When city life in Durban and Pietermaritzburg leaves you desperate for a wildlife recharge, the Msinsi reserves are right next door.
By Patricia McCracken
The gymnogene flew low and direct across six lanes of freeway, only a couple of wingspans ahead of the car, settling in a tall gum tree on Durban’s Field’s Hill. Wearied by five intense days in darkened conference halls, my heart lifted at this sign of wildlife joys to come. The city fell away, greenery arched above and that sustaining dream appeared, hidden deep in a valley below billowing sugarcane.
The area of Shongweni Dam and Game Reserve has been a place of refuge for many, many generations. “The first Iron Age people stayed around there from about 300AD,” says archaeobotanist Christine Sievers, currently researching a coastal cave with a Wits University team. “And there’s surprising evidence of the first caltigens, or domesticated plants, from about 400BC.”
From the ancients to our pressured world, walking Shongweni’s trails and family picnics are part of many Durbanites’ memory bank. They’ve shared that pride with overseas visitors, thrilled to see rhino, buffalo and giraffe within 40#km of central Durban.
“During 1998’s International Ornithological Conference, delegates really enjoyed Shongweni,” says Birdlife Port Natal member Jenny Norman. She rates it her favourite Durban reserve, having ticked 263 bird species there, also recommending trying to spot Temminck’s hairy bat with the Durban Bat Interest Group.
Shongweni’s accessibility makes it a useful schools’ eco-resource, even highlighting alien plants invading from surrounding farmlands and gardens, and rehabilitating former gum plantations.
Place of Refuge
At Shongweni, the kloof towers up, its sandstone walls clad with valley bush. Reserve manager Sandile Mkhize draws my attention to how it’s studded with prime euphorbia species. Ian Player poignantly describes such awesome sights in his 1964 memoir #Men, Rivers and Canoes#, and it was to honour this natural beauty as well as tackle the athletic challenge that he founded the Duzi Canoe Marathon.
About 20 years ago, after playing a key role in saving Zululand’s white rhino and founding the Wilderness Leadership School, Player saw the biodiversity of the land around the dams built to supply Durban needed managing. Shongweni was the first Msinsi reserve, still welcoming Player’s beloved canoeists as well as being a haven for fishers.
“We have our favourite spots,” grin Damon Friis and David Goble, not giving much away. “We move round the dam according to the sun and the season.”
Durban’s first dam, Shongweni was opened in 1927 where the uMlazi, Sterkfontein and Ugede flow together. After about 65 years, it was pensioned off, but with light playing on its swooping arches and soaring buttresses, you can see why photographers are intrigued by this fantastical industrial-meets-eco subject.
Many family legends come from holidays at the Ugede tented camp on stilts, fishing camp and Bheka campsite. But the big news is Mkangoma Camp, revamped from an eight-person lodge to an individually bookable upmarket, fully catered tented camp in the heart of the game reserve.
Sandile leads me to a jaw-dropping view, eyeball to glaring eyeball with a crowned eagle on its higgledy-piggledy nest. Later, he points out where you’d sit on the camp deck during the breeding season to watch the crowned eagle fly in with a duiker between its talons to feed its brood. Talk about nature, red in tooth and claw, meets the circle of life.
Shongweni is very much Sandile’s second home and, indeed, where he’s bringing up his two teenaged children. Like plenty of visitors, he’s a keen fisherman, catching tilapia, bass and barbel here. “But never carp, though I’ve tried very hard!” He first came here as a wildlife management student intern, so keen he was asked to stay on. He’s worked his way up and round all the Msinsi reserves since.
“Growing up in Mahlabatini in northern KwaZulu-Natal, I always loved animals. Like many children, I dreamed of elephants!” says Sandile. His cellphone ringtone of an elephant trumpeting honours that memory and the day he saw his first elephant in the Pilanesberg.
Place of Hope
Further west, in the lea of KwaZulu-Natal’s Table Mountain and cupped by hills where monster snakes legendarily lurk, you’ll be greeted by broadly smiling Thanda Zulu, manager of the Nagle Dam and Game Reserve. Like Sandile, she’s a striking example of how Msinsi’s small but strategically important reserves have been built on hopes and dreams.
“I matriculated in 1997, but I didn’t know about financial aid for studying till 2002,” Thanda explains. “I chose an environmental management diploma because the environment’s always been important to me. I volunteered at Opathe Reserve outside my home in Ulundi. It was two years’ studying, so I was straight into my career with the year’s work experience.”
Thanda has since progressed to a BTech and is studying for her master’s. She’s also discovered her entrepreneurial flair, strategising and overseeing the new tented-camp development at Nagle that’s got visitors queuing and should boost revenues healthily. “It was already booked out for two months in 2012 before it was even built!” Thanda reports proudly.
We also meet up with visiting local chief, Skhosiphi Mdluli, who looks after pretty much all the land he can see from here and quite a lot beyond. “When there’s a problem in the area, we come here to discuss it and get good advice,” he says. “Our relationship’s really made a difference and they help us in many ways.”
The broad expanse of glittering water, where red-and-white marker buoys bob invitingly, is an obvious lure for canoeists. But Nagle is more than watersports and blissful braai spots under KZN’s Table Mountain. Ray Naguran, now Msinsi marketing manager, recommends from his boyhood wonderful hikes into those surrounding hills. Or for quieter moments, you could bump into one of the local birding and botanical fundis who regularly drop in.
For R&R, there’s truly characterful accommodation. At Nagle Lodge, a pretty old farmhouse, you can nurse your mug of coffee under the broekie-lace and meditate on the far blue-green hills, or test your binos on the LBJs fluttering around nearby grasses. Though birding from the private swimming pool at the more luxurious, sandstone Msinsi Lodge on your own 40#ha peninsula African bush is, well, cool.
Place of Dreams
A lovelorn zebra is hovering by the fence at Albert Falls Dam and Game Reserve. “Every day he ends up here,” smiles reserve manager Denise Govender. “He’s crazy about a zebra next door!” Denise is another version of Msinsi’s career success stories, starting as head office bookkeeper in 1997 and extending her organisational skills to reserve management in 2009. She’d never anticipated the challenge of a lovesickzebra though.
Tucked away beyond Pietermaritzburg, people in the know have a bolthole at Albert Falls. It might be a mobile home with everything from a fleet of fishing-rods to a satellite dish or a clever stopover on a long holiday road at a comfortable chalet shaded by one of the reserve’s trademark sausage trees , or perhaps luxuriating at Karkloof Lodge high over the dam where fish eagles fly and cry.
Beneath wide, open skies reflecting on wide, inviting waters, distantly ringed by the Karkloof Hills, Msinsi founder Ian Player still lives. Here generations have been coming to picnic, explore the nature reserve and enjoy the dam’s watery world. Those lazy summer afternoons and sharp winter mornings are woven into the warp and weft of family fabric in KwaZulu-Natal and beyond. And with the spirit of spring and love in the air, as at Nagle, many couples make a beautiful start to their dreams together at next-door Bon Accorde.
“Our thatched boma at the water’s edge is stunning for any function,” Denise says. “But it really seems to bless a wedding.”
With their combination of water and wildlife, all reserves have self-guided walks or trails for game-viewing and birding. At Shongweni, Nagle and Albert Falls, you can also book guided walks and game drives. All host a range of watersports, boating, canoeing and fishing. Contact 031-569-1202 or www.msinsi.co.za.