Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Zimanga, an Eden for Wildlife - Keith Marallich

One of my colleagues in the office had recently alerted me to a new game reserve called “Zimanga”, and suggested that I have a “look at it” – boy, am I glad I did, I thought that I knew most (all?) of the reserves in KwaZulu Natal, but I had never heard of this one. In my defence, they had only officially opened their reserve during July 2014!

So it was with great excitement that I went to stay at Mkuze (Ghost Mountain Inn) for two nights so that I could get in a game drive and two hide sessions at Zimanga, to “check it out”, as it were. At this stage Zimanga does not offer accommodation, but the town of Mkuze is no more than a 15 minute drive from the main gate to Zimanga, so no problems there. Zimanga is the first reserve in Africa to be designed specifically to satisfy the needs of wildlife photographic enthusiasts as well as safari clients who have a deeper appreciation for “the bush”, (both of whom crave an unhurried and exclusive experience). Spread over 6000 hectares of bushveld, fever tree forests and rolling hills, Zimanga is bisected by the Mkuze River and is home to a variety of animals and birds. From leopards to wild dogs and elephants to cheetah, nearly every sought-after sighting is accounted for. For the birding enthusiast, there are over 400 bird species recorded at the reserve. 

On my fist afternoon we went on a game drive, which produced some animals, among them an elephant with fairly large tusks within a few feet from our vehicle. There were also some sightings of those animals that are now under immense threat from poachers and any number of warthog, impala, giraffe, wildebeest and other animals. The following afternoon we split the afternoon activity between an early hide session and a game drive, which produced wild dogs, among others. Game drives at Zimanga are in an open safari vehicle with three rows of seats behind the driver. As a rule the game drives on Zimanga limit the number of clients to only two people per row. This allows for more room for kit as well as the ability to “shoot” from both sides of the vehicle without anybody sitting directly next to you. This is ideal for photographers and non-photographers alike who enjoy a bit more space and freedom of movement. As a reserve Zimanga encourages clients to spend as much time as they like at any particular sighting. Due to the very low number of vehicles on the property at any one time you will never have to abandon a sighting to “make room” for another vehicle. The guides are all experienced as well as accomplished photographers in their own right so they will be able to position the vehicle in the best light as well as anticipating any action that is about to occur. Should a subject be inaccessible from one of the tracks then Zimanga vehicles are permitted to go off-road to get you into that perfect shooting position.  

Hereunder some photos taken by me on my drive and a half (remember, a full afternoon on the first day and half a drive on the second day):


This the bull that was at one stage almost within touching distance from us


Out in the open plains


With this image I wish to thank our guide, Brendon Jennings, for positioning the vehicle so that we could
photograph into the light with the moody, dusty background


and again, thanks Brendon


The collared wild dog - but he was the only one to pose this nicely for my camera
 Just a quick aside on the wild dogs:- this population of wild dogs is managed by Wildlife ACT which actively advances conservation by initiating, implementing and managing monitoring projects on wildlife reserves which do not have the means to do so themselves, and they do so free of charge. To fund their monitoring projects, Wildlife ACT runs a wildlife volunteer program. Volunteers who join in conservation work get both a wildlife experience and make a contribution to conservation through their time, efforts and funds. Conservation volunteers assist their monitors in their daily tracking and monitoring of endangered wildlife species such as the African wild dog, cheetah, black rhino, as well as priority species such as elephant, lion, leopard and many more. African Wild Dogs were introduced to Zimanga and the initial reintroduction took place following the need to relocate a pack of three remaining animals from a pack in Mkuze Game Reserve, which was a welcome step for the KwaZulu-Natal managed meta-population. There are now four African wild dog populations that are managed within KwaZulu-Natal’s protected areas: Tembe Elephant Park, Mkuze Game Reserve, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park and Zimanga Private Game Reserve. Because of their rarity, some of the dogs are fitted with tracking collars, and this one in the photo above had one of these. I don’t particularly like to photograph wild animals with collars, but in this case I’ll make an exception.

However, for me personally, the truly memorable experience at Zimanga is their two hides that are currently in use. These hides are unique in their design and execution and are producing great photographs (I have seen photos from some well-known and reputable wildlife photographers, and these are the ones that I am referring to). One of these photographers is Grant Atkinson, and this is what he had to say on this subject:

Over the course of my photographic career, I have visited many hides. Even so, I found myself completely surprised when I entered Mkhombe Hide for the first time. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dark, light-absorbing interior, and to take in the comfortable chairs on wheels. All photography in Mkhombe takes place through a pane of super high-quality insulating, one-way glass, which means that shy subjects don’t get startled away. Having already seen the impressive quality of images obtained by Charl Senekal, I knew that I need not worry about any optical degradation. Setting up tripods perfectly is easy, due to the smooth and even floor. Despite the rising heat outside, we stayed cool and comfortable in Mkhombe thanks to a solar-powered air-conditioner. There is a heightened sense of anticipation when you are in position, waiting for subjects to appear, and in this regard, Mkhombe didn’t disappoint. A morning session produced 3 different kingfisher species, starlings, oxpeckers, honeyguides, waxbills, firefinches, doves and flycatchers, to name a few. The mammal checklist included vervet monkey, warthog, impala and a single elephant. At Mkhombe, your camera is virtually at water-level, and the background is a distant tree-line. We kept very busy with the variety of subjects, and their reflections. We also had interaction amongst some visitors, and some splash-bathing birds to test our reflexes”.

A few weeks ago I had a young French couple on tour with me and we visited a hide in the southern section of the Hluhluwe uMfolozi Park, where we saw one rhino, some zebra, wildebeest and nyala, and after our hour-long visit there, the young lady told me that this was probably the best hour of her life. Imagine if she had spent this time at Zimanga, I wonder what she would have said then, as I felt the same way about these Zimanga hides.
 
Both of the hides have been designed and built by the owners of Zimanga and Bence Mate who is not only a former winner of the coveted BBC wildlife photographer of the year award in 2010 but is a world authority in hide design, construction and photography. Bence has previously built hides on his farm in his native Hungary as well as Costa Rica and South America, but these are his first hides in Africa. The photographers are invisible to their subjects behind this specially imported one-way glass so as not to startle the subject with any movements or sounds. Just a word on this glass – I was a bit, (but only a little bit) sceptical of this glass, but when I saw this and experienced it, all doubts were removed – it really is something else! 


Photographers are seated on comfortable executive-style chairs, which glide effortlessly and quietly across the wood laminate flooring. A solar-powered air conditioning unit situated in the roof of the hide controls the temperature and humidity within.  The hides are fairly spacious (but can only accommodate a maximum of four persons) and soundproofed with carpeting on the walls to muffle the sound. The carpets themselves are inlaid with a fine silver thread to eliminate mildew growth in such close proximity to a water source. There are some good quality loan tripods in the hides for the use of clients – three in Mkombe and two in Bhejane. These hides allow photographers a non-intrusive method of wildlife photography and although the subjects are free-roaming, and hence no sighting is guaranteed, the hides tip the balance heavily in favour of the photographer to get that amazing shot.


That's Yours Truly inside the hide with one of the borrowed tripods


This Spectacled Weaver wasn't watching me, he was having an argument with himself in the glass - all he
could see was his own reflection!


The entrance to one of the hides
  
There are plans in place to construct and open up more hides including, but not limited to, the following:
  • The Large Mammal Hide: For capturing animals such as giraffe, buffalo, rhino and elephant from ground level as they drink from and occupy a waterhole.
  • The Vulture Restaurant: Situated in an area of high vulture density, this hide should attract over 100 birds at a time when carrion is present.
  • The Lagoon Hide: Positioned offshore in the largest of Zimanga’s three lakes this hide will be similar to Bence’s Theatre Hide in Hungary, attracting animals like hippos and crocodiles as well as a huge variety of water birds and raptors. (I have it on good authority that the construction of this hide is progressing well and will probably be open for use early next year).

Zimanga has a diverse range of wildlife including four of the “Big Five” and also including cheetah and wild dogs (they don’t have lion, and in my view this is a good decision, as in other areas where lion are present, one finds that the numbers of cheetah and wild dogs diminishes – they are killed by the lions!). The reserve has plenty to offer in terms of unbelievable sightings, from the smallest shrew to the largest of all African mammals, the elephant and over 400-plus recorded bird species.

So, who should visit Zimanga?

(1)   Well, for starters, serious NATURE/WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHERS of course. One just has to have a look at Zimanga’s web-site or Facebook page to see the quality of the images produced by advanced wildlife photographers.  

(2)   Just ORDINARY PHOTOGRAPHERS as well. Being a bit of a photographic enthusiast myself (albeit with limited equipment) I think I got some fairly decent photos. However, the ease with which one is able to photograph from the two hides means that any person with a camera has the opportunity to get close to small birds, something that is very difficult under normal circumstances. Oh, and not only birds, we were visited at one of the hides by some warthog, which I also managed to photograph. Among some of the photos at the bottom of this are some photos taken with a “point and shoot” very basic camera. This is the type that most people pop into their trouser or shirt pockets to capture some memories of their trip to South Africa, and it works.

(3)   BIRDERS, well yes, of course birders. I have been guiding in South Africa since the mid 90’s and I am sure that some of the birds that I saw there were a first for me (I don’t keep a record, so I may be wrong). One I am sure that I had never seen before was the Pink-throated Twinspot, but there may be more – so close, so many.

(4)   NATURE ENTHUSIASTS – those people who have a deeper appreciation for “the bush”, and who crave an unhurried and exclusive experience, whether in the hides or on a game drive. People who don’t mind watching a particular animal for the sheer joy of it.
These four photos below were all taken with a "point & shoot" basic camera - no bells, no whistles, (and probably no Wildlife Photographer of the Year award either), but just to illustrate that these cameras too will capture your memories:





If this above is for the persons who should visit Zimanga, one must now ask who shouldn’t visit Zimanga? Easy, it is those people who want to see as many animals as they can in as short time as possible, who don’t have the patience to OBSERVE the animals and birds, but who just want to get back home and maybe list all the animals/birds that they saw in Africa, without understanding their behavior or properly “seeing” them. Maybe those people who think that it is only the “big 5” that are worthy of seeing, and if these are not seen, then the safari was not a success. There are some people like that!

For those who may be interested, I was photographing with was my Nikon D90 and my entry level Nikon 80-400 mm f4 - 5.6 lens, as this is all I have. With the Mkombe hide, one is about 6 metres from the drinking edge and with the Bhejane hide you get a bit closer, about 4.5 metres from the drinking edge. Maybe, just maybe, someone somewhere has a spare 500mm or 600mm f4 lens lying around – I did not get the shots with the buttery smooth out of focus background that I wanted, and this I should get with a top quality f4 lens …

So, hereunder, some of my photos from the two hides – I really enjoyed taking them and cannot wait to return:


This warthog was one of quite a few that called at the hide during the course of the morning


Brown-hooded Kingfisher

A Jameson's Firefinch and a Blue Waxbill

Two Yellow-fronted Canaries (but don't quote me on this!)

A Hamerkop - when he arrived at the hide, all the little guys left, so we had only him with us for about
20 minutes. When he flew off, the small birds returned.

Red-billed Oxpecker

My pride and joy and a first for me - a Pink-throated Twinspot

Emerald-spotted Wood-dove

Blue Waxbills

Speckled Mousebird

Black-collared Barbet

Crested Barbet

Acacia Pied Barbet

White-bellied Sunbird

Golden-breasted Bunting - I can't remember how I got such a close-up photo, maybe he also wandered up the the glass?

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