We left Malelane and the Kruger very early and arrived at the Mananga gate to Swaziland half an hour early at 06h30.
The drive through Swaziland was uneventful except for the potholes on the 40 kms stretch between Siteki and Big Bend.
We arrived at Ndumo midday with the intention to camp for one night before we joined the Game Rangers weekend – staying in the huts. However we negotiated a good price to upgrade from camping to the huts for the night and took full advantage of it.
Once settled in we took a drive to the Nyamithi hide passing the Vulture Restaurant on the way. At the Restaurant we spotted an adult Palm-nut Vulture feasting on one of five giraffe. Also noted were a pair of Spotted Thick-knees behind one of the carcasses.
At Nyamithi hide it was very quiet as the water level was quite high. However Sally noticed a Little Bittern in the reeds immediately in front of the hide.
The next morning at 06h00 Sally and I went with Bongani on a drive to the back side of Nyamithi Pan and Banzi Pan. This was the first time that some of the roads were passable after recent rains – in particular around Banzi and Bongani spent a bit of time cutting and removing fallen trees and bush across the road. That said, it was a very productive drive and we did not get back till after 11h00. Here are pictures of a smattering of the birds we saw.
On this drive we heard and saw our first Woodland Kingfisher of our trip so far. Not one seen nor heard in the Kruger!! The one we observed here was giving as good as he got from an annoyed Broad-billed Roller.
Late that afternoon we had a short but heavy thunderstorm which effectively closed the back roads around the Banzi Pan where we had gone. We were fortunate to arrive a day early.
In the camp a juvenile Spotted Eagle-Owl was seen.
The Game Rangers long weekend involved three walks with guides and a Game drive around the back of Nyamithi Pan as well as a sundowner at Nyamithi Pan.
On the walks we were taken to Shokwe Pan, the western side of the park and a central walk near the main gate.
On Friday we left the camp and had only reached the camp entrance when Bongani spotted an unusual implement in the bush by the road – an arrow. The park manager and rangers were called to deal with potential poachers. Then 100 metres further along the road Bongani spotted a knife in the road. The manager and rangers were called again. Some start to what was meant to be a game drive.
Here are some photos of birds seen on the Game drive and on our walks.
The camp has many large trees habituated by many birds. this is where the Spotted Eagle-Owl was seen. A Purple-crested Turaco paid a visit and a pesky Scaly-throated Honeyguide called seemingly from everywhere but where I was looking. Eventually I managed to get a shot or two of each.
There was little time during the weekend to go off and do your own thing. However on the last lunch break, we managed to visit the Nyamithi hide again – hoping to see the Little Bittern. We were not disappointed. The Vulture Restaurant was also active with a number of Yellow-billed Kites and a juvenile Palm-nut Vulture.
Ndumo was the most productive of all the locations we visited with 181 different bird species observed.
After 4 nights at Ndumo it was time to leave for our final destination at Sugarloaf campsite in St. Lucia. See Part 11 to follow.
Sally and I decided to spend the New Year camping away from home. Northern Zululand was our destination. Our program:
3 nights in Bonamanzi
4 nights in Mkuze
4 nights in Ndumo
3 nights in St. Lucia
At Bonamanzi we stayed in Campsite 5 and joined friends who were already there. Campsite 5 is huge and can accommodate 4 camp groups easily – however there is only one toilet/shower and one wash-up area. As pensioners it cost us R90 pppn.
In Bonamanzi as you may know you are able to walk anywhere on the property except in their Game viewing area. This is great for birding. However elephants do use the area as well. One morning when driving to the office we found a huge branch across the road and elephant tracks confirming who was the culprit for this roadblock. Beware.
The first night we had a lot of rain. So the next morning we (our friends and ourselves) decided to visit Hluhluwe rather than bird in the rain around the campsite. It continued raining.
Taking the shortcut to the freeway we went through numerous muddy pools past the Hakuna Mutata accommodation until we got to the bridge. The approach to the bridge was up a short steep bank which looked muddy and badly cambered – so down I went into Low range 4×4 and up we went – well actually did not make it. About a third of the way up the Fortuner slowly drifted off the road onto the trees on the left. Fortunately I was able to reverse out of trouble without damaging the car. Now the long way round to Hluhluwe.
The rain persisted. However we decided to look for the Finfoots (Finfeet?) which our friends had seen the previous day. Taking the immediate right turn as you enter the park we drove round to where they had seen them basking next to the river crossing – no luck! About the only excitement we had were 7 White Rhino crossing the road in front of us. They were the first aminals we saw since entering! Aminals were scarce and the birding was not much better. Eventually we decided to return to Bonamanzi for lunch. Altogether we had seen 35 species of birds in the 3 hours we were in Hluhluwe.
The following day we walked around the camp area and went on a drive to explore other parts of Bonamanzi. In one section we had heard an African Broadbill on a couple of occasions (Pathway E to F). Later we went back with our friends and another couple who had arrived to see if we would have any better luck.
Sally mentioned to Irene that you needed to look on cross branches about head height in the bush. We had not gone more than 20 metres when Irene spotted a Broadbill – unbelievable. I managed to get a few poor shots which you can see in the gallery below. On the way back I popped into the bush to see if I could get a few better shots – no luck finding the Broadbill but I did surprise a Narina Trogon – see pics in Gallery.
After that we visited the office area and drove back in the dark spotting a Shikra on the road munching on its prey – unconcerned with the car’s headlights on him. Poor pictures in the gallery.
Bonamanzi yielded 89 species plus one UI (Unidentified) Raptor – have a go there is a pic in the gallery. Most of the Cuckoos were heard as well as the Green Malkoa. A Black Cuckooshrike in magnificent breeding plumage gave a great display round the campsite – yellow gape and epaulets very strident. A Red-fronted Tinkerbird and a Bearded Scrub-Robin also gave us great displays in the campsite.
Surprisingly the tent was dry as we packed to leave Bonamanzi. We headed for the new gate to enter Mkuze. On the way we passed Muzi Pan. The water level was so high that it was a raging torrent beneath both bridges along the Muzi Pan dam wall. Not surprisingly there were few bird species about – we saw only 9 in the 10 minutes we stopped there. The Knob-billed Duck being the most interesting.
Mkuze Campsite. Still has water problems – the boreholes run dry regularly and the water is unfiltered so not only is it inadvisable to drink but the silt that comes with it is damaging all their taps – water leaks all the time.
Trying to book a campsite at Mkuze is often difficult because of this. Also they try to restrict the number of bookings to 10 campsites as that is all their one staff member can handle. They have over 30 potential sites. When we arrived on 31st December one man was still trying to cut the knee high grass in 50% of the sites!
On top of this the Ezemvelo Parks Board have fixed the campsite rate at R230 for 3 people – an increase from R180 last year (almost 30%) with no improvement in facilities and no way to get a rate for 2 people. Like Sodwana who charge for 4 people irrespectively, this is a total rip off.
During the 3 full days in Mkuze we never managed to find the newly released Lions perhaps because they are still happy to return to their boma where they were kept originally and also because all the rain the grass was high everywhere.
Some of our more interesting bird sightings include:
Black bellied Bustard
Cuckoos vociferously calling – Black, African Emerald, Diedrik’s, Klass’s, Jacobin, Levaillant’s and Red-chested. A pair of the latter chasing each other round the main office.
Lesser Spotted Eagle.
a juvenile Greater Honeyguide around our camp being fed by Black-bellied Starlings.
Common Quail obligingly walking ahead of us on the road to KwaMalibali Hide
Red-backed Shrikes – everywhere
Neergaard’s Sunbird – always a pleasure
Grey Penduline-Tits in the trees above our campsite
At the end of our visit we had identified 140 bird species – the pans were very full discouraging many water birds otherwise we would have expected many more.
Ndumo is always a special place to visit and the local guides have a reputation of excellence. It is always a pleasure to take advantage of the early morning walks which at R110 pp is really good value.
Again we had 3 full days in the Reserve. On one of these days we spent the morning in Tembe Elephant Park.
Tembe was full of elephants – fortunately in the open swamp area so we could easily see them and not be chased by them as happened twice the last time we visited.
Although it felt like birding was quiet, we managed to identify 66 species in the 4 hours we were there. We were rewarded with sightings of an African Cuckoo-Hawk juvenile and an African Harrier-Hawk – the only place where we saw each of them. The other special sighting was of a pair of Woodward’s Batis. No Plain-backed Sunbird.
The rest of our time spent in Ndumo. We went on a morning drive and 2 early morning walks and of course explored the Reserve on our own. In all we identified 142 species including an Eurasian Hobby.
On the last morning I went on the Southern Pongola walk. There were 3 of us and our guide, Sontu. His skills are superb. On the walk we heard the Narina Trogon and an African Golden Oriole – however the highlight was spotting a Black Coucal in the wetland area.
Sugarloaf Campsite in St Lucia was our base for 3 nights. It is a huge camp with 100 sites ideally located right by the sea. It was only about 20% full and the fishermen were well behaved. Watch it on weekends as they can be quite raucous. The three nights was R432 for both of us – very reasonable.
We birded in 3 areas: Eastern and Western Shores and around the campsite.
Western Shores is the newly opened area of the iSimangaliso WetlandPark. It has been very well developed. The habitat is predominantly flat open grassland with outcrops of woodland and forest. There is currently a lot of freestanding water with many wetland areas. There is one hide and a boardwalk to a lookout point overlooking LakeSt Lucia. The picnic site is large, shady and well situated. We spent almost 6 hours there covering the whole road network.
As we approached the hide a herd of elephants – about 15 – saw us and calmly walked away allowing us access. Then at the hide, just as we were about to leave, Sally saw a raptor flying over the pan in front of the hide. Small head and quite barred underside. We got excited. Sally immediately pronounced what she thought it was. The bird then landed in one of the large broad-leafed trees opposite us about 100 metres away. Out came the scope and luckily the bird was not secretly hidden within. On further inspection we had a clear sighting of its head and tail and it was clear that Sally was correct. A lifer for me – a European Honey-Buzzard.
I include some pictures of the habitat and a few of the birds we were lucky enough to photograph. In all we saw 72 species in the 5.5 hours we were there.
Eastern Shores. Similar in habitat to the WesternShores but more hilly with coastal forest and the sea and shore. There are 2 bird hides and several lookout points and picnic sites as well as a number of side loops off the main road to CapeVidal. In the past we have seen both White and Black Rhino and Leopards (one right next to the car park for the large new Mafazana hide).
On the Vlei Loop we saw our first raptor – a Southern-banded Snake-Eagle. It was sitting prominently in a bare tree with the sun directly behind it. We had to work hard to get the right angle to see it clearly enough to identify it.
At the Mafazana hide Sally spotted 2 Saddle-billed Storks on top of a distant tree. We wondered if they were starting to breed early!
The other sighting worth mentioning was surprisingly that of a Lilac-breasted Roller. It was the first and only sighting of one on our whole 2 week trip – most unusual.
In all we identified 73 species in the 6 hours we were there.
St. Lucia, Sugarloaf Camp and the immediate shore.
On setting up camp the monkeys arrived. There were also a couple of Grey Duiker close by. It was hilarious to watch them interact. One approached the other and the next minute they were all chasing each other around the site. Other aminals seen in the camp included Bushbuck, Red Duiker and interestingly Reedbuck – often paying little attention to us Humans.
Right next to the camp is the boardwalk to the sea and the mouth of LakeSt Lucia. Hippos and Crocs were very evident – just waiting for one of the fishermen to get too close.
On the first afternoon after setting up our camp we headed for a walk on the beach. We were surprised by a Palmnut Vulture which flew over our heads and landed on the inland side of the beach at the mouth of LakeSt. Lucia. We approached slowly watching it nibbling on the base of some of the spindly grass protruding from the muddy edges of the lake – managing to get with 15 metres of it. An unexpected waterbird!
Campsite birding was very good. One R-C R-C (Natal Robin or as Sally says Cossypha Natalensis) joined us for a sundowner doing good imitations of an African Emerald Cuckoo. An African Goshawk landed in the tall pine trees above us to sing his good-bye as we prepared to leave. But probably the highlight was a wonderful view of a male Green Twinspot in vivid plumage.
In all we recorded 57 species in and around the campsite including the walk along the waterfront.
Sadly we returned home to a chilly welcome in a not so sunny Hillcrest.
In total we identified 235 species on our two week odyssey.
If anyone would like a copy of our excel spreadsheet showing which birds we identified in each of the 9 different reserves we visited, then click here to contact me.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Two Blue Cranes at a water hole just after the Lookout Point on the Ngulumbeni Loop.
Shelly’s Francolin unperturbed by us – but a lifer for me! Often heard in the past but until now never seen.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The birding was quiet so we spent part of our time at False Bay. Some birds seen include:
Bearded Scrub-Robin, Bonamanzi
Thick-billed Weaver, Bonamanzi
Brown-hooded Kingfisher, False Bay
Long-crested Eagle, False 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: