As a bad bird watcher, thank you again Simon Barnes for the terminology, I headed off on a quest to the seaside town of Mtunzini, only ninety minutes on the highway north of Durban. I had done my research and gathered some local knowledge from Leigh Eggars of ‘About the Bush’. I had also visited before back in 2006 so was relatively familiar with the area.

The town itself is picturesque, quiet and clean. The Zulu translation of the towns name means ‘place of shade’. On arrival during mid morning there did not seem to be any shade from the hot sun as temperatures soared. It has all amenities needed for a short break, choices of accommodation, grocery stores and restaurants. I had opted to stay within the towns nature reserve, Umlalazi, in one of its log cabins. I thought this gave me my best chance of getting to see the Palmnut Vulture.

As it was hot I decided that the first thing to do was to take a stroll along the board-walk to the beach. Here I could feel the Indian Ocean splash over my feet. The cabins sit within indigenous bush and close to sand dunes. However you cannot cross these to get to the beach so its best to drive the short distance to the car park. On reaching the car park at the board-walk it was very busy. There was also litter including broken glass which shocked me. There were signs everywhere saying ‘no alcohol and no loud music’. These were clearly not being ‘policed’. I parked up and headed quickly to the beach. Again it was busy with people making the most of the holiday season. After strolling along the hot sand and feeling the warmth of the ocean I headed back to the car.

Following my local knowledge in the late afternoon I headed for the lagoon area of the nature reserve. I walked amongst the mangroves and along the edge of the lagoon. There were plenty of people out and about, fishing and water skiing, so I decided to head off on the loop roads away from the crowds. I came across birds of all sizes, from woolly necked stalks to kingfishers, however the Palmnut Vulture was evading me. Here too at various points where fisherman had been there was litter. It was sad to see vervet monkeys helping themselves to the human left-overs. After nearly colliding with a mountain biker I decided my best bet was to head back to the Raphia Palm Forest.

In contrast to the lagoon the Raphia Palm Forrest was peaceful and litter free. Only the noise of birds and insects filled the air. This area has been declared a national monument, I had always assumed it contained a man made monument. The palms themselves are the natural monument. As I walked within the forest the breeze picked up and palms swayed and their rustling noise joined the other sounds of nature. I scoured the top fronds and looked through them in my quest for any sign of a vulture. On reaching the end of the forest I turned around and re-walked the trail.

The mountain biker that I narrowly missed in the lagoon area was now laying in my path. I coughed a few times so as I did not startle her as I approached. She was resting and had not crashed, much to my relief. I asked her if she was local, she was, and if she had seen any Palmnut Vultures. We chatted for a while but her answers were not encouraging. She had not seen a vulture for a couple of years, though this was not to say they were no longer in the area. Places where she had biked and rode horses were now fenced off due to mineral mines very close to the reserve. Her theory was that since the mining had commenced the birds had moved north up the coast.

After a long hot day I headed back into town to quench my thirst at the Buchaneer Pub where locals were doing the same thing. From here it was down to the Fat Cat Restaurant for a supper of hake & calamari. The food was great although I could not help but think that the man, who I assumed was the owner, could have done with a visit from ‘Hells Kitchen’ Gordon Ramsey.

Before dawn I retraced my steps, visited the beach, lagoon and Raphia Palm forest in a last effort to spot the elusive vulture. Sadly no joy for this bad bird watcher.

On reflection it was probably a bad time for this quest. I am sure that the peak holiday season had added hugely to the crowds, which in turn had produced the excess noise and litter. It was also extremely hot and birds in general were scarce. Maybe the mining is a factor too? I will have to do some follow up research.

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People say that Africa has an effect on your soul and Mark Henson the ‘author’ of this site is no exception. He first travelled to South Africa and the province of KwaZulu-Natal in 1993 and has been coming and going every year since. Twice now most years!

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