Zululand Winter
Ihala At Dawn

After 3 months working and the excitement of the sardine run its time to get back on the road again. It feels like a long time since the last trip. When you have been traveling for a while there are no concerns about comfort or coping but after you have spent a few months back in a brick house with a roof and walls and a vague reluctance, me more than Dudley who is always champing at the bit!, to go back on the road. The uncertainty, the discomfort, is reestablished. What about cold, dirt, toilets and a good nights sleep? Yet when you are out there all those niggles just melt away because, after all, they are really irrelevant. A warm nest on top of the beast, oodles of hot tea from a roaring fire and the occasional ablution block and all necessities are met. You may smell of smoke (if you are lucky, and less pleasant things if you are not!) and things are not pristine clean. So what? I remember when we returned from our tandem trip cycling from the UK to Egypt, having spent nearly a year sleeping together in a tiny tent, on a single yoga mat, discussing the fact we would sleep on the floor from now on and wondering why we bothered with the expense of beds. Well that did not last long but it emphasises the fact that when you have little you seem to need no more and even basics can feel like guilty luxury. We are heading up into Zululand for a quick look around before heading north. I love this time of year in Zululand, usually because the cold mornings often bring mist over the water and in the valleys and I have fond memories 2 years ago of sitting at he pan at Ndumu with all the flamingos silhouetted in the mist. It is such a clear crisp time of year and yet, Zululand style, it is still warm enough for tee shirt and shorts most of the time. Indeed what we call winter in Zululand would be a good summer season in many places in the world. We want to check out some of the northern Zululand parks before we head north. Our route will take us to Mkhuze, Pongola, Ndumu and Ithala before we stop off in Vryheid to get the beast his final health check before heading to more far flung destinations.



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Mkhuze is a firm favourite of ours and we often spend a night or two here when we are staying in Sodwana, usually at the tented camp , where there is an out of season golden rhino discount. Now we are all packed and ready for camping so we opt for the camp ground near the entrance gate. Entering the park it is immediately clear that the drought has taken its toll. It is so very dry in the park it makes you sad and there is no grazing to be seen. All the animals look lethargic and have split into small groups. The bush has been laid bare and the elephant damage very evident. The animals are thin, even the giraffe eating the last dusty leaves from a very sorry looking acacia. We have not been past Nsumo pan this time although this has also been a good flamingo spot in the past, I am afraid to go there, it was so dry and the hippos so desperate last time we were here.

It cannot be any better and indeed people we meet tell us it is dry. They have lost a lot of hippos here during this drought cycle. However, even in this drought, there are 2 pumped waterholes in Mkuze which deserve some attention.

We spent the afternoon at Mahala hide behind the camp. It was muddy and quiet but over the course of the afternoon nylala, warthog, Impala and baboons come down to drink. All seem nervous and tentative and again they look thin and tired. There are few opportunities in good light. There are a lot of doves and some crested guineafowel as well as a few water birds and a tambourine dove, a rare spot for us. This brown hooded kingfisher was as interested in us as we were in him.

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The camp site is sparsely populated, only 2 other customers. We arrived in the dark and found a spot on the fence to set up. The bush baby calls right next to us and the hyena laugh in the distance. This camp ground is famous for hyena raids at night. The next morning we choose KwaMasinga hide, an old haunt and favourite hunting ground. One of the problems with staying in the camp ground at Mkhuze is that you have a longer drive back into the park at dawn and dusk.

Still KwaMasinga has never been a great place for the early start except for the lions perhaps. We were still first to arrive and it was quiet and cold. Slowly the impala zebra,nyala wildebeests, doves and guineafowl arrived. They all looked nervous and jumped with each shutter click but the light was beautiful and the reflections spectacular as usual. We reluctantly moved on as the sun started to heat.


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We have always loved Ndumu. It is never busy, it is well run and well kept by the head ranger Bheki. The area around the huts and camp is beautifully planted with aloes and Impala lilies. Kitchen, ablutions and camp site are clean. There is even a washer and drier. Everything works and everything is serviced. Rumour has it Bheki was asked to go over to Umfolozi and refused. Anyway their loss and Ndumus gain. So we roll in to see what we will see.

The photographic draw is a large pan with a hide where water birds gather and hippos and crocs are easy to see. We have spent many happy hours photographing the flamingos in the early morning mist and the orange glow of dusk. Having seen the lack of water in Mkhuze and Pongola I had a sinking feeling, as we braved the chaos of Jozini, that the Ndumu of my memory may not be quite as I hoped.

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We arrived at lunch time. The drive through to the camp confirmed our fears. It is dry dry dry. They tell us the main hide and is open but the water is far away. We set up camp. Again we find ourselves almost the only inhabitants of this, another Kelbe reserve. Who needs Phinda? Eat your heart out Mr Getty! The hide is a 500m hike which is a bit of a mission with all the camera gear. When we get there our worst fears are realised. It is dry although water can be seen right over on the left and the flamingos and pelicans are there but the size of raisins even with the most powerful lens we have. We move off to find alternate water in the park but although we range far and wide the only visible water is the beautiful look out over a much diminished Pongola river on the border of the park with Mozambique.

Red cliffs are really beautiful and there is a picnic spot overlooking the river. The toilet there is one of the best views ever, second only to Banga Nek toilet in Kosi Bay!. The aloes are truly beautiful this time of year and Ndumu has a lovely collection of aloes. Particularly beautiful are the mountain aloes with bright orange flowers and we find them with bees very busy working the pollen. Challenging macro. From there a 4x4 track leads through a magnificent sycamore fig and fever tree forest. We stop to look at the trees and take shots and Dudley gets chased by bees! He got a bit hot under the collar as he thought they had become attached to his pheromones. They like his hair!

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One of the other draws of Ndumu is the walking trails and as we have had little luck with the hide we decided to try one and see. The advantage is they take you to other pans not open to self drive. It does not disappoint as the walk takes us to a fever trees forest on the edge of a pan full of birds and we spend a happy 2 hours there with an experienced guide and his trusty pfizzing tool! They also do game drives on roads not open to self drive so we treated ourselves for the afternoon.

The afternoon drive starts at 15.00. They came in an old Toyota safari vehicle. It had no suspension and sounded like a concrete mixer. I thought the beast was noisy but it purrs in comparison. We travelled so slowly I think we could walk faster. We decide to go back to the same pan where we walked which I think was a good choice.

If we tried to go further a field we would only arrive at midnight! We again drive on a restricted road around the edge of the pan through the fever trees. It is beautiful and we can actually drive the whole edge of the pan. The guide is apprehensive as fever trees have such shallow roots they easily topple over in the wind. I get the impression it has happened to him more than once! All the birds are there and now we have full use of the long lenses. Dudley wants slow panning shots of flamingos and flying birds but it's a tough technique to master. I am happy just to get them in focus At the far end there are a massive number of crocs lying on the edge. As the sun goes down we crawl home. It is cold and windy and looks like rain is not too far away. They predict Tuesday. I hope so for the animals sake.


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UPongolo game reserve sits right up against the Swaziland border at Golela and is a hidden gem. The reserve itself is small and has a camp ground as the only accommodation but there is a long frontage onto the Jozini dam which gives a fantastic opportunity to see all the water birds and crocs and hippos and, if you can find a boat, you can game view from the water which is pretty special. We have never stayed here before but it was on our wish list after we stayed in a nearby lodge one anniversary and spent several game cruises traveling up the Pongola river. The difficulty we had this time was not having a boat and the need to find one for this purpose and being unsure of the effect of the drought on water levels. We certainly found some changes.

The Pongola river was very low and none of the boats could launch there. They were all putting in much closer to the dam. We tried Ghost Mountain Inn but their organization was so poor they could not tell us if they would be able to hire a boat or not and we then sought out Mvubu lodge, where we stayed before, for assistance. They were happy to arrange a boat trip but again, because of the low water, we would have to travel a way to get to the launch and uPongolo game reserve is KZN Parksboard and closes at 18.00 so we would not be able to take advantage of the best light. Still we made a plan for the following day and went to find our camp place. We found ourselves the only residents with a pick of the sites. The ablutions are cold which was a bit of a shock but not the worst thing that can happen, at R85.00 pppn you cannot expect everything.

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As we arrived we drove the boundary fence to get an idea of the size of the reserve and the area for self drive. It was 4.00 pm and the light beautiful. Although the bush is dry and largely uninhabited, as you come out of the bush on the banks of the Jozini dam, there is a beautiful savannah where the animals collect to graze. Zebra, wildebeest, warthogs, impala , even some kudu and rhino. And what rhino! We counted about 15 in total with some of the largest horns we have ever seen. They are grazing in 2s and 3s and one group was 7 strong. (The Magnificent Seven!) The guard at the gate says no poaching in uPongolo yet.

Long may it last. And no geotagging on these photos for sure. Just to show our solidarity we played them Eugenes version of The Dance of the Last Rhino and told them to live long and prosper with suitable Star Trek gesticulations. The water level was low so the roads were far from the edge of the dam but there are several new tracks to take you close to the waters edge.

It is incredibly beautiful with many water birds and hippos honking. Once upon a time my nephew Byran rescued a little mongrel dog , named Mange, from this game reserve who came to be one of our favourite pets of all time. We were happy to visit his early home and find it a place of such beauty. Way to go Mange!

We spent 2 days here on the waters edge at dawn and dusk and with a gentle cruise one afternoon. The density of crocs is fearsome so no swimming any time soon. The water birds are diverse and plentiful including some flamingos and pelicans. Watching the animals graze at the waters edge gives a different perspective for photography. Definitely a boat is a bonus and ideally you need your own. Note to self for next time. You can launch from the camp site and it is a popular tiger fishing site. Still for these 2 days we were on our own and felt spoiled with our own private reserve. Indeed a recurring theme in these northern Zululand parks in winter is the lack of traffic which gives you a very special and privileged experience. Forget $500 a night for your exclusive game viewing experience, come to uPongolo for R85.00.


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Ithala has the advantage of looking like the Drakensberg foothills and hosting most of the Zululand parks animals. Again a firm favourite with different birds and flora. We wend our way back through Jozini to get there , stopping for a few supplies. It always feels like you have to strap on your bullet proof vest and load the Uzi to get through Jozini which has all the charm of a war zone settlement but under its rough exterior lurks a vibrant and friendly place. I even found a clean public toilet down a dodgy looking alley way so it just goes to show looks can be deceptive. We were famished and decided to chance a colonel burger from KFC.

Surely the KFC must be a busy hub here and the food fresh. It took a while but eventually I skipped out with 2 colonel meals. Well we were in for a bit of a let down. It was as tough as an old tyre which had been battered and deep fried and tasted about as delicious. Dudley took 2 bites and refused more. I finished his but mine went to a youngster herding cows down the road a few km later. I must say he looked like he had just won the lotto so maybe we were being a bit snobbish!

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As we headed north the weather looked more ominous and a chill developed and we arrived at Ithala in a light rain. It is hard to begrudge the rain after we have just toured through some of the most drought ridden areas and I hoped they get some too. The guys in the office try and persuade us to take a chalet but Dudley was determined we should try out his newly designed rain gear for beastly comfort so it was off to the camp site we trundled, with some misgivings on my part and with poorly concealed amusement on the part of the parks staff.

As expected we were the only camp inhabitants. It was beautiful in Ithala in the rain and we surprised a grumpy elephant on the way. People have told us Ithala has a lot of poaching problems. Certainly there is a thriving population on the borders but we saw plenty of game driving through and the grasslands looked more healthy than in northern KZN.

Previously our rain proofing has left a lot to be desired. We have always come short and the rain sheets in under the tarps or the seams leak so not cosy at all. Dudley has now designed a ginormous tarp 7m by 3m without seams which slides onto the side of the car.

The only problem is it is heavy and pretty unwieldy so putting it up took some time. Fortunately it was only drizzling and the rain did not come down too hard. Eventually we had it up, sort of. It seemed to me likely to puddle but we tried to pull everything taut and we managed a fire and heated some pre cooked curry. A bit smokey but otherwise good. We also managed to get into bed without getting soaked and the tent held up overnight with no leakage. Although still raining off and on the next day we managed to pack the tarp away but it would be tricky if it was raining properly. We set out for Vryheid a little later than planned and with a bit of mud here and there but all in all not too much the worse for wear. Spending longer in Ndumu meant less time to spend in Ithala which is a shame as it is a reserve which deserves more attention. There was mist as we left and it would have set a beautiful scene for plains game and moody landscape if we had time.

So it's off for a few things to be tweaked at NTT Toyota in Vryheid and we rolled out at 14.00 to head north. Rumour has it there is snow on the Berg which I can believe and we think we will head for Clarens. The day remained dark and overcast and clearly it was going to get colder. Brrrrr