Monday, 4 February 2013

Ongoye - Muddy bloody barbet!

Friday the 1st of February started off well enough even though the inclement weather rolling in off the sea left little doubt that the day would be a wet one. First stop on the itinerary, having left Johannesburg for the KZN Zululand coast, was Ongoye Forest. Situated somewhere between Empangeni and Mtunzini this small patch of forest is the last known refuge, in the sub-region, for Green Barbet. Recent rains, a deeply fissured / pot-holed road, flooded grasslands and a gut-wrenching river crossing turned the 10.5 kilometers off the R102 into an hour-long adventure. 

Plain-backed Pipit
Croaking Cisticola - enjoying an early morning shower
It wasn't long before the heavens opened but since we'd come all this way [750km] we thought we'd persevere.... Almost impossibly the 'road' into the forest deteriorated further. If birding is a story then one of our better tales was writing itself with each roll-of-the-wheel. Whilst the forest held its breath we had soon found our first G. Barbet which wasn't reason enough to turn around. A photo [even in the worst kind of weather] is the finishing touch a rarity deserves...

Ongoye - Forest 'road' 

3 or 4 kilometers into the forest Alisha called time. Mists of insanity hung loosely around the driver's seat where I found myself seated. The goggle-eyed, white-knuckled death-grip on the steering-wheel was another rarity-induced madness Alisha had seen before, usually with disastrous consequences. Mumbling unprintables but fearing the wrath of Herself and with little to show for the day's work other than a rain-infused glimpse of two barbets, we turned back. 

Chop, chop, chop..... an ugly interruption and the clear call of Green Barbet close-by. The Great Ornithologist in the sky had sent us a gift! 

Grabbing the camera and attempting a better angle I veered a half-yard off the road.. Rule 1 when driving treacherous roads, steeply banked to a fast flowing stream - STAY ON THE ROAD. Rule 2 - SEE Rule 1.. 

Captain's log - Star-date 2013;1 Feb; 800 Challenge; 9:30am: - 
Inadvertently parked vehicle on slippery slope to oblivion. Vehicle immovable. Stream flowing strongly under the front axle. Nearest human - 5 kilometers as the barbet flies. Inventory - 2 chicken wraps and a bottle of water each. Recovery prospects - Null. Cellphone reception - Null. Conversation with spouse - Null. Photo of Green Barbet - Null. 

Communication Hill - 2pm
Communication Hill - 11am

Communication Hill - 6:30pm
Preferring the terrors of the forest, filled with the djins of idiots-past, to the Grim Reaper in the passenger seat, I trudged off muddied and bloodied in driving rain up the nearest hill, forever dubbed Communication Hill in hope of technological salvation.

Captain's log - 11am. Alisha has joined me on the knoll of misery. In contact with rescue team. Help is imminent.

Captain's log - 2pm. Alisha has taken over All communication. Help has stalled. [You'll recall the gut-wrenching river crossing someway short of the forest entrance].

Oh the shame..
Empangeni's Kenny at work on the snatch
Much later; soaked through, tired and resigned to a night in the forest those sweet words...'We're through..Standby - 30 minutes...'
Almost there - just another day in Zululand. [Cellphone pic]

Even though the recovery was a technical one, given the gradient and clay soil and although the snatch proved fatal to the only tree of substance near our vehicle, we were eventually free to leave.

I thought better than suggest a flufftail hunt...

Although the day proved trying, all was not lost. Unwittingly we had stumbled upon the tree on Communication Hill used by most of the forest birds to do their own communicating. Over the 8 hours we sat up there we had the closest views of Grey Cuckooshrike, Green Barbet, Crowned Eagle, Black-bellied Starling, Trumpeter Hornbill, Collared Sunbird, Woodward's Batis and Tambourine Dove.

Later, en route back to the R102, having forded the river, we were stunned to find two Grass Owls sitting on the road, very unusually, not 10 meters in front of us but in driving rain; a pre-ordained boon of good timing! Who says a full-body mud-pack isn't good for you - Woohoo!


  1. Great story Mark! The piece about the "grim reaper" made me think you were writing my story!

    I battled for years and many visits to find the barber. The day we found it we also had to rescue four overseas visitors who had been stuck for hours on that road.

  2. Thank you Tony. These are the trips we remember, not so?