Kruger and Limpopo – Part 2.

Limpopo

10th to 24th August 2021

Leaving Nthakeni Bush and River Camp, Sally and I headed to Tshipise to stock up and spend some time relaxing. This was the start of our time in various Camps in the Limpopo region and a continuation of our trip which started in the Kruger.

10th to 13th August 2021

Three nights at the Forever Resort was more than adequate time to stock up and relax. We even had time and places to bird in the resort as well as to visit The Sagole Big Tree.

A bit about the resort. On entry the resort looks great – spacious, well laid out and green. Cottages dotted around in pleasant surroundings. However when you enter the campsite area you enter a different world. It was populated by trailers and tents chock-a-block and canvas spread out from one to the next.

There was an empty area which we avoided as we were told by previous visitors that the bats come out at night flying from one tree to the next and pooping on the way over unaware campers.

Luckily for us we found a campsite away from other people on a flat area on the hillside on the left as we entered. So we placed our caravan to look into the bush and up the hill with the squatter camp out of view. A great campsite birding view.

The birds were lively and we were entertained by a number of Robins- White-throated Robin-Chat, White-browed Scrub-Robin, Bearded Scrub-Robin as well as Red-capped Robin-Chats. Often all together forever on the move. Other species also passed through. At night we heard and saw a pair of African Wood-Owl.

Wandering along one of the roads to the stables we noticed trees full of Red-faced Mousebirds. At the stables we listened to a bird calling and spotted a Klaas’s Cuckoo above us. It was a productive walk with many interesting species like Burnt-necked and Yellow-bellied Eremomelas, Southern White-crowned Shrike, Brown-crowned Tchagra, African Harrier-Hawk, Grey-backed Cameroptera, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Orange-breasted and Grey-headed Bushshrikes to name a few.

The Big Tree was calling – from less than 50kms away. Out came the GPS and we plotted the way – well the GPS plotted the way and we followed it. Big mistake.

We followed the suggested blue route. It was only when we got to a point of no sense in returning that we realised we had been misled. The route was taking us through one local community after another on some interestingly rough roads. We should have continued along the main road and then turned south directly to the Big Tree – the route was not shown as an alternative but it was the way we returned.

Eventually we got there and paid our R50 entrance fee and drove to The Big Tree. Coming round one corner there was a large Baobab. Placed there to confuse tourists into thinking they had arrived.

It was not as we remembered so we continued. Arriving we sat in awe as we took in the actual size of the tree. It takes 20 grownup holding hands to completely encircle its girth. The largest tree by girth in Africa and second largest in the world. There were two previous Baobabs in South Africa with larger girths but they both died recently – 2009 and 2016.

A breeding colony of Mottled Spinetails (mottled spinetails) are said to be resident in the tree but they made no appearance when we were there. On our previous visit some years ago we heard them inside the tree and we were fortunate to be there at the right time to see them as they exited.

And that was the highlight of our visit to Tshipise. Next time we stay at Nthakeni we shall visit the Big Tree from there – only 57 kms away.

In all we identified 61 different bird species.

Our next destination was Boelamien River Camp for three nights.

13th to 16th August 2021

Boelamien Campsites are located on the banks of the Limpopo River with the Tuli Bloc (Botswana) on the opposite bank. The sites have power and there is an ablution block with hot water geysers. The sites are flat, among the trees and set apart from each other. We were in campsite 3 partly in the open. Next time we would opt for campsite 2 – well shady for summer time visits. Our site unfortunately had those niggling dubbeltjies aplenty (small grass thorns which irritatingly have a habit of painfully sticking into feet and on sox by the dozen).

Our days were spent wandering up and down river birding – on our side of the bank of course. It was a change from being in the car all day. Once parked our car stayed put for all three days. The Meve’s Starlings visited and sang at all times of the day. Woodpeckers were seen and heard knocking in the overhanging dead tree in front of us.

There was elephant poo everywhere – in the camp, on paths and in the bush. Obviously a large herd had stayed a while sometime in the past. Must have been challenging for those staying in the campsite at that time.

Verreaux’s Eagle-Owls were heard every morning and we eventually found a pair. Ground Hornbills flew across the river to our side and were seen several times on our walks. We were told that there was a pair of Pels Fishing-Owls further downstream – in a holey tree. Unfortunately we never found them – maybe they took the days off when we were there.

Pels Fishing-Owls’ holey tree

We were able to take long walks both up and down river. Birds surprised us in each direction. It was not the best time of the year to see a large variety of different bird species. However, many of the birds we did see were quite special. We would love to return at a better birding time of the year.

Walking up river we passed a hunting camp and came to a section of the river more open, shallow and sandy – a better area to see waders and waterbirds.

Birds seen along the way included Black-faced Waxbill, a pair of Saddle-billed Storks………

Walking back late one afternoon we passed a pod of Hippos. There was one who disliked our presence and barked at us. We had not heard that sound from a Hippo before.

Downstream also had its interests. The river was more suitable for waterbirds but not waders. Walking alongside the river we often heard and fleetingly saw buck and a couple of rodent-like creatures which scampering away. We surmised them to possibly be Canerats or maybe Lesser Canerats.

We had heard the Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl often downstream and went looking for it. As luck would have it we saw a pair on several occasions..

Six Southern Ground Hornbills were seen flying across the river into RSA. They called constantly and we saw them whenever we ventured down river. They are one of the six birds with the largest wing span in Southern Africa.

Down river we saw crocodiles. In the camp we heard Hippos as they scrambled over the weir and plopped upstream. They were kind enough not to wander around the campsite at night.

We met a lovely family of three generations in Campsite 2. Carel Bosman’s family.

I took this photo – unfortunately without Carel. It was a spur of the moment shot. Carel had sent all the family to see Splat in my car. To show them Splat and its antics I had the family gather together 10 metres in front of the car. My camera was handy so I took a shot.

No doubt you want to know about Splat. Splat sits on my car mirror when we drive around the game parks – waving with both hands as each vehicle approaches. People’s responses when they see him varies from finger wagging (implying that wild animals are not allowed in the park), broad smiles showing lovely white teeth, an automatic wave back and then a puzzled look as they get closer, and laughter. Game vehicles often stop and the guests want to take pictures. Here is a picture of Splat when he stopped at the Tropic of Capricorn in the Kruger.

We recorded 78 different bird species while at Boelamien.

After three nights we left for a visit to Blouberg Nature Reserve.

16th to 19th August 2021

Blouberg NR has the largest colony of Cape Vultures in the country and sometimes a rare Ruppell’s Vulture can be seen there. We had been meaning to visit for many years.

There are 6 powerless campsites and an ablution block with a donkey boiler. Each of the sites are quite private. Ours was down a long lane to a shady site at the end. Very private.

The reserve has several attractions: a vulture restaurant, an eye-level hide at a waterhole, a “fig” forest area to the west and of course the Vulture colony on the other side of the reserve. Typical vegetation:

There were no recent carcasses at the Vulture restaurant unfortunately. However the eye-level hide at a waterhole was where we spent a lot of time. It was an active area not only for birds but beasts as well.

The first thing we noticed were Red-billed Queleas in their thousands. They were not only visible by eye but by ear as well. A quiet noise as they arrived from the surrounding trees and took their place around the edges of the waterhole. One or two sips of water then off they went as they were replaced by incoming birds. Suddenly there would be an alarm and they would all take off together with a very loud whooshing sound – loud enough to drown out all other sounds. Spectacular.

Listen to the sounds of the Red-billed Quelea in this short video clip. Then imagine that 10 fold representing the actual number of birds there.

A small number of the Red-billed Queleas trying to drink.

Other birds photoed at the waterhole when they were able to find a spot:

And here are some of the other birds photographed in the reserve:

A wide variety of animals came in regularly for a drink. There were Impala, Zebras, Nyalas, Warthogs, Baboons and Giraffe. Then there were Waterbucks, Hartebeest and Kudu.

Then there was a group of four buck that we had never seen before. They were small like an Impala, had a grey woolly coat, white undersides , white eye-rings, long pointy ears and long-necked like a Llama.

Giraffe appeared then made their way slowly towards the water. Two steps forward then stop and look around. In general the animals were quite skittish. One alarm and they are all off and away. Like the Zebra in this series of photos.

Having come to Blouberg NR we had to make an effort to get to the other side of the mountain to see the Cape vulture colony. The 20 km drive took over an hour and a half to get there. The reason – the road that we took was definitely a 4×4 challenge. Fortunately we took the fenceline road back which saved us at least half an hour. Our big mistake was to leave it too late in the day to get there. Consequently we had little time when we arrived. The birds were distant and we could never have picked out a Ruppell’s Vulture among all the Cape Vultures even with a scope as it was quite a distance away and the nest-sites were all in shadow in the afternoon.

In total we identified 67 different bird species.

And then it was time to depart for Mapungubwe and Mazhou campsite in the western part of the National Park.

19th to 23rd August 2021

Mapungubwe National Park is one of our favourites to visit. Choose the right time of year when the migrants are present and you never know what will turn up. Two of the very specials we have seen there are the Three-banded Courser and the Pels Fishing-Owl. The latter we have seen all five times we have visited – in the same place.

Campsite:

There are two separate areas to Mapungubwe – the East and West side. The reception is in the East and our Mazhou Campsite is in the West. The two sides are about 30kms apart by the main road or 20 kms cross country past Den Staat farm.

We spent most of our time in the West, birding along the Limpopo River, mornings and evenings in the hide at the waterhole and opposite the entrance gate with tracks in the open countryside.

Along the road by the Limpopo River we found a couple of lookout places over the river. One of them required 4×4 to reach the river, it was so sandy. There was some water in the river and we saw a number of waders.

The Maloutswa Hide overlooks a fair size pan. Not a lot of water but enough to keep the animals and birds watered.

The pan is supplied with water which enters just below the hide. One early morning we arrived to find four large elephants drinking from the pipe – one with his trunk engulfing the pipe. As we opened up the shutters we suddenly realised that they were there within touching distance. Fortunately they were more interested in the fresh water than us.

We had one surprising sighting early one morning – two colourful Bushpigs came down to drink. We did not realise that they were so colourful.

The usual Impala, Zebra, Warthog and Wildebeest also came to drink. A pair of Black-backed Jackal wandered around the pan looking for whatever they could find. To our surprise Eland also appeared.

Colourful birds came – Black-headed Orioles, Meyer’s Parrots, Swainson’s Spurfowls and Grey Go-away-birds – and enjoyed the pan with their wader friends. And then there were the Red-billed Queleas in their thousands.

There is a dry and parched area opposite the Guardhouse entrance with tracks that you can explore – some need 4×4 not only for the wet areas but because the tracks cover some extremely rocky outcrops. We had not checked those tracks before so it was an interesting and rewarding experience for us. Mostly ground birds. Great Sparrow, Chestnut-backed and Grey-backed Sparrow-Larks were our specials.

One morning we went across to the western side. Once through reception we turned left heading for Treetop and the Confluence. After that we headed towards Poacher’s Corner and completed the circle back to reception.

At the start the road overlooks some magnificent scenery over the landscape below – best shown in the clip below.

Then just round the corner excitement awaited us. In the road ahead was a small bird which I came too close to. Expected it to fly – it didn’t. Fearing I might hit it if it flew I stopped and reversed. and this is what we observed. Behaviour we had not seen before and behaviour which helped us to identify the bird.

Common Buttonquail.

What a start to the day. And we had a number of other such pleasurable experiences in store for us.

We took a right turn onto a dead end road leading to Leokwe Camp. Leokwe Camp has quite a number of cottages laid out in a rocky valley surrounded by cliffs. A spectacular location. As usual, as we were about to enter the valley we were stopped by the sight of two dainty Klipspringers beside us overlooking the valley. And a Dassie on the other side of the road.

Leokwe Camp

From Leokwe we went to the Treetop walkway. Unfortunately half the walkway had gone the way of the Limpopo river.

Treetop lookout.

Despite missing half the boardwalk we were still allowed to walk to its new end. Quite windy at the time and a bit wobbly!!

At the confluence we stopped for tea. Very windy and cool so we did not stop long. But in that short time frame we had some great bird sightings. A Kori Bustard flew passed us, a pair of African Hawk-Eagles flew overhead and then a pair of Verreaux’s Eagles flew over.

Topography at the Confluence Lookout:

Next we headed along the river to Poachers Corner. Spotting a Steenbok, an Elephant and a Rock statue along the way.

At Poachers Corner there is a good view over the river where waterbirds can be seen.

Just round the corner is Zebra Pan – an attractive pan with interesting birds sometimes seen there.

Zebra Pan

However our intention at Poachers Corner was to find the Pels Fishing-Owl(s) which lurks in one of two large trees close to the old SADF bunker. The previous time we had to park our vehicle and walk with a member of staff to get to the trees. Today there is a rough road round them.

Within minutes to our joy we spotted our prey. Isn’t he gorgeous. Another one of the top six Southern African birds with the largest wingspan.

Completing the circle we arrived at a small pan just before reception. Waterbirds were aplenty – Red-billed Teals, Little Grebes, the odd Egyptian Goose and White-faced Ducks with their arses in the air most of the time.

We identified 107 different bird species of which the following stood out for us: Common Buttonquail and its antics, Pels Fishing-Owl, Verreaux’s Eagle, Great Sparrow, Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Larks, Meyer’s Parrots, African Hawk-Eagle and of course the Bushpigs.

23rd to 25th August 2021

We were chatting to one of the campers at Mapungubwe asking about where to stay just north of Pretoria on our way home. As it happened he was the owner of Thorn Tree Bush Camp in Dinokeng near Rust De Winter. So that decided where to stay over on the way home. His description of the place piqued our interest so we stayed for two nights – giving us a day to explore the reserve.

As you will see from the pictures it was a well dry area. That said it produced several special bird species that we had not identified on our trip.

Our campsite had its own ablutions with ample hot water. The site was flat and the birdlife around it was plentiful and teasing. There were also tented lodgings and a reception area with a swimming pool.

There were plenty of different bird species in the camp. Here are some of those.

Dinokeng is reputed to have several of the Big Five animals. We unfortunately saw none. Mind you our time was short. We did however see some special bird species.

A map of the trails to explore in Dinokeng;

Coqui Francolins surprised us as we came round one corner. Six of them – a family. Special.

Another surprise Southern Pied Babblers

Then to cap it off for me, was to see why a White-backed Mousebird is so called.

A most enjoyable stopover on the way home.

It was great to get back into Limpopo to do some birding. There is always something different to see and experience. Happy memories.

On the way home we were held up for 45 minutes.

Entertaining to watch how the truck got back on its feet.

A brief Summary of how many different bird species we recorded in and around each camp we visited – for the whole trip including the Kruger:

Here is a list of what we considered to be special bird sightings on our trip through the Kruger NP and Limpopo.

Hope you have enjoyed the read.

Paul and Sally Bartho

Blood Moon in Mapungubwe NP

Kruger and Limpopo – Part 1

27th July to 24th August 2021

August and September are not the best months to go birding but we needed to get away and test our new caravan. The weather was variable – and mostly cool to cold with a few days of T-shirt weather – also not good for birding. However we made the best of it and enjoyed our time up north especially in the Limpopo region outside of the Kruger NP.

After struggling to find places to camp in the Kruger, we eventually found 3 nights in Crocodile Bridge, 2 nights in Satara, 4 nights in Shingwedzi followed by 2 nights in Tsendze. It had to be in that order for only those nights at each of those camps as the park was full. It was the only sequence available. We had hoped to stay longer but unusually even Punda Maria was full.

With that booked we then made a plan to see other places in Limpopo. Leaving Tsendze we headed north for Nthakeni Bush and River Camp (just outside the Pafuri gate) spending 3 nights there, followed by 3 nights at Tshipise (to the west) to replenish food stocks and to see “The Big Tree” – Sagole Baobab (second largest tree by girth in the world) – absolutely impressive. A must see if you are in the area.

From Tshipise we headed west for a little known place on the Limpopo River past Alldays – Boelamien River Camp. 3 nights there then 3 nights at Blouberg Nature Reserve, followed by 4 nights at Mapungubwe National Park, and 2 nights at a campsite in Dinokeng – Thorn Tree Bushcamp – just north of Pretoria before heading home.

Part 1. The Kruger

27th July to 10th August 2021

Crossing the Crocodile River

A long drive to Crocodile Bridge in the Kruger NP – just over 9 hours, we arrived in time to set up camp and go for a short late afternoon drive. Three nights there meant we had only two full days to explore the vicinity round the camp and explore further afield – the S25 following the Crocodile River towards Malelane, north to Skukuza, Lower Sabie and as far north as Tshokwane.

Welcomed by a friendly female Bushbuck

We had sightings of Cheetah and Leopards before we eventually saw a Lion. Elephants abound and Buffalo present. No Rhinos seen however.

Our campsite and typical scenery.

Our Campsite

Sunset Dam nearby Lower Sabie Camp is a “must” visit. There is always activity there of some sort. Crocodiles and Hippos in the water or lying on the banks. Birds on the banks and in the dead trees in the Dam.

Our interest was more focused on birds and keeping away from other people. In all we identified 121 different bird species . Here are some of the animals and birds that we photographed.

Wandering around the camp looking over the fence towards the Crocodile River we noticed a Saddle-billed Stork behaving like a Black Heron – casting its wings forward creating a shadowed area over the water ahead. It walked back and forth repeating this manoeuvre.

Another sighting was good to see. It involved a Burchell’s Zebra behaving quite wildly – as they do – kicking madly at other Zebras while rolling on its back. Dust flying everywhere. Perhaps that is what they do to dust their backs?

From Crocodile Bridge we headed to Satara for 2 nights. Only one full day there.

An unshaded Campsite.

A wasted trip to the Sweni Hide:

Sightings were quiet – both animals and birds. I think we only managed to see about 70 different species of birds. Here are some of them:

From Satara we headed north to Shingwedzi for 4 nights – three full days.

Blue Route.
A well-shaded campsite

Despite being at Shingwedzi for three full days, our bird list was only about 90 species.

Once we left Satara, Buffalo and Elephant were plentiful and they were the only two of the “Big Five” that we saw during the rest of our time in the Kruger. I lie – we did see one majestic Lion. We spent a little more time taking photos of animals that we saw. Here are those that we photographed:

On one drive we saw movement in the bush beside us – about 10 metres in. What was that we thought. Initial impression was a Grey Duiker. Back we went to get a decent look. Fortunately the animal did not immediately run away – as they normally do. There it was – I think I can safely say that this was the first time either of us had ever seen one.

Sharp’s Grysbok

Birds in the area:

Interesting geology in the area. Go to Red Rocks to see what I mean.

For a long time until quite recently our bogie bird was the Coqui Francolin. This visit to the Kruger was different as we saw it in several places. One instance was right in the road in front of us. A male on the left side and a female crossing over to join him.

From Shingwedzi we back-tracked to probably our favourite camps in the Kruger – Tsendze Rustic Camp. Right next to the Mooi Plaas picnic site. The camp has no other accommodation other than camp sites with no power. It is a well shaded campsite with many fully grown trees. It is managed by Elena and Rodgers – superb hosts.

It is also known for its Owls and Owlets. We have seen African Scops Owl, Pearl-spotted Owlet, African Barred Owlet, Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl either in the camp or next door in the Mooiplaas picnic site. This time we added one more – the African Wood-Owl. Sitting above our heads as we washed our dishes in the wash-up area – pointed out to us by Elena who had remembered our interest for birds from previous visits.

We listened to the African Scops Owl all night each night, we heard the Verreaux’s Eagle Owl as well as the African Barred Owlet. The African Wood-Owl was silent but present.

There are several areas around Tsendze which we always enjoy visiting. The low level bridge on the way to the Shipandani Hide and the Pioneer Dam at Mopani. Several spots on the H14 to Phalaborwa. And the Mooiplaas waterhole on the S49.

Amazingly we managed to visit all of these areas in the short time we were there. We did make a point of getting there early and setting up camp by lunchtime.

The low level bridge on the way to Pioneers dam was bird busy as usual. Black Crakes (frequently seen there) a Hamerkop and a Striated Heron were the main entertainers. A juvenile Blacksmith Lapwing chased the Striated Heron to the Hamerkop which faced off against each other in a friendly sort of way.

Immediately after the bridge is the Shipandani Overnight Hide overlooking this portion of the Tsendse River. As we approached the hide three Klipspringers blocked our path. Not what we expected to see so low down from their normal habitt on top of cliffs. s

The Mooiplaas Waterhole is often busy with Elephant drinking and others like the Blue Wildebeest slating their thirst or hanging around. However one of the birds we look for there is the Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Lark.

At the start of the H14 tar road heading south-west to Phalaborwa we have usually encountered an abundance of Hyenas and their pups every time we have driven it. Again we saw several groups of Hyenas hanging around the culverts.

Hyena

The Magpie Shrikes serenaded us as we drove. We then came across an obliging male Double-banded Sandgrouse which stayed by the road as its partner disappeared into the bush.

After a little while we came to the low level bridge across the Letaba River. Fortunately there are lay byes halfway across the bridge where one can park and look around. We must have spent at least an hour here and not only saw a goodly number of birds but we also listened to a Lion roaring from time to time in the veldt on the other side of the bridge. We looked for him along the river bank but he was moving about in the bush.

One of the special birds we saw by chance:

After an hour or more there, we headed for the 2 short loops on the left after the Shivulani Lookout point. The loops took us down beside the river with some slow moving shallow water.

However just after leaving the bridge we noticed an animal as it just entered the scrub on the left as we approached. Not thinking much of it we cruised up alongside it – only to discover it was a male Lion lying on the verge. What a male! All on our own, we stopped beside it and enjoyed its company and its shaggy hairstyle.

King of the Beasts

Eventually we arrived at the loop roads. A little spur off to one side provided an ideal place for a cup of tea and biscuits. The previous time we had seen several hyenas lolling about in the water. Not so fortunate this time. But we did see a pair of African Pied Wagtails trolling the shallow river.

On the second loop there is a lookout point high over the river. From here we admired the antics of a Honey Badger looking presumably for ants around the base of several trees. At one a Groundscraper Thrush joined him for a snack.

Sadly we had to leave Tsendze after 2 nights. Nthakeni Bush and River Camp beckoned us. Another one of our favourite camps in the area.

We followed the blue line north

Nthakeni Bush and River Camp is only 5 kms outside the Pafuri Gate situated on the Mutale River with vegetation similar to the Pafuri Picnic site. It is run by Annelize and Kobus who cannot do enough for you.

On the way to the Camp you cross a low lying bridge over the Mutale River. The locals can be seen doing their laundry.

The water is so clear and clean

Nthakeni Camp has cottages and campsites, a pool and a clubhouse with an honesty bar. The campsites each have their own ablution and kitchen facilities.

There are also a couple of trails well laid out and kept in good condition. They meander through the bush, close to the massive Baobabs, past the Baobab campsites, alongside the river and up the hills for a scenic view.

When we tried to book for our first night (of 3) nights they had no campsites available. However they offered us a cottage for that night and asked us to pay what we could afford. The cottage was close to and facing the Mutale river.

Cottage for the first night

Our Campsite for the next 2 nights and its view.

It takes less than half an hour to get into the Kruger through the Pafuri entrance gate and down to the birding area of the Pafuri bridge, picnic site and Crooks’ Corner. Excellent for the birding we wished to do there.

Two mornings were spent visiting the Pafuri area. Back midday to enjoy the campsite. Our last morning we walked one of the Nthakeni trails and had good sightings of the abundant bird species. Here are some of the photos we took of birds around the camp.

As with the rest of the Kruger our birding was also quiet in the Pafuri region but we did have a couple of special sightings.

As we neared the bridge from the picnic site we noticed a falcon-like bird at the top of a distant bare tree. Resting the scope on a bag over car window ledge we were thrilled to see a Dickinson’s Kestrel. No apologies for the quality of the photos. Rather distant!

And then at the bridge we were treated several times to a Bohm’s Spinetail flying overhead. Eight images to scroll through – not all of any quality but there to give an impression of the way they are shaped.