Manyoni Game Reserve lies in the heart of Zululand, just a three-hour drive from Durban and six from Johannesburg. It’s one of the largest privately owned reserves in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa. If you haven’t visited, you’re missing something special – a diverse landscape where you can find the Big 5, wild dogs and perhaps even a pangolin.
Manyoni Private Game Reserve began life in 2004 when landowners took down their fences to form a 23 000ha wildlife reserve. Black rhino were introduced the following year as part of the World Wildlife Fund’s range expansion project. Manyoni became a Big 5 reserve when lions were introduced in 2011 to join the rhino, elephant, buffalo and leopard already present. Cheetah and wild dog were also reintroduced, making this a varied and exciting place to go on safari.
Afternoon game drive
On our first drive in the reserve, things started slow and peaceful. Guide Bongani Dlamini from Rhino River Lodge gave us the tart pink fruits of the kooboo berry to taste and pointed out brownhooded and woodland kingfishers along the Msunduze River.
We enjoyed the landscapes, from savanna with thorn trees to grassland and riverine forest. Late in the afternoon as the sun began to soften into golden light we found four lions – three young males and their sister, all about 18 months old. Mom was absent as we watched them stretching, yawning and pricking their ears. Then they all turned their heads as one, stood and moved off away from us. ‘I think they heard the mother calling,’ said Bongani. Unfortunately for us, they walked into a thicketed valley where we couldn’t follow.
Chuffed that we’d seen three of the Big 5 in our first few hours in the reserve, we set off back to camp, spotting some nightjars along the way.
Early morning drives
Early morning and the bush had a magical, ethereal quality. As the vehicle climbed a steep hill we saw fever trees, marulas and umbrella thorns emerging through the mist that blanketed the valley below, with superb views of rolling hills and valleys layered in the distance.
Manyoni (which translates to ‘place of birds’) is a birding diversity hotspot too. Early morning drives are a chance to tick off some of the 400-odd species that have been recorded here, like booted eagle and martial eagle, trumpeter hornbill, Rudd’s apalis, gorgeous bush-shrike, African paradise flycatcher, pink-throated twinspot and Neergaard’s sunbird. For the best experience, don’t forget to tell your guide that you’re a keen birder.
I’ve been on safari in the bush countless times. (Yes, I know how lucky I am.) I’ve seen the Big Five countless times. I’ve even seen six members of the Secretive Seven – aardvark, African wild cat, civet, large spotted genet, porcupine and serval. But the one animal that has eluded me for decades is the pangolin.
This may be because it’s the most trafficked wild animal in the world, so numbers of them are dangerously compromised (they are classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red Data List). It may be because it’s primarily nocturnal and very elusive. But by now it was the only animal I desperately wanted to see.
There are four species of pangolin in Africa but only one – Temminck’s ground pangolin – in southern Africa. If a chance to see one ever presented itself, I’d be there with a big grin on my face.
On our recent visit to Manyoni Game Reserve, opportunity knocked thanks to the Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital, the Humane Society – Africa, the African Pangolin Working Group, and the work they do to save these animals from traffickers. Would we be interested, our hosts at Rhino River Lodge in the reserve asked us, in spending some time with a pangolin?
The monitors explained that the pangolin was still too young to be fully released into the wild. His horny scales were still too soft so he wouldn’t have defences against predators. Generally, pangolins roll into a ball with the soft underparts inside and the scales outside – a pretty good defence, but only once it’s old enough for the scales to become hard.
The monitors watch him closely each day as he goes walkabout to feed, usually about four to five hours in the late afternoon and evening. They explained that they weigh him before and after foraging to ensure he is getting enough nourishment. He was fitted with a VHF tracking device that only lasts about three months, to help them pinpoint his location in case they lost visual. When he was released into the wild, this would be changed for a satellite device that lasts a year.
It was amazing to see how quickly such a small animal could walk through the long grass as we followed along behind. Reserve manager Karen Odendaal stood by with a rifle to cover our backs and protect us from danger as we concentrated on the pangolin. He was fairly chilled around people. The monitors explained that previous pangolins they’ve worked with were wary and would have just curled into a ball. This defence mechanism is a problem where there are electric fences because once shocked, they tend to roll into a ball around the wire and continue to be shocked to death.
A pangolin can travel up to 6km a night, locating ants – which make up 90-95% of its diet – and termites by smell, scratching the ground with its front claws and licking them up with the long, sticky tongue. Although pangolins don’t have teeth, they grind up the ants in a muscular gizzard.
Just as the monitors started to worry he wasn’t finding enough food, he discovered an ant nest and began scratching with his long claws, slurping up the white eggs with his long pink tongue. The tongue is about 70% as long as the animal’s whole body and attached to the stomach. Although most of the time we were seeing his back and tail as we followed him, at the ant nest we saw him really well from all angles because he stayed in one place for a good ten minutes or so. But inevitably, the ants mobilised their soldiers who started to nip at him, so he moved off.
Such a magical experience – because it’s the only time we’ve seen one in the wild; because it’s such an endangered creature; and because we could spend so much time with him, watching him move along at his own pace instead of having to be satisfied with the briefest of sightings from a vehicle.
Rhino River Lodge
There’s a number of lodges at Manyoni Game Reserve. We stayed at Rhino River Lodge in the south and found a laid-back space with friendly and helpful staff. Relax in the open-air thatched sitting area with its comfy chairs and huge photos of rhinos on the walls. On hot summer days the swimming pool area is one of the best places for guests to chill out between game drives.
Relax in easy chairs in the living room or on loungers on the deck, play games at the long dining table, make a fire in the fireplace and admire some striking wooden sculptures. There’s a large open-plan kitchen so you can choose to self-cater if you prefer that to taking your meals in the dining area or boma. Self-catering packages here and at the cottage also include two game drives a day. No self-driving is allowed in Manyoni.
For us, game drives and our captivating walk with a foraging pangolin was all the entertainment we needed. But if you’re staying longer than a couple of days there are other things to do in the area too. Here are some of them.
- Meet two rescued elephants about 10km from Rhino River Lodge. They live wild in Manyoni except for their mid-morning interactions.
- Go for a half-day boat cruise and tiger fishing on Lake Jozini about 50km away. (Remember that the months from May to August aren’t great for tiger fishing.)
- Spend a day at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park or uMkhuze Game Reserve, each about an hour’s drive away. (Although to be honest, why would you go there when you have the Big 5, wild dogs and cheetahs on your doorstep at Manyoni?)
- Do a boat cruise on St Lucia Estuary in the Isimangaliso Wetland Park, looking for water birds, hippos and crocs. St Lucia is about 100km away.
- Go snorkeling and whale watching at Cape Vidal north of St Lucia.
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