#WeOpenAfrica: Magical creatures of Kurisa Moya forest

2017-04-01 12:32 - Nadia Krige
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As part of the #WeOpenAfrica campaign, I recently got to road trip around Limpopo with a few of South Africa’s top travel bloggers. Here’s a little glimpse into one of my absolute favourite experiences of the entire journey. 

Standing in the cosy kitchen of the old farm house at Kurisa Moya, I wrapped my hands tightly around the warm cup of coffee emitting curls of fragrant steam and peered through the window.

Outside, the previous night’s rain clouds were still hanging heavy over the lush garden and rolling pine plantations, and the whole world seemed saturated – emerald green lawn and trees, rust red Limpopo earth peeking through here and there.

Its purpose was soon revealed, however, when we set off along the Umsenge Forest Walk and David stopped short to focus our attention on a bird calling close-by.

“Birding in a forest setting relies mostly on hearing,” he said.

Binoculars aloft, he spotted it and motioned for us to move closer. Keeping his eye on the prize, he cast the once puzzling green dot on a far-off pine tree and, using it as a marker, started directing us to the sighting.

While this is probably the most ordinary practice for the avid birders out there, I was instantly blown away by its non-evasive effectivity. A serious upgrade from the good ol’ clock face system – you know the one: “Okay, you will see it at one-o-clock, sitting at the very end of that jutting-out branch on the third scraggly tree.”

A few hundred metres down the jeep-track, we left the pine plantation behind and entered a completely different world: a misty Magoebaskloof forest with indigenous trees towering overhead and dew-bejewelled ferns brushing our knees and tickling our feet.

With all my senses awakened, I was suddenly able to see the sprinkle of magic dust on everything. However, among all the enchanted creatures, a few burned particularly bright:

David, himself

An entirely down-to-earth individual, David would probably cringe at being called ‘magical’, but I’m going to do it anyway. Sorry, Mr Letsoalo.

The truth is, meeting a human being who possesses a pure and genuine understanding of and respect for the natural world is an honour that doesn’t come by every day. During our walk, David’s unique connection with his surrounds became increasingly evident, as interesting facts and anecdotes about the birds and trees and insects and unseen mammals flowed seamlessly forth. While one could get all mystical about it, I tend to feel that what David has with the Kurisa Moya forest is a fondly-nurtured friendship, one forged humbly over time.

Whatever the nature of this special connection, it has served David well. Having been voted the top local bird guide by members of Bird Life South Africa for at least seven years in a row, he’s a sought-after man with ‘twitchers’ from all corners of the globe, who flock to Magoebaskloof just for an hour or two of his time.

Apart from being able to identify specific bird calls among the continual cacophony in the canopy, he also has an incredible knack for imitation. Check out the video below:

Birds of paradise

With the legendary David Letsoalo as our guide, it’s hardly surprising that we got to experience some spectacular sightings – most notably the bedazzlingly bright, but infuriatingly evasive Narina Trogon. Among the 250-odd bird species to be found at Kurisa Moya, this is the one that draws the most attention.

With plumage of ruby-red, metallic blue and emerald green, the Narina Trogon is a true bird of paradise, looming large on any birder’s ‘life list’. Infamously hard to spot, they tend to perch completely still with their (green) backs toward any potential threat for long periods of time, which allows them to blend in with the foresty surrounds and, essentially, become invisible.

Hyper aware of just how popular this species is, David whipped out a fancy bird caller about halfway through the hike and broadcast a recording of the characteristic low, repeated hoot into the treetops. Within no time, the call was answered by a real-life specimen somewhere to our left. I was almost certain we wouldn’t be lucky enough to actually SEE it, but was proven delightfully wrong when it swooped into view – a brilliant jewel in flight – and even spent some time posing for us. I was honestly gob-smacked. I mean, have you ever?

Although this was undoubtedly the prize sighting of the walk (and my entire birding life – which also happens to have started right there and then), we also got treated to the appearance of – among others -a Knysna Turaco or two, clumsily tumbling through branches; an Olive Woodpecker, hacking away at a knee-height stump just a few steps off the path; a pair of Forest Canaries, enjoying an easy meal of strewn seeds at the bird hide; and even a rare Black-fronted Bush Shrike.

A 2000-year-old cabbage tree

While the birdlife of Kurisa Moya may be world-renowned, it’s true claim to fame is a gigantic and ancient Cabbage tree (Cussonia spicata) rooted – what seems to be – right in the middle of the forest.

At an estimated 2000-years-old, it stands 35m tall, measures 11m in circumference, stretches 22m across the crown and counts among the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ 75 ‘Champion Trees’ of South Africa.

Even though I knew we’d encounter it on our walk – and really looked forward to the meeting – I was caught quite off-guard when we simply… stumbled upon it. Apart from a relatively unobtrusive signpost announcing the colossal Cabbage tree’s presence and its impressive credentials, there was no further fanfare. No boardwalk leading up to it, no fence, not even a wooden railing to keep it safe from the hands of vandals. There was no need.

Unlike the Big Trees you find along the Garden Route, cordoned off from the crowds, I could walk right up to this one and press my cheek against its cool bark. I could trace its age-old creases with the tip of my finger and breathe in its mossy scent. We stood in awed silence. And then started snapping shots.

The privilege of this close encounter wasn’t lost on any of us and I sincerely hope that it will stay this way – safely accessible – for a long time to come.

The spider tree

Sometime before we found the Cabbage tree, however, another magnificent specimen caught our attention and forced us to a standstill:

Crouching next to the pathway, it was all crooked, green legs and prickly moss hair – just like a titanic tarantula. Even though it doesn’t feature on any important lists or boast a signpost announcing its measurements, it struck me as a truly arresting piece of natural art just waiting to be appreciated.

While I honestly don’t know how long our walk in the forest lasted, what I do know is that it left me feeling entirely refreshed. Sitting down to a wholesome breakfast at the farmhouse afterwards, we all agreed that it had done our bodies, minds and souls more good than the most comprehensive spa treatment in the world ever could. I was reminded once more of how necessary it is to unplug entirely ever now and then and allow yourself to be bathed in the healing light of a forest.

Accommodation info:

Kurisa Moya is a 422-ha property, encapsulating a diverse range of habitats. It’s completely off the grid and you will also battle to find decent cellphone reception, making it the perfect breakaway spot for the work- and connection-weary… which is really all of us.

There are three accommodation options:

The Farmhouse – Built in 1937 and lovingly restored to its original glory, the farmhouse offers a luxuriously spacious stay. Some of my favourite features include the classic wrap-around stoep, inviting fireplace and… best of all… a tree shower in one of the four en-suite bathrooms. Able to accommodate up to ten people, it is booked out to one group only, making it the perfect option for a family or a group of friends. While it’s fully-geared for a self-catering stay, you do have the option of booking meals that will be delivered – warm and delicious – to your door!

Forest cabins Tucked away in the indigenous forest, three metres up in the canopy, these two-sleeper wooden cabins provide the ultimate romantic getaway. There are only two, located some distance apart, which means that you’re ensured of ultimate privacy.

Thora Boloka cottage – While the farmhouse is surrounded by pine plantations and the cabins hide away among the indigenous trees, this quaint and cosy stone cottage is perched on top of a koppie at the edge of the bushveld, overlooking the Kudu’s River Valley.

Our stay at Kurisa Moya formed part of the recent #WeOpenAfrica road trip, an initiative to share the stories of the Ribola Art Route, and inspire travellers to pack their bags, hit the open road and explore the wonders that Limpopo has to offer. If you’re itching for a Ribola Art Route experience of your own, book now. Special thanks to Hertz for trusting us to bump along Limpopo’s wild roads in two of their cars. 

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