The lush, waist-high grasslands of shrubs and acacia trees are a birding paradise, and there awaits the elusive rhino.
Words and Pictures: Peter Chadwick www.peterchadwick.co.za
It was hard to believe that the verdant Zululand Rhino Reserve had once been a heavily grazed cattle-ranching area. Given the quality of the veld and the herds of healthy impala, Burchell’s zebra, nyala, blue wildebeest and giraffe, it was obviously extremely well managed.
I followed a winding road into the hills to Leopard Mountain Lodge, which had breathtaking views of the surrounding Zululand bushveld. My chalet seemed to be balanced on top of the ridge, and had views that extended as far as Mkhuze and the Lebombo Mountains.
From the veranda, I looked down onto the Msunduzi riverbed that snaked way below. At the few remaining pools of water, troops of chacma baboons lazed in the shade of the riparian trees; at another pool, a trio of white rhinos escaped the summer heat and wallowed in the shallows. Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills (6 on checklist), Grey Hornbills, Lilac-breasted Rollers, White-fronted Bee-eaters and Purple-crested Turacos could be seen in the canopies of the riparian trees.
I spent the next half-hour exploring my immediate surroundings, stopping for a long while at the swimming pool. To one side of it, a small waterhole built into the granite was visited by a constant stream of thirsty birds. First up was a grumpy Crested Barbet that hopped about, chasing off the other birds with his raised crest and open, threatening beak. African Pied Wagtails (3), Golden-breasted Buntings, Long-tailed Paradise Whydahs, Dusky Indigobirds, Dark-capped Bulbuls, Blue Waxbills, Yellow-eyed Canaries and Southern Grey-headed Sparrows drank or bathed before flying back into the shade of a nearby shrub.
White-bellied- and Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, a Chinspot Batis pair (2), a Pale Flycatcher and a Common Scimitarbill moved between the combretum trees surrounding the pool. Above our hillside, a Brown Snake-Eagle hovered as Red-winged Starlings flew in like a squadron of fighter planes to harass and dive-bomb it until it flew off.
In the refreshing breeze on the deck of the lodge, I watched Fork-tailed Drongos snatching insects out of the sky, and a Crested Francolin that was alarm calling harshly as he was chased between the stunted aloes by a bold slender mongoose. With my binocs I picked out a Bateleur Eagle effortlessly swaying from side to side as it scanned the hillsides, while a dozen White-backed Vultures rode the thermals way above him.
Thunder was rumbling in the distance as our Land Rover left on its afternoon game drive, and ominous dark clouds were building up rapidly, blown towards the reserve by a gusting wind. But this was no deterrent and soon we were watching mixed herds of kudu, warthog, impala, blue wildebeest and nyala. One nyala bull walked stiffly, and raised his long-haired mane as he passed other bulls feeding close by, an obvious show of dominance that was enough to scare off the less-dominant rivals, which quickly backed away.
Further on, we found a bark spider preparing for the oncoming storm by rolling up its web and eating it to save its protein. A birding party showed themselves and quickly moved through the upper branches of the combretums as they gleaned insects. Among them were a Southern Black Flycatcher, White-crested Helmet-Shrikes (4), Long-billed Crombecs, Rattling Cisticolas (10), Black-backed Puffbacks, Cardinal Woodpeckers and Southern Black Tits.
Our group was very excited to see the spoor of a black rhino and calf and we followed the tracks until they veered off into the thick bush and sadly disappeared. By this time, a strong wind was whipping the grasses and treetops, soon followed by complete quiet, with not even the call of a single bird. Certainly this was the quiet before the storm and, within minutes, the almost black clouds started to empty their heavy load, pelting down massive raindrops and small hailstones. It was a deluge that had us quickly retreating to the safety of the lodge and a warm evening meal.
Steaming hot coffee and home-made rusks had me up and on the deck next morning, watching the sunrise turn the dark sky to a pale pinkish-purple and then yellowish-orange. Gorgeous Bush-Shrikes, Black-headed Orioles, Striped Kingfishers (8), Red-capped Robin-Chats and Crested Francolins heralded the new day, as guests gathered for the morning game drive.
Black-legged orb spiders with their attendant dewdrop spiders were the first point of interest on that drive and it was fascinating to watch the female orb-spider reel in her night’s catch as the sneaky dewdrop spiders parasitised her meal. Next up was a gracious herd of kudu with attendant Red-billed Oxpeckers (1) that groomed the kudus’s fur with sideways sweeps of their flattened bills. Resplendent Violet-backed Starling males brought much ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ from the English guests. While we watched the starlings feed in a fig tree, we could also see Black-bellied Starlings, Greater Honeyguides, Green Wood-Hoopoes, African Hoopoes, Sabota Larks, African Pipits (7), Groundscraper Thrushes (9), Bar-throated Apalises, Black-backed Puffbacks and Brubrus.
A little later we found the very fresh spoor of a female leopard being tracked by a spotted hyena. We followed them onto the Msunduzi riverbed where they crossed and disappeared into the koppies. Our Land Rover churned away in the deep sand of the riverbed as we headed for a bend, where giant sycamore fig trees provided the perfect shade for a coffee break, the brew smartly brought to the boil on a small gas stove.
Trumpeter Hornbills, African Green Pigeons and Crowned Hornbills flew to and fro between the trees as Black Saw-wings and Wire-tailed Swallows(5) flew low along the bends of the river. On the cliffs above us, a pair of Rock Kestrels screeched loudly and I looked up in time to see a Peregrine Falcon swoop along the crest of the cliffs. A Wahlberg’s Eagle pair appeared over the cliff-tops just as the falcon disappeared, and added to our growing raptor checklist.
We left the riverbed via a steep track with dense bush on either side, and rounded a corner to find a sub-adult black rhino. He scent-marked by rubbing against a bush before lazily browsing on the outer branches of a tamboti tree, where the fresh green shoots were juiciest. He allowed us to watch him for a couple of minutes before giving us a harsh snort and disappearing. Without doubt this magnificent sight was the highlight of the trip, and reminded me of why the Zululand bushveld is so special.