Birding Safari at Amakhosi Safari Lodge

We were at Amakhosi Safari Lodge – renowned for its ‘at home’ relaxed luxury, memorable wildlife encounters… and birding, sitting quietly beneath the forest canopy. It was early morning, and the surrounding bush was alive with birdsong. In the distance we heard the deep-throated call of a Narina trogan followed moments later by a corresponding call from Phillip, our ranger. The trogan reciprocated each of Phillip’s calls, getting closer and closer, revealing itself briefly with a flash of red and green as it settled in the canopy, well camouflaged in the foliage. Not convinced that its mate was near it flew off into the distance.

On entering the reserve we were soon ticking off bird species: a common buzzard (previously known as the more exotic sounding Steppe buzzard); European bee-eaters a plenty, flitting in the air almost in synchrony to catch insects before settling once again on a branch; and the noisy green wood hoopoe (previously known as the red-billed hoopoe) the Zulu word being ‘iNhlekabafazi’, meaning giggling women… which always brings a smile to my face. A herd of buffalo rest in the shallows of a waterhole, cooling off in the heat of the day and a white rhino gave us a startled look before retreating into the thick bush. All this before we had even checked in!

This wasn’t our first visit to Amakhosi, so we knew the drill. But the personal greeting and welcoming smile of assistant manager Zinhle Mahlinza, bearing cool facecloths and homemade lemonade, had us feeling right at home and in the presence of family. It is this attention to detail and personal touch that has many guests, like us, returning time and time again – some heading towards their tenth visit!

Our luxurious Riverside Suite, newly roofed – one of the several projects undertaken at the lodge during the Covid-19 lockdowns, is beautifully appointed with ceiling high windows and a spacious deck overlooking the Mkhuze River flood plain.

The comfy chairs and hammock are perfect for whiling away the time with a good book or with binoculars in hand. The interior décor is cool white with accents of colour – I loved the red shweshwe cloth cushions and the subtle Zulu craft certainly gives a sense of place. A king size bed, draped with mosquito netting, invited an afternoon nap and the separate lounge area and fabulous bathroom with Africology amenities certainly exceeded our expectations.

The late afternoon game drives are preceded by high tea. Freshly made iced tea or lemonade and a variety of savoury and sweet mini portions (even those with dietary requirements are catered for, and I was impressed that my gluten free platter looked just as good as the rest!). We were delighted to see Jeremy (our tracker) and Phillip (our ranger) again. After catching up on each other’s family news we headed out for the afternoon armed with binoculars, camera and a jacket, to deal with the nip in the evening air.

With a diversity of habitat that includes bushveld, grasslands and mountains, Amakhosi is a naturalist’s dream, boasting in excess of 400 different bird species as well as a variety of amphibians, with a frogging safari a highlight during the summer months. We had done the frogging on a previous visit (read about it HERE) so for this visit we were focusing on birding.

‘What would you like to see while you are here?’  Phillip asked. ‘Gorgeous bushshrike’, said my hubby.

My response? ‘Leopard’. But having said that, I was just happy to be back in the bush again and didn’t mind what we saw. Of the Big 5, the leopard is the most elusive, it is owned by no-one, goes where it pleases, and is extremely difficult to see; its rosettes enabling it to seemingly disappear in the dappled shadow of the bush.

Phillip Mphini Khumalo is one of the top ten bird guides in South Africa, his bird knowledge knows no bounds and his ability to mimic bird calls so accurately has us amazed. From the call of the emerald-spotted wood dove to the orange-breasted bush shrike and black-headed oriole, he had them answering his call and coming in for a closer look.

Emerald-spotted wood dove – pic Daryl Buhrmann

The summer months offer great birding opportunities as the species numbers are boosted by seasonal migrants such as the African emerald cuckoo and paradise flycatcher.

A striped kingfisher darts to the ground and flies back to his perch with a grasshopper; three-banded plovers scratch around in a muddy wallowing hole and red-billed oxpeckers feast on ticks on a couple of old dagga boys (buffalo). We follow leopard tracks along the river, ever hopeful. Dusk is fast approaching, and we still had to stop for sundowners. A white rhino resting at the water’s edge stands abruptly, gives us a stare and meanders off a short distance, we watch in awe. G&T in hand and chicken kebabs sizzling in a pan we stand quietly absorbing our special experience and the changing sounds of the bush as nightfall slowly descends upon us.

On arrival back at the lodge, we were greeted with a smile, a wet facecloth, and a glass of Amarula. After a quick freshen up we were back for pre-dinner drinks around the bar, which offers a great opportunity to get to chat to the other guests.

Dinner at Amakhosi is special. Once we were all seated at our tables, Rejoice Mngomezulu, chef and team leader in the kitchen, introduced us to the menu – we each had a personalised copy – and we were in for a treat. Starting with caramelised onion soup with deep fried onion rings and a drizzle of yoghurt; mushroom risotto with parmesan shavings, truffle oil and shitake powder; beef fillet with horseradish cream, green beans and rosemary jus, finished off with vanilla bean cheesecake with mango sorbet and a papaya and mint salad. All beautifully and creatively plated, and delicious!

Each day at Amakhosi starts with an early morning wake-up call, then coffee and rusks on the deck before setting off on a morning game drive. Birding was our focus, but as Phillip says, “if you sit quietly and listen, the big game will come to you”. Time would tell.

We wake a slumbering crash of rhino, their abrupt movement creates a cloud of red dust as they stand guard together, watching us warily; and disturb a herd of buffalo – including some very cute calves that are well on their way to having a fully developed ‘you owe me money’ attitude. Our route takes us through the Mkhuze River, disturbing a pair of African wattled lapwings who take umbrage to our presence, squawking loudly and dive-bombing Jeremy in his tracker’s seat at the front of the vehicle, “they must have a nest nearby” he says. We watch for a while and then leave them in peace. (On a later drive we discover that it’s not a nest they are protecting, but chicks!)

African wattled lapwing – pic Daryl Buhrmann

A gorgeous bushshrike calls, and Phillip responds. It comes closer, we glimpse its striking colours – red throat and yellow belly separated by black chest band, but it evades our cameras by remaining hidden in the thick bush. Arrow-marked babblers confer in the dense thicket, a white-bellied sunbird pauses momentarily before flitting away and a white-browed scrub robin entertains with its melodious call and flitting tail.

Gorgeous Bushshrike – pic Daryl Buhrmann
White-browed scrub robin – pic Daryl Buhrmann

The Mkhuze River meanders its way through the rolling Zululand hills, lush and green thanks to recent rain, and punctuated with splashes of yellow from fragrant wild honeysuckle tree (Turraea floribunda) and the creamy-white of the new growth of the forest bushwillow (Combretum kraussii). A grassy plain gives way to riverine forest, a rocky beach and aloe-clad cliff, it’s our coffee stop for the morning… the bush coffee (filter coffee and Amarula instead of milk and sugar) tasting all the sweeter for being in the bush.

We hear an elephant weaving its way through the reeds a short distance away, Phillip points out cheetah tracks and a greater honeyguide calls incessantly to get our attention – Phillip tells us that it’s his favourite bird.

“Why?” I ask.

“When you walk in the bush they will call very closely and make a noise with the intent that you follow them to a bee’s nest, so you can open it up and take out some of the honeycomb to enjoy, BUT you must leave some for the bird (it feeds on the bee larvae), otherwise bad luck will follow” Phillip tells us.

“And that bad luck,” Jeremy adds with a laugh “could be a black mamba in the hole instead of a bee nest the next time you follow it!”

Jeremy our tracker

There is clearly great affection between these two men, and I learn that they grew up together in Ndumo, a rural community in the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal, and have been friends since childhood, school mates and soccer buffs – Phillip playing forward and Jeremy in defense. Phillip tells that from an early age he was looked after his father’s cattle and goats that roam freely, and it was during this time that he learned a great deal about tracking and general bush skills.

Phillip the birding pro

“In 1996 I was employed by Wilderness Safaris in the Ndumo Game Reserve as a driver. Whilst working there a good friend gave me my first bird book. I immediately got excited and started studying all the bird names and calls, this soon became a passion. I later became knowledgeable enough to be employed as a professional bird guide at the Ndumo Game Reserve. For 10 years I enhanced my birding skills there, arguably the most special place in the country to do so.”

In 2007 Phillip joined the Amakhosi team as a ranger and bird guide where he worked until 2014, when family commitments required that he leave Amakhosi to tend to his family farm. After a few years, once his commitments on the farm were completed, he joined the staff of a nearby game lodge, extending his wildlife knowledge and gaining more experience. And in 2021 had the opportunity to re-join the team at Amakhosi.

“I am very excited to be back with the Amakhosi Team!” he tells us, “It feels like being back with my other family! My passion for conservation runs deep and I hope that we can all work together to conserve our wildlife for future generations to enjoy!”

Buoyed by their commitment to conservation and love of nature we set off back to the lodge for breakfast. Jeremy soon spotted signs of recent elephant activity – freshly broken branches, twigs and leaves littering the road, and fresh elephant dung. We heard them before we saw them. Up on the hillside to our right. And then, as we rounded a corner, an elephant roadblock! They were taking the easy route up the rocky road, feeding at-will on either side.

Phillip stopped the vehicle, giving them some space and allowing them to become comfortable with our presence. We followed slowly, watching as they fed, quietly making their way up the road. African elephants graze and browse their way through their habitat, with an adult consuming more than 250kg of food a day! That’s a lot of food, so it’s no wonder their focus was entirely on the task at hand.

A little one stays close to its mom, peeking out between her legs to check us out. So cute! A sub-adult moves in for a closer look, Phillip reassured us that we need not be nervous, he knows the herd and provided we don’t get between a mom and her baby we would be ok. This up-close-and-personal kind of experience is something that can only happen when in the hands of an experienced ranger who knows ‘his’ elephants well, knows their moods and quirks and how to react quickly should things become volatile. They ate, dust bathed and pooped their way up the road, with us bringing up the rear. At the crest of the hill the herd gradually moved off the road and seemed to melt into the bush.

I would definitely not recommend anyone get this close on a self-drive, or with an inexperienced ranger at the wheel. Elephants are wild, large, and often unpredictable!

We were getting used to the routine at Amakhosi: after breakfast guests have the opportunity of relaxing at the main pool, being lavishly pampered at the SPA or just relaxing on the deck of their suite enjoying the ambience of the African bush. We chose the latter, camera and binocs in hand. A pair of red-capped robin-chats entertained with their varied bird calls, paradise flycatchers flitted through the canopy and a red-chested cuckoo called incessantly, desperate for a mate.

Red-capped robin-chat

In addition to the red-chested cuckoo we had already heard the call of six of the seven summer migrant cuckoo species: Diederik cuckoo, Klaas’s cuckoo, black cuckoo, African emerald cuckoo and African cuckoo, and had good sightings of both Klaas’s and Diedericks and a fleeting glance of the black cuckoo as it flew overhead, clearly not impressed with Phillip’s rendition of its call.  

Ready and refreshed we set off for high tea and the afternoon drive. It had been an incredibly warm day and a thunderstorm seemed to be brewing in the distance. The afternoon light was glorious as the sun’s rays filtered through the clouds, painting the hillsides with a golden hue.

“Stop”, I quietly yell. Phillip slams on brakes. It’s a cuckoo, and astonishingly it’s still sitting there, undisturbed by our actions. It’s a Jacobin cuckoo, sometimes referred to as the black-and-white cuckoo with its white chest and spiffy crest. And is another to add to our list of firsts.

Jacobin cuckoo – pic Daryl Buhrmann

Satisfied with our find, and mindful of the brewing storm, we stop for early sundowners. It is a picturesque spot, the river cascading gently over rocks, swirling into eddies in the deeper pools. A rocky ledge provides a stable platform for the drinks table, Phillip preps the G&Ts and Jeremy cooks up mini-wors on the grill. The setting is perfect, the ambiance ideal – except for the rumbles of thunder and the occasional flash of lightening. It’s time to head home, in a hurry.

Beating the storm and with darkness descending, Jeremy hauls out the spotlight. We see the eye-shine of a small cat, ‘could be a genet’, but it disappeared at speed. A herd of buffalo humph and snort at the intrusion, three zebra high tail it into the darkness and a giant eagle owl takes off from a dead tree to evade our spotlight. The surrounding hills are still alight with nature’s splendour and the distant rumbles remind us that the storm is not done with us yet.

We round a corner and there in the road is a lioness and three cubs. The cubs scatter into the darkness, but she just gives us a casual glance and continues grooming. So as not to disturb her, Phillip drives onto the grass alongside. The cubs, obviously sensing their moms relaxed attitude to us, gradually come back into view, eyeing us carefully but comfortable enough for a playful romp or two.

We make it back to the lodge with no more than a few minutes to spare before the heavens open. The joy of rain in Africa!!

The morning brings with it a glorious sunrise, despite the rain of the night before.

It’s our last birding drive and Phillip and Jeremy pull out all the stops… more Narina trogans, an African emerald cuckoo, and an African pygmy kingfisher, resplendent in its vivid jewel colours. Add to that an orange-breasted bushshrike, eastern nicator, long-billed crombec, and journey of giraffe.

Narina trogan

It seemed fitting to end our time in the bush at Amakhosi with a coffee break along the Mkhuze River; a towering cliff-face, with striations clearly visible, has aloes, euphorbias and other determined vegetation clinging to it. Near the water’s edge a fruiting wild fig tree (Ficus sycamorus) feeds both birds and mammals, as does the nearby quinine tree (Rauvolfia caffra).

The melodious sound of emerald spotted bush doves complements the swooping, flighty movements of European bee-eaters feeding overhead… a red-chested cuckoo calls from somewhere on the cliff face, and with much determination from Phillip, and good binoculars, we finally spot it in the distance. All the migrant cuckoos, bar one, accounted for – just another reason to begin planning our next visit to Amakhosi!

www.amakhosi.com

Click HERE to read the article in Responsible Traveller digital mag Edition 3 2021

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