Mapungubwe NP, Ratho and Golden Gate NP

Report by Paul and Sally Bartho

9 to 13 September 2018

Pel’s Fishing-Owl

Sally and I have just spent four nights camping in Mapungubwe NP at the top-most part of RSA bordering Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Mapungubwe NP

We went there between the Bird Fair (at Walter Sisulu Gardens) and the Getaway Show (at the TicketPro Dome) – both in Jo’berg on consecutive weekends. It was the first time we had been to either show.

Our first issue was to find a campground within easy distance from each location. At first our search on Google Maps showed that there were no campsites reasonably close to either venue. However after much searching we did find one campsite – The Guest House @ Country Lodge in Muldersdrift situated between each venue and within 20 kms of each.

We went to the Opening Day of the Bird Fair – Saturday 8 September – in Walter Sisulu Gardens. This is a very appropriate venue in a wonderful setting. The Fair was equally as interesting. It had stands with everything appropriate to birding as well as talks from a variety of people – even a puppet show for the kids which the adults enjoyed equally. Faansie Peacock’s new book – “A fully fledged field guide… for kids” – was for sale. What a well written book and appropriate not only for kids but new and old adult birders as well.

Walter Sisulu NP is renowned for its Verreaux’s Eagles and their nest in the cliffs. We were not disappointed and had views of them on their nest with their offspring as well as in the air.

Then on to Mapungubwe NP to fill in time between the shows. Another 550 kms drive!!

Mapungubwe NP is divided into two sections – the Eastern and Western sides – with Den Staat Farm in between. See map above. The campsite is in the Western section and the reception is in the Eastern section – some 34 kms apart.

The Den Staat Farm has always had interesting ponds to search for amazing water birds. Permission to enter required. However, when we inquired about going there we understood that the farm had changed hands and the ponds are now all dry. No longer a special birding spot.

Right now both sides of the Park are extremely dry and dusty. The fences are broken in long stretches and cattle wander across the river from Botswana to forage in the Park. Sad that management appears to not have the funds needed to maintain the fences.

Some camp birds.

Our first afternoon and next day we spent driving round the Western section, spending time at the Maloutswa Hide overlooking a patch of wetland (water supplied to maintain the wetland).

Perhaps the best sighting at the water hole was a Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl nesting in a Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver’s nest.

In one spot we confronted a few elephants by the river.


Then we came across a Holy Tree.

After that, this juvenile Bataleur nicely framed.

At another spot we found a very rough access point to the river and picked up a few water birds amongst others on the way there.

Limpopo with a small stretch of water

In all we identified 92 different bird species. Our bird list for everywhere we visited can be seen later in this report.

One of the highlights of our time there was to see a Bushpig in the daylight. It had a lovely white mane which went from neck to rump. Most unexpected sighting.

Bush Pig

Another day was spent in the Eastern section. The first bird we saw as we entered was a Red-headed Weaver which flitted about making it impossible to get a photo. A bit further along we came to a lookout point set high above the valley below where Baobabs appear in a barren landscape.

Barren Landscape

We headed for the chalet accommodation at Leokwe nestled in a boulder strewn enviroment.

On the way to Leokwe, Splat (our life-like Platapus furry toy) waved at a passing Park’s vehicle. It screeched to a halt. Out jumped the driver who came running up to our car. Oh-oh I thought. Well the driver, Leonard, immediately said, “I know you. You were in the Kruger Park at Pafuri 7 years ago driving a Kia”. We were astonished that he had remembered us – it must have been Splat whom he recognised.

Anyway he told us to follow him as he had something to show us. So we followed him virtually to the far end of the park to the old SADF bunker.

SADF Bunker

We had been there some 7 or 8 years ago and had intended to go there again during our visit. The benefit this time was having Leonard with us as we were able to get out of the car and walk around the area.

Under the trees by the Bunker

Specifically beneath the two large Nyala trees where we had seen a pair of Pel’s Fishing Owls all those years ago. And sure enough he pointed out another (or the same?) pair. What a wonderful happenstance meeting Leonard.

Pel’s Fishing-Owl

Sadly, we later learned that this wonderful spot at the SADF Bunker is being considered as a future picnic site. If this goes ahead then Goodbye to the Pel’s Fishing-Owls (and their likely breeding spot). Can we afford to let this happen? We have let Mark Anderson know about this and hope he has some influence with SAN Parks to avoid this going ahead.

Close to the Bunker the river did have a large area of standing water in it where we saw a small variety of waterbirds.

Yellow-billed Stork

We went for a walk up to the viewing point overlooking the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers. As you can see the rivers at this point were absolutely dry and cattle could be seen wandering into the Park from the opposite side.

From there we went to the tree top boardwalk and hide. The photo below shows the damage the elephants have caused to part of the entrance.

What next
Elephant Exclusion Zones

Some birds and other colourful critters photographed.

In all we identified 71 different bird species during the course of the day there.

On our final day we visited Ratho camp – due west of Pontdrift which is the border crossing into Botswana near the western-most edge of the Park. This crossing enters into the Tuli Block in Botswana. Should you want to visit the Tuli Block for a day visit we were told that it would cost you R700 to enter. Not sure if that cost applies per person nor if it applies if you simply want to drive through into other parts of Botswana.

Ratho sign to turn off the main road going to Pontdrift.

We had stayed at Ratho many years ago so it was interesting to see if it had changed much. At that time they had a 4×4 bush camp atop of a hill with a scenic loo overlooking the valley below. This has now gone, the area having been sold. However a new 4×4 camp has been established in the area next to the river.

Riverside 4×4 Camp

There are now several drives alongside the river where elephants were seen to roam. The main camp has a deck overlooking a waterhole where the elephants often are seen.

Viewing Deck

However the most interesting thing we learnt from the owner – Sandra- was how the whole camp was submerged after the floods one year. In the pictures below you can see me pointing to the height of the water level marked on the tree. Surprisingly the essence of the camp remained and was refurbished. It was quite unimaginable to visualise the extent of the area under water.

Pointing to the height of the river

We had a short drive along the riverside and identified 40 different bird species.

Grey Heron in breeding plumage – red beak

Eventually it was time for us to leave and head back to Jo’berg and the Getaway Show. We stayed at the same campsite as we had the previous weekend. This time without power nor water. Broken transformer and water shutdown. Fortunately we had own supply of both.

The Getaway Show covered everything associated with 4×4 camping. There were displays of all the main offroad campervans for people to examine. Probably the best way to assess which one you prefer.

At lunch time we visited Isdell House in Pinegowrie where we were treated to a full hour and a half tour guided by Mark Anderson. It was very impressive what they have done there. The whole concept is “Green” at its best. One day soon they may even be off the grid.

The support they got from various donors – the Isdell’s in particular – has been very generous. Virtually all the furnishings, building supplies have been donated by various companies keeping the cost of rebuild to an absolute minimum.

And the paintings, sketches, photos and prints – most signed by the artists – are extremely valuable. The library has a large selection of books donated by members. The policy of donated books is to offer the Orthonological Library first choice, then books come to Isdell’s library where some are kept, field guides donated to guides and schools, and the rest sold on – the proceeds of which go into the capital fund.

Such a well run operation with a very dedicated and happy team. It was a pleasant surprise to be guided around by Mark and to glean first hand of the story of Isdell House.

To break the journey home we decided to go to Golden Gate and camp for 2 nights with the hope of seeing vultures at the vulture restaurant, and Cape Eagle-Owl(s) along the cliffs bordering the campsite.

The first thing we realised when we got to the campsite was the noisy people. Friday and Saturday nights are party nights and all passing traffic had their music at full blast. It is also a place for bikers.

There are two loops to bird along. One loop goes up tp 2150 metres while the vulture hide is on the other lower loop. Most of the habitat is high grassland with bordering cliffs. Bird variety is therefore limited.

Devil’s Tooth

Our bird list for here and Mapungubwe can be seen by clicking here. Our afternoon and early morning bird list amountes to 23 different bird species here at Golden Gate.

We dipped on the Cape Eagle-Owl – not even hearing it. Not surprising really as the camp noise drowned out all other wildlife calls.

Black Wildebeest, Blesbok and Zebra were plentiful on the mountain slopes. Eland and Mountain Reedbuck were also seen.

Mountain Reedbuck

The vulture hide was relatively quiet. No vultures, just White-backed Ravens, Cape Crows and a lonely Southern Bald Ibis.

Bald Ibis

The weather was very windy – perhaps that was why there were so few sightings. However we did see one Bearded vulture fly over the hide just as we had returned to the car.

Bearded Vulture

All the other birds we had seen there took to the skies. So we raced back in the hope that the Bearded Vulture had landed – unfortunately it turned out to be another breathless walk 400 metres back to the hide to no avail.

African Stonechats were everywhere but this one had us fooled for a while.

After our morning’s drive round both loops the wind picked up. That was enough for us and we packed up and returned home a day early.

Hope you enjoyed the account and photos.

Paul and Sally Bartho



Mahai, Ithala, Ndumo, Bonamanzi & Richards Bay.

Sally and I are back from our impromptu wanderings around Natal. We headed to Mahai for 5 days, Ithala and Ndumo for 4 days each then 2 days each in Bonamanzi and Richards Bay.

We had interesting sightings in most places.

To enlarge the photos – single click (left mouse button). To return to the text either select the back button (if enlarging the large photos) or find the “X” at the top left for the enlarged smaller photos.


At the Tower of Pizza restaurant (10kms before the entrance gate to the Royal Natal NP) at roosting time the tree behind the restaurant served as the roost for what appeared to be thousands of Amur Falcons. The sky turned black (much like the swallows used to do at Mount Moreland) and then they fell as rain into the tree making a loud racket as they did so.

Even more surprising at the same venue in the trees and cell phone tower beside the main road, we saw at least 70 (and likely more) Southern Bald Ibis taking up their roost positions for the night. Some were even on the wires across the road.

Southern Bald Ibis - Mahai
Southern Bald Ibis – Mahai
Southern Bald Ibis, Mahai
Southern Bald Ibis, Mahai

Nearby there is a Parks Board reserve called Poccolan-Robertson’s Bush NR. (GPS: S28.33.890; E29.05.053). There is an Eskom power plant pumping facility at Kilburn Lake immediately before the reserve. Venturing to the top we found an excellent mix of Bushveld and Highveld birds. The two habitats meeting in a transition zone. There were Chorister Robin-Chats mixing with Acacia Pied Barbets for example.

Chorister Robin-Chat, Mahai
Chorister Robin-Chat, Mahai

Bush Blackcap was heard and seen in the bush beside RN NP Reception. Other specials seen/heard in the area include: Ground Woodpecker, Cape Rock-Thrush, Bokmakierie, Mocking Cliff-Chat, Peregrine and Lanner Falcons, Fiscal Flycatcher, Malachite Sunbird, Mountain Wagtail, Barratt’s Warbler, Cape Vultures.

On the path between Tiger Falls and Gudu we were lucky to see a Grey Rhebok – a species of antelope neither of us had seen before. The way it fled over the steep and dense grass terrain was amazing.

Golden Gate

The new Vulture Hide is quite impressive. It has 2 rooms. One with windows totally glassed and the other with pull up flaps for photographers beside each look out window – as shown below.

Golden Gate Vulture Hide
Golden Gate Vulture Hide
Golden Gate Vulture Hide
Golden Gate Vulture Hide

However no-one could tells us who to contact to find out about new carcass placements. Several Black-backed Jackal were seen and a couple of Cape Vultures flew overhead. 30 or more White-necked Ravens hung onto the cliff face below the “Restaurant”.


The camp site now has a HOT water outdoor shower with 2 shower heads side by side.

Ithala Shower
Ithala Shower

Two Blue Cranes at a water hole just after the Lookout Point on the Ngulumbeni Loop.

Blue Cranes, Ithala
Blue Cranes, Ithala

Shelly’s Francolin unperturbed by us – but a lifer for me! Often heard in the past but until now never seen.

Shelley's Francolin, Ithala
Shelley’s Francolin, Ithala

The following butterfly took us by surprise. We were looking down when suddenly what we thought was a leaf took off. Its camouflage was unbelievable – if we had not seen it move we would never have spotted it. Someone please ID it for us.

Ithala Butterfly - for ID Please
Ithala Butterfly – for ID Please

Some other sightings of interest include:


The water levels in the pans were so high that trying to find waders was impossible from any of the hides. However on a drive with Bongani to the back of the Nyamithi Pan we eventually saw many – some in breeding plumage like this Little Stint.

Little Stint in breeding plumage, Ndumo
Little Stint in breeding plumage alongside a Common Ringed Plover, Ndumo

Opposite Nyamithi Hide there must be over 500 Yellow-billed storks, 100 Pink-backed Pelicans, Great White Cormorants all nesting in the Fever trees. Numerous Spur-winged Geese are also present.

Nesting Site, Ndumo. Only a small portion shown.
Nesting Site, Ndumo. Only a small portion shown.

A number of other sightings can be seen in the following gallery:


As always an excellent place to find impressive elephants and to get chased by the youngsters. Birding was quiet in most areas.

Black-crowned Tchagra, Tembe
Black-crowned Tchagra, Tembe
Elephants, Tembe
Elephants, Tembe


The birding was quiet so we spent part of our time at False Bay. Some birds seen include:

Richards Bay

A small collection of 5 different terns (Common, Lesser Crested, Swift, Sandwich and Little) and 2 gulls (Kelp and Grey-headed) were together on the sand banks along the end of the Casurina trail – see following gallery:

Altogether we saw 273 different species of birds.

Paul and Sally Bartho