Walking through the tropical forest, dominated by magnificent Sycamore Figs and their impressive buttresses, there is an air of expectancy in the shady, cool interior that something rare is just around the corner. The only sounds are those of the birds going about their business and the occasional Hippo in the river.
Maybe it’s because of its location on the border with Mozambique, but Ndumo is one of those exotic places where I always expect the unusual.
And a guided walk through the North Pongola riverine forest almost always throws up something special.
On this occasion it produced a couple of specials.
One of the features of Ndumo is the brilliant skills of their guides. Utterly professional, charming and with such huge knowledge and pride in their special corner of the country, if you’re looking for that elusive Lifer, they’ll be your best bet to find it!
Their ability to mimic bird calls is second to none and our guide quickly called up a Redfronted Tinker Barbet. Although these little gems call for hour after hour, even through the stifling heat of the day, it’s usually from the top of leafy trees and they are very difficult to see unless you can call them down to the lower branches.
Blackbellied Starling was found on the edge of the forest, while we were slapping our legs from the hordes of mosquitos [apparently there are 66 different species of the winged terrors at Ndumo!), followed by a Yellowbilled Stork flying over to one of the pans.
Our guide then turned his attention to the rather distant sound of a Narina Trogon hooting. His determination to find this beautiful bird was impressive as we turned this way and that, backtracked a couple of times, and there he was, sitting high on a branch. I saw him for just an instant, but Stidy had a good view.
The other special was African Finfoot, a pair exploding down the river as the trail cuts close to the bank, but fortunately well above it given that Hippo are around and the biggest Nile Crocodiles I have ever seen are along that stretch of water.
One bird you are unlikely to see on the North Pongola walk though is the Gorgeous Bush Shrike, a clear rival for the dazzling beauty of the Trogon and, if anything, even harder to spot.
For that, your best bet is driving through the thick, spiky tangles of the Mahemane Bush/sand forest. Having heard several calls on the previous day, I eventually spotted one crawling through the thicket close to the road. The stunning red, black, green and yellow beauty sat a couple of times in little openings, providing one of the better sightings I’ve had of one of my favourite birds.
Ndumo also boasts some wonderful woodland, particularly on the road to camp and we picked up Striped Kingfisher early on, followed by another beauty, Plumcoloured Starling, Purplecrested Lourie, Gymnogene, Browncrowned Tchagra, Crested Guineafowl, Purplebanded Sunbird, Little Sparrowhawk, Black Cuckoo and Tambourine Dove. White Helmetshrike is also almost always along that road, going up or down the hill full of Silver Clusterleaf trees.
Nyamithi Pan was pretty full after all the recent rain, cutting down on numbers of birds, but we still picked up Goliath Heron, Glossy Ibis, Purple Heron, Yellow Weaver, Squacco Heron, African Spoonbill and Openbilled Stork. Wiretailed Swallows had a nest in Ezulwini Hide and were busy feeding four chicks.The second hide, near the low-level bridge, was much-changed from previous years, with the bank in front of the hide having washed away and it was not as productive as in the past.
A Large-Spotted Genet visited camp in the evening and the next morning we headed off to Red Cliffs, a favourite spot overlooking the Usuthu River and the borders of Mozambique and Swaziland. Along the way, we picked up Bluemantled Flycatcher and Natal and Bearded Robins in the thick sand forest, while Black Saw-Wing Swallows were flying around the Red Cliffs picnic site.
Pale Flycatcher and Bateleur were spotted on the Manzimbomvu Loop through the south-western Acacia woodland, while Green Pigeon was in the trees at the NRIC picnic site.
Grey Penduline Tit was also a welcome little visitor to our camp, while the much larger Great Eastern White Pelican also flew over.
One of the other mysterious things about Ndumo is how, on every trip, something very common seems to be missed! On the final morning, Yellowbreasted Apalis, which is normally all over camp in the hedges, finally made its appearance and Cardinal Woodpecker was another common bird which just snuck on to the list before we finally exited one of the places that is truly great for the soul.
Emeraldspotted Wood Dove
Whitebrowed Scrub Robin
African Fish Eagle
Great White Egret
Lesser Striped Swallow
Gorgeous Bush Shrike
Southern Black Flycatcher
Black Saw-Wing Swallow
Cinnamonbreasted Rock Bunting
Southern Greyheaded Sparrow
Redfronted Tinker Barbet
Grey Penduline Tit
Great Eastern White Pelican
African Pied Wagtail
Dark Chanting Goshawk