We awoke at sunrise to a chorus of birdsong. Golden-rumped tinker barbets. Grey-headed bushshrikes. Paradise flycatchers. Square-tailed drongos. White-eared barbets. A brown-hooded kingfisher. A bunch of other birds we’d never heard before.

After a hot cup of tea and a cold facecloth, we made our way up to the camp office. Outside, a woman in freshly-pressed khakis smiled at us from behind a rifle. Her name was Nonhlanhla, the quietly spoken, super-knowledgeable guide who would be accompanying us on an early morning bird walk around Shokwe Pan. We were also joined by a really nice couple from Pretoria, who had spent the last 7 days at Ndumo ticking off lifers like it was going out of fashion.

We love how the bush in each game park we visit seems to have its own unique feel. Driving out to Shokwe in the glorious morning light, we both commented on how the dense thornveld thickets of Ndumo were unlike anything we’d seen before. Birds would flit across the road, then simply disappear into the tangle of thorns on either side. Fortunately things became a little easier when we got out of the Landy and began walking around the pan.

At just over 10 000 ha, Ndumo is a relatively small game park in the northwest corner of Maputaland, right up against the Mozambican border. The sand forests, fig forests, thornveld savannah, fever tree forests, magnificent pans and extensive marshy wetlands provide an incredibly diverse range of habitats for birds. Although there are plenty of mammals around, it is Ndumo’s avian inhabitants that most visitors come to see.

As we quietly made our way around Shokwe Pan, beneath ancient Sycamore fig trees, Nonhlanhla began mimicking the calls of some of her favourite birds – narina trogon, scaly-throated honeyguide, Woodward’s batis, Rudd’s apalis. Things were pretty quiet around the pan that morning, and we didn’t connect with any of these, but just being out on foot in such pristine wilderness was enough for us.

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The next morning we met up with Joseph, another of Ndumo’s specialist bird guides, and headed off to the Pongola River, just down the road from the campsite. This time we were joined by Anders (not sure of the spelling), a VERY serious birder from New York. Like Nonhlanhla, Joseph was a bit of a bird whisperer, and he was soon whistling away into the forest. We strained our ears, hoping for something to whistle back. Once again though, things were very quiet, and we didn’t see or even hear many notable birds along the Pongola. Kerryn and I were desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of a Pel’s fishing owl, and we soon had sore necks after staring up into every tree we passed. Alas, it was not to be.

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The forest did eventually reveal one of its secrets to us, if only for a fleeting moment. Just as we were leaving, Joseph stopped dead in his tracks and pointed into a small, bushy tree. “Narina Trogon,” he whispered, and we frantically lifted our binoculars to our faces. It was a juvenile with its back to us, and it didn’t hang around very long. But it was a trogon, only the 2nd one we’d ever seen, and on a slow, hot morning it put great big smiles on our faces. We both had a spring in our step as we walked back up the hill to camp.

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We spent the rest of the day driving around the park on our own. As we picked our way along the densely wooded Usuthu River track, we kept making comparisons to glorious Gorongosa National Park in central Mozambique. Ndumo really is pristine wilderness at its finest. Without a local expert to point things out, we struggled a bit with the birds, but we did see a few Ndumu specialties, including a lovely broad-billed roller, a regal African hawk eagle and a very unexpected mangrove kingfisher.

Before we had even driven out of Ndumo’s gates the next morning, we had already vowed to go back. Next time though, we’ll stay for a week. Two days might have be enough to see most of the park, but places that magical deserve a little more time.


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