Kruger, Lesotho and Zululand
12–27 January 2018
This tour is designed for those who wish to see the endemic and speciality birds of eastern South Africa amongst the splendour of the Drakensburg Mountains, and in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, legendary Zululand and what is probably Africa’s most famous national park, Kruger. Targets include the rare Spotted Ground-thrush, the spectacular Gurney’s Sugarbird, the beautiful Blue Crane and, of course, many mammals.
Day 1 Overnight flight from London to Johannesburg.
Day 2 After an early-morning arrival in Johannesburg (watch out for Long-tailed Widowbird from the aircraft!) we will catch an hour-long flight to the coastal city of Durban. After lunch, leaving behind the hot, tropical climate of the coast, we will head inland to the endemic-rich Drakensberg Mountains in the Underberg region. There will be a couple of roadside stops for us to enjoy our first birds, which may include Cape Weaver, but we will press on in order to arrive at our accommodation by early-evening. This will give us a chance to relax and unwind after a long day and before the birding starts in earnest the following morning. Two nights in Underberg.
Day 3 The dramatic Sani Pass will be the focus of our entire day's birding, and promises a great variety of southern African endemics. Do not forget your passports today, as we will also be visiting the mountain Kingdom of Lesotho! At the foothills of the Drakensbergs we will pause in some well-vegetated valleys to search for the smart Bush Blackcap, Drakensberg Prinia, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Cape Weaver and Bokmakierie. The lower sections of the pass itself may produce our first Jackal Buzzard plus Buff-streaked Bushchat, Horus Swift, Cape Rock-thrush, the popular Rufous-necked Wryneck (if we are lucky), Ground Woodpecker, the unusual Gurney's Sugarbird and perhaps the skulking Barratt's Warbler. Higher up the pass there are breathtaking views from the snaking switchbacks. These steep, rocky sections are home to Yellow-tufted Pipit, the very local Drakensberg Siskin, Lammergeier, Cape Bunting and, todays most special bird (hopefully!), the striking Drakensberg Rockjumper. Once through the Lesotho border we will continue for some distance across the plateau to search for Mountain Pipit, Sentinel Rock-thrush, Southern Bald Ibis, Cape Griffon, Sicklewing Chat and, in the more-shrubby areas, the dainty Fairy Flycatcher and Layard's Warbler. After lunch, perhaps shared with Sloggett's Ice Rat, we will retrace our steps down to Underberg, pausing near town for some grassland birding if time permits.
Day 4 Today our attention will switch to the region's endemic-rich Afro-montane forests, and we will spend most of the morning visiting Xumeni Forest. Birding will probably be much slower than on the previous day, but the rewards could be just as great. We plan to arrive by early-morning, when Brown-necked (Cape) Parrots are active and noisy. Other species we will hope to see include Olive Woodpecker, Bar-throated Apalis, Barratt's Warbler (especially if missed the previous day), African Emerald Cuckoo and Forest Canary. Understorey skulkers are much more challenging and include White-starred Robin, Chorister Robin-chat and Orange Ground-thrush. At the forest edge we will search for Rock-loving Cisticola, Cape Grassbird and Swee Waxbill. Once bird activity dies down, we will head to a grassland area which holds one of South Africa's rarest breeding birds, Blue Swallow. In addition, the locality may produce Wailing and Pale-crowned Cisticolas, Cape Longclaw and Denham's Bustard. Overnight in Hela-Hela.
Day 5 After some local early-morning birding, as Knysna Turaco and Olive Bushshrike occur in some of the small forest patches, we will depart for Eshowe and some of Zululand's finest forest birding. We may make a few stops en route, but hope to arrive by mid-afternoon to make the most of the evening's spate of bird activity. We should have time to spot the conspicuous Trumpeter and Crowned Hornbills and Black-collared Barbet, although most of the trickier forest birds will be searched for tomorrow morning. Overnight in Eshowe.
Day 6 During our time in the Eshowe area we will visit different forest patches to search for a wide range of mid- and low-altitude forest species. The main focus of our stay, however, will be the famous Dlinza Forest with its canopy tower, right on the edge of Eshowe town. From our elevated perch we may spot Delegorgue's Pigeon, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Little Sparrowhawk, White-eared Barbet, Square-tailed Drongo, Black-bellied Starling and Eastern Olive Sunbird. Whilst quietly stalking along the forest paths in search of our main target, the rare Spotted Ground-thrush, we may find Green-backed Twinspot or Lemon Dove. In the early-afternoon we will continue to the picturesque coastal town of St Lucia. If time permits we will pause for some wetland birding at Richards Bay, where Southern Brown-throated and Yellow Weavers are usually present. Overnight in St Lucia.
Day 7 The coastal dune forests surrounding St Lucia are home to several localised specialities. Birding can be slow, but with focus and determination we should find Woodward's Batis, Livingstone's Turaco, Green Malkoha, Forest Weaver, Rudd's Apalis, the secretive Brown Scrub-robin, African Crested-flycatcher and perhaps even Four-coloured Bush-shrike. A short stint in the grasslands may produce Rufous-chested Swallow, the rare Banded Snake-eagle and perhaps African Cuckoo-hawk. During the heat of the day we will continue our journey northwards to the Hluhluwe River to look for sand-forest species in Bonamanzi Reserve. Here the highlights may include African Broadbill and Pink-throated Twinspot and, if time allows, we will search for Rosy-throated Longclaw on the Hluhluwe River floodplain. Two nights in Hluhluwe.
Day 8 There are several good sites in the surrounding area, including Mkuze Game Reserve and the adjacent Muzi Pan. The tricky Neergaard's Sunbird will be our main target for the day along with Lemon-breasted Seedeater, Crested Guineafowl, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Eastern Nicator, Bearded Scrub-robin and Narina Trogon. Waterbirds are also a feature of the region and we may find Yellow-billed Stork, Pink-backed Pelican, various herons and egrets and perhaps even Lesser Jacana or African Pygmy-goose. A wide range of more widespread savannah species will also be present including Grey-headed Bushshrike, Black Cuckooshrike, Grey Tit-flycatcher, Broad-billed Roller, Bateleur, Lizard Buzzard, African Pygmy-kingfisher, Pied and Crested Barbets, Grey Penduline-tit, Miombo Wren-warbler, Burnt-neck Eremomela, Kurrichane Thrush and Yellow-throated Petronia, all of which we may see later in the trip.
Day 9 After some final birding in the vicinity of Bonamanzi we will start the longish drive to the famous Wakkerstroom area, where a host of high-altitude grassland and wetland birds await us. En route we will stop in some lower-lying grasslands to search for the scarce White-bellied (Barrow's) Korhaan, Buffy Pipit, Banded Martin, Southern Anteater-chat, Cloud Cisticola and Eastern Clapper Lark. If time permits we will also look for the area's last remaining pair of Wattled Cranes, although we would have to be very lucky to spot them. Two nights in Wakkerstroom.
Day 10 Wakkerstroom is the best area in the world for three very rare high-altitude grassland birds: Yellow-breasted Pipit, Botha's Lark and the critically-endangered Rudd's Lark. These species will be today's main targets and we will be joined by an expert local guide to aid us in our quest. During the search we are likely to see a wide range of other grassland birds, not least the handsome Blue Bustard, Grey-winged and Red-winged Francolins, Southern Bald Ibis, Secretary-bird, Stanley Bustard, Blue Crane, Eastern Long-billed and Spike-heeled Larks, South African Swallow, Wing-snapping Cisticola, Mountain Wheatear and Yellow-crowned Bishop. The various wetlands should also produce their share of entertainment with an abundance of ducks potentially including South African Shelduck, Cape Teal, Cape Shoveler, Southern Pochard and Maccoa Duck. A mammal highlight of the day may be the famous Meerkat!
Day 11 Alternating between the highlands and lowlands will continue today as we head for the tropical lowlands of South Africa's most famous national park, Kruger National Park, home for fifteen years to our tour leader. En route we may pause at Kaapschehoop to try for Blue Swallow, Gurney's Sugarbird and Rufous-throated Wryneck, but we will hope to arrive in time to enjoy a bird- and mammal-filled afternoon in the Skukuza area. The list of potential species is long and impressive and includes Crested and Natal Francolins, Yellow-fronted Canary, Red-billed Firefinch, Blue-breasted Cordon-bleu, Village Indigobird, Bronze Mannikin, Pin-tailed Whydah, Village and Spectacled Weavers, Lesser and Southern Masked-weavers, Red-billed Buffalo-weaver, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Mariqua, White-breasted, Collared and Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, Violet-backed Starling, Red-billed Oxpecker, Cape Starling, White Helmetshrike, Magpie and Red-backed Shrikes, Black-backed Puffback, Brubru, Chinspot Batis, African Paradise-flycatcher, Ashy Flycatcher, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Rattling Cisticola, Cape Crombec, Yellow-breasted Apalis, White-browed Robin-chat, African Black-headed Oriole, Southern Black-flycatcher, African Pied Wagtail, Southern Yellow-billed, African Grey and Southern Red-billed Hornbills, Green Woodhoopoe, Eurasian (African) Hoopoe, Little, Southern Carmine, European and White-fronted Bee-eaters, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Wire-tailed Swallow, Lesser Striped-swallow and Grey Go-away-bird. Two nights in Kruger.
Day 12 Today we plan to spend the whole day driving through central Kruger, from Skukuza to Satara. Large mammals will be a great diversion and may include African Lion, Leopard, Savannah Elephant, Cape Buffalo, Burchell's Zebra, Waterbuck, Blue Wildebeest, Impala, Steenbok, Warthog, Common Duiker and White Rhinoceros. With over 500 bird species recorded in the park, however, our attention is likely to be divided: Swainson's Francolin, Brown-crowned and Black-crowned Tchagras, Arrow-marked Babbler, Wattled Starling, Monotonous and Sabota Larks, Emerald-spotted Wood-dove, Saddle-billed Stork, Brown-headed Parrot, European and Lilac-breasted Rollers, Southern Ground-hornbill, Orange-breasted Bushshrike, Burchell's and Greater Blue-eared Starlings, Green-winged Pytilia, Bearded Woodpecker, Burnt-neck Eremomela, African White-backed, White-headed and Lapped-faced Vultures, Martial Eagle, White-crowned Lapwing, Giant, Striped and Woodland Kingfishers, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Terrestrial Brownbul, White-throated and White-browed Robin-chats, Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird, Yellow-throated Petronia, Black Cuckoo, Black-bellied and Red-crested Bustards all occur here.
Day 13 From Satara we will start our three-day return to Johannesburg by driving straight to the western border of Kruger and on to the Abel Erasmus pass, where we will search for one of Africa's least-seen raptors, the smart Taita Falcon, a pair of which can be seen along the steep cliffs of the pass. The surrounding rocky hillsides are a good spot to look for Mocking Cliff-chat, Striped Pipit and Jameson's Firefinch. Once it becomes too hot we will head for the hills of the Magoebaskloof area for our last stint of forest birding. Here we will hope to spot Yellow-streaked Greenbul, the rare Black-fronted Bushshrike, Mountain Wagtail, Cape Batis, Grey Cuckoo-shrike and other forest birds that might have eluded us so far. Two nights in Magoebaskloof.
Day 14 We will start early to visit the arid savannahs of Polokwane Game Reserve, about an hour's drive from our accommodation. Here we will search for the tricky Short-clawed Lark. Species which are easier to find here, and which we will not have seen so far, include Crimson-breasted Gonolek, Scaly Weaver, Great Rufous Sparrow, Kalahari Scrub-robin, Southern Penduline-tit, Black-chested Prinia, Violet-eared Waxbill, White-quilled Bustard, Common Ostrich, Coqui Francolin, Desert Cisticola, Mariqua Flycatcher and Rufous-vented Warbler.
Day 15 We will spend the early-morning in Polokwane Game Reserve again, looking for Short-clawed Lark and other species, after which we will drive to Johannesburg for our overnight flight to London, where we will arrive on Day 16.
General Information The climate is variable from cold at high altitude to very hot on the plains. Accommodation standards are good and food is of European standard. Transport is by minibus or four-wheel drive and the road conditions are good. There are special health requirements so you must consult with your GP in this respect. Only a moderate degree of fitness is required. Photographic opportunities are excellent.
Group Size Minimum number for tour to go ahead: 6; maximum group size: 12 with 2 leaders.