Saturday, November 5, 2016

South Africa part 3: Krueger NP to Durbin

We began the third and final tour segment, our 7-day tour extension, with a before light departure from Johannesburg. The extension would take us through a wide array of habitats: forest, grassland, wetland, bushveld, mountains, estuarine, coastline and open ocean. This would include a chance to add up to sixty-three South Africa endemic or near-endemic species.

extension route
Our target destination for the first night, the UMkhuze (also spelled Mkhuze or Mkuze) Game Reserve, was a 6-hour plus drive away. Our early departure from JoBurg was early enough to avoid traffic congestion plus take advantage of any remaining daylight once we arrived at the reserve.
Out of the urban setting, the landscape was dominated by extensive croplands which eventually gave way to grassland before opening onto wooded savanna. Our route skirted the southern border of the tiny landlocked Kingdom of Swaziland. It was near this section of the route where we crossed into a new province,  Kwazulu-Natal. The province is the third smallest of South Africa’s nine provinces and has the second largest provincial population. Roughly the size of Portugal, the principal language is isiZulu, followed by English, then Afrikaans.
Unlike the previous two landlocked provinces, Kwazulu-Natal has an extensive subtropical coastline. From a birding perspective, the province is divided into two main birding routes, the Southern KwaZulu-Natal Birding Route and the Zululand Birding Route, each with their own sub-routes. It would take weeks to hit all the places listed in each route so we aimed for just the highlights.

Mantuma Camp
The UMkhuze Game Reserve is named after the UMkhuze River that runs along its northern border. UMkhuze is the Zulu name for lavender tree. Proclaimed a game reserve in 1912, it’s located in the northwestern spur of the Unesco World Heritage sanctioned iSimangaliso Wetland Park (previously known as the St. Lucia Wetlands Park). Habitats include pans, swamps, acacia thornveld, sand forest, riverine forest and open woodland. Mid-afternoon we turned onto a 35km gravel road that narrowed as it lead eastward from the N2 highway through the foothills of the Lebombo Mountains and through the park’s eMshophi entrance gate.

the non-tenting crowd's chalet digs
Checking into the Mantuma Rest Camp, we made straight for the rest camp’s reception building where the park’s central office and gift shop were located. Our accommodation was to be in a 6-bed (3-bedroom) “hutted camp” chalet, fully equipped with cable TV, ceiling fans, linen, towels, crockery, cutlery, stove, microwave, refrigerator and cooking utensils. In anticipation of doing our own meal preparation, we had picked up enough food to fix our evening meal plus the next day’s breakfast.
However, arriving at the chalet to drop off our luggage, we quickly realized that the bedroom arrangement wasn’t going to work given the gender makeup of our group. Returning to the office, Andrew and Lisle discovered that park staff had mistakenly put us in a 2-bedroom chalet because the 6-bed chalet had been double-booked and was already occupied. The solution was to split the group with two couples (Carol/Tom and Chris/Dean) and a single (Harold) spending the night in nearby raised “tented camp” structures. Tents held two single beds with mosquito netting, an en-suite shower/toilet, portable fan, towels and linen. Pretty upscale compared to tent camping we had all experienced in the United States.

hide visitors - fortunately there was water
With our sleeping arrangements sorted and our luggage dropped off, we had enough daylight left to drive to the Masinga Hide. Safely parked, we walked through a long winding narrow wood-fenced enclosed walkway to a large roofed hide on stilts overlooking a watering hole. The proximity of the hide had us extremely close to the wildlife which also meant we needed to be very, very quiet.

not waiting for night, the lion sleeps today
On our drive back to our lodgings we got word of a pair of lions lounging in the afternoon heat and made our way to their location. Birds added during our drive to UMkhuze as well as in the preserve included Storks (African Openbill, Wooly-necked), Pink-backed Pelican, Collared Pratincole, Red-chested Cuckoo, Square-tailed Drongo, Flycathers (Pale, Ashy,GrayTit-, Bearded Scrub-Robin), and Sunbirds (Neergaard’s, Purple-banded).

those of who tented were a bit more communing with nature
It was well past dark by the time those of us who were in tents were dropped off. Mind you, the tent canvas was quite stout in so much as smaller animals would be challenged to gain entry. But large animals? With claws? Well, it made for an interesting night what with all manner of night noises. We did step outside to investigate with flashlights but we’d been warned not to walk too far in the dark. We didn’t linger. The rest camp was not fenced like other reserved we'd visited.

part of the walk included an aerial catwalk (well, people walk)
Following breakfast at the chalet we gathered back at the reception/office building to meet our walking safari guide, ranger Bhekizenzo Patrick Mathe. We loaded into his open air vehicle for a drive via the Loop Road through open thornveld acacia savannah to the Fig Forest.
Patrick has been guiding in the area for over 30 years. As we walked he informed us of the names of vegetation and their uses, the history of the area and of course any wildlife we encountered. Mostly birds but he also pointed out tracks and evidence of large animal activity. Although we did not come across any large animals other than an injured hippo, Patrick told us that in the 30 years he had been guiding, he has had to put down just one animal. A young bull elephant that would not be dissuaded from charging. Telling the story one could easily sense that even that one instance of shooting an animal had deeply pained Patrick.

fever tree (botanical not musical)
In addition to the fig trees, there was an expansive canopy of hundreds year old sycamore trees. Along the uMkhuze River river bottom Patrick pointed out the “fever” trees (Vachellia xanthophloea). He explained that the smooth tree bark produces a yellow powdery substance and told of how early travelers and settlers attracted to the river believed that the yellow dust falling from the bark caused people to grow sick and die. Thus the yellow sycamore trees acquired the dubious name of “fever tree”. Of course years later it was determined that the dust was benign. The trees grew close to water, water which is an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes. Mosquitoes in turn carry malaria. The tree wound up with a bad wrap, even after the true nature of the problem was found out.
Near the end of our circular walk, a newly built aerial boardwalk lead to a sub-canopy level which made for some excellent bird viewing opportunities.

checking for hippos
On our drive back to camp, Patrick stopped at a large natural lake, Nsumo Pan (pan means lake). He cautioned us from venturing too close to the water’s edge. Was the danger Nile crocodiles? Perhaps. But his bigger concern was being attacked by hippos. Hippos, it turns out, are the number one cause of large animal attacks and death in Africa. Who knew that those lovely pink tutu dancing hippos in Disney’s Fantasia could be so deadly.
Once again we were back at the reception center for snacks and some last minute souvenir shopping. Carol was smitten with a display table covering. She inquired if the cloth might be for sale and if so, how much? Might the young woman behind the counter summon her supervisor to inquire? The women behind the counter looked a little worried as she left to beckon her supervisor. The supervisor appeared with a somewhat serious look, worried something was amiss.  Once Carol explained what she wanted, the supervisor's face broke into a broad grin (much to the relief of the younger woman). It wasn’t a table cloth at all! It just some old curtain from one of the chalets. Undeterred, Carol thought it would make an ideal table cloth and persisted. “How much?”, she asked. The supervisor then broke into a laugh and said Carol could have it for nothing but that the cloth was dirty; that she would check if there wasn’t another laundered curtain available. In the end, one was found. Carol scored what will make an excellent table cloth some day when we again have a house.

route from UMkuzke to St. Lucia to Eshow
Needing to be on the road, we retrieved our luggage and departed uMkhuze so that by late morning we were headed to the coast where for the next two days we would bird a number of Zululand Birding Route spots, splitting our overnights between two locations: the towns of St. Lucia and Eshowe.
Birds added during our brief stay at uMkhuze plus our drive to St. Lucia: Crested Guineafowl, Purple-crested Turaco, Broad-billed Roller, Woolly-necked stork, African openbill, Pink-backed pelican, Collared Pratincole, Square-tailed Drongo, White-eared Barbet, Tinkerbird (Yellow-rumped, Red-fronted), Sundbirds (Neergaard’s, Purple-banded, Collared), Red-chested Cucukoo (heard only), and flycatchers (Pale, Ashy, Gray Tit-, Bearded Scrub-Robin, White-throated Robin-Chat, Red-capped Robin-Chat), Violet-backed Starling, Mosque Swallow, Rudd’s Apalis, Weaver (African Golden-, Southern Brown-throated, Forest), Black Cuckooshrike, Four-colored Bushshrike, Greater Honeyguide, and Nightjar (Fiery-necked, Swamp).
The village of St. Lucia is entirely surrounded by the iSmangaliso Wetland Park, an intricate mix of lakes and lagoons, pans, marshland, swamps, sandy forests, palm veld, grasslands, and beaches. The centerpiece to this huge conservation area is Lake St. Lucia, a shallow estuarine home to crocodiles and hippos. The latter are so common in the area that road signs in St. Lucia warn visitors not to wander around the town at night due to the aggressiveness of the hippos.

a step up from our tent the night before
Our accommodation in St. Lucia was the Seasands Lodge and Conference Center. After our tent experience, our large, spacious room with a balcony was most welcome (even if the air conditioner was wonky). The lodge, right on the Indian Ocean making for warm and humid conditions. Unfortunately the ceiling fan was located some distance from the bed so sleeping was not unlike being in the tent after all. A curious electrical device atop a chest of drawers had a label that cautioned not to unplug it as it was used to repel bats. We like bats so why would we want to repel them? There was also a sign in the bathroom cautioning us to keep the windows closed to deter bushbabies from entering.

must have worked - we saw no bats

This was one of those lodges that again required everyone’s passports. Whenever this happened, check-in always took quite a while. But once settled and with plenty of daylight left, we ventured out to bird some of the close-in spots including Cape Vidal, a city wetlands along the shoreline of Lake St. Lucia, and the Igwala Gwala Forest Trail. Our evening meal? A local surf and turf place with some great local brews.
Next morning we birded part of the hotel grounds then indulged ourselves with a leisurely morning breakfast in the lodge hotel while Vervet monkey’s waited (not so patiently) for an opportunity to enter through a set of open veranda doors and raid nearby tables. The fresh REAL brewed coffee and breakfast buffet were first rate!

interesting shower concept
Birding our way down the coast past Richard’s Bay and the Thuazihleka pans and lagoons, we arrived at the inland town of Eshowe. Here we checked into what was in our estimation, the best accommodations of the entire trip, the Birds of Paradise B and B. Fine percale linen, fluffy towels and luxury amenities in the bathrooms. At one point we mentioned to our guides that they could just leave us here indefinitely.
But birding was our goal and our main stop in Eshowe was the Dhlinza Forest. Established in 1947, this 250-hectare forest is crisscrossed with walking trails and a 10-metre high aerial boardwalk. As it was late in the afternoon, chances of seeing one of our target birds, the Eastern Bronze-naped pigeon were slim (indeed we whiffed on seeing any). But late afternoon was the best time for finding the highly secretive Spotted Ground Thrush. Alas, we whiffed on this target as well. But we did have up close and personal run-ins with Blue Duiker. This duiker, at about 15-inches tall, is the smallest of the duiker species. It’s an antelope with large hindquarters, a stocky body, and short, slender legs. The name “duiker” comes from the Afrikaans word meaning “diver”. Not for their prowess in water but rather their ability to quickly dive for cover in thick underbrush.

Blue Duiker
Our drive from St. Lucia to Eshowe and our late afternoon birding had netted us: Tambourine Dove, Livingston’s Turaco, Yellowbill (a cuckoo), Crowned Hornbill, Little Bee-eater (finally!), Woodward’s Batis, Eastern Nicator, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, African Yellow White-eye, Croaking Cisticola, Brown Scrub-Robin, Plain-backed Pipit, and Green-backed Twinspot.

waiting for THE pigeon
Following an early breakfast at the lodge, we returned to the forest try for Eastern Bronze-naped pigeons. Best seen, they say, as they fly from their night roost sites. Sitting atop a boardwalk tower we didn’t see any fly, however, we eventually heard, then saw, our target some distance away via scope views. Whew! The rest of the day was spent birding other local hot spots and adding African Goshawk, Delegorgue’s pigeon, African Emerald Cuckoo, African Pygmy-Kingflisher, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Winding Cisticola, Eastern Olive Sunbird, and Yellow-throated Longclaw.
With a bit of daylight left, we returned for a third time to the Dhlinza Forest for a last ditch effort to find for Spotted Ground Thrush. We trekked back and forth through the woods but daylight was on the verge of winking out (along with our hopes), we came upon not one but two skulking and preening in the understory practically at our feet! A double whew! Back for our last night at the luxurious Birds of Paradise, we paused for a very happy happy hour, the daily bird checklist, and a scrumptious meal before retiring.

Spotted Ground Thrush
Another early morning start put us heading back to the coast with a stop at the Umlalazi Nature Reserve for one of the rarest South Africa birds of prey, the Palmut Vulture. Unfortunately in spite of our best efforts, no vulture for us today. You can’t get them all.
After a few stops along the coast then we headed inland again. We skirted through Durban then hooked up with the Sani Road to reach our overnight destination. Between the town Himeville and Underberg, is where we found the Tumble In. Alnog the way we encountered several more bird species along the way, with one addition of note: Wattled Crane. We now had experienced all three crane species we had expected to see. Albeit, it was a rather distant look but better than none at all!

clean and functional - what more could one want?
The Tumble In looked like it might have been built in the 1950’s. Spartan, especially when compared to our last overnight. However, it put us in close proximity for our final full day of birding on the extension: the much anticipated Sani Pass that would literally take us to new heights. Our evening meal was at a local restaurant since the Tumble In is only for tumbling in, not eating.
Another early morning rendezvous in the lodge's parking lot found us linking up with local guides/drivers for our jaunt up the Sani Pass. Stuart McLean (, and a native Zulu guide/driver (who’s name escapes us). Forgoing our roomy two-wheel drive vans, we crowded into two four-wheel drive vehicles. Although two-wheel drive vehicles are permitted up to the lower border control post at the Lesotho border, only four wheel-drive is permitted to the top of the pass. And the top of the pass is where we wanted to be to find a handful of endemics. The weather at the top can be unpredictable but fortunately for us, the weather for our all day excursion wound up being clear skies all the way.

headed toward the escarpment
Our ascent passed through five distinct habitats: Lower wetlands and grasslands (Dieu Donne Dam), the beginning of the Drankensburg Escarpment foothills, the central pass (S.A.Border control post at Polela), a series of upper switchbacks (hence the need for four-wheel drive), and the Lesotho Plateau.
We passed through Mkomazana River scrub then through the Protea belt with sandstone boulders. From there we wound through sub-alpine grasslands dotted with basalt scree before entering highlands habitat consisting of small shrubs, gravel beds and a distinct lack of trees which reminded us of the landscape back in the Karoo.

our idea of what a really good box lunch should be
Part way up Pass Road we stopped for a roadside breakfast prepared by Stuart’s wife. Fresh fruit, a couple of quiches, juices, pastries, and of course hot coffee and tea. And we certainly enjoyed the scenery.

birders without borders
Crossing the border checkpoint simply involved giving our passports to our guides who dealt with immigration/customs. Once on the other side we continued past workers hard at work building a new paved highway, a major bone of contention with the locals who depend upon attracting business that relies upon using  their four-wheel drive vehicles to the escarpment. Their concern (and rightly so) is that the new paved road will disrupt wildlife (including many endemic birds) as well as impacting the seasonal arrival of goat and sheep herders. Plus, it will open the road up to a huge influx of tourists who care little about the environment.

toasting the high life - literally
By the end of early afternoon we had added Lammergeir, Drackensberg Rockjumper (a Rockjumper slam), Gray Tit, Barratt’s Warbler, Bush Blackcap, Gurney’s Sugarbird (a Sugarbird slam), Sentinel Rock Thrush, Buff-streaked Bushchat, Mountain Pipit (yes, another slog through short grass habitat looking for a nondescript bird), Drakensberg Siskin, and Africa Firefinch. To celebrate, we stopped for local brews at the Sani Mountain Lodge and what is billed as the “highest pub in Africa”, serenaded by a few locals playing indigenous instruments.  There was also a small gift shop filled with local artisan crafts. Never pass up a chance to shop, or so they say.

shopping and a concert
On our trip back down the escarpment we enjoyed a lengthy discussion with our driver as we learned about local marriage customs. He and his girlfriend were living together in an urban setting, away from the traditional Zulu farm communal.  Not wedded, both have taken a lot of heat from their respective families who aspire to ‘traditional’ Zulu marital customs including arranged marriages. They would like to be married but to do so would require the young man to pay his future father-in-law a dowry of several head of cattle of the father-in-law’s choosing. The number of cattle is based on the ‘worth’ of the daughter and since the daughter has a college education, her worth is quite a bit. The young man figured he would have to work over twenty years to pay off such a debt (we recall it being in the neighborhood of 18 head) and to be in such debt would further cause great hardship on he and his girlfriend's ability to raise a family outside the communal farm setting.
Added into the mix, the couple have two children and because the couple is unmarried, in the eyes of their families, they are living in sin. The girlfriend has been banned from family gatherings at the young man’s parent's village. Yet, both sets of parents are eager to have the grandchildren visit. This cultural dichotomy of old and new has had a devastating effect on young Zulus in South Africa. Peer pressure is so high that the suicide rate for young men in similar situations is alarming.
We arrived back at the Tumble In, bid our drivers adieu, and made ready for an evening meal in Underber.
Alas, all good things must come to an end. Our flights back to the U.S. were out of Durban the following afternoon. Our trip up Sani Pass was our last full day of birding. But while our travel day from Underberg to Durban meant a lot of van time, we still squeezed in a few stops (which also meant a very early departure from Underberg).
First up was the Xumeni Forest. The good news was that we arrived early before the mists cleared (which was our goal). The bad news was that because of the mist and wet conditions, it made birding a bit more challenging. However, our main target birds, the Cape Parrot (recently split from the Brown-necked Parrot) was vocalizing and seen, and we also managed to add Orange Ground Thrush. A stop at the Midlands Grassland didn’t produce anything new and before we knew it, we were back in the hustle and bustle of Durban traffic.

weaver artisans
All our flights were late afternoon which still left a little time for a bit of local Durban birding. We checked out a section of the Umgeni River for shorebirds then walked the boardwalk at Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve, located near the airport, where we found several Grosbeak Weavers (so aptly named) building nests.

nice send-off for long flights home
Early afternoon, with the rental vans turned in, we gathered for a late lunch (Carol’s first real martini) before heading through airport security to await our long flights home. Our path took us from Durban to Johannesburg, then a long flight to Atlanta, followed by a lengthy layover, before we boarded our connection from Atlanta to Appleton.
During our 16+ hour flight (JoBurg to Atlanta), when we weren't watching an endless string of in-flight movies, we tallied some of the bird data. The trip tally: we saw/heard over 494 species of birds. Not everyone saw every bird - no one person ever does on a tour - but in our case we saw/heard 480 species. Of the 480, 457 were life birds plus we added a number of new bird families. Of course birds were not the only wildlife to be observed. We saw nearly 60 species of mammals including Africa’s “Big Five” (African Lion, African Leopard, African Elephant, Hippopotamus, Cape Buffalo). The scenery, culture, food and wildlife all combined to make this a trip of a lifetime. But then so many of our trips are trips of a life time! Next on our radar is Columbia, in March of 2016.

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