This story was updated on 12 February 2019.
Writer Fiona McIntosh and photographer Shaen Adey pack their binoculars, lace up their boots, and take the Kudu’s River Valley Trail in Limpopo.
“He’s going up. Focus on the movement,” instructs Paul Nkhumane, pointing to a high branch in the canopy. We crane our necks and follow the line of his finger, finally spotting a little bird in a red stinkwood. The Black-fronted Bushshrike our eagle-eyed guide has spotted is a near-endemic, found only here in Woodbush Forest Reserve, and in Zimbabwe.
That morning, after waking to the dawn chorus in our gorgeous forest cabin at Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge, we head out on the Kudu’s River Valley Slackpacking Trail, near Magoebaskloof.
Although the path is clearly marked, we are already convinced that enlisting the services of our passionate local guide is a wise decision; the beauty of this hike is the number of habitats it passes through, each with a different array of flora, birds and animals. Paul, a birding specialist with a wonderful sense of humour, is worth his weight in gold.
Before we set out, Lisa Martus, owner of Kurisa Moya, outlined our route options and what we might experience as we climbed through her property. “Initially you’ll be following our Umsenge Forest Walk through Afromontane forest. One of the most endangered habitats in the country, it’s alive with animals, birds and butterflies. When you pop out of the forest you’ll follow the trail up to Thora Boloka, our secluded mountain cottage overlooking the Kudu’s Valley. There you’ll get a sneak preview of what lies ahead once at Graceland Eco Retreat, where you’ll spend tonight. See you tomorrow. I’m sure Paul will find you some unusual forest birds.” Paul needed no further bidding.
On the trail, we barely walk 20 metres when he raises his hand. “Hear that? It’s the Sombre Greenbul. You’ll hear him a lot, calling in this forest, ‘Willie, come out and fight, you coward’.” He laughs, matching the intonation and pitch of the Greenbul.
Our journey continues, with Paul alerting us to the calls of a number of forest specials including the Grey Cuckooshrike, Green Twinspot, Cape Batis and, one I actually recognise, the ‘Piet-my-vrou’ call of the Red-chested Cuckoo. Paul offers a different interpretation. “I hear ‘it’s six o’clock’. It’s like an alarm. When it’s time to plough the fields for mealies the cuckoo calls at dawn, calling and calling until you get up.”
As we slowly move on, Paul stops. “Listen,” he says. “Can you hear the tapping of the Olive Woodpecker? Yes, there’s the Square-tailed Drongo. I thought we’d see him. He likes to follow the woodpecker and eat the escaping insects.”
But it’s not just the birds that we’re being introduced to. Our guided tour includes spontaneous lessons on the wildlife, trees and other flora and even the history of this corner of Woodbush Forest. The second biggest indigenous forest in the country (after Knysna Forest), its lushness and diversity of creatures is quite a contrast to the windswept, nutrient-poor fynbos vegetation of my home in Cape Town.
Something is crashing around in the trees ahead. As we approach we catch a glimpse of samango monkeys, clearly attracted to the fruit of the wild pear.
“Feel the trunk of this Cape plane tree,” Paul suggests. “Cool, isn’t it? The temperature of the trunk is the same temperature as the roots. Traditionally, only kings and chiefs could make walking sticks from its wood. King Makgoba, from whom the Magoebaskloof area takes its name, had one.”
Our progress continues at snail’s pace; the distractions are many. We pass a sawpit, a magnificent cabbage tree (Cussonia spicata) that is one of South Africa’s Champion Trees and estimated to be 2 000 years old, a huge fig with an elaborate root system, and wonderful towering indigenous trees that include two types of yellowwood. As the sawpit suggests, these forests have been heavily exploited in the past; the flooring in Pretoria’s Union Buildings is made from Outeniqua yellowwoods of this area.
We emerge from the trees to find ourselves in mountain bushveld populated by numerous butterflies. The Kudu’s Valley that stretches out below us looks hostile, but pristine.
The path takes us up a koppie then down a firebreak and into Graceland, where we’re met by one of the owners, Anders Ragnarsson, and his able assistant, Beruel Makgoba. A charming young man, Beruel is excited. Having helped cut firebreaks and develop the trails on the property he is keen to learn more from Paul about the bird life and the natural environment.
Even my untrained ear recognises that the bird calls here are different. Paul identifies those of a Black-headed Oriole and a Greater Double-collared Sunbird and points out the Gorgeous Bush Shrike, a bushveld special. “We’ll find it in the book later,” he says with a laugh, when I admit that my eyes aren’t good enough to appreciate how gorgeous this shrike really is.
He’s equally enthusiastic about the trees, which pleases Shaen, who’s a keen wood turner. They prattle on about the qualities of wild olive, ironwood and stinkwood. As usual, Paul has stories to tell. “The local people call this weeping wattle the ‘toilet paper’ tree.”
He grins and holds out the leaves. “And look over there. Can you see the little Amethyst Sunbird in the tree with the bright red flowers? It’s a coral tree. The sunbirds extract nectar from it with their long beaks.”
While Kurisa Moya is all about the forest, Graceland is about the views. Anders and his partner Douglas Walker bought the property at the end of 2014. “We were looking for somewhere to retire to,” Anders tells me. “Douglas wanted to live in the bush but I need to see the horizon to breathe. In Graceland we found both.”
They renovated and extended the old cottages into elegant, self-catering chalets but kept the cottage feel with thatched roofs and cosy fireplaces. “Everything is custom-made,” Anders says, ‘much of it by Beruel and me.”
Like Kurisa Moya, Graceland is off the grid, but with enough solar capacity to offer the facilities of a ‘normal’ house.
“We’re independent, but haven’t forfeited comfort,” says Anders. With its vine-covered pergola and extensive decks, the lodge is designed to maximise the views and appreciation of the valley. And it’s beautifully decorated with sculptures and artworks, many of them local. Douglas is an artist, and their aim is to make Graceland an organic and environmental state-of-the-art retreat.
“She’s special, the Kudu’s Valley,” Anders tells me as he nonchalantly points out a Jackal Buzzard soaring overhead. Sitting with my tea and admiring the far-reaching views, dramatic cliffs, acacias and aloes, I feel privileged; the lodge is the only gateway to this rugged valley.
After a quick dip in the plunge pool we hop in the bakkie and hit the road for sundowners at the viewpoint. As we approach it we spot three kudu cows metres from the jeep track. One jumps in front of the vehicle, then poses beautifully at the roadside, walking away tantalisingly just as we have her in our camera sights.
Back at the lodge, Anders prepares dinner. His big outdoor kitchen with a braai and pizza oven is testament to his love of cooking. So is the gourmet meal of spicy gazpacho, salmon and butterfish parcels, and spinach tartlet that he knocks up. “We often let hikers make their own pizza,” he says. “If you stay on we’ll have a pizza tapas evening.”
I’ve scored the master bedroom so enjoy the 180-degree view down the valley from my bed at daybreak. After breakfast we walk to The Lookout, and continue along the Kudu Trail as it meanders through the property. The bush is dry, but for much of the year the farm usually is green, with bubbling streams and waterfalls. As we leave Graceland andwalk along the firebreak on the boundary, the kudus reappear, this time accompanied by a bull with magnificent horns. It’s magical to see them walking parallel to us on the other side of the fence.
Paul is leading us again. The chance to learn about the bush from this wonderfully knowledgeable and passionate young man is too good to pass up. We follow a different route back to Kurisa Moya and take the path that leads down to the dam. As we sit on a bench, a Black-headed Heron flies into a weeping wattle while Reed Cormorants sit on the bank drying their wings. “Kurisa Moya means tranquil spirit,” Paul says, allowing us time to enjoy the peaceful scene.
We have a choice of route to complete the circle back to the lodge. Both the Magical History Tour and the River Ramble sound interesting and we opt for the latter and weave our way through riverine forest, discovering more birds, fungi and other treasures.
On our final night at Kurisa Moya we pore over the bird book with Lisa, revel in her delight at our lucky sightings, and plan our return. There’s just so much more to explore in this special valley.
- Up to it? This versatile two-day, three-night trail can be tailored to the interests and fitness levels of the group. Serious hikers can extend the trail, while walkers can choose a hiking, nature, birding, history or cultural focus so it’s well suited to families and the not-so-fit. Well-behaved dogs are welcome at Kurisa Moya, and, provided that they are kept on leads (so as not to chase the game), at Graceland.
- When to go: Winter brings mild days and evenings that are cold enough for cosy log fires. Summer is lush and lovely. The migrants arrive in August so birding is best between August and December, but bird parties (when food is scarce so birds congregate around berries, fruits or insect clusters) occur in winter, which makes the birds easier to spot.
- Trail options: It can be catered (which I’d recommend and Kurisa Moya also offer the option of a fire-cooked traditional meal in the village) or self-catered.
- Extending your stay: Both Kurisa Moya and Graceland are wonderful destinations to rest and recharge your batteries. So factor in a few extra days and stay on after the hike. In fact, if you’re a walker or birder, make that a week as there’s lots of other hiking and bird watching to be done in the Woodbush Forest.
- Kurisa Moya: +27 (0) 71 658 6980; +27 (0) 82 200 4596; [email protected]
- Graceland Eco Retreat: +27 (0) 83 277 5553; [email protected]
Photography Shaen Adey and Deon Pienaar