Ithala Game Reserve has stunning diversity. The reserve incorporates the highlands of Ngotshe, where the Zulu people of Dinizulu found safety in hidden caves during the Zulu wars in the mid-1800s. From the heights, there is a splendid vista across grasslands that sweep down to the lowlands. There, twines the Pongola River that empties itself across the rugged landscape of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, on its way to the sea. The array of different habitats in the well-established reserve allows for an equally diverse population of birds, reptiles, and mammals.

Ithala before the 5-star Ntshondwe Camp

This was not always the case, and back in 1986, 13-years after the reserve was taken back from settler farmers, the old farmlands were still showing signs of human occupation. Animal numbers were still being carefully monitored. Scientists were gathering information about historical animals that had occupied the area before white settlement. The rich history of the area was being studied and written up. San bushmen cave painting were studied to establish the types of fauna that historically occurred in the area. Back then, the focus was not on visitors. It was not the world-class five-star destination it has become. The famous Ntshondwe Camp, (now a popular destination for western same-sex marriages), was merely an idea on paper.

There were two bush camps under construction and a campsite with almost no amenities.

This was a good time to live and work in the reserve. Rhino poaching was at an all-time low, so the rangers all had the time to become involved in research projects. The human history of a preserved area is as important as the natural history, so we set off to find out as much as we could about the ancient days of this land.

This was later incorporated into the self-guided drives and walks that visitors to the reserve find so rewarding thirty years later.

Near the old and long defunct Ngotshe mine, there stands the remnants of an old stone hut. Across from it and up a rocky slope of tumbled rocks was a place the Zulu elders in the area said was guarded by a giant spirit mamba.

Africa is rife with legends, and as I wrote in my book, "Blood of The sacred," - "Myth and legend are more than just stories in Africa. There the seen and the unseen intertwine for the people of the dark continent live close to the dead." Usually, if there is a legend in Africa, there is something tangible to back it up. So we set out to find the mamba.

Mamba's are legend in Africa

Black Mambas are legend themselves, in Africa. The deadly snake is described by the Kruger Park Times as, "one of Africa's most feared and respected snakes, [and] inevitably evokes reactions of fear, respect or awe - often merely by being mentioned." The publication does not exaggerate when they allude to some of the legends associated with the snakes - "coined super-fast, super-intelligent, and shrewd and magical abilities have even been attributed to it."

There are obvious myths associated with the snake, but certainly, respect is the one thought that was uppermost in the minds of me and my husband, Frank, who was Senior Ranger of the Eastern Section of Ithala at the time.

He was busy studying for his conservation diploma and his research paper was about the occurrence of these snakes in the reserve. They were common - sometimes, too common. One of them decided to make its nest in the ceiling of our house and for a few days, baby snakes rained down in our sitting room through a crack in the beading. That was not comfortable, but baby snakes, poisonous as they are, are not really awe-inspiring.

Flight or flight and a moment of awe in mamba encounter

Awe-inspiring was walking around the hill near the mine, looking for signs of mambas just before dusk, when a large mamba making for water stood up as high as my chest, a few feet away. The slivery-black beauty and I stood like that - immobile, frozen for an eternity of seconds.

Then he swished across the path and was gone. I remember I was shaking with excitement and fear. I wanted to sit down with relief but my survival instincts wanted me to flee. I experienced the flight reaction - but the fight part of the human fight or flight instinct just never came into the picture. You don't pick a fight with a six-foot mamba!

That snake was big, but he was not the giant that the spirit mamba was described to be. The interesting part of the encounter was that we had established we were in the territory of a mamba. As the original mamba of the legend was at least a hundred years old, it was quite possible to suppose the original snake had populated the area with offspring and this was a descendant of the original ancestor.

People who live in cities often suppose that wild animals wander around kind of randomly. This is a misconception though - they have their homes and their comfort zones and even their daily routines, just like humans do. We got to know that snake quite well and discovered he had family in the area.

The snake that never was...perhaps

One day, driving across to the campsite to attend to a broken shower, we drove past the hillock. We were not intent on looking for anything. It was a hot day, dry and dusty. The road was wide, as it was built to accommodate two vehicles traveling in opposite directions. Suddenly we had to stop. From one edge of the yellowed grassy verge to the other, a long black snake was strung out like a fat giant hose.

Neither his head nor his tail were visible initially. It was crossing the road and we watched it move off. As the tail end of the snake disappeared into the bush before I could get to my camera, there is no official record of the reptile. Frank decided to measure the tracks on the sandy road. If he knew the girth of the mamba, he might be able to estimate the length - or so his theory went. We got out the truck and walked over to where the snake had been. There were no tracks. We hunted everywhere for them. The fine and powdery sand was full of little bird prints and a mosaic of small rodent tracks, but there was no sign of the enormous snake.

Had we just found the Spirit Mamba of Zulu legend?

I like to think so. This is Africa after all, where myth and legend and the seen and the unseen are often so closely intertwined, that the difference is impossible to discern.

Footnote -

Ithala Game Reserve is managed by Ezemvelo Kzn Wildlife. The world-class Ntshondwe Camp is quite often a destination of choice for Americans in the LGBT community who want to experience Africa in its natural state. According to their website, "All staff members working within Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Resorts have fully completed intense LGBT Sensitivity Skills training courses...They are the first hospitality group of resorts in South Africa to embrace ....and manage LGBT sensitivity and diversity as well as including LGBT HR Policies to ensure fair and equal rights for all for that work for Ezemvelo and stay in their resorts."