but he was attending a wedding at Bonamanzi and we were certainly not at all welcome.  The gate guard had not done a very good job at keeping us out and we would not have the freedom we had hoped for.

A very accommodating ranger suggested we park some way from the reception area and take a walk in the sand forest, but he asked us to stay away from all the security.  I’m not sure we were typical assassin potential but I suppose they had to make sure the place was secure.

Our walk in the sand forest was particularly disappointing.  The security-evading had taken a bit of time and the heat was now up which turned the sand forest into a bit of a morgue – there seemed to be no life at all, with the exception of a few buzzing insects and one or two ticks that crawled over our legs.

Sand Forest at Bonamanzi
All quiet in the sand forest

We eked out a few decent birds, including Purple-banded Sunbird, Yellow White-eye, Rudd’s Apalis and a Bearded Scrub-robin but we were well short of the sand forest specials that we had hoped for.  It seemed as if the birds were also ducking away from the phalanx of security forces patrolling the property.

Purple-banded Sunbird
African Yellow White-eye
Rudd’s Apalis
Rudd’s Apalis
Bearded Scrub-robin
Bearded Scrub-robin

We returned to Bonamanzi two days later for a cruise on the Hluhluwe River and the hospitality was far more receptive.  We still did the “no day visitor” dance with the same security guard, but this time I was a little less pleading and a little more assertive.  We had booked our cruise and no one was going to stop us.  It didn’t help that it appeared as if we had awoken the security guard from his slumber.  He also muttered, as I signed the register, that management was not happy with him letting people in which I suspect may have been the grave security breach from two day’s previously when we had convinced him to let us in.

Nonetheless, we had Kyle as our guide for the river trip and it was a breath of fresh air as he injected some enthusiasm into our visit.  The weather was miserable and the birding a little slow but we still managed some really good sightings.

Emma at Bonamanzi
Emma at Bonamanzi

A beautiful adult Little Bittern was a nice surprise whilst the nest-building Brown-throated Weaver was a lifer for both Tommy and Adam.

Little Bittern
Southern Brown-throated Weaver
Southern Brown-throated Weaver
Nile Crocodile
African Darter
Little Bee-eater
Burchell’s Coucal

The drive back to the reception was marked by a mixture of fortune.  I saw an African Pygmy-kingfisher dart across the road in front of us and perch in some overhanging vegetation right next to the road.  Naturally, I shouted for Kyle to stop the car as quickly as possible, which he duly did.  Unfortunately, Tommy’s camera hurtled off the seat of the land rover and crashed to the floorboards and ended any photographic potential that Tommy may have had for the rest of the trip.  Tommy’s camera was a mess, but mine still worked and I managed to capture a few images of arguably one of the most appealing birds of the area.

African Pygmy-kingfisher

Our visit to Bonamanzi, the second time around, had been a very good one.  Despite the miserable weather we had had some excellent birds and some good hospitality.

We also spent some good time at Malala looking for frogs.  Malala is a spectacular place for frogs in the right conditions.  I have heard of over 20 species of frog being found in one night, but with the relatively early season dryness and my complete lack of decent frog knowledge we didn’t see as many as we had hoped.  We still managed to add quite a few lifers:

Red Toad
Eastern Olive Toad
Plain Grass Frog
Muller’s Platanna

Our last morning at Malala produced probably one of our favourite birds of the trip.  We had not managed to find a Pink-throated Twinspot in our time in the sand forest but on the way to breakfast Tommy, Adam and Jack managed to find a foraging pair close to the restaurant.  I was delighted to finally improve on my photos of this species.

Pink-throated Twinspot
Pink-throated Twinspot
Pink-throated Twinspot

We decided that our last night on the road should be spent at St Lucia – a place we had all loved.  I would get more opportunity to look for one of my most wanted trip birds – Woodward’s Batis – and Jeanie would get a chance to enjoy the sights and sounds of the quaint little town.

We booked back into our favoured guesthouse, Little Eden, and unpacked our huge array of stuff for the very last time.

The weather continued to be miserable and definitely looked to be best for a bit of frogging.  My problem was that I had not really been given too much detailed gen for frogs in St Lucia, so I was on my own trying to find somewhere decent to go.

The Buckham Family in the miserable weather

Frogging is not an easy activity when it comes to accommodating the kids.  Frogging is typically best at nighttime, which usually encroaches on relaxing holiday dinners and kids’ bedtime.  It is also not the best idea to be wandering around strange places at night with torches.  St Lucia had the added downside of having the risk of wandering hippos feeding in the roadside thickets.  Jeanie had read one of the brochures at the guesthouse and been alarmed at the potential risk to her little angels being attacked by an errant hippo.  I was given strict instructions to make sure I brought them home in one piece. Although I may sound a little “gung ho” I have to acknowledge that I am also a bit of a scaredy cat.   I was also not too keen to venture out into the wilderness unless I was sure of our safety.

On our way into town I noticed some great looking frogging habitat about 5 kms before the bridge.  The conditions were also pretty good with rain having fallen most of the day and continuing into the evening.  Unfortunately, a local township bordered the small wetland, and that did not bode well.

Jeanie had seen a small nursery and butterfly dome next-door and reckoned that would be my best port of call.  I stopped the car and ran into the driveway.  It was late on a Sunday afternoon and everything seemed to be closed.  There was a strong smell of marijuana wafting through the air, which I suppose was not that unusual for that part of the world, at that time of day, but just then I saw a tall Rasta-looking man walking towards me.  He had a disheveled beard knotted into dreadlocks, a woolen beanie over his head and a very glazed look in his eyes.  I had no doubt he was the source of the acrid aroma permeating the air.

I didn’t think I would get much joy here, but I decided that a direct approach would work the best.  I didn’t beat about the bush and asked him straight out whether he would be happy to let me do some frogging a little later that evening on the property.  His response was a little delayed but he didn’t really flinch much at the question.  He told me that they had had a group of froggers there earlier that week but now the viewing was over and it would not be possible for me to come round that evening.

I was rather surprised that he ever knew what frogging was but even more surprised that this place accommodated strange people like myself.  I was not deterred and insisted that he take me to the owner of the property so that I could continue my negotiations – this was too good an opportunity to pass by.  Amazingly he obliged and took me to the boss and his right hand man who both seemed to be just as disheveled as my introducer.  What followed was a bizarre negotiation between these three and myself.  There was obviously some price that had to be paid for their hospitality into a Sunday evening and that did not seem unreasonable to me.  We just had to settle on something appropriate and despite the language gap, and the slightly impaired reaction time, we ultimately reached agreement.  Musa (the introducer) would be my guide and, for the reasonable price of R35 per person and a bit of dinner thrown in, he would show the boys and I around that evening.

As it turned out Tommy was a bit “frogged out” by the time the evening came along so it was just Adam and I spending time with Musa.  It was a fascinating hour or so as he happily took us to the butterfly domes to find a few frogs.  It was definitely not overwhelming but we had some good success in the domes.  The majority of the frogs we found were Painted Reed Frogs but there were also good numbers of Delicate Leaf-folding Frogs as well.  This was a new species for us and represented our third species of leaf-folding frog for the trip.  They are tiny little frogs and tend to make very nice photographic subjects once you can get them to settle down and avoid them jumping onto your head and camera.  One of them actually almost jumped into Adam’s mouth as he lent over to take a picture.  It was a good thing that his mouth was closed at the time so instead it landed on his lips and stuck there as though he were a plant.  Fortunately Adam is about as squeamish as Indiana Jones so there was very little fuss.

Painted Reed Frog
Delicate Leaf-folding Frog

The domes were pretty good but we also spent a little time in the wetland and managed to find another new species in an Argus Reed Frog.  There was a bit of debate about it’s ID as it looked just liked the rare and localized Sharp-nosed Frog but in the end the experts directed me towards the more likely Argus Reed Frog.  It was amazing to see it in a standoff with a mosquito and, in fact, it provides quite a nice perspective as to how small these frogs really are.

Argus Reed Frog
Argus Reed Frog

That brought to an end the frogging for our trip and all that was left was one more bash in the iGwalagwala trail in the morning to try and find my target Batis.  The iGwalagwala trail is a fantastic forest trail with birdlife seemingly everywhere.  We have had a lot of success with Narina Trogons over the years but this one was particularly obliging.

Narina Trogon

We also had Red-capped Robin-chats, Livingstone’s Turaco, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbirds, Green Malkoha, Crested Guineafowl, Yellow-bellied Greenbuls and Golden-tailed Woodpecker.  These were just the birds I managed to photograph – there were plenty of other special birds including Rudd’s Apalis, the full suite of bush-shrikes including Gorgeous, Orange-breasted and Olive, Sunbirds including Grey, Olive and Collared, Ashy Flycatcher, Eastern Nicator, Trumpeter Hornbills, Dark-backed Weaver, White-eared Barbet, Square-tailed Drongo and Lemon Dove.  It was a real feast of birds but I still hadn’t found my Woodward’s Batis.

Red-capped Robin-chat
Livingstone’s Turaco
Livingstone’s Turaco
Livingstone’s Turaco
Yellow-bellied Greenbul
Green Malkoha
Crested Guineafowl
Golden-tailed Woodpecker

I had been told that this was the place to find them and so far my several hours on the trail had not even produced a call.

Eventually I heard the single noted call and after a few minutes of peering into the low undergrowth a pair of Batises made their way into view.  The female gave me just enough time for a quick pic but I was unable to get onto the male.

Woodward’s Batis

Remarkably, I was distracted from the batises, for a brief moment, as a slightly larger but equally as skulky bird appeared in amongst the foliage.  I put my binoculars onto it and I was amazed to be looking at a Bush Blackcap.  This was a bird we had tried so hard to find without success in the Berg and here it was in the most unlikely of places – coastal forest in Zululand.  I got the boys onto it quickly and managed one quick pic just for a bit of proof before it disappeared back into the foliage.

Bush Blackcap

Our walk on the iGwalagwala trail had been a real success and had delivered two really exciting lifers for the boys.  It was a good way to finish the trip.

I did have half an hour before our final pack to take a quick walk to the Umfolozi River mouth in the hope of extracting my only lifer of the trip from the tern roost at the mouth but, despite plenty of Swift Terns, I could not pick out any Lesser Crested’s which would have been a lifer for me.  I was obviously there just too early in the summer season but I was rewarded with a decent view of the long staying Sooty Tern that stood out like a sore thumb against all the pale terns in the roost.

The Sooty Tern would be the last addition to our list after a very successful trip.  We finished on a total trip list of 241 bird species with Adam securing 46 lifers and 27 for Tommy.  We saw 14 species of frog, 12 of which were lifers and 10 species of reptile, 6 of which were new.  We have a long way to go with the frogs and lizards but at least we are learning.

Not only was this trip about birds, frogs and lizards but it was just a reminder for me how special it is to be part of a big family where we are privileged enough to get around to doing the things that we do.  We had some amazing experiences and we didn’t have to go overseas to do what we did.

Our September holidays will continue to focus on exploring the beauty that is close by with a family that is so adept at doing so.

Caspian Tern

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