Dramatic but drought stricken – South Africa

South Africa during the spring and summer months is lush, green and full of colour. We hankered after seeing the vibrant colours and verdant bush, especially as the majority of our previous trips have been during the parched winter months. However, this summer has been a very different experience, as most of the country, including KwaZulu Natal where we’ve been based for the last three months, is experiencing severe drought conditions. Dams are empty; animals (both wild and reared) are struggling; water restrictions are in place; and the usually vibrant bush is currently more reminiscent of autumn / winter conditions. Superficially it looks green, as the light rains have caused the grass to turn green and new shoots to grow; however, as farmer friends have commented, this is a ‘green drought’ because beneath the surface flush of colour, the soil is still parched as the much longed-for nurturing rains have not yet soaked the earth.

The colour and beauty of a hot African summer.

The colour and beauty of a hot African summer.

We have visited some of the smaller and lesser known conservation areas in Natal during this visit: Weenen Game Reserve, Lotheni Nature Reserve, uMlalazi Nature Reserve, Ndumo Game Reserve and Ithala Game Reserve – each special in their own way.

Weenen, a small game park of about 5 000 hectares, is known for its Rhino, which successfully breed there, and we were privileged to see several White Rhino in groups (including a mother and her calf). A highlight of our trip to Weenen was experiencing a truly dramatic thunderstorm… The campsite at Weenen is in a relative ‘bowl’, ringed by higher land and hills. The 360 degree lightning show was superb: jagged, regular vertical flashes; more irregular horizontal flashes; and sheet lightning – billowing rolling flashes that lit up the cumulus clouds with soft pinks and yellows, as the storm moved through. We didn’t know which direction to look in as nature presented her awesome, majestic display!

Fantastic sight to still see a White Rhino and calf, Weenen Game Reserve, South Africa.

Fantastic sight to still see a White Rhino and calf, Weenen Game Reserve, South Africa.

Lotheni was fabulous in terms of the vast open spaces and majestic views of the Maloti Drakensberg Mountains, a world heritage site. We also loved the wild Protea bushes that decorate the hills: if you are willing to hike up above 1000 metres, the beautiful and prolific endemic Proteas (South Africa’s national flower) are a real treat! Staying with the Drakensberg theme, we also took a day trip up Sani Pass, the mountain pass leading to Lesotho, home of the Basotho people. The switchback mountain road, only navigable in a 4×4 vehicle, has stunning views with soaring rocky cliffs, rolling mountain slopes and waterfalls and streams all around. The Lesotho border post is at 2865 metres above sea level, with the final 800 metres or so being traversed in the 8 kilometre stretch between the South Africa and Lesotho border posts. Breathtaking!

High up in the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa the Protea bushes in summer produce these stunning blooms.

High up in the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa the Protea bushes in summer produce these stunning blooms.

 

The magnificent mountains of the Drakensberg, Lotheni, South Africa.

The magnificent mountains of the Drakensberg, Lotheni, South Africa.

 

The amazing view from the top of Sani Pass, Drakensberg becoming the Maloti Mountains.

The amazing view from the top of Sani Pass, Drakensberg becoming the Maloti Mountains.

 

Sani Pass up and over the Drakensberg Mtns. also boasts these gorgeous Malachite Sunbirds.

Sani Pass up and over the Drakensberg Mtns. also boasts these gorgeous Malachite Sunbirds.

uMlalazi Nature Reserve is situated on the lagoon of the Mlalazi River. The mangrove swamps are home to red-clawed Crabs that each guard their own hole in the sand. A real treat for us was the very pretty and usually extremely shy Red Duiker that inhabited the campsite, seemingly unconcerned about our presence. Raucous Trumpeter Hornbills screeched loudly as they flitted through the trees. The huge sand dunes between the coastal forests of the reserve and the beach stretched our calf muscles and burned our feet as we

Indian Ocean views for ever, uMlalazi Nature Reserve, South Africa.

Indian Ocean views for ever, uMlalazi Nature Reserve, South Africa.

 

In the thick undergrowth on the Indian Ocean coast these shy but beautiful Red Duiker live.

In the thick undergrowth on the Indian Ocean coast these shy but beautiful Red Duiker live.

Ndumo Game Reserve, which borders Mozambique, is renowned for its birdlife: more than 450 species are found in the reserve. The very pretty campsite is unfenced, and we had the bonus of Nyala antelope walking through the camp each evening. With the 45 degree heat, the birds also loved the birdbaths located at regular intervals in the campsite; we were entertained by the birds and insects visiting the cool water. This Brown-hooded Kingfisher had a really vigorous bath and then fiercely guarded his territory from a tree just above the birdbath. Another highlight was finding a Hoopoe nest, and watching the adults tirelessly feeding their young.

Newly washed Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Ndumo Game Reserve, South Africa.

Newly washed Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Ndumo Game Reserve, South Africa.

 

African Hoopoe, with food to feed the chicks, Ndumo, South Africa.

African Hoopoe, with food to feed the chicks, Ndumo, South Africa.

Ndumo’s pans are home to Hippos, Crocodiles, Flamingos, Pelicans, and numerous other waterbirds. We went on several early morning game walks through acacias, sycamore fig and fever trees, accompanied by an armed game ranger who was an expert at identifying birds – both visually and from their calls. He was able to call a Narina Trogan, that came closer towards us to investigate who or what was calling, and we were therefore treated to a view of this stunning bird – a keenly sought ‘lifer’ on many birdwatchers’ lists! In spite of several hours of close looking, however, we were unable to find a Pel’s Fishing Owl – maybe we will have better luck further north!

The effects of the drought were particularly stark at Ndumo… Pans, usually full of water at this time of year, were remarkably low. One game guard, who has worked in the park for 35 years, commented that he has never seen the pans so dry!

Ithala Game Reserve (our final destination on this trip exploring Zululand nature reserves), is one of our favourite game parks. It’s very well managed with staff who are justifiably proud of working in this very picturesque reserve of almost 30 000 hectares. The setting is stunning: the main camp nestles on the slopes of the Ngotshe plateau, below the rocky Ngotshe Mountain, with thatched cottages that integrate seamlessly into the environment. The campsite is very rustic – another open campsite, this time with Impala, Zebra and a Spotted Bush Snake all visiting our camp, and Weaver birds, Violet-backed Starlings and Paradise Flycatchers nesting in trees in the camp. A bilharzia-free river flows past, and the rocky pools provided much pleasure and respite during the heat of the day!

The stunning male Violet-backed Starling, Ithala Game Reserve, South Africa.

The stunning male Violet-backed Starling, Ithala Game Reserve, South Africa.

On an evening game drive we were fortunate to see both White and Black Rhino – with the White Rhino coming very close to our vehicle to investigate the sounds they could hear… We also saw many animals with their young (including Tsessebe, the only population of which in Natal is found at Ithala); the animals seem confident, or maybe hopeful, that the spring rains will eventually arrive!

The cute and attractive Impala twins, South Africa.

The cute and attractive Impala twins, South Africa.

South Africa is a really beautiful and diverse country. Many aspects of life have improved for the local people since Apartheid ended in the 1990s, including access to housing, electricity, water and government pensions. However, life is still tough… The tour guide who took us up Sani Pass explained that the cost for one child to attend his local ‘Model C’ school (a government school, but with extra staffing and resources paid for by the parents / governors, to ensure access to books for all, manageable student:teacher ratios, and class sizes in the region of 30-35) was ZAR 1800 per month. {At the current (exorbitant!) exchange rate of £23:ZAR1 that is approximately £78 per month; however at the more usual exchange rate it is about £100 per month.} This is in the context of an average monthly wage of ZAR 2500.

A gorgeous African Pygmy Kingfisher, Ithala, KZN, South Africa.

A gorgeous African Pygmy Kingfisher, Ithala, KZN, South Africa.

To return to a positive: we experienced a wonderful thunderstorm and heavy rain on New Year’s Day. Hopefully, a prescient start to the New Year – although lots more rain is still needed to break this drought!

We wish you all well and all the best for 2016…

Karyn & Richard

 

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Posted in Africa, Locations, Nature, Photography, Travel, Wildlife.

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