SOUTH AFRICA & VICTORIA FALLS
(20 July - 14 August 1998) by Stefano Brambilla
This is a report of a self-organised trip in South Africa, with an extension to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, made by an Italian group of 10 people this summer.
The trip was not devised to see ONLY birds; in fact, although everybody was very interested in nature, animals and landscapes, I was alone when birdwatching... and, as the rented car was driven by my father (I'm "only" 20 years old), I couldn't stop it every moment in order to see "that" bird! So, I didn't visit any areas ONLY to see, e.g., the famous endemics, and I didn't look for ALL the species of larks and cisticolas that live in the region.
Notwithstanding this, the trip was very productive, as I managed to recognise about 260 SPECIES of BIRDS and 50 of MAMMALS... and I had never been in Africa before, so no idea about its wonderful animals!
Here you can find some tips about the trip organisation, about the most spectacular places to visit, including National Parks and Reserves, and the most remarkable birds/mammals I could see across South Africa.
BASIC TRAVEL INFO
- As the group was composed of 10 people, we rented two Toyota Venture (Avis rent-a-car), a quite comfortable car, but a bit narrow for 5 people. 4WDs are not really necessary, as the roads are generally in very good conditions, both the tarred and the dirt ones.
- Luckily, we had no "bad experiences"; you have to be careful only in big cities, such as Cape Town, Durban, and especially Johannesburg (tourists are always suggested not to stop in Jo'burg in order to prevent car-jacking and mugging), but these cities are no more dangerous for travelers than are American cities, or European...
- Lodges are good and not expensive. Some are basic, some are more luxurious - see later. Food is generally very good, and very cheap too (you don't spend more than 7£ for a dinner).
- National Parks Lodges can be easily booked by e-mail/fax: write me if you need the adresses/numbers.
- There are at least 4 Birds Field Guides. In my opinion, the best one is Ian Sinclair's "Sasol Birds of Southern Africa". Newman Guide has not so clear plates. You can buy them in the NPs.
- July/August means wintertime in SouthAfrica: the landscape is quite dry in some NP, and there are the best conditions to see large animals. It's not the best for birds maybe, as you can't find the migrants yet, and because most passerines are in non-breeding habits - often difficult to distinguish. The weather is mild, often cool, never hot; nights and mornings are very cold - be prepared.
ITINERARY [NP = National Park, GR = Game Reserve, NR = Nature Reserve]
19/7 Lufthansa flight Milan / Frankfurt / Johannesburg (arrival 8.00 am, 20/7)
20/7 Jo'burg, N4, direction East: Botshabelo Ndebele Mission - Sabie (Protea Floreat Hotel)
21/7 Sabie - Blyde River Canyon NP - Phalaborwa Gate - Kruger NP (Letaba Restcamp)
22/7 Kruger NP (Olifants Restcamp)
23/7 Kruger NP (Lower Sabie Restcamp)
24/7 Kruger NP- Crocodile Bridge - Swaziland - Pongola - Itala GR (Ntshondwe Camp)
25/7 Itala GR (Ntshondwe Camp)
26/7 Itala GR - Mkuze - Mkuzi GR - Sodwana Bay NP (Park lodge)
27/7 Sodwana Bay NP (idem)
28/7 Sodwana Bay - Mtubatuba - Sta Lucia - Cape Vidal (Sta Lucia NP, Park lodge)
29/7 Sta Lucia estuary - Hluhluwe NP (Hilltop camp)
30/7 Hluhluwe NP (Hilltop Camp)
31/7 Hluhluwe - Durban; flight SAA Durban/Port Elisabeth; PE - Addo NP (Park lodge)
1/8 Addo NP - Zuurberg NP - Graaf Reinet (Drodsty Hotel)
2/8 Graaf Reinet - Karoo NR - Valley of desolation - PE - Tsitsikamma NP (Tsitsikamma lodge)
3/8 Tsitsikamma NP - Knysna (Wayside Inn)
4/8 Knysna - Hermanus (Windsor Hotel)
5/8 Hermanus - Cape Town (Villa Sunshine B&B)
6/8 Cape Town: Cape of Good Hope and Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens (idem)
7/8 Cape Town: Town and Winelands - Stellenbosh (idem)
8/8 Cape Town - West Coast NP - Lambert's Bay (B&B)
9/8 Lambert's Bay - Skilpad NR - Kamierskoon (Kamierskroon Hotel)
10/8 Kamierskroon - Springbock - Goegap NR - Pofadder - Augrabies Falls NP (Park lodge)
11/8 Augrabies Falls NP - Upington - Flight SAA Upington/Jo'burg- Jo'burg (Protea Duneden Hotel)
12/8 flight Sunair Jo'burg/Victoria Falls; Victoria Falls (A Zambesi Hotel)
13/8 Victoria Falls NP (A Zambesi Hotel)
14/8 flight Sunair Victoria Falls/Jo'burg and flight Lufthansa Jo'burg / Frankfurt / Milan (arrival 15/8, 10.00 am)
PARK, WILDLIFE AND BIRDS
(Everyday birds included Hadeda Ibis, Fiscal Shrike, ever-present Blackeyed/Cape/Redeyed Bulbul, Red-winged Starling, Black-shouldered Kite, Blacksmith Plover, Cape White-eye...)
BLYDE RIVER CANYON NP - The trip started visiting this stunning NP, on the road to Kruger, one of the most known SouthAfrican landscapes. The Protea Hotel in Sabie was very comfortable - and provided the first birds of the trip, such as Speckled Mousebird, Hoopoe, weavers and turtles. In the lush forest at God's Window I saw Cape Batis, Barthroated Apalis and Olive Thrush, while Jackal Buzzard and Familiar Chat showed at Wonder's wiew. Go to Aventura Blydepoort Resort to see some wonderful sceneries and birds too, with Chinspot Batis and a lot of Sunbirds on beautiful Coral Trees; you can see instead a large colony of Cape Vultures at Manoutsa Cliffs, in the northern part of the Park.
KRUGER NP - Kruger is a really big park, and you have to spend at least 3 days to have an idea of the many different environments that compose the park itself. At this time of the year the park is extremely dry, so no hard work to locate animals... but don't imagine Kruger like a large zoo, you can drive a longtime without spotting any animal! The roads are generally very good, and you can't go out of the car except in the Camps. Discovering your "own" animal on a Kruger game drive is really satisfiyng! Impala is ubiquitous, and Giraffe, Burchell's Zebra, Blue Wildebeest and Warhogs very common. Elephant is quite abundant; we managed to see a wonderful Leopard at Nhlanganini, near Letaba Restcamp, and sevaral Lions in the southern part of the park. We spotted also Kudu, Steenbok, Klipspringer, Duiker, Waterbuck, Bushbuck, Buffalo, White Rhino and a solitary Sable. On an exciting night-drive from Olifants (dress warmly!) we managed to see Black-backed Jackal, Honey Badger, Small Spotted Genet and 4 superb Lions that walked just aside the car... Restcamps are fabulous for bird-watching... allow plenty of time for birding the various camp grounds. Letaba is well situated on a river, and it's full of Buskbucks and Ground Squirrels. Here I spotted, among others, Saddlebilled Stork, Kurrichane Thrush, Mourning Dove, Puffback, a superb Crested Barbet, Whitefronted Bee-eater and a gorgeous Giant Kingfisher. Olifants Restcamp has the most dramatic setting of any camp in the park, on a rock dome with grand views over the Olifants River Valley: a must for any visitor! I spent a whole afternoon with my scope watching the River from the balconade, spotting Hippo and Crocodile, a large variety of mammals, and interesting birds such as Black Stork, WhiteCrowned Plover, Goliath Heron, African Fish Eagle, Whitebacked Vulture and Whitebellied Sunbird. Satara Restcamp was also productive, with Red-billed Buffalo Weaver, 3 species of Hornbills and Burchell's Starling among the hordes of Grater Blue-eared Starling.
At Lower Sabie we assisted to an Hyena unsuccesful attack to a small group of Impala just over the fence that surrounds the RestCamp!!! Don't miss Sunset Dam, just near Lower Sabie Restcamp: it was full of birds, including Darter, Purple Heron, Marabou Stork, Grenbacked Heron, Black Crake, Hamerkop, Woollynecked Stork, African Jacana, Burchell's Coucal and many others... Other good spots in the Southern part (you can get out of the car in these places) are Nkumbe, near Tshokswane, where I saw Longbilled Crombec, and Mlondozi Dam, full of Mocking Chats, African Green Pigeons and Blackcollared Barbets; on the route to Mlondozi we got good views of a beautiful Shelley's Francolin. Long-tailed Shrikes and Lilac-Breasted Rollers were everywhere, while I managed to see Bateleur and Ground Hornbill (some KNP specials!) between Olifants and Satara.
ITALA GR - If the Kruger lodges are a bit basic, Ntshondwe Camp in Itala
has really superb, very moderately priced accomodation. The Camp is simply
beautiful, high on a rock and perfectly situated to blend into the natural
surroundings. The restaurant is excellent... we spent 5£ (9$) each for an
incredible buffet-dinner!!! An early birding in the Camp provided, among
the Dassies and the Vervet Monkeys, Crowned Hornbill, Blue Waxbill,
Southern Boubou, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Southern Black Tit and African
Throated Robin.The Reserve too is fantastic, very different from Kruger. It
holds several environnments, such as savanna and mountain. Here we added to
our list Tsessebe, Common and Mountain Reedbuck, Eland and Nyala. We met
plenty of Kudus and White Rhinos too. The birdlife also is prolific: here
I managed to see some Southern Bald Ibises, Steppe Buzzard, a gorgeous
Gymnogene, Red-faced Mousebirds, Secretarybird and Blackbellied Korhaan.
MKUZI GR - Along with Itala, Mkuzi is unjustly not so famous as other South
African Reserves. It differs from any other reserve because of its
exceptional hides, from which you can see wildlife coming to drink calmly
and at very close quarters (obviously its best is in the dry season).
Kwamaibala Hide offered us a real African scene, with 3 White Rhinos
fighting, Zebras, Impalas, Wartoghs coming and going to water, a large
flock of Cape Vultures and a lot of bathing small birds, including Green
Twinspot, Acacia Pied Barbet and Eastern Bearded Robin. Kumasinga Hide was
exciting and moving, as herds of animals sank into the mud to reach the
little water left. Lots of Nyalas, Wildebeests and Impalas came almost
below the hide in order to drink, and Baboons dug through the mud looking
But Mkuzi is also a birder's paradise, with 428 species recorded and many
specialities. The lagoon of Nsumo Pan is superb: in ten minutes, from a
beautiful hide, I saw, among the hordes of White Pelicans and Spurwinged
Gooses, no less than 25 species of birds, including Glossy Ibis, Pinkbacked
Pelican, Openbilled Stork, Kittliz's Plover, Little Stint, Curlew
Sandpiper, Avocet, African Spoonbill and Yellowbilled Stork.
Unfortunately, we had not too much time, and I couldn't look for the
specialities around the camp and in the sand forest. Next time!
SODWANA BAY NP - This is a wild Park on the Indian Ocean, very isolated and
consequently ignored by tourists. We reached it after a dirt road, a very
corrugated one. But it was worthwhile: we found an incredible, unspoilt
coast with high dunes and great beaches, and the world's most southernly
coral reef. You can have a bath at this time of the year too! The Park Log
Cabins were very comfortable and low-priced, and the surrounding evergreen
tropical forest delighted me with Brown and Natal Robin, Yellowbellied
Bulbul, White-eared and Goldenrumped Tinker Barbet, Greenbacked Bleating
Warbler, Blackbellied Starling and beautiful Livingstone's Lourie, along
with handsome Samango Monkey.
STA LUCIA NP and CAPE VIDAL - Cape Vidal is more easily reachable than
Sodwana Bay, and its beauty is similar, perhaps a bit less wild. A few
birds here; I managed to see only a Cape Gannet flying over the rugged
Ocean from the beach Whale Tower (we saw at least 3 whales from there). The
place is full of Reedbucks and Red Duikers, while a hide on the lagoon
provided Sacred Ibis and African Jacana among the various herons. Highlight
of the day was a Blackbreasted Snake Eagle along the road to Sta Lucia
town. The boat trip on the famous lake offered us great views of Hippo and
Croc, but in a torrential rain...
HLUHLUWE/UMFOLOZI NP - This large Park offers superior game-wiewing and it
holds a large number of Rhinos, both Black and White. White Rhino is easy
to find along the Park 's dirt roads, while the Black one is very shy, and
we spotted one only on a night-drive, along with Water Dikkop, Fierynecked
Nightjar and Great Spotted Genet. A Tawny Eagle nested on an acacia-tree
just aside the road. Hilltop Camp in Hluhluwe was really one of the best of
the trip, very comfortable, with a first-rate restaurant, scenically
situated and... full of birds! The lodges are surrounded by huge trees and
many flowers, and I spent a lot of time birdwatching here... it was simply
great!!! Among others, I spotted Jackal Buzzard, Trumpeter Hornbill,
Cardinal and Goldentailed Woodpeckers, Blackheaded Oriole, Crested
Guineafowl, Yellowspotted Nicator, Whitenecked Raven, Yellowthroated
Longclaw, Blackcrowned Tchagra, Orangebreasted Bush Shrike, Forest Weaver,
Yelloweyed Canary and Grey, Olive, Black, Scarletchested and Collared
ADDO NP - Don't miss Addo if you love Elephants: this small Park has been
built to protect the last ones: they are nowadays about 260. The Lodge is
very simple, surrounded by huge trees with gigantic Hamerkop nests. There's
a wonderful waterhole just in front of it, illuminated at night: it was
crowded with Elephants during the day, and provided us great views of
Genet, Porcupine, Spotted Dikkop (and Red-billed Teal!) during the freezing
cold night. Around the Lodge I spotted too Karoo Robin and Sombre Bulbul,
while the Park offered a handsome Pale Chanting Goshawk, Secretarybird,
plenty of Ostrich and Orangethroated Longclaw. Don't get discouraged if you
don't find any Elephant while driving along the Park roads: we went round
all the morning without spotting even one... and finally (only at 13PM!)
we found an incredible herd of 100 at a single waterhole, which provided an
KAROO NR - This rugged, dry and small Reserve lies near Graaf-Reinet, an
interesting historical town situated in the middle of arid Karoo. Beautiful
landscapes here, but few interesting birds, except a stunning couple of
Black Eagles looping just over me, Rock Pigeon and Rock Martin seen in the
Valley of Desolation.
TSITSIKAMMA NP - Unfortunately, a large fire prevented us from visiting the
area (and from seeing Knysna Louries!), since the main road to the Park was
closed all the day. But if you look for a gorgeus accomodation near the
Park, I suggest you the very comfortable and non-expensive Tsitsikamma
Lodge, on N2 near Storms-River.
KNYSNA LAGOON - We reached Knysna after a long road across the mountains (
the coastal road was closed due to the fire), and we stopped here in the
comfortable Wayside Inn, situated in the towncenter. The Lagoon was full of
birds, with good views (despite of the rain) of African Black
Oystercatcher, Cape Shoveller, South African Shelduck, Greenshank and
African Spoonbill among herons, kingfishers, waders and various ducks. The
best views are from George Rx Dr., which leads to "The Heads", the place
where the lagoon meets the ocean.
HERMANUS and around - Hermanus is becoming famous as THE place to see
Southern Right Whales in S.A.: the whales come every year to calve in the
scenic Walker Bay. From July to December it's a real show, as the whales
get near the coast and the people can have great views of their
performances from a well-signed path along the Bay (whale-watching from
boats is prohibited). You can see whales from the hotel's windows too!
Among the bushes, there are some interesting birds too, like Grassbird and
Spotted Prinia, but the best birdwatching is at Meerensee (Bot Rivier
Lagoon) on the road to Hawston-Betty's Bay, where I managed to see large
flocks of Flamingoes, Southern Pochard and numbers of terns. Several
handsome Blue Cranes showed on the R320 near Stanford. A suggestion:
while in Hermanus, have a meal at the Ocean Basket Restaurant: it's super,
and we spent 7£ to eat huge seafood platters!!!
CAPE TOWN and around - CT lies in a fantastic location - you must see it!
The Table Mountain, the beaches and the ocean, the rugged and scenic Cape
of Good Hope, everything is beautiful! We explored the fantastic
Kirstenbosh Botanical Gardens, really very good for bird-watching too: I
spotted here, in addition to common Cape Francolin, Grassbird and Dusky
Flycatcher, some stunning specialities, such as Cape Sugarbird and
Orangebreasted Sunbird. Another good spot is the Cape itself: we had
wonderful views of Jackass Penguins (along with Crowned Cormorants) at the
Boulder's Colony near Simon's Town, while to see endemic Cape Siskin (along
with Cape Bunting) you have to go to the Cape of Good Hope lookout. We
stayed in a well-runned B&B in Bantry Bay, a Mediterrenean Villa, in whose
garden there was plenty of Cape Canary.
WEST COAST NP - On a sunny day we explored this beautiful park on the
Atlantic Ocean, famous both for its wildflower displays and its huge
numbers of migratory birds, that roost every year in the blue Langebaan
Lagoon. Unfortunately, it was too early to see the migrants (from the hides
on the south-eastern part of the Lagoon I spotted "only" Flamingoes,
Black-winged Stilts, Avocets, plovers and gulls), but late enough to enjoy
the spectacular display of thousands of wildflowers in the Postberg
Reserve, which is a part of the Park itself. And among the flowers, there
was plenty of animals, such as Bonteboks, Mountain Zebras, Gemsboks,
Springboks and Elands, and many birds too! I spotted here dozens of
beautiful Malachite Sunbird, Bokmakierie, Karoo Robin, Longbilled and
Thickbilled Lark, abundant Pied Starling, Rock Kestrel and a very near
Black Harrier. Allow ample time to visit this Park, and beware of turtles
crossing the roads!
ROCHERPAN and LAMBERT'S BAY - We followed the R27 northbound, crossing
Velddrif and Eland's Bay to arrive to Lambert's Bay late in the evening
(this is a dirt road, it takes long).The area holds a lot of birds, waders
and Flamingoes particularly (Velddrif river and Eland's Bay) along with
tame Black Korhaans on the road itself. 25 km north of Velddrif on the R27
lies the very crowded Rocherpan NR, which was incredibly full of pelicans,
ducks, flamingoes and waders. Lambert's Bay is known for its huge colony of
Cape Gannets, which nest together with Cape and Crowned Cormorants. You can
approach the gannetry very near, and observe at close quarters hundreds of
birds coming and going: really an unforgettable experience.
NAMAQUALAND: SKILPAD NR and GOEGAP NR - We steered north in search of the
famous Namaqualand wildflowers, but we managed to find them only in the
small Skilpad NR, near Kamieskroon, where the land was litteraly carpeted
with orange flowers! Here I spotted Karoo Robin, Grassveld Pipit,
Blackheaded Bunting and 1 S.Black Korhaan giving its raucous and repeated
call, along with Yellow Mongoose and Scrub Hare. In the arid and dry Goegap
NR near Springbok I added to my list Mountain Chat and Southern Anteating
Chat; the landscape is beautiful, the flora is superb... and you are
AUGRABIES FALLS NP - Going to Upington (a very good but long road) we
stopped to admire the huge Sociable Weaver nests, some architectural
masterpieces! I looked for Pigmy Falcon, which often roosts in the weavers
nests, but with no luck. Augrabies Park is worth visiting, because of
moonlike scenery and spectacular canyons (go to Moon Rock and Ararat). I
found a few interesting birds here, such as Dusky Sunbird, Karoo Chat,
Whitebacked Mousebird, Masked Weaver and Whitethroated Canary, early in the
morning around the pretty NP Lodge, along with numbers of shrikes,
starlings, bulbuls and Cape robins. At Ararat lookout I could enjoy
ever-stunning Black Eagles looking for Dassies, passing a few meters from
me over the Orange Canyon.
VICTORIA FALLS NP and around - Victoria Falls were everybody's dream, so we
decided to extend our trip to Zimbabwe to have a look at one of the most
spectacular natural wonders of the world.
We stayed in the comfortable A'Zambesi Lodge, on the Zambesi edges, a bit
far from Victoria Falls, but regularly connected by a free shuttle-bus.
This accomodation is quite expensive (everything is expensive here), but I
would suggest it to everyone because it's far from the chaotic and dusty
town, because the Zambesi views are superb and because it's full of birds!!
The Zambesi cruises leave from here, and on a sunset one I managed to see
about 25 species of birds, including Hooded Vulture, Whitecrowned Plover
and Water Dikkop, along with impressive Elephants, Crocs and Hippos.
Birding around the Lodge was absolutely rewarding (there were birds
everywhere), with a lot of new species for me, such as Jameson's and
Redbilled Firefinch, Golden Weaver, Whitebrowed Sparrow-Weaver,
Threestraked Tchagra, Yellow White-eye, Greybacked Bleating Warbler and
rare Collared Palm Thrush.The last morning before leaving I woke up before
dawn and I managed to see 2 shy African Finfoots a few steps from me on the
But the tropical forest that surrounds the path in the Vic.Falls NP is
productive too, and I spotted here a wonderful Gymnogene, Trumpeter
Hornbill, Heuglin's Robin, Tropical Boubou, Swallowtailed Bee-eater,
Redbilled Woodhoopoe among flocks of Red-billed Queleas and Bronze
Mannikins. A few Black Egrets flew over the spectacular Falls - really
worth visiting, despite the crowd.