Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Mkuze Game Reserve - Zululand

The Mkuze Game Reserve in northern Zululand has been undergoing an impressive upgrading.
Mkhuze Game Reserve is a marriage between the Isimangaliso Wetland Park who manage the land, whilst Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife are responsible for the management of the wildlife and the camp infrastructure.

Isimangoliso set the ball rolling with upgrading of the road system, which included the resurfacing of the primary tarred loop and entrance roads. This followed by the hides being reconstructed and then the two entrance gates to the Park upgraded and rebuilt. The craft stores for the local community that have been built at the two gates have yet to be commissioned.
The standard of this refurbishment is excellent. The three main hides now have in the main, secure access from the car parks as well as a secure outer enclosure with a modern chemical toilet. The path is concreted with a smooth well-made finish, then into the gated tunnel which also has a concreted surface suitable for wheeled access. The largest and most popular hide, KuMasinga (Masinga) has two toilets and even a safe enclosed picnic area. 

The Nsumo Pan picnic site has a relatively new flush toilet with handbasins and a concreted pathway to the water's edge. All suitable for wheelchair access.

I have reservations with regards to the distance here between the carpark and the pan, through dense riparian forest. Mkuze Game Reserve now has the 'big five' including cheetah and wild dog which could pose a security risk, with in particular children. The two hides on Nsumo Pan have shorter more open access but visitors are still vulnerable in my opinion.

Mantuma has become a work in progress as from mid 2019. A reliable thatching contractor has to date rethatched all the chalets beautifully,

on my visit early November, they were in the throes of completing the main office complex. The resthuts will follow being thatched after that.

After a seeming dearth of maintenance funding, the chalets all have refurbished floors, some painted, new ¾ beds and linen,

new large Defy fridges and plug in 3 plate stoves with ovens. New microwave ovens and our chalet had a new kettle and toaster, this along with new utensils too.

New mosquito screens have been installed on the doors and windows in most units, here I have concerns that the sliding framework is too flimsy. On arrival one frame on a window in our chalet was distorted and not able to close properly and they are brand new. They need to be slid in order to open the windows. The windows need to be closed when leaving the chalets due to possible incursion from baboons and or monkeys, so lots of sliding going on.

There is still a lot of general maintenance to be done, but for the chalets it is more like retaining door catches and odd fittings that have been damaged over time that need fixing. The staff seem to have a new enthusiasm and pride in their work now that these repairs have been accomplished and they don't have to bear the brunt of criticism for the lack of maintenance from guest, which was in any event  totally out of their hands.
The tented camp suffered extensive damage last month when a very severe windstorm came trough, ripping tents, blowing trees over and causing mayhem in general. Friends of mine were visiting whilst we were there, their tent and fittings were all in good condition, theirs could be the exception though, as Camp Management advised that the damage was fairly extensive amongst the tents.

Our visit was primarily to see birds and secure some general wildlife photographs from the hides. Despite there being some surface water about from recent rains which tends to disperse the animals, Kumasinga hide was relatively productive.

It was lovely to see Nsumo Pan full and the Mkuze River with a bit of a flow, with the vegetation wearing its best shades of spring. Severe fires in September had devastated large tracts of the Park which are now firmly on the mend.

I see that since our visit on 5 – 8 November the Park has had an additional 20 mm of rain. That should make the other two hides worth visiting as they were virtually dry and don't have water pumped to them as does KuMasinga.
I visited eMshophi camp site at the entrance gate finding it neat and the ablutions clean and way better than expected.

The adjacent swimming pool was clean with a jungle gym and swings for children there. There were only few campers on site, but all were connected to the camp electrics which the Honorary Officer Corps had recently repaired.

Back to Mantuma and a visit to the swimming pool there. Bright and sparkly with some residue of wind blown sand on the steps etc. Grass cover around the pool and in general in the camp is fairly sparse.

All in all a huge improvement in facilities since our previous visit two years ago. With the reception and office in chaos with the thatching, their shop only had a few fridges and freezers running, just with cooldrinks, water and ice available. I am not sure what it will be like when back properly operational later this month. Best not to rely on stocks there.

The Rhino-dine-O was operational and did not seem to close as per their break schedule and was open all day whilst we were there. There were some meetings going on with a largish group, so that could have been the reason.

The best photographic opportunities we had was from the hides.

I decided to exit to the east at the Ophansi gate, but unless you are going on to Sodwana or that way I feel the road onto the N2 out the eMshophi gate to be a lot better. Besides a badly potholed tar section from Ophansi, then the corrugated dirt road section, once on the main tar road to Hluhluwe, the go slow humps are very aggressive, best at 10 KPH over those and they are numerous. I look forward to some feedback as this lovely game reserve heads towards having acceptable accommodation, hopefully with ongoing maintenance.
All photographs by Jeremy and Lana Williamson

Monday, May 27, 2019

A Focus on Thanda – by Keith Marallich

Last week I visited Thanda Game Reserve in the province of KwaZulu/Natal for a few nights – a wise move! I wanted to visit at this time of the year as I find that the summer months can be too hot on some of the days, especially out on an open safari vehicle. (On that note, and in my opinion, the two best months, weather-wise anywhere in South Africa are April and May). Thanda is a private game reserve that is situated some 260-odd kilometres north of Durban. Thanda has three lodge options: Villa iZulu, the Thanda Tented Camp and then the venue that I stayed at, the Thanda Safari Lodge.

How it works is this – we make a reservation for you and you arrive at the entrance gate into Thanda, (and if you can’t get there under your own steam, we will arrange transfers for you) and they then take care of you right up until your departure. A staff member collected us from the gate (oh, and your vehicle is kept in secure parking, safe from wildlife) and we were driven directly to the Safari Lodge. After completing the check-in formalities, we were shown to our suite. Each suite at Safari Lodge has a spacious lounge, master bedroom, double-sided fireplace and an indulgent bathroom, with a beautiful bath, an indoor and an outdoor shower.

An aerial view of a Safari Lodge suite - image courtesy of Thanda

Safari Suite Lounge

Private plunge pool at a Safari Suite

Each of the suites have a similar private relaxation area 


Bathroom - image courtesy of Thanda

Thanda Safari Lodge’s shared or communal areas include an inviting lounge, expansive deck and library overlooking a water feature, impressive wine cellar and the Thanda Safari Spa.

Dining room with outside deck

Bar area

Even though I did not stay here on this occasion (I had stayed here previously a long time ago), the Thanda Tented Lodge offers an authentic safari adventure with fifteen luxury safari tents in a bush setting, enhanced by flickering firelight and lanterns guiding your way at night. This is bush living as nature intended: open and inviting with unparalleled closeness to the bush - its sights, smells and sounds. Each of the tents has a private sun deck and en-suite canvas bathroom. The shared areas here include a large rim-flow pool, a spa tent, atmospheric Hemingway-style lounge and dining area.

The sole-use Villa iZulu is a luxurious homestead that features five suites and includes a heated swimming pool, wine cellar, library, a games room and a spacious viewing deck overlooking a water hole. It’s the ultimate safari hideaway for guests needing total privacy or for families, friends and company getaways.

Meals, well, what can I say? This little piece is not going to be an opinion of their culinary offerings – I am not qualified for that! What I will briefly touch on is the different meals…

Breakfast was really, really good – a selection of muesli, grains, cheeses, cold meats, fruit, yoghurts, jams, breads, rolls (need I go on)  and then a hot selection off the menu, which in my opinion could be the envy of some fine restaurants in a city, never mind a game lodge far from the city. If my memory serves, the choices here were about eight different choices, really, really good. What mostly impressed me was that one could also order a cappuchino or espresso which was excellent.

Lunches consisted of a platter with various dishes that changed daily and included selections of salads, starch, veggies, proteins, sauces and followed by dessert.

For dinners one has a choice of two dishes from each of soup, starters, mains and dessert – simply outstanding.

Just something that warrants a mention is the staff – a more friendly group one could not wish for. They were very helpful and friendly, always willing to please. So, that is it for the accommodation and food – what about the main element (well for me, the main element), the wildlife!

The game drives were very good and here special thanks must go to our guide, Peace (a very knowledgeable person, well-spoken, friendly and a very good driver) and our tracker, Zeblon, who had a good sense of humour coupled with eagle eyes. This pair worked so well together and afforded us some very good sightings out in the bush. Our game drives were the usual three-hour or so early morning and late afternoon drives, which has been proven over and over again to be the best time to look for wildlife. I am not going to give a blow by blow account of every drive and what we saw – this small cross section of images below hopefully will give you an idea. One occasion I do want to highlight though is when we went out looking for lion early one morning. Peace and Zeblon knew the general area where these animals were, but finding them in very thick bush was no easy matter and the eagle eyes of Zeblon, following obscure tracks and Peace doing some serious off-road driving, brought us into contact with a pride of eleven lions that had killed a zebra during the night. This photo below is an example of the steep incline we had to get up to find the lions, and then down again when some of the youngsters in the group decided to head for the open road (the vehicle in this image arrived after we had found the lions and we were the only two vehicles at the sighting for probably an hour or so).

One of eleven lions at this particular sighting

We had some close encounters with elephant, cheetah, jackal, birds, general plains game in abundance, hyenas and and and…

Very young rhino calf with his/her mother

Oh, and you may be interested to know that you don’t only have to go on a game drive to see wildlife. This sample of photos below were all taken at the lodge, either from or near my suite or from the central communal area – the elephants paid a visit to the water feature during lunch on one of the days.

Just a frog...

Nyala near to the path to some of the suites

At the water feature during lunch

and of course one has to get into the shallow water

This reptile stayed on the light support for two full days, following the shade around the pole

I shared my pool with these three Black-capped Bul-buls

Spotted bush snake - totally harmless

This chap was certainly a 'peeping tom' - he spied on us most of the day. Here he is perched on the door handle of the door leading between the bathroom and outside shower

If ever you’re looking for a safari, you could do no worse than putting Thanda on your list, choosing between the budget friendly Tented Camp, the more luxurious Safari Lodge and if you’re a group or extended family, the Villa Zulu is the one to choose – you will not be disappointed at any of these three options. Whilst the level of luxury and accommodation differs, the most important aspect, the game drives, are the same, no matter which lodge you’re staying at. Lastly, on this topic, there is no rush at any of the sightings to get to the next sighting or to make way for newcomers to get into the sighting – with all our high profile animal sightings, there was no limit on the time we could spend with the animals and I suspect that if I wanted to stay three hours at a particular sighting, this would not have been a problem – maybe the other couple on the vehicle may have objected, but I don’t know, this was never put to the test!