South Africa – Trip report

Day 1: Wednesday 15th March 2017.
Drive to the Golden Gate National Park.
The flight from the UK was a little bit early and the airport at Johannesburg seemed very empty – so we were away by 08:00hrs which has got to be a record! We drove out of Johannesburg and headed South east on the N3. Just after the town of Villiers we pulled over to the side of the road to watch a Long-tailed Widowbird displaying over the grasslands. Within ten minutes we had seen seven different butterflies. The ones that we identified were; Eyed Pansy, Painted Lady, Yellow Pansy, African Monarch, Meadow White and a Sulphur Yellow one that we could not identify with certainty.
Other notable stops along the way were for a pair of Southern Bald Ibis feeding in a ploughed field, a lone male Blesbok, (our first mammal of the trip). Two large birds on a pylon which turned out to be Pied Crows! And a Northern Black Korhaan. Other birds seen on the drive were; Indian Myna in Johannesburg at the airport, Glossy Ibis flying over the road, Sacred Ibis & Hadeda Ibis feeding on the road verge, as well as small family flock of Helmeted Guineafowl. Cape Sparrow at our lunch stop, Amur Falcons on the wires, Red Bishops were seen as a flash of red as we drove past.
We had a coffee & an early lunch at a farm stall before continuing on to our accommodation in the Golden Gate National Park, where we were to be for the next three days. After freshening up, we set off on our short walk. We had the sound of thunder overhead and Chacma Baboons on the path, also heading for cover in the cave. We had a beautiful small black snake on the path, probably a juvenile Rinkhals. We managed to get very close to a family of Ground Woodpeckers. Speckled Pigeon, African Harrier Hawk, Red-winged Starling and a pair of Neddick’s were also seen. On the other side of the valley there were half a dozen Black Wildebeest mixed in with a herd of 30 Red Hartebeest and we had Black-backed Jackals calling to one another across the valley. Some of the more notable flowers on our walk to the Holkrans Cave were the pink spikes of the Foxtail Erica, Erica alopecurus. The light blue Bell flowers, Wahlenbergia sp. The wonderful aroma from the wild mint. Short-tubed Drumsticks, Zaluzianskya microsiphon. We found a delicate white Moraea brevistyla. There were lots of yellow Primrose Gentians, Sebaea grandis, Nemesia denticulata, with small pink flowers & a blue & white flowered Lobelia, Lobelia erinus. The rain started just after we arrived back at the accommodation.
Day 2: Thursday 16th March 2017.
Golden Gate National Park.
We had some great thunder & lightning with plenty of rain during the night, but we awoke to blue skies and no wind. After breakfast we set off on the Oribi Loop. Stopping for flowers and spotting a few birds. A pair of Yellow-billed Ducks were on a drift (ford) across the road. Grey-backed and Levaillant’s Cisticolas were seen and a Jackal Buzzard was soaring overhead. We found some nice flowers, the highlight being an orchid Disperis stenoplectron. Sabots Lark, African Stonechat, White-necked Raven and Rock Kestrel were also seen as well as a small herd of Eland. We had great views of a Black Harrier as it set off quartering the grassland hunting for food. We drove up to a high view spot which gave us superb views of the Drakensberg Mountains and the lands beyond. Burchell’s Zebra, Black Wildebeest and Blesbok were up on top of the hills as well as further down in the valleys.
There was not much happening at the vulture hide so we watched a mixed flock of White-rumped Swifts, South African Cliff Swallows, House Martins, Rock Martins and Banded Martins hawking flying ants as they emerged from the grasslands. We found a beautiful Pineapple Lilly, Eucomis autumnalis by the car park and we had a Striped Skink at the hide. A pair of Cape Longclaws posed for us by perching on a rock.
We drove through into the little village of Clarens for lunch seeing a Steppe Buzzard en route and on the way back to the park we saw a Long-crested Eagle on a fence post.
We spent the afternoon on the Blesbok Loop. Stopping at the Langtoon Dam and the Zuluhoek lookout point. We saw more mammals, with close views of Burchell’s Zebra, Black Wildebeest and Blesbok. Towards the end of the loop we watched a young Black-backed Jackal hunting in the long grass. At a stop to photograph a Red-hot Poker, Kniphofia sp, we saw a Table Mountain Beauty and a Brown-veined Meadow White, which were both new butterflies for the trip and also a Southern Rock Agama. We arrived back at the lodge in time for a walk up to the base of the great crag that overlooks our lodge.
Day 3: Friday 17th March 2017.
Golden Gate National Park & the Sentinel.
We had such a great day yesterday in the Golden Gate National Park, with the perfect weather and great sightings, so today we decided to go ‘off’ itinerary a bit.  We drove through the park to the town of Phuthaditjhaba and then up to the Sentinal car park. This is where hikers start their hiking trail across the ‘Roof of Africa’. We were hoping for some high altitude flowers and we found plenty. We stopped a few times going up the steep and rough road. At the top car park and on the way down we saw a pair of Drakensberg Rock-Jumpers, a few Familiar Chats, an African Pipit, Rock Kestrel, Red-winged Starling and plenty of White-necked Ravens. Striped skink, Variable Skink and a Spiny Crag Lizard were also seen. At the very highest viewpoint we found Narines flowering on the cliffs and we had plenty of alpine flowers to look at. Orchids, Agapanthus, Moreas,
We had a late lunch and a coffee and then set off back to the Golden Gate National Park. The late afternoon light was very good for photography. Burchell’s Zebra, Blesbok, Black Wildebeest and Black-backed Jackal were seen again on the Blesbok Loop. A small herd of Springbok and a Grey Rhebok were new to our mammal list. We watched a mixed flock of Red-collard Widows, Red Bishops, Yellow-rumped Widows and all their non descript females.
Day 4: Saturday 18th March 2017.
Golden Gate National Park to the Royal Natal National Park.
We packed our bags and loaded the vehicle. We saw a large herd of Eland as we left the lodge with a few Blesbok and Black Wildebeest mixed in with them. We drove around the Oribi Loop in pursuit of a galloping Black Wildebeest – we eventually found him with his small herd. We stopped a few times on the drive to our next destination. At a farm dam we saw Red-knobbed Coot and Little Grebe. Cape Rock Thrush and Cape Wagtail at another stop.
We arrived at our lodge in good time so we dropped our luggage and went out to a local pool of water. Here we saw Reed Cormorant, Wattled Plover, Red Bishops and a fleeting glimpse of a Malachite Kingfisher. Back to our lodge for lunch and a cold drink as it was getting warm by now.
After lunch we went for a walk above the lodge. It was quiet on all levels of interest…. I think the highlight was a beautiful flying lion-ant. We also saw a Neddiky and a small purple Gladiolus. We walked back to the lodge and picked up the vehicle with the intention of getting down to the river, but unfortunately, as it was the weekend there was too much local ‘harassment’ (pressure sales to buy curios). We drove to another local lodge as a few in the group wanted to buy a botanical book of the area.
Day 5: Sunday 19th March 2017.
Royal Natal National Park.
We came across a large troop of Chacma Baboons on the road. It looked like they were just waking up and enjoying the morning sun. The alpha male was watching over the troop and it seemed like every female had a young one attached to either its back or undercarriage.
We spent the whole day exploring the Royal Natal National Park, mostly on foot. We drove to the end of the road, which in turn was the start of the Tugela Gorge walk. We had a high cloud cover, with a little bit of sunshine and no rain, this was perfect walking weather. The first half a kilometre was through damp riverine forest, with lots of flowers, plants and trees to look at. There was a lot of damage done by Wild Pigs, unfortunately we didn’t see any but we did see Eland on the other side of the valley. The mountains were looking spectacular and every now and then the cloud cover cleared enough to see the top of the escarpment. We walked as far as the view point below the policeman’s helmet rock feature.
Birds were in short supply! With only Black Sawwing, Greater-striped Swallow, Cape Robin-Chat, Cape White-eye, Forest Canary, Dark-capped Bulbul and Neddiky on the walk up to the view point. On the way back we came across a small birding party in the forested section of the walk; Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler, Cape Batis, African Puffback, Dusky Flycatcher, Cape White-eye and Dark-capped Bulbul and then as we drove to our picnic spot we saw a Swainson’s Spurfowl by the side of the road. A few butterflies were seen and some photographed; Rainforest Brown, Garden Acrea, Common Smoky Blue and a Common Hottentot Skimmer.
We had our picnic lunch overlooking a small dam. Here we watched Red-collard Widowbird, Greater-striped & White-throated Swallow, Pin-tailed Whydah, Southern Masked Weaver and Cape Wagtail. After our lunch we walked around the dam photographing Dragonflies and flowers. We had a quick stop at the Park shop – adding Groundscraper Thrush to our bird list. In the late afternoon a local guide took the group on a walk up to the San rock art site.
Day 6: Monday 20th March 2017.
uKhahlamba Drakensberg National Park
We drove through to the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park via Bergville and Winterton. We stopped a few times en route as always! Once for a Long-crested Eagle and on another occasion we stopped at a large farm dam where we saw White-faced Duck with a string of ducklings in tow, a pair of South African Shelduck, Egyptian Geese by the dozen and a Pied Kingfisher patiently perched on a reed waiting for a fish to pass by in the water. While I was putting together a picnic lunch at a farmstall the group was photographing Village Weather and Double-collard Sunbird on the Plumbago and Cape Honeysuckle, Tacoms capensis.
The first part of our circular walk to the Sterkspruit Falls went through a wooded area where we saw Dusky Flycatcher, Southern Boubou, Cape Robin-Chat, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Cape Batis and a few butterflies; Forest Beauty, Marsh Commodore, Common Blue and Garden Acraea. A Bushbuck was also seen browsing leaves in the forest section of the walk on our way back. The falls were looking good after all the rain that the area had received over the past few weeks. New flowers were recorded / identified / photographed.
We had a picnic lunch back at the start of the walk with some welcomed cool drinks. Familiar Chat, Cape Wagtail, Fiscal Shrike and Fork-tailed Drongo, were added to our day list and Chorister Robin-Chat was added to our trip list.
We drove back to our lodge and then went for a birdwatching walk around the lodge gardens. Common Scimitarbill, Collard Barbet, Lesser-masked Weaver, Red-eyed, Cape & Laughing Doves, Cape Crow, Helmeted Guineafowl, Hadeda Ibis, Cape White-eye, Cape Robin-Chat, Cape Glossy Starling, Arrow-marked Babbler and Dark-capped Bulbul were seen – but the big surprise of the walk was finding an African Wild Cat! The cat was resting in the shade near a thick unkempt section of the garden. We all managed to get good photos.
Day 7: Tuesday 21st March 2017.
Royal Natal National Park to Bonamanzi Game Reserve.
The best part of the day was on the road heading to our new destination in the Lowveld. We had a few stops here and there. An African Hoopoe feeding on the road verge in Winterton made us stop for photos and a Black-shouldered Kite on a telegraph pole was another stop. We had lunch at Zinkwasi Beach, on the Natal coast. We noticed the steep rise in temperature and humidity now that we were out of the air conditioned vehicle! We arrived at Bonamanzi in good time for a walk around the camp to get our bearings. A small herd of Impala and a Nyala ram were feeding on the grass in front of the rondavals and a Warthog family was doing the rounds checking us out. We saw Common Bush Brown and Sooty Blue butterflies around the dam in front of the rondavals as well as a variety of dragonflies and damselflies. We watched a Trumpeter Hornbill, with its outrageous bill, in the top of a tree. Village Weavers were building nests and the males trying their best to attract a female to view their hard work. We had plenty of new bird calls in the fading light for us to see tomorrow!
Day 8: Wednesday 22nd March 2017.
Bonamanzi Game Reserve.
We had an hour birdwatching from the viewing ‘bar’ overlooking the waterhole before breakfast. Brown-hooded kingfishers, plenty of deafening Hadeda’s waking up the neighbourhood, Green Heron, grey Heron, Pied Wagtail, Wire-tailed Swallow, Black-collard Barbet, Fork-tailed Drongo, Black-bellied Starling, Southern Black Tit, Egyptian Goose and a few Nyala’s and a shy Red Duiker were seen coming to the waterhole to drink.
After breakfast we went off in an open 4×4 to see what we could find on the reserve. We were amazed by the diversity of the butterfly species. Being in the back of a land rover was not conducive to identifying the individual butterfly species, but there were at least 25+ different species! Sulphur Orange Tip, Eyed-bush Brown, Variable Diadem, Bushveld Purple Tip and African Monarch were a few that we could identify. Giraffe, Blue Wildebeest, Burchell’s Zebra, Kudu, Nyalas, Warthogs, Impala and Cape Buffalo were the mammals seen on the drive. We also saw puddles of water on the dirt road that were alive with frogs, a Water Monitor Lizard was cooling off in one of these puddles and the nest of a foam frog was suspended above a puddle. Birds were also watched, with Rattling Cisticola, European Bee-Eater, Crested Barbet, Scarlet-chested Sunbird and Stripped Kingfisher.
We had a picnic lunch at the main waterhole in camp and then we had some ‘down time’ until mid afternoon when we drove down the road to a cat sanctuary. They rescue wild cats that become a problem to the farmers, the cats are then released into National Parks and private Game Reserves.  We had a guided tour of the place and we were able to see and photograph Serval, Caracal, African Wild Cat and Cheetah up close.
Day 9: Thursday 23rd March 2017.
Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park.
Our plan ‘A’, which was a boat trip down the local river, was not possible as the water level was too low…. So we opted for plan ‘B’. Which was a full day in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park. Our first mammal seen in the park was a large bull Elephant closely followed by three White Rhinos, with a proud dominant male Impala in-between! Not bad for the first one kilometre! We stopped for many birds, most of which were photographed and at one stage we had to make a hasty exit as a bull Elephant was showing a little bit too much interest in us. Warthogs, Nyala, Cape Buffalo, Bushbuck, Burchell’s Zebra and Lion were seen. We had a ‘tip off’ about a few Lions resting up in some thick bush just off the road further into the park from our lunch stop. We managed to find them, but they were well and truly ‘resting up’ – they were not going to move for anyone!
Back at Bonamanzi we had a great view of the secretive Red Duiker and a male Kudu with a stunning pair of corkscrew horns. A male Nyala and a herd of female Impala were happily grazing on the camp lawns. The lodge had prepared an outside braai for our last dinner. We had candles lining the walkways and an outside table with an orchestra of frogs as our music! To others, the moths being attracted to the candles could have been annoying, but to us they were caught, photographed and released –
Like any normal naturalist group would do!
Day 10: Friday 24th March 2017.
Bonamanzi to Wakkerstroom
We had a pre breakfast walk around the camp looking at birds, butterflies and anything else that caught our eye. One such thing was a huge black caterpillar – African Speckled Emperor Moth. It was about the size of a large finger, with red and white spines on it. We saw the usual birds, with no new birds, but we had a good view of a Red Duiker and a large crocodile. After breakfast we left Bonamanzi and then drove straight through to Wakkerstroom – arriving in good time for lunch at a local café.
After our lunch we dropped our bags at the lodge and then spent the rest of the afternoon at the wetlands. Some of the group went botanizing along the paths to the hides, finding Narines and a few new butterfly species; Evening Brown, Marsh Acraea and Orange Acraea were photographed. From the hide we watched Yellow-billed Duck, Common Moorhen, Red-knobbed Coot, Lesser Swamp Warbler, three very dishevelled Red Bishops and a Reed Cormorant. We then moved up on to the causeway that runs between the two main wetlands; Cape Wagtail, Three-banded Plover, South African Shelduck, Purple Swamphen, Yellow Canary, Greater Striped Swallow & White-throated Swallow, Little grebe, African Darter and Dark-capped Yellow Warbler were seen. We had been watching these ominous dark clouds above us during the afternoon and towards the end of the day they finally opened with claps of thunder, lightning and rain. We retreated back to the lodge and then we drove into the town of Wakkerstroom for our dinner.
Day 11: Saturday 25th March 2017.
We had rain, drizzle and low cloud for the best part of the day. This was not very conducive to going out birding and botanizing but we managed to motivate ourselves over a great breakfast and a couple of cups of coffee! Before we set off we spent some time watching the flying ants emerging from the ground and taking to the wing. Unfortunately not one was making the escape! Greater Striped Swallows, White-throated Swallows and South African Cliff Swallows were there in good numbers as well as Amethyst Sunbird, Pied Starling, Cape Robin-Chat and Cape White-Eye – All eating their fill!
We set off to drive on a circular route through the grasslands that surround the town of Wakkerstroom. Our first stop was to watch a couple of Southern Crowned Cranes in a field near the lodge. We stopped here and there to take photos of Long-tailed Widowbirds and Amur Falcons. We saw Southern Ant-eating Chats, Fan-tailed Widow bird, Red Bishops, a mixed flock of very wet and bedraggled Hadeda and Bald Ibis and a large herd of Blesbok. The cloud and mist came down and the rain started to get heavier, so we headed for hot chocolate in a coffee shop in town, with a nice log fire burning! Before lunch we spent an hour in the ‘Flufftail hide’. No Flufftail but we did see Sedge Warbler and Lesser Swamp Warbler as well as Bishops, Whydahs and Widowbirds hawking flying ants in front of the hide.
After a nice warm lunch by the log fire we then ventured out into the wild! Some of the group decided to do some botanizing along the ridge above the guest house, while the rest of us went down to the wetland to do some birdwatching from the bird hides. The heavens opened just as we arrived back at the vehicle for our drive back to the lodge.
Day 12: Sunday 26th March 2017.
This morning was still a bit overcast, gray, chilly and misty! So we had a royal breakfast to fortify us and then we set of to do a circular route through the grasslands that surround Wakkerstroom. Before we set off, we went in pursuit of a calling Black-headed Oriole. We caught up with the bird and managed to get great views of it as the tree that it was in was fortunately half void of leaves, as half the autumn leaves had fallen.
We drove north out of Wakkerstroom on the dirt road to Amersford. A family group of Suricates (Meercats) was seen on the road ahead of us, we managed to get quite close before they shot off in to the field and long grass. Further on we saw a couple of Crowned Cranes in a ploughed field, which under closer observation turned into ten Crowned Cranes and two Blue Cranes! At one stage the two crane species were together in the same shot (photo). We must have seen over one hundred Southern Bald Ibis during the course of the drive, just about every other field had a few feeding. Another highlight was finding a Malachite Kingfisher perched on a fence wire over a small stream between two fields. It was very obliging and I am sure that some great photos were taken. We arrived back in Wakkerstroom at our ‘local’ café for lunch. It was warm with a log fire burning. We decided that we had perhaps exhausted the wetlands from the bird hides so we opted for another circular drive, this time south of Wakkerstroom. Buff-streaked Chat was a new bird for our list and a Harrier on a far fence post kept us guessing for a while – it turned out to be an African Marsh Harrier. A Yellow Mongoose ran across the road in front of the vehicle and at one point we saw a large herd of Blesbok in amongst the sheep.
We stopped at a farm vlei (dam) to watch an Osprey that was perched in a dead tree. We had good views before it flew off and out of sight. Are attentions were then drawn to White-winged Terns and White-backed Ducks, also new to our trip bird list. We decided to spend some time here so we pulled off the road and explored the road verge for flowers. A few Narines were found (to be identified) and a green orchid was also seen.
Day 13: Monday 27th March 2017.
Wakkerstroom to Johannesburg
After another great breakfast we loaded the vehicle and set off on a ‘scenic’ route to Johannesburg. Southern Crowned Cranes were seen in their usual field mixed in with the horses and cattle, we also had a full house of Ibis; Sacred, Hadeda, Glossy & Southern Bald Ibis. Three White Storks were in a freshly cut field and Amur Falcons were still being seen in numbers. We drove via the little town of Memel, where we found a quirky farm stall for a cup of coffee. We tried visiting the local nature reserve but it was very much locked up so we did some botanizing instead. Orchids were found and the fan shaped leaves of the Boophone disticha were also looked at. The road verges and the odd fields around Wakkerstroom and Memel were lined with Pink and white cosmos which made for a very picturesque and photogenic picture.
Our lunch stop was at a motorway stop, which was far more pleasant than it sounds! We had a White-browed Sparrow-Weaver serenading us and Cape Glossy Starling, Cape Robin-Chat, House Sparrow, Common Fiscal (Shrike), Laughing Dove, Speckled Pigeon, Greater Striped Swallow and Dark-capped Bulbul also in the gardens where we sat. We arrived at the airport in good time, just avoiding the Jo’Burg rush hour traffic.
Many great photos were taken over the two weeks & plenty of great memories have been stored!