Visiting Ndumo Game Reserve
The fever trees at Nyamithi Pan
This 10 117 hectare reserve (about 20kms at its widest and 10kms at its longest) lies at the confluence of the Pongola River and the Usuthu River (which forms the border of Mozambique and South Africa). Interestingly, the Usuthu River’s course is slowly moving south, and there is currently a dispute between the Mozambican and South African governments as to where the international boundary actually lies.
When I arrived at Ndumo it was raining, and it continued to rain for the few days that I was there. The dry winter had just passed, so the trees and grass were starting to turn verdant green. Clouds hung low in the sky, and thunder rumbled constantly in the distance. (Co-incidentally, Ndumo means “place of thunder” in IsiZulu).
The relatively small Ndumo is famous for its birds, with 444 species recorded, surely one of the highest densities in Southern Africa. Partly this is due to the climate (sub-tropical) and the habitat – thick woodland surrounds an extensive floodplain system of pans, streams and rivers, with dense riverine forest. Look out for specials like the pink-throated twinspot, African broadbill, Neergaard’s sunbird, white-eared barbets and of course fish eagles.
There are approximately 900 plant and tree species in the reserve, including beautiful fever tree and sycamore fig tree forests. There are no lions or elephants, but there are both black and white rhino, as well as buffalo, cheetah, blue wildebeest, giraffe, lots of nyala, as well as red duiker and suni.
It is one of the more scenic reserves I have seen on my journey, and even though it rained constantly while I was there, there’s a sense of mystery and magic. Maybe this is because there are generally fewer tourists than other reserves. Ndumo only has one rest camp (unfenced), consisting of seven small chalets, with communal ablutions. I was one of only four or five tourists during my stay, and I spent some days not seeing anyone, expect for the rangers. The approach road to the reserve is in poor condition, and when it rains, be prepared for plenty of delays.
This is the view of Nyamithi Pan from the lookout tower at the high point of the reserve.
The highlight of my stay was walking with field ranger Sonto Tembe. Sonto has been at Ndumo for more than 30 years, and was born in the reserve. His knowledge of the area, its plants and its animals is immense. He took me walking twice. One morning we drove down to Nyamithi Pan, one of the two largest in the reserve (the other is Banzi Pan), where there are plenty of hippos. The crocs were nowhere to be seen, perhaps because it was raining, and they were lurking in the water to stay warm.
Field ranger Sonto Tembe at the sycamore fig forest on one of our walks near the Pongolo River
Sonto is able to mimic the calls of almost any bird. It’s an incredible skill and talent, and something that he has learned after living for most of his life side-by-side with wild animals. I’ll upload a video in the next few days of Sonto mimicking different bird calls. I highly recommend a walk with Sonto.
Ndumo was proclaimed in 1924 as a game reserve by Deneys Reitz, in order to conserve hippos. Today the reserve is fenced on its western, southern and eastern boundaries. Many of the local Thongan people used to live inside the reserve, and in 1951, Ian Player recorded more than 1 000 people and 700 cattle living inside the reserve. Only in 1966 was the reserve empty of people and livestock.
In the past year or so, communities have removed the eastern fence, and started farming inside the reserve on the eastern bank of the Pongola River. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife authorities are trying to resolve the dispute, and according to some, the eastern fence has again been erected, and the people have moved out. However, because I didn’t visit the eastern side of the reserve (it lies away from any public roads), I can’t say for sure what is going on, and depending on who you speak to, you get several different answers.
What remains clear is that the authorities did not enforce the legal boundaries of the reserve, and rightly or wrongly, a precedent has been set. Like the rivers on these floodplains, however, the politics of the communities and authorities is constantly shifting and changing.
One thing is for certain – Ndumo’s wildlife and habitat is precariously positioned in the hands of the people who work for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Whether Ndumo can remain inviolate depends on these people and the decisions they make, together with the local people. It is a huge responsibility, and one that must not be taken lightly.
These days, unless local communities are involved with conservation, and can see benefits accruing from living alongside a reserve, then places like Ndumo Game Reserve face an uncertain future. These are some of the poorer communities in the country, and they rely on farming and subsistence agriculture for their food. The rich soils of the floodplains are fertile, and veggie gardens grow adjacent to the reserve’s boundaries.
For now, though, most of Ndumo remains wild and natural. You won’t be disappointed when you visit – it is still one of the most special nature reserves in the country. I will return one day…I hope the fig and fever trees, the rhinos, the hippos, the fish eagles and Sonto Tembe are still here when I do.
The fig tree forest along the southern edge of the Usuthu River floodplain.
Good morning to you too, sir. A hippo greets the day, and warns off interlopers.
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