South Africa: Fairest Cape to Kruger

South Africa is a spectacularly beautiful country that is 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 and species diversity increases dramatically. Spectacular species include a host of bee-eaters, hornbills, kingfishers, barbets, and sunbirds. We can expect to see over 400 bird species on this tour.

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This tour is also one of our intuitive-design itineraries. These have a main tour component that will appeal to any kind of birder, followed by a more intense extension focusing on endemics and tougher species that requires more time in the field and additional physical effort. This intuitive design can keep all kinds of birders satisfied. Obviously, this can only work in some countries where the geography and bird distribution make it possible, but South Africa is definitely one of those places.

The main tour is fun, and focusses on the unforgettable and unmissable Cape and Kruger sectors of the country. We travel through these areas in style, enjoying all the birds, fauna and flora. We sill enjoy Kruger in a luxurious open-topped land-cruiser, making sure we do not spend unnecessary hours driving in a car, nor having a cramped game-viewing experience in a van like many of our competitors. The extension is more endemic-bird focused, to satisfy more serious birders with a long haul of specialty birds. So whether you prefer a premium highlights package that includes lots of mammals, or have a travel partner who prefers that, or a trip that includes lots of endemic birds, this intuitive-design itinerary can tick all the boxes.

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 we have soaked in 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 birds. 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 include Black Harrier, Southern Black Korhaan and Large-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 We spend the morning searching the exceptionally beautiful Cape Peninsula for fynbos endemics such as Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Sugarbird and Cape Siskin. We also visit Kommetjie, home of the Benguela Current-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, if time allows, 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.

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

Day 6: De Hoop to Wilderness The morning will be spent around Potberg mountain, which holds the last Cape Vulture breeding colony in the region. Other targets here 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.

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 spend the morning in the Swartberg Mountains where we will search for the skulking Victorin’s Scrub-Warbler, charismatic Cape Rock-Jumper, rare Protea Canary, and local Cape Siskin. These mountains will provide some dramatic rocky backdrops to our birding. In the afternoon, we will descend into the hot and dry 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 Sparrow-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 Karoo Long-billed Lark is common throughout.

In the Karoo, we seek out a set of specialties which includes the Rufous-eared Warbler
In the Karoo, we seek out a set of specialties which includes the Rufous-eared Warbler (Keith Barnes)

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.

Days 11-13: Kruger National Park We fly into Kruger first thing in the morning 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 vast numbers of large mammals, including the possibility of Lion, Leopard, African Elephant, African Buffalo, and two species of rhinoceros. Nights will be spent at several birdy camps inside Kruger.

Day 14: Kruger NP to Johannesburg Today we will soak up the remainder of Kruger’s excellent birding and game viewing opportunities, before flying back to Johannesburg for another night.

Day 15: Departure. This morning we fly out or start the Eastern endemics and Drakensberg extension.

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EXTENSION OPTION

Eastern endemics and Drakensberg (9 days)

We offer a 9-day extension to take in the high-altitude grasslands of Wakkerstroom, coastal forest and thornscrub at Mkuze and St Lucia, the Drakensberg Mountains, and the midlands of Natal. This extension gives us chances at many of the South African endemics and specialties.

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

Day 1: Drive from Johannesburg to Wakkersrtroom. Driving several hours through the Highveld grasslands of eastern South Africa brings us to the quaint village of Wakkerstroom, where we will spend the night.

Day 2: Wakkerstroom The area surrounding Wakkerstroom supports some of Africa’s most threatened species, many of which are endemic to South Africa. 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, elegant Blue Korhaan, and dapper Buff-streaked Chat. The rank vegetation is also home to magical widowbirds, francolins, cisticolas, weavers, bishops and whydas. Two nights will be spent in the quiet country town of Wakkerstroom.

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

Day 3: Wakkerstroom to Mkuze. We will have most of the day at Wakkerstroom looking for any specialty birds that we still need. After a late lunch we hit the road and travel the 3 hours to Mkuze, dropping into a considerably different habitat, the coastal thornveld of KwaZulu-Natal. Night in Mkuze town.

The eastern bushveld holds the glittering Purple-crested Turaco
The eastern bushveld holds the glittering Purple-crested Turaco (Hugh Chittenden)

Day 4: Mkuze Game Reserve. Today we will spend a full day at one of Africa’s most famous reserves, 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 hectare gem. Highly diverse, this reserve comprises a wide range of habitats including pans, swamp forest, Acacia thornbush, woodland, riverine forest, and the 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. Mkuze is also renowned as an excellent area for vultures and raptors, mostly because of the abundance of large predators in the park. While looking for birds we will undoubtedly bump into the some large mammals, including some of the park’s 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, where we spend the night.

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 5: St Lucia-Eshowe. Up for an early breakfast, we head straight to 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 Malkoha, Woodward’s Batis, Southern Banded Snake Eagle and Brown Scrub-Robin. Other target birds include Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Pink-backed Pelican, White-eared Barbet, Gorgeous Bush-Shrike, Narina Trogon, Woolly-necked Stork, Grey Waxbill, Grey Sunbird, Crested Guineafowl, Green Twinspot and Trumpeter Hornbill. St Lucia also has a good selection of mammals, and likely species include impressive Hippopotamus, Common Reedbuck, Burchell’s Zebra, Blue Wildebeest, Waterbuck, Vervet Monkey, Bushbuck and the tiny but exquisite Red Duiker. In the afternoon we heading to the coastal forests and mangroves surrounding Richard’s Bay. 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 localized 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 diverse lagoon. We will take a shot at locating the retiring African Finfoot before heading to our accommodation in Eshowe. Overnight in Eshowe.

Day 6: Dhlinza. Dhlinza forest is 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 legendarily 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 Brownbul and many other forest birds. Overnight Eshowe.

The Drakensberg Mountains' 'Barrier of Spears'
The Drakensberg Mountains' 'Barrier of Spears' (Gerald Cubitt)

Day 7: Umlalazi to Underberg. In the morning we’ll head straight to Umlalazi Nature 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 8: Sani Pass. This morning we head up the incredible Sani pass to 3482 m a.s.l (11,400 feet), the highest mountain pass in southern Africa. Here we enter the mountain kingdom of Lesotho (remember your passport as it is a different country!). Here we 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, African Yellow Warbler and perhaps the skulking 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. High still, we will search for the magnificent Bearded and Cape Vultures, Drakensberg Siskin, Orange-breasted Rockjumper, Sentinel Rock-Thrush, Cape Bunting, Layard’s Warbler, Southern Grey Tit, Fairy Flycatcher, Sickle-winged Chat, Rock and Mountain Pipits, before heading down the mountains before nightfall. We will see some interesting and bizarre mammals today including the specialized Ice Rat, Chacma Baboon and Rock Hyrax, colloquially known as the Dassie, 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 9: 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 some exciting afro-montane specials. Amongst the residents here are Bar-throated Apalis, Blue-mantled Flycatcher, Starred and Chorister Robins, Yellow-throated Warbler and the ever-so-secretive Buff-spotted Flufftail. We hope to have good luck with the retiring Orange Ground Thrush, and 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 scarce grassland antelope. On our January tours, we may also try for the rare 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, 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. The days here in the summer are long. We will typically be up early, around 6 am, and stay out until around 5 pm. When 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 2-hours (typically between 7–9 pm). South Africa is a large country and there is a lot of driving involved (but roads are good), including a 5-6 hour drive on 1 day. Flying to and from Kruger NP eliminates a lot of unnecessary driving and is a luxury, although that comes at a cost. The endemics and Drakensberg extension will be more intense, with longer days in the field. There will be a packed lunch on some 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. Our open-topped vehicle in Kruger also makes more a much better photographic experience as everyone will be able to easily use their cameras. 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 Tour.

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 it is easier to see mammals. In January, it is mid-summer, and it can be harder to find locally breeding birds. However, there is a wave of late-season migrants that have arrived, and we are likely to see a greater number of species than on September trips, and more of the spectacular male widowbirds and whydahs will be in breeding 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 14 if taking only the main tour, and through the night of day 8 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 15 if taking only the main tour, and to breakfast on day 9 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 14, and to the afternoon of day 8 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 14 (and to day 9 of the extension if also taking the extension) in a suitable vehicle (for smaller groups, the vehicle may be driven by the tour leader); an elegant open-topped safari van within Kruger NP. Entrance fees to all sites mentioned in the itinerary; three domestic flight from Cape Town – Johannesburg (day 10); Johannesburg to Kruger NP (day 11) and Kruger NP to Johannesburg (Day 14); 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.