This “barrier of spears”, as locals have named the imposing Drakensberg Escarpment, separates South Africa from the tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho, which we will also visit. The beautiful Lesotho and Drakensberg highlands harbor a host of localized avian endemics. After birding the Drakensberg, we will once again descend in altitude to explore the fascinating temperate forests of the Natal midlands (where such spectacular species as Spotted Ground Thrush, Orange Ground Thrush, Cape Parrot, Narina Trogon, Green Twinspot, Green Malkoha and many others lurk). Next on our schedule is the habitat mosaic of subtropical forest, savanna, moist grassland and superb wetlands of the northern Zululand coast, an area truly world-famous for its spectacular bird diversity.
Then we head for the grassy hills of Wakkerstroom, essential for such sought-after species as Blue and Barrow’s Korhaans, Rudd’s and Botha’s Larks, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Bush Blackcap, Bald Ibis and a plethora of other southern African endemics. We are now within easy striking distance of Kruger, which is to many the greatest national park on earth. Eventually, we will ascend out of the subtropical lowlands and onto the temperate highland plateau on which the mile-high city of Johannesburg sprawls. Before flying out of Johannesburg, we will sample birds typical of the Kalahari semi-desert northwest of Pretoria (including such gems as Southern Pied Babbler and Crimson-breasted Shrike).
Day 1, Tue, 12 Oct: Many exciting new birds can be found in the big garden of our Durban B&B – we may find the likes of Purple-crested Turaco, Black-throated Wattle-eye, White-eared Barbet, Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird and many other mouth-watering species. We’ll also look for estuary birds, such as Little Tern, Lesser Crested Tern, Greater and Lesser Sandplovers and numerous others. O/N Gateway Country Lodge, Durban.
Day 2, Wed, 13 Oct: after further birding in the Durban area, where we’ll spend quite a lot of time getting to grips with a whole new suite of species, we’ll eventually start heading inland to Creighton. As we ascend into the rolling hills of the “Natal Midlands”, so we’ll start seeing a host of new species, including several spectacular widowbird, bishop and whydah species. The extravagant plumage of birds such as Long-tailed Widow, Southern Red Bishop and all the others provides much entertainment. Time permitting, we can look for Pied (Magpie) Mannikin and also bird the fine Oribi Gorge and Vernon Crookes Nature Reserves. O/N Smithfield Guest House, Creighton.
Day 3, Thu, 14 Oct: We leave very early in the morning (around 05h30) with a packed breakfast and lunch to ascend the Sani Pass by 4-wheel drive with a local guide. The ascent up Sani Pass, one of the most famed birding routes in South Africa, provides easy access to most of the birds endemic to the Drakensberg Escarpment and highlands, plus spectacular mountain scenery. Patches of temperate forest and scrub, inhabited by sought-after Bush Blackcap, Drakensberg Prinia, Chorister Robin-chat and other endemics, are found in the lower reaches of the pass. This habitat is replaced by Protea savanna a little higher up, where Gurney’s Sugarbird and Malachite Sunbird occur.
Above the tree-line, Drakensberg Siskin and Orange-breasted Rockjumper start to appear, and at even higher altitude, Mountain Pipit, Bearded Vulture (Lammergeyer) and many other Drakensberg specials occur. We will spend a full day ascending to the top of the escarpment and into the beautiful mountain Kingdom of Lesotho, with frequent stops along the way, in a quest to find all the localized specials. We then descend the mountain for dinner. O/N Smithfield Guest House, Creighton.
Day 4, Fri, 15 Oct: This morning before brunch we’ll bird a patch of high altitude temperate forest and surrounding grasslands for stunning birds such as Orange Ground Thrush, Olive Woodpecker, the critically-endangered Cape Parrot, the magnificent and endangered Blue Swallow, Narina Trogon and a host of others. We may find Denham’s and Black-bellied Bustards, Bald Ibis, Southern Ground Hornbill, Black-winged Lapwing and a host of other exciting specials between the B&B and the forest patch. After brunch, we depart for Eshowe where, time-permitting, we can already start birding Dlinza Forest with its splendid canopy tower and aerial boardwalk. O/N Eshowe B&B.
Day 5, Sat, 16 Oct: We will make a very early start with packed breakfasts and lunches. We will bird the medium-altitude Ongoye Forest in the morning with a local guide. In this truly beautiful temperate forest, we may find Narina Trogon, the endangered Spotted Ground Thrush, the rare and unpredictable Delegorgue’s Pigeon, Scaly-throated Honeyguide, the inconspicuous but very beautiful Green Twinspot, Grey Waxbill, Red-backed Mannikin, Grey Cuckoo-shrike, Green Malkoha, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, and many other phenomenal species. Ongoye Red Squirrel is also quite possible. After birding this and other forests in the area (time permitting), we will then head to the warm coast to seek Palm-nut Vulture (in the Raffia Palm Nature Monument at Mtunzini), Collared (Red-winged) Pratincole, the rare Swamp Nightjar at its daytime roost, and a plethora of other tantalizing specials. O/N Eshowe B&B.
Day 6, Sun, 17 Oct: We will visit the Dlinza Forest canopy tower in the early morning. Here, it is often possible to see Grey Cuckoo-shrike and other generally elusive species at eye-level. White-eared Barbet, Green Malkoha, Trumpeter and Crowned Hornbill, Olive Bush-shrike and a whole host of other species often put in an appearance. When mixed feeding flocks (bird parties) gather, the birding becomes even more exciting than usual. Thanks to the new canopy tower, this is probably the easiest place in South Africa to find Delegorgue’s (Eastern Bronze-naped) Pigeon, but in some years this species is absent. After brunch, we head to the famed Lake St. Lucia, which has a phenomenally rich assemblage of waterbirds, forest birds, grassland birds and others in its great variety of different habitats. When we arrive at the B&B, we’ll immediately start birding – Livingstone’s Turaco, Lemon Dove, Klaas’s Cuckoo, Rudd’s Apalis, and other spectacular forest birds have actually become garden birds here. O/N St. Lucia Kingfisher Lodge.
Day 7, Mon, 18 Oct: We will leave early with a packed breakfast for Cape Vidal. We are bound to stumble across White Rhino and other megafauna en route to Cape Vidal, which is one of the best sites for Green Twinspot, the elusive Southern Banded Snake Eagle and the attractive Crested Guineafowl – far more exotic in appearance than its more common cousin the Helmeted Guineafowl. There are of course many other birds, such as Green Malkoha, Red-backed Mannikin, etc. The rare and local Samango Monkey occurs at Cape Vidal along with the more widespread Vervet Monkey. O/N St Lucia Kingfisher Lodge.
Day 8, Tue, 19 Oct: we’ll drive to the small but magnificent Mkuze Game Reserve, which boasts 400 + bird species as well as a plethora of mammals including Black and White Rhinos and Leopard. Time-permitting, we may look for Pel’s Fishing Owl before entering the reserve. After dinner, we can embark on a night drive. Mkuze night drives quite often yield Leopard, and there are chances of seeing several owl, nightjar, thickknee and courser species. O/N Mkuze Game Reserve.
Day 9, Wed, 20 Oct: An early morning bird walk in the Sand Forest should yield the extremely localized Neergaard’s Sunbird, African Broadbill with its bizarre display flight, Pink-throated Twinspot and other tantalizing endemics, plus a phenomenal diversity of other species. Mkuze is one of the richest sites for birds on the entire African continent. We will also have a reasonable chance of finding the diminutive Suni Antelope in the Sand Forest. After our early morning bird walk, we will embark on birding drives in search of a whole host of exciting species – we will bird woodland, savanna and wetland areas. While looking for birds, there is also an excellent chance of stumbling across White Rhino (and possibly the rarer Black Rhino), Nyala, as well as other mammals that are difficult to find in most other game reserves. O/N Mkuze Game Reserve.
Day 10, Thu, 21 Oct: after final birding in Zululand, we’ll depart for Wakkerstroom, an area of rolling green hills on the Drakensberg Escarpment - in stark contrast to Mkuze’s dry woodland. The first bird we will focus on finding at Wakkerstroom, in areas of long grass at relatively low altitude, is Barrow’s (Southern White-bellied) Korhaan. This is a difficult korhaan because it is small yet usually lurks in tall grass. We usually find it in the late afternoon when it ventures into open fields nearby its typical habitat. While looking for this species, we should also find South African Cliff Swallow, Southern Ant-eating Chat, Southern Crowned Crane, Blue Crane (South Africa’s national bird) and many more. O/N Wakkerstroom Country Inn, Wakkerstroom.
Day 11, Fri 22 Oct: We will spend the day birding the beautiful Wakkerstroom area. This small town is famed for being the best site on earth for the extremely localized Rudd’s Lark as well as Botha’s Lark. We also usually find the endemic Pink-billed Lark, Eastern Clapper Lark, Eastern Long-billed Lark and Spike-heeled Lark. Blue Korhaan is common and conspicuous, and Denham’s Bustard is also usually obvious. Jackal Buzzard, Bush Blackcap, Red-throated Wryneck, Grass Owl, Marsh Owl and many other fine birds are also possible. O/N Wakkerstroom Country Inn, Wakkerstroom.
Day 12, Sat, 23 Oct: After some final early morning birding around Wakkerstroom, we head for one of Africa’s greatest game parks, the Kruger National Park! This park has a staggering bird diversity, and we are bound to find Multiple species of each of the following groups: hornbills, barbets, rollers, bee-eaters, kingfishers, cuckoos, storks, eagles (including the amazing Bateleur), vultures, owls, weavers (including Red-headed Weaver), turacos and many others. As a by-product of our marked focus on birding, we should also encounter elephant, lion, giraffe, buffalo, a plethora of antelope species, hippopotamus, crocodile, and many small mammals, such as mongooses, etc. We will, however, require much luck for leopard or cheetah. O/N Lower Sabie or Pretoriuskop Rest Camp, Kruger National Park.
Day 13, Sun 24 Oct: We will spend a full day birding the rivers, riverine forests, woodlands and savannas of this pristine and huge African wilderness area. O/N Lower Sabie or Pretoriuskop Rest Camp, Kruger National Park.
Day 14, Mon, 25 Oct: After a final morning of birding in Kruger, we will depart for the escarpment. Here, we will look for one of Africa’s rarest birds, the small but powerful and extremely fast Taita Falcon. This was only recently discovered as a breeding bird in South Africa, but this site is probably the most reliable place on earth to find this species at present. As usual, we may find all sorts of other birds, including Mocking Cliff Chat, Lanner Falcon, Cape Griffon Vulture, etc. We’ll then head further west, eventually arriving at one of South Africa’s premier grassland endemic birding sites, Dullstroom. Here, we may find Gurney’s Sugarbird, Malachite Sunbird, Secretarybird, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Cape Eagle Owl and others. O/N Linger Longer Country Retreat, near Dullstroom.
Day 15, Tue, 26 Oct: we will drive further westwards to our next lodge, which offers spectacular birding that is very different from anything we will have done so far – hence we add a lot of new species to our already large bird list right at the end of the tour. We will bird the lodge ground and along the nearby Zaagkuilsdrift Road, looking for many birds characteristic of the Kalahari, including such spectacular species as Crimson-breasted Shrike, Southern Pied Babbler, Violet-eared Waxbill, Black-cheeked Waxbill. Kalahari Robin, White-throated Robin, Northern Black Korhaan, several bee-eater species (sometimes including Carmine and Blue-cheeked), Temmink’s Courser, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-lark, Red-headed Finch and Black Egret.
Day 16, Wed, 27 Oct: we’ll do some pre-breakfast birding. Today is basically a travel day and your international flight can leave from Johannesburg International Airport any time today. The lodge is 1.5 hours’ drive from the airport.
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