Zimanga Private Game Reserve lies in the heart of the Zululand bushveld and is close to the town of Mkuze. It is a bird watchers paradise that has three carefully designed photographic hides that allows the photographer to be at eye-level with the birds as they come down to drink and bathe. Excellent game viewing is also possible with Wild Dog being one of the top highlights.
Out of the darkness of the night, the leopardess appeared into the filtered glow of the spotlight and moved through the long dry grass without a sound. She paused briefly, looked back over her shoulder and then started to climb over the jumble of boulders that covered the hillside. She eventually stopped at the entrance to a small cave where she coughed a greeting and then flopped down onto her side, exposing her soft white belly. Another cough by her, called two tiny balls of fluff out of the deepness of the cave and wobbling on unsure paws the cubs headed to her exposed belly to start suckling. Sitting in a land-cruiser 75 meters away from the sighting and barely daring to breathe, Charl Senekal and I broke into broad grins that hardly showed the true levels of our excitement! This was the first time that these two cubs had been seen by anyone and at only a few weeks old this was a tremendous find!
1 of 11: Crested Guineafowl.
Deciding not to overstay our welcome, we left the leopards and headed back along a twisting network of roads to the entrance of the reserve. En-route, sightings of two separate pairs of porcupine and a large Cape buffalo herd slowed our arrival and gave Charl, the owner of the reserve, a chance to tell me more about his dreams for Zimanga. At 6000 hectares, Charl aims to ensure that that Zimanga is Africa’s first and foremost game reserve that focuses primarily on photographers. Still in its early years of development, there are plans for increasing the size of the reserve and the building of a small lodge. At present however, the main focus is on developing a network of photographic hides that give unparalleled opportunity for photographing a wide diversity of bird and animal species. Two bird photographic hides are already in place and the construction of the lagoon hide has almost been completed. In addition, a vulture-viewing hide and a large mammal-viewing hide are being considered. As an added bonus, the Senekal family has what is probably the largest private collection of aloes in the world and when these are in full bloom during the winter months, over one hundred species of birds have been recorded in the garden in a single day, providing amazing bird photography opportunities.
2 of 11: White-Bellied Sunbird.
Having arrived at Zimanga earlier that afternoon, I had the privilege of testing the Bhejane bird hide where I photographed 14 different bird species in the space of an hour and a half. What is more, I could see that the hides had been very carefully designed, giving me the chance to photograph birds at eye-level with beautiful clear backgrounds and crisp light. Blue Waxbills, Emerald Spotted Wood-Doves, Speckled Mousebirds, Crested Guineafowls, Yellow Weavers, Yellow-Fronted Canaries and Black-Eyed Bulbuls were just a few of the species photographed and although we heard the Pink-Throated Twinspots, they did not show themselves at the waters edge. What made the experience in the hide even better was that both Charl and Brendon Jennings, the main guide on Zimanga, are excellent photographers and humorous hosts and they provided constant photographic tips while telling wonderful stories of their adventures in the bush.
3 of 11: Blue Waxbill.
Emerging from the hide near sunset, Brendon then drove us across to the edge of a large dam, where light snacks and a cold refreshing ale where enjoyed against a pink-sky backdrop, grunting hippo, calling African Fish Eagles and flocks of flying African Sacred Ibis, African Openbills and Yellow-Billed Storks. This was indeed Africa at its best! It was from this setting that Charl and I had then set off in the hope of locating the leopard and her hidden lair.
4 of 11: Flat-Crowned Acacia.
The following morning and in eager anticipation, I was ready for the morning game drive well before dawn and a little later met Brendon in the aloe garden where White-Bellied, Scarlet Chested and Collared Sunbirds were already drinking the rich nectar from the brightly colored flowers. Black-Collared Barbets and Black-Headed Orioles called loudly and were easily spotted with their respective red and yellow coloration standing out from the greenery of the trees. Somewhere in the distance, a woodpecker tapped against a dead branch and a Grey-Headed Shrike and Brown-Hooded Kingfisher also called as the dawn sun rose higher into the sky.
5 of 11: Cape Glossy Starling.
On Brendon’s suggestion, we set off to the far reaches of the reserve in search of the resident pack of Wild Dogs. We drove first through open grasslands where Red-Crested Korhaans froze and stood motionless as we passed by. Leaving the openness behind us, we then entered a river course where pale yellow Fever Trees towered above and their flat-topped canopies shaded the pale blue skies from view. Rounding a bend, we found a huge old elephant bull that was casually feeding on the bark of a fever tree that it had pushed over and as we sat enjoying this peaceful setting, the pack of Wild Dogs came running right past us.
6 of 11: Wild Dog.
Hardly believing our luck in having had the dogs find us, we set off in hot pursuit as they ran through the bush in search of breakfast. For the next two hours, bumping and bouncing along in the land-cruiser, I revelled in enjoying one of my best sightings ever of these rare animals as we followed after the pack as they hunted. Although they made several attempts after Nyala and Impala the dogs were unsuccessful in catching any prey. They did however lead us past a female cheetah that was resting on top of a termite mound and she immediately leapt up to intently watch the passing dogs. Eventually tiring, the dogs settled down during mid-morning to rest in the shade of a Flat-crowned Acacia and soon a party of birds sat scolding them from the safety of the trees. Southern Yellow-Billed Hornbills led the reprimanding throng of Rattling Cisticolas, Bar-Throated Apalis’s, Tawny-Flanked Prinia’s and White-Browed Scrub-Robins, but this did not deter the dogs from enjoying a long snooze.
7 of 11: Black-Headed Oriole.
Despite the above amazing experiences, my time at the Mkhombe Hide was perhaps the most memorable. This hide has been specially built to get the most of morning light and is set amongst beautiful woodlands and it also promised to offer a very different array of birds than those seen at the Bhejane Hide. We had barely set up at the hide when a pair of Spectacled Weavers arrived and splashed and bathed for ages before they left the water to allow Red-Billed Oxpeckers, Red-Billed Queleas, Cape Glossy Starlings and a Crested Barbet the opportunity to drink. Between these, flocks of Cape Turtle Doves, Emerald Spotted Wood-Doves, Blue Waxbills and Dark Capped Bulbuls came and went in a constant procession of activity. All of the birds scattered suddenly and the reason soon became clear when a Vervet Monkey popped his head over the rim and drank deeply, while staring intently at where we were hidden behind the one-way glass. As if this was not exciting enough, a troop of Banded Mongoose then arrived and they were only chased away after a ten-minute drinking session by a large male warthog.
8 of 11: Red-Billed Oxpecker.
With all of this excitement in such a short time period, I was totally hooked on Zimanga and listening to Charl talk about the summer months when the bush was lush and green and filled to the brim with many additional migrating bird species, I was already setting upon making plans in my mind to return to this photographers paradise.
9 of 11: Coral Tree flower.
Season and weather:
Summer months are extremely hot and humid and afternoon thundershowers can be expected. Note that this is a malaria area. Winter weather is more pleasant with cool temperatures and more stable weather patterns.
Habitats in the Zimanga Game Reserve range from hilly slopes through to broad stretches of gently rolling acacia savannah and a variety of woodlands and riverine forests. The Mkhuze River transects the reserve, adding to the diversity of habitats.
10 of 11: Banded Mongoose.
Crested Guineafowl, Eastern Nicator, Violet-Backed Starling, Pink-Throated Twinspot, Long-Tailed Paradise-Whydah
Accommodation & Activities:
Currently, there is no accommodation available on Zimanga Private Game Reserve, but plans are in the pipeline to build a small lodge on site. In the meantime, accommodation is best taken at the Ghost Mountain Inn that is located on the edge of Mkuze town a few kilometres away. Morning and afternoon game drives take place with the option of booking either the Mkhombe or Bhejane hides for bird photography.
11 of 11: Spectacled Weaver.
Zimanga is situated close to Mkuze in Northern KwaZulu Natal and it is a three-hour drive along excellent roads from Durban. Driving from Johannesburg or Pretoria to Mkuze takes a little longer but is the same distance as it would be to Skukuza in the Kruger National Park.