Drakensberg Siskin, Sani Pass
Drakensberg Siskin, Sani Pass

Introduction: 

Following on from the Western Endemics tour we’ll tackle the endemics and near-endemics of the wetter eastern side of the country, where habitats are extremely varied, due to massive variations in altitude, and South Africa’s overall biodiversity peaks. This Eastern Endemics leg will start off in Durban on the eastern coast, with participants gathering on the day before the tour starts (or the day the Western leg ends). From Durban we’ll head inland to the Southern Drakensberg, where the highlight involves a day trip up Sani Pass and into Lesotho, with Drakensberg Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin and other endemics as major attractions. From there we move on to Eshowe and Dlinza Forest, and then down to St Lucia and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park for some superb coastal forest and grassland birding. Our next port of call is far northern Maputaland, where Tembe Elephant Park combines great Sand Forest birding with some big game viewing. From Tembe we move on to the endemics hot-spot of Wakkerstroom, where two rare Lark species are near the top of our target list, while big birds such as Cranes and Bustards should provide the awe-factor. From there we visit the famed Kruger National Park, extremely rich in bird species as well as a wonderful range of mammals, including the Big Five. After the Kruger we visit the montane forests of the Eastern Escarpment in the Magoebaskloof area, before a last stop in Polokwane before ending off in Johannesburg.

20 November – 5 December 2019 (15 nights / 16 days)

Starts in Umhlanga near Durban on the morning of the 20th November 2019. Participants should ideally overnight in Umhlanga on the night of the 19th November 2019 (this cost is not included). We are happy to arrange this accommodation. Tour ends in Johannesburg on the late afternoon of the 5th December 2019 in time for evening transcontinental flights. Please check with us before booking any flights.

2019: ZAR 59 050 per person sharing, ZAR 6 725 single supplement

Price subject to change based on external factors. Price is based on a minimum of 4 participants. Small group surcharge will be levied for groups smaller than 4 participants. Please contact us for more detail.

Includes
• Accommodation
• All meals
• Ground transport
• Bottled water in Lawson’s vehicle whilst travelling
• Entrance fees
• Personalised checklists
• Specialist guide fees

Excludes
• All airfares
• Travel and medical insurance
• All drinks
• Optional excursions where applicable
• Gratuities
• Items of a personal nature

Note
• This itinerary is subject to change due to weather conditions at the time and other factors beyond our control.
• The species mentioned in the itinerary represent only some of the possible ones we may see on the tour, however, none of these can be guaranteed even though every effort will be made where possible to locate them. A full list of possibles appears on your checklist.

Group size: maximum of 12 participants, 1 guide per 6 participants.

Areas visited: Karkloof, Sani Pass, Eshowe, St Lucia, Mkhuze, Wakkerstroom, Kruger National Park, Magoebaskloof and Polokwane.

Expected weather conditions: the interior will by hot and mildly humid this time of year. The Kwazulu-Natal region will be hot along the coast, and also with a chance of rain.

Tour tempo: medium-plus to fast paced.

Accommodation standards: medium; guest houses and National Parks accommodation.

Birding in brief: excellent variety of habitats and bird species, strong focus on birding.

Top birds: Drakensberg Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin, Rudd’s Apalis, Bearded Vulture, Pink-throated Twinspot, African Cuckoo-Hawk, Rudd’s Lark, Botha’s Lark, Blue Korhaan and Short-clawed Lark.

Mammal viewing: although not strongly focussed on mammals, a good selection of game is possible with African Buffalo, African Elephant, Southern Giraffe, Eland, Sloggett’s Ice Rat, Lion and Leopard.

Other wildlife and attractions: scenic Drakensberg Mountains, Kruger National Park and iSimangaliso Wetlands Park.

Add-ons: this tour can be combined with the Western South African Endemics set-departure, 5th – 15th November 2016 / 10th – 20th November 2017.

Eastern SA Endemics map
Start King Shaka Airport / end Johannesburg. 1: Underberg. 2: Eshowe. 3: St Lucia. 4: Tembe. 5: Wakkerstroom. 6: Kruger Pretoriuskop. 7: Kruger Skukuza. 8: Kruger Satara. 9: Magoebaskloof. 10: Polokwane.

Day 1: Underberg
Our tour of Eastern South Africa will begin this morning at Gateway Country Lodge in Umhlanga, with an early morning birding trip down to the Umhlanga Nature Reserve before breakfast. After breakfast we’ll pack up and depart for the airport to pick up Randolph before heading on tour our first stop at the foot of the Southern Drakensberg. En-route we’ll plan some birding stops if time allows, with two possible sites for the critically endangered Blue Swallow to consider, depending on which route we take from Umhlanga. We’ll aim to arrive at our accommodation in Underberg in the late afternoon for some time to relax before dinner

Day 2: Sani Pass and Lesotho
Today we’ll have a pre-sunrise start, as we head out on a long day trip to Sani Pass, a rocky track which leads up to the high plateau of Lesotho. There will be some great birding to be had, and although we won’t have a big list for the day, a large proportion of these species will be very high quality birds. Birding the lower lying areas we’ll search for Barratt’s Warbler, Cape Rock-Thrush, Bush Blackcap and Broad-tailed Warbler before starting up the pass where Gurney’s Sugarbird, Malachite Sunbird, White-necked Raven, Drakensberg Prinia and Grey-winged Francolin may be found. The higher reaches and into Lesotho will be our main focus though as this is where we’ll hope to see Drakensberg Rockjumper, Drakensberg Siskin, Bearded Vulture, Sentinel Rock-Thrush, Mountain Pipit, Fairy Flycatcher, Layard’s Titbabbler, Southern Bald Ibis, Grey Tit and Large-billed Lark. We’ll start heading back early afternoon, although the drive is still slow and we expect to get there late afternoon, in time to watch the sun set after what is always a highly entertaining day.

Day 3: Eshowe
We’ll be up early once more as we drive to a nearby forest site to try and locate one of our target species in the form of the endangered Cape Parrot (though we have a good chance of seeing these at the end of the tour in Magoebaskloof, so we may alter the plan for the morning, considering the time spent driving to and from Marutswa Forest). As these birds are highly nomadic in response to local food sources, we’ll plan to search for the birds as they leave a forest patch where they roost, with the birds usually showing for a while as they preen in the early morning before moving out to feed for the rest of the day. We’ll then make our way back to Underberg for breakfast and departure for Eshowe, a small town situated in the rolling hills just inland from the coast. On the way we’ll take a birding detour into the Karkloof Valley, where we’ll search for a range of species, with Pale-crowned Cisticola, Black-winged Lapwing and Wattled Crane in particular being high up on our list of wanted birds, although we stand a chance of finding all three southern African Crane species. Eventually we’ll reach Eshowe around mid-afternoon, allowing us a bit of time to visit the small Dlinza Forest for the thinly-distributed Spotted Ground-Thrush, with a healthy population of these birds breeding in the forests here. We’ll then have time to freshen up before dinner.

Days 4 – 5: St Lucia and the iSimangaliso Wetland Park
We’ll start the day with an early morning cup of tea or coffee on the forest canopy tower in the hope of finding the shy Eastern Bronze-naped Pigeon, with these birds being most easily found during the very early morning when they perch in the forest canopy to preen before spending the rest of the day within the canopy feeding. Afterwards we’ll have another stroll around the forest hopefully locating more Spotted Ground-Thrushes, along with Olive Woodpecker, Lemon Dove, Green Twinspot, Purple-crested Turaco, White-eared Barbet, Scaly-throated Honeyguide and possibly Green Malkoha. After returning for breakfast we’ll pack up for the drive through to St. Lucia, with some birding on the way there as we visit Ongoye Forest for Green Barbet, with this forest being the only locality in Southern Africa for this species, as well as a stop at Mtunzini to try and find Palmnut Vulture. We’ll have a direct drive from here through to St.Lucia, arriving mid to late afternoon and having the rest of the day off to relax after a very busy few days, with a birding stroll in the town as an option for those with enough energy left. On our full day here we’ll have an early start as we visit the Cape Vidal section of the iSimangaliso Wetlands National Park, where, besides game species such as Cape Buffalo, Common Reedbuck, Plains Zebra and Greater Kudu, we’ll search for a number of birds such as Woodward’s Batis, Rudd’s Apalis, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Brown Scrub-Robin, Red-backed Mannikin, Livingstone’s Turaco and Southern Banded Snake-Eagle. We’ll return to town early the afternoon with some time to relax before having an early afternoon stroll around the estuary itself where we’ll search for Yellow-billed Stork, African Openbill, African Pygmy-Goose, Rufous-winged Cisticola, Goliath Heron, Great White Egret and Water Thick-Knee, whilst a number of waders such as Common Whimbrel, Sanderling, Little Stint and Curlew Sandpiper may also be seen. Depending on conditions and access at the time, we may also have a stroll down to the Umfolozi River mouth where a number of terns and waders may be found in the late afternoon, including Caspian, Common, Greater Crested, Lesser Crested, Swift and Little Terns, whilst Terek Sandpiper, Greater and Lesser Sand Plover, Common Ringed Plover and Grey Plover occur as well.

Days 6 – 7: Tembe Elephant Park
We’ll start the day with an early morning stroll along the iGwalagwala trail to try and find any coastal forest species we may have missed before, such as Woodward’s Batis, Livingstone’s Turaco, Brown Scrub-Robin, Green Malkoha, Black-throated Wattle-eye, Rudd’s Apalis and Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, before loading up the vehicle for the drive through to the coastal region known as Maputaland for another two night stay. On the way there however we’ll spend a bit of time birding at two different sites. At the first site we’ll search for Lemon-breasted Canary and Rosy-throated Longclaw, while at the second site the marshy floodplain of the uMkhuze River may turn up Collared Pratincole, African Pygmy-Goose, Southern Brown-throated Weaver, Yellow Weaver, Rufous-winged Cisticola, Red-billed Teal, Fulvous Whistling Duck, Kitlitz’s Plover, Spur-winged Goose, Black-winged Stilt and Hottentot Teal. Moving on we’ll continue to our destination, Tembe Elephant Park. This is a large reserve on the border of South Africa and Mozambique, and is co-owned by the people of the local Tembe tribe. Much of Tembe comprises pristine sand forest habitat, which is where we’ll look for special birds such as Pink-throated Twinspot, Plain-backed Sunbird, Woodward’s Batis, Grey Waxbill, Rudd’s Apalis, African Broadbill and many others. Other habitats include grassy vleis (marshes) where we may see Black Coucal, Saddle-billed Stork, Purple Heron and Rosy-throated Longclaw, with a bit of luck. As its name implies Tembe is also home to a large number of African Elephants, many of which carry some impressive ivory (unfortunately Isilo, their biggest tusker, died of natural causes early in 2014). In addition to some wonderful Elephant encounters we’ll hope to see Lion, and will no doubt see antelope species such as Impala, Nyala, Kudu, Suni and Red Duiker. Other species to see include Red Squirrel, Thick-tailed Bushbaby, Bushpig and Warthog. We should arrive at Tembe in the mid-afternoon in time for our afternoon game and birding drive in open-sided Land-Cruise game viewers. We’ll return to camp for dinner and drinks under the African night sky. The following morning we’ll have a morning drive, followed by breakfast and a chance to relax in the camp through the heat of the day. We’ll then have another afternoon drive followed by dinner once again.

Days 8 – 9: Wakkerstroom
We’ll have another early morning’s birding in the Sand Forest in order to locate any species we may have missed the previous day, with both Pink-throated Twinspot and Neergard’s Sunbird in particular being a bit more tricky to find, and as such, require a bit more effort. We’ll return to camp once again for a late breakfast before we get the vehicle packed for a fairly lengthy drive through to the town of Wakkerstroom in the higher altitudes of southern Mpumalanga Province. The drive there will not be particularly eventful as we’ll just aim to get there by mid to late afternoon, although time permitting, we will do some birding around the large wetland on the edge of town, with this being a RAMSAR site, predominantly due to the presence of White-winged Flufftail, although our chances of seeing this species are incredibly low. More likely birds here include African Marsh-Harrier, Hottentot, Cape and Red-billed Teals, Southern Pochard, Cape Shoveller, South African Shelduck, Little Grebe, African Snipe and Black-crowned Night-Heron, whilst the reed beds create hideaways for several skulkers such as African Rail, Black Crake, African Reed-Warbler, Lesser Swamp-Warbler, Little Rush-Warbler and Sedge Warbler. On our full day we’ll spend our time targeting very specific species, and being our last entire day on the tour we’ll try and make this one count! First up will be the search for some of Africa’s most endangered Lark species, namely Rudd’s and Botha’s Larks, with both occurring in the grasslands to the north of town. Several other notable species may be seen along the way, including Blue and Grey Crowned Cranes, Blue Korhaan, Spike-heeled, Eastern Clapper, Red-capped and Pink-billed Larks, Banded Martin, Red-winged Francolin and Common Quail. Afterwards we’ll return to town for breakfast before we drive out through the fallow lands to the east to search for our next target species, Barrow’s Korhaan, with these birds being fairly tricky to locate at times. Other species we may see are Blue Crane, Denham’s Bustard, Bush Blackcap and Cloud Cisticola before returning for lunch and a bit of time to relax. For the afternoon we’ll head out further to the south where we’ll target Wailing Cisticola, Blue Crane, Southern Bald Ibis and African Rock Pipit, whilst on the way back we may be lucky enough to find Marsh Owl coming out to hunt for the evening, and creating a great end to what would have been a long day of birding.

Day 10: The Kruger National Park, Pretoriuskop
We’ll start the day birding around the marsh where we hope to find another few species to add to our list, before returning to our guesthouse for breakfast and starting our lengthy drive through to Pretoriuskop Camp in the Kruger National Park. The drive there won’t offer too much in terms of birding, although we stand a good chance of encountering Southern Bald Ibis along the way, whilst raptors such as Common Buzzard, Jackal Buzzard and Long-crested Eagle are usually seen. We’ll aim to reach Nelspruit in time for lunch, before a short detour to a nearby town to search for Bat Hawk which has a roost site here, whilst the surroundings usually turn up Holub’s Golden Weaver, African Yellow Warbler and occasionally Fan-tailed Grassbird. From where we’ll complete the last short section of our drive through to Pretoriuskop where we’ll settle in, before having a short stroll through the grounds where we may find Brown-headed Parrot, Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Groundscraper Thrush and Bennett’s Woodpecker, before searching for the endearing African Scops Owl just after dark.

Day 11: The Kruger National Park, Skukuza
We’ll spend a fair amount of time this morning birding the area around the camp where we’ll specifically aim to track down Green-capped Eremomela, Grey Penduline Tit, Lazy Cisticola, Neddicky, Lizard Buzzard, and with luck, African Cuckoo-Hawk, before returning for breakfast. From here we’ll bird our way through to our next camp, Skukuza, where we’ll spend two nights and allowing us ample time to explore the multitude of habitats. Along the way though we’ll drive via a small picnic site called Afsaal where we’ll have lunch, before heading directly north with the hope of adding species such as Magpie Shrike, Southern White-crowned Shrike, Grey-headed Bush Shrike, Long-billed Crombec, Grey Tit-Flycatcher and Red-breasted Swallow. We should arrive in Skukuza late the afternoon, in time to settle in and have a relaxed dinner after another excellent day of birding.

Day 12: The Kruger National Park, Satara
We’ll have a full day of birding in the Skukuza area today, which we’ll start off with a visit to the nearby Lake Panic bird hide where we hope to find African Jacana, African Darter, Water Thick-knee, Malachite Kingfisher, Pied Kingfisher and Goliath Heron. From here we’ll spend a bit of time birding around the Skukuza Indigenous Plant Nursery and boardwalk where we’ll search for Eastern Bearded Scrub Robin, Red-capped Robin-Chat, White-browed Robin-Chat, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Four-colored Bushshrike and Collared Sunbird, before a breakfast at the golf club, where we may locate Broad-billed Roller and African Fish Eagle. Afterwards we’ll explore a bit further afield where species such as White-fronted Bee-eater, Lilac-breasted Roller, Red-faced Cisticola and Diederic Cuckoo may be found. After some time to relax, we’ll head out for another drive the afternoon, hoping to add a few more species to our list in the form of Red-crested Korhaan, Ashy Flycatcher, Chinspot Batis and Gabar Goshawk, before returning, with the option of a night drive for those interested that may also add Fiery-necked Nightjar, Square-tailed Nightjar, Pearl-spotted Owlet and Spotted Eagle Owl.

Day 13: The Kruger National Park, Satara
Today we’ll have an early start as we load up the vehicle and make our way north to our next destination, Satara Rest Camp, situated in the drier and more open central section of Kruger. Initially our route will follow the Sabie River for a short while where, with luck, we may encounter the shy African Finfoot, whilst Giant Kingfisher is a frequent sighting here, before we cross the river and make our way north to Tshokwane Picnic site where we’ll have breakfast. The drive there will hopefully still add a few species, with raptors often well represented in the form of Tawny Eagle, Martial Eagle, African Goshawk, White-backed Vulture, Hooded Vulture and Lappet-faced Vulture. After breakfast we’ll push through to Tshokwane, aiming to arrive around lunch time, after which we’ll have a bit of time to relax before a late afternoon drive to the north. The habitat here will be very different to further south in Kruger, with the open plains hopefully yielding species such as Common Ostrich, Kori Bustard, Red-crested Korhaan, Cut-throat Finch, Namaqua Dove, Double-banded Sandgrouse and Chestnut-backed Sparrowlark. We’ll return to camp just before dark, possibly finding Verreaux’s Eagle Owl on the way back.

Day 14: Magoebaskloof
We’ll start off the day with a drive around camp to see if we can add any more species, with Southern Ground Hornbill being high up on the wish list, along with its common cousins, African Grey Hornbill, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill and Southern Red-billed Hornbill. After returning for breakfast we’ll load up the vehicle and make our way out towards Orpen Gate on the western edge of the Kruger, and from where we’ll make our way to Magoebaskloof where we’ll spend the evening. The drive there won’t offer too much in terms of birding, although time permitting we may search for Magpie Mannikin in the small town of Tzaneen, whilst Dusky Indigobird, Bushveld Pipit and Common Scimitarbill may also be encountered on the way there. We expect to arrive at Magoebaskloof late afternoon, with just enough time to get settled before dinner and good night’s rest.

Day 15: Polokwane
We’ll have an early start today as we head straight to the forest, hopefully finding the resident Cape Parrots screeching away as they head out to feed, whilst some of the more common forest species could include Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Chorister Robin-Chat, White-starred Robin, Olive Bushshrike, Forest Canary, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher and Knysna Turaco. Undoubtedly the top species here however is Black-fronted Bushshrike, with this being the most accessible site in the country for this bird, whilst roadsides should be checked for Green Twinspot and Red-backed Mannikin. After returning for breakfast, we’ll pack up the vehicle for the relatively short drive through to Polokwane where we’ll spend the final night of our tour. A stop en-route will hopefully turn up Red-throated Wryneck and Bokmakierie, whilst the skies overhead should be scanned for Cape Vultures which are occasionally seen flying over. Once we reach Polokwane we’ll settle into our guesthouse and have a bit of time to relax before we spend the afternoon birding a few sites around town in the hopes of locating Black-crowned Night Heron, Malachite Kingfisher, Great Reed Warbler, Chestnut-vented Warbler and Abdim’s Stork, before heading back for dinner on our final evening.

Day 16: Departure
We’ll be up early as we head into the nearby Polokwane Game Reserve, where we’ll aim to track down our final major target species of the trip, Short-clawed Lark. Besides this species though the reserve offers a wealth of birdlife and we could encounter Black-faced Waxbill, Violet-eared Waxbill, Olive-tree Warbler, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Shelley’s Francolin, Northern Black Korhaan, African Hawk Eagle, Brubru, Common Whitethroat and Marico Flycatcher before returning to our guesthouse for breakfast. Afterwards we’ll reluctantly load up the vehicle as we start the drive south to Johannesburg and the airport to cap off a fantastic trip through this wonderful country.

(At the end of the feedback form): “As you can tell from the above, one very happy client!”

Alex Randall, UK, after Eastern SA Endemics 2016.

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