Today I stand and watch as the sun struggles to break through the clouds on the horizon. Autumn in Zululand brings days that start out looking like winter and then suddenly it is summer. Life on the side of a mountain exposes one to extreme changeable conditions especially when the seasons are changing. I guess that is why experienced mountaineers get caught out at times when they are scaling the heights. When your focus is on getting to the top you perhaps lose sight of what is going on around you.
|The view over the Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana battlefields buried under mist in the early morning|
But there are other aspects of mountain living in the countryside that takes one away from the hubbub of city and town life and offers the adventurous spirit a place to regenerate, to unwind and to become centred again.
As I take to the trails of the Biggarsberg on the property of Rorke’s Drift Lodge I am able to move towards finding that inner peace. Heading up the Sinqindi Mountain on a morning trail I expect I will be out for about 3 to 4 hours. Spread out in behind my back are the plains of Zululand where my view stretches 60kms into the distance. The track going up the mountain was apparently excavated around the time of the Anglo-Zulu war. Now, as time has taken its toll it has rocky sections that require careful negotiation and my walking stick comes in handy as a third leg. I am on a “spoor and scat” walk and I carefully look for signs of the wildlife that moves around in the veldt at night. I come across some jackal spoor that indicates there was more than one jackal on the hunt last night. The Blackback Jackal often serenade the guests at sunset at the Lodge below. Further along I come across a porcupine quill lying in the middle of the track that tell its own story. A little more investigating reveals signs that the Kudu have also been moving around just recently. As I get towards the top of the mountain in the distance I see some Mountain Reedbuck but as soon as they see me they quickly bound off into the distance, ensuring that they get as much ground between us as possible.
|One of the demarcated walks up the Sinqindi Mountain where the aloes abound.|
At the top of the mountain I take a swing to the right and head along a track that runs along the length of the farm. The grass has grown incredibly long and at times I disappear in amongst the golden stalks. Then suddenly, the long grass disappears and I am standing on the side of the mountain. In front of me the ground falls away dramatically in a sheer cliff. Above me I can see a black eagle drifting in the updraft caused by the cliff. It hangs there as it scans the grasslands for some movement that would indicate a quick meal. Spread over the rocks are tiny euphorbias defying all the odds growing on what seems to be solid sandstone. All the veldt flowers have now finished blooming and their seeded stalks stand blowing in the wind.
|One of the many different species of veldt flowers that grow on top of the Sinqindi Mountain|
Before I know it I have walked to the end of the ridge and I must turn around and head back again. As I go I notice veldt grasses that I did not see on my way towards the peak and it is obvious that the top of this mountain in the summer must reveal a riot of veldt flowers.
|The view across to the South of the property.|
On the track down I stop to admire the different variety of aloes growing along the side of the mountain, along with the Cabbage Trees, Wild Pear, Red-leaved Rock fig and the deeply significant Buffalo-Thorn. The Zulu peoples have the Buffalo Thorn tree deeply inculcated into their belief system. When a family member dies someone from the family will take a branch of the Buffalo thorn to the place where the person has died. He will then capture the dead family member’s spirit with one of the thorns and he will then travel back home to bring the spirit to its resting place.
The walk has been invigorating and as I walk down to the Lodge I feel the crisp mountain air has cleansed my soul and I can start finding myself again.
|Some of the nine horses in the Rorke's Drift Lodge stables|
In the mid afternoon I am off on my next adventure. I go down to the stables at the edge of the Lodge gardens. The very efficient stablehands have got my horse all saddled up for me and two of them are going to accompany me on my ride. We head off in the opposite direction of my walk that morning to the flat open area of the farm. The horse has a shiny coat and I am told his name is Bles. Aptly named as he has a white flash across his face. I follow behind the leading horse and settle comfortably into the saddle. I bask in the warm afternoon sun as we carefully weave our way across the veldt. Riding on a horse gives one a completely different aspect of the landscape. As we ride among the Paperbark Acacias we come across a small herd of Impala. They have a few youngsters in the herd and the older animals do their best to hide them from our view. However, they seem unperturbed by our presence on horseback. It is such a privilege to move among wild animals and get so close without them scattering off in all directions. The ride takes us to the very bottom of the farm and we turn back moving along a huge donga system. The “donga” is local terminology for a deep gash in the side of a mountain or slope where the fast rushing waters of the summer convectional thunderstorms cuts into the soil and washes it away. These donga systems were what aided the Zulu in moving up onto the British Forces in 1879 completely undetected.
|On an outride at the top of the Sinqindi Mountain|
Before I know it we have circled the bottom end of the farm and I am back in the stables, my hair all mussed up from the wind and sun and I head off back to my chalet for a much needed G&T that tastes so much better in the African bush.
It is daylight once again and I stand mesmerised by the view as the sun starts pushing out from beyond the horizon. In the distance I can hear some Southern Ground Hornbills booming to one another. It is a melodious call with different intonations that rhythmically sound across the plains. The one call is the male and the other the female and each morning and sometimes during the day they will call to one another to ensure that they don’t wander too far from one another.
|The Southern Ground Hornbill that didn't get the memo that they are supposed to be strictly carnivorous.|
My birding guide informs me that at Rorke’s Drift Lodge they have a family of very unusual Southern Ground Hornbills who have established a behavioural pattern of their own. Each year they produce a young chick despite the fact that they’re reputed to only produce every 5 or so years. Someone forgot to send them the memo I think. These Hornbills are also not strictly carnivorous as stated in the Roberts Bird Guide to Southern Africa. This little family has a penchant for pecan nuts and as the Lodge has a giant pecan nut tree in the garden they are regular visitors in the winter when the nuts have fallen off the trees.
|The Southern Bald Ibis burying its razor sharp long beak into the lawns looking for earthworms.|
We walk around the Lodge gardens and the birdsong is varied and frequent so early in the morning. More than 130 different species of birds can be seen here during the year. Summer will bring in the Paradise Flycatchers that nest in the giant Ficus trees in the gardens and The Bald Ibis can be seen strutting around on the lawns of the Lodge probing the ground for earthworms. Resident in the gardens are some sunbirds that spend their time searching for nectar between the aloes, hibiscus and other flowering trees. They can also be seen catching moths and insects that have collected under security lights that burn at night.Too soon the sun is high in the sky and our feathered friends become silent once again.
|The adorable Paradise Flycatcher. A tiny little bird on the tiniest of nests to be found here in the summer months.|
As the sun dips behind the Sinqindi Mountain the birds take up their song again. But it is a different set of notes that can be heard ringing out over the airwaves. The entrancing call of the Fiery-necked Nightjar is a sound that transports one back to Africa in a second. I can hear it just as soon as it starts getting dark and I can see the birds swooping back and forth, back and forth as they start feeding on the insects that are attracted to the lights. Perched on a telephone pole is a Spotted Eagle Owl patiently sitting and eyeing the Nightjar activity. Soon the Nightjars move off and it is the turn of the Owl to search for food. Hot favourite on the menu is Dung Beetle. In the morning after the night before the ground is littered with the heads of Dung Beetles who have been efficiently despatched by the Owl. During the night I hear a frantic flapping of wings and a thud on the roof, followed by a desperate squeaking that seems to be interminable. A mouse has been nabbed by the voracious Owl.
In the distance I hear that haunting sound of the Blackback Jackal and I know that another sublime day in Africa has come to an end. What a privilege to share this earth with so many special creatures and so many unforgettable experiences.