Our wild adventures have always been on a slightly rough note. Going to remote and far flung spots where no luxuries actually exist and finding joy in the smallest things and self made comforts. This attitude has the advantage of allowing us to travel for much longer periods without bankrupting us. Never the less we have never shied away from the odd luxury treat and this one had been calling for a long time.
We always go away for our anniversary. After 40 years what do you give the man who has everything? Well it’s a rhetorical question and he would say the same about me. We give ourselves memories with distinction. So each year we choose a spot fairly close to home (blessed to have so much choice) and revel in a couple of nights of luxury. This year was a special year. 40 years of marriage. Who could have imagined this at the beginning of our journey together. Certainly not me. It was well worth celebrating. Zimanga got the nod and did not disappoint.
We had heard about Zimanga from so many people over the last couple of years, especially about the ground breaking work setting up photographic hides. These increase the photographic opportunities for shots we have all wanted to get but never had the chance. We were interested immediately but it is, not surprising allowing for all the effort and expense that has gone into this vision, a pretty pricey joint. This is by no means unusual. A lot of wildlife lodges are very expensive indeed. Think Phinda, Thanda and Sabi Sabi. They are aimed at short and luxurious forays into the bush, the wild experience cocooned in pampering and personaiised service.
Sometimes it feels like the animals are served up to order, but when time is short, and your ambitions specific or intense, they are a wonderful treat.
We arrived at midday after a gentle rumble down the N2. The lodge is 8 km north of Mkhuze town to the left of the main road. An understated entrance sets the scene for exclusivity. We were met at the gate by our ranger Jono. It seems we were to have our own ranger and our own vehicle. Don’t know if this is always the case but as we turned out to be the only people there it was inevitable. Even when another couple arrived 3 days later they still extended us this consideration which was nice. No clash of interests.
The first journey through the reserve revealed the typical Zululand landscape of acacia and sickle bushes framed by the Ubombo mountains. Natal lilies were flowering like little jewels of colour here and there. It was possible to see the topography of previous farm lands but the journey back to the wild is well established. They have cleared areas of open savannah much beloved by photographers (and grazers!). Compared to the thick impenetrable thorn bush of some of the local parks board reserves this gives added photographic opportunity and a welcome contrast.
They are busy removing exotic species and trying to balance the distribution of trees, bush and grassland. Clearly it is being managed thoughtfully and with skill.
The lodge is a 15 min drive in from the road ensuring that the rumble of the N2 is a rare disturbance. Cheetah and elephants were among our first sightings. It is a modern looking minimalist design of a main house and separate en suite sleeping bungalows. The wall of inspiration, a set of acrylic wildlife prints at the entrance, lives up to its name. The main lodge is open plan looking out onto a deck, sparkling pool and the bush beyond. Everyday at breakfast we could spot the animals grazing on the horizon.
The rooms are spacious and cool overlooking the veld with a view from every amenity including the bed and the bath! Double desks ensure there is no fighting when it is time to edit.
The routine of Zimanga follows a familiar rhythm. We had choice of a hide session or a drive morning and evening. Being summer, and very hot, the day started early, departing at 5.00 in the dawn light and back for breakfast somewhere around 9-10.00 am. The evening activity left around 15.00 and brought us back at dusk or after dark. Jono set the itinerary with consideration of the weather, but I think we could have asked to go where ever we wanted.
Our first evening we had an orientating drive. We found the female cheetah still under the same tree. The cheetah are habituated but not tame. We were able to get out and creep closer for some nice ground level shots. Indeed, apart from the lion sightings, there is no problem hopping in and out of the car to get better photographic angles. The giraffe were inquisitive, and again allowed us to creep a bit closer with a lower perspective. All this at the expense of a big dose of pepper ticks but nothing is for nothing. As an aside the best remedy we found was to smear on oil, stand in the sun for 15 minutes, then jump into a dettol bath. At least it helps the itch.
We found the bull elephants grazing by the road. Plenty of rhinos and a healthy number of babies. Their anti poaching team is very effective and pretty visible around the reserve. There were good numbers of all the antelope species and zebra. Lots of warthog and babies, a successful breeding year for sure. The European roller was perched on every tree. Birdlife was plentiful.
We found the lion most days. Sometimes on the trot but often in snooze mode. They are chipped and there is a radio antenna in every car which helps to locate them, although their position can only be approximated and good old fashioned tracking remains a critical part of the success. We were lucky to find one of the males alone by the road after dark on the way back to camp one evening and had great opportunities with side lighting. Night driving is not a major part of the Zimanga curriculum.
Jono, our ranger, was outstanding, his love of the wild and of Zimanga was infectious. He is also an enthusiastic wildlife photographer and this is so helpful when you are being guided. Having a guide who is aware of the strengths and constraints of lens length, and of light direction, means he will place you to make the most of any photographic opportunities that arise. It does not hurt he is also a ‘ canon man’ like us!
Check him out on instagram at @rangerkidafrica
Our first hide session was the following morning. We went to the scavenger hide. This is on a small sandy plateau with a strategically placed branch perch.The hide is sunken to give a ground angle for the action.
They put out a frozen block of donkey entrails in a hidden hole to bring the action in front of the hide without the visually unappealing carcass, which I think is quite clever. The hide is well placed for morning light. The white backed vultures took no time to make an appearance, rapidly followed by a couple of jackals which ensured a spirited competition for the titbits.
The first afternoon we spent in lagoon hide with a double sided view at water height over 2 small waterholes bordering a broader lagoon. The one side had good afternoon light and the other side provides excellent opportunity for back lighting. This is a place frequented by kingfishers and water birds. 2 water thick knees and their very young chicks were in residence. A green backed heron, three banded plovers, wagtails and occasional visits from the pied kingfisher completed the cast. We spent a lovely afternoon however, and returned happily back to the lodge, fully on board with this hide technology.
One of the main advantages of the lagoon hide is the excellent opportunities for reflections so ideally it is best with no wind.
There is a need to wear dark colours and to move as little as possible to avoid startling the birds. Those of you who know us will be aware black is not in our usual colour palette but a full set of ninja clothing is on my shopping list for next time. There are blackout curtains both sides so you must ensure that there is no light passing right through the hide revealing you to the birds.
The kingfishers were not too cooperative on this trip, I think they were fishing in the main lagoon because of low water levels.
Usually this is a good hide to get action pictures of the kingfishers diving and they also have had a resident fish eagle in the past.
We found it was an interesting hide for slow shutter speeds on the birds as they washed and fluffed their feathers.
Now we were excited as, at last, we were going for the overnight hide. This was the prize and the biggest pull for our stay. There are 2 overnight hides, both built with the same profile.
The hide is sunken to view at ground level and in front of the hide is a small water hole. At first I was put off by the tiny water volume but this is done purposefully as you want the animals to drink right next to the hide.
Most of the photography here is wide angle to pick up close group shots and reflections of the large animals. We put away our telephoto lenses and settled in for the big and beautiful.
The hide itself is split into three sections with a small kitchenette and toilet, a room with 2 bunk beds and the viewing space in front. The access is through a long underground tunnel.
The lodge sends you complete with a full meal and drinks. Tea and coffee is available and there its a fridge and microwave. Basically everything you could possibly need.
We arrived just after 15.30 so we had lovely afternoon light before the darkness fell. A parade of buffalos, warthogs and rhino came around. We had lots of birds and a resident cast of terrapins. Periodically we had to clean the glass because of all the splashing. Especially a woodland kingfisher who liked to swoop to the water right next to the glass. Spotted thick knees flew in at dusk when side lights clicked on.
Through the night our visitors came. We tried hard to stay awake hoping for the elusive big cats.
I fell over long before Dudley but there is a small movement sensor which he seemed to hear even in his sleep. At 2.00 am we had a fantastic visit from a spotted hyena who stared at us from a few centimeters away. So close that his face fell in shadow and we could not focus. In the early morning giraffe came to drink and more and more Buffalo. The hide is not ideal for morning light especially as it became bright. At 9.00 Jono collected us to return, excited and elated, back to camp for a long long snooze. We did not see the sneaky cats but that’s just reason to return.
We toured the 4 corners of the reserve and looked around all the hides. Some are set up specifically for forest and canopy birds, some for seasonal activities like the bee eater nesting. All well thought out and carefully executed. They are mostly air conditioned which is not a luxury but a necessity. They are far underground with no ventilation. There are good quality tripods and bendro heads in each hide with comfortable seats. Everything to optimise your ability to watch and wait patiently for that one shot. The glass does not pose a problem unless it gets dirty and it can be dropped and cleaned easily. I was not keen on glass when I first heard, but it certainly encourages the animals to come closer. You still need to be quiet and still, but I think they are often intrigued by their own reflections.
The rest of our trip continued in this fabulous routine. We returned to lagoon hide for another try at the reflections. We found the lion a few times. We also walked with the cheetah again, this time 2 brothers. We checked night jars and a bronze winged courser. Bateleurs flew over and a range of raptors perched in trees.
All this is coupled with a very comfortable lodge overlooking a stretch of savannah where, at any given time, the giraffes and elephants and antelope could be seen ambling and grazing from the comfort of the breakfast table and the sparkling pool. The food was exceptional and the staff discreet and friendly. It is no surprise that you find all the reviews of Zimanga are consistently 5 star. They have earned it and, god willing, we will be back!