This is an Enigmatic Wildlife Tour (EWT). While most birding and wildlife tours focus on seeing as much as possible, very few focus on encounters with the least known and most charismatic wildlife the planet has. Tropical Birding’s new EWTs focus on encounters with Earth’s most desirable and poorly-known wildlife, and we shall use our time to make sure we maximize our chances of encounters with the unforgettable. While we do so, we shall certainly enjoy all the other wildlife around us, and so while we are focused, we are not neglecting the other surrounding beauty. It’s important to mention that while we will do everything we can to find these rare animals, nothing is guaranteed. After all they are rarely seen for a reason.
South Africa is decidedly more than just a safari-goers paradise. One of Earth’s 12 Megadiversity countries, its semi-desert and fynbos ecosystems hold some of Africa’s strangest and most localized animals. From the bizarre nocturnal Aardvark and Aardwolf to the buck-toothed Cape Dune Molerat, elegant Sable, and improbable goblin-like rain-frogs, to some of the most amazing reptiles on Earth, such as Horned and Namaqua Dwarf adders, dwarf-chameleons, Giant Ground Gecko, and Armadillo Girdled Lizard. There are also some super-localized enigmatic bird species on this itinerary and we have an excellent chance at catching up with localized Cape Long-billed, Red and Barlow’s larks, Black-eared Sparrowlark, Orange River White-eye, Ludwig’s Bustard, the rock-loving Cinnamon-breasted Warbler and the unpredictable Burchell’s Courser.
Aside from that gob-smacking list of critters – which should set the pulse of any wildlife travel enthusiasts racing – to make this trip even better we will be travelling through the Kalahari and Namaqualand during early September, the peak period for blooming. Carpets of multi-colored wildflowers of both the daisy and bulb families will form the backdrop to settings in which we’ll be searching for some of the very coolest animals on Earth. As one of our ‘wild nights out’ Enigmatic Wildlife itineraries, much of our wildlife watching will be conducted after sunset, when most of the incredible creatures surface from daytime hideouts. In some places we will be using Sherman traps to catch and monitor a variety of small mammals. The icing on the cake will be that we will be accompanied by Keir and Aloiuse Lynch, contributors to the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), and two of the best naturalists in the country. As full blown botanists, herpetologists and other ….’ists’ they have in depth knowledge of where some of strangest and most endangered wildlife occurs, whether it be a Critically Endangered population of Speckled Moraea (a spectacular plant in the iris family), or a favorite haunt of an Arum Lily Frog. But our trip will not only be spectacular, it will be meaningful because it will double-up as a biodiversity scouting survey, in that we we will be supporting the research activities of the Lynch’s and SANBI, making this a win for all. With a leadership uniformly keen on photography, we should have a ball on this trip.
We are offering a tantalizing Tswalu: Luxury safari pre-trip to one of the most exclusive and amazing reserves in Africa and a Southern Cape Garden Route post-trip to the western portions of the Garden Route. Tswalu may have the best delivery rate on Earth for the incredible Ground Pangolin. Again, while nature is never guaranteed, the pangolins are seen here in late winter as frequently as anywhere else on Earth. The addition of Lions, Cheetahs and African Wild Dogs make for a full blown ‘safari experience’ at Tswalu, before we start the main tour. The post-tour will include the Langeberg and mountains to the east of Cape Town and we hope to find Riverine Rabbit and a variety of local herps here before finishing in George, a spectacular coastal village on the Garden Route.
Day 1: Kimberley. After arrival in Kimberley we travel through to Marrick Safari Lodge, one of Africa’s best places for nocturnal mammals. Tonight, after dinner we will take the first of several dedicated night drives to look for the Kalahari’s most amazing mammals, including the bizarre Springhare, incredible Aardvark, Aardwolf, Bat-eared Fox, South African Porcupine and if we are very lucky the localized and rare Black-footed Cat or simply adorable Large-Eared Mouse. This location delivers these oddities more often that just about anywhere on Earth. We should also seek out the intriguing Elephant Shrew or Sengi at Marrick; it is still a bit of a taxonomic mystery. We spend two nights at Marrick Safari Lodge.
Day 2: Mokala and Marrick. After breakfast we head to the nearby Mokala NP, one of the newest and most interesting parks in South Africa. It has several rare mammals, and we ought to find Sable, Roan and Tsessebe antelope, as well as the near-endemic Springbok, Gemsbok and White-tailed Wildebeest and maybe the most endearing small mammal on Earth, the Meercat!! Other mammals occurring here that are rare and less frequently seen are White and Black Rhinoceros, Cape Buffalo, Mountain Reedbuck and the bean-pole Giraffe. We ought to start picking up a few reptiles and birds, with Kalahari specialties like Kalahari Scrub-Robin, Scaly-feathered Finch, Crimson-breasted Boubou and Swallow-tailed Bee-eater all being front and centre. We return to Marrick and take another night-drive in this amazing place to target anything we missed the night before.
Day 3: Marrick to Augrabies Falls NP. Augrabies is where the Orange River cuts through granite to form a spectacular waterfall. Some of the original Khoi and San communities remain within the park which is dominated by the spectacular giant aloe trees or kokerbooms. The park has a diverse set of mammals and birds, including Eland, Giraffe, Klipspringer, Ground Squirrel, African Wild Cat, and if we are extremely lucky, maybe a Caracal. On the bird front we seek out the localized Orange River White-eye, Pririt Batis, Dusky Sunbird, and Double-banded Sandgrouse, while it is hard to miss the massive nests of Sociable Weavers, Pale-winged Starling, Red-eyed Bulbul and the minute Pygmy Falcons. But this zone is one of the best for seeking reptiles and amphibians and we will hopefully locate the very localized and stunning Augrabies Flat-Lizard and Augrabies Gecko, bulbous Giant Ground, Namaqua Mountain, Rough and Quartz geckos, Common Ground Agama, Karoo Sand Snake, Guttural and Western Olive toads, Common River Frog and if we are very lucky a Marbled Rubber Frog or Giant Bull Frog! Overnight near Augrabies.
Day 4: Augrabies Falls NP to Pofadder. After another stunning morning at Augrabies Falls NP our time at the stark but stunning park draws to a close and we venture farther west to the spaghetti-western-like town of Pofadder (or Puffadder in English). This small one-horse settlement is a perfect base for our exploration of the northern Cape’s famed ‘Bushmanland’ area. Surrounded by open rangeland and farmland we hope to find birds like Burchell’s Courser, Starks Lark and Black-eared Sparrowlark, and turning our attentions to the ground, hopefully Bibron’s and Turner’s Geckos and with luck Horned Adder or Beetz’s Tiger Snake. Night in Pofadder.
Day 5: Pofadder to Port Nolloth. We depart predawn so that we can be at the fossil dune valley of the Koa River as the sun comes up. The red sand dunes here are home to the very localized Red Lark. They are fairly easily found at dawn, singing at this time of year. Namaqua Sandgrouse, Cape Penduline-Tit and Karoo Korhaan may be some of the other prizes. We’ll keep our eyes peeled for rare Tented Tortoise. It’s a long drive to Port Nolloth, during which we will pass through northern Namaqualand begining to see some of the epic flowering displays of this phenomenal region. If we see any amazing displays, we’ll stop for photos and to seek out some of the rarer ephemeral plants. We complete the day on the coast, with the cool upwelling waters of the Benguela ocean creating a sea-mist here most nights that drives an ecosystem like few others on the planet. Two nights are spent in Port Nolloth.
Day 6: Port Nolloth. With a full day to enjoy this part of Northern Namaqualand, and the very arid Namib-like environment along the coast to the north, we can expect a bumper day of enigmas. Perhaps the most sought-after will be the Desert Rain Frog, one of the cutest animals on Earth. Watch the YouTube clip below and tell us you don’t want to see that, and we’ll call you concrete-hearted. However, they are tough to locate, and we would be exceptionally lucky to see them, but all your leaders will be trying their best. We will also be seeking out Namaqua Banded, Namaqua Dwarf, Western Cape, Spotted Barking and Austen’s geckos, Giant Desert Lizard, Bug-eyed House Snake and only if we are very lucky Namaqua Dwarf Chameleon, Namaqua Dwarf Adder and Namaqua Rain Frog, among others. We’ll head north of Port Nolloth in an attempt to locate the extremely local Barlow’s and Cape Long-billed Larks, as well as the very pale version of Tractrac Chat, and perhaps some Damara Terns. Offshore, we ought to see Cape Gannet, African Black Oystercatcher and Crowned, Cape and Bank cormorants, all local seabirds restricted to the cold rich waters of the Benguela-current of South Africa and Namibia. A nocturnal excursion may reveal some seldom-seen mammals, and Brown Hyena is a possibility here on the diamond coast.
Day 7: Port Nolloth to Springbok. After another morning on the Namaqualand coast we head inland to the rocky granitic hinterland of Springbok. The second town on our stay named after an iconic South African animal, this is surely one of the ‘wildest’ parts of the country. A visit to Goegap Nature Reserve will hopefully reveal the local Cape Mountain Zebra. A little snooping around the rocky crags may reveal Smith’s Red Rock Rabbit and Round-eared Sengi (or Elephant Shrew) amongst a host of interesting small mammals. After dark, amongst the Black-backed Jackals we may get lucky and find Cape Fox. Rarer birds include Black-headed Canary, Cinnamon-breasted Warbler and Karoo Eremomela, while after dark we have a good shot at the scarce Cape Eagle-Owl. Amongst the herps, we hope to find Striped Pygmy Gecko, Knox’s Desert, Western Sandveld, and Namaqua Sand lizards, Western Three-striped, Variegated and Western Rock skinks, Many-horned Adder, Brown House Snake and a smorgasbord of less common things that we would be lucky to encounter. Two nights in Springbok.
Day 8: Springbok. Another day in the rockscapes of Springbok. We might head to wherever there’s a good flowering display nearby, and otherwise focus on the many tricky species that find a home in these crags. Some rare but mouth-watering possible sightings include Speckled Padloper (a tiny tortoise), Namaqua Pygmy Gecko, Namaqua Flat and Dwarf Plated lizards, Schinz’s Beaked Blind, Namib Sand and Spotted Rock snakes, Coral Shield Cobra, Paradise Toad, Poynton’s River and Namaqua Stream frogs. If we even see some of these we would be doing well.
Day 9: Springbok to Nieuwoudtville. After a morning in Springbok we head to southern Namaqualand. There is of course a turnover of species, and although there are not many new birds and mammals, we can expect a whole new slew of herps and plants. Calling the flowerline the day before to see if there are any spectacular flowering displays en route (or just off it), we will plan our day accordingly and make sure that we take in whatever spectacular annuals or bulbs are showing. Arriving at our destination we will be struck by the awesome desolate nature of the open Knersvlakte ‘gnashing plains’, so named in Afrikaans for the sound the Boers’ wagon wheels used to make as they trekked across these hostile environments. Far from desolate, this is one of the hotbeds of small succulent diversity on Earth, and we can hope to encounter several species of Lithops, Mesembs and other stunning mini succulents. The plains are home to Karoo, Spike-heeled and Thick-billed Larks, Rufous-eared Warbler and Karoo Korhaan. A massive escarpment at the edge of the plains takes us firmly onto the South African escarpment and a whole new world. It is up here that we will spend the next two nights, at the quaint little town or ‘dorpie’ of Nieuwoudtville.
Day 10: Niewoudtville. With a full day to explore both the highlands and Knersvlakte we are in for a treat. Again, we will tap into local knowledge as to where the best flowering areas are and we will undoubtedly be treated to some of Namaqualand’s rarest plants today. In among those, we will be seeking out a new swathe of vertebrate enigmas including Weber’s Thick-toed Gecko, Southern Spiny Agama, Common Sand and the crazy Armadillo Girdled Lizards, Cross Marked Grass and Karoo Sand snakes, and Rhombic Skaapsteker. With a little luck we will encounter the amazing Cape Cobra, and in the wetlands Cape River and Clicking Stream frogs. Mammals will include the odd Rock Hyrax, agile Klipspringer, and perhaps the localized deer-like Grey Rhebok. Birds such as Namaqua Warbler, Pririt Batis and Southern Grey Tit lurk in the riverine vegetation and we’ll be likely to find all of these.
Day 11: Niewoudtville to Grootwinterhoek to Langebaan. Today we exit Namaqualand and the Karoo and get our first glimpse of an entirely new ecosystem, the fynbos (an Afrikaans word meaning fine bush), the unique heathlands of the southern tip of Africa that simultaneously make up its oldest and most diverse floral kingdom. As is to be expected the biodiversity does not end with the plants, and our day in the Grootwinterhoek might get us Cederberg Pygmy and Southern Rough geckos, Southern Rock and Oelofsen’s Girdled, Cape Cliff and Cape Crag lizards. We will need considerable luck to encounter some of the stunners of this area such as Berg or Red adders, or the incredible Cape Ghost Frog or Tradouw Mountain Toadlet. On the bird front the rarest of the fynbos endemics, the Protea Canary is reasonably common here, and we can expect Cape Sugarbirds and stunning Orange-breasted Sunbirds. By this afternoon we will be seeing the stunning cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean as we approach Langebaan Lagoon within the West Coast NP, haven to tens of thousands of migratory shorebirds, in addition to the stunning and local Black Harrier, which we hope to encounter.
Day 12: Langebaan to Cape Town. This area may yield Namaqua Rain Frog, or another of the set of herps that occupy the West Coast Zone. Grey-winged Francolin, or even maybe a Caracal (which is rare) would make the early morning rise worthwhile. Later we head into Cape Town, the stunning city that surrounds a giant mountain and is encircled by spectacular seascapes at its core, and begin our exploration of another zone of biodiversity wonderment.
Days 13: Cape Town. Over the course of today, we hope to find you Marbled Leaf-toed, Ocellated Thick-toed and Cape Dwarf geckos, Southern Rock Agama, Cape Girdled Lizard, Red-sided Skink, Common Slugeater, Mole Snake and maybe a Puffadder. On the frog front the Critically Endangered Rose’s Mountain Toadlet, Raucous and Western Leopard toads are all possible, as is the spectacular Arum Lily Frog. We will be sure to show you the endangered seabirds of the Benguela current, and of course we will make a stop at the famous Boulder’s Bay for the spectacular African Penguin. Although there are not that many mammals about we might find the endemic pied Bontebok (that almost slipped to extinction last century) and just offshore there will be Southern Right Whales and their calves: we will do our best to find them.
Day 14: Departure. After an absolute bumper fortnight featuring enigmas with hair, feathers, scales, and flowers our amazing time in one of the most biodiverse areas on Earth, with some of the best people to show you these creatures draws to a close. For those that simply have to have more – and we could hardly blame you – there is a pre-trip extension to the exclusive Tswalu reserve, or a post-trip down the Garden Route targeting more. Those that need to head home will be dropped off at Cape Town International Airport.
Tswalu: Luxury safari 4-day pre-trip
Tswalu is luxury in the heart of unspoiled southern Kalahari wilderness. This place takes exclusivity seriously, with a maximum of only 28 guests spread between their two camps. So best to book early to avoid disappointment. Each booking has a dedicated ranger and tracker and there is no limit on the amount of time you can spend at sightings. This is the very best location on Earth in which to look for the rapidly vanishing Ground Pangolin, and late August is the best time to see them. Of course, they are very rare and are not guaranteed, so please make sure you come here hoping to see one rather than expecting to see one. There are many other highlights including ‘Black-maned Kalahari’ Lions, a significant population of Cheetah, stunning Wild Dog, Buffalo and Giraffe. Some less celebrated – but just as interesting – species that we might encounter include the rare solitary Brown Hyena, Aardwolf, Aardvark and one of two groups of habituated Meercats that we can hang with and observe.
Day 1: Arrival Kimberley and transfer to Tswalu.
Days 2+3: Full days Tswalu.
Day 4: Morning at Tswalu, drive to Kimberley (Marrick Safari Lodge)
Southern Cape Garden Route post-trip (7 days)
Day 1: Cape Town to Grootvadersbosch. We drive east of the city, over the Hottentot’s Holland mountains, and across the vast open plains of the Overberg, where we ought to see Blue Cranes and perhaps Stanley’s Bustard. In the afternoon we head to the Grootvadersbosch Conservancy, a swathe of moist evergreen forest that’s on the western edge of the Langeberg range. Great forest birds present include African Wood Owl, Narina Trogon, Olive Bush-Shrike and Swee Waxbill. We will also look for the yet to be describe Grootvadersbosch Dwarf Chameleon, Strawberry Rain Frogs, Plain Rain Frogs and if we are very, very lucky we might see Southern Ghost Frog. Two nights in the Grootvadersbosch area.
Day 2: Grootvadersbosch Conservancy. We have another full day in this area to enjoy the many amazing critters that occur here.
Day 3: Grootvadersbosch to Sanbona Wildlife Reserve. After another morning in the Langeberg we head for Sanbona, where an afternoon drive has us looking at some amazing San rock art with the possibility to explore some art-rich overhangs during a stay – it is rich in succulent flora and there is also a chance to see Brown Hyaena, Hippo, Elephants, Giraffe, Lions, and Cheetah. Also present are Cape Rock Sengi, Karoo Caco, Karoo Dwarf Chameleon, Pouched Mouse and some other treats. After dinner we take a night drive for our first chance to see the very rare and seldom-seen Riverine Rabbit. Even if we don’t get lucky with the bunny, we ought to see a bunch of other special animals. Two nights in the Sanbona Wildlife Reserve.
Day 4: Sanbona Wildlife Reserve. We have another full day in this amazing area to explore the succulent Karoo flora, mammals, reptiles, birds and more.
Day 5: Sanbona to Prince Albert. We travel through the Karoo, and across the Great Karoo plains to the northern fringes of the immense Swartberg range. Here we base ourselves in the quaint village of Prince Albert. With its old-school colonial hotel and several small boutique businesses on the edge of the dusty Karoo, it has a slightly frontier feel to it. From here we can explore the mountains to the south that rise to over 2000 m asl. Here we will seek out Swartberg Dwarf Chameleons, Ramigekko and do some road cruising at night on the northern side of the Swartberg that might produce a Cape Coral Cobra and some other special species. Night in Prince Albert.
Day 6: Prince Albert to George. As we head south, we pass through the Little Karoo and then the contorted Montagu Pass through the amazing Outeniqua mountains and the Indian Ocean coastline of the Garden Route. As we travel we might look for Eastern Ghost Frog and the Blue-Spotted Girdled Lizards. We can then spend late afternoon scratching around the George Botanical Gardens for Knysna Leaf Folding Frogs and Knysna Dwarf Chameleons. Night in George.
Day 7: Departure. We transfer everyone to George Airport for their flights home after three weeks of amazing biodiversity exploration in South Africa.
PACE: Moderate to intense. This will vary considerably from day to day. But we are covering a huge amount of territory between Kimberley and Cape Town and we will have many days with 6 hours of driving in the car. Sometimes we will have early mornings for key birds and mammals and sometimes we will have late nights for herps and nocturnal mammals. It’ll certainly be a hodge-podge of activities, but we expect that to yield some spectacular results of phenomenal animals of all sorts from a variety of vertebrate classes. The average day will probably involve at least an early morning or a night drive (maybe both), but we will make sure people (especially our drivers) get adequate sleep. And then 4-6 hours in the vehicle driving to places. Some days involve full days in a local area that really allows us to get stuck in and enjoy these places to the full.
PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. Most of the time we will either be driving, birding, mammaling or herping in local area that involves a lot of lifting rocks and not moving very fast. There is not a lot of walking involved, although obviously we spend a substantial amount of time outside the vehicles pottering around.
CLIMATE: Variable. It will be spring and so there can be a cold front that brings the temperature down to 40°F (5°C) at night to about 85°F(30°C) in the middle of the day. So come prepared for both hot and cold. Night time in the semi-desert can be particularly chilly. Although we are in semi-arid country for much of the trip, we are doing this at the end of the wet season, when spring has sprung and so rain and mist is to be expected in places, although showers typically don’t last for long.
ACCOMMODATION: Varies from boutique bed-and-breakfast in Cape Town to simply rustic farmhouse homestays in the Kalahari and Karoo. We try to make sure all the places have some character. All will have en-suite bathrooms, 24-hour electricity, hot water and most will have Wi-Fi.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Photography options are excellent on this tour in general. At night many of the subjects are herps and so long as you have a flash you can come away with great shots of those species. Mammals and birds during the day present themselves well and should make great subjects.
WHEN TO GO: We run our tour in a narrow window at end of August/early September to hit the peak of the (unpredictable) Namaqualand flowering season. While some years the rains fail or are poor and some years they are amazing we can never guarantee a stupendous flowering year. But so long as there has been some winter rain the herps come out and the birds and mammals are breeding.
TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Visas are not currently required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, EU, and Australia. Visas are required by many other countries, so please check your travel requirements as they are often subject to change. It’s always a good idea to double check travel requirements a few weeks before the tour, or ask our office for help.
WHAT’S INCLUDED?: (Note this does not apply to the Tswalu pre-trip extension – please contact us for inclusion/exclusions for Tswalu) Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge staff; accommodation from night of day 1 through to the morning of day 14 (or day 7 on the extension); meals from dinner on day 1 to breakfast on day 14 (or day 7 on the extension); lodges will include at least safe drinking water and some include tea/coffee; when eating at restaurants that include no drinks, reasonable non-alcoholic drinks will be provided for that meal; safe drinking water only between meals (usually available at a designated spot in the lodge – if not it will be provided for you); Tropical Birding tour leader with thermal scope and audio gear from the evening of day 1 to the morning of day 14 (or day 7 of the extension); a bionerds naturalists that is excellent with herps and small mammals; one arrival and one departure airport transfer on the arrival and departure days respectively, per person (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in a suitable vehicle; entrance fees to all sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).
WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for luggage porters in city hotels (if you require their services); flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned above.