State-of-the-art bird hides in this private, northern Zululand reserve make it a paradise for wildlife lovers and photographers. Peter Chadwick finds the best Zimanga has to offer…
Words and Pictures: Peter Chadwick, www.peterchadwick.co.za
Out of the darkness, the leopardess appeared into the filtered glow of the spotlight and moved through the long dry grass without a sound. She paused briefly and looked back before climbing over the jumble of boulders that covered the hillside. Eventually she stopped at the entrance to a small cave, where she coughed a greeting and then flopped onto her side, exposing her white belly. Another cough called two tiny balls of fluff that appeared on unsure paws, to suckle.
From our Land Cruiser 75 metres away, Charl Senekal and I broke into broad grins. We could barely breathe from the excitement. This was the first time these two cubs, just a few weeks old, had been seen by anyone. It was a tremendous find. It was also quite the ending to a magnificent afternoon bird watching and game viewing at the Zimanga Private Game Reserve near Mkhuze, in the heart of the Zululand bushveld.
We decided not to overstay our welcome and left the leopards, heading back along a twisting network of roads to the entrance of the reserve. En route, sightings of two separate pairs of porcupines and a large herd of Cape buffalo slowed our arrival and gave Charl, the owner of the reserve, a chance to tell me more about his dreams for Zimanga.
“My family wants to use the 6 000 hectares here to ensure that Zimanga is Africa’s first and foremost game park, focusing primarily on photographers. It’s still in its early years of development, but there are plans to increase the size of the reserve and build a small lodge. For now, though, our main focus is on developing a network of photographic hides that give visitors the perfect chance to get superb photographs of all the bird and animal species.”
Charl explained that two bird photography hides were already in place, and that the construction of the lagoon hide was almost complete. In addition, a vulture-viewing hide and a large mammal-viewing hide were being considered.
“We also have one of the largest private collection of aloes in the world, and when these have been in full bloom during winter, more than 100 species of birds have been recorded in the garden in a single day. Amazing bird photography opportunities are to be found.”
I’d arrived at Zimanga earlier that afternoon, and had the privilege of testing the Bhejane bird hide, where I photographed 14 bird species in an hour and a half. What’s more, I could see that the hides had been very carefully designed, giving me the chance to photograph birds at eye-level, with beautiful, clear backgrounds and crisp light. Blue Waxbills (9 on checklist), Emerald-spotted Wood Doves, Speckled Mousebirds, Crested Guineafowls (8), Yellow Weavers, Yellow-fronted Canaries and Black-eyed Bulbuls were just a few of the species I photographed. And we heard the Pink-throated Twinspots but they didn’t show themselves at the water’s edge. But what really made my experience in the hide was that both Charl and Brendon Jennings, the main guide on Zimanga, are excellent photographers and humorous hosts, and provided non-stop photographic tips while telling wonderful stories of their adventures in the bush.
Near sunset we left the hide and Brendon drove us to the edge of a large dam for snacks and a cold ale. Against a pink backdrop we tucked in as we watched flocks of African Sacred Ibis (4), African Openbills and Yellow-billed Storks while the hippos grunted and the African Fish Eagles called. This, indeed, was Africa at her best.
The following morning I was ready for the game drive well before dawn and a little later met Brendon in the garden, where White-bellied-, Scarlet-chested- and Collared Sunbirds had already found nectar. Black-collared Barbets (6) and Black-headed Orioles (10) called loudly, easily spotted with their respective red and yellow coloration against the greenery. Somewhere in the distance, a woodpecker tapped against a dead branch, and a Grey-headed Shrike and Brown-hooded Kingfisher called as the sun rose.
“Let’s head out and look for the wild dogs,” Brendon suggested, and off we set to the far reaches of the reserve in search of Zimanga’s resident pack. We drove first through open grassland, where Red-crested Korhaans (5) froze as we passed, before entering a river course with towering fever trees, their flat-topped canopies shading out the pale sky.
As we rounded a bend, a huge old elephant bull casually fed on the bark of a fever tree it had pushed over. We cut the engine and were sitting watching him, enjoying the peace, when a pack of wild dogs ran right past us. We couldn’t believe our luck. “They’re looking for breakfast,” said Brendon, as we set off in hot pursuit and, for the next two hours, I revelled in one of my best sightings of these rare animals.
Behind them we bounced along in the Land Cruiser and followed them on the hunt, watching their unsuccessful attempts to catch nyala and impala. They even led us to a female cheetah resting on a termite mound and she immediately leapt up on the alert as they passed.
By mid-morning they were tired and settled down to rest under a flat-crowned acacia, and soon a party of birds sat scolding them from the safety of the trees. Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills led the reprimanding throng of Rattling Cisticolas, Bar-throated Apalises, Tawny-flanked Prinias and White-browed Scrub Robins, but this did not deter the dogs from their long snooze. But despite this extraordinary experience, it was my time at Mkhombe hide on Zimanga that was the most memorable. It has been specially built to get the most of the morning light and is set among beautiful woodland. It also promises very different birds to those seen at the Bhejane hide.
“Here come the Spectacled Weavers (3),” a pair that splashed about before they left the water to allow a turn to Red-billed Oxpeckers (2), Red-billed Queleas (1), Cape Glossy Starlings (7) and a Crested Barbet. Between these, flocks of Cape Turtle Doves, Emerald-spotted Wood Doves, Blue Waxbills and Dark-capped Bulbuls came and went.
Suddenly, all the birds scattered, the reason becoming clear when a vervet monkey popped his head over the rim and drank deeply, all the while staring intently at where we were hidden behind one-way glass. As if this was not exciting enough, a troop of banded mongoose arrived only to be chased away after a ten-minute drinking session by a large male warthog. By now I was hooked, already making plans to return to what can only be described as a photographer’s paradise.
Season and Weather
Summer months are extremely hot and humid and afternoon thundershowers can be expected. Note that this is a malaria area. Winter is more pleasant with cool temperatures and stable weather.
Habitats in the reserve range from hilly slopes to broad stretches of gently rolling acacia savannah and a variety of woodlands and riverine forests. The Mkhuze River transects the reserve, adding to the diversity of habitats.
- Crested Guineafowl
- Eastern Nicator
- Violet-backed Starling
- Pink-throated Twinspot
- Long-tailed Paradise Whydah
Birding Checklist: 10 specials to try and spot in Zimanga Private Game Reserve
The Red-billed Quelea (Rooibekkwelea) is sometimes found in flocks of hundreds of thousands of birds that can incur serious crop damage. These flocks fly in densely packed synchronised flight that looks like smoke.
The Red-Billed Oxpecker (Rooibekrenostervoël) is adapted to grooming large mammals and removing ectoparasites to feed on the blood. Its flattened bill scissors through fur, and its long stiff tail and short legs and strong feet aid in grasping on to the animal.
Wading in the shallows or probing in grassland for food, the African Sacred Ibis (Skoorsteenveër) has diverse food sources that include frogs, fish, insects and other small animals. It also scavenges and in recent years has taken to feeding on rubbish dumps in large towns and cities.
Easily overlooked because of its camouflaged colouring, the Red-crested Korhaan (Boskorhaan) walks with exaggerated, sinuous neck movements and cautious small steps. When danger approaches, it may crouch down to avoid detection.
The Black-collared Barbet (Rooikophoutkapper) is part of a family that comprises about 75 species found across the tropics, ten of which are found in Africa. It is a highly vocal species that sings in a duet that starts with a buzzing sound.
The Cape Glossy Starling (Kleinglansspreeu) is a gregarious species except when breeding. The nest is a pad of grass and other soft material that is placed in the natural hole of a tree. The usual clutch is 3-4 pale-blue eggs and the nestlings take 19-20 days to fledge.
The Crested Guineafowl (Kuifkoptarentaal) is a highly gregarious species occurring in flocks of 10-30 birds that break up into pairs during the breeding season. It follows troops of monkeys to feed on fallen fruit.
The face, throat, breast and flanks of the male Blue Waxbill (Blousysie) are sky blue while the female is much paler. They forage on seeds and small insects on the ground and, when disturbed, fly to the nearest bush for cover.
Accommodation & Activities
Accommodation is best taken at the Ghost Mountain Inn on the edge of Mkhuze town a few kilometres from the reserve. Morning and afternoon game drives take place with the option of booking either the Mkhombe or Bhejane hides for bird photography.
Zimanga is a three-hour drive along excellent roads from Durban. Driving from Johannesburg or Pretoria to Mkhuze takes a little longer but is the same distance as to Skukuza in the Kruger National Park.
Add more of our birding checklists to your own as you travel the countryside.