Christmas in Zululand – Part 2

Mkuze and Bonamanzi


22nd to 28th December 2019

The journey from Ndumo to Mkuze took a couple of hours. We arrived early and set up camp by 09h30. My sister and family had arrived the day before and were out on a drive when we arrived. When they got back we were enjoying breakfast – bacon and eggs – much to their surprise.

Christmas Decor

Mkuze had some good rains about two weeks before we arrived so everything was lush and green and Nsumo Pan full – and the animals well dispersed – in particular the Big Five. Funnily enough the birds were also well dispersed so our tally of birds identified was small at 144 for the time we were there.

Most days were very hot so it was always nice to be out in an air-conditioned car. Having power in the campsite for only 8 hours a day also tested our batteries trying to keep the freezer working – despite our solar panel.

Surprisingly the huts, chalets and Tented Camp were nowhere near full. The thatching had all been replaced on the huts, chalets and reception and they were looking in good condition from the outside.

The campsite had about a dozen sites occupied – not bad by comparison with past visits. Like on previous visits water was a problem. Two of our six days we went without and had to use the Hutted Camp facilities. A bit disappointing considering it was peak period.

The cost per campsite per night for up to three people was R360. No reduction in price if you are only a couple. This is obviously a way to unjustifiably and unfairly increase prices. And given that the facilities are run down is pure cheek. The bathrooms are in a shocking state of disrepair.

OK, enough of the gripe.

Our time was spent driving all round the Reserve visiting all the hides a number of times as well as the picnic site on Nsumo Pan. The Fig Forest walk was available on certain days when the guide was working. However none of the days suited us.

One of the first things we noticed was the numbers of White-winged Widowbirds and Long-tailed Paradise-Whydahs in full plumage. Perhaps in the past they were also plentiful but in non-breeding plumage, making positive identification difficult or overlooked.

Red-billed Queleas were everywhere doing their thing. However we noticed some building nests which is something we had not noticed anywhere before. It started with one or two nests and then by the time we left there were twenty or more.

Fifteen different raptors and vultures were seen but none in great numbers. Bateleur; Common Buzzard; Eagles: African Fish-, Black-chested Snake-, Brown Snake-, Long Crested, Martial, Tawny, and Wahlberg’s; African Harrier-Hawk; Yellow-billed Kite; Western Osprey; Shikra; plus Lappet-faced and White-backed Vultures.

Bushrikes were plentiful unfortunately mostly heard but not seen.

Cuckoos were calling everywhere – especially the Diderick, Klaas’s and Emerald. And a Jocobin Cuckoo very obligingly took a drink at the Malibala Hide.

Dusky and Village Indigobirds enjoyed drinking at kuMasinga Hide every time we visited. Not observed them in numbers together before.

Striped and Woodland Kingfishers were often heard. And a Grey-headed Kingfisher made a fleeting visit to the kuMasinga Hide.

Late one afternoon we visited the Malibala Hide and to our surprise we counted ten Thick-knees at the water’s edge. Water Thick-knees are often seen around the water’s edge but these were Spotted Thick-knees. We have seen one or two Spotted there before usually up the bank in the bushes. To see so many so close was a treat.

Spotted Thick-knee

Driving around the reserve you encounter unexpected sightings – not just of birds. Here, for example is a Grey Duiker with a whole Monkey Apple in its mouth.

And a Southern Masked Weaver hanging upside to feed, holding on by one foot.

And then you come round a corner and this appears beside you doing its plop call:

Other birds seen while driving around:

The kuMahlahla Hide had a little bit of water amongst the tall reeds. The birds were few and far between. After two visits we focused rather on the other hides.

The kuMasinga Hide is everyone’s favoutite. It never disappoints. Animals pop in and out regularly and occasionally one or two of the Big Five may appear.

This time it was no different. As we entered a Kingfisher was seen diving into the water and back out perching in the nearby bush. A special.

Grey-headed Kingfisher

Indigobirds, Long-tailed Paradise Whydahs, Blue and Common Waxbills, Red-billed Quelea, Long-tailed Widowbirds, Cape Starlings, Purple-crested Turacos, doves, and the ever present Red-billed Oxpeckers were all to be seen among many other species. In a reasonable couple of hours you can expect to see upwards of forty different bird species.

And then there were the animals: Warthog, Giraffe, Nyala, Impala, Zebra, Wildebeest, Baboons all making an appearance.

One afternoon enjoying all the activity at kuMasinga a bull elephant in Musth arrived. Immediately everything vacated the water – birds and animals. The elephant quenched his thirst and then decided it want to wallow. So it headed into the water and using its trunk and bulk dug into the water to make space for its bulk.

Flopping over, it gave its torso and head an almost complete ducking. It rolled and rolled till he was satisfied. Then it was time to mud himself all over. At one stage the elephant came really close to the hide and we thought it was going to mischievously spray us too!!

We did notice that its back left leg was swollen where it had been caught in a snare. Not the first time we had seen that in Mkuze sadly.

The water levels at Malibala Hide was slowly disappearing so that by the time we left there was hardly and water left.

Time at the hide was also entertaining and good for birders. An immature Martial did a fly-by, two Warthogs had a tete a tete, a Western Cattle Egret ruffled its own feathers, and even a Jacobin Cuckoo made a show.

Flocks of Red-billed Quelea intermingled with Red-billed Firefinches, Blue and Common Waxbills, Sombre Greenbuls, Dark-capped Bulbuls, Cinnamon-breasted Buntings at the water’s edge. Taking off in mass and flying from one side of the dam to the other. Namaqua Doves came and went as did the Emerald-spotted Wood-Doves. Even a tiny terrapin made a showing below us as vultures flew overhead.

The Nsumo Pan Hides and the picnic site gave us a number of water birds to add to our Atlas cards. Goliath Heron, Western Osprey, Pink-backed Pelicans and even an African Pygmy-Goose flew past. But because the water level was so high there were few waders to be seen.

One Egret had us struggling to verify. It appeared to be a Little Egret but its feet were black – at least that is what we thought until I processed the photos.

The picnic site has lost the large central Fever tree.

A few other birds seen round Nsumo Pan:

It is summer so hunting season is over. Chance to see the hunting camp we hoped. Not wanting to get shot by being thought to be poachers we asked in the office if we could get permission to visit the camp. The office did not know what we were talking about. They had no idea where it was until we showed them. By persistence, I eventually found the right person to give us permission – the Conservation Manager.

We were granted permission as long as we gave him the details of our car – colour and number plate; the number of people in the car and when we were going. We were told to stay on the main road only which we adhered to.

Off we set along the tarred Tower road, straight onto the dirt road and followed that until passing the “No Entry” point just before the bridge. Now we were in the hunting area on the way to the camp.

The Hunting Camp is about a further four Kms. It is very rustic but well laid out with each accommodation leading to the restaurant / gathering place.

In between all our daily wanderings there was Christmas to be celebrated and what better way than round a braai with family. Our evenings were spent together usually playing the card game “Scum Bag”.


28th to 30th December 2019

From Mkuze to Bonamanzi it took us two hours including a shopping stop for water. As we approached the Bonamanzi entrance we saw Lemon-breasted Canaries sitting on a fence in the same place we often see them when visiting the area.

We joined our friends, Marion Spence and John Hink, at their campsite – right at the end – Number 17. A lovely private site with its own wash-up area and bathroom. The site is surrounded by bush and tall trees.

All the special birds were calling all day long. Green Malkoha bantering with each other; Eastern Nicators and Narina Trogons likewise; Cuckoos – African Emerald, Black, Red-chested, Diderick and Klaas’s; Bushshrikes – Orange-breasted and Gorgeous; Apalis- Rudd’s and Yellow-breasted; Tinkerbirds mainly Red-fronted; Purple-crested Turacos. A lovely dawn chorus all day long.

Most of our birding was done by identification of bird calls (Sally’s ears). In all 80 different species were recorded in the short time we were there.

All the dams were full, those round the camp, by Dinizulu, the the hides and the pond on the right as you enter.

On one of our treks to the Bird Hides we came across this:

Yes, elephant poo and many active Dung Beetles. Makes you wonder where the elephant was and whether you would come face to face with it on foot!!

In all we identified 207 species, 150 in Ndumo, 50 in Tembe, 144 in Mkuze and 80 in Bonamanzi. And 7 full Protocol Atlas cards were submitted.

We hope you have enjoyed the tales and our pictures.

Paul and Sally Bartho

2 thoughts on “Christmas in Zululand – Part 2

  1. It was quite relaxing to read this blog. Your detailing of the trip gave insight into how to plan such trips. Mentioning about everything you saw in a very descriptive manner made us visualize things better. I feel energized after reading this. Thank you. Your exotic mention on the Fauna of the place was very interesting.


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