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This wonderful tour through less-traveled but very bird-rich north-eastern South Africa will allow us to explore such renowned hot birding spots as Zaagkuilsdrift, Magoebaskloof, and Mapungubwe National Park. We will search for such special birds as Marsh Owl, African Finfoot, Forest Buzzard, and Boulder Chat, while our main targets are three of the very elusive ultimate skulkers: Red-chested, Buff-spotted, and Striped Flufftails.
This pre-tour extension to our Eastern Zimbabwe and Central Mozambique tour can also be booked as a stand-alone tour.
Itinerary (8 days/7 nights)
Day 1. Johannesburg to Zaagkuilsdrift
Morning arrival in Johannesburg, South Africa, or perhaps more preferably the previous day (13th November) to allow rest time. We will be birding south of Johannesburg in the Alberton area, where we search the wetlands/grasslands for specials such as Red-chested Flufftail (main target – good chance), Orange River Francolin, Marsh Owl, African Snipe, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Orange-breasted Waxbill, Cloud Cisticola, various warblers, and Northern Black Korhaan. Then we will transfer north to Pretoria and bird the Seringveld Conservancy and surrounds in the afternoon for broad-leaved woodland specialists, Tinkling Cisticola, Green-capped Eremomela, Pale Flycatcher, Fawn-colored Lark, Brown-backed Honeybird, Coqui Francolin, and many others. In the late afternoon we will arrive at Zaagkuilsdrift Bird Sanctuary and Lodge. There is an option for owling this evening – this area is rich in nocturnal birds, with representatives of owls, nightjars, and coursers present.
Overnight: Zaagkuilsdrift Lodge
Day 2. Zaagkuilsdrift
In the morning we will be birding the famous Zaagkuildrift Road and the floodplain at Kgomo-Kgomo for many dry-country birds, such as Crimson-breasted Shrike, Southern Pied Babbler, Ashy Tit, Violet-eared and Black-faced Waxbills, Barred Wren-Warbler, Kalahari Scrub Robin, Marico Flycatcher, Great Sparrow, and Cut-throat Finch. The wetland, depending on conditions, may host Baillon’s Crake, Greater Painted-snipe, Black Heron, Temminck’s Courser (at the edges), and many others. The afternoon will find us in the nearby Borakalalo Game Reserve, where we bird in the rich woodlands and river fringes for African Finfoot, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, and the above-mentioned dry-country specials. Again there is an option for owling this evening.
Overnight: Zaagkuilsdrift Lodge
Day 3. Zaagkuilsdrift to Magoebaskloof
In the morning we will return to the Zaagkuilsdrift Road for any dry-country specials we may have missed before transferring north to Polokwane and onward to Magoebaskloof. After arrival we will begin birding the Afromontane forest for specials such as Cape Parrot (an isolated northern population), Forest Buzzard, Bush Blackcap, Mountain Wagtail, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Orange Ground Thrush, White-starred Robin, Barratt’s Warbler, and Black-fronted Bushshrike, among others. Please note, however, that some of these species occur in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe as well, so we may receive a bit of overlap with species occurring there. We will transfer to the nearby Magoebaskloof Hotel for the evening. Buff-spotted Flufftail occurs in the area and regularly starts calling in the evenings; we will keep our ears open for the eerie hooting, and should we hear them we will try and get visuals.
Overnight: Magoebaskloof Hotel
Day 4. Magoebaskloof
The main target of this day will be Striped Flufftail. This is a notoriously difficult-to-find species, and one that is even more difficult to lay eyes on. This will be the focus of the morning and perhaps the afternoon as well. The surrounding area is also rich in birdlife, and we may run into Wailing Cisticola and various seedeaters, such as Forest Canary, Swee Waxbill, African Firefinch, and Green Twinspot. We will also search a nearby site for Bat Hawk, which breeds in the area. Depending on our time we may also pay the nearby town of Tzaneen a visit to try for Magpie Mannikin, Holub’s Golden Weaver, and Grey-rumped Swallow. We can try again for Buff-spotted Flufftail in the evening if we have not found it earlier.
Overnight: Magoebaskloof Hotel
Day 5. Magoebaskloof to Mapungubwe National Park
We have the morning available for Striped Flufftail, if necessary again, before transferring onwards to the stunning Mapungubwe National Park. We will try for the highly localized Short-clawed Lark en route. Mapungubwe National Park is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the ruins and paintings present in the area. Located in the northern Limpopo Province of South Africa and bordering both Botswana and Zimbabwe, this is a stunning area characterized by magnificent riverine woodland surrounded by acacia bush, ephemeral pans, and mopane woodland. Mapungubwe is also a ‘Big 5’ park with a good sampling of South Africa’s mammals. Here we will search for Double-banded and Burchell’s Sandgrouse, Meyer’s Parrot, Meves’s Starling, Senegal Coucal, Tropical Boubou, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Monotonous Lark (after good rains), Red-headed Weaver, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Retz’s Helmetshrike, and various others. The ephemeral pans can prove interesting when inundated, when they play host to many exciting tropical birds, such as Allen’s Gallinule, Lesser Moorhen, African Crake, Greater Painted-snipe, etc. The nocturnal birding around here is excellent too, and we may see a wide variety of owls, ranging from the large Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl to the small Southern White-faced Owl. Nightjars are also present, and species may include Square-tailed, Fiery-necked, Freckled, and European. One of the specials of this area is Three-banded Courser, and a night drive is the best way to find this species, although it is never an easy target.
Overnight: Leokwe Rest Camp, Mapungubwe National Park
Day 6. Mapungubwe National Park
We have a full day around Mapungubwe National Park, where we search for the above-mentioned species as well as in the dry-country area for any of the species we may have missed on the tour until now, such as Crimson-breasted Shrike, Southern Pied Babbler, and various seedeaters, including waxbills, finches and weavers. There will also be a variety of mammals to entertain us throughout the day.
Overnight: Leokwe Rest Camp, Mapungubwe National Park
Day 7. Mapungubwe National Park to Masvingo, or return to Johannesburg
In the morning we will be birding around Mapungubwe, targeting any of the specials above that we may have missed, before departing and crossing the border to Zimbabwe at Beitbridge and transferring to Masvingo. We will bird a few sites en-route, once in Zimbabwe, including the Lion and Elephant Motel grounds for various riverine woodland species, as well as some nearby rocky outcrops for Boulder Chat. Depending on our arrival time, we can do some local miombo birding in Masvingo at Lake Mutirikwi National Park. Here we will be searching for specials such as White-breasted Cuckooshrike, Miombo Tit, Miombo Rock Thrush, and Miombo Double-collared Sunbird. The nearby ruins of Great Zimbabwe are also a great ‘must-visit’ attraction and provide good birding within the ruins.
For those guests NOT wishing to join the Zimbabwe/Mozambique trip, just the pre-trip, we will arrange a free shuttle from Mapungubwe back to Johannesburg.
Overnight: Inn on Great Zimbabwe, Masvingo, or similar
Day 8. Departure or start of main tour
We will be able to undertake some brief birding this morning in the nearby miombo, or alternatively we can have a relaxing morning in preparation for the main tour starting later in the day. After breakfast we transfer north to Harare, from where we will begin the main tour.
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.
Important explanation about the default vehicles we use on our southern African tours:
Whereas the standard birding-tour vehicle in East Africa is the popup-roof stretch Land Cruiser, in southern Africa these are extremely rare and not usually legal except within some parks. Open safari vehicles, on the other hand, are commonly seen in southern African parks but can’t be used outside the parks, and they are extremely unpleasant to be in when the weather is bad even inside the parks. The only tried-and-tested tour vehicle available in southern Africa that allows us to cover the ground we need so we can find the greatest diversity of birds (and other wildlife), and which is comfortable in all weather, is legal, has proper air conditioning, and does not make the overall tour price exorbitant, is the 13-seater Toyota Quantum when we have 6-8 (rarely 9) tour participants (or similar 7-10-seater vans when we have smaller group sizes). In areas where we are not restricted to the vehicle during the tour (such as in the Cape) we usually use unmodified standard Quantum vans – everyone gets out of the vehicle when we see a good bird or animal. In areas in which we are at times restricted to the vehicle because of the presence of dangerous megafauna including lions, elephants, and more (such as the Kruger National Park) we typically use a Quantum van with modified windows for better viewing of birds and other wildlife. In Kruger (and sometimes in Etosha) National Parks we usually do include a day or two in open safari vehicles as part of the tour price. Optional night drives (at nominal cost) in open safari vehicles are available at most southern African parks (including Kruger) for those who have less of a focused interest in birds (as these are operated by the park’s guides, who usually focus mainly on the “Big 5”). You can speak to the tour leader about joining these night drives, but in our experience some tour participants prefer not to join them, and hence we leave them as an optional extra for those willing to pay a (small/nominal) extra fee.
Even the tried-and-tested Toyota Quantum (or similar) vans we use fall far short of being ideal (small windows that are quite low, etc.), and we truly wish there were something better available without breaking the bank. But we use the best available vehicles, and we ensure that everyone has a fair turn in and near the front of the vehicle – we typically swap seating positions daily, but in the parks we can swap positions four times a day as necessary. The vehicles we use are by far the best vehicles available at a reasonable price. All the birding tour companies use the same vans unless their tours have a narrow focus just around Kruger/nearby or another park. It’s a big problem in South Africa that the East African style safari vehicles are, simply, unavailable, except for a handful of very old, shaky ones (and usually in East Africa they don’t have air conditioning anyway, are extremely slow between sites, and, in short, have a different suite of disadvantages). We use the very best vehicles we can without making our trips much more expensive than anyone else’s, but we also feel we have to be clear about what to expect before the tour, hence this note. If you are worried about the vehicle then please:
While we generally allow a window seat for every passenger and like to have at least a couple of free seats available for birding gear etc., it’s better to ask us about the specific tour to be sure what is the case. For photography trips the per-person price is higher because we leave more empty seats available as more tour participants have bulky camera gear!
It is our philosophy only to have one vehicle per tour as it invariably gets very frustrating when one vehicle sees a bird or animal and the other vehicle misses it! And our group sizes are small – maximum of eight (rarely nine). The tour prices would be very high and uncompetitive if we had a second vehicle and driver-guide with twice the guide’s accommodation, food, fuel and toll costs, considering the small group sizes on our tours. Again, if you request a private tour, we can take two or even three vehicles or absolutely whatever you request – a private tour is different. (It is illegal for us to have any person without a local driver’s license and professional driving permit to drive passengers who are paying to be on a tour, so we can’t even suggest that a tour participant drives a second vehicle to allow more space and window seats).
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