South Africa: Quick Trip to Kruger and the Northeast

South Africa is a spectacularly beautiful country that is rich in wildlife. The richest part of this rich country is the northeast, which has high-elevation grasslands, rugged and rocky escarpments, and the vast lowveld savanna of Kruger National Park. This tour is designed for those who want a short trip: people with limited vacation time, or those who are already in South Africa for other reasons. It’s guided by local expert Edward Themba, who spends most of his time in Kruger, and knows the park like the back of his hand. As Edward lives in the area, this tour is easily done any time of year as a short custom tour. If you’re interested, please write to ask the Tropical Birding office for more information about that option.

This itinerary will provide an excellent introduction to Africa for those who have done little or no birding on the continent before. Spectacular species include a host of bee-eaters, hornbills, kingfishers, barbets, and sunbirds, plus some fine endemics like Gurney’s Sugarbird and Buff-streaked Chat. Kruger has a full array of big mammals, including the “Big Five” and other delights such as Hippo, Giraffe, Common Zebra, and Cheetah.


We will 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.

Day 1: Kaapschehoop. Participants fly directly into the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport, for the start of this tour. After checking into the lodge, we will head out for an afternoon in a beautiful patch of Afromontane Forest. This habitat holds a completely different and mouth-watering set of birds from Kruger. These include African Emerald Cuckoo, Orange Ground-Thrush, Narina Trogon, and Bush Blackcap.

We search for Blue Swallow on our summer tours
We search for Blue Swallow on our summer tours (Keith Barnes)

Day 2: Blue Swallow Grasslands to Hazyview. We’ll head out early to the Blue Swallow Heritage Site grasslands. Some of the rare species here include Stripped Flufftail and Black-rumped Buttonquail. With luck, and at the right time of the year, we might see the endangered and gorgeous Blue Swallow. After checking out of the lodge, we’ll walk along a beautiful area of grassland and rock outrcrops in search of a few endemic birds, namely Gurney’s Sugarbird, Drakensberg Prinia, and Buff-streaked Chat. At mid-day, we’ll drive to Hazyview and check into our next hotel. The afternoon will be spend enjoying the area’s beautiful mountain scenery, and searching for birds like Cape Rock-Thrush and Barratt’s Warbler.

Day 3: Hazyview to Letaba, Kruger NP. This is an exciting day, as it’s the day we enter the legendary Kruger National Park. This park is huge and diverse. 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 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. Kruger holds the famous “Big Five”, and much much more. This is an area where there is never a dull moment! We’ll enter the park via the Phabeni Gate. Lunch will be at Satara Camp, and the night will be spent at Letaba Camp.

Kruger National Park is among the best places in Africa to see Wild Dog
Kruger National Park is among the best places in Africa to see Wild Dog (Steve Blain)

Day 4: Letaba area. This day will combine drives along the Letaba River, bird walks inside of the camp for species like African Scops-Owl, and Golden-tailed and Bearded Woodpecker, and some time off in the head of the day. The Letaba areas is fairly dry, and the area to the west is dominated by endless broadleaved Mopane woodland. This dryness makes the Letaba River a major drawcard for wildlife. We’ll explore a variety of river vistas, including the one from the camp itself. Species that we might spot on the broad and sandy banks of the river include Hippo, Nile Crocodile, Saddle-billed and Marabou Storks, and Goliath Heron. African Fish Eagles and Pied Kingfishers patrol the skies, and swoop down on unsuspecting fish, which they pluck from the river’s amazingly clear water.

Day 5: Letaba to Satara. Today we drive through a vast and wild section of south / central Kruger. Although there aren’t as many big mammals here as there are further south, the seemingly endless and open nature of this landscape gives it a special, Serengeti-like feel. The sight of a distant herd of Elephants or Giraffe necks littering the horizon is not soon forgotten. Small dams along the way can hold a bounty of waterbirds like Abdim’s Stork, Hamerkop, Water Thick-knee, and African Jacana.

Gray-headed Bushshrike is a hefty and colorful beast
Gray-headed Bushshrike is a hefty and colorful beast (Ken Behrens)

Day 6: Satara area. This day will combine “game drives” outside the camp, bird walks inside of the camp, and some time off in the heat of the day. Satara Camp is exceptionally birdy. Its spacious grounds hold Crested Barbed, Bearded and Bennett’s Woodpeckers, Brown-headed Parrot, and Sulphur-breasted Bush-Shrike. Sometimes there are even tame Bushbuck munching on the green lawns!

Day 7: Satara to Lower Sabie. During this day’s drive, we’ll stop at the iconic Mkumbe lookout point, which has a panoramic view over the western lowlands of Kruger. On the latter portion of the drive, we’ll enter one of the very best mammal-watching portions of the park, along the banks of the Sabie River. This is a great area for the rare Nyala, highly threatened White Rhino, and for Lion and Leopard. Careful scans of the sandy riverbanks may reveal the localized White-headed Lapwing.

Leopard isn't always easy to find, but Kruger is a great park for this big cat
Leopard isn't always easy to find, but Kruger is a great park for this big cat (Keith Barnes)

Day 8: Lower Sabie area. This morning, we’ll spend some time at Ntandanyathi Bird Hide, a good chance to get out of the vehicle, and perhaps enjoy intimate views of some waterbirds. Then we’ll continue through some beautiful grasslands, looking for marquee birds like Secretarybird, Lappet-faced Vulture, and Lilac-breasted Roller. At mid-day, we’ll have some time off, then head out for an afternoon drive.

Lilac-breasted Roller is a savanna star!
Lilac-breasted Roller is a savanna star! (Keith Barnes)

Day 9: Lower Sabie to Skukuza. Around mid-day, we’ll spend some time at the perfectly-situated Lace Panic bird hide, a great spot for waterbirds like African Jacana, Black Crake, African Fish Eagle, Giant and Pied Kingfishers, and Black Heron. In the afternoon, we’ll make our way to our last comfortable and birdy Kruger camp: Skukuza.

Day 10: Skukuza to Kruger Airport. After a final drive, we’ll head out of Kruger, and back to the Kruger Mpumalanga airport, to catch outbound flights.

Oliphants River in Kruger NP
Oliphants River in Kruger NP (Ken Behrens)

Southern Ground-Hornbill is one of Kruger's biggest and most spectacular birds
Southern Ground-Hornbill is one of Kruger's biggest and most spectacular birds (Ken Behrens)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate. The days here in the summer are long. We will typically be up early, around 5:30 am, and stay out until around 5 pm. When possible we will use the middle of the day to rest up, but on some days we will use this time to travel between localities. All our meals will be at restaurants.

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 January trip rain is possible.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good. 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. Inside of Kruger, you can buy wifi vouchers.

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 for an excellent 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 October spring trip is timed for peak activity of breeding birds. There are fewer migrants around and the overall bird list is shorter, but this time of year is perhaps best for South Africa’s endemics. Also, the bush is drier and it is easier to see mammals. In February, 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 October 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 February than October.

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 lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 9; meals from lunch on day 1 to breakfast on day 10; reasonable non-alcoholic drinks during meals; safe drinking water between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader from day 1 to the afternoon of day 10; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 1 to day 10 in a suitable vehicle; an elegant open-topped safari van within Kruger NP. 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 tour leader; tips for luggage porters (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, wifi vouchers, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.