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Meet us in Africa

Kwa-Zulu Natal, 14th to 27th January 2007, Rob Grimmond

This report summarizes a visit to parts of Kwa-Zulu Natal ('KZN'), arranged by 'Meet Us in Africa', a business run by Carolyn and Derek McDonald. We had met Carolyn at the British Birdwatching Fair in 2005 and were impressed by her enthusiasm and her passion for her country and its flora and fauna.

Sunday 14th January

Our flight from London with South African Airways arrived in Johannesburg early in the morning. After a break for breakfast we took an internal SAA flight to Durban, where  Carolyn and Derek met us. Very shortly we were off and arrived at our hotel at Umhlanga Rocks in time for lunch but not before seeing our first Little Swifts on the way. The other member of the group, a lady, arrived in the afternoon.

In the afternoon, we went for a walk around Umhlanga Lagoon, just to the north. This was an exciting introduction to KZN’s birds. Highlights were Goliath Heron, 2 young African Crowned Eagles, White-fronted Plover (on the beach), Speckled Mousebird, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Terrestrial Brownbul and a superb male Black-throated Wattle-Eye.

 Monday 15th January

In the morning, Carolyn took us further north to the Umhloti area and beach. On the way we came across our first Cape Weaver colony. By the sea we saw the only African Pied Wagtail of the trip. While driving through the suburbs we were lucky to catch sight of the endangered Blue Duiker, a tiny antelope. Nearby we saw lots of Vervet Monkeys. Carolyn told us about the natural history of these monkeys and the conflict between them and local residents..

On the way to the Durban Botanic Gardens, we stopped briefly by the Umgeni River. Here we had close views of Diderick Cuckoo and Black-collared Barbet. By the river were a few splendid male Southern Red Bishops.

We had lunch at the Botanic Gardens, where we spent the afternoon. There are some splendid plants and trees here. Carolyn provided much useful information on them. The gardens are also good for birds. Highlights were Pink-backed Pelican, Black-collared Barbet and Crested Barbet, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Southern Black flycatcher, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Collared Sunbird and Eastern Olive Sunbird and Thick-billed Weaver.

Tuesday 16th January

Today we left for our first stop in the Drakensberg Mountains. On the way we stopped for lunch in Pietermaritzburg and picked up Derek from home for the journey up to the mountains. We saw several good birds on the way, including Southern Bald Ibis, Spur-winged Goose, lots of Steppe Buzzards, Amur Falcon, Giant Kingfisher and White-necked Raven. Late afternoon we arrived at our hotel.

Wednesday 17th and Thursday 18th January

We spent two days in the Sani Pass area. Since the weather was looking good, on the Wednesday we drove up the pass and crossed into Lesotho. The whole area was wonderful. It is renowned for its wild flowers and Carolyn was able to give us lots of information on them. Unlike birds, flowers do not move so photography was a delight! On the second day, we spent time in the lower parts of the Pass.

Visiting Lesotho was an incredible experience. After you climb the pass, you come to the Lesotho Plateau. The first building you see is the pub at the top – claimed to be the highest in southern Africa!  There are a few Basuto huts and then the border post.

Despite the altitude, we saw a good number of birds, including Lammergeier, Cape vulture, Jackal Buzzard, African Black Swift, African Rock Pipit, Sentinel Rock Thrush (near the pub), Fairy Flycatcher, Buff-streaked Chat and Drakensberg Siskin (near the pub). The area around the pub is generally good and is one of the best spots to see the high altitude Sloggett's Ice Rats, which have a burrow system around the pub. There are good flowers on the mountain slopes in Lesotho.

Lower down the Pass, we saw another Drakensberg endemic, the Drakensberg Rockjumper. Other good birds were Gurney's Sugarbird, Levaillant's Cisticola, Karoo Prinia and Drakensberg Prinia, Bokmakierie and Cape Canary and Streaky-headed Seed-eater.

There is good birding at the South African Border Post, lower down the Pass. Here we saw Black Saw-wing, Wing-snapping (Ayres') Cisticola, African Dusky Flycatcher, and Malachite Sunbird.

Friday 19th January

We left Sani Pass area and headed for Giant's Castle, further north in the Drakensberg Mountains. On the way we saw a good number of birds, the highlights being Reed Cormorant, Yellow-billed Duck, Booted Eagle, Long-crested eagle (on the roadside wires), many Amur Falcons, Giant Kingfisher, three species of Bishop (Southern Red, Yellow-crowned and Yellow) and Long-tailed Widowbird.

We stayed at Giant's Castle for two nights.

Saturday 20th January

In the morning, we visited the San Bushmen caves, a moderate walk from Giant's Castle Camp. These are strictly overhanging rocks rather than caves and have superb examples of San rock art . Birds on the walk were also good. They included African Olive-Pigeon (near the caves), Diderick Cuckoo, Alpine Swifts and African Black Swifts, Levaillant's and Wailing Cisticolas, Cape Grassbird, Barratt's Warbler (four in all, close to the camp; good views of a skulker!), Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, Cape and Chorister Robin-Chats, Cape Batis, Southern Black-Tit and Swee Waxbill.

On the hillside opposite the camp we saw a herd of 15 Eland. Rock Hyraxes were easy to see around the camp.

Sunday 21st January

An early morning walk produced a Common (Grey) Duiker in the camp.

 After breakfast we left for the Royal Natal National Park area. On the way we visited Spioenkop Dam Nature Reserve. We had lunch here and went on a game drive afterwards. From the reserve you can see Spioenkop Hill, the site of the famous Boer War engagement.

Spioenkop Reserve was good because it provided a notable contrast in habitat from the Drakensberg, consisting mainly of acacia bushveld and grassland. Bird highlights were African Goshawk, African Cuckoo, Green Woodhoopoe, Pale-crowned Cisticola, Mocking Cliff-Chat (near the shop), Chinspot Batis and Black-crowned Tchagra. We also saw Blue Wildebeest, Impala, Greater Kudu, Burchell's Zebra, Giraffe, Slender and Yellow Mongoose and Red Hartebeest.

Late afternoon we arrived in the area of Royal Natal National Park. On the way, new birds were Black-bellied Korhaan and Southern Boubou.

Monday 22nd January

We spent the day in  Royal Natal National Park. This is a beautiful area, with superb scenery, birds and flora. New birds here were White-rumped Swift, Half-collared Kingfisher, Brown-backed Honeybird (was Sharp-billed Honeyguide), Bar-throated Apalis and Violet-backed Starling. We also saw a Bushbuck, 2 Chacma Baboons and a Drakensberg Dwarf Chameleon.

Tuesday 23rd January

For the next stage of the trip, we left the Drakensberg and Kwa-Zulu Natal for our next destination,   Golden Gate Highlands National Park, in the Free State. Highlights of the journey were Grey-winged Francolin, Lazy Cisticola, Broad-tailed Warbler, Pied Starling and Fan-tailed Widowbird. Just inside the park we saw Red Hartebeest, Black Wildebeest, Common Impala, Blesbok, Burchell's Zebra, Eland and Chacma Baboon.

In the afternoon, we visited Golden Gate Dam and drove the Blesbok Loop road. The Dam was a beautiful spot and provided a good habitat for birds such as Little Grebe, Reed Cormorant, African Black Duck and Yellow-billed Duck, Red-knobbed Coot and African Reed-warbler. We heard Red-chested Cuckoo calling but again could not see it!

New birds at Golden Gate were South African Cliff-Swallow and Cape Longclaw.

Wednesday 24th January

First thing,  I went for a walk and found a nice group of Ground Woodpeckers, 2 Common Quails calling and 3 female Grey Rhebok in the car park!

In the morning we walked up to Cathedral Cave and were able to admire not only the geology but the flowers and grasses. The park is the only grassland  National Park in South Africa and has more than 60 species of grass. In the afternoon we went for drive on the other loop road, the Oribi Loop and visited the Golden Gate Dam again.

New birds during the day were African Harrier-Hawk (seen from the dining room during breakfast!) and Malachite Kingfisher (on Golden Gate Dam). Other interesting birds were Cape Longclaw, Cape Grassbird, Buff-streaked Chat, Mountain Wheatear (along the Oribi Loop), Pied Starling and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting. In the afternoon, Carolyn found a grounded Alpine Swift. It survived the night and next morning Carolyn put it on some rocks in the hope it was strong enough to fly off.

Thursday 25th January

On the way out of the park we came upon a group of 30+ Chacma Baboons, making their way across the hillside. It was enjoyable to watch them go and seeing the interaction between them.

By late morning we arrived at Champagne Castle. On the way, the highlights were 2 Grey-crowned Cranes and hundreds and hundreds of Amur Falcons on the roadside wires.

Just after we settled into our room, we saw a group of Arrow-marked Babblers just outside our window!

In the afternoon we did the Waterfall Walk in Monks Cowl Forest Reserve. The best birds here were Olive Bush-Shrike and Chorister Robin-Chat.

Friday 26th January

Our last full day of the trip. In the morning we went for another walk in  Monks Cowl Forest Reserve. Here we had superb views of a singing Bush Blackcap. Other notable birds were Cape Vulture, Cape Grassbird,  Chorister Robin-Chat, Cape Batis, African Paradise Flycatcher and Greater Double-collared Sunbird.

The rest of the day was spent in our hotel grounds – and produced 3 new birds! They were Forest Buzzard, African Firefinch and Forest Canary. Other birds of note were African Olive-Pigeon, Black Saw-Wing, Chorister Robin-Chat, Southern Black Tit and Golden-breasted Bunting.

Saturday 27th January

With some time to kill before we left for Durban, we spent more time in our hotel grounds.

Here we saw Spur-winged Goose, a juvenile  African Harrier-Hawk, Forest Buzzard, Giant Kingfisher, Mountain Wagtail and Yellow-throated Woodland-warbler among others. The highlight of the return journey was again many Amur Falcons.

Late afternoon Carolyn and Derek dropped us at the airport and we said our sad farewells. Our journey home went smoothly.

We loved the country and cannot speak too highly of our guides. We cannot wait to go back!

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