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Doing Ndumo Game Reserve

By J.F. Kloppers

At the confluence of the Usuthu and Pongola rivers in South Africa's Kwazulu Natal, Ndumo Game Reserve is a mosaic of wetlands, pans and floodplains that teem with birds and other wildlife.

The setting sun is a red ball through smoke in the Lebombo Mountains, when I bring the overladen pushcart to a halt at the hut’s front steps in the Ndumo Game Reserve. I do not fancy doing more trips than necessary from the car park. From the stoep next door a man compliments me on my handling of the contraption. It’s a wheelbarrow with wooden slats fitted across it for luggage to be heaped the way station porters do it.

He introduces himself as Beyers Hofmeyer. He is much taken with Ndumo, a small reserve in the far north-eastern corner of Maputaland on the border Mozambique. He tells me that with a torch in the evening you can see many animals, from small cats like genets to the bigger ungulates like nyala, move about the lawn that rolls away under the giant marula trees. I tell him I fortunately have a strong torch. “Ah, let me show you mine,” he says. It seems he has been waiting for the subject to come up. “Boys and their toys,” sighs his partner, Linda. My torch is no match. His is smaller but it has a dual head that makes it look like a giant insect. It lights up the whole area.

Then the Roux family from Villiersdorp in the Cape arrives. They carry their luggage in the dark so I tell them about the pushcart, which gets us talking. After settling in, Arno, the son, comes asking for a spade. I can’t oblige and suggest he ask Chris Ngubane, the chief receptionist. “But what do you want it for?” he asks. “To dig a hole to bake a gatbrood.” Luckily they manage to borrow one from someone at the nearby camping site. They dig a hole in the sand where there are no plants and afterwards fill it neatly back in. We are made partners in crime by being gifted thick slices of hot bread with butter and hanepoot jam.

The seven huts, called chalets in the brochures, are positioned in a zigzag line to afford a measure of privacy. But Ndumo strikes me as the kind of place where strangers get talking easily. Perhaps it’s because of the kind of visitor it attracts. There is a curiously old-fashioned feel about the camp. Well-appointed, the huts have a microwave, fridge and a sink. There is a communal kitchen where the cook prepares food to order, and there are also communal ablutions, which people at the camping site have to walk a considerable distance to get to.

At just 10 117 hectares, Ndumo has a remarkable variety of wildlife and is a nature lover’s paradise. It is found at the meeting point of the Usuthu River, its northern boundary with Mozambique, and the Pongola, which cuts through its eastern half. At their confluence, a mosaic of wetlands, pans and floodplains interspersed with strips of woodland and towering riverine forest are the setting for Ndumo’s extraordinary ecological wealth.

Ironically, it was the area’s large hippo population that was the reason for its proclamation as a reserve in 1924 by Deneys Reitz, then South Africa’s Minister of Lands, who, best known for his Anglo-Boer War memoir titled Commando, is said to have declared at the time, “I did my duty to God and the hippo.” When it was brought to international attention in 1997 by being declared a Ramsar site (wetlands of international importance), it was a feeding and breeding ground and vital stopover for migratory water birds.

The animals we see on game drives are a joy. Lion and elephant are missing from the park but it teems with other wildlife. Kudu peer at us through the brush, nyala traipse across in front of us, a little red duiker eyes us from the deep shadows, and headstrong wildebeest refuse to budge from the road to let us pass. On a walk we follow a signposted footpath to a bird hide that turns out not to exist any longer, and stumble into a number of hippos wallowing in the shallows. They snort, yawn and give us the cold eye until we make a gentle retreat to avoid any misunderstanding.

But it remains the birdlife that is Ndumo’s single most spectacular feature. It is one of South Africa’s top birding spots, with counts ranging from 420 to 444 species. The prime times are September, when the migrants arrive, and April when they pass through on their way back to their seasonal destinations on the far side of the equator. Watching from the Ezulweni hide across the large Nyamithi pan, we delight in the squawking and ducking and comings and goings of storks, herons, egrets, pelicans, cormorants and countless smaller species in the fever trees and reeds along the far bank.

A special treat is to walk through the Pongola’s riverine forest with guide Sonto Tembe. He grew up in the park and ran along its footpaths and splashed in its shallows as a boy before his family was relocated with the rest of the community to a place outside the reserve in the 1960s. “Do you have bird calls on your cellphone?” he asks as we set off. He grins with pleasure when I answer no. For the next three hours he entertains us with his mimicry of bird calls, from the haunting ‘hoooooop’ of the Grey-headed Bush-Shrike (Spookvoël) to the intricate tune of the Dark-backed Weaver (Bosmusikant). He loves mentioning them by their descriptive Afrikaans names.

He is most famous, he says, for imitating the Trumpeter Hornbill (Gewone Boskraai), having once been shown doing so on television. He lets off a heart-rending “waaaaaaa” like a baby crying. Unlike what happened with the other birds, there is no answering call. The hornbills must have been far away. Then he cocks his head. “Pel’s,” he whispers. We, too, hear the “oogh” coming from afar. At last, after years of birding, there it is – Pel’s Fishing Owl. But it sits hidden in the dense foliage on the opposite riverbank. We spend more than an hour trying to spot it before giving up.

Our meanderings continue among the contorted trunks of gigantic sycamore figs that look like the columns of some prehistoric cathedral. And at a place where a footbridge lies submerged in the Pongola, we learn about the darker side of Ndumo.

Sonto explains that a tree to which the swing bridge’s cable was attached on the opposite bank had been cut down, causing it to collapse. It was done by people from an adjacent community, who come into that section of the park and chop down trees. The invasion is part of a saga that goes back more than ten years to when the Mbangweni community won a land-restitution claim to a 1 262 hectare portion of the park, along the eastern bank of the Pongola.

They wanted to once again fish in the river and grow crops along its fertile banks, as they did before the park’s proclamation deprived them of the land. But the KwaZulu-Natal park authorities convinced them that their interests, as well as those of the park, would be better served if the reclaimed land continued to be treated as part of the reserve. The villagers were told they could do better from ecotourism than from fishing and crop farming. They were promised a say in the running of the park, and there was even talk about helping them build their own lodge, but nothing came of either. Sympathisers say it is frustration with the political double-talk and bureaucratic incompetence that drove them to move back on to the land, which has led to the inevitable poaching and incursions into other parts of the park, in turn endangering the entire reserve.

To Paul Dutton, one of the legendary game rangers from the Ian Player era, who was stationed in Ndumo during the 1960s, the lot of the footbridge reflects the fate of the rest of the park. On a recent flight with the Bateleurs, which do aerial assessments of conservation areas, he said he was left deeply depressed by the marks of human intrusion.

I asked Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s head, Dr Bandile Mkhize, about the park’s troubles with the neighbours. All he would say was that it was best handled with sensitivity. Questions submitted formally to the department’s communications section drew no response. But conservationists in the know confided that only political intervention at the highest level could resolve the impasse.

Ndumo is a jewel that dare not be lost. Moreover, it is at the heart of a fabulous trans-boundary conservation scheme that proposes linking it to the nearby Tembe Elephant Park, and through a wildlife corridor to Mozambique’s Maputo Elephant Reserve. How marvellous it would be if, rather than getting bogged down in pointless squabbles, everybody could start working towards realising this magnificent dream and the promise it holds for the region.

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