South Africa Photo Journey
Birds, Blooms, and Big Game.
This tour is different from our usual South Africa birding tour. It focuses on the interests of the photographer who is interested in bird and natural history photography. While other tours focus on seeing as many bird species as possible, this tour will try to get the group as many unique and interesting photographic opportunities as possible. We will make sure that each person can return home with a bevy of fantastic wildlife images, caught in the stunning atmosphere that is only found in the tip of Africa. While we will be trying to maximize the “number” of photographic experiences, we will more likely be spending quality time at amazing places such as penguin colonies, bird blinds, or amongst a pride of lions. We will be using a larger vehicle than usual so that photographers can spread out and have all their equipment at hand, and also each person will have enough room, entirely unencumbered, to make the most of the amazing wildlife opportunities. While not designed as a teaching workshop, there will be plenty of opportunities for discussion on lighting, composition, flash, and camera technique. Our goal is to put you in the proper place, at the proper time with the best light possible, to help you capture the magical and mystical world of the African savanna and all of its fantastic wildlife.
South Africa is a mega-diversity country. In the southwest, it contains two habitats found nowhere else in the world, the heath-like Fynbos, and the semi-desert Karoo. Both these systems hold a host of endemic species; South Africa has 58 endemic and near-endemic birds, more than any other African country, most of which will be seen on our safari, making it an indispensable destination for birders. Included are sensational birds such as the African Penguin, Blue Crane, Cape Rockjumper, a suite of small endemic bustards, the African Black Oystercatcher, Knysna Turaco and at least 30 species of endemic larks and chats.
In the northeast of the country, South Africa metamorphoses into bush and savannah vegetation similar to that in East Africa, and here species diversity increases dramatically, with possibilities of hundreds of species a day. In this area spectacular species include a host of storks and vultures, spectacular raptors and a host of bee-eaters, hornbills, kingfishers, barbets, sunbirds, iridescent starlings, waxbills and bush-shrikes. To go along with the incredible bird diversity of South Africa is the amazing selection of mammals, with all the big 5 present in Kruger, and a huge variety of antelope present in Kruger as well as in areas around the Cape Peninsula.
We will maximize the use of some wonderful blinds in various parks and wetlands around the Cape to get close to shorebirds, waders, ducks and more. We will also visit a breeding colony of African Penguins which will allow for all sorts of interesting photo opportunities with these quizzical and remarkably tame birds. An entire week of our tour will be in the magical Kruger National Park where we will focus on photographing the massive array of mammals present in the park, including all of the big 5 (lion, rhinoceros, leopard, elephant, buffalo), as well as many other ungulates such as Giraffe, Zebra, numerous types of Antelopes, Hippopotamus, and more. Where else in the world can you photograph Penguins one day and Lions the next?
Days 1-2: The Cape Peninsula. After arrival in Capetown on day one we will have two days to explore the range of habitats and gain a comprehensive introduction to the diversity of wildlife in the Western Cape. The Cape Peninsula, a spectacular 1 km high and 70 km long mass of sandstone mountains, shelters the city of Cape Town and is constantly pummelled by one of the stormiest oceans in the world. We begin right in Capetown, at the world-renowned Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, skirting the slopes of Table Mountain, a mega diversity sandstone monolith holding more species of flowering plants than the British Isles. Here we will see and photograph at close quarters a spectacular cocktail of Cape Fynbos endemic birds, such as Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Sugarbird, Cape Siskin, Cape Bulbul and Cape Francolin.
We will also search for the skulking Cape Grassbird, Lesser Double-collared Sunbird, Karoo Prinia, and Grey-backed Cisticola lurking in these well-manicured gardens. The gardens also allow a look at many of the wonderfully sculpted protea flowers; pastel painted ericas and chiselled restios that make the Western Cape globally famous, offering some fabulous macro photography opportunities for those whom are interested. We then wind along the spectacular Ou Kaapse Weg pass on our way to Kommetjie, where we will stop to look for Benguela (the cold-water current of South African and Namibia) endemic seabirds, including African Black Oystercatcher, Hartlaub’s Gull, Bank, Crowned and Cape cormorants. Three-banded, Blacksmith and White-fronted Plovers are also possible along the sandy shoreline. Hopefully the birds will be close by and we can expect to get some nice photos here, both of the spectacular coastal scenery, as well as the birds themselves.
We continue to follow the scenic coastline via Misty Cliffs and Scarborough to the entrance of the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. Here we will search for more Fynbos specials and a few more seabirds from the high cliffs at Cape Point, with the added attractions of game viewing and whale watching. We take in this reserve’s sensational scenery while looking for more Fynbos specials such as Malachite Sunbird, Cape Bishop, Fiscal Flycatcher, as well as additional seabirds and perhaps some Southern Right or Bryde’s Whales whilst we stand on the south western-most point of Africa. The most striking of the mammals is the pied endemic Bontebok, but we might also see Chacma Baboon or even Eland. Rounding the peninsula to Simonstown, we stop at Boulder’s Bay to mingle with a large colony of breeding African Penguins. These photogenic creatures are spectacular, and we can spend as much time as we want walking among these quizzical critters. Our final stop is the Strandfontein Sewage Works, a series of settling ponds on the northern shores of False Bay, which supports a remarkable variety of waterfowl, including the near-endemic South African Shelduck and Cape Shoveler as well as other more common species such as Hottentot Teal, Red-billed Teal, Cape Teal, Southern Pochard, Maccoa Duck, Egyptian Goose and White-backed Duck, and many shorebirds too. Two nights will be spent in Cape Town.
Day 3: The West Coast to Lambert’s Bay. Located north of Cape Town, southern Namaqualand is famed for its spring flowering displays of many annuals, especially daisies. The arid and rather bleak terrain is sprinkled with a series of wetlands, which, in the austral summer, hold the greatest densities of shorebirds on the entire eastern Atlantic flyway. In the spectacular Langebaan Lagoon of the West Coast National Park, Palearctic waders abound, particularly Curlew Sandpiper, Black-bellied Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot, Marsh Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper, Common Greenshank and Sanderling. Resident shorebirds include African Black Oystercatcher, White-fronted Plover, Common Ringed-Plover, Three-banded Plover, Kittlitz’s Plover and the scarce Chestnut-banded Plover. The marshes and sedges are home to African Marsh Harrier as well as skulking marshland specialists. Here we are lucky in that five great hides are scattered throughout the reserve and we will maximize the light and proximity of the birds depending on the tides at each of these special hides. The terrestrial vegetation surrounding the wetlands supports a variety of species that are not easily seen elsewhere. The most absorbing of these are the endemic Black Harrier, Southern Black Korhaan and Cape Long-billed Lark.
Further north we reach the folds of the mighty Cederberg range where, after winding our way through narrow cultivated valleys, we will reach the sleepy coastal town of Lambert’s Bay. En route we will keep a keen eye for stately Blue Cranes feeding in the grain fields, and the endemic Cape Shelduck resting at the edge of farm dams.
Climbing the Piekeniers Pass we will look out for groups of gregarious Ground Woodpeckers, White-necked Raven and Jackal Buzzard, and scanning the Protea stands at Pakhuis Pass for Protea Canary.
Once we reach Lambert’s Bay (time and weather permitting) we will pay a visit to Bird Island in order to exploit the setting light which should create some special effects as a melee of returning Cape Gannets gather to roost on terra firme. At Bird Island we will also have a unique chance to work the colony from many different angles making use of the one way glass bird hide that is positioned directly in front of the breeding birds. The roof of the hide provides a unique vantage point to take in the magnitude of this colony and its vast oceanic surround, whilst the bottom floor allows for up close and personal views of every aspect of the Cape Gannet’s world.
A sedate tern roost holding Common, Swift, Sandwich and often Antarctic or Arctic Tern is easy to photograph from here as well. Near endemic yet ubiquitous Hartlaub’s Gulls and industrious Kelp Gulls, Cormorants (Cape, Crowned and Bank) can also be enjoyed; the odd African Penguin and their clownish antics and African Black Oystercatchers may be present too. We will overnight in Lambert’s Bay.
Days 4-5: Lamberts Bay to Tanqua Karoo. After another morning visit to the blind at Bird Island if desired, we will head through the Swartruggens valley, and to the Tanqua Karoo
This area holds a uniqueness that is hard to describe and that can only really be experienced. It is a vast land, carpeted with thousands of succulent bushes that stretch as far as the eye can see. It is a rich area for both plants and birds. These plains are “littered” with chats and larks, and we will be seeking photo-opps with Trac-trac, Sicklewinged and Ant-eating Chats, numerous cryptic larks species, or vivacious Rufous-eared Warblers.
Above the shrubbery greater quarry can be seen strutting its stuff, with Ludwig’s and Karoo Bustards marching about, Greater Kestrel, Black and Martial Eagles soaring for prey and ever watchful Pale Chanting Goshawks scouring the grounds for rodents and reptiles.
The rocky outcrops and Acacia lined riverbeds are replete with more near endemics and here too we will search after Ground Woodpeckers and Pale-winged Starlings, Cinnamon-breasted Warblers and Mountain Chats, Acacia Pied Barbets and Southern Grey Tits, Fairy Flycatchers, Dusky and emerald Malachite Kingfishers.
The rusty sandstones, rugged contours, intricate flora and prolific avifauna make the Tanqua Karoo an unforgettable experience both for the birder and avid photographer. There will be much to keep our cameras active from the abundant birdlife to the unique scenery. Two nights will be spent at Tanqua Karoo.
Day 6: Tanqua Karoo to De Hoop National Park. The coolest and most productive hours of this morning will be used to make the most of both birding and photographic opportunities in the Tanqua Karoo, before haze and heat, melt down our productivity and we will hit the road for De Hoop.
En-route to there though there will be an array of photo opportunities to chose from as we traverse the bird-filled wheat fields of the Agulhas coastal plain. Parties of imperial Blue Cranes stride through the area, and these golden fields are also home to Stanley’s Bustard, Thick-billed Lark, Agulhas Clapper Lark, Agulhas Long-billed Lark and even stately Secretarybirds.
Finally we will arrive at De Hoop that in stark contrast to the wheat belt of our journey comprises a unique diversity of natural habitats. This variety includes a rugged coastline, pristine beaches and sand dunes, a wide coastal plain holding remnant fragments of the highly threatened lowland Fynbos and a set of bizarre and unique limestone hills which are incised by the 15 km long De Hoop Vlei. The Ramsar-designated vlei is actually a coastal lake, which is often excellent for water birds. Cape Shoveler is one of the 75 species of waterfowl regularly recorded here. The Milkwoods surrounding the lake support Southern Tchagra. An isolated sandstone inselberg called Potberg rises abruptly in the east, surrounded by a sea of wind-derived Aeolian sands. This small inselberg is the only home for several plant species, including two spectacular proteas and also holds the last Cape Vulture colony (about 30 pairs) in the Western Cape. Other special species amongst the list of 260 at the reserve are Pied Starling, Orange-throated Longclaw, Bokmakierie, and Pearl-breasted Swallow, Pied Barbet, Black Harrier, African Black Oystercatcher and eight species of canary. Cape Francolins are extremely tame here and will forage less than a meter away, while the Fiery-necked Nightjars are common around the cottages at night, belting out their crescendo call – one of the most characteristic nocturnal calls of the African veld. Mammals here include the scarce Cape Mountain Zebra, boldly-marked Bontebok and Eland all of which provide excellent photographic opportunities. We will overnight in the Overberg.
Day 7: De Hoop Nature Reserve to Cape Town to Johannesburg. The morning will be spent at Potberg Mountain in De Hoop Nature Reserve. Potberg holds the last Cape Vulture breeding colony in the Western Cape, and a host of other special birds and wildlife. We return to Cape Town and then fly to Johannesburg in the early evening, where we will overnight.
Day 8: Johannesburg to Dulstroom to Long Tom Pass. An early start will see us leave the hussle and bustle of Johannesburg behind as we head towards the mighty Drakensberg Mountains.
Arriving in Dulstroom in the early morning will allow us a chance to enter the poorly known Verlorenvallei Reserve where a number of striking specialties such as Cape Eagle-Owl, Wattled Crane, and Yellow-breasted Pipit can be found. Nearby, a breeding colony of Southern Bald Ibis offers a great photographic opportunity when active. After lunch we will climb the impressive Long Tom Pass, stopping en route to catch up with Buff-streaked Chat or an endemic Gurney’s Sugarbird feeding on the protea clad slopes of the mountain pass. The grasslands and remnant patches of Afromontane forest surrounding our lodging hold the magnificent and dainty Blue Swallow, brightly coloured Yellow Bishops, dainty Swee Waxbills and the elegant Greater Double Collared Sunbird. In the cooler shades of the forested ravines colourful songsters such as Chorister and White-starred Robin and Bush Blackcap will provide more challenging models. With a bit of luck we should be able to summon up the radiant Knysna Turaco, a Narina Trogon or other forest dwellers such as Olive Pigeon. We will overnight at the Misty Mountain Hotel.
Day 9: Long Tom Pass to Kruger NP. After a productive morning chasing Barrat’s Warbler, Grey Cuckooshrikes, and other forest goodies, we will descend the windy roads from the pass towards Sabie and the lower reaches of the escarpment. Here we will contour one of South Africa’s most scenic routes the Blyde River Canyon. En route we will have several opportunities to stop and take in the spectacular vistas from a number of viewpoints, all the while sampling some of the bird specialties on offer along this magnificent route, namely, Mocking Cliff-chat, Shelley’s Francolin, Rock Pipit, Southern Bald Ibis and the only accessible breeding pair of Taita Falcon in South Africa. We shall spend time searching for the latter, and hopefully get an opportunity to photograph this scarce and diminutive swift-chasing raptor. The escarpment also supports Southern Bald Ibis, Crowned Eagle, Cape Vulture, and a suite of smaller gems such as Wailing, Croaking, Ayre’s and Fan-tailed Cisticolas as well as Drakensberg Prinia and others. In the afternoon we make our way towards the Kruger National Park. The legendary wilderness of Kruger National Park, replete with its famous Big-5 mammal suite (Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Buffalo and Rhinoceros), as well as over 500 bird species, will most certainly be the highlight of the trip. We will spend the night at Skukuza Camp inside Kruger National Park, with a night drive an optional possibility.
Days 10 – 14: Kruger NP. Kruger National Park has a fantastic series of camps, many with tame birds and other tame wildlife that makes for superb viewing and photography opportunities. We will visit Skukuza, Satara, Olifants and Letaba, four of the best camps in the park for photography and with many birds right on their grounds. We are likely to see Woodland, Pied, Giant and Malachite Kingfishers, Orange-breasted and Grey-headed Bush-shrike, Saddle-billed, Marabou, Yellow-billed and Woolly-necked Storks, Trumpeter, Yellow-billed and Red-billed Hornbills, White-browed Robin-chat and White-browed Scrub-Robin, Scarlet-chested and Marico Sunbirds, Kurrichane Thrush, Spotted-backed and Lesser Masked Weaver, Green Pigeon, Crowned Hornbill, Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver, Thick-billed Weaver, Blue Waxbill, and many others.
The grasslands here host Kori Bustard, Montague’s and Pallid Harriers. Some of the camp’s finer resident birds include Red-headed Weaver, Bearded Robin, White-throated Robin, and Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling. At night, Pearl-spotted, African Scops or Spotted Eagle Owls may be spotted, or one might be lucky enough to see a Fiery-necked or Pennant-winged Nightjar swoop through the camp. Several owls also frequently roost in the camps, and we will try to find them and photograph them with minimum disturbance to the birds. While looking for birds and mammals we should get great opportunities to photograph the many handsome ungulates in this area including Impala, Greater Kudu, Hartebeest, and Waterbuck and with luck the rarer Sable and Roan. Warthogs, Vervet Monkeys and Hippopotamus are also common. A big target for us though will of course be encounters with the Big-5, the famed Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Buffalo and Rhinoceros, which Africa is justly famous for. We may also be lucky and run into the much rarer Cheetah or Wild Dog.
Each day we will rise pre-dawn to be out on the roads early, looking for wildlife and looking to take advantage of the beautiful golden light of the mornings on the African savannah. After our morning game drive looking for wildlife we will come back to camp for lunch and some “free time” where people can opt to bird/photograph around camp, head to a hide or a water hole, or just take a siesta. Each afternoon we will head out for another game drive until dusk when we must return to the camp before the gates close at dark.
Each of the camps has water holes right close by which provide photographic opportunities both by day and night. At night, these water holes are floodlit and a wide variety of species come in to drink. There are also a variety of birding hides around Kruger and several are right near the camps we will stay at, which again should provide some fantastic photographic opportunities. We will also attempt to be at good spots each day for sunrise and sunset landscape photography, ensuring that we capture the breathtaking skies of the African savannah. One of our camps, Olifants, is nestled high upon a small cliff overlooking the park, which should provide for some absolutely stunning landscape photo opportunities. Hopefully the weather will cooperate (afternoon storms often provide spectacular evening skies) and provide some fabulous, burnt-red sunsets for us.
Day 15: Drive to Nelspruit for a domestic flight back to Johannesburg, to connect with departing international flights.
Big Cat Extension
Although our chances to see some of Africa’s cats are also very good at Kruger NP, the size of the park and sometimes “restricted” mobility means that we cannot always chase after every available opportunity. So it can be possible to miss some of the rarer cats in Kruger, most notably the rarest of them all, the striking Leopard.
However, adjacent to Kruger is the Sabi Sand Game Reserve that is justly famed for its intimate wildlife encounters, and particularly leopard viewing. Home to a host of wildlife, including all of the Big Five, Sabi Sand is part of a conservation area that covers over two million hectares (almost five million acres), an area equivalent to the state of New Jersey and larger than some independent countries.
With no boundary fences between the reserve and the Kruger National Park, Sabi Sand benefits from the great diversity of wildlife found in one of the richest wilderness areas on the African continent along with the additional benefits experienced by being on a private game reserve. Daily and nightly game drives led by highly trained trackers allow for intimate game experiences from the comfort of your open safari vehicle.
The Sabi Sand is especially famous for its leopard sightings. Unlike many other areas, where leopards are rarely glimpsed in daylight hours, sightings of these shy animals are not uncommon during the day. The area also supports several resident lion prides, and while the relatively smaller and lighter build of the cheetah generally makes this elegant hunter reluctant to share an area dominated by lion and leopard, a number of them are also regularly spotted in the area. Herds of elephant and buffalo, as well as family groups of white rhino, move throughout the reserve and are regularly encountered on game drives.
Game drives traverse an area of 6 300 hectares (15 700 acres) and strict vehicle limits at each and every sightings in the area ensure the exclusivity of your game viewing and photography experience. Off-road driving ensures that you have the best possible view of any exceptional sighting and rangers are constantly in touch with each other to keep track of animal movements.
The Sand River flows year-round and is a major source of water for the animals in the reserve. The deep water provides a home for rafts of hippo while lethargic crocodiles lounge along the wide sandy banks. Thick reed beds along the river’s course are home to many species of water birds and weavers, while water monitors slither among the tall grasses, and buffalo and elephant wallow in the cooling mud of the reed beds. The thick band of riverine forest found along the course of the river is the ideal home for shy species such as leopard and bushbuck, as well as tiny bush-babies.
Bird wise we will not have moved away from the very same habitat we have birded previously at Kruger National Park, thus birdlife will be very similar as previously described, although with the significant difference that photographing from open top vehicles is far more comfortable, easier and flexible. Whether we focus on birds or on the ultimate leopard “photo-grab” we shall enjoy the best possible conditions to do so.
CLIMATE: Generally warm to hot on the January tour, with afternoon showers likely. Wakkerstroom can be cool in the evenings. The October tour is cool to warm. Cape Town can be chilly, as can Wakkerstroom.
DIFFICULTY: Easy. There will not be any difficult hikes. Much of the birding is from the car.
ACCOMMODATION: Very good throughout.