Zululand Zenith
African Birdlife|September - October 2020
It was the penultimate day of five weeks of the strict lockdown in South Africa.
Adam Riley

I was pushing the open safari Landcruiser as fast as I could down the muddy main road through the Manyoni Private Game Reserve. My two-year-old daughter’s hat blew off and I slammed on the brakes in frustration, reluctantly reversing to retrieve it. A herd of elephant crossed the road ahead but I managed to slip past them, much to my relief and the kids’ disappointment. I had to get to the northern boundary asap!

Quailfinches flying up off the roadside didn’t slow me down; we shot past a perched Bateleur; Pink-throated Twinspots and Rudd’s Apalises vied unsuccessfully for my attention from roadside bushes; and we sped past a Hooded Vulture, a provincial rarity, with barely a sideways glance. After what felt like an eternity, I spotted another game-viewer parked on the roadside and held my breath, hoping my nemesis was still there.

Johan Pretorius, manager and senior ranger at Zebra Hills Lodge, was gesticulating excitedly and a flash of white caught my attention as it briefly burst into view and then dropped into thick grass. I had made it just in time and the taste of success was so satisfying after my many failed attempts. What a beaut that Cattle Egret was! Cattle Egret?! What on earth could make a Cattle Egret sighting so dramatic? Well, it was my 259th lockdown bird and until then I had consistently dipped it.

This year’s Covid-19 lockdown will be seared into our collective memories for the rest of our lives. During March, the exponentially escalating infection rates generated an environment of fear. On 23 March, President Ramaphosa announced a three-week strict lockdown to begin at midnight on 27 March, giving everyone a few days to prepare and stock up (if only we’d known alcohol wouldn’t be available for nearly 10 weeks!).

My family was faced with a difficult choice: locking down in our comfortable home in Hilton, close to shops, hospitals and other amenities, or taking the riskier option of bolting to our lodge, Zebra Hills, in the wilds of northern Zululand. My friend Murray Collins finally swung the verdict, pointing out that if we stayed at home, by the end of lockdown we would regret not having been in the wilderness and there was no way we could ever get that time back. How valuable his advice turned out to be.

After convincing my somewhat reluctant wife Felicity, the next challenge was packing for an extended stay for three kids (William, six, Alex, four, and Victoria, two), our wonderful domestic helper Gogo (Granny) Eunice and two dogs. This forced us to make difficult decisions on what to squeeze in. I admit to a wave of panic when I walked into my library. As a voracious book collector and reader, I was overwhelmed by choice and it was tough to decide which books to select. I could have saved myself the stress, as I hardly did any reading in the end…

As we locked up our home and drove out, vehicle packed to the hilt, we had the feeling that we might never return; strange days indeed. The roads became quieter as we headed north on the four-hour drive to Zululand, finally arriving at the reserve gates. Two cheetahs crossed the road right in front of us and we took this as a good omen that we had made the right decision.

Along the way, David Hoddinott asked me if I was planning to enter the BirdLasser Lockdown Challenge. Once I established that one’s lockdown property could be any size, I thought it would be fun to see how many bird species I could find during lockdown. In the end, 1245 South African birders entered the Lockdown Challenge, recording an incredible total of 654 species.

At 06h12 on day 1, I was awoken by two energetic lions roaring their hearts out just outside our room. Despite these deep, primeval soundwaves filling my head, the desperate high-pitched shriek of a juvenile Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl penetrated the roars and became my first lockdown bird. Five bird-filled weeks later it was also my final bird as this young owl screamed continuously in our lodge garden, day and night. I still don’t understand why it was so vocal (it had been displaying the same behaviour for several months).

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