After a journey through the private reserves of Kruger, I arrived in KwaZulu Natal. The previous week had delivered exceptional big five viewings, cutting edge, luxury eco-lodges and some of the best cuisine South Africa has to offer. It was hard not to be impressed. I was ready however, to shift the single-minded focus of the big five to a broader wilderness experience. Often overlooked as a safari destination, KwaZulu Natal proved to be a dazzling adventure.
Standing atop one of the many hills spread out across the Manyoni Private Reserve in Kwazulu Natal I am hypnotised by colour. Below me, under an azure sky, an endless patchwork of green falls away and I am surrounded by a viridescent glow.
The summer rains transformed the landscape. The dry greys and browns of the winter bush give way to lush, fertile growth, ready to nourish the abundance of newborns taking their first shaky steps. My guide, Anton, tells me in Zulu culture every colour has a meaning; green – elhulaza – is the colour of bliss.
I begin my afternoon journey through the park; the morning rains have cleared the air and the landscape seems to sparkle. Bright yellow and black flowers draped over branches. “Leopard orchid,” says Anton. Rich, red blossoms burst through the earth, “Flame lilies”. Pink and orange buds hang from bright green bushes, “Chinese lanterns”.
Anton stops at a vine covered in unassuming white flowers.
“White is considered spiritually pure, but here, this is misleading,” he says. “They are called moonflowers because the petals only open at night. You can dry them out and smoke them. They produce visions.”
Before I can ask how he knows this, a flash of red catches my eye. A beautiful purple crested turaco, the national bird of the Kingdom of Eswatini (Swaziland).
“The red pigment in their flight feathers is called turacin. It is found in no other animal.” The feathers are highly prized and still worn by the King. Red is one of the strongest colours for Zulu – it means love.
This strong Zulu identity adds another dimension to my trip and gives the landscape a personality that is sometimes lacking in Kruger. Anton points to a range of mountains in the distance, half in shadow. Like so many places in South Africa, they have a story to tell, one which Anton is only too keen to share.
“They call it Ghost Mountain,” he says. “Famous for the battle of Tshanei.” This was the culmination of an ongoing Zulu civil war that came to a head on the 5th June 1884.
“A brutal battle. The bones of the fallen were still being discovered 50 years later. All of the land is still owned by the Zulu King and local people talk of strange multi coloured lights and unexplained noises. They think it is haunted.”
“Do you?” I ask.
“No,” he laughs. “But it makes a good story and keeps people away.”
We leave the plans and myths behind and head into a forest of dappled sunlight. There is a chorus of birdsong and it is not long before we spot a cardinal woodpecker.
“Woodpeckers have very long tongues,” Anton begins. “It starts behind the eye, stretches over its skull and enters the mouth cavity. They think it helps protect the skull when pecking.”
A crackle on the radio. A lion has been spotted nearby.
“We can go if you like?” Anton asks.
Mind-expanding flowers, haunted hills and brain licking birds? “No thank you,” I say emphatically, “More of this please.”
Anton looks delighted. He points out a beautiful violet-backed starling. The rich, iridescent purple striking against its snow-white belly. It looks like an exotic liquorice allsort. It is at this moment that I realise I have fallen in love with birding.
We leave the forest and come across a herd of zebras and giraffes. To me, no other animals better represent safari. The sharp black and white stripes and the orange jigsaw patterns are the most emblematic of any animal found on African soil.
It starts to get dark. We make our way back to the camp, Anton sweeping the spotlight across the bush hoping to pick out the glowing eyes of a predator. As he does, the ground sparkles with dozens of tiny silver spots glistening like dew.
“Spiders’ eyes,” he says.
The arachnophobe in me shivers.
Anton stops and holds the spotlight steady, shining it into a small bush, waiting for me to see. It takes a while. A black-headed dwarf chameleon. I stare at it, starting to doubt my own mind. Its skin changes colour, but never quite settles; a hypnotic shifting of white to cream, brown to green, confused by the torch. Keeping one eye fixed on me, it slowly opens its jaws to reveal the inside of its mouth. Bright orange. It serves as a warning, almost grinning like a reptilian Cheshire cat.
“Chameleons can see ultraviolet light. If you shine a UV light on their head, they glow. Each one has a different UV pattern. This is one way they communicate,” says Anton.
It seems there is colour everywhere, even when we cannot see it. Chameleons are meant to change good luck into bad and, true or not, a rumble of thunder in the distance means we should make our way back. It is the rainy season after all and we do not want to push our luck.
As we drive, Anton tells me the name Zulu comes from Amazulu, meaning People of Heaven. I look up at the coal black sky and under a night dusted with stars, the moon begins to rise. It is a beautiful, luminous red.