I have said it before and will say it again. I am, in the words of writer and journalist Simon Barnes, ‘A bad bird watcher’. I am a bad bird watcher in my opinion because I know so few birds both here at home and in KwaZulu Natal and wish I knew more. I have a little knowledge which is generally known to be dangerous in any field. My reasons for visiting Mavela Game Lodge were not based solely on the fact that they specialise in birding. The lodge is inside the Zululand Reserve which has abundant game including what is commonly known as the ‘Big Five’. I wanted an all round experience and am always happy with what ever flies or walks my way.
Checking in early at some places can cause a problem or mean a lengthy wait for a room. I had hinted that I might arrive early here and as it turned out I was very early. Louise who greeted me was not fazed by my early arrival. She had even arranged for a light lunch to be made up for me just in case. As I had arrived before any other guests Louise said I had the freedom of the lodge. I opted to wander the main building and was taken aback by the views from the main deck beyond its huge bi-folding doors. Since there was no one about and the temperature was soaring I even took a swim in the pool.
I opted to take my lunch to my tent, sit on my deck, eat and relax. The scene is incredibly tranquil and if it were not for the abundant bird life I may have taken a siesta. Blue waxbills, bulbuls, starlings and golden breasted buntings all drank and bathed in a bird bath adjacent to my tent. Tent is an understatement. Yes its canvas, but with twin beds, en-suite bathroom and shaded private deck it’s really more than just a tent. A curious pin tailed whydah bird keeps flying to a near by aloe and checking me out. Then a noisy red billed ox-pecker lands on my tent and shrieks. I can see a family of warthog and a couple of vervet monkeys drinking from another bird bath. The ox-pecker is warning them of my presence. Down to my right a flash of colour catches my eye. It’s a bird I have never seen before, a melba finch. I sit and watch not one but a pair scratching around for food.
Being a bad watcher in the heat of the African afternoon sun makes time fly by. Its already time for afternoon tea and to meet up with Andre my guide. He is a local young man, mid twenties, and has been at Mavela for two years. He is what I would call a ‘proper birder’. His knowledge though is not limited to birds. Stopping at a journey of giraffes he tells me, amongst other things, something I have never heard. “Do you wear flight socks?” He asks. Funnily enough I do. “Did you know that flight socks and fighter pilot suits were designed and developed based on the skin of a giraffes legs? Because of the high blood pressure of the giraffe due to its overall size and the size of it heart, blood would normally gather in its legs. Its legs though have unusually tight skin forcing the blood back up into the body” he explains.
I ask him why some thorns on some trees are oversized. “These are umbrella thorn trees, known in Afrikaans as haak-en-steek. Translated this means when you brush passed them they hook and prick you” he tells me. “The cause though of the swollen thorns is that fire ants lay their eggs in the hollow thorn, it’s a process of symbiosis. When the ant hatch they defend the tree, like eating aphids that want to eat the trees leaves” He tells me this with the aid of a swollen thorn in hand.
During our last drive we were lucky enough to spot something I did not expect. A mother cheetah with three adolescent cubs. It was one of those wow sightings. We sat with them as they lay in the sun. Then as mum continued to lay and keep a look out the cubs played. They chased each other and rolled in the rich dark brown soil. Then mum decided it was time to go and the cubs followed her into the bush for shade.
It’s time for a couple of confessions as I am still a bad bird watcher, but now I am one with a small list of birding highlights. From ostrich to southern black tit, from lappet faced vulture to eagle owl. And now I have written in my terrible handwriting: Dusky lark, bushveld pipit, yellow bellied eremomelo and pink throated twin spot, amongst many others. My terrible hand writing also means I could not do justice to the many facts that Andres (the bird-man-of Mavela) shared with me.