North-eastern South Africa - 27th September - 11th October 2008

Published by Ian Merrill (i.merrill AT

Participants: Ian Merrill, Andy Bunting and Martin Kennewell


Saturday 27th September

For Andy Bunting and I, our South African experience actually commences well away from the Dark Continent, in the sandy glare and oppressive heat of the Arabian Peninsula. At the time of our travel, Emirates offer the best airfare from Birmingham to Johannesburg, and with a 7 hour morning stopover in Dubai the lure of a handful of UAE specialties is too much to resist.

By 08.00 we have vacated the terminal buildings and are already in Neil Tovey’s 4x4, speeding past a forest of tower cranes which assist in a monumental construction programme frantically throwing vast concrete structures into a cloudless blue sky. Centre stage in the United Arab Emirates’ booming capital is the Burj Dubai Tower, set to be the tallest building on the planet when complete; all very impressive but one cannot help dwelling upon the huge environmental impact and wanton disregard for sustainability that this city in the sand really represents.

Neil is an ex-pat Welsh birder who we have previously contacted with regard to securing a few localised bird species during our brief Dubai visit. Rapid transit to the Hajar Mountains is essential if we are to catch up with both connecting flight and target birds, but thankfully the traffic is light and very soon we are speeding inland, first through a sea of high dunes and then flat stony plains. As we travel we pass an almost constant train of huge tipper lorries, hauling vast volumes of aggregate from the desert to fuel the manic construction pace in the City.

After close to an hour’s travel a high ridge of dark mountains finally appear through the haze. As the road begins to snake its way through the barren landscape of the Hajar Mountains, Neil warns us to check the telephone wires for black-and-white birds and within minutes we are screeching to a halt to admire our first Hume’s Wheatear. Hume’s Wheatear is not a rare bird on a global scale, but with a largely inaccessible range in south-central Asia it is our main target for the morning. A typically striking Oenanthe, we proceed to see over a dozen of these magnificent birds in the next couple of hours.

Just before our 09.15 arrival at Wadi Halo we stop to observe a pair of Bonelli’s Eagles soar over the hilltops, after which we bump our way to the locally famous archaeological site. It is already an oppressively humid 38 degrees Centigrade, but many bird species remain surprisingly active. During the next hour we study more Hume’s Wheatears at very close range, a number of newly arrived Desert Lesser Whitethroats and Isabelline Shrikes, plus the healthy resident population of Sand Partridge, Grey Francolin, Desert Lark, Little Green Bee-Eater, Indian Silverbill, Striated Bunting, Indian Roller and Arabian Babbler.

With a 14.40 onward flight at the back of our minds we decide to see out our time in the UAE closer to the airport and head back to the City. Dubai Creek Park is our destination, a manicured patch of irrigated greenery sandwiched between high rise buildings and an inlet of the Persian Gulf. Grey Francolins are common, Graceful Prinia is a good addition to our day-list, but the main goal here is Socotra Cormorant and we soon locate a couple of these range-restricted birds in the creek adjacent to the park. Various large gulls are also present on the creek and although the lack of a telescope prevents detailed scrutiny both Heuglin’s and Caspian Gull convince us of their identity.

The temperature has risen to an unhealthy 42 degrees by the time Neil drops us off at the airport. We have had a superb morning of Arabian birding, and considering the extreme temperatures experienced are delighted with the exciting range of species encountered; we would certainly recommend Neil’s services to anyone with some time in the UAE on their hands (url:, e-mail:

At around 21.00 Andy and I are greeted at Johannesburg by Martin Kennewell, the final member of the South Africa team. MK has arrived early from Singapore to enjoy a day’s birding north of Jo’burg with Faansie Peacock (url:, and has already collected our Nissan X-Trail from Avis. Within a few minutes our bags are loaded and we are heading out of town, northbound on the N1.

MK and I have fond memories of a highly successful week-long dash around the Western Cape back in 2002 and a tour in search of the endemics and regional specialties of North Eastern South Africa has been eagerly anticipated since this time. AB, on the other hand, is a virgin of Sub-Saharan Africa and is certainly in for an ornithological treat!

After careful consideration of the most effective route we have been in close liaison with Sue Anderson, Manager of Birdlife South Africa’s Avitourism Division. Sue has worked wonders in securing ‘birder friendly’ accommodation and local bird guides throughout our chosen route, relentlessly addressing our numerous requests for tweaks, changes and amendments. In our opinion no-one should venture to South Africa without employing BirdLife’s services, as they ensure that conservation, the local community and the visiting birder all benefit greatly; we cannot recommend them highly enough (url:, e-mail:

The region’s excellent road network means that we are close to our destination, Nylsvley, within a couple of hours, so we leave the N1 a little early to see what some night driving along the back roads will produce. This deviation proves to be an excellent decision as a Scrub Hare is caught in the headlights almost immediately and then some very odd, erratically moving, eye-shine attracts our attention. When the spotlight is brought to bear on a pasture adjoining the road we are amazed to discover a couple of Spring Hares bounding about the short grass. In a family of their own, these incredible mammals appear to be part hare, part gerbil and part kangaroo, and are a superb and unexpected introduction to South Africa-by-night!

Soon after our Spring Hare encounter we arrive at the Dinonyane Lodge, no doubt a fine establishment had we seen it in daylight and when fully awake!

Sunday 28th September

With the gate to Nylsvley Nature Reserve just a few minutes drive from Dinonyane we are well placed to be on site for daybreak. Our first Swainson’s Francolins interrupt the short journey; one of AB’s contacts had stated that “You would have to be blind to miss Swainson’s Francolin”, and so is the case as dozens of these big grey chickens are seen over the next two weeks.

We plan to spend just a short time at the park entrance gate and surrounding open acacia woodland, but the pace of the birding is frantic and before we know it two hours have flown past! Southern Red-billed, Southern Yellow-billed and African Grey Hornbills are amongst the first species to greet us. Grey Go-Away Bird and Burchell’s Starlings prove to be common, while a flowering tree is constantly attended by White-bellied, Amethyst and Marico Sunbirds. Kurrichane and Groundscraper Thrushes are seen around the reserve buildings, as are Crested Barbet and Lesser Honeyguide.

Bennett’s Woodpecker is an early highlight, and although several of these impressive birds are encountered here they prove to be the only records of our trip. Red-headed Weaver, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird and the ubiquitous Rattling Cisticola also feature amongst a hefty bird list, with Yellow Tree Squirrel the single mammalian entry before we pay our park fees and head towards the Vogelfontein area of the reserve.

On the reserve’s northern boundary taller acacia woodland lines the dirt road, giving access to a slightly different set of birds. Lizard Buzzard, Golden-breasted Bunting, African Penduline Tit, Burchell’s Coucal and Sabota Lark rapidly boost the site list, and as we venture further into the thorny scrub Black-collared Barbet, Southern Cordon Bleu, Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler and Marico Flycatcher all follow. Elegant Greater Kudu antelopes peer from the densest scrub, with thinly striped flanks breaking their bulky outlines, and a Slender Mongoose scurries rapidly across the road.

Final port of call at Nylsvley is the Vogelfontein wetlands, where combination locks give us access to several hides. Waterbirds are obviously the main target here, and within seconds White-backed Duck is finally added to the list. This species has eluded me on five previous trips to its African range, but seven birds happily feed at Vogelfontein and North Eastern South Africa is clearly a White-backed Duck hotspot, as close to sixty individuals are subsequently notched up over the next two weeks. Hottentot and Red-billed Teal, Southern Pochard and Yellow-billed Stork add to the wetland interest, with White-throated Swallows skimming over the pools.

On the grassy plains beyond the wetlands an impressive selection of mammals graze, interspaced with the large black pompoms of Ostrich. Plains Zebra, Blue Wildebeest and the scarce Roan Antelope form loose herds, giving a superb backdrop to our watery vista and a true African feel. Our exit from the park produces a final couple of new birds in the form of Southern White-crowned Shrike and Scaly-feathered Finch, before we set off to the east and our afternoon’s destination.

At 13.15 we arrive at Polokwane Game Reserve, by which time the early morning’s cloud cover has dispersed and a hot sun beats down from a clear blue sky. At the gate we meet Ben de Boer, manager of avitourism on the Greater Limpopo Birding Route for Birdlife SA, and also co-owner of the lodge where we will be spending the night. Ben has kindly agreed to help us in our quest for some of the Reserve’s specialties.

Although the thornvelt vegetation of Polokwane is similar to Nylsvley, the Reserve also supports a much greater expanse of open grassland and hence a good population of large grazing mammals. Almost before any new birds are noted we encounter a superb female and calf White Rhinoceros close to the track, and camera shutters click furiously in response to the performance. At a nearby waterhole Plains Zebra and Waterbuck drink, along with a great selection of bird species. Violet-eared and Black-cheeked Waxbills, Cut-throat Finch, Red-billed Quelea, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Spectacled Weaver, Red Bishop and Wattled Starling all gather around the isolated oasis in the Reserve which is in the grip of a severe drought.

Kalahari Scrub-Robin proves to be plentiful, with Crested Francolin, Marico Flycatcher and Ashy Tit also being notable sightings. Well-maintained dirt roads traverse the Reserve and we slowly tour the thornvelt and grassland, making periodic stops to bird on foot. Natal Francolin and Burnt-necked Eremomola increase the list still further, with our lark studies revealing both Rufous-naped and Sabota.

Red Hartebeest and boldly-patterned Blesbok graze the dry grassland in small numbers and a single Steenbok dashes nervously for cover. The main target of the afternoon is, however, Short-clawed Lark, a scarce bird with a very limited Southern African range. Ben’s knowledge of the Reserve and the bird’s preferred habitat prove to be invaluable at this point, as he guides us to a distant corner where open grassland dominates, with just an occasional small acacia bush punctuating the dry, brown expanse. Here two or three Short-clawed Larks sing and display from their adopted bush-tops, allowing close approach to study well-marked upperparts and a long, slightly decurved bill; our first target bird of the trip has been secured and we head for Polokwane Town’s finest pizza restaurant delighted with our day’s work.

Leaving Polokwane, we follow Ben back to our accommodation, tucked away in the hills close to Magoebaskloof Forest. As the winding road ascends, so the mist rolls in and high winds develop, rocking the low vegetation. At the end of a narrow dirt road is our chalet, many kilometres from any other habitation and part of the Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge complex (url: The rustic three-bedroomed accommodation has tremendous character, of split level design with a high timber roof, central fireplace and stone chimney stack. Lighting is solar powered and a gas stove boils the tea-making water to accompany our fine pizza meal.

As the wind howls outside we work our way through a lengthy daily log, write up notes and excitedly study the form of the next day’s birding sites.

Monday 29th September

An alarm clock failure and five minutes madly rushing around the digs precedes David Letsoala’s 05.30 arrival. David is a local Birdlife SA guide, and we following him on the thirty minute uphill drive to Magoebaskloof Forest. Although the previous evening’s wind has abated and the mist has cleared from lower altitudes, as we enter the famous Woodbush Forest Drive we return to a dense shroud of low cloud. Here a rough orange dirt road cuts through superb montane forest, draped in lichen and with a dense understory; the contrast of this site with the parched grasslands and thorn scrub visited the previous day could not be greater, and such amazing habitat diversity is set to be a theme for the whole trip.

The mist does not bode well for birding, in particular spotting the Cape Parrots for which the site is renowned, but we boldly set off on foot with fingers firmly crossed. David has a mastery of the forest’s bird calls, but most remain frustratingly out of reach in the damp greyness. Soon the high pitched calls of Cape Parrot can be heard and we rapidly descend towards the source, where we discover a pair of birds perched in a treetop. Apparently they are much less aerial in this weather, though the light conditions mean that we struggle to pick out colour on these charismatic parrots.

We descend to slightly lower altitudes in an attempt to find more clement weather, and just as we park beside the track are amazed to find a superb Orange Ground-Thrush perched at eye-level just a few metres away. This is a fantastic bonus and really perks up spirits as we set off in improving weather. Close-by Samango Monkey is another welcome find, as we munch away on a fine packed breakfast provided by Kurisa Moya.

As the mist finally begins to clear we hit upon a feeding flock moving through the mid canopy and excitement mounts as various calls echo through the woodland and wings whir through the leaves. Grey Cuckoo-Shrike, Olive Bush-shrike and Yellow-streaked Greenbul appear in rapid succession. Forest Canary is a huge bonus, being a species we missed previously in the Western Cape, and we also set eyes on a Chorister Robin, a species we have been listening to all morning. Star bird is Black-fronted Bush-Shrike, here at its only known South African site, though we have to wait until a little later in the morning to secure views of a dazzling bright-orange breasted male.

We have scarcely got our breath back when our first Knysna Turaco appears, a predictably gorgeous grass-green bird with a tall white-tipped crest, white-pencilled eye-markings and scarlet primaries revealed in flight. The next target to fall is quite a contrast in terms of aesthetic appeal, as we finally prize a Barrett’s Warbler from the dense scrub and into binocular range. Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Green-backed Cameroptera, Square-tailed Drongo and Terrestrial Brownbul conclude a superb morning, though special mention goes to African Emerald Cuckoo which I still consider to be amongst the most impressive birds in the whole Continent. With the Sun now shining down from a clear sky, second helpings of Cape Parrot, both in flight and perched, are much appreciated.

At the bottom end of Woodbush Forest Drive we part company with David, a hugely accomplished and knowledgeable guide, who has produced a comprehensive clean-sweep of our target birds at this excellent forest location. Final act before we hit the road is to track down a calling Purple-crested Turaco, which pops out of a conifer plantation just long enough for us to enjoy a subtle combination of purple-blue crest and rosy-pink breast; a double turaco-tick day is always one to savour!

From Magoebaskloof we head southeast on excellent roads, into a hot dry expanse of rolling bushveld. As we approach the bounds of the famous Kruger National Park we pass kilometre-after-kilometre of high wire fence, demarcating the boundaries of private game reserves, from where an occasional Giraffe peers out!

We have elected not to enter Kruger NP proper as part of this trip, but on Sue Anderson’s advice we are booked into Toro Yaka Bush Lodge, situated within Balule Nature Reserve. After passing through the Balule gate we follow directions which take us down a series of sandy tracks through the dense, dry bushveld. Nicole and her partner Steve run this idyllic lodge, and our time at the establishment proves to be one of the highlights of the trip (url: Simply dropped into the midst of pristine habitat, the luxuriously appointed chalets and dining area blend perfectly with their surroundings. The tiny lodge even has its own swimming pool, though sadly we have other priorities!

Set amidst the bushveld the lodge attracts a stream of wildlife, with Warthogs trotting through the grounds while Southern Red-billed Hornbill, Blue Waxbill, Green-winged Pytilia and African Firefinch all queue up to visit the bird table. After lunch and a short siesta we join a few of the other guests for a game drive with Steve at 16.30. Steve’s Land Rover is perfectly adapted to give optimum wildlife viewing as we traverse Balule, and our host’s tracking prowess and knowledge of the regions mammalian inhabitants is truly second to none.

When we see our first Southern Black Tit soon after leaving Toro Yaka, Steve tells us that this species is referred to in SA as the Mugabe Bird, for obvious reasons! A party of fantastic Dwarf Mongoose are watched for some time, as they investigate the interior of an old termite mount via its labyrinth of internal passageways. Next we are taken for a close look at a pair of nesting African Hawk-Eagles, and nearby our first Black Scimitarbills are seen. Several Giraffes are admired, along with more skittish Grey Duiker and Steenbok, while a very obliging Red-crested Korhaan is one of the drive’s highlights.

As the sun sets we break for a cold beer and a slice of biltong. The chosen spot to end the daylight period is beside a waterhole which is almost totally dry, so that the only area of remaining moisture has become a seething mass of sorry-looking catfish. This has attracted a pair of African Fish Eagles, amongst other predators, but the best birds seen here are a pair of Double-banded Sandgrouse which skim overhead in the last of the light.

Night drives in such wild environments are always exciting, and eyes are wide as we make the return journey under the glare of Steve’s powerful spotlight. An exquisite Southern White-faced Scops-Owl is an early find, and proceeds to sit right next to the track to the delight of us photographers. Several Lesser Bushbabies are located by their tell-tale eye-shine, to bound away erratically through the undergrowth as we approach.

Back at Toro Yaka the brai is soon underway, and strategically placed bananas attract a couple of habituated Lesser Bushbabies to the railings which surround the bar area; there could be no better way to end the day than by sipping an ice-cold Castle Beer whist watching these amazing wide-eyed, spring-footed beauties at almost touching distance! Dinner is held in the open air, with our hosts and the small group of guests exchanging travel tales as Black-backed Jackals howl in the background. The food is predictable superb and the whole experience highly atmospheric.

Straight after dinner we are back in the Land Rover, with spotlights, for a supplementary night drive. This time our destination is the Lapelle River, where Steve has seen Pel’s Fishing-Owl in the past. The owl does not oblige, but we find a Large-spotted Genet and have a rare opportunity to study a Hippopotamus fully out of the water as the ungainly beast jogs along the river bank!

Upon our return to Toro Yaka African Scops-Owls are calling all around the camp, a species that has eluded us on a number of previous African trips and we are keen to make amends. Incredibly up to five calling birds are counted, but each remains frustratingly out of reach. Every time we venture out into the bush the calls remain just beyond our comfort zone; Steve has warned us not to stray far beyond the camp as Lions, Buffalo and various other night-time nasties are most certainly in the neighbourhood and we really don’t want to upset any large carnivores during our wanderings! At 01.00 frustration reigns and we reluctantly retire to bed owl-less.

Tuesday 30th September

Determined not to miss a nightbird, 2/3 of the party are up again pre-dawn. The owls have fallen silent and hopes are not high as the recording is played. Instantly a plaintive hoot is made in response, however, and it is right above the kitchen! Spotlights are deployed and a wonderful African Scops-Owl sits in full view, on a low bough, for our photographic delectation.

Our planned itinerary has us departing from Toro Yaka early today, but we love this place and have elected to stay on for the morning game drive. Birdlife SA supply cellphone numbers for their local guides, and we are able to text message our next appointment with news of a delayed arrival. So we’re back in the Land Rover at 06.00 for another one of Steve’s superbly informative tours of Balule.

This morning’s route returns us to the Lapelle River, which in the daylight can be seen to be flowing very low, leaving wide sandy banks on either flank. Steve gives us a footprint tour of the night’s visitors to the river, where tracks in the soft sand show that both Elephant and Leopard were present in recent hours. The riverine habitat attracts a whole new set of birds, most welcome of which is a pair of magnificent White-headed Lapwings. A new species for all, these superb birds are watched at close quarters as they feed and display on the sandbanks.

Also seen in the riverine and gallery forest habitat are Three-banded Plover, Red-billed Firefinch, African Pied Wagtail and Giant Kingfisher, with another highlight being a party of striking Retz’s Helmet-Shrikes on the southernmost edge of their range. Continuing our drive we encounter a Black-backed Jackal and an impressive herd of eighteen Cape Buffalo, photogenically grazing beside a track. Several groups of White Helmet-Shrikes, Little Bee-Eaters, Magpie Shrikes, Shikra and another tame Red-crested Korhaan complete a memorable morning, before we return to camp for breakfast.

Nicole has a huge spread of cereals, fruit and fry-up awaiting our arrival, and it is here that we discover the delights of Mrs Ball’s Chutney, seemingly something a of South African institution! We depart around 10.00, thanking Steve and Nicole warmly for our time at Toro Yaka, and would urge anyone to follow in our footsteps to this superb establishment.

Our drive southwest, to the next destination, is a relatively short one. Leaving the bushveld, and its Hippo and Elephant road warning signs, our route passes through cultivated lowlands before snaking up into a dramatic range of sandstone hills, where a number of soaring Cape Vultures are seen. As the R36 negotiates the Abel Erasmus Pass we travel through the now-famous J G Strijdom Tunnel, signalling our arrival at the best site in the world to look for the extremely rare Taita Falcon. The Pass is a truly spectacular setting, with the high, jagged orangey rock escarpments tinged subtly green by algal growth.

Michael, our guide, greets us at his curio stall and rapidly leads us just 50m to a viewpoint where ‘Taita’ is inscribed in foot-high white spray-paint on the orange rocks! He instantly points out the male bird plucking a swift on a ledge high above us, soon after which both birds are seen in flight, soaring on the cliff-driven thermals. Although these compact orange-breasted falcons are impressive at rest, it is flight that really portrays their unique character, when they resemble squashed-up, blunt-winged Peregrines with distinctive rapid wingbeats. We thank Michael, pay his dues and purchase some of his rather attractive painted bowls in recognition of the service he has now provided for literally thousands of visiting birders.

A distant Southern Bald Ibis soars over the cliffs as we continue south, stopping at Lydenburg to stock up on provisions. South of the town we leave the low agricultural land and begin to climb into a landscape of rolling grass-covered hills. We have decided to break the journey at Dullstroom, where several of the region’s highland grassland specialities are reputedly available.

Following the ‘Birdfinder’ instructions we take the dirt road north from the R540, which winds through parched brown grasslands studded with rocky outcrops. A pair of majestic Blue Cranes are found not far from the main road, with African Pied Starling, Cape Canary, Pale-crowned Cisticola, African Wattled Lapwing, Yellow Bishop and Long-tailed Widowbird in close pursuit.

Venturing onto the more open uplands we find that large areas of the drought-ridden grasslands have recently been burnt, which clearly has a detrimental effect on our search for the local specialities. With persistence we locate the striking Buff-streaked Chat and, at the last gasp, a party of charismatic Ground Woodpeckers, doing their thing on the boulder-strewn slopes. African Black Swifts are wheeling overhead as we depart for the lengthy continuation of our journey down to Wakkerstroom.

The well-maintained roads wind gently over never-ending hills and grassy plains, generally grazed by sheep and cattle but with occasional patches of wetland habitat. As darkness falls close to the town of Carolina we find two Spotted Eagle-Owls atop their roadside telegraph pole hunting seats, before severe roadwork congestion cuts in and ruins our fun.

The travel delays south of Carolina mean that it’s around 21.00 when we reach Wakkerstroom, where we collect our keys from Toad Hall ( and are shown to our chalet by Pat Monney, the very helpful proprietor of Glaswegian origin! Although a little basic, our accommodation for the next few days is perfectly adequate, well situated and excellent value-for-money.

While AB sets to work on his gastronomic extravaganza I wrestle with the hot water system and eventually carry out my ablutions in a four-legged tin bath! AB’s excellent bean bolognaise is washed down with a couple of bottles of South African red, as another long bird list is collated and the next day’s goals thoroughly assessed.

Wednesday 31st September

05.30 sees us huddled beside Wakkerstroom Post Office, applying extra layers of clothing to stave off the cold under a heavy grey sky. Large foraging flocks of Red-winged Starlings are a distraction as we await the arrival of our guide, Lucky, with some confusion meaning that he finally appears at 06.00.

Daylight reveals the small town of Wakkerstroom to be situated in a valley, flanked by rolling green pastures which slope steadily upwards to high rocky hills. We first travel southeast, onto a gravel road that winds up into these very hills, high above the town. This is the Paulpietersburg Road, and Lucky’s stakeout for Yellow-breasted Pipit. Unfortunately the weather is not on our side, as banks of low cloud drift in and out of short grassy fields and a fiercely cold wind whips our exposed hands and faces. A Mountain Reedbuck scampers off into the mist and then, with persistence in the very strong wind, a Yellow-breasted Pipit is located in the short grass. An extremely scarce and localised species, the sulphur-yellow breasted Pipit proceeds to make a song flight and allows us to retreat to the relative shelter of lower altitudes!

Heading east out of Wakkerstroom, we drop onto the Dreifontein Road, where Lucky suspects that the low cloud will have less of an impact upon our birding activities. Checking the scrubby vegetation that lines the dirt road we find our only Red-winged Francolins of the trip, Brown-backed Honeybird, Fiscal Flycatcher, Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, Rufous-naped Lark, and, eventually, a pair of Drakensburg Prinias.

Our first decent views of a feeding Southern Bald Ibis, with it’s pink wrinkled head and remarkable bright-red skullcap, are next on the agenda. While we are watching one remarkable bird another springs into view, in the shape of three Barrow’s Korhaans which have taken flight from the long grass. A little further on we find another pair on the ground in a burnt field, where we are able to admire the male bird’s black head markings, slate blue breast and chestnut hind-neck in detail.

Our return loop pulls in a pair of displaying Denham’s Bustards, before we call back into Wakkerstroom for a late breakfast. In a scene very similar to rural Australia, in an area which actually exhibits many similar traits, we choose from a great variety of savoury pies, ready warmed in an extensive display cabinet.

Fully revitalised and keen to mop up more ticks under Lucky’s expert guidance, we now head northwest out of town, on the Amersfoort Road. The wide gravel track cuts a dead straight route through kilometre-after-kilometre of flat, fenced pasture land, in what could easily be described as the lark capital of South Africa. After a pair of Blue Cranes and a group of endearing Meerkats, Spike-heeled Lark is the first notebook entry of this often fascinating, sometimes frustrating family. The first of many Yellow Mongoose is next, followed by the dapper Red-capped Lark.

After passing kilometres of seemingly identical pasture Lucky suggests that the next section of dry grassland is worthy of closer scrutiny. Almost instantly three magnificent Blue Korhaans materialise, along with a supporting cast of Pale-crowned and Wing-snapping Cisticolas. Just a little further along the track Lucky tells us to scan the larks and miraculously a pair of extremely scarce Botha’s Larks materialise at the roadside; Lucky by name, but clearly more than just luck is at work here!

We study the excellent pair of Botha’s Larks at close range for some time, with an Eastern Clapper Lark and a Spotted Dikkop also in close attendance. A few hundred metres further on, Lucky has us inspecting a rapidly-disappearing waterhole where he expects to find Pink-billed Lark. By now we realise that his bird-finding skills are truly exceptional, and are not at all surprised when a superb little Pink-billed Lark hops into view. And what a genuinely superb bird it is, with a highly distinctive stripe-cheeked face pattern, rich rufous underparts and contrasting white throat, set off by a stubby pink bill; in fact a serious contender for lark-of-the-trip!

At a large farm pool we notch up some padders in the form of Cape Shelduck, Kittlitz’s Plover, more White-backed Ducks, various other waterfowl and a sprinkling of Palearctic migrant waders, all under a hot sun which has turned the omnipresent Wakkerstroom wind into a blast of warm air. At the limit of our loop we make the pilgrimage to the Rudd’s Lark fields, which again have a short brown grass covering much like every other field we have seen today! The habitat clearly has some secret attraction, however, as this is the home to one of Africa’s rarest birds. It doesn’t take many minutes to locate a pair of these oddly proportioned birds, with large head and short tail that are even quite obvious in flight. The site is protected by the adjoining mud-hutted village, from where a couple of smiling young girls appear to collect a small fee and offer us a visitors’ book to sign as we depart.

Close by we count an impressive flock of 80 Blue and 55 Grey Crowned Cranes, while the journey back to Wakkerstroom produces several more Southern Bald Ibis and Blue Korhaans. After a celebratory cold-one, Lucky is dropped off at home early. We still can’t believe how successful the day has been and we cannot praise our expert guide enough.

The last hour of daylight is seen out at Wakkerstrrom Vlei, a wetland area beside the edge of the town on the Amersfoort Road. African Marsh Harrier is a new bird here, but the big draw is African Water Rail. Often surprisingly difficult to see, the site clearly appeals to this species and at least three birds are watched at close range. Highlight, however, is certainly the normally nocturnal Water Mongoose, a large black beast which is out hunting amongst the pools well before dark.

After watching a magnificent orange sunset we retire to our digs, where the bean bolognaise recipe is further honed and the red wine flows. And it’s great to get a decent nights sleep after something of a mad three days.

Thursday 1st October

Having narrowed the bird hit-list down so dramatically yesterday, we feel we have earned a half-hour lie-in! Lucky is collected from his home at 06.00 and we set off in search of a handful of remaining species. As the sun breaks the hilltops we head east, past fenced grazing lands and herds of captive Blesbok.

At Pongola Retirement Bush Forest, a remnant patch of native vegetation on a steep hillside, we first discover that MK’s audio equipment is playing up, whilst trying to call in Bush Blackcap. Although the highly distinctive and very localised bulbul is eventually coaxed into full view, we clearly have an electrical crisis on our hands. White-starred Forest-Robin, Dark-capped Yellow-Warbler and Drakensburg Prinia are also noted here, but our cisticola designs are thwarted by the iPod problems.

Returning to the Paulpietersburg Road produces the requisite Eastern Long-billed Lark, a fine addition to our magnificent lark-list, along with a pair each of Sentinel Rock-Thrush and Buff-streaked Chat. Four more Barrow’s Korhaans are flushed from the roadside, but the morning’s star is without doubt an outstandingly photogenic Southern Bald Ibis, which feeds in a small roadside paddock and accounts for several Gigabytes of photographic memory.

We have a long drive ahead of us today, so call it quits soon after 10.00 and head for the bakery. After a hearty breakfast we bid fond farewells to Lucky, who has ably facilitated an ornithological clean-sweep in this outstanding area. Our onward journey first takes us east, where we are greatly relieved to be able to find replacements for the faulty iPod leads in the large town of Piet Retief.

Turning southeast, we pass through an uninspiring landscape of rolling yellow grassland and scrub, with regular sprawling townships of small, square block-built houses. To the northeast we overlook the hills of Swaziland, a similarly parched scene clearly crying out for the summer rains to commence. East of Pangola we are again immersed in thornvelt, as we close in on our destination, Mkhuze Game Reserve.

Mkhuze Town lies adjacent to the N2, but we elect to skip the hotel and head straight for the game Reserve, another thirty minutes drive further via many a wire-perching White-fronted Bee-eater. We check in at the Emshopi Gate at 16.00, making careful note of the 19.00 final exit time. Beyond the gate a tarmac road wings its way through acacia and Lala Palm savannah, where Impala are plentiful.

Our first destination is the Information Centre, where we are told that there is no chance of a night drive and no guided Fig Forest Walk the following morning. This serves to make a decision for us, as the Sand Forest or Fig Forest the following dawn was always going to be a tricky call. Originally we were booked to stay inside the park, but severe water shortages mean that the accommodation is temporarily closed and we have been moved into the town. The greatest inconvenience is that we cannot drive around at night dazzling mammals with our spotlight, as we now need to be out of the gate by 19.00.

The helpful staff also inform us that the only active waterhole is at the Kumasinga Hide and even here it is so dry that water is being tankered in, in the face of the worst drought for many years. This sounds the best bet considering our limited time, so we take the sandy track south, through the dense Sand Forest scrub, to the hide in question. Reached by a screen walkway, the hide is literally on top of what remains of the waterhole.

Considering the fact that this is the only water for many kilometres, we find activity to be relatively slow. Several Nyala and Warthogs eventually appear, along with a steady stream of birds including Emerald-spotted Wood-Doves, Black-bellied Starlings, Yellow-throated Petronias and a Greater Honeyguide. Purple-banded Sunbird is the final addition to the list before we head back towards the park gate.

After a hundred metres expletives suddenly fill the car when we come face-to-face with a Leopard which is sitting at eye-level right beside the track! We cannot believe our good fortune, as the magnificent spotted male cat nonchalantly licks his immaculate coat, yawns and rests his head on folded paws. For ten minutes he relaxes in our presence, before casually ambling another 50m and again sitting in a track-side position. This is much better as the 100-400mm zoom fails to fit him in previously, besides which our hands are initially shaking too much with the excitement to hold the camera still! This time, however, he is perfectly framed and definitive flash shots are secured. Finally, after twenty minutes in view and on occasion just 3m away, he slowly wanders off into the bush. How tragic that the ‘Rockjumper’ night drive rolls up at this very moment!

After such an exhilarating and unique mammalian treat we don’t really care what else we see, so a Fiery-necked Nightjar feeding low over the track is a fine bonus. As we head back to Emshopi a huge electric storm lights up the sky to the west, though in spite of all the evening’s distractions we are still at the gate by 18.55. We are, therefore, most perturbed to find the barrier down and gatehouse deserted. When no-one can be raised we utilize the high ground clearance of the X-Trail to vacate the park via several kerbs and a flower bed, thus allowing us to be back at the up-market Ghost Mountain Inn in Mkhuze town in plenty of time for dinner.

Although highly luxurious, with outstanding cuisine, the establishment is rather over-the-top for our conservative tastes and is thronged with well-dressed whiteys. But then if we hadn’t been moved to the Ghost Mountain Inn we’d have never been face-to-face with our spotted friend.

Friday 2nd October

Grabbing our packed breakfasts from reception, we are out of the hotel at 5.30 to be at the Mkhuze Game Reserve Emshopi Gate for 06.00 sharp. A White Rhino close to the entrance track is a fine start to the day, with a pair of Southern Black Tits hot on his heels. The Sand Forest is a unique habitat, holding the majority of our target birds at this site, and is naturally our first destination. We park close to the Kubube Hide and set off down the white sandy track to explore the area of on foot. The vegetation covering the Sand Forest is noticeably different from the surrounding acacia savannah, being much more dense and in areas thorny and impenetrable.

Early interest comes in the form of Narina Trogon, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Forest Weaver, Terrestrial Brownbul and Orange-breasted Bush-Shrike. Red Duiker is a new mammal, but it takes some time before the first target bird is eked out, the very attractive Rudd’s Apalis; once the call is learnt this species proves to be quite common.

After our rather slow start we move to woodland in the vicinity of the Kumasinga Hide and find that our fortunes change dramatically, in fact we scarcely know which way to look next in an onslaught of ticks! The superb Bearded Scrub-Robin is the first to give himself up from the dense cover, followed rapidly by the even-more-impressive White-throated Robin-Chat. If we thought the previous species was a looker, Gorgeous Bush-Shrike is the next to appear and dazzles us with an explosion of gaudy reds and yellows. The subtle tones of a pair of Grey Waxbills are next to impress, leading to a finale in the form of the exquisite Pink-throated Twinspot. A family party of Twinspots are followed, as they feed on the sandy ground, with the male showing pink face and breast contrasting with black underparts, delicately spotted with distinct white discs; he certainly qualifies as one of the best birds we see in South Africa.

Sombre Greenbul is the final new bird of our fantastic Sand Forest session, a species somehow overlooked at Magoebaskloof Forest. A party of fuzzy-headed Crested Guineafowl feed close to the Kumasinga Hide, where we find the mammalian waterhole activity to be just as frantic as the morning’s birding. A constant stream of Impala, Nyala, Plains Zebra and Warthog, plus their attendant Red-billed Oxpeckers, are literally queuing up to drink, providing unprecedented photographic opportunities.

En route back to the information centre we notice that we have a puncture, which proves to be a recurring theme through the remainder of our travels. Luckily the Reserve staff can get the tyre repaired, and while we wait we learn that the Fig Forest guided walk can now be run at 14.00 if we book places, and that we will be the only people in attendance.

We wait for our guide in the tiny photographic hide beside the information centre’s mini waterhole, where birds such as Crowned Hornbill, Yellow-throated Petronia, Red-backed Mannikin and various weaver species provide fantastic camera fodder. At the allotted 14.00 Angel appears, to load us into a substantial Land Rover and set off on the thirty minute drive to the Fig Forest, situated on the southeastern boundary of the Reserve. A stop en route at a flowering tree provides an array of visiting sunbirds, but still no sign of the elusive Neergaard’s, a localised endemic which has eluded us all day.

The day has remained overcast and thus cool enough not to stifle bird activity, and thus we are hopeful of an injection of various new species in this very different habitat. A short trail leads to a broken suspension bridge, though the fact that the river it spans is bone dry means that we simply walk across a dusty river bed to reach the Fig Forest. Amongst the tall Fever Trees and Sycamore Figs we begin to amass a steady stream of new birds, such as Trumpeter Hornbill, White-eared Barbet, Red-fronted and Yellow-rumped Tinkerbirds, African Green Pigeon and Golden-tailed Woodpecker.

Angel works hard for one of the site’s main specialties, and persistence pays off when we are rewarded with point-blank views of a superb pair of African Broadbills. Even the walk back to the Land Rover continues to provide excitement, with an impressive Broad-billed Roller perching up for us and a very attractive Eastern Nicator, surely one of the best of the greenbuls.

En route back to the information centre we concentrate on trying to locate one of the Reserve’s mammalian stars, which favours the Sand Forest. After some serious searching we locate two rather nervous Suni, the tiniest antelope in Africa, which challenge photographic skills to the extreme. After thanking Angel for a great afternoon we set off back to the Emshopi Gate, where a final moment’s excitement comes with an amorous pair of White Rhino close to the road.

Back at the Ghost Mountain Inn we toast yet another superbly productive day with a glass of Castle Beer and make some last minute changes to our rendezvous with the next morning’s guide, via the extremely useful medium of text messaging.

Saturday 3rd October

Repeating the previous day’s routine we head for the Emshopi Gate early, packed lunch in hand, and by giving one of the staff a lift up the hill we actually manage to sneak into the Reserve ten minutes early! A slow drive right across the park, to the Opansi Gate, produces another fine selection of large mammals plus Bearded Woodpecker and Whalburg’s Eagle to add to our trip list.

We have a 07.00 meeting with our next Birdlife SA guide, Bheki, at the gatehouse. From here it’s a half-hour drive through thorny savannah woodland to the Muzi Pan complex, with a Black-bellied Bustard in display flight breaking the journey. We park beside the Mkhuze River, or rather the dry bed that was the Mkhuze River. The lengthy drought which has gripped the region means that it is just a dusty river bed which is lined by a green ribbon of Fever Trees, Sycamore Figs and a lush understorey; the lack of water doesn’t bode well for an owl which feeds on fish, our main target this morning.

We follow the line of the river, checking every possible roosting tree for Pel’s Fishing Owl, and amass a healthy list of bird species as we go. The numerous Broad-billed Rollers are apparently new arrivals, complimented by Red-capped and Heuglin’s Robin-Chats, Terrestrial Brownbuls, Tambourine Doves, Brown-crowned Tchagra, Black-throated Wattle-Eye and African Harrier-Hawk. A roosting Spotted Eagle-Owl has hearts pumping for a few seconds until we identify it as the wrong owl.

Grey Sunbird is new here, but the highlight of this site is a tricky call between the handsome Green Malkoha (or Yellowbill, depending upon your taxonomic preferences) and a charismatic pair of Brown-headed Parrots which avidly feed in a fruiting fig tree. The return walk provides a very friendly African Pygmy Kingfisher and a rather less obliging Blue-mantled Crested-Flycatcher, with a number of dung beetles actively moulding their huge cowpat balls providing fascinating ground-level entertainment.

As mid day approaches the temperature soars. We have a brief search at another Fishing Owl roost site, and although an African Wood Owl is nice to see it’s just not big and brown enough for our liking! Seemingly beaten by the drought, we admit an owl defeat and return Bheki to his village. Thanking him for a very enjoyable morning we then set off on one of our shorter inter-site journeys to the private Bonamanzi Game Park (url:

After no more than an hour’s travel over the flat coastal plain we arrive at the Bonamanzi gate. This game reserve has a great reputation, being more of a birders reserve than most of the similar mammal-viewing parks, as access by foot is permitted throughout an area which boasts a great list of east coast littoral specialties.

Driving to reception we immediately see that diminutive Red Duikers are one of the commonest antelopes here, while behind the administrative buildings nesting colonies of Village, Southern Masked and Yellow Weavers are in cacophonous full-swing. We are told that there is currently a power cut, though as the time spent in our impressive stilt-mounted chalets will be minimal this only presents a minor battery-charging problem.

The remainder of the afternoon is spent around Lalapanzi and the waterhole hides of Leguaan and Spurwing, where the Tongaland Sand Forest and Lala Palm Savannah habitat closely resembles Mkhuze. In spite of fine habitat and a potentially great bird list, however, we find that we really struggle to add a single notable species to the trip tally, with an obliging group of Purple-crested Turacos being the highlight of a surprisingly slow afternoon.

Our arrival at the candle-lit restaurant soon bucks up low spirits. The staff have clearly worked wonders in spite of the lack of power, and we are presented with a buffet meal of incredible variety and mouth-watering quality. Olives, sundried tomatoes, asparagus tips, pickled herrings, steak, game sausages, spare ribs and crème caramel are all consumed with vigour!

The gastronomic extravaganza certainly qualifies as the finest of our travels, plus we also have opportunity to quiz Bernie on the latest bird news. Bernie is the head ranger and her vast knowledge of Bonamanzi’s birdlife means that we can start the new day with a well-hatched plan of how to maximise our chances of connecting with our list of target birds.

Straight after dinner it’s time for our pre-arranged night drive, where we join several other guests on the back of one of the park’s covered Land Rovers. The hour-and-a-half of bouncing around the sandy trails is a real treat, with brief encounters of Fiery-necked Nightjar and Greater Bushbaby plus no fewer than five Large-spotted Genets, several of which show little fear of the spotlight.

So the day is salvaged by an amazing meal and an even-better night drive; we just need the birds to do their bit in the morning.

Sunday 4th October

Descending from our tree-house, we are greeted by an overcast and surprisingly cool morning. Lalapanzi Dam is our first destination, where Bernie has guaranteed us Lemon-breasted Canary. Such guarantees are invariably a birding kiss-of-death, and this certainly appears to be the case for the first hour of daylight. Persistence pays off, however, and eventually we find a group of four of the superbly subtle little gems feeding in the low vegetation beside the waterhole. Delighted to have secured our first target bird we set off on a circuit of the roads in the southeastern section of the park.

Red sand trails cut through forest which is taller, denser and noticeably greener than Mkhuze. Although reputedly a good area for Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, we find just Brown Snake Eagle and a Little Sparrowhawk. Every flowering tree is scrutinized in our continuing quest for Neergaard’s Sunbird, but only Grey and Purple-banded ever appear, while forest birding produces Yellow-bellied and Sombre Greenbuls and another spotty Eastern Nicator.

En route back towards the main camp complex a raptor rises briefly above canopy level, then cruises low over the treetops for long enough to secure identification as African Cuckoo Hawk. A typically brief performance from our previous experience, of a species which would no doubt be seen much more widely if it could be bothered to fly a little more often!

Back at Lalapanzi we search in vain for the juvenile Southern Banded Snake-Eagle which is reputedly resident in the area, before setting off on a circular walk beyond the lake. Close to the end of the uneventful circuit we find the largest flowering bush we have seen to date and set about a final session of sunbird scrutiny. After half an hour we have all but given up, when a dark little bird with a bright red breast-band flies in and a shout of ‘Neergaard’s’ goes up! We have secured our single outstanding target bird at the eleventh hour, just as the first rain of the trip starts to descend, and we therefore beat a hasty retreat for a celebratory coffee.

We depart this highly recommended lodge at 12.30, thanking the extremely helpful staff for their part in our successes. It is raining steadily as we leave, and it continues to do so for the remainder of our journey to St Lucia. The 1 ½ hour drive takes us through a bird-less landscape of eucalypt and pine plantation, though reference to the map shows that we pass within 100km of Rorke’s Drift, where Michael Caine had his unfortunate encounter with the Zulu Impi hordes.

Upon reaching the Indian Ocean we are quite surprised to find St Lucia to be a thriving little tourist town, with a main street lined with restaurants, B and Bs and signs advertising whale and hippo trips. Following our directions we make our way to St Lucia Wilds, an excellent self catering complex right beside a superb strip of protected coastal forest (url: Here our next Birdlife SA guide awaits in the form of the highly organised and well-spoken Themba, with his trainee Voosy also in tow.

It’s still raining, but we have a fair list of birds to find and depart as soon as bags are deposited in the spacious chalet. Thrusting our customary bird hit-list into Themba’s hand we head for our first destination, the mouth of the estuary, just a few minutes drive from St Lucia Wilds. Parking within sight of the ocean, we walk past various holidaymakers and fishermen to reach the extensive Phragmites beds which flank the river at this point. Southern Masked and Yellow Weavers are nesting in numbers here, and with patience we pick out our target of the impressive Southern Brown-throated Weaver and also a single Lesser Masked Weaver.

Continuing our walk we come across a band of twenty-or-more Banded Mongoose, enthusiastically searching the car park and surrounding woodland for tasty morsels. Next birding site is the Sugar Loaf Campsite, where a pair of Livingstone’s Turacos instantly appear, to impress us with elongated white-edged crests. This is not why we are here, however, and we continue our search of the short grass and weeds which bound the mown camping pitches.

Sugar Loaf Campsite is Themba’s current site for Green Twinspot, and it only takes a few minutes to find a family party of these fantastic little birds. Just as impressive as his congeners, the male Green Twinspot is extremely confiding and allows close scrutiny of olive-green upperparts, blood-red face and white-dotted black breast; another mega bird in a country where they never seem to stop appearing! Close by we watch a Tonga Red Squirrel, a mammal with a tiny littoral forest range, feed at ground level before the heavens open and we seek refuge in the car. After the rain abates we drive back to the Igwala Gwala dune forest strip close to St Lucia Wilds, where an exciting range of specialities awaits.

Making our way through the dripping vegetation, a good trail weaves between tall trees with a rather open understorey. Soon a Brown Scrub-Robin is heard and after the briefest of taped encouragement he perches in full view. Brown Scrub-Robin is certainly a much understated name for such an impressive bird! An Eastern Nicator sings high in a treetop, while Terrestrial Brownbuls grot around on the forest floor, and Livingstone’s Turacos appear decidedly crestfallen after the heavy rain. Final treat of the day is a fine male Woodwards’ Batis, yet another range-restricted littoral coast target.

Themba has certainly proven to be a very proficient bird guide, giving us an unexpectedly productive afternoon which certainly eases the pressure for tomorrow. Back at St Lucia Wilds the bean bolognaise bubbles and a celebratory Shiraz is raised!

Monday 5th October

At 05.30 we pick up Themba from his home, on the edge of town, and head back to the Igwala Gwala Forest where we ended the previous day. Our remaining target here is the ever-elusive Buff-spotted Flufftail, but elusive it remains and no response to the tape is heard in our circuit of the area.

Under a threatening grey sky we next head north to Cape Vidal, a huge protected area which forms part of the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, and encompasses a variety of excellent habits. First we take a long walk, through grassland and occasional forest patches, to the mangrove-fringed estuary. Croaking Cisticola and Red-shouldered Widowbirds abound in the open areas, and a striking Saddlebill Stork feeds at the water’s edge. A dozen Hippopotamus are loafing close to the shore, and a sparring pair provide some photographic opportunities of cavernous mouths and mighty canine teeth.

On our walk back to the car another torrential downpour gives us a good soaking, before we continue up the long, straight access road huddled in damp seats. This is the favoured territory of Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, and every telephone pole and treetop is diligently checked as we travel. Predictably it is Themba who gives the shout, pointing towards a distant raptor perching above a patch of dune forest. Scopes are rapidly dragged from the boot to reveal another prize target bird, a Southern Banded Snake-Eagle hunched against the rain. Luckily a side-track passes close to the tree in question and before long we are photographing this scarce raptor at relatively close range, under a steadily brightening sky.

Cape Vidal is home to a number of large mammals and we pass groups of Greater Kudu, Plains Zebra and Cape Buffalo as we travel further north, before stopping at a small marsh close to the road. A quick blast of the appropriate recording soon has a Rufous-winged Cisticola perched and calling at close range, certain testament to the benefits of a good local bird guide who knows exactly where to look. As cisticolas go this is a smart one, but it is totally eclipsed by a tiny amphibian found on the way back to the car. Just a couple of centimetres long, the Painted Reed Frog is perched on a sedge stem and adorned in the most beautiful black, white and orange striped pattern.

At its northern limit the road swings east into a car park area set in dune forest, where we spend a short while exploring the woodland. A Brown Scrub-Robin feeds in the open beside the track, Grey Sunbird allows close study and a Rudd’s Apalis is drawn into photographic range by a little playback. Driving close to the coastline we cannot resist some time beside the Indian Ocean, where rolling breakers crash on the grey rocks of the shore.

Scanning the waves instantly reveals several cetaceans, and once scopes are set up we are able to enjoy at least four Humpback Whales offshore, one of which is engaged in the remarkable act of raising tail flukes high above the sea and repeatedly thrashing the surface, creating great curtains of white spray. A pod of a dozen Bottle-nosed Dolphins also passes close by, all in an amazing hour beside the sea. A final Cape Vidal stop, at a campsite en route back south, gives us the Eastern Olive Sunbird which has eluded us so far, Red-breasted Cuckoo and another fantastic Black-bellied Bustard in its weird gliding display flight.

We briefly visit Monzi Futulu Park, just west of St Lucia, but Lesser Jacana fails to materialise on the lily-choked pond, though close-in White-backed Ducks, more Eastern Olive Sunbirds, Livingstone’s Turaco and a pair of African Fish Eagles bring our time in this most rewarding corner of the country to a suitable conclusion. After lunch we drop off Themba, to whom we are deeply indebted as one of the most efficient and well-organised Birdlife guides we employ in all our South African travels.

Our chosen spot to end the day is Eshowe, some two hours drive to the south west. After passing through more huge expanses of eucalypt and pine plantation, which seem to smother almost the entire coastal plain, we head inland on the R66 to wind our way upwards into the hills. It has been drizzling on and off throughout our journey, and as we near Eshowe we pray that our destination is below the clouds.

Eshowe is a large town, surrounded on all sides by deforested hillsides. It is a great surprise, therefore, to find that Dlinza, the one remaining forested valley in the area, is actually within the limits of the conurbation, surrounded on all sides by houses and factories. After paying our entrance fee we make our way into the tall, lush forest and to the high level boardwalk for which the site is famous. Blue Duiker is a new mammal for us here, and feeds in the undergrowth quite unconcerned about our presence.

As the valley floor dips steeply away, a robust timber and steel walkway reaches out and into the treetops. At its limit a steel tower continues skywards for another two stories, to stand clear of the surrounding trees and provide an outstanding view over the beautiful wooded valley and beyond. We spend an hour at high altitude hoping for a pigeon flypast in the much improved weather, but nothing materialises.

When the light begins to fail we descend to have a quick check at forest floor level, and within metres of taking to the leaf-littered trail a Spotted Ground-Thrush hops onto the track in front of us! This fantastic Zoothera, with boldly-spotted breast, striped face-pattern and distinctive pale-tipped wing coverts is a major target here and makes the afternoons efforts well worthwhile.

Back in Eshowe town we raid the supermarket for cooking provisions and a stock of beer, before tracking down our accommodation. Tonight we are staying at ‘Eshowe B&B’, run by Hugh and Loueen Chittenden, with Hugh being one of South Africa’s foremost bird photographers and ornithological authorities (url: Loueen gives us a very warm welcome to the magnificent chalet and has arranged for Hugh to meet up with us the following morning back at Dlinza.

The staple diet of ‘Bean Bog’ is on the menu once again this evening, though with AB’s constant tweaks to the recipe and copious amounts of Castle Beer to wash it down, we never tire of the home cooking!

Tuesday 6th October

Today’s Birdlife guide is Thabili, our first female companion of the trip, who meets us at our digs. We are back at Dlinza for the 06.00 opening of the reserve, where the very first birds we set eyes upon are a pair of Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeons! This bird is number-one target for the day and we can’t believe it has fallen so easily, as we watch a pair of these scarce birds perched in dead branches above the boardwalk.

Moving along to the canopy platform we find that a fruiting fig tree right next to the high-rise structure is attracting a huge variety of species, and camera shutters whir as some star birds are tempted close, by the ripe fruit. In perfect photographic light, Purple-crested Turacos, White-eared Barbets and Trumpeter Hornbills all feed within an arm’s length in a spectacle that would normally be viewed from 40m below with a seriously aching neck!

Hugh Chittenden arrives soon after us and provides fascinating insights into many interesting aspects of the local avifauna and bird photography. He also shows us an active African Crowned Eagle nest viewable from the platform, albeit somewhat distantly. After an hour we leave him in peace with his hornbills and head for lower altitudes as the day warms up.

Following the trail downhill, we haven’t walked far before we find another pair of outstanding Spotted Ground-Thrushes feeding in a damp gulley. With a little time and patience the birds become accustomed to our presence, and confidently feed in the leaf litter just metres away, allowing some gob-smacking photographs to be secured.

Mission accomplished, we retire to the visitors centre for a coffee and to plan the next stage of our travels. Victims of our own success, we now only have one target bird remaining in the area, Green Barbet, which in South Africa is only found in the nearby Ongoye Forest. Having seen Green Barbet in the Kenyan coastal forests some seventeen years previously we have thought seriously about whether it’s really worth the effort, but this is the woodwardi subspecies and is often considered a full species as ‘Woodward’s Barbet’.

We are due to spend the night at the Ongoye Birders Camp, but figure that if we get to Ongoye early we can see the Barbet this afternoon and then be at Oribi Gorge by the evening. So an e-mail is dropped to Sue Anderson at Birdlife SA and she sets the wheels in motion for changing our accommodation, demonstrating the superb flexibility offered by the organisation’s services.

Ongoye Forest is around an hour’s drive from Eshowe, and proves to be a surprisingly extensive block of woodland located in a series of steep valleys that are surrounded on all sides by cleared grazing land. Thabili guides us to the administration buildings, where we pay our fee before setting off for the eastern portion of the forest which is reputedly best for the Barbet. A well-rutted four kilometre road takes us over grassy hillsides before eventually dropping into the lush forest below. After a short distance we stop when a feeding flock appears and commence our bird list with African Emerald Cuckoo, Yellow-streaked Greenbul and Grey Cuckoo-Shrike.

Travelling further into the forest the gradient of the rough, rocky track increases dramatically, though Thabili assures us that this is a loop trail and we won’t have to retrace our steps. Eventually the steep descent ends at a stream crossing and we begin to climb. Or at least we would like to climb, but the X-Trail won’t have any of it. Although our vehicle has plenty of ground clearance, drive is via the front wheels alone and they simply spin on the damp earth and slippery tree roots.

First plan of attack is to try and wedge rocks and branches under the tyres for extra grip. This proves useless so we empty all of our bags and try pushing, but the vehicle is far too heavy. Tyres are partially deflated in a final desperate struggle, but this too proves futile, and a night sleeping in the marooned car seems a distinct possibility.

Having exhausted all of the options, and wasting well over an hour in the process, MK and Thabili set off up the track to try and establish a mobile phone signal. They have to walk for two kilometres before some bars appear on the phone display, at which point Sue Anderson at Birdlife is summoned. Taking our request in her calm stride she passes word of our plight to the reserve rangers, and our walkers return with the news that help should be with us in an hour-or-so.

The recent excitement has diverted all thoughts from Green Barbet, but now we have a little time on our hands. The iPod is deployed and almost instantaneously the ‘jop-jop-jop’ call is answered. Presently a dark shape whizzes overhead, into the dense foliage, and with a little strategic repositioning we lure our quarry onto a section of open canopy. Thus one of the most demanding birds of all time hits the list, and after all the hassle we have endured we decide that it must surely be a full species, so Woodward’s Barbet it is!

True to their word, an hour after the phone call is placed, a park 4WD appears on the scene crewed by four willing rescuers. The lads are well prepared, with wire towing hawser, shovels and machetes, which is fortunate as over the next hour all tools are employed to good effect. Initially even the park 4WD slips on the thick roots which in places mat the trail, but with skilful use of machete and shovel first the park Toyota and then our lumbering X-Trail are dragged forcibly onto flat ground, to a chorus of cheers, a flurry of high fives and a nostril full of burnt rubber.

When we part company with the park lads we reward them handsomely for their valiant efforts which have really saved our bacon; we also wonder how anyone ever survived such ordeals before the revelation of the mobile telephone! Tyres are inflated to normal running pressure at the next garage, where celebratory pies are raised all round, before we drop off Thabili who claims that she has actually enjoyed our alternative afternoon’s entertainment.

Rejoining the N2, we follow the fast coastal toll road southwest for two hours, finally turning inland at Port Shepstone. Tracing our printed directions and road signs to Oribi Gorge, we arrive at the allotted Hutted Camp, but not a soul is to be seen. After wandering round for some time, knocking on various doors and shouting, we admit defeat and resort to yet another phone call to Sue Anderson. It’s 20.00 and she’s at the cinema, yet still she drops everything to help us out! A few phone calls later and she has us heading to our new reservation at the Oribi Gorge Guest Farm: Sue is an absolute star!

Our impromptu diversion proves to be a lucky one as a wonderful African Porcupine is encountered en route through the Gorge, and a Large-spotted Genet as we enter the farm drive. At the end of a long dirt road a huge electric gate buzzes open to allow us access to a sprawling farmstead. The proprietor shows us to a huge three-bedroom bungalow, the cost of which equates to around £10 each for the night! Our lodgings are magnificently decorated with tribal artefacts and antique furniture, and come complete with an overfriendly Labrador dog which we have to bribe out of the front door with ginger biscuits.

Needless to say, a ‘Bean Bog’ ends the day, accompanied by beer and wine in the most magnificent self-catering surroundings so far!

Wednesday 7th October

It’s overcast and windy when we leave the bungalow, stepping over our Labrador which has spent the night guarding us on the doorstep! Returning to the Gorge it is soon apparent what a spectacular location the river-hewn valley really is, flanked on either side high orange-tinged limestone cliffs and thickly forested lower slopes.

An hour is spent birding at the Umzimkulwane River crossing, with African Black Swifts uttering their distinctive calls overhead, African Olive Pigeons skimming the hillside and a pair of Knysna Turacos perched close to the road. At 07.00 we meet Innocent, the morning’s Birdlife SA guide, and commence our quest for Knysna Woodpecker, a bird with which MK and I hold a grudge, having spent many hours searching for it in the Western Cape six years previously. Interestingly Innocent is a familiar face to me, as we have met a few months previously, when he had made the journey to the British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland Water with the Birdlife SA team.

Innocent’s first site draws a blank on the woodpecker front and he is concerned that the cool, damp weather will make our main target bird stay low. Chlorister Robin-Chat and another superb Spotted Ground-Thrush, this one gathering nesting material, help to keep up our spirits. Next stop is at the picnic site, where an Olive Woodpecker instantly pops up into view. Innocent has already primed us that Kynsna and Olive Woodpeckers enjoy each other’s company, and low-and-behold a female Knysna Woodpecker follows the leader into the bare branches of a low tree. Success in the first half-hour!

Birding around the river crossing area adds Giant Kingfisher, Mountain Wagtail, Sumango Monkey, and a second Knysna Woodpecker, before we start the ascent to the rim of the Gorge. At some suitable habitat, with rocks and sparse vegetation, we stop to give our Rock-loving Cisticola recording a speculative whirl. Almost instantly a distinctive long-tailed warbler pops up, singing from the nearest bush-top and we have Rock-loving Cisticola on the list! At the same stop we also see the only Violet-backed Starling of the trip, a very attractive male bird, and soon after encounter our first White-necked Raven of the tour.

Highlight of the morning has to be the view from the canyon rim, looking south down the valley at some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable. The cloud and mist has totally cleared by now, and the birds seem to have been enticed out by the much improved weather. A pair of the very pretty, endemic Swee Waxbills are seen, with a pair of Forest Canaries close by. Mocking Cliff Chats feed atop the precipitous cliffs and a number of gaudy Brimstone Canaries perch on wires above the adjoining sugar cane fields.

A final river stop gives us African Black Duck, but sadly no African Finfoot, before we say our thank-yous and farewells to Innocent. It is 11.30 when we commence our drive inland to Underburg, first through vast fields of sugar cane and later climbing higher into a land of blanket forestry, where eucalypts and pine fill the horizon.

At Kokstad we make a pie-stop, before heading north on the R617 and into a landscape of windswept, barren grasses and distant jagged peaks of the Drakensburg Mountains. The beauty of the rolling green hills, rocky outcrops and stream-cut valleys increases as we ascend, and there is a distinct sense of excitement in the car as we near the birding Mecca of Underburg, an area which we have read about and longed to visit for many years.

A Denham’s Bustard in full display, close to the roadside, forms the reception party before we unfold the detailed directions and pick our way through the small town of Underburg to Steven Piper’s rural residence. We are warmly greeted by the grey-bearded, retired academic, his ever-smiling wife Andy, and two huge Great Dane dogs which are almost as tall as the Professor. Not wanting to waste precious time in this renowned birding region we simply drop our bags in the spacious detached bungalow, which will be our home for the next two nights.

We immediately reconvene at Steven’s Toyota Landcruiser, a vehicle which must rate as the most luxurious form of rough-road transport we have ever experienced. The goal for the remainder of the afternoon is to track down the Wattled Cranes for which Underburg is a prime location, although the incredibly strong wind which has blown up is likely to hamper this task more than a little.

Driving around local farmland on a maze of dirt roads, the breathtaking backdrop of the rugged Drakensburgs is constantly in view, with stark grey rock formations emphasised by the late afternoon shadows. Most impressive of all is the distinctive outline of Garden Castle, a flat-topped peak reminiscent of a medieval fortification and named by early Scottish settlers homesick for a view of Edinburgh Castle. An expert on all things historic and geological, the Professor gives a fascinating running commentary as we drive.

The biting wind constantly buffets binoculars and scope and whips dust into unsuspecting eyes. Some shelter is gained in a deep valley on the Nicholson Farm, and this is where we finally locate a pair of magnificent Wattled Cranes in a low-lying vlei. The spectacular birds briefly display, jumping with outstretched wings, but it is the long shadows of late afternoon and above all the truly awesome vista that surrounds us which makes this a scene which will live long in the memory. Secretary Bird, a single Black Stork and a few Cape Canaries complete the bird list at this site, as The Professor cracks open the thermos flask to brew a superb cuppa, taken in one of the most exhilarating settings we can remember.

In our pre-trip e-mail communication we have told Steven that Cape Eagle Owl is a big trip target for us, but the reply was far from positive as this bird seems as erratic and elusive in this area as any of its range. When Steven produces his spotlight and we commence a serious bout of telephone pole checking, we are secretly convinced that we are merely going through the motions. The whole process is made worse by the fact that the mighty wind is whipping clouds of dust through the open windows of the moving car, filling nostrils, eyes and optics.

When an owl does miraculously appear we are frozen-cold and half-blinded, but thankfully it flies up from the road to alight on a low fence post and allow us a great close-range spotlit view. A huge owl, with a rich brown cast, heavily blotched belly and piecing orange eyes, it is nothing less than our Cape Eagle Owl! Sadly the owl steals away into the darkness before cameras can be raised, but what a way to end our day’s birding.

Back at Underburg we gather around Andy’s long dining table to consume a wonderful meal of pasta with meatballs and delicious Cape Brandy Pudding. Our hosts are great entertainers, and talk around the table covers all manner of topics, though invariably reverts to the following morning’s trip up the fabled Sani Pass.

Thursday 8th October

The long-awaited day in the mountains dawns. After Andy’s scrumptious breakfast at 05.00, the Landcruiser is packed and passports checked. The Landcruiser carries two spare tyres amongst other off-road paraphernalia, as the roads can be treacherous, and we need our passports for the Lesotho border crossing. The wind has totally dropped and clouds have cleared to reveal a clear deep-blue sky, with spectacular views of the Drakensburgs now illuminated by the rising sun.

Us tourists are padded out with three or four layers of clothing, whilst the Professor is attired in a white shirt and tie, below waistcoat and trademark Tamashanta hat! En route to the foot of the pass we find a small group of Eland, Africa’s largest antelope, grazing close to the Sani Pass Hotel. Soon we begin to climb steadily, on a relatively good road, and pass through valleys of low scrubby woodland where a brief stop produces Cape Robin-Chat, Cape Grassbird and a pair of excellent Rufous-breasted Wrynecks.

The higher we climb, so progressively the quality of the road deteriorates, the scenery becomes more spectacular and the birds more sought-after! The next habitat zone is one of well-spaced rounded Protea trees, the home of a much desired nectar-feeding species. We have scarcely arrived among the Proteas when our first Gurney’s Sugarbirds appear, awesome creatures resembling oversized sunbirds with long tail, rich-rufous crown and breast-band, and a sulphur-yellow undertail.

Not much further along the steep road a pair of Buff-streaked Chats are spotted at the road side, posing in the superb light; this is to become a feature of the day, as nearly every desired species seems much more photogenic here than elsewhere. Giant green Malachite Sunbirds and drab Streaky-headed Seedeaters are next on the list, followed by the first of a number of Wailing Cisticolas which responds to playback. From this point upwards the superb Ground Woodpecker could almost be described as common!

After we check through the South African border post the road starts to deteriorate dramatically, becoming steeper and more winding, instantly justifying Steven’s preferred means of transport! Regular photographic stops are made to record the stunning scenery, with new birds such as Cape Rock Thrush, Karoo Prinia and Lammergier being added to the list. Steven has studied vultures for many years and advocates the use of the name Bearded Vulture in favour of Lammergier. This makes perfect sense as the former name translates as ‘the eater of lambs’, hence attracting bad publicity. So henceforth Bearded Vulture it will be.

Rock Hyrax and Small Grey Mongoose keep the mammal list ticking over, and as we near the summit of the pass a call of ‘Rockjumper’ brings the car to an abrupt halt. Close by a pair of dazzling Drakensburg Rockjumpers are feeding amongst the boulders, the male showing a unique combination of orange breast, black throat with bold white moustachial stripe and a long white-tipped tail. After strategically re-positioning the car we are rewarded with astonishing Rockjumper views, just metres away from our improvised hide.

Breaching the 2765m pass we continue to the Lesotho immigration hut, where Steven presents the pre-prepared paperwork and passports are duly stamped. The cafe located immediately above the pass provides stunning views down the road we have just negotiated, but more importantly it attracts Cape Sparrows, Drakensberg Siskins and Sentinel Rock-Thrush into photographic range. We are also now in the range of the endearing little Sloggett’s Ice Rat and the striking Drakensberg Crag Lizard.

Moving into Lesotho, the plateau is an incredibly bleak yet beautiful environment, of endless craggy mountain tops, with Karoo scrub on more sheltered hillsides and tussock grass in damper valley bottoms. We stop for a brew and some delicious homemade cake in an area where the subtly attractive Drakensberg Siskins are numerous, Large-billed Larks forage and a Mountain Pipit displays overhead. The latter is a newly-arrived migrant, which we study through telescopes until our attention is grabbed by a family party of Bearded Vultures soaring over an adjacent hillside.

Our journey takes us through a constantly changing and dramatic landscape, past an occasional village of round huts, constructed from brown basalt rocks and with neatly thatched roofs; one can only image how hardy the occupants must be in such a hostile environment. Sheep and cattle graze on some of the most remote hillsides we pass, having moved up to spend the summer at high altitude. Shepherds and large dogs are in attendance, and we note the huts and corrals, which occasionally break the natural landscape, built to provide shelter and safety to both man and beast.

Cape Bunting is a common resident here, with an occasional Layard’s Tit-Babbler and Southern Grey Tit being noted amongst the low Karoo scrub. With high altitude appetites building, Steven stops early in the afternoon to unveil a magnificent picnic lunch, which is avidly consumed with one eye on the telescope, below an active Bearded Vulture nest!

We now have just one bird missing from our hit-list, the endemic and localised African Rock Pipit. We are apparently now just within its range, so recordings are played at various known stakeouts. All is quiet and we descend further into Lesotho, in a last-ditch effort. When Steven hears a distant response to the distinctive call we set off up the valley in pursuit, and are rewarded with virtually point-blank views of this normally retiring species, as our bird refuses to fly from his favoured rocky perch.

Heading back towards the Sani Pass we make regular photo calls, and a roadside party of three Grey-winged Francolins add to the bird list. In some places one is able to look over a breathtaking mountain-top view of many tens of kilometres and not a single sign of human influence on the landscape is visible beyond the single dirt road on which we travel; there can be very few places left on the planet where this is the case.

A confiding Vlei Rat which feeds close to the South African border post is the only distraction from travel in the lower reaches of our journey, allowing for a return to Underburg by 18.30. Andy has prepared a wonderful Babotie, an Indonesian mincemeat dish, for dinner, over which we take great delight in recounting an absolutely amazing day.

If one was asked to write a list of the top ten definitive ornithological experiences, a visit to the Sani Pass would most definitely be amongst them. Alongside, maybe, the walk down the Abra Malaga Valley in Peru, a day on the Strobel Plateau in Argentina or a visit to Serra de Canastra in Brazil. All hold bird species which one dreams about, in stunning settings which can defy description, and are often preceded by years of longing!

Friday 9th October

Today’s plan is for an early birding start, then a mid morning return to Underburg for brunch. The actual departure from town is delayed a little by a Buff-spotted Flufftail which is calling from the gardens adjoining Steven’s house, but without some breaking-and-entering and several drums of Agent Orange we realise that seeing the bird is highly unlikely.

Today’s single goal is finding Blue Swallow, now our most wanted bird in all of South Africa. Sadly now one of South Africa’s rarest breeding birds, with a population of less than 150 individuals, Steven knows of a site where birds have bred in the past but has not visited since their mid-September arrival date. Our drive takes us to lower elevations and into the Mistbelt region, where damp low cloud predominates for a considerable portion of the year.

As we travel the reason for the Blue Swallow’s decline is all too apparent, since we pass through kilometre-after-kilometre of pine and eucalypt plantation, a crop which now covers a horrifying 98% of the species’ former range. Eventually we arrive at a tiny patch of natural grassland, set in a sea of conifers. The plot measures just 1 ½ km2, yet last year three pairs of Blue Swallows bred here. Walking down a vague trail to avoid disturbance we scan the rolling hillside for a few very nervous minutes before a pair of the highly distinctive iridescent blue Hirundines is located. Having read about these evocative birds many years previously, to finally watch them darting over their natural habitat is a real moment to savour. The pair hawk low over the green meadows, occasionally perching on fences and tall grass stems, and periodically disappearing below ground to prospect the disused Aardvark holes in which they nest.

Tea and cake is distributed from the back of the Landcruiser, and just before we depart one swallow swoops low overhead, displaying elongated wire-like tail streamers in a farewell gesture. En route back to Underberg we check pastures for the Southern Ground Hornbills which occasionally frequent the area, but have to make do with Denham’s Bustard and Grey Crowned Cranes. More importantly Andy has a wonderful cooked breakfast waiting for us upon our return, which we enjoy on the patio in the glorious Spring weather. As we eat, Malachite Sunbirds dart though the oak tree above our heads, attracted by an array of nectar feeders, and a humbug-like Three-striped Mouse forages below the bird table, an unexpected bonus before we depart.

Setting off north at 12.30, we cannot thank the Pipers enough for our time in their company. We had left the Sani Pass experience until the end of the trip partially because of the Blue Swallow return dates but also because we hoped to leave the best until last. Our decision has been correct on both fronts, and our time around Underberg certainly rates as one of our most amazing birding experiences to date; everyone should ensure that they participate in Professor Piper’s Sani Pass adventure at some time in their travels (url:

Within ten kilometres of leaving Underberg we have seen twenty more White-backed Ducks and got ourselves another bloody puncture! The tyre is changed and we continue our journey towards Johannesburg, until a motorist flashes us on the main N3 toll road and we realise that the spare is also close to being flat. Luckily we find an air line at a garage which gets us as far as the little town of Nottingham Road, where the Hi-Q staff efficiently fix us up with two rapid repairs; a huge thorn, a nail and some glass have all contributed to the demise of one of our tyres!

Thankfully the remainder of the journey to Heidelberg is uneventful, save for some unexpectedly impressive scenery enjoyed on route. By 20.00 we have checked into the Suikerbosrand Guest House, which sadly has only a microwave and hence the final meal of the trip is a very iffy Pot Noodle.

Saturday 10th October

With early afternoon flights home the only real option for us on our final morning is some birding around Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve, located suitably close to Johannesburg Airport. The site is a convenient twenty minutes drive from our digs, and we are there some time before dawn to enjoy several Marsh Owls which perch on an adjoining dirt road and a couple of very endearing Black-backed Jackal pups in the same area.

As the sun rises above the horizon we search a recommended area beyond the limits of the reserve boundary for Melodious Lark, but find only Capped Wheatears and an occasional Cloud Cisticola. A Northern Black Korhaan in aerial display steals the early morning show, and we figure that Melodious Lark, a relatively common bird, cannot yet be displaying as the spring rains are clearly yet to arrive.

The tour of Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve itself is sadly something of a whistle-stop affair, due to our flight times. It is apparent, however, that everywhere is parched from the long winter drought and bird activity throughout is minimal. Herds of grazing mammals include the extremely localised Black Wildebeest, together with Plains Zebra, Red Hartebeest and a sprinkling of Eland. Part-way round the loop we are finally treated to a great view of a Yellow Mongoose. This species has been seen sprinting away on every previous occasion, but this individual catches a large skink from a rock just metres from the car and devours it in full view. Spike-heeled, Red-capped and Eastern Clapper Larks are all noted on our morning’s travels, and two final trip ticks are secured in the form of African Red-eyed Bulbul and Eastern Paradise Whydah.

And so ends what has undoubtedly been one of the most successful and enjoyable birding trips we have ever undertaken. The quality of the birds seen has been truly exceptional and what is more, we have essentially cleaned-up on our list of target species. Mammal viewing has been phenomenal, and we have identified no fewer than 52 species during our travels. Our chosen circuit has carried us 4089 kilometres through an amazing variety of habitats, the scenery has often been truly breathtaking, and we have also made some great friends along the route.

Accommodation and food have been outstanding throughout, and thanks to the organisational skills and attention to detail of Sue Anderson at Birdlife South Africa the entire trip has run like clockwork. Contacting Sue in the early stages of our planning is the best thing which could have happened and we would like to warmly thank her and all her colleagues for everything they have done for us, both before the trip and throughout its duration. Don’t even think of visiting South Africa without speaking to Birdlife first! (url:, e-mail:

Ian Merrill
November 2008