Updated: Oct 1, 2020
Last year July I had a wonderful midweek holiday at Sunset Lodge situated in the 170-hectare Kuleni Game Park. The private reserve is situated in Northern Zululand and consists primarily of pristine sand forest.
The reserve is unique in that you are only allowed to drive to and from your lodge. Otherwise, you are only allowed to walk on the impressive sand roads and well-marked trail networks. There are no Big Five animals to worry about, but plenty of other wonderful game to see including Giraffe, Blue Wildebeest, Nyala, and Red Duiker. When I read about this before my holiday, I thought this would be perfect for me as a birder, and perfect turned out to be an understatement.
I stayed at Sunset Lodge, and by the looks of it seemed practically brand new. The lodge was small, private, and luxurious. My chalet was named “Red Admiral” and there were only two other chalets, the larger “Purple Emperor” and another two-sleeper named “Holy Blue”. My chalet had top class finishes including an enormous king-sized bed (more than big enough for myself, my wife and my toddler daughter to sleep on), a huge free standing bath, an outdoor rain head shower, and a beautiful patio area. The lodge is self-catering, so it was affordable for my budget, whilst at the same time being luxurious. The manager of the lodge was also very accommodating by informing me that since the “Purple Emperor” unit was unoccupied during my stay, that we could use their chalets private swimming pool, which was a hit with my wife and daughter. The units were connected by wooden boardwalks and there were a few man-made water holes where the birds would come to bath and drink.
Accommodation Rating: 8.5/10
As I entered the reserve and drove the short distance to my lodge, the first bird I saw was a small group of Crested Guineafowl, an absolute iconic bird of Northern Zululand. I could see the sand forest habitat was going to result in a good weeks’ birding. Whist I was unpacking the car I saw my second bird a Rudd’s Apalis, another Zululand Special and even though I have seen it a few times they are still beautiful and fascinating to watch.
The bird I most wanted to see on my holiday, is one that has a small range in South Africa and is quite uncommon. It is small, shy and a pink jewel of the forest. I am of course talking about the Pink-throated Twinspot, a highly sought-after species among birders, and one that many birders can struggle to find even in iconic reserves such as uMkhuze. Well, I was in for a treat. I saw them multiple times each day, and even more exciting was that they seemed to love the area around my chalet. At one stage I was showering in the outdoor shower and noticed them a few meters away from me on the ground. I shouted to my wife to come to the shower and bring my binoculars. She obliged and we both marveled at them for a while, whilst in the shower.
The next bird I wanted on my hit list, was the secretive Eastern Nicator. This bird is known for confiding within thickets, much to the frustration of avid bird photographers like myself. I soon learned that the above statement is true. I saw six of them during my stay, but only on my last morning's walk I managed to get some half-decent photos of one.
The birding was spectacular and other highlights I saw were two groups of Southern Yellow White-eyes (A lifer for me), seven species of Flycatchers (African Dusky, Ashy, Pale, Southern Black, African Paradise, Blue-mantled Crested and Grey Tit), 3 species of Bushshrike (Gorgeous, Orange-breasted and Grey-headed) and a Neergard’s Sunbird.
My biggest treat came about when I was walking early in the morning, and I suddenly heard the cry of “Pretty Georg—ie”, “Pretty Georg—ie”. I immediately knew that this was the call of the African Emerald Cuckoo, a bird I have always wanted to see. I soon located it at the top of a nearby tree, but there was a big problem. I was looking at it with the sun directly in front of me, and if I was to take a decent photo, I would have to walk straight past it and then turn around. I proceeded to gently walk past it without making eye contact, praying it would not fly away. I turned around looked up and there it was not worried at all my presence. I quickly took lots of photos, tinkling with my camera settings to get the perfect shot. The bird just posed for me and after a while, I thought can I really get any better photos than I already have. I decided to do some “pishing”, in other words making some stupid sound to attract the bird's attention, well it worked as the cuckoo stretched its neck and head up giving me a cracking photo if I do say so myself.
All in all, I recorded 76 species of birds during my stay, and as an Atlasser for the Southern African Bird Atlas Project 2 or SABAP2 I was astounded to learn that the pentad in which Kuleni Game Reserve was located in had not been atlassed even once this year. This clearly indicates to me that the lodges within the reserve are not doing enough to market themselves as prime birding locations, which is what they are. When I got home from my holiday and my friends saw my photos, they all wanted to know exactly where I had been and were very envious of the birds I had seen.
Birding Rating: 9.2/10
Kuleni Game Reserve is a true “Birders Paradise” where lots of the prized Zululand specials can be seen easily. The fact that it is a walking only reserve really pushes it into the birding stratosphere. Yes, you can walk with Giraffes there as they say, but you can see giraffes in almost any game reserve in South Africa. The real treasure of the place is their birds.
Sunset Lodge is the perfect place to stay within the reserve as already mentioned in the accommodation section of this review. I did mention I saw the Pink-throated Twinspots from the shower! Come on what are you waiting for book your holiday today.
Overall rating: 9/10
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