Last week, I was lucky enough to be a part of a research team who were headed for Ndumo Game Reserve, in northern KwaZulu-Natal.
One of the researchers, Cormac, was looking for terrapins, while Camille, another researcher, was looking for hippos (yes, two completely different animals!). The other member of our team was Shane McPhearson, an ornithological guru, who is well-known for his research on raptors. I was invited to tag along to help, but I think mainly to try and find the team some cool snakes!
So, we had a South African, an Irishman, an American, and a Kiwi. As Cormac said, we were like the UN in one car!
Most people think that by going off into the bush, you’ll find a lot of snakes. I wish! It’s never easy to find snakes, especially in most parts of KwaZulu-Natal, as the terrain isn’t exactly very rocky, there’s not that much to lift up (snakes like hiding under things). Also, snakes usually sense you coming long before you’re able to spot them, or they just sit still, relying on their camouflage to remain undetected. It works!
So don’t think that walking in the bush is dangerous because you’re likely to step on a snake. It’s not. Snakebites can happen, but very rarely. Walking around town is way more dangerous. There’s these highly aggressive and dangerous creatures called humans. They may try to steal from you, or worse!
Anyways, back to the trip!
Ndumo Game Reserve is a magical place. The scenery and landscape varies vastly, with a mixture of thickets and woodland savannahs. Some of the iconic features of the reserve are the large bodies of water, especially the Niyamithi Pan, a hit with visitors as it attracts a wide variety of bird life.
It’s not a reserve to go to for big game. They have three of the ‘Big 5’, but they are not often seen, and it is not packed with smaller game, although you do get nice sightings of giraffe, antelope and warthogs.
The main attraction is its remarkable birdlife, of which there has been a whopping 430 species recorded in the reserve!
Ndumo is also one of the most frog species-rich areas in the country, with over 40 species being recorded there. Sadly, they’re not something you’re likely to see much of while driving around in the day. I was really hoping to see some of them though.
The area was hit hard by the severe drought that we were cursed with. It had been bone dry, with most of the water bodies drying up, almost entirely. Thankfully, the rains have fallen in and around the area, and it has made the world of difference! I arrived to a very green Ndumo, with rivers pumping and the Niyamithi pan filling!
Following the day of our arrival, we assisted the Camille with his work. Along the way, we were trying to tick off as many bird species as we could. Birding has become a new hobby of mine, which I am thoroughly enjoying! Shane’s knowledge and ID skills came in most handy!
While trying to spot birds, Shane spotted a Rock Monitor dash of the road! I jumped out the car, and bolted towards the lizard, who was just going down a hole. I grabbed hold of his tail in the nick (no puns intended) of time! If I was a second slower I would have lost him. I’m no lightning bolt, the main reason why I was able to catch him is because it was a cool, overcast day. He hadn’t been able to bask and warm up. Thankfully!
After a short struggle, I had him out, so we could all get a good look at him. I catch very, very few of these monitors, because in Durban, we only get the Nile/Water Monitor. So this was a special moment! He was very relaxed, although I’m pretty sure he was just pretending to be dead so that we would leave him alone. He did eject a rather unpleasant smelling substance…
Rock Monitors are like mini Komodo Dragons (they are related). They wonder around the bush, eating anything smaller than them. They’re well-built, stocky reptiles, with immense power. And with their dog-like bite and sharp claws, they make for a formidable predator. The same can be said for the Nile Monitor.
After admiring the beauty of this lizard, and getting our photos, we set him free again. Great way to start the day! But it soon got better than that…
We were now buzzing from our encounter with the monitor lizard! The four of us were now talking about other reptiles that we wanted to see. All of us had one main goal in common: to see a large Rock Python!
As luck would have it, we turned a corner, and I could just hear the words of amazement come out of Shane and Camille in the front, before they opened their doors. When I heard that, I immediately jumped out the car without seeing what they were on about. Then I saw it…PYTHON! A big one, lying on the road! Woohoo!
I approached it, with my excitement levels going through the roof! For a second, I thought it was dead, as it lay completely motionless. Before I burst into tears, I realised that it wasn’t dead, it was just hoping we would ignore it by freezing. Sorry snake, you were too beautiful to be ignored!
From being motionless, it then started being the opposite, and started doing what pythons tend to do if harassed by a human: strike! These large snakes lunge at a threat, with their mouths opened wide, exposing its many needle-like teeth. They don’t have venom, but if that mouth got a hold of you, you’d be in a lot of pain, and bleeding a lot! Fortunately, their lunge is rather slow.
I was in complete awe of this magnificent animal, but also a bit giddy with excitement and joy, we all felt that way. What an absolute privilege, encountering a snake of this size. Certainly not something one sees every day!
We took about a hundred photos each, and before leaving it alone, we measured it. A whopping 3,77m long! They are known to get to the 5m mark, but we were more than happy with this beast! We then watched this massive snake go down into its den, which was a small hole in the ground, made by a small mammal.
A memorable encounter, which we will never forget. It had us talking about it the whole day!
In the following days, we bumped into two Mozambique Spitting Cobras. Camille and Shane almost stepped on one, just a little guy. I find the smaller Mozams are much cheekier than the adults! Short man syndrome? I don’t know. But his grumpy attitude made for a nice photo opportunity.
The second one wasn’t the best sighting, it was an adult, of around a meter in length. It was on the road at night time, and moved off as we got out the car. I put my sunglasses on, in case it spat at me. But I didn’t even click that it was night time, so those sunglasses were pretty useless….and the snake moved off.
Over the week that we were there, we had seen so many Nile Monitors! More than I had ever seen in my life! Ndumo is famous for its healthy population of crocodiles, of which we saw many. We didn’t see any massive ones, but one or two were an impressive enough size. We also found a few Serrated Hinge Terrapins, which made Cormac a very happy scientist!
By the time the final day had arrived, we were very happy with our productive trip. But Ndumo had one last surprise for us….
At around 7am on an overcast and cool Friday, we saw a large branch-like object stretched across the road. We quickly realised what it was- SNAKE!
I jumped out and ran straight for it. This is an instinctive reaction for me, I can’t help it! I could see it was a Forest Cobra. Admittedly, it wasn’t the prettiest of Forest Cobras, but it was big! It looked like quite an old specimen too.
Thankfully, like in the case of the Rock Monitor, the cobra was a bit sluggish as the sun wasn’t out, meaning it had little energy. I grabbed it by the tail as it was going into the bush. I was over the moon! I hadn’t caught a Forest Cobra in almost two years, because they unfortunately do not occur in Durban (we just get the spitting ones!). I was ecstatic to be getting my hands on one again!
Forest Cobras are my favourite species of the cobra family. They grow to be the longest cobras in Africa, reaching lengths of 3m+. They’re powerful too, and excellent climbers. They’re also very intelligent and aware of their surroundings. To me, they’re just like Black Mambas. They’re not quite as nervous as the mambas, but they’re similar in behaviour, and both intelligent, unlike many politicians. The Forest Cobra truly is an awe-inspiring snake.
This individual rose up high, spreading its hood- an intimidating display! Again, this made for nice photos! We soon let it go, to be back on its way.
What a fantastic way to end a trip! Another memorable encounter, with another memorable snake! That was probably the highlight for me. I just love Forest Cobras!
And so, that was the end of our trip. I had such a fantastic time, and I’m glad it was such a productive trip for all of us. We didn’t have much luck with frogs, but amongst the amazing reptile and hippo sightings, we ended with a tally of 110 bird species, with many being new for me (Greater Honeyguide, Cuckoo Hawk, Black Heron to name a few, and we also saw Pink-throated Twinspot and a great sighting of a Palm-nut Vulture!).
I’d love to return to Ndumo soon, or anywhere in Northern KZN. It’s my favourite part of the world (not that I’ve been out of SA). If you haven’t been there before, it’s well worth a visit! Let’s just hope that they get more, much-needed rain.
A huge big thank you to Camille, Cormac, and Shane, for taking me with, and providing me with a much-need laughter (and a lot of it!)
We’re so lucky, here in KZN, to live in such a diverse province. Beaches, forests, grasslands, savannahs, mountains, we’ve got it all! And the wildlife in it is truly special. I love it!