A birdwatching and wildlife spectacular to South Africa’s rich north-east corner, from the highveld, to the Kruger National Park and a superb private reserve with unparalleled opportunities to see Africa's big five.
World-renowned for its incredible biological diversity, nowhere is this more evident than in the north-east of the country. Within a day’s drive, one can go from cool 2,000 metre-plus grasslands to hot, sub-tropical savannah with many transitional habitats in between supporting a fantastic array of Africa's top predators, mammals and birdlife. This wonderful, compact itinerary is designed to make the most of this diversity while at the same time avoiding long journeys between stops and allowing enough time to savour and enjoy the various locations.
The highlands are an endemics hot-spot, and notable species to be seen include bokmakierie, Gurney’s sugarbird, Drakensberg prinia, Cape grassbird, sentinel rock-thrush, buff-streaked and ant-eating chats, Denham’s bustard and secretarybird, among others. Descending in altitude, the tour explores some montane forest habitat and the cliffs and gorges of the Blyde River Canyon, third largest canyon in the world, before levelling out in the Kruger National Park, where birds and beasts abound. Here the birding really gets going, with daily lists in the 80 - 100 species range possible, while encounters with big mammals such as lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, elephant and white rhinoceros add substantially to the appeal. After the Kruger National Park comes the highlight of the tour; two nights at a private lodge in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, where some of Africa’s best game viewing is to be had, and where our chances for encounters with Africa’s big predators are highest.
September is early spring, an excellent time to see mammals, before the savannah vegetation gets too leafy. It is one of the better months for birdwatching here, with many species coming into breeding plumage.
Depart the UK on an overnight flight to Johannesburg, arriving the following morning.
Arrive Johannesburg, transfer to Dullstroom and Mpumalanga Highlands
After meeting up with our South African guide(s) at Johannesburg airport, we head eastwards to Dullstroom, a small town in the Mpumalanga highlands and one of the highest towns in the country. En route there will be a chance for one or two birding stops, the first one at a small irrigation dam just off the highway that can provide some wonderful waterbirds when the water levels are just right. Species we could see here include greater flamingo, southern pochard, maccoa duck, Cape shoveler and Cape teal, among many others (such as hundreds of white-winged terns on occasion).
Heading on we aim to arrive in town in time for lunch, which will be had at one of the good eateries in the town (there’s ample choice!). After an optional rest we have an afternoon activity scheduled, and a chance to stretch the legs on a casual stroll up to the municipal dams behind the town is often the best bet on the first day. Town birds we may see include speckled mousebird, olive pigeon, red-winged starling, Drakensberg prinia, ground-scraper thrush, amethyst sunbird and many others. After returning in the early evening we’ll have time to freshen up before enjoying a wonderful dinner in one of the town’s restaurants (Dullstroom is also something of a culinary Mecca).
Overnight Rose Cottage, Dullstroom
Veloren Valei Nature Reserve, Dullstroom
With an early start on our full day we’ll experience the highlight of the highlands: a pre-breakfast excursion up into the 2000 meter-plus Veloren Valei (‘Lost Valley’) Nature Reserve in the Steenkampsberg Range, the highest point in the province. Here we will look for endemic species such as sentinel rock-thrush, buff-streaked chat, grey-winged francolin, gurney’s sugarbird, eastern long-billed lark and large birds such as Denham’s bustard, Cape vulture and secretarybird. We’ll have a coffee basket and rusks (a savoury, whole-wheat South African cookie) to enjoy while scanning the short grasslands for these birds as well as mammals such as blesbok, grey rhebok, yellow mongoose and side-striped jackal. Later in the morning we’ll head back to town for a scrumptious breakfast and in the afternoon we’ll have another vehicular excursion into the surrounding countryside to look for species such as grey-crowned crane, southern bald ibis, long-tailed widowbird and malachite sunbird. Once again we’ll return in the late afternoon in time to freshen up before dinner.
Overnight Rose Cottage, Dullstroom
Dullstroom – Mount Sheba
After a last morning activity in Dullstroom we’ll have breakfast and depart for Mount Sheba, a lovely old hotel on the edge of the escarpment. The hotel is surrounded by a large patch of pristine Montane Forest. This forest derives much of its moisture from the mists that swirl up along the escarpment edge and provides habitat for some exciting forest birds such as Narina trogon, white-starred robin, chorister robin-chat, lemon dove, Cape batis, yellow-throated woodland-warbler, olive woodpecker, yellow-streaked greenbul, grey cuckooshrike, orange ground thrush and knysna turaco, as well as a few troops of samango monkeys (known as Syke’s monkey in the rest of Africa). Forest birding can be a tricky, neck-craning affair, with the birds either flitting about in the canopy high above or skulking in thick bush close to the ground, but the rewards, when they come, are worth the effort. We have two nights here, with ample time to see many of the forest birds, most of which won’t be seen on the rest of the itinerary.
Two nights Mount Sheba Hotel
Mount Sheba - Scenic Panorama route – Skukuza Rest Camp,Kruger National Park
After an early breakfast at Mount Sheba we’ll depart, taking in some of the highlights of the scenic Panorama Route such as Lisbon Falls, the Three Rondavels and Bourke’s Luck Potholes. We’ll then leave the escarpment behind and enter the Kruger National Park. Here the going gets really slow, with a wide range of birds such as rollers, starlings, hornbills, shrikes, spurfowl, lapwings and raptors to be seen. We’ll also start recording mammals in abundance, including the general game species such as impala, Burchell’s zebra, blue wildebeest, southern giraffe, warthog and with a bit of luck, perhaps a lion or two as well. We’ll probably arrive in camp late in the afternoon and then either have time to rest or head out on a last game drive for the day, depending on the energy levels of the group.
We have a second night at Skukuza, the park’s headquarters, and will start the day with an early morning drive, probably heading south-east along the Sabie River. This is one of the largest rivers in the park and attracts lots of game, particularly impala, during this water-critical time of the year. The concentrations of herbivores in turn attract predators such as leopard, lion, spotted hyena and the like and we’ll hope to have some sightings of these exciting species. Birds we’ll be looking out for include white-crowned lapwing, white-fronted bee-eater, brown snake-eagle, bearded woodpecker, grey-headed bush-shrike, southern boubou, green wood-hoopoe and others. After arriving back in camp we’ll have breakfast and then embark on a more extensive birding walk in the camp grounds, which can produce some excellent birds. The Kruger routine is typified by early morning vehicle activities, followed by breakfast, a birding walk in the camp, lunch and a siesta followed by an afternoon vehicle activity. In the evening we’ll dine in the Selati Restaurant, which is situated in the old railway station on the line that once ran through the Kruger.
Two nights Skukuza Rest Camp
Skukuza Rest Camp – Satara, Kruger National Park
Savannah birding involves early starts to make the most of the cooler hours, and after an early cup of coffee and some rusks we’ll head out into the park as the gates open for the day, searching the area for big cats and birding as we do so!
After returning to camp for breakfast we’ll pack and depart, heading northwards to Satara Rest Camp, 92 kilometres away. The Satara region is characterised by open basalt grasslands and Knob-thorn savannah. It is flat and low in altitude above sea level, with some semi-permanent water courses running with a roughly west to east orientation. The low rainfall figures and generally warm climate make for sweet and mixed grasslands, and these attract herds of grazers such as Burchell’s zebra, blue wildebeest and Cape buffalo. These in turn attract predators such as lion and spotted hyena, while leopard and cheetah prey on the smaller species such as warthog, impala and common duiker. The area is rich in birdlife too and daily lists of well over a hundred species are possible in the summer. Notable species we’ll be looking out for include Kori bustard, ostrich, southern ground hornbill, saddle-billed stork, lappet-faced and white-headed vultures, chestnut-backed sparrow-lark, Temminck’s courser and double-banded sandgrouse, among others.
On this day there is also the option of a night-drive with the park guides, which will give us the opportunity to be out after the public are back in camp and to see nocturnal species such as fiery-necked and square-tailed nightjars, spotted thick-knee, spotted eagle owl and mammals such as serval, African civet and genet (small- and large-spotted).
Two nights Satara Rest Camp
Satara – Sabi Sand Game Reserve
As usual we’ll have an early morning drive in the Satara region, returning at around 08h30 for breakfast. After breakfast we’ll pack and begin the journey out of the park. It’s quite a way to Orpen Gate, where we’ll exit the park, so we have a last chance in Kruger for some game viewing as we drive.
We then travel through some rural villages before we enter the world-renowned Sabi Sand Game Reserve, a 65,000 hectare piece of private land that is contiguous with the neighbouring Kruger National Park. The Sabi Sand Game Reserve has a long conservation history and now boasts what is arguably some of the best game-viewing in the world. The reserve is home to all six species of cat found in the eastern regions of the country, although it is most famous for its regular close-up encounters with lion and leopard.
As cheetah and wild dog have such large home ranges they are not always present in the reserve (moving freely between the Sabi Sands and the Kruger National Park). Man’s activities have benefited them here in the Sabi Sands, however, as the many small artificial dams and pans result in a large resident Impala population, which in turn attracts these roving predators into the area on a regular basis. On an afternoon drive a pride of lions might be resting up almost invisibly in some long grass, but the morning drive may find them out on the hunt – each drive is a completely different experience and the four drives here will hopefully give us enough time out in the bush to ensure ample cat sightings and encounters.
The fantastic game-viewing will be complemented by optional bush walks, where we get a chance to get closer to the ground and learn about some of the smaller creatures and the links that hold the whole ecosystem together. Fantastic accommodation and superb dining will augment the experience – it doesn’t get much better than this! Each full day thus entails a morning safari, followed by breakfast, an optional bush walk (please see the section on walks below this itinerary for more on this activity), lunch and a rest period followed by an afternoon safari that returns to camp after dark, giving us the chance to observe cats moving about under the cover of night.
Two nights Nkorho Bush Lodge, Sabi Sand Game Reserve
Drive to Johannesburg and depart
Final safari at Sabi Sand Game Reserve followed by breakfast and return journey to Johannesburg to board an overnight flight back to the UK.