Ruffling feathers at reserve

Hannah Mellet is pictured at the release site.
Hannah Mellet is pictured at the release site.

A day in the office in my world is never a dull one, and four days ago was no exception.

The start of a ‘normal’ day involves driving to the lodge at 7am and this is the perfect time to view game and exotic birds. A typical traffic jam in the bush may be a herd of zebra or giraffe casually blocking the road, while the trees host an array of beautiful birds, such as the brightly coloured Purple Crested Lourie. But this particular day’s unusual bird was something a little bit larger, and one that has brought great excitement to the reserve.

Since the sad loss of one of our beautiful white rhino who was mercilessly poached two months ago, the whole team at Ubizane Wildlife Reserve have been fervently awaiting the arrival of seven ostriches. These extraordinary, flightless birds originally occurred naturally in the area, but sadly due to the addition of fences and human habitation ostriches have been wiped out on the reserve. It was time to reintroduce them to our 1,200 hectare haven, and re-create a positive atmosphere about Ubizane.

Not knowing the precise time of their arrival, we were all extremely excited when the gate guard called over the radio that a truck with seven ostriches was awaiting our permission to was a case of hitting ‘send’ on all e-mails and diverting phone calls to reception, and the whole management team jumped on a Land Rover to meet our new residents.

The excitement and spontaneity was incredible. From the office and computers to wildlife and wilderness in a time span of just 10 minutes – it was a great feeling, and one of the main reasons why I fell in love with the hospitality industry in South Africa in the first place.

As the truck approached the open plain where we planned to release the pre-historic looking birds, the sight of seven heads bobbing out the top of the vehicle was almost comical. Yet this was a serious affair (I noticed neither Darius nor Tiaan were smiling) so I contained my giggles at the bizarreness of the event and returned to being the assigned photographer. Perhaps one day this will be a normal every day occurrence for me too, though I won’t hold my breath.

The release itself took just five minutes, from opening the rear of the trailer to encouraging all the nervous looking birds out of the back and watching the beautiful black male stride off proudly into the sunset with his six drab-looking females. Darius tells me the reason for the difference in colouring is because the male ostrich protects the eggs on the nest at night time when it is dark, and the lighter coloured female sits on the nest during the day.

Despite being the largest bird in the world and being able to reach a top speed of 45mph, or perhaps due to this, ostriches are not the most intelligent of animals; this was certainly evident the following morning when I looked out of my window while brushing my teeth. To my surprise one of the female ostriches had made her way the long distance to our house, and having no fence around the garden she had discovered our small concrete bird bath. After taking a drink, however, the clumsy creature bashed her head on the bird table directly above. This would have been forgivable, apart from the fact she repeated the drinking/bumping action another five times. I had long finished brushing my teeth before she had had her fill and wandered off.

Since the release, the ostriches have settled in well. All seven individuals have drifted apart and are living in their own home range. Three remain close to the lodge’s accommodation which is a huge hit with all our guests, both international and local. The single female who frequents our house still drops by most mornings and this afternoon took one step further. As soon as I switched on the hosepipe to water the garden the ostrich appeared from nowhere and approached me at some speed. Naively thinking I could protect myself from this potentially dangerous bird armed with a fully-flowing hosepipe, I aimed it at the ostrich when she came within five metres. I was stunned when instead of turning away in fright, the evidently warm female lay down and opened her wings begging for more, apparently in ecstasy at the coolness of the fresh water!

Darius came strolling out of the house after watching the incident through the window. He admitted his amusement to see a completely wild ostrich who has had minimal contact with human beings, quite comfortable less than a metre away from his Scottish wife. The bush and its beautiful surroundings and wildlife never cease to amaze – not just me, but people who have lived here all their lives. I certainly appreciate how lucky I am to be in these magical surroundings every single day, and brushing my teeth in the morning has never been such an exciting event!