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Eastern South Africa Highlights Part 1: Drakensberg & Zululand - 14 Days

Eastern South Africa Highlights Part 1: Drakensberg & Zululand

A 13 night /14-day birding and wildlife safari through KwaZulu-Natal visiting Umhlanga, Port Shepstone, Creighton, Sani Pass, Eshowe, St Lucia, Tembe Elephant Park and Wakkerstroom.

Day 1
Day 1 - Umhlanga

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.

Day 2
Day 2 - Oribi Gorge

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.

Day 3
Day 3 - Underberg

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.

Day 4
Day 4 -Sani Pass and Lesotho

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.

Day 5
Day 5 - Eshowe

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.

Day 6
Day 6 - Eshowe

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.

Day 7
Day 7 - St Lucia

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.

Day 8
Day 8 - St Lucia

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.

Day 9
Day 9 - Tembe National Elephant Park

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.

Day 10
Day 10 - Tembe National Elephant Park

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.

Day 11
Day 11 - Tembe Elephant National Park

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.

Day 12
Day 12 - Wakkerstroom

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.

Day 13
Day 13 - Wakkerstroom

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.

Day 14
Day 14 - Departure

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.

This is a wonderful itinerary, taking in the best of KwaZulu-Natal Province. The diversity is incredible, including a range of habitats from the high plateau of Lesotho to the warm Indian Ocean coast. The bird list will be big, while the array of mammals to be seen will keep any non-birders busy. This tour runs back-to-back with Eastern SA Highlights Par 2 to create a comprehensive eastern South Africa birding and wildlife experience.

What is included?

  • • Accommodation
  • • All breakfasts and dinners
  • • Lunches at Tembe and on the full day up Sani Pass
  • • Entrance fees
  • • Ground transport
  • • Boat excursion at St Lucia
  • • Bottled water in Lawson’s vehicle whilst travelling
  • • Personalised checklists
  • • Specialist guide fees

What is not included?

  • • All airfares
  • • Travel and medical insurance
  • • Lunches (except at Tembe and on the Sani Pass day trip)
  • • All drinks
  • • Optional excursions where applicable
  • • Gratuities
  • • Items of a personal nature
Wildlife Reviews
5 stars
- based on 4  reviews
  1. Lawsons Safaris are excellent
    Evelyn Catt24 Jul 2018







    I have been with Lawsons on four occasions {2010, 2014,2016 2017} and each time the experience has been nothing short of excellent. The guides are very knowledgeable,friendly and are generous in sharing their knowledge of the birds and wildlife that we encountered. The organisation of the safari is always 1st class and everything goes very smoothly. I would {and do} recommend anyone to use Lawsons for a wonderful African experience.
  2. Lawsons
    Carole Waite20 Jul 2018







    I can not give less than 5 for all categories. Although it was a long time ago I remember it clearly. I am a veggie along with another guest and they had chosen eating places to ensure we had some excellent choices, not always so easy then. I was ill for a little while and they took me to a chemist, and made sure I was ok. This is a family run business and as such they can provide a wonderful personal experience and extra service where needed. I haven't even covered the off main sights and sounds they gave us. As such I have continued to receive their excellent newsletter and always hope I may return with them again
  3. Lawsome!
    Andy Oliver23 Jun 2018







    We've known Lawson's since 2003 and have travelled on two private safaris with them to KwaZulu Natal in 2004 and Malawi in 2016. Two fantastic experiences and it needs to be something special they don't offer to do a wildlife experience in Southern Africa with someone else. What we like most about them is they stayed in touch and very friendly to us during the 12 years we couldn't travel.
  4. Great Birding!
    Hugh O'Riodan21 Jun 2018







    Superb! Great birds! Two trips so far and want to do more.

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Why book with Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris?

Lawson's has nearly three decades of experience in running dedicated natural history tours in Africa.

Join Our Fixed Tour Starting Date

Tour Dates Tour Availability Price Spaces Left
18/01/2020 - 31/01/2020 available ZAR 48,999
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14 Days

Price & Availability

ZAR49,000 / per person
This tour is operated by: Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris

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Operator Review Summary

4.99 Based on 19 reviews

Tour Facts

  • Set Departure
  • Birds
  • 12 participants, 6 per vehicle
  • No age restrictions but not suited to young children
  • Moderate
  • King Shaka Airport, Durban
  • O R Tambo International, Johannesburg