On the 28th April we headed for Balloch Cottages near Barkly East. Here is some of the scenery along the way.
There are only 2 large campsites at Balloch – both are easily the size of four normal campsites. When you book the whole site is for you and your party only.
One campsite is by the river and the other in a cave above. We had hoped to camp in the cave but someone beat us to it. Our campsite was huge and a bit sloped.
The cave campsite – see the photos :
There was power when the river generator was on – usually for a few hours in the evening. And it was cold being so high up with a cold front there and snow looming.
Balloch Cottages is about 6kms from the passing gravel road along a scenic dirt and sometimes challenging road. Let the photos speak for themselves:
Our time spent at Balloch was mainly spent walking – following paths up into the mountainous countryside or else down the road towards the cottages and beyond. Exploring the ponds and rivulets as well as the treed curbsides.
One of the more interesting sightings occurred on one of these walks. We could hear people talking from what seemed miles away. They were at the top of one of the steep slopes. Then as we got closer we realised they were herding sheep down into our valley. However the sheep decided they wanted the quickest way down and that was straight down the steep slope – incredible. Never seen so many sheep altogether almost running down en masse.
On one day we decided to visit Rhodes. It took us a one and a half hours birding along the way.
Again a stunning barren landscape with a few special birds along the way.
Birding was difficult at that time of the year. But we did see several specials : Sentinel Rock-Thrush both male and female; Karoo Prinia, Cape Vulture, Greater Kestrel, Grey Crowned Cranes, Red-eyed Bulbul, Yellow-crowned Bishop and even a Rock Hyrax.
But the most unusual bird we saw was definitely this one.
We left a day early as we were informed that there would be a heavy dump of snow at the end of the week. We overnighted again at Tortini and drove home from there the day before the snow storm was about to hit the Drakensberg.
And so that brings to an end our trip to the Eastern Cape.
This was the start of our homeward journey from Sedgefield.
As you can see from the map, Addo includes seven distinct areas: Darlington, Kabouga, Zuurberg, Nyathi, Addo Main Camp, Colchester and Woody Cape. Each are in fact separate areas. Some of which you have to book accommodation in it in order to visit – Darlington and Nyathi. We visited Kabouga and Zuurberg while staying in Addo Main Camp.
Kabouga is in the high mountains. The road is recommended for 4×4 or high clearance vehicles. The road follows a valley between mountains. There is a wild camp there – you need to take everything including water and a porta potty if you want to stay there. We did not see much game nor birds in Kabouga and would be unlikely to visit it again.
Our one interesting experience was coming round a corner to see a red-headed Bushpig in the middle of the road. It quickly scampered into the bush so no photos. Red-headed as it had obviously just had a bloody meal.
Zuurberg is situated at the top of another closeby mountain. A pretty drive up. However on arrival we discovered there were no tracks to drive but it did have mountain trails. We were not properly equipped to go trekking. It was bitterly cold and windy.
The camp site we had was hedged in so nicely private, level and partly shady.
Early morning the birds would pass through our campsite looking for scraps from the previous evening. They ranged from Laughing Doves, Red-winged Starlings, Francolins, Terrestial Brownbulls, a Southern Tchagra, a pair of Black-headed Orioles and even an inquisitive pair of Brown-hooded Kingfishers.
Addo Main Camp and Colchester may be two separate areas but they are effectively one large area. This is the main game viewing area. The north section of this area has open grassland but the majority of the roads are between thick spekboom scrub making it difficult to see into the bush. The south – Colchester – has views of the sea.
Jack’s Picnic site was an interesting area. So who was Jack?
Some of the action at Jack’s were the visiting birds while we had tea.
The few species of animals that we saw were mainly Elephant and Burchell’s Zebra with an occasional Warthog.
There was a waterhole which we frequented – despite the cold drizzly days – which had a reasonable variety of waterbirds. African Black Duck, a large number of White-breasted Cormorants, South African Shelducks, Blacksmith Lapwings, African Spoonbills and a Grey Heron. There was always activity at this waterhole – especially brought about by a bedraggled juvenile African Fish-Eagle.
And here are some of the other birds photoed during our stay.
We had booked to stay for five nights. In fact, for us, 2 or 3 nights would have been plenty. Although we had several nice bird sightings we are reluctant to return unless it is at a different time of the year.
On one of the days at Addo we heard that the Sooty Gull had appeared at Kabeljous, Jeffreys Bay. We went hoping to be lucky this time. Alas not to be.
Mountain Zebra National Park
21st to 25th April 2021
From Addo we headed north to Mountain Zebra National Park. The campsite was fairly full so we ended placing our Caracal on a gentle slope to give us some privacy from neighbours and a view to enjoy.
Mountain Zebra is one of the National Parks we enjoy the most. It is scenic and has a variety of bird and animal species difficult to find elsewhere – Cape Mountain Zebras, Bat-eared Foxes, Red-winged Francolin, Black Harrier to name a few.
The camp is in a valley below the high mountain grasslands. It has four 4×4 only routes each with their own degree of difficulty. We tried one -Juriesdam 4×4 Trail- and having gone up 100 metres we had no choice but to continue.
Slow going to the top, not a great deal of animals nor birdlife. Having said that we did encounter a Ludwig’s Bustard in the distance.
The scenery at Mountain Zebra is awesome, getting to the top, the high grasslands the dams.
After the first day there we managed to extend our stay by another day- we had originally only been able to book 3 nights.
We had a couple of creepy experiences – spiders and a bark.
Then there was an unbelievably large Gum tree.
We were fortunate to see Bat-eared Foxes on 2 occasions.
We saw Eland and one with several Red-billed Oxpeckers on its back – most unexpected.
The Cape Mountain Zebra were everywhere and the young looking so cute.
Here are some of the other animals photoed.
Then there were the birds.
Our next destination was Balloch Cottages close to Barkly East near the southern Lesotho border. To be reported in Part 3 of this series.
There is a particular little bird which spends part of the year in East Africa and then when the time is right it heads back to Europe. Only this time it turned the wrong way on leaving and became the first of its kind which has been positively identified south of the equator. And that was in Marloth Park bordering the Crocodile River on the south of the Kruger National Park.
It was immediately reported to Trevor Hardaker – administrator of the WhatsApp group “Rare Birds Report”. And he immediately posted it as a MEGA alert to the birding community on the WhatsApp group. Seen and photographed on Saturday 18th June 2021.
Our immediate thought was ” Pity it was so far away” (about 700 kms away). “Too far to go and probably would not be there if we were to try – also it is so small that we thought it unlikely that we would find it even if it was there”.
Over the weekend the news kept coming through that it was still there and in the same place. Eventually on Monday evening we decided to go the next morning – for 3 days! Our thinking was: “Well we need to get away and we would be right beside the Kruger if the bird disappeared”.
We booked a rondavel in Henk van Rooyen Park -the location where the bird was seen.
So Tuesday morning we left really early – before daylight but after the curfew which ends at 04h00. Arriving about 14h00 to see a number of birders from all over the country scouring the trees near the entrance. Many coming from Gauteng (4 hour journey) as a day trip.
Before we check in we mix with the birders there and learn that it had been seen earlier in the day. The bird hung out in the same general area in the trees close to the entrance we learned. We mill around with everyone for a while then check in and unpack before returning.
And then it appeared to everyone’s delight flittering back and forth among the trees. The bird was forever on the move thwarting the efforts to get a good look and take photos. You had to be persistent to spot it out in the open for any length of time. Being in the right spot at the right time was imperative.
I realised when I saw it for the first time that it was quite non-descript and that I would never have identified it nor would I have realised that it was extremely rare.
Having seen the bird we relaxed and made a plan to look for it each morning and evening and spend the rest of the time in the Kruger.
But first we did some birding around Henk van Rooyen Park.
As it happened my sister her husband and 2 grown children were in the south of the Kruger at the time we were there. We met up at Lower Sabie for lunch on one day and happened by chance to meet again at the Skukuza Golf club on the next day.
As usual the lower part of the Kruger has a great variety of birds to see. It is not unusual to see over 120 different species in a morning. Our count for the 2 mid-days we spent in the Kruger amounted to just that – 120. Not bad considering we did not get into the park early. Click on the link below to see the list of birds we identified.
There were a number of lifestyle changes which brought about this trip down to the Eastern Cape. Firstly Sally’s son (Bryan) and daughter-in-law (Michelle) as well as her step daughter (Michele) recently moved from KZN down to Sedgefield and Knysna respectively over the Christmas period.
Secondly we needed to try out our new Afrispoor Caracal.
There was a third motive and that was to try to see the Sooty Gull at the Sundays River. The same Gull we dipped on at Kei Mouth on Valentine’s Day.
Our itinerary: Overnight at Tortoni Guest Farm campsite near Maclear (Cell: 084 200 2548) on the way to Sundays River for 2 nights. Then to spend a week with family in the Knysna/Sedgefield area. Following that Addo Elephant Park for 5 nights, 4 nights at Mountain Zebra NP. Then 4 nights at Balloch Cottages Campsite – near Barkly East in the Eastern Cape close to the border with Lesotho.
Leaving Howick early we arrived at Tortoni early afternoon. A great overnight stop. There are 6 spacious powered camp sites which are grassy and pretty much all level. There is a building with male and female bathrooms (toilet, shower and basin) and a kitchen wash-up area. Hot water comes from a donkey boiler which you need to light up yourself about 15 minutes before you want hot water. Beware the shelter housing the wood and boiler which has a very low roof – head banging if you don’t pay attention.
The campsite overlooks a large vlei and dam which numerous birds enjoy. At sunset the Grey Crowned Cranes can be heard and seen arriving at their favourite roost – a bare tree on the hillside next to the vlei.
After a hectic drive we were happy to just drive in and hook up to power – leaving the car hooked up to our Caracal. By choosing our spot carefully we were able to do this without the need to adjust the Caracal’s level.
The following morning we arose early to find that a wet and misty fog from the vlei made it impossible to see more than a couple of metres in front of you. It was not like that when we stayed there on our way home.
Early the next morning we set off to Sundays River – near Port Elizabeth. We stayed at the Pearsons campsite which is right next to the Sundays River and on the doorstep to the beach where we hoped to find the Sooty Gull which had been seen here for the previous 8 weeks after leaving Kei Mouth.
Once settled in the campsite we headed out to find the Sooty Gull – often found beside fishermen and slightly away from the Kelp Gulls. The drive out to the estuary was very scenic and not what I was expecting. Large sand dunes lined the opposite side of the estuary as we drove out to the mouth. And a beautiful sunny day to boot.
On the way to the mouth a bare patch of mud had a number of water birds – a place to remember to explore the following day.
From the parking area it was a long walk to the beach front to find fishermen and ever hopeful of finding the Sooty Gull. A tiring walk on the sand carrying binoculars, camera, scope and tripod.
The next morning the gate opened at 07h00 and we were first in. Unfortunately the day was overcast so the scenic drive was muted. As we got to the mud flat area we stopped to see was there – not a lot to keep our attention and definitely no Sooty Gull. A car passed by on the way to the mouth.
As we reached the mouth a lady in the car asked us if we were here to see “The” Gull and then proceeded to tells us that it had been here on her arrival but had literally just flown out to the mouth. A couple of minutes earlier and we would have seen it. So we headed to the mouth carting all our gear but to no avail.
Despite that it was good to see a variety of birds which we don’t see in Howick- water birds. The most notable an Roseate Tern.
So we lucked out on the Sooty Gull for a second time – by minutes!! Could we have a third chance.
That afternoon we arrived in Sedgefield for a week with Sally’s son and daughter-in-law.
Sally and I took my sister, Natasha and her husband, Dick to the Oribi Cape Vulture Colony. The colony is situated on farm property. We booked the 2 hour session (09h00 to 11h00) through Andy Ruffle 072 893 3794.
As you drive through the cane fields you have no expectation of the gorge ahead. Even when you have parked you only have a short walk to the site and it is only when you get to the top of the cliff face that you realise that you are there. The colony is situated on a steep cliff face with panoramic views over and beyond.
We arrived with clouds blanketing the hills and valleys – a spectacular sight. The day was perfect – blue skies (a bit cool) and little wind. Gradually as Andy was telling us about the history of the site and the habits of the Cape Vultures, the clouds dispersed. It was only then that the Cape vultures started to test out the flying conditions.
Jumping off the cliff face they hope to go straight into gliding mode. If the conditions are not suitable they return flapping strongly in the process. Once the conditions are right they are off to their feeding grounds – gliding all the way. They have no need to flap their wings accept on takeoff after feeding. Once in the air they need no energy to get home.
Probably the most interesting feature of the birds is their wingspan – up to 2.6 metres. That is approximately a metre more than the length of your outstretched hands. Try it and see how impressive that is.
Here are a few photos of a vulture returning to the cliff and one of the photos gives the impression that it is a vulture wall painting.
About three decades ago the farmer encouraged the colony of about 30 Cape Vultures to flourish. Today there are 94 known pairs of Cape Vultures using the cliff face to breed. A highly successful program. This is attributed to the an increase in supply of food which mainly comes from the carcasses of animals living in the rural communities as well as new vulture restaurants.
The rural communities move dead animals away from their farming areas. They do not eat the meat fearing they too may become affected by whatever caused the animal’s death. And without people about the vultures thrive on the carcasses.
A new feeding station – vulture restaurant – was relatively recently started in Kamberg at a large pig farm. Pig carcasses mainly – which the Oribi Vultures sometimes visit.
The Oribi colony site also has a vulture restaurant and hide. Local farmers bring their carrion to the site for consumption by the vultures. Arrival of the carrion is not only erratic but whatever is brought is not there for long – a pig will be stripped bare in less than 7 minutes.
It is not only the Cape Vultures that have been seen at the site. Ruppell’s, White-backed, Palm-nut and Lappet-faced Vultures have also been recorded there infrequently. As yet the Bearded Vulture has not been reported despite the proximity to the Berg.
There is another larger colony of about 200 pairs of Cape Vultures further south – about 150 kms away in the Umtamvuma Valley region. On occasion the birds visit the Oribi vulture restaurant. On the whole both colonies appear to have their own feeding grounds.
Breeding season is currently underway. Each pair takes turn to sit on the eggs for about a day and a half at a time with nests often close together.
Once in the air, they circle over the valley below.
Occasionally they give you the eye ball by flying at eye height within metres of you.
The Oribi Cape Vulture colony is thriving and is a must visit for everyone. We were all blown away seeing the spectacle of the vultures flying so close to us at eye height. Pictures only give an impression of the place. Visiting and experiencing it for yourself is mind-blowing – as my sister said.
It was time to get away from home and into the bush. Mkuze was our choice. Because our Afrispoor Caracal was not yet ready for collection, rest huts were our only cheap option. The campsite has been closed for a while – no water and it is currently totally overgrown. We wonder if it will ever be open again. There has been talk that the campsite may move to the unused soccer field right next to the main camp. Good option as water and power will be available. the downside will be the lack of shade.
Temperatures were high and the fans in the huts (we took one of our own) were necessary day and night – not much fun especially during the power cuts twice every day – 18h00 to 20h00 and 02h00 to 04h00.
Too much water everywhere due to the recent rains making abundant pools throughout the Game Reserve.
Despite the frustrating conditions we still enjoyed our stay and had some unexpected sightings.
In the pan at Mahlahla Hide water was present but it was almost fully overgrown and difficult to see anything unless it was really close. We spent half an hour there and saw nothing. But the journey from the camp to the hide is always interesting. In the open area as you reach the bottom of the hill we saw the usual Little bee-eaters and many Black Saw-wings.
Then there was a Swallow with a lovely red rump hanging out with the Saw-wings..
Carrying on along that road towards the airstrip we came across an obliging Striped Kingfisher.
Then along the airstrip we noticed a number of European Rollers. The most abundant of all the Rollers in the Reserve. And as we expected Crowned Lapwings.
From the airstrip we headed for the Kumasinga Hide. The hide was very quiet and the normally abundant birds were absent – even the animals were spartan
Then the Red-billed Queleas arrived – some more brightly coloured than others. One even looked like a red Red-billed Quelea.
We stayed at the hide until nightfall only leaving there close to 18h30. (Had to be back in camp by 19h00). When we hit the tar road back to camp we went left instead of right and trolled that road as far as the Tower. On the way we saw a number of Fiery-necked Nightjars and a Spotted Thick-knee. On the way back I managed to get a shot of a Fiery-necked Nightjar and also the Bronze-winged Courser – both in the middle of the road.
The next day we took a trip towards the Hunting camp, took in the Loop Road and also to the hides on Nsumo Pan, the Campsite and Malibala Hide. As we left the tar road heading towards the Hunting camp , we saw a large bird in one of the fever trees. On closer inspection we were surprised to see a Black Stork.
On the way back from the picnic site (near the entry road to the Hunting camp) we saw a large raptor silhouetted in a bare tree. A juvenile Bateleur with a lovely curly hairstyle.
As we turned onto the Loop road we saw our only Lilac-breasted Roller during the time we were in the Reserve.
Following around the Loop road we were in for another surprise – a Lesser Grey Shrike.
Wildlife seen on the loop.
We visited the hides and picnic site on Nsumo Pan. The water level was very high and few birds were seen on the water or on it’s edge. All the birds photographed were in the trees beside the Pan.
The pan at Malibala Hide was full and the bird life quiet. Even the campsite was unusually the same.
Of course being in the area we had to visit Mpempe Pan. Ever hopeful of finding the Buff-breasted Sandpiper. We made our call to advise we were coming and gained permission to do so. That was not the hard part. The hard part was finding the best way to the Pan despite our GPS and the co-ordinates of its location. After following the GPS map into various fields where the tracks ran out, we gave up on the GPS directions and followed our nose instead.
Along the way we saw hundreds of Western Cattle Egrets either side of the road as we approached the Pan. And many other large and small birds were in the air too. Quite a sight considering the paucity of large flocks elsewhere. Eventually we crossed the low level bridge with a huge open flat field to our right full of bird movement. Quite a pleasant surprise.
We parked on the right as we crossed the low level bridge. Out we got, togged up and were ready to check among the Kittlitz’s Plovers for the bird when I decided I wanted to park a little further along the track. Untogged, back in the car and off we set.
After just 20 metres there was the bird right in front of us. What a fantastic chance was that. We watched as it moved about among the Kittlitz’s Plovers before I decided I wanted to take a few photos. The sunlight was coming from the wrong direction not helping with the shots. Taking a circuitous route around I eventually managed to get some more pleasing shots.
Such a great looking bird and just as I had imagined from the photos in Roberts.
Beyond the field was the wetland area. As we walked around to the wetland we walked among flocks of Senegal Lapwings and Ruff. Crowned and Blacksmith Lapwings were also seen.
On the right of the wetland we noticed Collared Pratincoles on the ground and Glossy Ibis as well, even a beautiful Malachite Kingfisher. And it was there that a Large black waterbird was seen. We approached to get a better look but it flew then a little later it came back to the same spot. At first we had considered it to be a Rufous-bellied Heron, but now that we were closer we realised that it was a Black Heron. Again it flew and returned. As it flew we could see the yellow feet and black bill. On return it was disturbed by a Purple Heron and flew away with yet another Black Heron – a pair.
To sum up. We only identified 123 different bird species in Mkuze. Very disappointing as we expected closer to 180 or more – shows the impact of the rain. At Mpempe Pan in the short time we were there we identified 32 bird species. Our list can be seen by clicking on the following link.
On our way through the park we always stop at roadside water and especially at some of the larger pans just off the main roads. It was no different this time as we drove down from Balule to Lower Sabie. Most of the pans had a decent amount of water in them. It was at one of these pans that not only were there a number of animal species as well as birds. By chance I looked down to the edge closest to our car. And what did we see. Some beaurtiful little birds which we had not seen for quite a few years – African Quail-finch.
In the sweltering heat and humidity that was a great sighting.
At Lower Sabie we found the campsite we had used previously to be empty so we set up camp there. The campsite was busy so we were happy to have found this spot.
A few habitat photos of the area.
The weather followed us down from Balule – hot (39 to 41 C) and humid. No fun at night despite the use of a fan. Much of our time was spent lolling in the pool. Eventually it got to us and we left the Kruger 2 days early
We tried to visit the Ntandanyathi Hide but it was closed so we continued to Crocodile Bridge and then on to Mpondo Dam. Too hot for many of the animals except elephants having fun at Mpondo Dam.
We also went north to Mlondozi Dam but again the bush was quiet.
The best viewing was both along the main road to Skukuza and Sunset Dam right outside Lower Sabie gate.
Here are some of the sightings which we photographed as we drove around.
A male Steenbuck was very interested in performing with a female but she would have none of it.
We had an odd encounter with a Red-billed Hornbill. It was in the middle of the road and would not move out of the way as we got closer. Eventually we drove right up alongside it and it still would not fly or move. I opened the car door and it stayed put. I got out to make it fly but it would not. Eventually I picked it up and placed it on the verge with no resistance. I could not leave it in the middle of the road where it was likely to be hit by a car. Looking back we surmised that it may have been stunned or else bitten by a snake.
Sunset Dam is probably the most frequented Dam in the Kruger. Not only because of its proximity to Lower Sabie Camp enabling quick access to early morning and evening viewing but also because there are resident Crocodiles and Hippos always to be seen. It is also one of the favourite Dams where other animals and birds frequent.
There appears to be a resident Black-crowned Night-Heron there as well. We saw one in the same place previously.
Buffalo sometimes visit – like this one having had a complete mud bath.
Then for something different there was this Grey Heron hitching a ride.
Yellow-billed Storks seen opposite Sunset Dam in the Sabie River late one evening.
In all we identified 103 different bird species in the short time we were there. To see the list click on the link below. The spreadsheet will also show you what we identified in each area we camped. In total for the whole trip we identified 254 different bird species.
Balule is one of our favourite camps in the Kruger NP. It is a relatively small camp without power consisting of about 20 campsites and several huts.
At night the hyenas patrol the fence line often lying down quietly within metres of you and staring with their pleading eyes while resting their head on their front paws. A cute deceptive look of innocence.
On arrival we were greeted by the raucous sounds of hyenas battling just outside the entrance gate. The kerfuffle went on for quite some time.
We chose not to camp along the open fence line but rather in a large shady spot close by and using our solar panels to keep our batteries charged.
Balule camp is located close to the Olifants River and to get to the Olifants Camp you cross the river over a low lying bridge.
And on this visit the muddy water was flowing swiftly quite close to the level of the bridge.
On one occasion later in the day we observed more than 50 Openbills flying downriver.
Some scenery shots around the area.
Venturing out one day to visit Olifants Camp and just as we approached the low level bridge we noticed a cat lying under a shady tree. We had heard them during the night so it was a thrill to see them too.
Olifants Camp is set atop of a hill overlooking the Olifants river. It has a great lookout over the river. And from there you can often see herds of Elephant and Buffalo below and in the distance.
Taking the S44 from Olifants Camp, there is another Lookout Point overlooking the river below.
An unusual sight looking over the river on a cool overcast and mistyish morning – looking at some rocks in the river. The photos are as we saw them.
From Balule we went as far afield as the Sweni Hide next to the N’wanetsi picnic site. We went in hope that it was open after being disappointed when we were staying in Satara. We were not disappointed and although there were not many birds we watched young elephants having fun in the water.
Here are some photos of the lovely birds and beasts that we saw while at Balule – some in the camp like the Blue Waxbill.