Sunday, May 21, 2017

Doornhoek Homestead at Zimanga

I visited the Zimanga Private Game Reserve just over a week ago. I have been to Zimanga on a few occasions, and never have I had a bad experience there. As you may know (or maybe do not know), Zimanga is a private game reserve situated in the northern KwaZulu Natal Province of South Africa that has not only the ‘big 5’ but also cheetah, wild dog and many other mammal species - with birds in relative abundance. This game reserve is ideal for the photographic enthusiast and I can’t think of a better place for photographers to visit to give their cameras some work to do. I am not going to delve too deeply into the merits of the photographic opportunities at Zimanga – I have covered these in my previous pieces – see and which were submitted by me in September 2014 and October 2016 respectfully. My colleague, Jeremy, has also submitted two blogs on Zimanga, so this reserve is well covered (please also see his blogs at and In my two blogs, I deal with the Mkhombe and Bhejane Hides and some of the game drives, so I will not cover these again (and will just touch on the Lagoon Hide that I also covered in my last blog – I have yet to visit the Umgodi Overnight Hide and the Bee-eater Hide, so will not comment on these).

Now, once my reservation with Zimanga had been confirmed, (which was at fairly short notice), I started looking at firstly the long-range weather forecast for the Mkuze/Zimanga area and it didn’t look good, and then, as the time drew closer, so the weather forecast changed and looked even bleaker and bleaker for the duration of my visit here. A massive cold front was sweeping in from the south of the country, bringing with it heavy rain over much of southern and eastern South Africa and snowfalls in the high-lying areas, with warnings of localised flooding – a weather phenomenon which is quite unusual in this part of the world during May. A few days before my visit, the forecast was for heavy rainfall that was expected for both the days I was to be at Zimanga - more of this later when I will give you a first-hand account of the accuracy of weather forecasts!

My two-night stay at Zimanga was to be at their DOORNHOEK HOMESTEAD, which had opened its doors to guests during September 2016 and this was my first visit to this homestead. This homestead consists of three air-conditioned, en-suite twin rooms, as well as an en-suite single room, also air-conditioned. The accommodation is ideal for groups of up to seven individuals and groups staying here have access to their own game viewing vehicle and guide.  Smaller groups also have the option to book the entire house for themselves and rooms can also be booked on an individual basis (which is what we did).
A big drawcard for guests staying at Doornhoek is that they can, within reason, decide on their own itinerary in terms of time-slots for activities, extending drives into the night to follow predators, or getting up extra early for a session at a nearby hide. During the day guests can relax in the beautiful rim-flow pool offering sweeping views over Zimanga and the distant Lebombo Mountains, and at night the fireplace with its comfortable seating makes it an ideal location to enjoy a glass of wine with the wide open African skies and a small fire keeping one company.

All rooms have separate desks to set up a laptop for image editing, with ample space and a variety of electricity couplings to make sure the equipment stays charged. Free Wi-Fi is available at the homestead and I found the download (is that the correct word?) speed to be pretty fast (much faster than I have at home or at the office in the city).

Meals are provided and prepared by their in-house staff and I must say that the meals here were good and because of the inclement weather, only lunch on the first day was served on the veranda overlooking the bush – all other meals were enjoyed inside the homestead in the dining area. Upon arrival, I was driven to Doornhoek by our guide, Geordie, and at the homestead it was a quick tour of the place, the do’s and don’ts and an explanation of the meal times and just a general overview of the programme.  Very briefly, what happens is this: a light lunch is served upon arrival and all soft and alcoholic drinks are for your own account (except for bottled water, tea, coffee, hot chocolate etc. which is supplied free of charge) – and this works on an ‘honesty bar’ basis (you help yourself to what you want and mark it down, to be settled upon departure). After your afternoon activity, it is back to Doornhoek, where, if time permits and you haven’t done so during your photography session, you “chimp” (for those of you who don’t know, “chimping” is a colloquial term used in digital photography to describe the habit of checking every photo on the camera display immediately after capture), or better still, if you have a lap-top with you, you can download your images onto your computer for a better idea of what images you have, which ones you want to keep and which images must be ‘culled”!

Then it is on to dinner. Oh, I forgot – at lunch-time one of the friendly staff will approach you with the menu options for that evening’s dinner and there are choices for starters and mains and then dessert. This is not a culinary blog, so you’ll have to take my word for it – the food was good, very good. I don’t eat dessert (or that’s what I would like to think), but without a shred of guilt, I broke my rule on the very first night by having not one, but two slices of home-made lemon meringue and on the second night a delicious peppermint crisp dessert. Just a word on the meals, here there are no airs and graces, just wholesome (and plentiful) food that was excellent.

Hereunder some images, courtesy of Zimanga, of the Doornhoek Homestead:-




Dining Area

So, what of the activities? On the first afternoon, the wind had picked up quite a bit, but the sky was clear, so we decided to visit the Lagoon Hide whilst the light was still good. Not to delve too deeply into the merits of the Lagoon Hide (which has been covered in previous blogs), I did finally get to photograph an African Fish Eagle. However, (and there is always a ‘however”), he/she didn’t want to play ball, as it were, and decided to stay on the ‘wrong’ side of the hide, quite far away and half hidden in some grass (‘wrong’ because you have a ‘front’ and ‘back’ to this hide, depending on time of day). There was also some activity from Pied Kingfishers and these little chaps kept me quite busy for a lot of the time. A juvenile Striated Heron (formerly a Green-Backed heron) also paid us a brief visit, but this too, was on the ‘wrong’ side of the hide. During our entire session here, the wind seemed to be blowing quite strong, but this did not detract from our experience (and in fact maybe added a little comic relief, with the Pied Kingfishers being a bit wind-blown). Luckily the light stayed good for the entire afternoon and there was no rain, so it was a fairly successful session here.

Hereunder just a small cross-section of some of the images from the afternoon session at the Lagoon Hide:-

African Fish Eagle

Pied Kingfishers

Striated Heron
The following morning we had decided to visit the Scavengers Hill Hide (my first time) and the thing about this hide is that one has to be in place whilst it was still dark, (so that the birds would not see human activity and stay away because of this). We promptly departed Doornhoek at 05:30 (remember, it is May and 05:30 is still pitch dark) and shortly thereafter were in position at the hide, just Janice and myself, no-one else. The hide is elevated above the Doornhoek Valley, and the sweeping view from the top serves as a backdrop to this vulture restaurant. To date, five species of vultures and numerous other scavengers, both avian and mammalian, have used the site.  The hide seats four guests, and like all the other hides at Zimanga, each station is supplied with a Manfrotto Tripod and Benro head.

So, we settled in to wait – in the darkness, with a slowly lightening sky in the east trying to break through the clouds! The wind by this time was howling, and as it grew lighter with the advent of the coming day, so I saw that it was quite heavily overcast and I didn’t expect much from this morning’s activity. How wrong I was. The first birds started arriving before it was properly light – and continued coming and going for the entire period that we were there. Unfortunately, for the four and a half hours that we were there, not a single mammal made an appearance, but what did arrive were Marabou Storks, Tawny Eagles, Woolly-necked Storks and White-backed Vultures. It seems that I am forgetting something…oh yes, and Pied Crows (lots and lots and lots of Pied Crows). My thought is that the Pied Crows were there just to spoil a perfect setting. What happened every so often, was that just as I was composing a photo and singling out one of the other birds, a crow would do one of the following:

  • photo-bomb the image from in front of the bird I wanted
  • photo-bomb the image from behind the bird I wanted
  • gather in large numbers and photo-bomb around the bird I wanted
  • get so close to the hide that 90% of my view-finder was of an out-of-focus crow (I think they were admiring their images in the one-way glass a few inches from my nose), or
  • hassle the bird that I wanted, to such an extent that the bird either flew away or changed to a position that I didn’t want. The only birds that were exempt from being interfered with by the crows were the Marabou Storks.

I suppose half the fun was trying to get images without having a crow in the image as well, and I must admit, I did chuckle every now and then when a crow snuck up behind a vulture and pulled a tail-feather! The light unfortunately was not good, with the sky being quite heavily overcast, but there was the odd, very few short occasions, when the sun did break through the clouds and the light was quite pleasant for photography.

Hereunder some photos of that session at the Scavengers Hill Hide:-

Woolly-necked Stork

Marabou Stork

Tawny Eagle

White-backed Vulture

Tawny Eagle and Pied Crow

White-backed Vulture

Pied Crow

Wooly-necked Storks

When Geordie came to fetch us at about 10:00, it was obvious to me that the weather was going to turn even worse and I did not hold out much hope for my last two sessions here…and as it turned out, I was right.

That afternoon we went for a drive to see if we could find some wild dogs, which we duly did. Not to belabour a point, the weather was terrible and because of this we left Doornhoek straight after lunch, at about 14:00. The wind was howling and every now and then a drop or two of rain fell – and to make matters even more unpleasant, it was quite cold. So much so that when we found the dogs, the light was very poor, the dogs hardly inter-acted with each other, choosing to rather take cover in some long grass, so no decent images were taken here. This below my best of a bad bunch:-

To make a long story short, we eventually raced back to Doornhoek as the rain had now begun to fall quite steadily and we were back about two hours after we had set off. That night the weather really showed itself to be a spoiler, and heavy winds and rain continued throughout the night. We had decided at dinner that evening that we would make a call at about 07:00 the next morning as to what activity we would do, but because of the inclement weather, I decided at that time to call it a day. A game drive would have been very unpleasant (as animals, like humans, also take cover in the rain and wind) the light was very poor and I didn’t fancy getting myself or my camera gear wet. I had the option that instead of a game drive, of visiting the Bee-eater Hide (or any of the other hides), but alas, the same conditions applied here, so after breakfast I reluctantly packed up and we left for home.

Geordie had by this time procured a ‘closed’ vehicle (as opposed to the open game drive vehicle) for our transfer back to the gate – and what do we see en route? Lions, four or five of them, looking very bedraggled and not happy with the weather conditions. Janice had her camera with her and took a few images, but I didn’t bother, the light, in my opinion, was just too bad.

Now, the severe weather notwithstanding, the two hide sessions that I did have, were great. The Doornhoek Lodge and the staff were all friendly and helpful and the food was good. The fact that the long-term forecast was for bad weather for my entire visit, proved wrong. I did have clear weather on my first afternoon, and reasonable weather on my first morning, so I am pleased with my visit and would visit Zimanga again at the drop of a hat.