In St Lucia I met up with Philippine, Feline and Jannes again, the old iMfolozi posse. We were joined too by Melanie, from New York state. We were staying at Monzis Safari’s tented lodge, in backpacker accommodation – a permanent tent, a nightlight and a comfortable bed; its pitched on the roof above the shower block. I was bunking with Jannes again, just like old times.
There are two pools, a pool table, two kitchens and not much else; we didn’t use the pools, it was too cold during our stay, and we would have liked a bar; but maybe buying our own beers turned out cheaper, eh? For lunch we satisfied our biggest cravings, at Reef & Dune we ate pizza and drunk milkshakes. My first pizza in 5 weeks. So good. We played some pool to while away the evening, though it was more teaching pool than playing pool, ahem. I turned in an early night, not hungry while the others went for sushi.
St Lucia offers lots of activities; like whale watching, bird watching, boat tours, horse riding, snorkelling and so on. These options are greatly reduced when its windy, and when it rains. We cancelled plans to see whales and swim and we all joined Philippine on her trip to the beach, to go horse riding in the rain – her event was still going ahead.
After a tasty breakfast at kauai, we left for the beach. It’s a half hour walk. We passed hippo warning signs – it’s dangerous to walk at night here, hippos come out from the lake and wander the empty streets – if they see you they’ll charge you and you’ll need to climb a tree.
The beach I was expecting was a tourist one; one with a few shops, a promenade, maybe a coffee shop. This isn’t the case – it’s a beach in a reserve, it’s pristine, save for all the garbage that gets washed up. The only buildings are toilets. This means there’s no shelter from the rain, and nowhere to grab coffee. Philippine’s horse was a little skinny, but it was better than the horse with one eye. We watched her ride away, then meandered up and down the beach, watching the crashing waves, the swirling storm clouds above and the scuttling crabs; the storm seemed to miss us, and by the time to go the sun was out again.
At Braza we had lunch; souvlaki and cocktails, and downstairs we bought Beleave t-shirts – a perfect wild dog shirt not in my size. The food options in St Lucia are all good; but perhaps everything tastes amazing when you’ve been in the bush for 5 weeks.
Now the weather was perfect for our boat ride, the hippo and croc excursion on the lake, we went with the cheaper “big boat” option and bagged some upstairs seats near the front. Our guide, apparently an older version of me, bellowed his sightings from speakers spread around the deck; but as we left he missed the crocodile on the shoreline.
It was all about the hippos though; from the start we saw little heads poking through the surface, eyeing us; one hippo climbed out from the lake and we had a chance to see him in his glory – scent marking, yawning, all the classic hippo traits. Two adolescents treated us to a mock fight, a playful battle for dominance. Every now and then a hippo grunt could be heard over the boat’s engines. An old hippo tooth made its way around the boat; a long protrusion of ivory, it was heavy. “Hold it like a telephone”.
The boat was excellent for birdwatching; we got up close to a giant kingfisher and watched a goliath heron in the reeds. There too were hundreds of weavers, all starting their nests, competing for the best spots. A fish eagle perched in a tree, caspian terns hovered above; cattle egret, yellow-billed stork and grey heron prodded about in the water, and a flock of hadeda ibis flew against the setting sun.
After there was more beer, more pool, and sushi at Ocean’s Basket.
We’d be leaving at midday, leaving plenty of time for an early morning bird watching tour. Monzi safaris booked it on our behalf, I wasn’t sure what the quality would be – Jannes came with me, and our guide, Larry – a former section ranger. A 6am pickup, not too early, we didn’t want to bump any hippo while wandering around with our binoculars.
From town we drove to Gwalagwala, a small forested area with a looped path, it heads out to the lake’s edge and back. As a birding trip it wasn’t remarkable; we caught glimpses of many unidentified birds, and searched sporadically for a few special ones; we didn’t see the buff-spotted flufftail, though its long deep call kept getting closer; but we did find a song-less African Broadbill and my favourite from the trip, a blue-mantled crested flycatcher. There were batis, mannikins, sunbirds, robin-chats and doves a plenty, as well as camaroptera – or camera operators, as Larry dubbed them. A small shikra flew past us briefly, and in the tree tops we saw a white-eared barbet.
What was remarkable were the stories Larry told; his remarkable life is filled with incredible richness. Like the bird rescue he runs from his home, and the baby owl he rearer to adulthood – an owl that is now 8 years old and returns regularly, sometimes with a mate. Or the girl he saved from a crocodile, the time he lived with crocodiles for 30 days for charity, the leopard he found with a puppy in its mouth, the family of leopards outside his home, the scars from all the croc bites, the young boy photographing ants that had a forest cobra crawl over him. The stories kept coming. His knowledge of the bush was phenomenal; he could identify each tree and tell us a story about it, he’d point out scars in the trunks where he’d mounted hammocks and tents for overnight watch – from high in the trees he watched hyena and leopard, while monitoring an owl nest.
From the forest we drove to the crocodile centre, where we enjoyed coffee and homemade rusks, then had a whistle-stop tour of the place. Larry talked so much that our 9am return time was now nearing 10:30am, and we were risking missing our checkout time. As fast as he could, he showed us the nile crocodiles, the dwarf crocodiles, the albino crocs, the weaver birds, the adder snake and others. There was just enough time for him to climb over into one of the croc pens, pick up an 18 month old snapper and hand it to me to hold.
Back in St Lucia there was just enough time to grab lunch from kauai, and then we were all on the minibus back to Mkuze town; back to the bush. Weekend over.