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 via an excellent highway through the highveld grasslands, stopping to enjoy Long-tailed Widowbirds as they display, while Black-winged Kites and Blacksmith Lapwings watch on. Our total drive time today will be 3-4 hours, plus a stop along the way for lunch.
In the afternoon, 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 Golden Gate National Park
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 Golden Gate National Park
Days 4 - 5
Leaving Harrismith 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 number 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 at Wakkerstroom, 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, Denham’s and Blue Bustards, Grey Crowned and Blue Cranes, Black-winged Lapwing, Southern Bald Ibis, the unusual Ground Woodpecker, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Drakensberg Prinia and Buff-streaked Chat. 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. These include the striking Saddle-billed Stork, Hooded, African White-backed, Lappet-faced and White-headed Vultures, Tawny and Martial Eagles, Bateleur, African Finfoot, the enormous 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 will 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 might 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 still 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; although 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 us.
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 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 and, 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 here, 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 grazing the grassy slopes. Two nights Mt. Sheba
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 enjoy 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.
We arrive back at London Heathrow this morning, where our February birdwatching tour to South Africa concludes.