The chameleon whisperer of iSimangaliso

Sakhile Dube - 'The Chameleon Whisperer' of iSimangaliso. Image by Darling Lama Productions.

Sakhile Dube – the chameleon whisperer of iSimangaliso. Image courtesy of Darling Lama Productions.

Sakhile Dube is a nature guide in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site and some say he has a close, personal relationship with the local population of chameleons…

In the middle of nowhere and under a thick veil of darkness, Sakhile Dube gets off the open safari vehicle, walks a few feet into the dense Maputaland bush and brings out a luminescent green flap-necked chameleon that mistakes his finger for a twig. Eyes bright and swirly at this unexpected turn of events, the chameleon clings on for dear life while Dube tells us all about these fascinating creatures that can change the colour of their skin to match their surroundings.

A little further down a dusty track, he stops again, this time to find the rare Setaro’s dwarf chameleon – its body is the size of a box of matches, yet Dube manages to see it against a dense backdrop of tangled branches and trees. How Dube finds these adaptable creatures under inky skies while driving a safari vehicle, only he (and the chameleons) knows.

“They send me a text message; that’s how I know where they are”, laughs Dube.

He is fast gaining a reputation as being a “chameleon whisperer” or the “Chameleon Man” – a title he laughs off with an enormous tooth-filled smile that’s almost as wide and long as the Eastern shores where he takes visitors on his specialised Chameleon Drive Safari.

He works for Shakabarker tours, a company based in St Lucia that specialises in tours and safaris in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park – one of South Africa’s World Heritage Sites in a gloriously wild part of the KwaZulu-Natal coastline. One of his favourite things is taking visitors on a night drive and he’s something of a master-spotter with the help of a powerful spotlight and his own very keen eyesight (and perhaps a psychic ability he’s not telling anyone about).

There’s something magical about being out in the bush at night – the sounds of nature, the huge star-spangled skies and the almost surprising amount of activity that goes on after the sun has set. Dube knows where to look for the zebra, kudu, waterbuck and hippo that are prolific along the Eastern shores. The region is home to the Big Five, but Dube is also entranced by the smaller animals, birds and creatures – he thrills at finding a kingfisher napping on a branch – eyes closed, at peace with the world – or discovering a busy army of giant ants making its way along a sandy track. And then, of course, there are the chameleons….

He says there are two main types of chameleon in the Park, the flap-necked chameleon and the Setaro’s dwarf chameleon, which are both endemic to Maputaland and the coastal dune forests of iSimangaliso.

A born storyteller, Dube says many local people are cautious of chameleons. “A lot of people are very shy of them, especially the Zulus. We have got a lot of beliefs and superstitions about the chameleons.”

He says that although stories and beliefs change from village to village, the main aim of these stories is actually to protect the species as they are very useful in the cycle of nature. “In my area, they used to tell us about the chameleons’ eyes that move independently. The one eye is going to look at you and the other eye is going to shoot you with the evil spirit so you won’t see the sun rise again. But some other people say they are going to whack you with lightning – depending on the area you’re in.’

He says the fact that chameleons dine on mosquitoes means that they are very valuable in the bigger scheme of things.

A chameleon perches on Sakhile Dube's hand. Image by Darling Lama Productions.

A chameleon perches on Sakhile Dube’s hand. Image courtesy of Darling Lama Productions.

The bush is in Dube’s veins – although, with his funky dreads, good looks, gravelly rock star voice and gregarious personality, he could be at home almost anywhere. But talk to him about the traffic-filled streets of Johannesburg and he shakes his head at the madness of those who live there. City life is definitely not for him – his heart is close to home and he is thriving working in the tourism industry and for Shakabarker tours – where no day (or night) is ever the same.

He says: ‘Tourism has changed my life a lot because I managed to look after my family and also to build my homestead, and now I have got a place in Khula village where I want to start something on the tourism side of things, so I will see how it goes.” It’s fitting that Dube is benefitting from a job in tourism, as he is part of the Bhangazi community who were forcibly removed from the Eastern shores under apartheid. A land claim was settled in the late 1990s and the Bhangazi are once more the caretakers of this land. Various tourism-related projects are planned for the area, with direct benefits going to the community.

As we make our way back to the park gate, we pass another ranger with a group of tourists going on a night drive. ‘There’s a hippo in town,’ says the ranger after greeting Dube and off we go on an extended game drive through St Lucia. Apparently, hippos wandering through town are a common occurrence in this part of the world, hence the “Beware of hippos at night” signs on the streets.

The town of St Lucia and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park is a wild and wonderful place, filled with magic, legend and mystery and one of the only places where man communicates with chameleons and where hippos roam the streets.

Not your average street sign. Image by Darling Lama Productions.

Not your average street sign. Image courtesy of Darling Lama Productions.

Shakabarker Tours is located in the town of St Lucia and operates a variety of tours in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and Hluhluwe/iMfolozi Game Reserve. To book a night drive or Chameleon Safari with Sakhile Dube, contact: +27 (0)35 590 1162 or email: info@shakabarker.co.za

For more information relating to the area, contact: iSimangaliso Wetland Park Authority. Tel: +27 35 590 1633

[This article first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Sawubona magazine. Download your free copy.]

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