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Birds in South Africa (and a bit of Swaziland), October 1999,
|Systematic list of Birds (large)||Systematic List of Mammals|
South Africa is a great place for birding with the family. I did this trip with my wife Madelčne and my four-year old son Alex. It was planned as a general interest tour, based mainly on the scenic highlights and the mammals, with birding stops on the way. The only place we were intending to go solely for the birds (Mkuzi) we never got to because of the weather conditions. Even so, the area has such a wealth of birdlife that we managed to see almost 300 different bird species.
The trip was in two parts: the south-west of the country (using a car and hotels) and the north-east (using a camper).
The main reason for using the camper was to give Alex more room to play in. This was a good move, particularly for the Kruger park, where one has to remain in the vehicle the whole time, except at a handful of designated spots. On the whole though, if I was travelling without small children, I would probably not use a camper for this area again. This is because there seems to be a wide availability of moderately-priced accommodation in nature reserves and other very pleasant areas (in contrast to the USA, where one, in my admittedly limited experience, tends to have to use either soulless motels or exceedingly expensive hotels).
The trip was booked through American Express.
Our car was hired from Europcar - it was a rather uninspiring Mazda, but in very good condition. The camper we hired from Britz in Kempton Park. It was rather old and had several problems (starting problems, leaky roof hatch, geriatric gear-change, uncomfortable front seats etc). However most of their other vehicles seemed to be much newer, so we may have been unlucky.
For the first part of the journey we booked accommodation in advance. For the second part we only booked the nights in the Kruger park, which we had been advised to do. In fact there was plenty of space at both campsites there. (I understand however that during the school holidays advance booking is essential in most of the national parks).
We drove 5000 km in three weeks: quite a lot, but it still allowed a good amount of time for sightseeing and birding. The distances given below are the actual distances we drove, including detours for shopping and sightseeing.
Weather and Season
In theory, October should be just past the end of the wet period in the Cape Town area, and the beginning of the wet season in the North. Generally one would expect pleasantly warm weather in both areas (hotter in the lowveld around Kruger park) with a few showers.
It didn't quite work out like that. We had remarkably variable, but on the whole rather unseasonable weather. In the highveld the wet season was late starting, so some birds had not yet started displaying. In Natal, on the other hand, we had the misfortune to encounter what was said to be the wettest week for several years. (This however was exceeded a few months later, when Mozambique in particular suffered severe flooding.)
· Roberts' Birds of Southern Africa. (1993 edition). Very good text; illustrations of rather mixed quality; bulky.
· Ian Sinclair's Field Guide to the Birds of Southern Africa. (1984 edition). Suffers from the usual drawbacks of a photographic guide, but more portable than Roberts. Some species are much better illustrated here than in Roberts, but some of the other photographs are dreadful.
The field guide by Kenneth Newman is the one that seems to be most widely recommended, but I already had these two and didn't feel I could justify buying a third. (Some of the drawings in Newman are also pretty mediocre.)
· Top Birding Spots in Southern Africa, by Hugh Chittenden. Good site guide. Almost all the locations mentioned below are described in this book.
· A field guide to the Mammals of Africa, by Theodor Haltenorth and Helmut Diller. A fine example of German grundlichkeit - masses of information, but not the easiest of books to use for identification purposes. Surprisingly pocketable, given how much it covers.
p·p South Africa Handbook, by Sebastian Ballard. (Footprint handbooks, 1998.) Strongly recommended.
p·p Insight Guide, South Africa.(APA, 1998). Good for advance reading, less good for use on the spot.
p·p Road Atlas of South Africa (Map Studio - the same atlas is also published by a couple of the oil companies). Good, though there were certainly moments when we would have welcomed maps with a larger scale.
Although we did consult several travel reports from Internet (e.g. via site http://www.camacdonald.com/birding/ ) we didn't actually make much use of them in the end.
Checklists: several of the parks have (free) checklists of the birds and mammals. They are worth getting, although the bird lists are less useful than they would be if they indicated which birds were regulars and which occasional visitors. Do ask for them if you can't see them - they are sometimes kept behind the counter.
Tapes: there is a good set of three cassette tapes of South African birds, recorded and published by Len Gillard. Several of the park shops have tape 3 for sale (which includes the cisticolas), one or two had tape 1, but when we were there none of them seemed to have the complete set! Recommended.
The information we received about malaria was rather contradictory. The apparently most reliable information was as follows.
The Dutch health service advised that the Kruger park and lowland Swaziland are in a malarial area, but not of very high risk. Their recommendation is that for a stay of up to three nights it is not necessary to take malaria prophylactics, provided one makes good use of mosquito repellant. This we followed. A Kruger park warden agreed with this (at least as far as October is concerned).
A notice in one of the Kruger lodges stated that June to September is a low risk period for malaria, October to January moderate risk and February to May is high risk.
In fact we stayed a fourth (unplanned) night in the malarial area, but did not see a mosquito on the trip.
South Africa is not one of the world's safest countries. The crime rate is one of the major concerns of residents. However it is not currently so bad that it is unwise to go - especially if one is concentrating on the nature reserves the risk of problems is not enormous. But one needs to get up-to-date information on which areas are likely to cause problems, e.g. from http://www.fco.gov.uk/
9 October Flight
Flew from Amsterdam to Heathrow with British Midland, and caught South African Airways flight to Cape Town. We both thought that SAA was one of the best airlines we have flown with. The staff really did their best to make us comfortable. Most airlines give small children something to keep them occupied on the flight, but Alex got a rucksack from SAA with a collection of toys that kept him happy for the whole holiday!
10 October Cape Town 60 km
Picked up car from Europcar and drove to Fontainebleau guest-house in Fresnaye. Warm and mostly sunny weather.
A gentle walk around Mouille point produced good views of African black oystercatcher and Crested tern (= Swift tern), and what turned out to be the only Turnstones of the trip. We then did a little sightseeing in the city centre, and found our first white-eyes in the "Compagniestuin", which used to be the fruit and vegetable-garden for sailing ships calling at the Cape. The clouds over the top of the Table Mountain (the "table-cloth") cleared for long enough to tempt us to take the cable-car to the top, but it clouded over again as we were ascending. We had to be content with brief views through occasional holes in the cloud. The only birds we saw on top were Red-winged starling and White-naped raven, but I was very pleased with the raven as I'd missed it on both my trips to Kenya. A walk on Signal Hill produced much better views, lots of flowers, a few of the commoner birds, and the only Cape francolin of the trip.
11 October Rondevlei, Boulders Beach, Cape Peninsula 154 km
A cool day with a fair bit of cloud and quite windy. An early morning walk in fynbos at the foot of Signal Hill was surprisingly unproductive. Drove to Rondevlei: a good bird reserve, where we saw well over 40 species in a couple of hours, although the wind rather limited telescope use.
We then went on to the whale-watching point just north of Simon's Town. Some people we spoke to had had good views of several whales the day before, but I had to be content with a single glimpse of a tail-fin (and Madelčne missed even that).
Naturally we stopped at the famous Jackass penguin colony at Boulders beach, now a major tourist attraction. We then went on to the Cape of Good Hope nature reserve, where we duly saw Cape sugarbirds, Cape bunting and lots of Cape gannets, among other birds. Also some Ostriches gave the opportunity for some unusual photographs against a background of raging surf.
Had a most enjoyable dinner in Camps Bay, at St Elmo's restaurant, which was regrettably to be the target of a terrorist bomb the following month.
12 October Helderberg, Paarl, Worcester 185 km
Lovely sunny weather. We first drove to Somerset West to visit the Helderberg reserve. This was not as good for birds as we had expected from Chittenden's description, but the flowers and scenery made the visit well worth while. We also saw a Bontebok with calf. (The reserve entrance isn't particularly easy to find, but the tourist information office gave us a good map of the town.)
After spending a few hours in the lovely historic town of Stellenbosch, we went on to Paarl bird sanctuary. This only gets a very brief mention in Chittenden, but we found it well worth visiting, with White-backed duck, Maccoa duck, Greater flamingo and Black crake among other birds. The reserve is between Paarl and Wellington. You take the Jan van Riebeeck Drive northwards for about 7 or 8 km from the N1, turn left onto Van der Stel street, and it is then signposted. It is actually in the grounds of the local sewage works!
We then took the old Dutoitskloof road to Worcester - again, strongly recommended for the scenery. Stayed the night at Church Street Lodge.
13 October Worcester to Karoo National Park 380 km
Dawn-to-dusk sunshine, cool breeze for most of the day, but getting hot in late afternoon.
After a quick look around Worcester, we headed for the Karoo National Park near Beaufort West. This was a long drive with rather little in the way of birds to see, but the Hex river valley is attractive and the curious little village of Matjiesfontein makes an interesting stop.
Went for a drive in the park in the afternoon. Excellent views of a pair of Black eagles (= Verreaux' eagles) formed the highlight of an otherwise rather quiet drive.
The restaurant here was perhaps the best we have encountered in a national park, in any country! The saddle of springbok was very good indeed.
14 October Karoo to Wilderness 270 km
An early morning walk was not as productive as hoped, but still turned up good views of Long-billed lark, Red-eyed bulbul and Bokmakerie, and a glimpse of a White-backed mousebird. On walking to breakfast at ten past seven it was already uncomfortably warm, and this turned out to be by far the hottest day of the trip. Wilderness recorded an unseasonable 34° and in the Karoo it must have been a good bit hotter. We were very glad of the air-conditioning in the car.
Walked the short "Bossie" trail, which gives a good introduction to the local plant life. We then went for a drive around the park, seeing quite a few antelope and several of the characteristic Karoo birds. After shopping in Beaufort West, we did the long drive down southwards through the Karoo, the spectacular gorge at Meiringspoort and on to Wilderness.
Stayed the night at Meetsnoere guest house: an exceedingly comfortable guest house close to Wilderness National Park, with sea views, beach access and dolphins swimming past each afternoon.
15 October Wilderness 42 km
Morning cool and cloudy, becoming sunny around lunch time, then turning wet and windy in the afternoon.
Spent the morning in Wilderness National Park. Did a little bit of the Pied Kingfisher trail (Red-necked spurfowl, Black-bellied glossy starling etc), and then part of the trail up the side of the Touws River (Knysna turaco, Giant kingfisher, Southern boubou). Then we slowly drove the dirt road past the lakes, seeing quite a lot of birds in the roadside vegetation. Langvlei was the lake with the most birds, although we didn't actually see much from the hide there (apart from hundreds of coot).
We had planned to return in the late afternoon, but the deteriorating weather made this pointless.
16 October Wilderness, Knysna, Tsistsikamma (Storms River) 218 km
70 km + 60 km
Pleasantly sunny. Saw a Jacobin cuckoo before breakfast. Then it was a case of packing, drive to Port Elisabeth, flight to Johannesburg, pick up camper, get lost in Johannesburg while looking for shops, go shopping, drive to Pretoria - so no further birds. Campsite on southern edge of Pretoria.
20 October Pretoria to Sabie 364 km
We then followed a convoluted route to Lower Sabie camp, via N'wanetsi and Tshokwane picnic spots and Orpen rocks, seeing mammals and birds the whole way, and crocodiles along the Sabie river. Sunset Dam, just outside Lower Sabie, was a particularly good spot, with hippos, crocs, the worlds ugliest bird (the Marabou stork) and much else.
23 October Around Lower Sabie camp 37 kmLower Sabie to Hlane (Swaziland) 168 km
It started raining during breakfast and continued to rain for most of the day. This did give some interesting views of wildlife which came down to the road to drink from the puddles there. This included a leopard tortoise, which Madelčne had particularly wanted to see, and a very handsome reptile it is. Unfortunately she was so excited that the photos she took came out blurred. (Her excuse is that it was walking too fast).
We had been intending to head for Malolotja in the Swaziland hills. The low hanging cloud made this seem pointless so we headed for Hlane in the lowlands instead. The roads to Hlane were good: one section is shown in the atlas as a dirt road, but this has recently been asphalted.
However on arriving at Hlane we found that it had been hit that morning by a particularly severe thunderstorm, and all roads in the park were impassable for two-wheel-drive vehicles. For want of a better alternative we camped at the Ndlovu camp anyway, a "primitive" but very pleasant campsite, at which new facilities are now being built. Activities were limited to three brief walks around the campsite, before being forced back to the camper by heavy rain each time. However, as I managed to see about 40 species on those walks, six of them being birds not seen elsewhere on the trip, it strongly suggests that this is an area deserving further exploration. Highlights included Grey-headed bush-shrike, Red-headed weaver and also lots of Pin-tailed whydahs.
25 October Hlane to False Bay (St Lucia reserve) 260 km
A most depressing day, with almost continuous rain. (We were informed by a warden at St Lucia that this was the wettest few days they had had for a couple of years at least - and it was to get wetter still). We drove to Natal, where we attempted to visit Mkuzi reserve, but the gravel access road was in such bad condition that it seemed unwise to attempt it in the camper in the rain, and we turned round after a short distance. Went on to False Bay and decided to take a cabin on the Ezelwini estate so we wouldn't be confined to the camper for a second evening.
26 October False Bay to Pongola 170 km
A damp walk around the Ezelwini estate was at least rewarded by good views of Nyala and Crested guineafowl. Then the rain relented for about three hours, permitting a look at some of the Natal birds, such as Yellow-bellied bulbul and Yellow-breasted apalis. False Bay is known as a good site for Neergard's sunbird, but we found only Purple-banded and Collared. There was also a Yellow white-eye, which was a good find as it reaches its southern limit here.
We intended to go to Hluhluwe for the night. However the warden at the gate told us it would cost 1000 Rand to stay there - a ludicrous price, as around 100 Rand is normal. His English (and our Zulu!) was not good enough to understand what was going on, and it had just started raining again, so we abandoned Natal and headed north-eastwards to look for some dry weather. We then got hit by a cataclysmic thunderstorm north of Mkuze, reducing us to about 20 km per hour. A particularly strong downdraught even knocked two ducks out of the air and onto the road in front of us. So we got no further than Pongola. We heard that Durban suffered severe flooding.
27 October Pongola to Wakkerstroom 225 km
Sun at last!
We discovered a very attractive route not mentioned in either of our guide books: the 'Coal Road' from Piet Retief to Wakkerstroom. This runs along the highveld escarpment, and is marked by coal outcrops along the way (which are however too poor for any significant commercial extraction). The scenery is grand, the road almost deserted, and near Wakkerstroom there are interesting birds to be seen.
The "Weavers Nest" guest-house on the east side of Wakkerstroom is known as an information point for birders. It is under new management since 1997, but the new owners have continued the tradition. We had lunch there and, there being no other guests that evening, were invited to park our camper in the garden for the night. On short trips around Wakkerstroom we saw a good many birds, including a Black stork, two Bald ibises, South African shelduck, Hottentot teal, Crowned cranes, Wattled plovers, Orange-throated longclaws and lots of Purple swamphens. The real specialities of the area, such as Rudd's lark, however require an extensive amount of dirt-road driving, which the camper wasn't really suitable for. We did however see a family of those endearing little relatives of the mongoose called suricates or meerkats (the latter being a somewhat confusing name, as the Dutch use 'meerkat' to refer to the vervet monkey).
We took dinner in the guest-house: it was not only quite superb but also very modestly priced.
28 October Wakkerstroom to Heidelbergkloof, Suikerbosrand 298 km
Sunny periods, cool, windy.
After a short further exploration of the Wakkerstroom area, we headed towards Heidelberg. An unscheduled stop was caused by one of the side windows of the camper spontaneously shattering. As it was the last-but-one day, we didn't bother getting it fixed. This drive had little of interest, other than two Secretary birds and a large number of Long-tailed widows.
We stopped at a comfortable campsite at Heidelbergkloof. Frustratingly, although this is right on the edge of the Suikerbosrand reserve, there is no entrance there: the only entrance is about 30 km away. We went to the reserve and drove the short loop, but did not see a great deal. Capped wheatear was the only new bird for the trip.
29 October Suikerbosrand, Carlos Rolfes Pan 170 km
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