First Game Drive on the Manyoni Private Game Reserve
Rhino River Lodge
Manyoni Private Game Reserve
We knew we were in for a treat when we came across pretty Impala deer in a group beneath the trees near to a pair of Wildebeest (Gnu everywhere but South Africa) sparring across the road and a family of warthogs in a thicket right beside the track as we drove from the south entrance of the reserve to the lodge in our little white brand new Suzuki Swift. All that even before we checked in.
The fine big antelope with the curly upward antlers is the greater Kudu. The reserve was started in 2005 having previously been a cattle farm and it covers 23,000 hectares. All the original animals were introduced and with careful management of numbers using birth control and exchanges with other reserves the regeneration of the natural habitat has been left largely to the animals; they are much better at it than humans, as our guide, Kyle explained to us. Just the right number of elephants for example will knock over a given number of trees so they can eat part of the nutritious root system. The tree doesn’t die, so the foliage is now available to smaller animals and the grass grows in and around the branches creating an environment for a myriad of other life forms to thrive. So the African savanna and its woodlands were re-instated.
This mosaic of wildlife, diversity if you like, struck us as we stood on our little veranda outside our room listening to the bird song and insect voices. It was as if the birds knew when their performance time would start within the chorus. Just in the grounds of the lodge we had a pair of woodland kingfisher who lived on insects in the trees and grass while the seasonal tributary of the Rhino River that passes by the lodge lay dry but filled with thick lush grass. We were there in the early wet season when all the young are born. The lodge grounds are fenced against elephants and giraffe but everything else is welcomed. While we were there warthogs would often pass through, on a mission, with their tails upright, or just peacefully grazing. Jady told me about the time she was returning to her accommodation one night when she heard a warning growl and backed away from a resting lioness to a position where she could pass the queen from a more generous distance. After dark we were escorted back to our rooms because of the puff adders who live there and other potentially challenging nocturnal visitors.
Lunch of wraps and banoffee pie was from 1.30pm and then we could relax until 4.00pm when our keenly awaited first game drive would start.
Kyle had spotted a rare Golden Pippet visiting the reserve that morning, a visitor from NE Africa and this sighting was only the 23rd apparently; so the phone in the office had not stopped ringing with Kyle’s wife, Clair taking bookings from ‘twitchers’ all over South Africa wanting to fly in to see if they could spot it.
So that was our first target and along with Letitia Cox, a freelance photo-journalist (Lens Traveller) our only other visitor in our vehicle, we sped off to where Kyle suspected it was hanging out. We spotted it very quickly and when it took flight its back looked like a golden disc flying through the air. The tiny bird spent a long time on the ground and was very still but too far away for me to get a good shot of the actual bird so the example on Kyle’s phone will have to suffice. Another vehicle arrived and we left them to enjoy the little bird, brandishing their long trunk-like lenses.
Soon we started seeing babies, baby giraffe with mum and an adult male, not the father but a hanger on waiting for the female to be in oestrus again, and as such a kind of protector for her; like so much here there are reciprocal relationships. Another is the Red-billed Ox Pecker that helps keep hippos, buffalo and rhinos clean while it gains nourishment. There are numerous white rhinos and a few black ones in the reserve. We never did see a black one, with the pointed upper lip but the straight lipped whites were numerous. Both animals are the same colour, the opposing names refer to the Rivers they originate from.
Waterbuck, with the white circle on their bums, as if they’ve just stood up from a freshly painted loo seat, were making their way to a waterhole as were we to enjoy our first sundowners, just the four of us and get to know eachother over the next three days. We had ordered our drinks before leaving and Kyle set them on the little table with dishes of beef jerky, cheeselets and tiny home-made buns and biscuits, which we also had in our rooms, with tea and coffee and a fridge full with South African wines and beer.
In the distance grey herons were standing on the backs of the hippos fishing while their hosts lay submerged occasionally exhaling in clouds of spray just like whales. Cicadas reminded us of the warm climate we were in and thunder and lightning reverberated around the distant hills as it had when we were on the Ecuador Amazon, swimming in Piranha Lake; wouldn’t swim here though, a crocodile ducked under the water as we arrived, but then I thought, remembering Tunnel Creek in the Kimberley, fresh water crocs are shy of us if we keep away from them.
Letitia lives on the hoof, or to be more accurate on her Dubarry boots and in her white Jeep. She travels the world giving her heart and soul to her work and at the same time giving her skills to worthwhile causes including animal and human welfare. Originally from Madrid her father told her he would ‘release’ her when she reached 17 years provided she had her driving license and could change the four wheels on his Landcruiser. Well with a send-off like that a lass cannot fail to go far. You can find her with her compassionate photos and stories on Lens Traveller.
In the dark we drove back to the lodge, the vehicle headlights illuminating the track ahead and Kyle’s scanning from side to side with his spotlight searching for eyes. We saw our first jackal and valued the timing, because we would witness life on the reserve at all times but midday, when the animals are restful in the long grass and hard to see anyway, and deep night time. Night drives are available and I would have liked to do one, if only to increase our chances of seeing the leopards. But for now our ambition was to gaze upon some giraffe.
Jady was there to greet us on our return with little glasses of sherry and we sat around the campfire, our chairs so positioned in our group numbers to adhere to the distancing rules. We chatted across the sandy divide with a group of six, three couples from Durban who were neighbours and had been holidaying together for many years.
The thatched lodge dining room, with one side looking onto the fire and the other side an expansive veranda overlooking the slope down to the ‘river’, was made even more beautiful with hurricane lamps on the tables and wall lights peeping through woven reed shades. The food was so tasty and colourful and the staff all mixed in together; one minute a guide, the next barman, and in the shadows our escort awaited to guide us home along the windy path for our first night’s sleep beneath the gently turning ceiling fan and protective mosquito net.
What would tomorrow bring?