Subtropical South Africa Birding Tour: Comprehensive Eastern South Africa
Dates and Costs:
14 – 31 October 2021
Spaces available: 5
Price: R81,322 / $5,900 / £4,289 / €4,934
Single Supplement: R13,322 / $967 / £702 / €809
The prices assume a group of 8, but we typically guarantee the departure even with a smaller group.
* Please note that currency conversion is calculated in real-time, therefore is subject to slight change. Please refer back to base price when making final payments.
22 August – 08 September 2022
Price: R88,411 / $6,414 / £4,663 / €5,363
Single Supplement: R16,965 / $1,231 / £895 / €1,029
14 – 31 October 2022
Price: R88,411 / $6,414 / £4,663 / €5,363
Single Supplement: R16,965 / $1,231 / £895 / €1,029
14 – 31 October 2023
Price: R95,483 / $6,928 / £5,037 / €5,793
Single Supplement: R18,322 / $1,329 / £966 / €1,112
Duration: 18 days
Group Size: 8 (rarely 9)
Tour Start: Durban
Tour End: Johannesburg
Meals (from lunch on day 1 until lunch on day 18)
Unlimited bottled water
Expert tour leader
All entrance fees
All ground transport, including airport pick-up and drop-off
International/domestic flights (to Durban, and from Johannesburg)
Items of a personal nature, e.g. gifts, laundry, internet access, phone calls, etc.
Any pre- or post-tour accommodation, meals, or birding excursions
Personal travel insurance
Gratuities (please see our tipping guidelines blog)
Featured Guide:Dominic Rollinson
Subtropical South Africa Birding Tour: Comprehensive Eastern South Africa
October 2021/2022/2023 August 2022
This is a premium tour with open safari vehicles in Kruger and enough time to stop for mammals while accumulating a large bird list
This subtropical (eastern) South Africa birding tour provides a representative sample of the very best that African birding can offer. Large numbers of species will be seen (the typical bird list for this adventure is in the range of 400 – 450 species for our October departures when migrants are present). Among these many birds, we encounter a lot of South African endemics such as the numerous localized denizens of the scenically spectacular Drakensberg Escarpment (the imposing “Barrier of Spears” as locals call it). Apart from yielding hundreds of bird species, this dream African experience also provides the possibility of seeing Lion, Cheetah, Leopard, African Elephant, White and Black Rhinoceros, Hippopotamus, Giraffe, Burchell’s Zebra, multiple antelope species, Nile Crocodile, and many other large (and small) animal species, with breathtaking scenery as a backdrop. We also often get feedback that the accommodation on this tour is great and indeed South Africa has an unsurpassed infrastructure of brilliant value B&Bs/lodges as well as good roads, compared to anywhere else in Africa.
The stunning Drakensberg Rockjumper occurs only in southern Africa and is one of the most-wanted specials of this tour!
We start this birding safari with an arrival in Durban on the east coast of South Africa, bounded by the warm Indian Ocean. Durban must be one of the “birdiest” cities on earth, and we spend time looking for subtropical coastal species along with the tricky endemic Knysna Woodpecker just south of Durban where we spend the first night of the tour. We then head inland to the KwaZulu-Natal midlands and the foothills of the spectacular Drakensberg area of the Great Escarpment, where temperate forest and high-altitude grassland birds abound. The rare Cape Parrot is one of the targets (which, interestingly, cannot be found on our Cape birding tour despite its name), as are the beautiful Green Twinspot, two dapper ground thrush species (Spotted and Orange Ground Thrushes), the dazzling Narina Trogon, the impressively beautiful Green Twinspot, and, last but not least, the Vulnerable, declining Blue Swallow (what a truly spectacular-looking hirundine!). We then ascend the heights of the Drakensberg into Lesotho via Sani Pass, an amazing road that gives access from the base of the escarpment right up to the high plateau at 10,000 feet (over 3,000 meters), with different endemics appearing as elevation increases – near the base are birds such as Bush Blackcap, then as one ascends Gurney’s Sugarbird, Ground Woodpecker, Sentinel Rock Thrush, and the shining, metallic Malachite Sunbird appear, followed eventually by high-plateau species including Drakensberg Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin, and Bearded Vulture (which we often see across the border in the tiny kingdom of Lesotho).
Majestic Lions, one of Africa’s most iconic mammals, should be seen on this tour!
Zululand, probably the most bird-diverse corner of South Africa, is next on our agenda, and not only does it have a great many species, but there are several very localized ones, basically only occurring here and in southern Mozambique – e.g. Pink-throated Twinspot, Lemon-breasted Canary and Neergaard’s Sunbird. This also is big mammal country and one of the world’s strongholds for Black and White Rhinoceros, is very good for Leopard, and also hosts a variety of mammals not likely to be seen in Kruger – including Samango Monkey, Nyala, the absolutely tiny Suni antelope, etc.
Pink-throated Twinspot is one of the specials of the Zululand region.
We then ascend to the legendary (among birders seeking endemics) Wakkerstroom highlands, and eventually we reach the Kruger National Park, one of the world’s greatest game parks, which is not only teaming with African megafauna but also has a brilliant bird list of over 500 species, many of them large and spectacular (e.g. a bunch of stork, raptor and owl species not to mention bustards and Secretarybird) or brightly-colored (e.g. all the barbets, bee-eaters, rollers, hoopoes and kingfishers): African birding is a feast for the eyes.
Before flying home out of Johannesburg, we sample an area which gives access to some Kalahari-type birds, meaning we usually add a disproportionally large number of species to our already large bird list right at the end of the trip – these include such beauties as the shockingly brightly-colored Crimson-breasted Shrike, the very striking Southern Pied Babbler, Violet-eared Waxbill, Black-cheeked Waxbill, Kalahari Scrub Robin, the amazingly beautiful Long-tailed Paradise Whydah, and a plethora of others.
We have specially crafted this unusually comprehensive birding tour of mega-diverse (from both a bird and mammal point of view) Eastern South Africa, allowing us sufficient time to adequately cover and explore all the key areas, without compromising on rushed visits which lack the time required to both find and enjoy the birds on offer. To further add to the experience, this tour uses open-top safari vehicles for the two full days in the Kruger National Park which ensures guests make the most of their time in the African bush. As always, we also err on the side of superior accommodation, and we therefore call this a “premium” tour yet the overall price is still reasonable mainly because South Africa is arguably the best value country on the entire continent.
We have a number of chances to see the stunning Narina Trogon on this tour!
Our October subtropical South Africa tour each year can be combined with our preceding Best of Cape Town and Beyond – endemics, seabirds and more if you want to see a good proportion of South Africa’s birds (the Cape Town area is very different from eastern South Africa and complements it very nicely, with a different suite of endemics and other birds!). This trip can also be combined with our Namibia, Okavango and Victoria Falls Birding Adventure afterwards, which in turn can be combined with our Zimbabwe and Mozambique Birding Tour; if you combine all these trips you’ll definitely experience a stunning southern African mega tour that will leave you with an impressive bird list (not to mention mammals and other fauna and flora). While this subtropical South Africa trip is one of the best ones for seeing big and small African mammals (although we still markedly focus on birds, of course, but do build in enough time to stop for each mammal species we encounter as well), if you want more time in one of the world’s greatest game parks, then we should also mention an alternative, our Kruger National Park and Escarpment birding (and mammal) tour.
Itinerary (18 days/17 nights)
Day 1. Arrival in Durban and transfer to Pennington on the south coast
Your international flight (or local flight if you are joining us from our preceding Best of Cape Town and Beyond Birding Tour) arrives in Durban (King Shaka International Airport), and we transfer out of the city to a small coastal village. We kindly ask for your flight to arrive around midday (or we can book an extra night for you in Durban before the tour starts). For those joining both our Western Cape and Subtropical (Eastern) South Africa birding tours, the Birding Ecotours office will advise/help book you onto the exact domestic flight required to join these tours, so that the group can travel together.
Following your arrival, the group will have lunch locally, before undertaking a short transfer south of the city, to the small coastal village of Pennington. Here we are conveniently based right next door to the excellent Umdoni Park, which will give us a great introduction to the common birds of the area, while also providing us access to excellent coastal forest, where we can begin searching for some sought-after species. We will likely have the afternoon available to explore the trails at Umdoni Park, covering a mix of coastal forest and open woodland. Some of the more conspicuous species we’re likely to find include the gaudy Purple-crested Turaco and the bright Red-capped Robin-Chat, while we’re likely to come across a number of barbets, flycatchers, sunbirds (including the tiny Collared Sunbird) and weavers.
Overnight: Botha House, Pennington
Day 2. Pennington to Underberg, birding en route
We have the morning available to further explore the stunning subtropical coastal forests of Umdoni Park. As we will likely already have become acquainted with many of the more common species of the area, we can now focus on some of the more sought-after species occurring here, such as Crowned Eagle (Africa’s heaviest and most powerful eagle, which sometimes breeds in the park), the incredibly beautiful South African endemic Knysna Turaco, the equally dazzling Narina Trogon, the personality-filled Green Malkoha, the localized Brown Scrub Robin and the jewel-like Green Twinspot.
We will then spend the remainder of the day gradually heading deeper inland, ultimately arriving at our base in the Underberg district, set in the Drakensberg foothills, in the late afternoon. There are a variety of routes we can take to reach Underberg, however, our first stop will likely be the Oribi Gorge Nature Reserve, where we can try for the likes of Knysna Woodpecker (scarce), Mountain Wagtail and a host of others. We will also be sure to dedicate some time today to finding the stunning Blue Swallow (the swallows have become rare in South Africa, and, depending on their recent whereabouts, we may only be able to try for them on Day 4). The dense temperate evergreen Ingeli or Xumeni Forests will also likely feature as a stop today, and here we will be able to sample our first patch of Afro-montane (mountain) forest. While these forests can be quiet at times, persistence and patience are well rewarded, and we stand excellent chances at finding some top specials, including the likes of Bush Blackcap, Orange Ground Thrush, White-starred Robin, Olive Bushshrike, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Barratt’s Warbler, Swee Waxbill and Forest Canary, all of which are regular here. While Cape Parrots do occur here, they are scarce and best sought on Day 4 of this itinerary. The forest surrounds are not to be excluded, and host further excellent birding, with species such as Grey Crowned Crane, Red-chested Flufftail, African Yellow Warbler, Wailing Cisticola and the spectacular Long-tailed Widowbird all possible. Eventually we will arrive at our comfortable base in the Underberg region, where we will begin preparing for one of the most anticipated, and arguably best days of the trip tomorrow, as we bird the famous Sani Pass!
Overnight: Sani Valley Lodge, Himeville
The secretive Bush Blackcap occurs in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains!
Day 3. Birding day trip up the Sani Pass and into Lesotho
This is one of the most spectacular birding adventures one can embark on. We spend a full day, taking along picnic breakfasts and lunches, ascending the Sani Pass and travelling into Lesotho (passports required), which gives amazing access to most of the Drakensberg endemics within the space of a single day. The “barrier of spears” (as the Drakensberg is known to locals) is impressive, to say the least, and the scenery today is amazing as we gradually ascend from the foothills up to the plateau. The birdlife changes as altitude increases with Red-necked Spurfowl, Brown-backed Honeybird, Drakensberg Prinia, Bush Blackcap (if we missed it the previous day) and Cape Grassbird occurring in the lower thickets (consisting largely of ouhout or “old wood”, a bush species that looks older than it is because of its gnarled bark). Moving into the higher ‘Protea belt’, these are replaced by Malachite Sunbird and Gurney’s Sugarbird, with a supporting cast of Grey-winged Francolin, Ground Woodpecker, Cape Rock Thrush, Buff-streaked Chat, Yellow Bishop, and if we’re lucky, the scarce Fan-tailed Grassbird (Broad-tailed Warbler) and the enigmatic Short-tailed Pipit (occurring on grassy slopes). As we reach the top of the pass and the high-altitude plateau, these birds are eventually replaced by the stunning and charismatic Drakensberg Rockjumper (arguably the most emblematic bird of the pass), Sentinel Rock Thrush, Mountain and African Rock Pipits and Drakensberg Siskin. At the top of the plateau we cross the border into the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, and will briefly explore the plains that run across this rugged landscape, where we will search for Southern Bald Ibis, and some species more typical of the Karoo region further to the west, such as Large-billed Lark, Sickle-winged Chat, Grey Tit, Layard’s Warbler (Tit-babbler), Fairy Flycatcher, Karoo Prinia and Karoo Scrub Robin. Occasionally a pair of Bearded Vulture nest nearby, and we hope to see this glorious bird up on the plateau. After a long day we eventually descend the mountain for a well-deserved dinner (and a toast to all the endemics).
Overnight: Sani Valley Lodge, Himeville
Gurney’s Sugarbird is one of many highly sought-after birds occurring in the Drakensberg!
Day 4. Birding the Underberg area, and transfer to Eshowe
We have the morning available to bird the greater Underberg region, which will likely see us visiting a variety of grassland, wetland and forest sites. The rare Wattled Crane will be one of our main targets, as they breed locally within the area, but they are nomadic and difficult to find, and we will need some luck to come across this prized bird. Cape Parrot also occur in some of the montane forest patches in the area and will be another key target for the morning. If required, we can also dedicate some time today to finding Blue Swallow. This region is a very birdy area and we’re likely to come across a great many species across the morning ranging from more widespread birds such as Levaillant’s Cisticola, Cape Weaver and Common Waxbill, to more difficult species such as Long-crested Eagle, Denham’s Bustard and Pale-crowned Cisticola. We also have further chances for a similar suite of species to those occurring in the Ingeli or Xumeni Forests (Day 2), should we have missed any of those targets. After a fulfilling morning, we will begin our drive northwards to the small village of Eshowe, where we will likely arrive in the afternoon, with an entire new suite of special birds awaiting us.
Overnight: Birds of Paradise B&B, Eshowe
Wattled Crane is a rare species in South Africa, and will be a major target on this tour!
Day 5. Birding Eshowe and surrounds
We have a full day to explore a number of sites within Eshowe, and some lying a bit further afield, which will likely include the Dlinza Forest Aerial Boardwalk, Entumeni Forest, Ongoye Forest, and the coastal town of Mtunzini. Our day will likely start off at the Dlinza Forest, located right in the heart of Eshowe, where the secretive and highly sought-after Spotted Ground Thrush will be one of the main targets. While slowly walking the forest trails, listening for the tell-tale call of the thrushes, we are sure to come across many other birds, and in particular we’ll keep an eye out for Green Malkoha, Lemon and Tambourine Doves, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, Grey Cuckooshrike, Common Square-tailed Drongo, Chorister Robin-Chat, Dark-backed Weaver and the prized Green Twinspot. The forest also features a canopy walkway and tower, and we’ll be sure to spend time up here, as it is a great area to see the rare Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon (although we will need some luck to see this bird), while more regular birds seen above the forest include African Goshawk, Trumpeter Hornbill, Crowned Hornbill, White-eared Barbet and Black-bellied Starling.
Entumeni Forest acts as a wonderful backup to many of these species, while also holding a small population of the highly prized African Broadbill, although as ever, some luck is needed. Ongoye Forest is a bit further afield and preserves the only southern African population of Green Barbet (with the nearest population found roughly ~1000miles/1600kilometres further north in Malawi and northern Mozambique) – this localized population being of particular interest as it’s a separate subspecies, at times split into a full species restricted to a single forest here at Ongoye! A similar suite of forest birds occurs here as in Dlinza Forest, along with the star of the show, Green Barbet.
The coastal town of Mtunzini presents us with a different, coastal, habitat set, and along with it, a different assemblage of bird species. While our core target here will be the vegetarian Palm-nut Vulture, we’re also likely to find a wide array of other species such as Woolly-necked Stork, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Rufous-winged Cisticola, Purple-banded Sunbird and Yellow-throated Longclaw, amongst many others.
Overnight: Birds of Paradise B&B, Eshowe
The scarce Spotted Ground Thrush is a big target while we’re based in Eshowe.
Day 6. Birding around Eshowe and transfer to St Lucia
We have the full morning available to continue birding this area, searching for any of the species we may still need, as mentioned under Day 5 above. We have a short transfer (roughly two hours) to reach our next destination – the lovely coastal village of St Lucia, where we will be based for two nights, and we will likely arrive in the early afternoon. St. Lucia is a wild place, where hippos can still roam the streets at night and Thick-tailed Galagos (Bush Babies) cry from the tree-lined main street at night. This village is completely surrounded by a World Heritage Site, the Isimangaliso Wetland Park, and is a truly phenomenal birding area. Our afternoon will likely see us investigating the estuary and the surrounding coast. Although tidal to some degree, the estuary is largely cut off from direct access to the ocean and as such doesn’t fluctuate heavily. During low-water periods, a number of shorebirds/waders occur here and we’ll be on the lookout for species such as Grey, Common Ringed and White-fronted Plovers, Eurasian Whimbrel, Ruddy Turnstone, Terek, Curlew and Marsh Sandpipers, Common Greenshank and Little Stint. Occasionally rarer species turn up, such as Bar-tailed Godwit, and Greater and Lesser Sand Plovers. There is often a large tern roost present here, and one of our main targets will be the scarce Lesser Crested Tern, while more common species include Greater Crested (Swift), Sandwich, Caspian, Common and Little Terns. The estuary area also supports an array of other waterbirds, and we’re likely to see the impressive Goliath Heron here, with a supporting cast including Grey Heron and Great and Little Egrets, while Yellow-billed Stork is regular along with Pink-backed Pelican. The impressive Saddle-billed Stork can also be seen, but is easier to find in the Kruger National Park later in the tour. Vocal African Fish Eagles are never far away, with a number of pairs breeding in the area. The reedbeds host colonies of the prized Southern Brown-throated and Eastern Golden (Yellow) Weavers. The estuary is also home to Nile Crocodiles, and quite a few pods of Hippopotamuses, some of which call the St Lucia village home, and can even be seen in the evenings walking around the town grazing on lawns!
Overnight: St Lucia Wetlands Guest House, St Lucia
Southern Banded Snake Eagle is one of the localized, scarce species we’ll keep an eye out for around St Lucia.
Day 7. Birding the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Isimangaliso Wetland Park
We will spend the day exploring the wonderful Isimangaliso Wetland Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and will likely spend time in both the Eastern and Western Shores section of the park. While primarily consisting of coastal grassland, patches of coastal forest occur as well, and host a fine array of unique and special birds which we’ll spend time trying to find. These include the sought-after Southern Banded Snake Eagle, the glorious Livingstone’s Turaco, Narina Trogon, Woodward’s Batis, the spectacular (but difficult-to-see) Gorgeous Bushshrike, Brown Scrub Robin, Eastern Nicator, localized Rudd’s Apalis and Grey Waxbill, among others. We won’t ignore the more open areas, as they do also host some great birds and birding; some of the species we’ll be sure to keep an eye out for include Black-bellied Bustard, Senegal Lapwing, Collared Pratincole, Croaking Cisticola, Lemon-breasted Canary, and with some luck, Rosy-throated Longclaw. A number of raptors hunt over these open areas, and it’s a great place to see a wide range of these species. These open areas also support good numbers of Swamp Nightjar, and with some birding in strategic areas after dark, we stand a good chance of finding this prized bird.
Not to be forgotten, this park also supports a wide array of mammals, and we may see such charismatic species as African Elephant, African Buffalo and Giraffe, along with antelope such as Waterbuck, Impala and the dainty Red Duiker. This is also a great area to see the scarce Blue (Samango) Monkey, while species such as Leopard and White Rhinoceros will require a bit more luck to find. This is a very birdy park, and we’re sure to rack up a high list of birds for the day.
Overnight: St Lucia Wetlands Guest House, St Lucia
Rudd’s Apalis is another Zululand specialty we should get whilst traversing the region!
Day 8. Birding St Lucia and transfer to Hluhluwe
We have the morning available to bird around the village, and in particular, along the lovely iGwalagwala Trail, which passes through some excellent coastal forest. Although we should have seen many of these specials the previous day, it serves as an excellent backup for species we could have missed, including some very localized birds like Livingstone’s Turaco, Woodward’s Batis, Brown Scrub Robin, Rudd’s Apalis and Grey Waxbill, while also offering chances for species such as Buff-spotted Flufftail (with some luck and patience), Green Malkoha, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Terrestrial Brownbul and others. Strange-looking Crested Guineafowl are a common sight around the village as well and are sure to keep us entertained.
We have another short transfer (also roughly two hours) to get to the Hluhluwe area, where we’ll be based for two days, as we explore the mega-diverse but compact Mkhuze Game Reserve and surrounds. This is arguably one of the finest birding sites in southern Africa and certainly has a legendary status. We’ll likely arrive at our comfortable lodge in the early afternoon, and may explore some of the surrounding open areas, such as Mpempe Pan or the Nibela Peninsula this afternoon still. The birding here can be excellent, and some of the species we’re likely to see include Black-winged and Senegal Lapwings (sometimes offering great comparative views of these similar birds, both of them scarce and local), Collared Pratincole, Grey-rumped Swallow, all three locally occurring Longclaws (Cape, Yellow-throated and Rosy-throated), and the highly range-restricted Lemon-breasted Canary. A wide array of ducks, geese, herons, egrets and other waterbirds can also be seen here.
Our lodge itself also hosts some excellent birding and we’re likely to become acquainted with a number of sand forest specials here (sand forest is a delightful, localized habitat typical of Zululand and southern Mozambique, and contains some top birds). The highly sought-after Pink-throated Twinspot occurs commonly around the lodge and will be one of our main targets here. A number of other sought-after birds, which we may not yet have seen, are possible here as well, including Green Malkoha, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Rudd’s Apalis, Eastern Nicator, Bearded Scrub Robin, White-throated Robin-Chat and Purple-banded Sunbird. More widespread species found here include a wide array of cuckoos, including African Emerald-, Klaas’s, Red-chested and Black, Striped Kingfisher, Orange-breasted Bushshrike, Black-crowned Tchagra, Black Cuckooshrike, Southern Black Tit, Violet-backed Starling, Pale Flycatcher, Scarlet-chested Sunbird and Golden-breasted Bunting, amongst others. Noisy Thick-tailed Greater Galagos (Bushbaby) wake up in the evenings, and can often be seen around the lodge. We’ll enjoy a good evening meal, in preparation for another excellent day in the heart of Zululand.
Overnight: Umkhumbi Lodge, Hluhluwe
Day 9. Birding Mkhuze Game Reserve and surrounds
We will undertake a day trip into the nearby Mkhuze Game Reserve (armed with picnic breakfast and lunch). This tiny reserve is one of the premier birding sites in the country. One is only allowed out of the van in designated areas (because of the presence of dangerous African megafauna), and so we will focus our birding on the excellent hides (and walkways to them), picnic sites and around the rest camp, where we are free to get out and walk around. This incredible reserve has a wide array of habitats, ranging from bushveld through to sand forest, and open wetlands, and we’ll explore all of these habitats during our day. The sand forest is home to our main targets, which will include the likes of Pink-throated Twinspot (if not seen previously), Neergaard’s Sunbird and Gorgeous Bushshrike, among other prized birds such as Rudd’s Apalis, African Pygmy Kingfisher, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, the diminutive Grey Penduline Tit, Eastern Nicator, the attractive Stierling’s Wren-Warbler and Dusky Indigobird. The large Nsumo Pan also offers excellent birding, supporting a wide array of waterbirds, and depending on the water levels at the time, the pan supports one of the only breeding colonies of Pink-backed Pelicans in South Africa. Other species to be found here include the likes of the sought-after African Pygmy Goose and African Openbill while more regular birds include White-faced Whistling Duck, Black Crake, Water Thick-knee, African Jacana, Whiskered Tern, African Spoonbill, Squacco and Black Herons and Pied Kingfisher. The trees on the edge of the pan support the dazzling Broad-billed Roller, along with an array of woodpeckers, kingfishers, barbets, honeyguides, bushshrikes, flycatchers, robins, sunbirds and weavers. Pel’s Fishing Owl do occur in the area, but are nomadic and very rarely seen, and are more reliable on our tour to the Okavango Delta in Botswana/northern Namibia.
The rare Neergaard’s Sunbird is one of the top targets of Mkhuze, and indeed the tour!
The park will also allow us to increase our raptor list, being an excellent area for some of the more iconic bushveld species such as Bateleur and Martial Eagle, while White-backed Vultures are never far away. The bushveld areas are not to be ignored, and are home to species such as Common Scimitarbill, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Lilac-breasted Roller, Chinspot Batis, Brubru, Sabota Lark, Long-billed Crombec, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Red-billed Oxpecker (often catching a ride on large mammals), Kurrichane Thrush, Blue Waxbill and Green-winged Pytilia, among others.
In addition to all these excellent birds, Mkhuze also offers a wide selection of mammals including the full complement of big game species. While mammals such as Lion, Cheetah, African Wild Dog, Leopard, African Elephant and Black and White Rhinoceros occur, they are scarce and we’ll need some luck to find these. More commonly seen species include an array of antelope, including the spectacular Nyala, along with Greater Kudu and the ever-charismatic Plains Zebra. The diminutive Suni antelope can also be seen in the sand forest.
This is sure to be an excellent day, with a high number of birds and mammals seen. We’ll return to our comfortable lodge for a well-deserved dinner later in the afternoon.
Overnight: Umkhumbi Lodge, Hluhluwe
Day 10. Birding Hluhluwe and transfer to Wakkerstroom
We have the morning available to bird the excellent grounds of our lodge, or some other nearby areas, such as False Bay Nature Reserve, should any target species still be outstanding – these may include the likes of the difficult African Broadbill and Neergaard’s Sunbird. We’ll then begin the fairly long drive (4 hours+), to get to our next destination, Wakkerstroom, set in the montane grassland belt at high altitude. This is another one of the premier birding destinations in the country, and is a must for any world birder, as it hosts a number of prized endemic birds. Wakkerstroom is a lovely, quaint and charmingly small village located along the Drakensberg escarpment, and as such is fairly high in elevation (only just below 6500ft/2000m). We will likely only arrive in the afternoon and may begin exploring the area slightly lower in elevation located to the east of the town. Here, a number of species not regularly seen in the immediate vicinity of the town can be seen and include the likes of the curious southern African race of White-bellied Bustard (known locally as Barrow’s Korhaan, split by some authorities), and Cloud Cisticola. We’re also sure to get our eye in on some of the other more widespread grassland species occurring in the area, such as Swainson’s Spurfowl, Cape Crow, Spike-heeled and Red-capped Larks, South African Cliff Swallow, Banded Martin, Cape Grassbird, Pied Starling, Ant-eating Chat, Capped Wheatear, Red-collared Widowbird, Cape Longclaw and Cape Canary, amongst others.
Overnight: Wetlands Country House & Sheds, Wakkerstroom
The highly sought-after endemic Yellow-breasted Pipit can be seen around Wakkerstroom!
Day 11. Birding the Wakkerstroom area
We will have a full day of birding the upland grasslands and wetlands surrounding Wakkerstroom, and we usually make use of a local guide. Our day will center around the three ‘big’ targets of the Wakkerstroom area – Rudd’s and Botha’s Larks and Yellow-breasted Pipit. These endemic species are all rare and localized, with the grasslands around Wakkerstroom proving one of the few and only reliable locations to find these prized species. The entire area is particularly species-rich with many of the following likely: Red-winged and Grey-winged Francolins, Southern Bald Ibis, Denham’s Bustard, Blue Korhaan, Eastern Long-billed, Pink-billed and Eastern Clapper Larks, Pale-crowned and Wing-snapping Cisticolas, Nicholson’s Pipit and Cape Bunting. The wetlands in the area are home to a number of birds, and amongst others we will search for White-backed and Maccoa Ducks, African Rail, Red-chested Flufftail (with some patience), African Snipe and Little Bittern. Aside from these, many other more widespread grassland species feature here, from Blue and Grey Crowned Cranes, to a variety of raptors, cisticolas, larks, widowbirds, weavers and more. Areas of woodland line some of the ravines and valleys, and these provide us with further species such as Red-throated Wryneck, Bokmakierie, Lazy Cisticola, Drakensberg Prinia, along with Bush Blackcap and Barratt’s Warbler in the wooded areas. We will also be sure to keep our eyes to the sky for raptors such as the tricky Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk, along with Black Sparrowhawk, and African Marsh and Black Harriers. This is also a great area for aerial feeders (swifts, swallows and martins), and we’ll also keep an eye out for the tricky Horus Swift, along with Alpine and African Black Swifts.
While few of Africa’s larger mammals are found here, this area is a great place to find smaller mammal species such as the charming Meerkat as well as Yellow Mongoose and Common Duiker. After dark, we can also try for Marsh Owl, and if we’re lucky, the rare African Grass Owl.
Overnight: Wetlands Country House & Sheds, Wakkerstroom
Day 12. Birding Wakkerstroom, and transfer to the Kruger National Park
We have the morning available to try for any highland birds we may still be missing, before having to gather our things and set off to our next destination. We have arguably the longest drive of the trip today (roughly 6 hours), but the reward is that we’ll eventually arrive in one of Africa’s greatest game parks – the Kruger National Park. We will spend three nights in this great park attempting to find as many of the birds and mammals mentioned below as possible, along with enjoying a great safari experience. The mammal and bird diversity here is nothing short of staggering. African Elephant, Hippopotamus, Lion, Leopard, Cheetah, African Wild Dog (now extremely rare but regularly sighted in the park), both White and Black Rhinoceros, Giraffe, and a stack of antelopes and smaller mammals will all be sought. Nile Crocodile is quite common in many of the park’s waterbodies. The park is absolutely full of birds as well, including a mega-diversity of raptors (ranging from the tiny Little Sparrowhawk to the massive Lappet-faced Vulture, and a great many in between), an array of storks, the most admired being Saddle-billed Stork, while on the other end of the spectrum ‘the undertaker’ Marabou Stork, and other large birds such as Southern Ground Hornbill. Indeed, the raptors and other large birds thrive here, as there is such a vast amount of conserved and wild land, allowing them to breed largely away from human disturbance – making this a stronghold for these species in South Africa. A great many other species occur, and include a number of francolins, cuckoos, hornbills, rollers, mousebirds, kingfishers, bee-eaters, woodpeckers, bushshrikes, flycatchers, robin-chats, starlings, waxbills, firefinches, canaries and buntings. The diversity of birds and mammals in the park has to be seen to be believed, and we will accumulate a long list of species during our stay in the park.
Overnight: Skukuza Rest Camp or similar, Kruger National Park
Kruger is home to a vast array of birds as well, including the Saddle-billed Stork!
Days 13 – 14. Birding the Kruger National Park
Making use of open-top safari vehicles, ideal for bird and game viewing in Kruger, we have two full days to explore the southern areas of this iconic park. Our exact routes may vary depending on which rest camp(s) we stay at, but we stand good chances at finding most of the above-mentioned (Day 12) species. We will also have the opportunity to undertake optional night drives (at your own cost), which can produce some of the scarcer nocturnal birds, such as Bronze-winged Courser and Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl, and mammals such as African Civet, South African Large-spotted Genet and perhaps even Serval.
Overnight: Skukuza Rest Camp or similar, Kruger National Park
Whilst in Kruger, mammals, such as this White Rhinoceros, are major targets!
Day 15. Birding Kruger, with a transfer to Dullstroom
We have our final morning available to spend within Kruger, before having to exit this wonderful area, and continue onto our next destination, that being Dullstroom, located in the highlands of the northern Drakensberg escarpment. The drive will likely be around 3 hours and should see us arriving with time to spare in the afternoon, where we’ll check into our very comfortable lodge and acquaint ourselves with the area and some of its birds. Dullstroom is a small, charming village which plays host to a number of specials which we’ll be targeting during our time here. Foremost amongst these is the rare Cape Eagle-Owl, which we will attempt to track down this evening.
Overnight: Linger Longer Country Retreat, Dullstroom
Day 16. Birding Dullstroom, and transfer to Rust de Winter
We have the morning available for some final birding around Dullstroom and surrounds. We usually focus our efforts on the nearby Verloren Vallei Nature Reserve, which hosts some of the most pristine montane grassland in the area. While we should have seen many of the species occurring here previously on the trip in the other highland areas (Wakkerstroom and Sani Pass), this stunning area offers us an excellent backup for a number of scarce and prized birds, such as Wattled Crane, Secretarybird, Denham’s Bustard, Red-winged Francolin, Southern Bald Ibis, Black-winged Lapwing, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Eastern Long-billed Lark and Yellow-breasted Pipit.
We will eventually make our way onwards to our final destination, Rust de Winter, and have a relatively lengthy transfer (roughly 4 hours) to get here. We will likely take an ‘off-the-beaten-path’ route to get here, visiting some of the superb mixed broad-leafed woodlands north-east of Pretoria, which support some localized and scarce species. Here we can search for Shelley’s Francolin, Melodious and Fawn-colored Larks, Green-capped Eremomela, Short-toed Rock Thrush, Tinkling Cisticola, Bushveld Pipit and Red-headed Weaver. If conditions are right, we may also be able to find the incredibly difficult White-backed Night Heron and Half-collared Kingfisher. We will eventually arrive at our comfortable lodge located in the Rust de Winter district in the late afternoon.
Overnight: Zenzele River Lodge, Rust de Winter
Day 17. Birding Zaagkuilsdrift, Kgomo-Kgomo and Rust de Winter
We will spend the last full day of the tour birding the rich “acacia”-dominated savannas and other habitats of the area. We usually focus our efforts on the superb Zaagkuilsdrift Road, which offers a great transect through this habitat, and puts us in an excellent position to find some of the many more typical Kalahari edge type species that occur here. The road continues on for a while through bird-rich savannah before arriving at a floodplain, which also hosts some excellent species, but birding here is very much dependent on the conditions (usually dry on our October tours). This is another of the country’s premier birding sites, with a huge diversity of birds, and we’re sure to build up an extensive list of species. Some of the Kalahari-type birds we’ll try for include Northern Black Korhaan, Crimson-breasted Shrike, Southern Pied Babbler, Kalahari Scrub Robin, Barred Wren-Warbler, Chestnut-vented Warbler (Tit-babbler), Cape Penduline Tit, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Marico Flycatcher, Violet-eared and Black-faced Waxbills, Great Sparrow, Cut-throat Finch, Scaly-feathered Weaver (Finch), White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Shaft-tailed Whydah and Yellow Canary. These are just a few of the many birds occurring in the thornveld, and the usually dry (at this time of the year) and open lands around the floodplain can support interesting birds such as Temminck’s Courser and Caspian Plover.
The stunning Violet-eared Waxbill is one of the specials of the Zaagkuildrift area!
The nearby Rust de Winter area supports a similar suite of birds to those mentioned above. This is also a great area to get to grips with owls, and some dedicated nocturnal searching may produce the likes of Western Barn, Southern White-faced and African Scops Owls, while the larger Spotted and Verreaux’s Eagle-Owls do occur in the area as well. The dainty and partly diurnal Pearl-spotted Owlet is ever-present too, sometimes surrounded by a host of passerines mobbing it (which is useful to us as it means we can accumulate a lot of bird species fast!). We’ll eventually settle in for our last dinner together, reminiscing about all the excellent birds we’ve experienced over the course of this tour.
Overnight: Zenzele River Lodge, Rust de Winter
Day 18. Transfer to Johannesburg and departure
We have the morning available to bird and explore the surrounds at our leisure, and being no more than 2 hours away from the main Johannesburg Airport (OR Tambo International Airport), we do not have very far to travel today. The tour will conclude at the airport later in the day.
We kindly ask that you book your international flight to depart after 3 p.m. today.
Please note that the itinerary cannot be guaranteed as it is only a rough guide and can be changed (usually slightly) due to factors such as availability of accommodation, updated information on the state of accommodation, roads, or birding sites, the discretion of the guides and other factors. In addition, we sometimes have to use a different international guide from the one advertised due to tour scheduling.Download Itinerary
Southern Ground Hornbill
Southern Banded Snake Eagle
Spotted Ground Thrush
This is a sample trip report. Please email us ([email protected]) for more trip reports from this destination.
BIRDING TOURS SOUTH AFRICA: GENERAL INFORMATION
Your passport must be valid for a period of at least six months after the date of your arrival in South Africa. Please make sure that there is at least one full empty page available in your passport. Please also bring a photocopy of your passport, to be kept in a different location from your passport, in case of loss.
Generally not required, but please check for your nationality.
We strongly recommend that you purchase trip cancellation insurance to protect yourself against accidents, medical conditions, illness, loss of valuables, luggage, etc., and travel interruptions or delays of all kinds.
General Global Assistance is one option: https://www.generalitravelinsurance.com/
HEALTH / MALARIA
Please visit the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) website here for health information about traveling in South Africa.
No vaccinations are required for South Africa; however, it is recommended that you are up to date with Hepatitis A and B, tetanus, and polio. Please keep in mind that if you have not had any of these vaccinations, you should make sure that you have been inoculated at least six weeks prior to your trip for the vaccination to take full effect.
There is no malaria in most parts of South Africa except in north-eastern KwaZulu-Natal and the low altitude areas of Mpumalanga and Limpopo. But please find more information here because some of our tours lead through parts of the country where malaria does occur.
We strongly recommend taking malaria prophylactics when in Zululand or Kruger – see the malaria map at the Centers for Disease Control website – when we’ll be in a malaria area. Any one of the following three drugs are highly effective (albeit not 100 percent due to resistant strains of malaria) as malaria preventative measures:
Mosquito repellent, long trousers/jeans, and long-sleeved shirts, particularly at night when malaria (Anopheles) mosquitos bite, are advised in addition to the drugs.
In the unlikely event that one still contracts malaria after taking anti-malaria drugs and other precautions, the disease can still be easily treated if diagnosed soon after symptoms develop: suspect malaria if ‘flu-like symptoms develop within a few months after visiting South Africa. If it is malaria it can be treated with an alternative to the prophylactic that you chose.
Please make sure that you are covered with medical insurance in case of an emergency while on this trip. Without insurance the cost of medical care can be extremely high. Please notify us at the time of registering for this tour of any medical conditions you think we should know about (including allergies, heart conditions, epilepsy, etc.). This will greatly help us to cater to your needs.
WATER / FOOD
South Africa is one of the few countries in Africa were it is safe to drink the water in the major cities and eat unpeeled fresh vegetables and salads. But we supply bottled water as most visitors prefer this.
South African Rand (ZAR or simply R). Currently US$ 1 is about ZAR 14.3 (Jan 2020), but it fluctuates widely.
Traveler’s checks are difficult to cash. You need to visit a South African bank to cash traveler’s checks and pay a commission. You’re better off using a debit or credit card, which lets you make cheap or free ATM withdrawals to get South African rand. Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted and to a lesser extent American Express, including for drawing cash from ATMs. We will be able to exchange or draw money at the airport upon arrival and regularly during our tours at ATMs.
Note: US dollars, Canadian dollars, pound sterling, and euros cannot be used for purchases.
South Africa is a land of great physical contrasts, from mountains and forests to grasslands and semi-deserts. The country does have four seasons – summer, fall, winter, and spring – only they are reversed from the seasons in the Northern Hemisphere; summer: December to February, fall: March to May, winter: June to August, spring: September to November.
South Africa experiences a high degree of sunshine with rainfall about half of the global average, increasing from west to east, and with semi-desert regions in the north-west. While the Western Cape has a Mediterranean climate with winter rainfall, most of the country experiences summer rain. Subtropical South Africa has summer thunderstorms, so please be prepared for rain, even though there is not likely to be much.
For our major tours, those to the Western Cape and to Subtropical South Africa, which are run in February/March and October, weather conditions are the following:
February/March is late summer/early fall, and often it will be hot, but high in the mountains it can get surprisingly cold even in summer (so please do bring layers). March is one of the rainiest (but birdiest) months, but since South Africa is generally a dry country, rain rarely seriously interrupts the birding.
October is spring, so there are elements of winter or summer weather – with luck the weather will be mild and in between throughout! It is usually mild to warm or even hot at this time of year, and maximum temperatures can vary from about 20–30 oC. Nights should be mild, but there is a small chance of slightly below freezing temperatures especially high in the Drakensberg (e.g. Dullstroom and Lesotho) – even snow is a possibility. So please be prepared for all weather possibilities from a little below freezing to quite hot. Spring is unpredictable.
The Cape pelagic can be cold and wet or warm and very sunny, so be prepared with layers of clothing, waterproofing, as well as sunglasses and sunblock/sunscreen (reflection off the sea can burn eyes and skin severely).
Be aware that accommodations are often not heated like they are in North America, Europe, etc.
Kindly be prepared for all kinds of temperatures, from cold to hot. For more details please see https://www.gov.za/about-SA/geography-and-climate.
It is 220-240V. If you intend to recharge camera batteries etc. in your hotel room you will need an international adapter (for three round prongs in a triangular pattern, ITA Type M, or occasionally the European plug, ITA Type C).
Lighting tends to be low wattage, so you might like to bring a good quality torch/flashlight if you like reading in bed! A good torch preferably with a good beam will also be useful if you fancy joining us for a night walk or drive. All the places we will stay will have electrical outlets for chargers and laptops.
Occasionally there might be a period of load shedding/rolling blackouts, and when the country struggles to generate enough power this can occur several times a week, usually for two to five hours at a time. Those with CPAP machines thus need to bring backup batteries.
Note: Please check all equipment that you plan on charging to see if it is 110/120–220/240V compatible. If that is the case you only need an adaptor to plug your plugs into. If your equipment is only listed as 110-120V then you will need a converter to convert the electric current to 220-240V.
LENGTH OF DRIVES
There may be a couple of days in which there are long drives – say five hours without stops. Most days involve far less traveling.
In Kruger National Park as well as in a number of other national parks and game reserves it is illegal to alight from one’s vehicle because of the presence of large, dangerous mammals such as lions and elephants, so we are restricted to the vehicle except at picnic areas and rest camps. In these reserves we thus spend most of the day in the vehicle, but we also spend some time doing birding walks around the rest camps and picnic areas and staying in bird hides.
CAPE TOWN PELAGIC TRIPS
For the pelagic trip included in the Western Cape tours please see “Preparation for a Pelagic Trip” and “What you will require” at https://www.birdingecotours.com/tour/cape-town-pelagic-trip-1-day/. There is also a lot more information at https://www.birdingecotours.com/pelagic-birding-with-birding-ecotours/.
WHAT TO BRING
Casual and informal dress is fine in the hotels. Loose lightweight field clothing works best, with a warm fleece or jacket for cooler weather. Shorts and T-shirts are fine – it’s what the locals wear! You will also need to bring some warmer clothing, certainly a minimum of a warm fleece and a jacket. Rain is always a possibility, so an umbrella and/or rain gear is always useful to have. Early mornings can be chilly in some areas, especially in the Drakensberg/Lesotho/Dullstroom areas, which are at relatively high altitudes, so come prepared.
Sunglasses, sunhat, and sunscreen (rated SPF 15 or higher) are essential. A pair of trousers or a long skirt and a long-sleeved shirt should be included to help protect against forest vegetation and the sun. Swimwear can be brought as there are swimming pools at some of the accommodations.
We would recommend lightweight walking boots for when out on foot. You might like to consider sandals for use in the safari vehicles and for walking between your room and restaurant in the hotels and lodges.
Some roads can be dusty, so please consider bringing a scarf or other measures in case you’re birding along an unpaved road and a car goes past throwing up dust.
Do not forget
Binoculars, prescription drugs (also bring the generic names for these drugs), toiletries, prescription glasses (and a spare pair), insect repellent, camera, flashlight, batteries (for electronic equipment and chargers for rechargeable batteries), converter plug set if needed (the electricity supply is 220 Volt, 50 Hz) and plug adapters, alarm clock, money pouch, field guide(s), soft-sided duffle-style luggage (hard-sided luggage is not ideal), daypack/backpack, favorite road snacks
Key Documents and cash
Passports, Travel- or Health Insurance Cards – photo copies of which can be left with our ground agent in case of emergency, Credit cards – Visa and Mastercard are best in South Africa – see earlier, Cash for drinks, gifts, tips, items of a personal nature, etc.
Due to restricted space in the vehicles please consider packing quite lightly. A medium soft-sided duffle bag (not the hard-sided cases) works best for packing in the vehicles. This allows us to better fit the bags. Please bring a daypack for items that you wish to use or need on a daily basis.
We will be visiting areas inhabited by very venomous snakes, although as usual we will be very lucky to see any. Black Mambas are relatively abundant in KwaZulu-Natal. The Boomslang (“tree snake”), an arboreal snake that is highly venomous and for which there is no anti-venom, is quite widespread in South Africa, but it often fails to inject venom because its fangs are set very far back in its head. Puffadders, Berg Adders and Night Adders can be very dangerous because they love to sun themselves in pathways and are extremely lethargic, not moving until accidentally trodden on. Unlike rattlesnakes they give no warning. Cobras, including spitting cobras, also occur in South Africa.
We recommend hiking boots, jeans/long trousers, and a good dose of care to minimize the danger of snakebites. We do not take anti-venom on our tours but will rush you to a private hospital if you do get bitten; your own travel insurance (especially medical insurance) is crucial.
In those game reserves where large predators freely lurk it is illegal to alight from one’s vehicle except in rest camps and picnic areas, for very good reason. The guides will also advise where hippos, crocodiles, etc., roam outside of the game reserves (such as at Lake St Lucia).
When arriving at Cape Town, Durban, or Johannesburg international airports extremely good care of one’s personal belongings should be taken (as in any big city).
South Africa has an incredible 11 official languages, but most South Africans are fluent in English and it is very easy to get around the country using English.
Details of the field guide we recommend the most and of a good app with bird calls and a lot more can be found here (scroll down to southern Africa).
Stuarts’ Field Guide to Mammals of Southern Africa by Chris and Mathilde Stuart, Struik Publishers. 2015
Smithers’ Mammals of Southern Africa – a field guide. Edited by Peter Apps. 1996
The Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals by Johnathan Kingdon – Princeton University Press. 2005
Field Guide to Snakes and other Reptiles of Southern Africa by Bill Branch, Struik Publishers. 1998 – excellent
Field Guide to Butterflies of South Africa by Steve Woodhall, 2005 – the best of those available
Sasol First Field Guide to Butterflies and Moths of Southern Africa by Simon von Noort, 1999
Field guide to Insects of South Africa by Mike Picker, Charles Griffiths and Alan Weaving, Struik publishers. 2004
“The Long walk to Freedom”, Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, is a must read.
South Africa Map from ITMB 1: 1,500,000, 2012 edition – you may want to purchase a map before your trip to give you an idea of where we’ll be visiting.
We bird virtually every habitat in South Africa on our many tours, from open ocean to pristine grassland to forests from sea level (subtropical) to temperate (above 1000 meters), to dry woodland, to savanna, to wetlands of all kinds. Our detailed itineraries give a good overview.
Check whether your tour operator is legal in South Africa – please read this carefully.
In the fall of 2011 my wife and I did a 28 day bird watching tour of South Africa with Birding Ecotours. Birding Ecotours was recommended by our Canadian agent, Tours of Exploration. Both of our driver/guides were excellent and our group of 5 saw well over 500 species of birds and over 60 species of animals as well as a large number of amazing endemic plants. The tours were well planned and run and came off without a hitch. The guides were very patient and accommodating and allowed us to change the schedule when we were in areas of great interest. Along with showing us the amazing natural history of South Africa our guides also explained the cultural history which made the trip special. We hope that we will have the opportunity to will travel with Birding Ecotours again in the near future.
Otto Peter — Canada