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South Africa Kruger & Drakensberg

A 13-day, small group birdwatching tour to South Africa

There's a dazzling array of birds and mammals to look forward to on this fabulous tour to northern South Africa. Focusing on two of the country’s top wildlife spots - world famous Kruger National Park (where our guide Joe has worked) and the spectacular Drakensberg Mountains - at a wonderful time of year for watching birds and wildlife-viewing there. The elegant Blue Crane, Drakensberg Rockjumper, Gurney's Sugarbird and the irresistible Meerkat feature among a long list of endemics and regional specialities.

Tour Dates

2019

Full

2020

Available

Leaders
Joe Grosel

Max Group Size: 6
Duration: 13 Days

Ask About Tour

Cost: £4395*

inc return flights from London Heathrow-Johannesburg, nonstop with British Airways

Deposit: £600

Single Supp: £495*
Land Only: £3795

* Prices Provisional (tba)

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3AFR mammal Impala Red billed Oxpecker Kruger S Africa Callan Cohen Oct 2010 LDK09067 MG 7348

A pair of Red-billed Oxpeckers hitch a ride on a passing Impala in Kruger National Park © Callan Cohen

Below the great escarpment of the Drakensberg - the ‘mountains of the dragon’, with their breath of smoking cloud - sits one of the world’s most celebrated national parks: Kruger. Bordered on its northern flank by the mighty Limpopo River, the Kruger is the largest of all South Africa’s national parks - in fact, encompassing almost two million hectares it's only a tad smaller than Wales! Hot and dry in the north, wetter and subtropical in the south, its immense size and range of habitats ensures that wildlife is varied and abundant. More than 500 species of birds and around 150 different species of mammals have been recorded in Kruger - and our February tour will introduce you to many of them!

After arriving in Johannesburg, we first travel south - via spectacular scenery and displaying Long-tailed Widowbirds - towards the Central Drakensberg. From our base in the foothills here, we take a trip next day into the mountains, climbing high into the realm of the Lammergeier to search peaks at around 3000m (9800ft) for the endemic Drakensberg Rockjumper.

From here, we swing northeast through the highlands to explore the most threatened habitat in South Africa: the pristine upland grasslands around Wakkerstroom. The extremely localised Rudd’s and Botha’s Larks are two key endemics here, occurring alongside larger and more eye-catching specialities such as the wonderful Blue Crane, Southern Bald Ibis and Blue Bustard.

Continuing north, we enter Kruger National Park, its mix of woodland, grassland and scrub home to a fabulous cross-section of African birds. Natal Francolin, Martial Eagle, White-headed Lapwing, Purple-crested Turaco, Southern Carmine Bee-eater, Sulphur-breasted Bushshrike, Eastern Bearded Scrub Robin... and many more delights await our discovery here!

On reaching our first camp in Kruger, we'll switch from our minibus to a custom-built, open-sided wildlife viewing vehicle equipped with three tiered rows of seats, great visibility and a canopy roof for protection from the sun. We'll use this vehicle on two of our three full days within the park, reverting to our minibus again on our 'changeover day' when we make the more lengthy transfer between our camps in the south and centre of this vast national park.

Giraffe, African Elephant, Zebra and White Rhinoceros are among many large mammals to watch for during our slow drives through the park - and we've a good chance of sighting Africa's two largest cats, Lion and Leopard, too!

Also during our stay in Kruger, we’ll enjoy a night drive in the bush - an adventure which could reveal anything from the big Spotted Eagle Owl to the bizarre Springhare.

Bidding a reluctant farewell to Kruger, our tour concludes amid the mistbelt forests of the far Northern Drakensberg. Here we might again be fortunate to find Taita Falcon, one of the rarest raptors in the world, as we go in search of the exotic Narina Trogon and Orange Ground Thrush as well as two colourful endemics: Knysna Turaco and Swee Waxbill.

From a landscape of scenic splendour awash with wonderful birds and wildlife through to good food, great accommodations and a personable guide who really knows his stuff, our Northern South Africa tour has all the right ingredients for a truly marvellous birdwatching holiday.

Guide Joe Grosel grew up in northern South Africa and has been leading bird and wildlife tours for more than 20 years now. He first guided for Limosa together with Callan Cohen in 2007 (showing us owls and rhinos around his hometown in Limpopo Province), and more recently has led our tours to Namibia, Botswana and South Africa - including our Kruger & Drakensberg tour in February 2016, 2017 and 2018. Joe has been involved in a wide array of wildlife related activities, from field research in Kruger National Park through game capture and translocation to field guide training.

Limosa has been operating a wide-ranging programme of birdwatching tours to South Africa since 1998. Our 2019 departure to Kruger & Drakensberg will be our twelfth visit there.

3AFR Group at Sentinel SAF CC IMG 4382 webck011212

Limosa group birding below The Sentinel (3165m), in the Drakensberg Mountains © Callan Cohen

Days 1 - 2
FLY JOHANNESBURG, TRAVEL TO CENTRAL DRAKENSBERG

Our birdwatching tour to South Africa begins with a flight from London to Johannesburg, where we arrive on the morning of day two. We’ll be welcomed by Joe and travel south on an excellent highway through the highveld grasslands, stopping to enjoy Long-tailed Widowbirds as they display, while Black-winged Kites and Blacksmith Plovers watch on.

Our total drive time today will be 3-4 hours, and with a stop along the way for lunch. Later, we'll detour down some minor roads through the natural grasslands, where we’ll begin our search for three species of crane. The elegant Blue Crane is South Africa’s national bird and occurs in small flocks here; Grey Crowned Cranes prefer moist grasslands and, with luck, we might also find the very rare Wattled Crane in it’s wetland home. We’ll keep a keen eye out for bustards and could chance upon the exquisite Blue Bustard here. Larks might include Spike-heeled, Eastern Long-billed and perhaps even a Botha’s or Pink-billed.

Arriving at our country hotel accommodation we'll take dinner and get an early night in eager anticipation of more excitements next day! Night at a Harrismith country hotel

Day 3
CENTRAL DRAKENSBERG

This morning we take one of the highest roads in Southern Africa, climbing high into the lofty Drakensberg peaks and visit a particularly scenic area known as the Sentinel. Here, at 3000m above sea level and surrounded by the most sweeping views, we’ll search for an enigmatic bird believed to be amongst the most ancient of passerines: the endemic Drakensberg Rockjumper, far removed here from its more rufous seaside relative found near Cape Town.

We’ll also keep a watchful eye on the skies for another high alpine speciality, Lammergeier (here of the endemic African subspecies), as well as the near-endemic Cape Griffon, a large vulture that is much chunkier than the African White-backed Vultures we’ll see later in Kruger National Park. Southern Bald Ibis, Black Stork, Verreaux’s Eagle, Lanner and Jackal Buzzard are among other cliff-nesting species we could encounter today, with White-necked Raven, Buff-streaked Chat and Cape Rock Thrush also likely, while Malachite and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds busy themselves in flowering shrubs.

We’ll devote most of the day to exploring this fascinating area, retreating to lower altitude in the afternoon to resume our search for cranes, raptors and bustards. Night at a Harrismith country hotel

Days 4 - 5
WAKKERSTROOM

Leaving the Harrismith area behind, we wind our way northeastwards through the scenic foothills towards Wakkerstroom, with a chance to look for specialities such as the little-known Bush Blackcap en route. Once a sleepy hamlet in a forgotten part of the country, the presence of a range of rare birds nearby has propelled Wakkerstroom into the international birding limelight. Its grassland specialities, such as the localised Rudd’s and Botha’s Larks and the beautiful Yellow-breasted Pipit, are a major draw.

We’ll spend two nights here, exploring the excellent wetland at the edge of town and enjoying some very productive drives into the surrounding hills. In addition to those species mentioned already, we’ll be searching for Red-winged Francolin, Ground Woodpecker, Denham’s and Blue Bustards, Grey Crowned and Blue Cranes, Black-winged Lapwing, Southern Bald Ibis, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat and Drakensberg Prinia. We might even be lucky to spot a troop of endearing Meerkats foraging in the grasslands... Simples! Two nights in a small hotel in Wakkerstroom

Days 6 - 9
KRUGER NATIONAL PARK

We spend much of day six driving from Wakkersroom to our next destination: world famous Kruger National Park. As we head north and east, we’ll descend from the cool, rolling upland grasslands into the warmer lowlands, where the whole landscape takes on a distinctly more tropical feel.

Entering Kruger in the south, we’ll enjoy a stay of four nights within the park, divided between restcamps located in the southern and central areas. We’ll focus our attention on a series of small side roads that have proved good in the past, as well as following up on recent reports around the Pretoriuskop, Skukuza, Lower Sabie and Satara areas of the national park.

The vast Kruger reserve is one of Africa’s best known safari parks, protecting a 20,000 km2 swathe of wilderness that boasts an impressive diversity of mammals and a bird list in excess of 500 species. In addition to a high diversity of woodland birds, Kruger is a vital refuge for a host of large birds which require extensive areas of prime habitat to ensure their survival - among them the striking Saddle-billed Stork; Hooded, African White-backed, Lappet-faced and White-headed Vultures; Tawny and Martial Eagles; Bateleur; African Finfoot; Kori Bustard and the lumbering Southern Ground Hornbill. Other species with limited distribution in Southern Africa to look for here include Lesser Black-winged Lapwing, Stierling’s Wren-warbler, Eastern Bearded Scrub Robin and Meve’s Long-tailed Starling.

To make the most of our stay at Kruger we’ll make early starts, heading out at dawn in an open-sided 4WD vehicle and returning to base again for breakfast in classic safari fashion. Afterwards, we may continue with another wildlife drive or maybe take some time to sample the bird-rich habitats found within the camps themselves. These can be extremely productive, with the likes of Brown-headed Parrot, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Purple-crested Turaco, Sulphur-breasted Bushshrike, Greater Blue-eared Starling and Red-headed Weaver present in many of the camps. Chinspot Batis and Blue-breasted Cordon-bleus are common, and upright Groundscraper Thrushes hop about the lawns.

Our wildlife drives should produce an excellent variety of birds, including many birds of prey - from the large eagles such as Martial and Tawny to the smaller Black-breasted Snake Eagle and Bateleur. Vultures are drawn to predator kills and here include the common African White-backed and the massive and somewhat grotesque looking Lappet-faced. Swainson’s, Natal, Coqui, Crested and Shelley’s Francolins are all possible and best seen along the edge of the road before they scuttle off into the grass.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous bird in the park is the stunning Lilac-breasted Roller and there never seem to be enough photo stops for this appealing species. Groups of the social Southern Ground Hornbill can often be seen wandering along the Kruger’s roads, allowing one to admire their red facial skin and long, delicate eyelashes!

Burchell’s and Cape Glossy Starlings are common, and Saddle-billed Storks and White-headed Lapwings frequent sand bars in the larger rivers where we’ll carefully search the overhanging waterside vegetation for a glimpse of the secretive African Finfoot. The taller trees along the rivers offer good raptor perches and also host noisy groups of Retz’s Helmetshrikes; if we are lucky, we may also come across their brood parasite, the scarce Thick-billed Cuckoo. Gorgeous White-fronted Bee-eaters like to perch up here, too.

While the birding is brilliant, Kruger is perhaps even more famous for its large mammals. Impala, Common Zebra, Blue Wildebeest and Giraffe are common; African Elephant can be found in big herds, as can African Buffalo - we’ll check carefully for Red-billed Oxpeckers riding on the latter. The park supports a good population of Lion and we’ll be exploring some of the best drives in the park for them, hoping for some more memorable encounters to rival those on our previous visits.

If we are really lucky, we might also spot a Leopard. Although the southern reaches of the park are one of the best areas to see this elusive animal in South Africa, encounters are still far from guaranteed! There are a number of packs of African Wild Dogs in the area that we will be traversing and though we’ll keep a watchful eye open for them, it will be a matter of luck if we see them on our travels.

Another of Kruger's highlights is the option to take a 'night drive'. We’ll go out one evening in the park's own large, wildlife-viewing vehicle, equipped with powerful spotlights and a driver guide. One never quite knows what to expect but we usually manage to find something really interesting - be it a pride of Lions on the hunt, a Spotted Eagle Owl perched beside the road or a courser running along the track ahead of the vehicle.

In all, we shall spend a total of four nights in Kruger National Park at camps located in the southern and central areas of the vast national park. Four nights Kruger National Park

Days 10 - 11
NORTHERN DRAKENSBERG FORESTS

Leaving the Kruger, we head back west, once more into the hills - only this time to visit a very different habitat. Our first stop will be on the Drakensberg escarpment itself, where we’ll pause at a dramatically beautiful mountain pass to scan for one of the world’s rarest raptors: Taita Falcon. The birds breed on an inaccessible cliff but are often active at this time and we’ll wait at a vantage point nearby, hoping to see this most attractive orange-coloured falcon hunting overhead - or perched on the cliff face.

Continuing further inland, our journey will take us along the edge of the Blyde River Canyon -the world’s third largest canyon - where the vistas are nothing short of spectacular! Our remote and luxurious hotel, where we spend the last two nights of our tour, borders a secluded patch of Afromontane forest. Indeed, we can walk directly into the forest from our rooms and will spend the following day here, working the woodlands via the excellent trail network and exploring the surrounding areas.

Endemic Knysna Turacos call from the forest canopy; with patient scanning, we should see their bright red wing flashes as the birds move between patches of fruiting trees, competing with Blue Monkeys for the ripest fruits. In the understorey, White-starred Robin, Chorister Robin-chat and Barratt’s Scrub Warbler betray their presence with their calls, while the lovely Narina Trogon may be seen hawking from a liana beneath the canopy. Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Cape Batis, Olive Woodpecker and Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler are conspicuous members of feeding parties moving through the trees. Along the forest edge, we'll check for Red-necked Francolin, Black Saw-wing, African Dusky Flycatcher, Swee Waxbill and Forest Canary.

Bushbuck and Blue Monkey also inhabit the forest and Mountain Reedbuck may be seen on the grassy slopes. Two nights Mt. Sheba

Day 12
RETURN TO JOHANNESBURG, FLY LONDON

After enjoying some final birding at Mount Sheba this morning, reluctantly we must make our way back to Johannesburg today. We will make some stops for birds along the way, as flight schedules and travel time allows.

Saying a fond farewell to Joe at Johannesburg airport, we board our evening flight to London.

Day 13
ARRIVAL LONDON

We arrive back at London Heathrow this morning, where our February birdwatching tour to South Africa concludes.

Ground Woodpecker Kruger S Africa David Tomlinson Oct 2012 0133

One of many superb endemic birds on this tour, the Ground Woodpecker is South Africa's only terrestrial woodpecker and is easily identified by its red belly and rump © David Tomlinson, www.davidtomlinsonphotos.co.uk

What To Expect

There's a dazzling array of birds and mammals to look forward to on this fabulous tour to northern South Africa. Focusing on two of the country’s top wildlife spots - world famous Kruger National Park (where our guide Joe has worked) and the spectacular Drakensberg Mountains - at a wonderful time of year for watching birds and wildlife-viewing there. The elegant Blue Crane, Drakensberg Rockjumper, Gurney's Sugarbird and the irresistible Meerkat feature among a long list of endemics and regional specialities.

WHEN TO TRAVEL?

Both spring (Sep/Oct) and summer (Feb) are excellent for watching birds and wildlife in South Africa. In February, more birds will be in breeding plumage and more species will be breeding, plus all the migrants are in (so the potential number of species is higher) - but spring is great for birdwatching, too! Mammal viewing is easier in Sep/Oct as the waterholes attract more species then, but it is also excellent in Feb, when dew in the grass often encourages big cats to the roadsides in the early mornings.

South Africa has a temperate to subtropical climate, according to altitude.

In spring (Sep/Oct),often warm sunny days but with a chilly start - temperatures typically ranging from 11-24C/52-75F in Johannesburg. It’s likely to be cold at 3000m, but not below freezing. Expect quite a temperature range as we drop down from Johannesburg (around 5000ft) to the warmer lowlands of the Kruger. Some rainfall is likely in spring.

In summer (Feb), daytime temperatures average warmer - typically ranging from 14-25C/57-77F in Johannesburg through to humid afternoon highs of 32C/90F (sometimes higher) in the lowlands of Kruger National Park. Summer rainfall is characterised by torrential convective downpours in the afternoons.

Good-excellent photo opportunities including birds, mammals and some stunning scenery.

Birds

300-350 species

Mammals

30-50 species

Accommodation

10 nights accommodation in South Africa, staying at a selection of good to excellent hotels, lodges/camps and/or guest houses. Accommodation in Kruger National Park consists of fully serviced, self-contained chalet units set in attractive gardens and grounds. All rooms have private facilities.

Meals

All main meals are included in the tour price, commencing with lunch in South Africa on Day 2 and concluding with lunch on our way back to Johannesburg on Day 12. Food is good to excellent in South Africa, with most main meals taken at our lodgings and lunches either as picnics or at the lodges.

Walking

Easy. Short walks. In Kruger, away from the camps, please note that the presence of wild animals usually precludes excursions on foot so our birdwatching must mostly be done from the safety of the vehicle.

Sturdy but comfy walking shoes or lightweight boots with rugged, corrugated soles advised.

Maximum elevation this tour: 3000m (9800ft).

Travel

Return flights from London Heathrow to Johannesburg, nonstop with British Airways (or occasionally South African Airways).

Ground Transport  We use a 10-seater Toyota Quantum minibus driven by our guide. These are the vehicles best suited for general group travel in South Africa and the current market leader.

On arrival at our first camp in Kruger, we'll switch from our minibus to an open-sided 4WD vehicle equipped with three, tiered rows of seats and a canopy roof for protection from the sun. The vehicle is especially designed to allow clear wildlife viewing and photography (note that the use of 'open-topped' vehicles is not permitted in South Africa's national parks), and is big enough to accommodate our whole group.

We'll use this vehicle on two of our three full days within the park, reverting to our minibus again on our 'changeover day' when we make the longer transfer between our camps in the south and centre of this vast national park.

On one evening during our stay in Kruger, we’ll also enjoy a night drive in the bush. Night drives within the park are by similar open-sided safari vehicles, organised and operated by the park staff.

South African roads are generally good but some travel on this tour will be on well-graded gravel roads. Some dirt tracks in the Kruger; these are generally well maintained but the going can be bumpy at times.

3AFR mammal Elephants river crossing Kruger S Africa David Tomlinson Oct 2012  0900

African Elephants in the Kruger National Park © David Tomlinson, www.davidtomlinsonphotos.co.uk

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1 BY, Kruger & Drakensberg tour ... Thank you! It was a wonderful trip...great leader, great itinerary, great participants, and very comfortable accommodations. I felt it was excellent value!... [empty string]
2 PB, Kruger & Drakensberg tour ... First class tour leader - but you knew that already!... Two male Lions fighting over a female within 20 metres of our vehicle. Totally unforgettable... [empty string]
3 MM, Kruger & Drakensberg tour ... I think perhaps your brochure does not state with sufficient emphasis the sheer beauty of the scenery for the first six days. For me, looking down the Blyde River canyon was completely stunning. This was emphasised by the superb display of a pair of White-necked Ravens overhead!.. [empty string]
4 DT, Kruger & Drakensberg tour ... The are two critical aspects - pre-tour organisation (selection of sites and bookings) and leadership of the tour. Organisation was sound, with no unforeseen errors or omissions. Leadership was outstanding - kindness, consideration and a phenomenal breadth and depth of knowledge... [empty string]
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