Africa Wildlife Safari: Eastern South Africa Part 1
Birding in KwaZulu-Natal, The Place of the Zulu, is an unbelievably diverse experience. The altitudinal variation is extreme, and in a half-day drive, one can go from a sub-alpine environment where several peaks reach over 3000 meters above sea-level, right down to the warm shores of the Indian Ocean.
In between there’s a transition through the green, rolling ‘Midlands’, studded with wetlands and forest patches, while to the north-east the Maputaland coastal plain becomes progressively more lush and tropical. This diversity results in a large and varied birdlife component, with species to be seen ranging from the awesome Lammergeier at 3000 meters up in the Drakensberg to the equally impressive Palm-nut Vulture foraging for fruit among the giant Raffia Palms of Mtunzini on the shores of the Indian Ocean.
This South Africa Wildlife Safari and Birding Tour begins in the port city of Durban, and then takes in some of the gems of the South Coast, before heading inland to the Drakensberg massif, where the undoubted highlight is a day trip up Sani pass and into Lesotho. From there the route takes us back to the coast, taking in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and the Sand Forests of Tembe Elephant Park, before the last stop in Wakkerstroom and an end in Johannesburg. The itinerary includes a chance to see all of the province’s specials, as well as a good range of endemics and near-endemics, and a large list of more widely-occurring species. This tour leads on to Eastern South Africa Highlights #2: Escarpment and Kruger, to make for a comprehensive eastern South African birding and wildlife experience.
Top 5 highlights:
- Take a birding day trip up into Lesotho via the incredibly scenic Sani Pass to look for some very special birds.
- Check out the aerial boardwalk and canopy tower in Dlinza Forest, Eshowe.
- Visit the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, one of South Africa's World Heritage Sites.
- Go on 4x4 vehicle birding and game drives in Tembe Elephant Park.
- Look for some of Africa's rarest larks in Wakkerstroom, one of the country's endemics hot spots.
Alternative Tour Name: Eastern South Africa Highlights Part 1: Drakensberg & Zululand
We’ll all meet up in Umhlanga for the start of this epic birding tour, and should we have some time during the afternoon, we can kick things off with a short bit of birding at one of the sites nearby. We have an opportunity to start recording a number of the easier KwaZulu-Natal species such as Yellow and Southern Brown-throated Weaver, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, African Paradise Flycatcher, Grey Sunbird and Dark-backed Weaver. In the evening we’ll have dinner in town and get to know each other a bit before the tour kicks off in earnest the following day.
We’ll have a fairly interesting drive heading south along the coast, with our first birding stop being at Vernon Crooks Nature Reserve. This small reserve holds some interesting species such as Green Malkoha, Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Grey Waxbill, Dark-backed Weaver, Grey Crowned Crane, Lazy Cisticola and Amethyst Sunbird. From here we’ll visit a few smaller sites where we stand a chance of locating Brown Scrub-Robin, Red-capped Robin-Chat, Narina Trogon, Trumpeter Hornbill, and with luck, Magpie Mannikin. We’ll overnight at Oribi Gorge, with this area having some spectacular views of the gorge and several excellent species, with the grassland at the top playing host to Zitting Cisticola, Cape Grassbird and Black Sparrowhawk, whilst the next morning will be spent exploring the forests below.
We’ll be up fairly early and will head down into the gorge itself to search for a few of the more interesting species found within the forests below. Although the birding here can be quite difficult, it holds several interesting bird species such as Grey Waxbill, Olive Sunbird, African Crowned Eagle, African Goshawk, African Firefinch, and possibly Knysna Woodpecker, a fantastic bird which that reaches the northern point of its range here. From here we’ll make our way through to Underberg in the foothills of the Southern Drakensberg. We’ll have some time to settle in and perhaps do some casual birding in and around town to end off the day.
Today is bound to be an exciting day as we plan to make our way up one of the most scenic passes in South Africa, the Sani Pass, one of the few vehicular access points on the eastern side of Lesotho. Not only will we be greeted by spectacular scenery, but also by several fascinating bird species. Some of the birds we’ll focus on lower down are Malachite Sunbird, Cape Rock-Thrush, Bush Blackcap, Barratt’s Warbler and White-necked Raven. As we continue to climb, the vegetation slowly changes and shrubs start disappearing leaving only low scrub and grassland, and from this point on we’ll start to focus on the next set of specials, with Drakensberg Siskin and Drakensberg Rockjumper being two of our target species, along with Bearded Vulture which could be seen anywhere from this point onwards. Once we reach the top of the pass we’ll officially cross over into Lesotho (passports are needed here), and after a short distance we’ll start to look for birds such as Southern Grey Tit, Layard’s Tit-babbler, Thick-billed Lark, Mountain Pipit, Fairy Flycatcher and Yellow Canary. We’ll have a lunch stop at an old quarry where we often find Ground Woodpecker, and should we still need Drakensberg Rockjumper, we’ll carry on a bit further up Black Mountain to search for this iconic species. Afterwards we’ll drive back to Underberg, arriving late the afternoon, before we settle in for another lovely meal and what’s bound to be a good night’s rest.
Today we’ll start off with some birding in the Underberg area before breakfast and departure. We’ll travel via the Karkloof area for a few birding stops with our target species being the Cranes, with all three Southern African Crane species (Blue, Grey Crowned and Wattled) being found here, although Wattled Crane would require some luck to find due to their low numbers. Other species to be seen here include Pale-crowned Cisticola, Banded Martin, Jackal and Forrest Buzzards. We’ll then push on to Eshowe. This area is rich in history as the seat of the famed Zulu Empire of the 1870’s, when the British Colonial force came into contact with one of Southern Africa’s most powerful tribes. We’ll be staying on the fringe of Dlinza Forest, a relic patch of coastal scarp forest around which the town is built. The highlight of the forest is an aerial boardwalk which allows us to look for birds from high up in the canopy, and even from above on the twenty-metre high canopy tower. There’s also a walking trail through the forest, and birds we’ll be looking out for include Spotted Ground Thrush, Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon, Cape Batis, Narina Trogon, Grey Cuckooshrike, Green Malkoha, Lemon Dove, Trumpeter Hornbill and others, while the tiny Blue Duiker, standing only 30 cm tall at the shoulder, is fairly common in the forest. After an afternoon walk in the forest we’ll head back to the guest house to freshen up before dinner.
We’ll focus on a few specific sites today and start things off by driving out to Ongoye Forest. The myriad tracks leading through the surrounding farmland will offer the chance to add to the list with species such as Little Rush-Warbler, Gorgeous Bush-Shrike, Brimstone Canary, Red-collared Widowbird and White-throated Swallow. Once we reach the forest itself, our main target will be the highly range restricted Green Barbet, with this forest constituting the only locality within the Southern African sub-region for this species. The forest holds several other special species, such as Yellow-streaked Greenbul, African Crowned Eagle, Narina Trogon, Greater Double-collared Sunbird and Yellow-bellied Greenbul. This fascinating forest also holds its own unique sub-species of Dwarf Chameleon called the Ongoye Dwarf Chameleon, as well as a sub-species of Squirrel, the Ongoye Red Squirrel. After leaving Ongoye, we’ll drive down to the coast for lunch at the small coastal town of Mtunzini where our main target will be the Palm-nut Vulture, and depending on time, we may also visit the Umlalazi Nature Reserve where Brown Scrub-Robin, Purple-banded Sunbird and Black Saw-wing should be seen. After lunch we’ll head back to Eshowe and have a bit of time to relax during the afternoon, before having a short walk through the nearby Dlinza Forest to end the day.
We’ll start off with a walk through Dlinza Forest, with our first stop being on the aerial boardwalk and the canopy tower where we hope to locate Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon, a species that often perches on exposed points during the early morning but becomes fairly unobtrusive afterwards. These may be joined by African Goshawk, White-eared Barbet, Black-bellied Starling, African Emerald Cuckoo, Purple-crested Turaco and Red-eyed Dove. Afterwards we’ll start to explore some of the forest trails where our main target species will be Spotted Ground-Thrush, with hopefully a few other species being found along the way such as Chorister Robin-Chat, Grey Cuckooshrike and possibly Green Twinspot. We’ll head back for breakfast before packing up and driving through to our next destination, St Lucia, where we’ll have lunch before unpacking and having a bit of time to put up our feet. Later the afternoon we’ll do a boat trip along the Lake St Lucia estuary, offering the chance to get up close to several species such as Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, African Pygmy-Goose, Reed Cormorant, Common Moorhen, Yellow and Southern Brown-throated Weaver, and with a bit of luck, Saddle-billed Stork.
Today we’ll leave our base early and most of the day will be spent in the Cape Vidal section of the iSimangaliso Wetlands National Park where we hope to find a range of wonderful bird species, such as Woodward’s Batis, Livingstone’s Turaco, Black-bellied Starling, Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, White-eared Barbet, Collared Pratincole, Kitlitz’s Plover, African Yellow White-eye and Crowned Hornbill. As the day may be fairly warm this time of year, we’ll try and get back to St.Lucia town early the afternoon for lunch and have a little bit of time to relax during the hotter period of the day, before we have a late afternoon walk along the estuary boardwalk, where we may add a few extra species. Rufous-winged Cisicola, Grey Heron, Yellow-billed Stork, Common Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper and Little Stint are usually present, often along with Sanderling, Pink-backed Pelican and Caspian Tern. Depending on time, we may opt to take a short walk down the beach to the mouth of the Umfolozi River, where the chance exists to see Terek Sandpiper, White-fronted Plover, Common Ringed Plover, Little, Common, Swift and Sandwich Tern, with this site also turning up more unusual species such as Greater and Lesser Sand Plover most years. We’ll return in time for a bit of off time before dinner at one of the many restaurants in this town.
Today we’ll start with an early excursion to the iGwalagwala trail on the southern edge of town, where the coastal forest holds several worthwhile species, such as Rudd’s Apalis, Woodward’s Batis, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Livingstone’s Turaco, Black Saw-wing, Brown Scrub-Robin, Red-capped Robin-Chat, and with a bit of luck, Green Twinspot and Green Malkoha. Afterwards we’ll return for breakfast, before packing up and making our way north towards our next birding spot, Muzi Pan, where we’ll look for a range of waterbirds such as African Spoonbill, Collared Pratincole, Red-billed Teal, African Marsh-Harrier, Common Ringed Plover, Brown-throated Weaver and White-faced Duck. From here, we’ll tackle the final drive to Tembe Elephant Park, which we should arrive at during the mid-afternoon. In the late afternoon we’ll have a short drive to see what we can find, hopefully including species such as Southern Banded Snake-Eagle, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Pink-throated Twinspot and Yellow-breasted Apalis.
We’ll start the day with a morning drive, where we’ll focus our attention on finding a few specific species, in particular Plain-backed Sunbird, but also other species we still need such as Rosy-throated Longclaw, Neergard’s Sunbird and African Broadbill. The reserve plays host to a wide range of species though and we’ll have ample time to explore the different habitats here, and other special birds could include Retz’s Helmet-Shrike, Shelley’s Francolin, Square-tailed Nightjar, Gorgeous Bush-Shrike and Eastern Nicator. We’ll have the middle of the day to relax, before departing once more for an afternoon drive to explore other part of the reserve. As the name implies, the reserve is also well known for its population of African Elephant, with a high proportion of individuals with large sets of tusks.
Our focus today will be Ndumo Game Reserve, an extremely rich reserve situated a short drive to the west, and although several species of birds are similar to Tembe, the drier western section of Ndumo has a few species that are very poorly distributed in KwaZulu-Natal, including Bennett’s Woodpecker, Marico Sunbird and Flappet Lark. The reserve has to be rated as one of the best in South Africa, and the dense woodland offers several superb species, with Cuckoos in particular being well represented; LeVaillant’s, Jacobin, Klaas’s, Diderick and Great Spotted Cuckoo all being possible. The hides overlooking Nyamithi Pan also provide the chance to see large numbers of breeding birds, with Great White Egret, Reed and White-breasted Cormorant, African Darter and African Openbill all regularly present. We’ll return to Tembe during the afternoon where we’ll spend another night.
The day will start with another game drive through Tembe, hoping to add a last few regional species to the list, before we have breakfast at the lodge and depart for our next destination, the small town of Wakkerstroom. We’ll spend the majority of the day travelling, and once we get closer to Wakkerstroom, the habitat will start to change rapidly, with the bush giving way to higher altitude grassland, introducing an entirely new mix of species. On the way there we’ll search for Banded Martin, Pied Starling, Spike-heeled Lark, African Pipit, Cape Crow, Denham’s Bustard, Cape Longclaw and Amur Falcon. The late afternoon we may search for Barrow’s Korhaan, and closer to Wakkerstroom we should see Southern Bald Ibis, a species regularly seen in agricultural areas in this section of the country.
We’ll spend the day searching for several target species, and our first area of focus will be the grassland to the north of town, where Botha’s and Rudd’s Lark will be high up on our list of target species, and we should be able to add Secretarybird, Blue and Grey Crowned Crane, Mountain Wheatear and Common Quail. We’ll return to town for breakfast, followed by another session of birding in the area, perhaps heading down to the wetland to search for additional species such as Pale-crowned, Wing-snapping and Zitting Cisticolas, Fulvous Whistling Duck, African Snipe, Common Moorhen, Yellow-billed and White-backed Duck, Cape Shoveler, Southern Pochard and Lesser Swamp Warbler. After lunch we’ll explore the region to the south of town, targeting Yellow-breasted Pipit, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Ground Woodpecker, African Rock Pipit and Bush Blackcap. We’ll get back to town late, followed by our last dinner for the tour.
Our last morning will be spent birding the wetland close to town to add species such as Black-crowned Night-Heron, African Reed Warbler, Dark Capped Yellow Warbler, Cape Weaver and African Marsh Harrier. Although we may hear Red-chested Flufftail calling, we’d need a serious amount of luck to spot one of these skulking birds! We’ll return to town for breakfast, and after packing up, make our way back to the airport where we’ll say our final goodbyes to any members not continuing on with the next tour.
*Note: Any members wishing to link this tour with the next tour, Eastern South Africa Highlights Part 2: Escarpment & Kruger will overnight in Johannesburg. Costs for this extra night not included.
Our target species for this safari include: Drakensberg Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin, Knysna Woodpecker, African Rock Pipit, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Lammergeier, Cape Vulture, Verreaux’s Eagle, Southern Bald Ibis, Grey Tit, Sentinel and Cape Rock Thrushes, Cape Parrot, Blue Swallow, Spotted Ground Thrush, Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon, Green Barbet, Lemon Dove, Trumpeter Hornbill, Palm-Nut Vulture, Woodward’s Batis, Rudd’s Apalis, Gorgeous Bush Shrike, Livingstone’s Turaco, Southern Banded Snake Eagle, Narina Trogon, Rudd’s Lark, Botha’s Lark, Blue Korhaan, Grey Crowned Crane, Blue Crane, White-bellied Korhaan, Long-tailed Widowbird, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Plain-backed Sunbird, African Broadbill, Palm-nut Vulture, Eastern Clapper Lark, African Crowned Eagle, Bush Blackcap, Brown Scrub Robin, Orange-breasted Waxbill, Red-necked Spurfowl, Barratt’s Warbler, Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, Black-collared Barbet, Eastern Nicator, Rosy-throated Longclaw, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Trumpeter Hornbill, Goliath Heron and many more. Mammal species to see include African Elephant, Lion, Blue Duiker, Nyala, Red Squirrel, Hippopotamus, Slogget’s Ice Rat, Southern White Rhino and many others.
What is included?
- All accommodation or lodgings based on double occupancy
- Single occupancy available at extra cost (single supplement)
- All breakfasts and dinners (lunches on Sani Pass trip and at Tembe are included)
- Local transfers and all ground transport throughout the trip/tour/safari
- Lawson's insulated water bottle (clients to purchase own water or use tap water)
- Entrance fees to all National Parks, Provincial Reserves and other sites / attractions on the specified itinerary
- Personalised bird / mammal checklists and itinerary
- Specialist guide fees (professional English-speaking birding and wildlife guide)
What is not included?
- Travel and medical insurance (incl. personal equipment and repatriation)
- All airfares unless otherwise indicated
- Excess baggage charges
- Visa fees (if applicable)
- Lunches (except as mentioned above)
- All drinks
- Optional excursions where applicable
- Tips and Gratuities
- Items of a personal nature (incl. laundry and telephone charges)
In 2020 we are celebrating our 30th year of running birding and wildlife safaris in Africa. So we have plenty of experience in the game, and pride ourselves in creating incredible wildlife holiday experiences for our clients from across the globe. We offer quality wildlife experiences through set-departure and custom safaris, guided by fun and experienced birding and wildlife guides. Like our motto says, "you'll want to return to Africa with us time and time again!" See more on our website.
A deposit will secure your place on the tour, with full payment due 8 weeks before the tour starts. Terms and Conditions apply, we'll give you all the info during the inquiry process.
This tour is primarily a birding tour, so it's suited to any level of birder, be you a beginner or more advanced birder. Wildlife, and mammals in particular, is a secondary focus and the Kruger Park in particular will deliver a rewarding mammal experience - mammal enthusiasts can rest assured that we won't bypass anything of interest just because it isn't a bird. If you aren't a birder then perhaps some of our other wildlife-focused tours will be a better bet, speak to one of our consultants for advice.
On days we aren't moving location or camp, we usually meet up for a cup of tea / coffee before heading out on a long morning activity, returning for late breakfast / brunch. Then we may have a bit of down time before an afternoon activity, returning in time to freshen up before dinner. There are exceptions - on some days we may head out on longer trips, taking packed meals with us and only returning after lunch; or we may have an early breakfast before departure for the next destination. Whatever the exact program we try to keep the pace manageable, after all it is supposed to be a holiday. *Some tours, such as our Endemics tours, are fast-paced overall.
There generally aren't any age limits on the tours, so children are welcome. However, given the nature of the tours (long periods spent in vehicles looking for birds / animals, and not always finding our target species, despite the effort put in), our set-departures probably aren't suitable for children. For families we'd rather recommend a custom-safari, where you can dictate the pace and level of interest, and include more child-friendly accommodation venues. Speak to one of our consultants for advice.
In general credit cards are widely accepted in South Africa and across much of Southern Africa, though Diner's Club is the exception (Visa and Master are better options). It is a good idea to have some South African Rands (ZAR) on hand for smaller purchases or times when card machines may not be working. Note that South Africa and Namibia do not accept US Dollars cash, but US Dollars can be used in most of the rest of Africa.
Most certainly! We usually recommend coming in a day early to acclimatize and reduce the risk of missing out a day or two due to flight delays or other travel problems, and we are happy to arrange this accommodation for you. And if you would like to extend your time in the country, our consultants are happy to help with suggestions and bookings.
We send out more detailed packing lists as part of every safari info pack, but basically you'll need comfortable clothing, preferably in neutral colors. In general clothes dry quite quickly for self-washing, and most private places have laundry services, so it's not necessary to over pack. In order to avoid having to tow trailers etc we ask participants to keep their luggage down to one main bag and one day / carry-on bag plus photo / optics gear. We do recommend some warm gear for all safaris, just in case of cooler weather coming through, and especially for safaris entailing open-vehicle drives. Even at 20 degrees Celsius it can start getting a little chilly on a moving vehicle when you are exposed to the wind. Hats and sunglasses are essential. A torch / flashlight is also essential, and we strongly recommend socks and closed shoes after dark. Adapters - make sure you have the right adapters to be able to charge your devices. The 'universal' adapter does not work in South Africa!
Unless otherwise stated, our set-departures do not require any advanced degree of fitness, as most of the activities are vehicle-based. However, on tours with open-sided safari vehicles, getting into the vehicle does require a some climbing ability - if you have difficulty climbing up a step or two let us know in advance so we can make arrangements such as including steps to help you get up or making sure the passenger seat is available. Where there is any walking involved this is normally an optional activity so you are welcome to sit it out.
In general yes - when using restaurants you are able to order whatever item on the menu suits you. When using lodges doing their own catering then advanced warning will usually enable them to cater for your needs. Please indicate any special needs to us well in advance. Note that the food is very good in general on our trips so you don't need to indicate that you are vegetarian just because you are worried about what meat may be served - for the most part it's beef, pork, lamb and chicken, though game meat may be available as an option. Speak to our consultants if you have any specific questions.
The coastal regions will be hot and humid, whereas the interior at Wakkerstroom should be warm but pleasant, possibly cool during the evenings. Sani Pass has highly variable weather, as such, a warm jacket and waterproof shell is advised. Rain is a possibility this time of year.
Medium to medium-plus, optional mid-day breaks (advisable considering on hot days), no serious walking.
Birding in brief: excellent variety of habitats; a mix of coastal dune forest, Bushveld, altitudinal grassland and mountains. Mammal viewing: good game viewing in areas with special species such as Blue Duiker, Suni, Samango Monkey, Slogget’s Rat and Ongoye Red Squirrel. Tembe and Ndumo offer a good chance for large game such as African Elephant, Lion, African Buffalo and White Rhinoceros.
This tour can be combined with Eastern South Africa Highlights #2: Escarpment & Kruger.
Medium to medium plus; guest houses and lodges.