One of the positives to come out of level 5 lockdown for me, was winning an online competition held in May. The prize for the competition was a gift voucher to travel to Bonamanzi Game Reserve to the value of R5000.00. For this I am wholeheartedly grateful, as it gave my wife and I something special to look forward to amidst a stressful and difficult lockdown due to the Covid 19 pandemic. The caveat here was that we would only be allowed to travel during what is now called 'Advanced Level 3' lockdown for South Africa.
Finally, this past week the government gave the go ahead for intra-provincial leisure travel, and we jumped at the opportunity. Not only did we have a voucher, but we had a Public holiday to enjoy due to Women's day for an extra special long weekend. Bonamanzi Game Reserve is a big 4 game reserve (does not include Lion) which offers guests walking and cycling trails as well as the option of guided game drives by appointment. There is a mix of accommodation with family sized chalets, smaller chalets and campsites equipped with electricity and clean ablution facilities. In recent years, the reserve has become a popular wedding and conference venue too.
We set off from Ballito on Friday morning for Bonamanzi and arrived at around 12:30pm. All the Covid 19 control measures were adhered to by the reserve, and we were greeted by staff who had clearly been yearning for the return of guests. Smiling faces and waves from all the staff was the order of the day. Having been to the reserve a few times prior, I was expecting to have access to the walking trails and only some of the roads, as the 'no entry' roads are usually reserved for the guides to take guests privately. I was very pleased to hear from the office staff that Bonamanzi has taken a new approach to their reserve. Guests now pay a daily conservation levy which allows them access to the ENTIRE reserve in their own vehicles. This meant that we had access to the roughly 4500 hectare reserve at our leisure not only during the day but at night too!
The gift certificate enabled us to have a 3 night stay covered in one of the self-catering treehouses, in our case Treehouse 4. This suited me perfectly, as in doing my research about my target bird species (using the birding sites feature on the Roberts Bird Guide 2 app), I hoped to stay in any of the treehouses numbered 1 through to 6 as these were known sites for African Broadbill. The unit itself was well equipped with a kitchenette, cooking utensils, airconditioner, braai area, electricity, geyser and a bathroom with a shower. Do take your own drinking water for consumption, as is recommended by the reserve. TH 4 as it appears on the map is a secluded unit far away from the communal campsites but not too far from the amenities such as the swimming pool etc. If you are looking for a private accommodation for two, I can recommend this spot!
Accommodation rating 7/10
Making our way down the dirt road to our unit, it was apparent that getting around in a vehicle with 4x4 or at least decent ground clearance is a necessity. The Sand Forest biome as the name suggests means that there are some patches of soft sand which could bog one's vehicle down quite quickly.
Once we settled into our accommodation, I was looking forward to hearing the evening sounds of the bush we had so dearly missed. Unfortunately the East Coast was experiencing a strong cold front which caused temperatures to hover around the 11 degree celsius mark. This made for a windly and overall quiet evening. Only distant calls of Greater Galagos were heard.
Birding Day 1:
The next morning I set out early for the main dam near the reception area, as I had recce'd this site the afternoon before. This large dam, located next to the now mainly empty Crocodile enclosure, looked to be a decent place to start off with the rising sun. As I walked down the steps of our chalet, I heard the unmistakable call of arguably my biggest bogey bird, African Broadbill. I heard its distant Prrrrrrr-rrrr sound made by rapid wing beats, but unfortunately I could only record the call and not a sighting...........still to be ticked.
The aforementioned cold front meant that temperatures started at a mere 6 degree celsius (by far the coldest I had experienced in Zululand). Setting up my camera I scanned the banks hoping for Rallids and other Passerines coming in to drink. I was immediately rewarded with an over-wintering Lesser Moorhen! I watched it work the far bank until it was in range for a few photos. A lone Nile Crocodile was sunbathing on the same bank as the Moorhen and was not popular with a pair of Egyptian Geese leading their Goslings to the water. As the temperature rose, more and more birds began to emerge. Yellow-breasted Apalis, Orange-breasted Bushshrike, Village Weaver, Tambourine Dove, African Fish Eagle were all around the dam. On the far side, I could clearly make out a brighter than usual White-eye. This would be another reserve special, the now called Southern Yellow White-eye. Alongside the White-eye I was surprised to find a Cape Robin-Chat as I am more accustomed to seeing this species in slightly higher altitudes. All around the adjacent gardens surrounding the restaurant I could hear Grey Tit-Flycatcher calling along with Golden-tailed and Cardinal Woodpecker.
Moving along I now headed towards the North-Western part of the reserve which opens up to open Savannah and Grassland habitat. Here I picked up Crested Guineafowl, Chinspot Batis, Red-billed Oxpecker, Golden-breasted Bunting, Rattling Cisticola and Grey-headed Bushshrike were heard calling. After seeing what I thought was an out of place Southern Boubou turned out to be a pair of White-throated Robin-Chats calling vigorously from an Acacia tree.
By now it was mid-morning and I had decided to start making my way back to the chalet for brunch. I went back on my tyretracks back into the dense Sand Forest. I immediately heard the unmistakeable call of a Gorgeous Bushshrike. A notoriously difficult bird to photograph let alone see, however my luck was about to change. I moved along another 100m to tangle of dead bush where I found another target species, Pink-throated Twinspot. I luckily found a superb male who came right out into the open for a photo opportunity. This rounded off an excellent morning of birding and I was smiling from ear to ear.
Birding Day 2:
The next day my plan was to make the most of this newly given access to the reserve and head towards the part of the reserve which hugs the Hluhluwe River in search of Rosy-throated Longclaw. Leaving the chalet, the weather was clearly turning warmer as I recorded 20 degree celsius on the car's thermometer and it was projected to breach the 30s during the day. This boded well for the day's birding. Sadly the Broadbill wasn't heard again so I was left to pursue this target for another day.
Descending down towards the floodplain I spotted a pair of Lesser-striped Swallows overhead along with Black Saw-wings. Seconds later, a different looking Swallow appeared. After consulting my field guide was confirmed to be Grey-rumped Swallow, a Lifer for me! A little further along the jeep track, I found myself on what seemed to be a less frequented route in comparison to the roads I had been on thus far. Following my gut I continued where the reed beds opened up to a marsh. This site was teaming with African Jacana, Common Moorhen, Great Egret and a lone male Saddle-billed Stork. I watched it stand motionless on the mudflat for about ten minutes before it taxi'd like an Airbus A380 before getting airborne.
Getting back onto the main track hugging the river, I tried to make every African Pipit into a RT Longclaw, but it wasn't to be. I know that I was being ambitious searching for this species before any significant rain would create its preferred habitat, but I am an optimist. The occasional Yellow-throated Longclaw gave me hope, but I would again have to let this target slip through my grasp. The short grass produced species such as African Stonechat, Rufous-naped Lark and Senegal Lapwing. Possibly the best sighting of the day was seeing around 20 or so Collared Pratincoles flying over the grassland low to the ground in some sort of aerial display. This is the first time I have seen this species behaving in this way.
This rounded off a great long weekend away to a fantastic reserve. I can't wait to return in Summer as this is when the area really shows off. If you can bare the harsh heat of a Zululand Summer, then you will be greatly rewarded with all that the region has to offer.
Birding rating 8.5/10 - my tally for 3 days of birding (in Winter) was 126 species including heard species.
Overall rating 8/10
This excellent venue is well kept, not too far from Durban and offers a wide variety of habitat. Now that the reserve is open to self drive the entire reserve, those who have visited it in the past should make a booking to experience the freedom of the reserve quicker than you can say "lift the lockdown".