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Seeing the `big five,' plus one

At a resort on a private game reserve in Zululand, visitors on safari learn to take a closer look -- at tiny frogs.

July 16, 2006|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Pongola, South Africa — BAGGING the "big five" at a game park in South Africa usually means seeing lions, leopards, buffaloes, rhinos and elephants. But for a different breed of animal lover, it's about catching sight of frogs -- the painted reed, banded rubber, Natal sand, foam nest and snoring puddle.

To them little is big. The Frog Prince tops the Lion King every time. And nothing could be more delightful than hunting for frogs in the dark on a fetid body of water where crocodiles wallow.

About 130 of the roughly 5,000 frog species that have been identified in the world can be found in South Africa, and they come out in biblical plague force after a summer downpour. On a single river bend or puddle, thousands congregate, calling to prospective mates at volumes sometimes approaching 100 decibels -- louder than a chain saw.

Last year, Alwyn Wentzel, manager of AmaKhosi Lodge, on the 34,000-acre AmaZulu Private Game Reserve in northern Zululand, started offering frog safaris in the summer rainy season, from December to March. I read about his program in a magazine and e-mailed for more information.

"AmaKhosi is on a beautiful reserve with plenty of big game and about 28 species of frogs," he said. "We decided to offer something new to our guests that does not revolve around observing big game, but rather around the smaller things one often misses when chasing lions and elephants."

His eloquence hooked me. Then too, I wasn't opposed to spotting a few lions and elephants along with the frogs. So I reserved a chalet at AmaKhosi for three nights in late February. The rates -- $680 a night, single occupancy, or $450 a night, per person, double occupancy -- include accommodations, meals, beverages, bush walks and two guided game drives a day. For "froggers," the price also covers late-night expeditions to wetlands around the reserve, accompanied by Alwyn.


Out-of-the-way location

GETTING to AmaKhosi is something of a challenge. It is at the edge of KwaZulu Natal province, about four hours north of Durban. Some guests rent vehicles and drive here, but carjacking is all too common, so I booked a van transfer to the lodge.

After an overnight flight from Paris to Durban, my driver, Joseph, met me at the airport baggage claim. As we headed north on the N2 highway, the city's raw, sprawling suburbs quickly gave way to sugar cane fields and eucalyptus groves. Women selling pineapples and papayas clustered around the van when we slowed down for a highway construction team.

In the hamlet of Pongola, we turned west, crossing hills that looked like mounds of green whipped cream. Joseph pointed out the electric fencing, erected to keep big game animals inside the many private reserves. As soon as we entered AmaKhosi's first gate we started spotting animals most people see only in zoos: skittering monkeys, families of snorting wart hogs, clownish wildebeests, loopy ostriches and graceful impalas.

AmaKhosi's climate, terrain and wildlife are similar to that of renowned 5-million-acre Kruger National Park on South Africa's border with Zimbabwe and Mozambique. It doesn't have Kruger's thick herds of animals, but its smaller size tends to concentrate the big game, virtually assuring visitors of sightings.

You have to go through several gates to reach the lodge, an island encircled by another electric fence inside the one that surrounds the preserve. Passing through the last barrier you suddenly realize that at an African game park the rules of a zoo are reversed: You're in the cage, and the wild animals are around you.

Sometimes they came right up to the electrified wires around the lodge. One morning from my bed at AmaKhosi, I saw two nyala antelopes foraging by the fence under my chalet. In the dry season, Alwyn told me, herds of elephants pass along the Mkuze River just below the lodge, and he once had to remove a Mozambique spitting cobra from the dining terrace.

When I reached the lodge, a young woman in a floor-length African print caftan offered me a drink and a warm, moist cotton towel. Half wondering whether I had ended up at a Ritz-Carlton, I sat down in the airy lounge, decorated with deep leather armchairs and couches, African fabrics, masks and baskets.

The rambling building opened onto a wide wooden terrace where meals were served and there was a small swimming pool surrounded by giant ferns and impatiens. You could perch in a chair by the far railing, watching for animals that come to drink at the river and identifying them with the help of game charts posted nearby.

On either side of the lodge, manicured paths meandered toward the guest chalets, each with a parlor and bedroom, air conditioning, a well-stocked mini-bar, private terrace and dramatically peaked grass roof inspired by traditional Zulu dwellings, or kraals. My big, sybaritic bathroom had a separate shower, double tub, mounds of fresh towels, candles, soaps and lotions, and a laundry basket for dirty clothes, which the staff washed daily.

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