South Africa: Fairest Cape to Kruger

South Africa is a spectacularly beautiful country, rich in wildlife. In the southwest there are two unique habitats, the stark heath-like fynbos and the expansive semi-desert Karoo. In the northeast, South Africa metamorphoses into golden-green grasslands and tropical savanna where species diversity increases dramatically. Spectacular species include a host of bee-eaters, hornbills, kingfishers, barbets, and sunbirds. We can expect to see over 400 species on this tour.


Day 1: Cape Town.
After arrival in in Cape Town we will transfer to a peaceful B&B in the suburbs, where we will be based for the next 3 days.

Day 2 or 3: Pelagic (optional).
The waters off Cape Town are regarded as one of the best pelagic spots in the world. Sailing from Simonstown we will be awed by the spectacle of thousands of seabirds of 15 to 20 species squabbling over scraps behind fishing trawlers. Once you have fought off the crippling views of Black-browed, Shy and Yellow-nosed albatrosses, White-chinned Petrel, Cape Gannet and Sooty Shearwater, we will sift through the clouds of birds in search of less common species. This trip is optional because it is weather dependent and may be canceled if we are unlucky with the weather. Those who opt not to do the pelagic trip can visit the Cape Peninsula.

Day 2 or 3: West Coast.
This dry coastline is incised by a series of wetlands holding fantastic densities of shorebirds. In the spectacular Langebaan Lagoon, Palaearctic waders abound. Resident shorebirds include the scarce Chestnut-banded Plover. The adjacent terrestrial vegetation supports a variety of very local specialties. The most absorbing are Black Harrier, Southern Black Korhaan and Cape Long-billed Lark.

Cape Rockjumper is one of two members of a family that is endemic to South Africa
Cape Rockjumper is one of two members of a family that is endemic to South Africa (Keith Barnes)

Day 4: Cape Peninsula to Hottentot’s Holland mountains
The Cape Peninsula is exceptionally beautiful. We spend the morning searching for fynbos endemics such as Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Sugarbird and Cape Siskin. We visit Kommetjie, home of the Benguela-endemic African Black Oystercatcher, as well as Bank, Crowned and Cape cormorants. Continuing to the Cape of Good Hope we stop at Boulder’s Bay to mingle with the African Penguins. Our final stop is Strandfontein, a series of settling ponds supporting a remarkable variety of waterfowl. In the afternoon, we search for Cape Rockjumper, then drive to our lodge in the Hottentot’s Holland mountains.

Day 5: Hottentot’s Holland to De Hoop Nature Reserve
Situated 125 miles (200 km) east of Cape Town, the Agulhas plain stretches from the Langeberg Mountains to the southern tip of Africa. Here we seek the highly range-restricted Agulhas Long-billed Lark and Agulhas Clapper Lark. Other spectacular specialties include parties of stately Blue Crane and Stanley Bustard. We will overnight just outside De Hoop Nature Reserve.

Day 6: De Hoop to Wilderness
The morning will be spent at Potberg mountain, which holds the last Cape Vulture breeding colony in the region. Other targets are the endemic Southern Tchagra, Pied Starling, Orange-throated Longclaw and Pearl-breasted Swallow. In the afternoon we drive through to Knysna exploring the Wilderness Lakes en-route. We will spend two nights in the quiet town of Wilderness.

Blue Cranes dance amidst spring wildflowers in the Overberg
Blue Cranes dance amidst spring wildflowers in the Overberg (Ken Behrens)

Day 7: Garden Route
The Garden Route winds over mountainsides dappled with fynbos flowers before it plunges into the thickly forested gorges where cola-hued rivers flow. Among the forest specialties we search for here are Forest Buzzard, Knysna Turaco, Narina Trogon, Knysna and Olive woodpeckers, Chorister Robin, Olive Bush Shrike, Swee Waxbill and Forest Canary.

Day 8: Garden Route to Karoo NP
We greet the dawn in the Swartberg Mountains where we will search for the skulking Victorin’s Scrub-Warbler, the charismatic Cape Rock-Jumper, the rare Protea Canary, and local Cape Siskin, and that will provide some dramatic rocky backdrops to our birding. Then we will descend into the hot and arid Karoo National Park, for a two night stay.

Day 9: Karoo NP
This park combines spectacular mountain scenery with the very best of Karoo birding; it is packed with Karoo endemics. The lowlands support Spike-heeled Lark, Gray-backed Finch-Lark, Karoo Chat, and Rufous-eared Warbler. The secretive Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Pale-winged Starling, and Ground Woodpecker occur in rocky gorges, while the Sickle-winged Chat is found on the grassy plateau. The newly described Karoo Long-billed Lark is common throughout the park.

Day 10: Karoo NP to Johannesburg
We return to Cape Town and fly to Johannesburg, where we’ll overnight at a hotel away from this bustling city.

The bizarre Long-tailed Widowbird will entertain us around Wakkerstroom
The bizarre Long-tailed Widowbird will entertain us around Wakkerstroom (Dubi Shapiro)

Days 11-12: Wakkerstroom
The area surrounding Wakkerstroom supports some of Africa’s most threatened species. Here we will search for the critically endangered Rudd’s Lark, Botha’s Lark and Yellow-breasted Pipit. The rolling grasslands also support magnificent endemics such as the striking Southern Bald Ibis, the elegant Blue Korhaan, and the Buff-streaked Chat. The rank vegetation is also home to magical widows, francolins, cisticolas, weavers, bishops and whydas. Two nights will be spent in the quiet country town of Wakkerstroom.

Days 13-15: Kruger National Park
We leave at the crack of dawn to make the most of our time at Kruger. Birding here is fantastic with many species living right in the park’s camps. The staccato calls of the Woodland Kingfisher and ridiculous moans of the Gray Go-away-bird reverberate throughout most lodgings. Elsewhere Trumpeter Hornbills, Saddle-billed Storks, and White-crowned Lapwings patrol the river edges, while menacing Nile Crocodiles watch from distant sandbanks. While looking for birds, we will undoubtedly bump into countless numbers of large mammals, including the possibility of Lion, Leopard, African Elephant, African Buffalo, and two species of beastly rhinoceros. Nights will be spent at several birdy camps inside Kruger.

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Day 16: Kruger NP to Johannesburg
Today we will soak up the remainder of Kruger’s excellent birding and game viewing opportunities, before returning to Johannesburg for another night.

Day 17: Departure. This morning we fly out or start the Drakensberg extension.

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EXTENSION OPTION

Drakensberg: The Barrier of Spears extension (7 days)

We offer a 7 day extension to take in spectacular Mkuze, St Lucia, the Drakensberg Mountains and the midlands of Natal. This extension gives us chances at another suite of South African specialties.

Important note: The extension begins in Johannesburg, but ends in Durban.

Day 1: Drive Johannesburg – Mkuze. Today we drive to Mkuze Game Reserve area. Overnight in Mkuze Town.

Day 2: Mkuzi Game Reserve – full day. Today we will spend a full day at one of Africa’s most famous reserves, this is where the White Rhino was saved from global extinction. Birding here is fantastic, and we can only hope to take in a fraction of the 400 bird species that have been recorded in this small 36 000 ha gem. Its beauty is that many areas can be visited on foot, and walking trails and safaris are on offer, making it a better area for birdwatchers to visit than Kruger National Park. Highly diverse, this reserve comprises a wide range of habitats including pans, swamp forest, Acacia thornbush, woodland, riverine forest, and the highly unique sand forest. We will search for the main sandforest specials, the Rudd’s Apalis, Pink-throated Twinspot and Neergaard’s Sunbird. The surrounding bush offers a spectacular number of birds including a variety of kingfishers, barbets, bushshrikes, helmetshrikes, rollers, cuckoos, robins, bulbuls, starlings, sunbirds and seedeaters. Mkuzi is also renown as an excellent area for vultures and raptors, mostly because of the wealth of large predators in the park. While looking for birds we will undoubtedly bump into the countless numbers of large mammals, including 15 species of ungulates, and the possibility of predators such as Leopard and an excellent likelihood of the beastly White Rhinoceros. In the later afternoon we leave the reserve and head to St. Lucia. Overnight St Lucia.

While admiring the dramatic scenery of the Drakensberg we will keep an eye out for the majestic Lammergeier gliding overhead
While admiring the dramatic scenery of the Drakensberg we will keep an eye out for the majestic Lammergeier gliding overhead (Dubi Shapiro)

Day 3: St Lucia-Eshowe. Up for an early breakfast, we head straight to the small coastal hamlet of St Lucia, where we will spend the morning soaking up the incredible Lake St Lucia, a World Heritage Site teeming with water birds and bushveld birds. We shall explore the swathes of forests that skirt the lagoons edge, in search of Green Coucal, Woodward’s Batis, Southern Banded Snake Eagle and Brown Robin. Other target birds include Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Pink-backed Pelican, Wattle-eyed Flycatcher, White-eared Barbet, Gorgeous Bush Shrike, Narina Trogon, Woolly-necked Stork, Grey Waxbill, Grey Sunbird, Crested Guineafowl, Green Twinspot and Trumpeter Hornbill. In the afternoon we heading to the coastal forests and mangroves surrounding Richard’s Bay, a relatively industrial complex which offers an amazing variety of birding options. On the face of it Richard’s Bay is a fairly ordinary looking place, but the reality is that it is loaded with top quality birding opportunities. We will visit open pans at Thulazihleka where we might see the scarce Lesser Jacana as well as the special Brown-throated Weaver and Pale-crowned Cisticola. We will surely see African Jacana as well as White-backed Duck, Whiskered Tern, Osprey and a variety of weavers, widows and water birds. We will also keep a keen eye on the countless waders, terns egrets, herons and other water birds that occur in this magical and diverse lagoon. St Lucia also has a good selection of mammals, and likely species to be seen include impressive Hippopotamus, Common Reedbuck, Burchell’s Zebra, Blue Wildebeest, Waterbuck, Vervet Monkey, Bushbuck and the tiny but exquisite Red Duiker. We will also take a shot at locating African Finfoot before heading to our accommodation in Eshowe. Overnight in Eshowe.

Day 4: Dhlinza. Dhlinza forest is mystical stop endowed with South Africa’s largest and most impressive canopy walkway. One of the key specials at this forest and our main target for the day is the globally endangered and legendary cryptic Spotted Ground Thrush, a bird with an uncanny ability to blend with the leaf litter when it is not moving! But Dhlinza has another mega-special, Delegorgue’s Pigeon, as well as a host of other great forest birds such as Narina Trogon, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Forest Weaver, Black-headed Oriole, African Goshawk, Green Twinspot, Terrestrial Bulbul and many other forest birds. Overnight Eshowe.

Day 5: Umlalazi to Underberg. In the morning we’ll head straight to Umlalazi Narure Reserve where we’ll look for a bunch of forest birds as well as the local specialty species, before heading off to Underberg for our assault on the Lesotho Drakensberg the following Day. Overnight Underberg.

Day 6: Sani Pass. This morning we head up the incredible Sani pass to 3482 m a.s.l (the highest mountain pass in southern Africa) into the mountain kingdom of Lesotho (remember your passport as it is a different country!). Here where we will begin our search for the many specials of the high Drakensberg. Near the base of the pass we will search the Leucosidea scrub for Bush Blackcap and Drakensberg Prinia, Yellow Warbler and perhaps entice out a Barratt’s Warbler. Higher up, where the grassland is dominated by Proteas, we seek Buff-streaked Chat, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Cape Rock-Thrush and Grassbird. Still higher we will search for the magnificent Bearded and Cape Vultures, Drakensberg Siskin, Orange-breasted Rockjumper, Sentinel Rock-Thrush, Cape Bunting, Layard’s Titbabbler, Southern Grey Tit, Fairy Flycatcher, Sickle-winged Chat, Rock and Mountain Pipits before heading down the mountains before night fall. We will see some interesting and bizarre mammals today including the specialised Ice Rat, Chacma Baboon and Rock Hyrax, colloquially known as the Dassie (the closest relative of the elephant!), and with luck some larger ungulates such as Eland, Mountain Reedbuck, Grey Rhebok and the agile Klipspringer. We overnight in Underberg.

Orange-breasted Rockjumper is the other member of this South African endemic family
Orange-breasted Rockjumper is the other member of this South African endemic family (Trevor Hardaker)

Day 7: Xumeni Forest and Midland Grasslands to Durban. The morning will be spent at Xumeni, a marvelous block of Afro-montane forest, which offers our best chance to sample the exciting afro-montane specials. Amongst the residents here are Bar-throated Apalis, Blue-mantled Flycatcher, Starred and Chorister Robin, Yellow-throated Warbler and the ever so secretive Buff-spotted Flufftail. We should have good luck with the retiring Orange Ground Thrush and with patience we hope to see some of the few remaining pairs of the recently split Cape Parrots that breed and roost in this forest. In the afternoon we drive through the midland grasslands and look for Wattled Crane, Long-crested Eagle, and anything else we haven’t already seen. Creighton is an excellent area for Oribi, and hopefully we can find this increasing scare and specialised grassland antelope. On our January tours, we may also try for the increasingly scarce and threatened Blue Swallow. Its habitat is rapidly disappearing and it is nowhere else more apparent than here, where the only breeding pair in the district survives in a soccer pitch sized grassland sandwiched by pine plantations. It is a magnificent bird however, and if we are very lucky we should get superb views of these magical and scarce creatures. In the late afternoon we head to Durban where the tour finishes.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate-intense. The days here in the summer are long. We will typically be up early, around 05:30 am, and stay out until around 6-7 pm. Where possible we will use the middle of the day to rest up, but on many days we will use this time to travel between localities. There will be a few optional outings after dark to search for mammals, owls and nightjars; these are normally done just after dinner and seldom last for more than than 2-hours (typically between 7–9 pm). South Africa is reasonably large country and there is a lot of driving involved (but roads are good), including 5-6 hour drives on 3 days. There will be a packed lunches on at least three days, but most meals are sit-down affairs.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. Almost all the birding is from mostly flat roads or tracks, or from the vehicle. The maximum walking on any day is likely around 2 miles (3 km).

CLIMATE: Usually pleasant and warm, though some nights and mornings can be on the cool side. Overall the weather is usually very nice in both September (usually 47°-70°F, 8°-21°C) and January (usually 53°-86°F, 12°-30°C). On the September trip rain is likely in the Western Cape, while on the January trip rain is more likely on the east side of the country.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, and full-time hot water. Electricity is available everywhere 24 hours a day. Internet is widespread, but not available everywhere.

PHOTOGRAPHY: If you are a casual photographer, you will love this trip! Birds are cooperative, and mammals are easy to take pictures of, and because as we are visiting many places where birds are common, tame and easily seen, there are plenty of opportunities for the casual photographer to indulge and enjoy shooting. It is important to be aware that this is primarily a birding tour, so if you are a serious photographer, you may wish to consider our South Africa Photo Journey.

WHEN TO GO: The September spring trip is timed for peak activity of breeding endemic birds in both the dry west and moist east parts of the country. There are fewer migrants around and the overall bird list is shorter, but this time of year is perhaps best for those seeking as many of South Africa’s endemics as possible. Also, the bush is drier and is is easier to see mammals. In January, it is mid-summer, and although most breeding birds are still vocal and gettable (although some have become quiet and unresponsive), there is a wave of late season migrants that is present, and we are likely to see a greater number of species than on September trips, and more of the spectacular male widows and whydahs will be in alternate plumage. The bush thickens after the early summer rains, and we can expect the mammals to be a little harder to find in January than September.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and most European countries. Visas are currently only required of a few nationalities, mostly in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 16 if taking only the main tour, and through the night of day 6 of the extension if also taking the extension; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 17 if taking only the main tour, and to breakfast on day 7 of the extension if also taking the extension (if you have a very early departing flight, you may miss the included breakfast on the last day); reasonable non-alcoholic drinks during meals; safe drinking water only between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio playback gear from the evening of day 1 to the afternoon of day 16, and to the afternoon of day 6 of the extension if also taking the extension; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person on arrival and departure day respectively (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they arrive at the same time); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 16 (and to day 6 of the extension if also taking the extension) in a suitable vehicle (for smaller groups, the vehicle may be driven by the tour leader); entrance fees to all sites mentioned in the itinerary; domestic flight from Cape Town – Johannesburg (day 10); 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 tour leader; tips for luggage porters (if you require their services); flights other than the included internal flight on day 10; 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; excess baggage fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.