South Africa East 2006 October


3rd Leg Eastern South Africa

Livingstone’s Turaco, Rudd’s Lark, Narina Trogon and Other South African Specials…

19th to 30th October 2006 – Eastern Specials with John McAllister

Eastern Leg Itinerary

Day Date Hotel/Lodge/etc
21 Durban – Creighton 19-Oct Smithfield Guest Farm
22 Lesotho 20-Oct Sani Top Chalets
23 Lesotho and Creighton 21-Oct Smithfield Guest Farm
24 Xumeni Forest 22-Oct Smithfield Guest Farm
25 Richards Bay 23-Oct Protea Hotel Richards Bay
26 Eshowe 24-Oct Protea Hotel Richards Bay
27 eNseleni River 25-Oct Bonamanzi Game Ranch
28 Bonamanzi Game Ranch 26-Oct Bonamanzi Game Ranch
29 Mkhuze Game Reserve 27-Oct Bonamanzi Game Ranch
30 Wakkerstroom 28-Oct Wakkerstroom Country Inn
31 Wakkerstroom 29-Oct Wakkerstroom Country Inn
32 Johannesburg 30-Oct Homeward Flights


Notes: All photographs © copyright to Bo Beolens, Brian Anderson and Sue Sayers. Bold numbers in square brackets indicate the route number in Southern Africa Birdfinder. Names highlighted in yellow are eponymous names of birds explained in the addendum.

Our guide for this leg of our Southern African sojourn was John McAllister – a friend who guided many of us on the Kenya dba trip some years ago. It was terrific to re-make his acquaintance and meet his wife Elise after many years of correspondence.

All five of those who took part in the Cape leg [Maggie & Bo Beolens, Joanna & Brian Anderson and Sue Sayers] continued on to this leg. In the meantime Andy Senior who had accompanied us on the Namibia leg had spent some days with John chasing specials that he had missed out on, on his previous visit to South Africa.

Whilst the idea was to continue to increase our tally of Southern African endemics it was not at a break-neck speed and we moved from place to place less often.

Whilst most time was spent in the State of Kwa-Zulu Natal we also spent some time in Mpumalanga and the last day in Gauteng, although we also drove through a corner of Swaziland and three members of the party drove up Sani Pass into Lesotho where they spent a night.

There were manyspecies seen on this leg that had been seen previously but there were also many new birds found.

In addition to John’s guiding we were also shown several sites by other people that John had brought in to help because of their local knowledge or to overcome the extra problems consequent to our limited mobility.

Detailed Daily Diary

Day 21 – 19th October:

We flew from Cape Town to Durban arriving at Durban airport late-morning.  Once we had completed all the airport formalities we met John and drove south along the coastal highway to Park Rynie , before turning inland towards Ixopo and the village of Creighton [92], which was our base for the next two nights.


As we left the airport we saw our first House Crows of the trip and, when we stopped for fuel we saw our first [but by no means last] Common Myna.

Lunch was to have been a picnic affair overlooking the Indian Ocean but John phoned on ahead and Gail kindly agreed to put on some drinks and sandwiches for us and we were able to head off straight for Creighton.  We arrived in Creighton in time for a late lunch and were able to spend the rest of the afternoon birding locally before sitting down to one of Gail’s sumptuous dinners. In the garden we saw Amethyst Sunbird, Village Weaver, Pin-tailed whydah, Speckled Mousebird, Green Wood-hoopoe, Common Waxbill, & Red-billed Quelea.

Malcolm took us out into the lanes around the village specifically to a spot where there are Broad-tailed Warblers which he taped out into the open for most of us to see; oddly Cape Grassbird also responded to the tape.  In the area raptor sightings were confined to Yellow-billed and Black-shouldered Kites, Jackal Buzzard but we also saw our first Long-crested Eagles sitting on a telegraph pole close enough for photo silhouettes against the sky. In the fields there were also Fan-tailed, Red-collared and Long-tailed Widows, Cape Canary, White-throated Swallow, White-breasted Cormorant, Grey-crowned Crane and African Wattled Lapwing. He took us to a farm where he has regularly seen Black-bellied Korhaan and we got great views. Whilst looking for the Korhaan we also had a distant view of a magnificent Lanner Falcon.

Commoner species abounded such as the usual Ducks, Herons, Egrets, Ibises and Hammerkop, the ubiquitous Cape Gull, Common Doves, Swifts, Hirundines, both Guineafowl, Corvids, Cape Robinchat, Levaillant’s Cisticola, Cape Wagtail, Common Fiscal and Southern Boubou, Common & Red-winged Starlings

Creighton lies near the South Eastern border of KwaZulu-Natal on the Umzimkulu River.  It was originally known as “Dronkvlei” (Drunk Marsh) from 1842 to 1905, because the cattle that grazed the lush plants on the river banks and became disorientated or “drunk”.  In 1905 the Cape-Natal Railway Line was opened and a village was laid out and re-named “Creighton” – the maiden name of Lady McCallum, wife of the Governor of Natal at the time.

Today Creighton serves the dairy farming community of the district and is the seat of the Ingwe Municipality.  The beautiful fertile Creighton valley has been called the ‘Milk Bowl’ of Natal.  Forestry has also become an important industry on the surrounding hills.  Nearby is a truly beautiful Roman Catholic Mission called Centocow.  The mission was established in 1888 and includes two magnificent red-brick churches – one in the process of restoration and the other with a very beautiful altar and stained glass windows.

In 1898 Matthew Henry Smith, a transport rider, came to investigate business prospects in the Dronkvlei settlement.  He bought the farm now known as Smithfield from a Charles Crookes for the sum of £20 plus his transport wagon.  Matthew died at the age of 92 on Smithfield and his daughter. Annie Maud Alborough inherited the farm and passed it on to her son, Raymond Matthew Alborough.  Malcolm and Gail Gemmell bought the farm in 1980 – Malcolm was a dairy farmer until 2000 when he leased out the farming operation and became a full time birding tour guide and the rambling old homestead was turned into a guest house.

The approximate distance travelled for the day was 200km.

Overnight:Smithfield Guest Farm Hosts: Gail and Malcolm Gemmell of Button Birding

Wheelchair access comments:

Special efforts were made to provide Brian with suitable disabled facilities. Entrance to my room was level access and the rooms were very large. The shower was provided with a sort of double stool (which was new to me) with a back support set in the middle, and an armrest at one end only. The legs were adjustable which meant that I could bridge the gap between the shower and the wheelchair. This also meant that I could set the shower temperature without scalding myself. The wash basin was the correct height and so was the toilet. Our bedroom was roomy although the space between the beds made it a little difficult to position the wheelchair in my normal way to slide on to the bed, but this was no great problem,

The paths to the dining room were gravelled and firm and were easy to push over, but final access was through the kitchen.

Congratulations are due to the owners, Malcolm and Gail Gemmell for making great efforts to adapt the accommodation for disabled use. The shower bench provided was of a design that I had not seen before and I think it helps to solve the problem of transferring from a wheelchair to a shower seat as the legs are adjustable for height, and so the levels of the shower floor and the bathroom floor can be compensated for. The bench can be viewed on the CE Mobility website and I thoroughly recommend that accommodation owners in South Africa provide this product if they are interested in disabled access issues. I intend to find out if this product is available in the UK]

Day 22 – 20th October: The intention had been for the whole party to rise early and drive up Sani Pass into Lesotho birding all the way. However, I had been having back problems for sometime after three weeks travelling on rough roads etc. so Maggie and I decided not to take what was described as a very rough road difficult even for 4x4s.  So Brian, Joanna and Sue set off before dawn whilst Maggie & Bo slept on and had a very leisurely late breakfast and sat around the garden watching the birds, soaking up the sun and thoroughly enjoying the break.

We heard Greater Honeyguide in the garden for the next two days before sighting one and also saw Southern Olive Thrush, Cape and Southern Grey-headed Sparrows, a Cape Weaver and African Paradise Flycatcher there. John had caught a cold & cough so also welcomed the break. In the late morning John and I drove around the area seeing if they could locate more birds in a totally lazy manner.

We saw lots of Steppe Buzzards which were very common for the rest of the trip and Red-necked Spurfowl were seen for the only time. I had heard Diederik Cuckoo in Kenya when with John, this time I managed to change the ‘H’ in my world list to a tick when we came across two males fighting and displaying on a telephone wire with the sun almost reflected off their luminescent green plumage and shining white markings. I spotted a bird disappearing into a hole in a dead tree across a field and got the scope on the spot in time for a Red-throated Wryneck to emerge – the only one seen by me on the trip. Several Black Saw-wings were seen high overhead and African Pipits in the fields. Violet-backed and Cape Glossy Starlings were common in hedges and scrub and after a little searching we also saw Cape White-eye of the race virens [sometimes split as Green White-eye]. We also heard, but could not visually locate a Grey-headed Bushshrike.

In the afternoon we went out again with Maggie as she wanted to see Broad-tailed Warbler which she had missed the day before. African Stonechats were everywhere as we drove the lanes and when we stopped at the same place as the previous night we not only connected again with the warbler but, as we watched I spotted another type of warbler on a fence which turned out to be the only Dark-capped Yellow Warbler of the trip. With a little searching we managed to find Yellow-fronted and Streaky-headed Canaries too and, at various places along our route we added African Hoopoe, Fiscal Flycatcher and Orange-throated Longclaw. At one point we stopped at the roadside as we saw several weavers and Pin-tailed Whydahs as well as several bishops very close to us on the bank. We soon saw that they ere attracted to an ant’s nest where hundreds of ants were taking to the wing. There followed one of the most enjoyable 30 minutes birding I have ever experienced as different birds came to the spectacle. Out of nowhere the air was full of swifts, martins and swallows feasting on the sudden banquet of insects. They flew really close to us and it was soon very easy to pick out Greater-striped from Lesser-striped Swallows by virtue of their more Rufous rumps. Apart from weavers and Red & Yellow Bishops the top bird to visit the scene was our only Jacobin Cuckoo of the entire Southern African adventure.

Gail’s usual superb meal was even further enhanced by the presence of several other guests; young women who were preparing for the Presidents’ visit in the locality. We spent an hour or so in debate with them learning much about the new South Africa and I for one felt very impressed with their attitudes, abilities and vision… and hope that all they wished to achieve comes to fruition. It also made me realise how little the rest of the world knows about the extraordinary achievements which have already taken place post-apartheid. The incredible housing provision and bringing power, water and sanitation to many millions seems to have gone unnoticed by the rest of the world.

Sani Pass itself has been used by humans wanting to reach the highland fastnesses of the present day Lesotho for many centuries now. The many examples of rock art in the area attest to the presence of Khoi San people here and they were probably the first people to use the pass. Until the mid- 1950s the pass was a trail for pack animals to carry goods from South Africa to the isolated town of Mokhotlong in Eastern Lesotho. Now the road carries 4×4 vehicles along the only road link between KwaZulu-Natal and the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. The Pass starts at an altitude of 1540 m (5000 ft) above sea level and follows the deeply incised valley of the Mkhomazana River to reach the summit at 2 873 m (9 350 ft) climbing almost 1000 m (3 250 ft) in the last 8 km (5 miles) between the South African and Lesotho border posts. We shall continue on into Lesotho to the summit of Black Mountain Pass at around 3 000 m (9 800 ft).

Brian on the Sani Pass trip: Joanna, Brian and Sue were up at 4.30am to drive up the Sani Pass [91] into Lesotho. Our objective was to climb the steep pass and stay overnight at Sani Top chalets at the height of 9,400 feet. We drove up the Pass in Malcolm’s four-wheeled drive vehicle.

Our drive up the Pass was magnificent. We were blessed with full sunshine which enabled crystal clear views of the mountain scenery and wonderful views of each bird species we saw. Malcolm’s driving of the 4WD vehicle and his continuous commentary of the natural history of the Pass made our drive a memorable experience. The wonderful light conditions enabled superb views of every species of bird and mammals we saw on route. Amongst the magnificent birds we saw were Lammergeyer, Cape Vulture, White-necked Raven, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Drakensberg Siskin, Wailing Cisticola, Buff-streaked Chat, Red-capped Lark, Drakensberg Rockjumper, Rock Martin, Ground Woodpecker, Karoo Prinia, Grey Tit, Rock kestrel, Sickle-winged Chat, Layard’s Tit-Babbler, Thick-billed Lark, Rock Thrush, Mountain Pipit, and Greater-striped Swallow and many others.

We also saw Slogget’s Ice Rat directly below the viewing platform at Sani Top and Drakensberg Crag Lizard

After some lunch at Sani Top we drove further up the pass to the Black Mountain, about 10,000 feet, and saw Lammergeyer and met with a local herdsmen who was kind enough to pose for us. He looked as if he was quite used to these photo opportunities.

Overnight: Sani Top Chalets for some and Smithfield Guest Farm for others

Host: Jonathan Aldous at Sani

Day 23 – 21st October: Maggie and I had another really lazy morning when I, courtesy of Gail’s computer, dealt with three weeks’ worth of E-mails and Maggie caught up with sleep and some light reading, really charging our batteries. Of course we birded the garden and were luck to see an Olive Woodpecker when it flew into the garden to peck a while on a dead tree limb.

We waited for lunch and the return of the other members of the party from their side trip to Lesotho.

Brian on the Sani Pass trip:

We slept well and, after breakfast, drove down the Pass back to Creighton and Malcolm’s place. The bird watching and scenery were equally as stunning and we were able to have repeat performances of some great species of birds and mammals except that, try as we might, we could only hear the Barratt’s Scrub-Warbler at the South African border post, but not see it.

Wheelchair access comments:

Our accommodation at 9,400 feet was Spartan but comfortable enough. Our bedroom was large enough to get the wheelchair by the side of the bed, and access to the wardrobe etc. was easy. There were no en suite facilities so use of the toilet, wash room and showers were shared. The shower was, once again, not usable, but access to the narrow rooms, to toilet and wash basin were ok because the door opened outwards. We had a gas heater in our room so we kept comfortable despite temperatures being just above freezing.

Access in and out of the building was level, though a little bumpy, and the bar and dining areas were accessed easily.

In the mid afternoon the re-united group went in search of the very rare and endangered Blue Swallow which has been a special study for Malcolm. He guided us to an area where we were able to watch two pairs of these beautiful birds. We also sought-out Brimstone Canary and I heard, but could not locate either Croaking or Wailing Cisticolas. On our way back to base I noticed a large raptor away across a field and scoping confirmed my suspicion that it was a Martial Eagle. Under Malcolm’s guidance we spotted a Denham’s Bustard displaying on a hillside giving us wonderful displays. Malcolm said that it must be displaying to another male out of our sight and he drove us to a spot perhaps two kilometres away where he showed us the other displaying male!

Dinner back at Malcolm’s guesthouse was another excellent meal and, at table we were joined by two other guests – one of whom seemed to take instant offence at our attempts to dissuade him of his belief that the CITES convention prevented the culling of elephant in Northern Botswana where he had told us many thousands were causing huge destruction.

Overnight: Smithfield Guest Farm

Day 24 – 22nd October: We had considered a pre-dawn visit to Xumeni Forest [92] looking for the highly threatened Cape Parrots as they leave their forest breeding grounds on their daily foraging route to the surrounding areas.  However, we decided, instead, to head out before breakfast for Ntsikeni Vlei Wetland a new reserve with a unique highland wet grassland area favoured by several very special species and we were not disappointed. En route through the many small Zulu villages we picked up more common species and out first Pied Starlings.

As we drove up into the higher land we were very lucky to have several Southern Ground Hornbills fly over us giving great views in an area of plantation which had been partly logged. A little further on we had terrific views of Red-breasted Cuckoo calling and sitting in full view on the branches of a dead tree. Here too were Eastern Black-headed Orioles and Greater Honeyguide. As the woodland lessened and we approached the reserve we came upon a party of at least 30 Swee Waxbills putting on a fine show for us.

Once we reached the reserve proper the trees gave way to high grasslands and we began to look for Yellow-breasted Pipit which we quite quickly saw along with a number of Orange-throated Longclaws… the immature individuals of which can be confused with the Yellow Pipits.

As we moved further on we began to spots larks and chats with the star being Eastern Long-billed Lark. Whilst scoping a Long-billed Lark I saw a skulking grey and rather dumpy pipit amongst the rocks which John identified for me from my description, and I later confirmed from the field-guide, as the rare and barely studies Short-tailed Pipit. Other pipits seen were Mountain, Long-billed, Plain-backed, and African Rock Pipits and Orange-throated Longclaws. Among the familiar birds Familiar Chats and Mountain Wheatears we soon started to see the less common Buff-streaked Chat. A variety of familiar cisticolas were also seen or heard.

We saw several Denham’s Bustards including one very close male. As we reached a very low-lying area of wet grassland we stopped to scope some distant Wattled Cranes one of the real specialities of the valley; I also spotted a Black Stork in the far distance. Here too were several Grey-crowned Cranes.

We made our way to the far end of the valley where we opened up some nice chalets and used the tables to have our long awaited breakfast! After breakfast, during which we had a very distant view of a Sentinel Rock Thrush and a good view of a roosting Jackal Buzzard we retraced our steps. Part way back we looked at a Sparrowhawk site to find the desiccated corpse of one but no living specimens. No more species were added to the list as we birded our way back through the reserve.

We then drove to Franklin Marsh an area of reed-beds and open water with a wide variety of waterfowl, waders, herons and other water loving birds. Our main target here was African Rail and Malcolm heard one call so we tape lured for a while whilst having our picnic lunch and were treated to a glimpse of red bill sticking out from reeds near a small pool at the roadside. Further tape playing got the bird to show head and breast as well and, eventually everyone managed to see this skulker. During the course of watching this pool, luring the rail, a Baillon’s Crake flew across the same pool… tape luring produced return calls but not another visit.

Whilst watching the marshes we also had a variety of waterbirds including African Gallinule, Red-knobbed Coot, Hammerkop, Spoonbill and many commoner ducks, herons, ibis, grebes and cormorants. African marsh Harriers quartered the marsh and in the distance we spotted some Blue Cranes.

Amongst the reeds were several warbler species and Cisticolas and we got good enough views to really get to grips with African Reed Warbler, Lesser Swamp Warbler, Little Rush Warbler and LeVaillant’s Cisticola

After exhausting the possibilities of this site we made our way back to base.

Overnight: Smithfield Guest Farm

Day 25 – 23rd October: We rose early to bird in woodland close to Creighton and were fortunate to connect with the elusive Forest Buzzard, which we actually followed for a while as it flew along the un-metalled road into the forest. We were followed in by an American ornithologist [also staying at Smithfield] who was undertaking a study of Barratt’s Warbler – a species which we heard constantly throughout this visit but never got a view of. Emerald Cuckoo was also heard virtually continuously but never seen. Here under Malcolm’s guidance we stopped and birded then moved on and birded again deeper into the woodland. We heard our only fluff-tail of the trip as a Buff-spotted Fluff-tail seemed to get closer and closer then fade away again – but we were told these birds are notoriously difficult to see as they are natural ventriloquists. However, we did see a number of specialities here including the imposing Knysna Turaco, African Green-pigeon, Black Cuckoo, Grey Cuckooshrike, Bush Blackcap, Sombre Greenbul, Yellow-throated Woodland warbler, African Dusky Flycatcher, Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Cape White-eye as well as more common species. Most of us heard, but only one person saw, White-starred Robin. En route back to base we also saw Spectacled and Southern Masked-weaver.

When we returned to Smithfield we were greeted by a fabulous al fresco breakfast and then packed and said our farewells.

We then drove on to the northern KwaZulu-Natal harbour town of Richards Bay [114], our base for the next two nights to visit various reserves which are part of Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park. We arrived late afternoon and rested until dinner. However, the hotel car park is home to two species of weaver with a fine notice board next to their nesting tress pointing out the differences between the two; Village and Lesser Masked-weaver.

The bustling town of Richards Bay began life as a makeshift harbour set up by the British Royal Navy during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. It was named after Sir Frederick W Richards who was then Commodore of the West Africa Station of the Royal Navy. While no development took place at the time a small settlement offering good fishing and boating eventually grew up on the northern side of the lagoon. In the 1950s and 60s it became apparent that South Africa needed a deep water harbour to export its ores and coal on the large bulk carriers that were being built or planned at the time. Richards Bay harbour was developed as a deep water port and opened in 1976. Initially the port almost exclusively handles South Africa’s fast-growing coal export industry. It is still the only port in Africa capable of handing ships of up to 200 000 ton capacity, but now handles a wide range of goods and a number of large industries sprang up around the port facilities. Today the town is vibrant and fast becoming an important coastal holiday destination, offering spectacular scenery and unspoilt beaches.

Approximate distance travelled for the day: 350 km

Overnight: Protea Hotel, Richards Bay

Host: Errard Sullivan

Wheelchair access comments:

This hotel was of a similar design to the Protea Hotel in Namibia and our room – no 210 – was adapted for disabled use. It was generally ok i.e. it was a large bedroom but the shower was not as well designed as their hotel in Walvis Bay. Despite this I was able to use it, but rather precariously with the loan of the usual poolside chair.

The toilet was of a good height – wheelchair-wise – and had adequate grab rails. The wash basin was wheelchair friendly in height. The main areas of the hotel were all accessible and a well designed incline into to the hotel entrance was a pleasing feature.

Day 26 – 24th October: This morning we rose early and drove a short distance inland to the southern Zululand town of Eshowe.

Eshowe [110] gets its name from the description of the sound of the breeze rushing through the Dlinza Forest in the heart of the town – at least this is the romantic explanation for the town’s name. The more scientific explanation is that it is a corruption of the isiZulu word ishongwe, or milkbush shrubs’ which are prominent in the area. Zulu kings and chiefs lived here to escape from the summer heat. The British settlers established their capital here for the same reason. The town lies on a plateau overlooking the Zululand coastal plain and is thus protected from the subtropical humidity of surrounding areas. It was proclaimed a magistracy in 1887 upon annexation of Zululand by Britain and became the capital of newly formed colony of Zululand. It has since lost this status but has grown to support a 1800km2 agricultural district.

After quickly reaching the aerial boardwalk in the Dlinza Forest we waited a short while to meet a friend of John’s, Hamish McLaggan who lives in the town and knows the forest very well. As soon as we met up we moved on to the start of the walkway; there we ate our packed breakfast on a platform overlooking this beautiful relict forest patch. We spent several hours birding the forest and, whilst we did not see either a great variety of birds nor huge numbers we did see some very special ones including Cape White-eye, Eastern Olive Sunbird, Paradise Flycatcher, Black-bellied Starling, Black-backed Puffback, Grey Cuckoo Shrike, Lesser Honeyguide, White-eared and Black-collared Barbets, Trumpeter Crowned Hornbill, Speckled Mousebird, Square-tailed [as well as the ubiquitous Fork-tailed] Drongo, and the very beautiful Purple-crested Turaco which, when it flies shows its brilliant vermillion under-wings. For me though the top bird, and close to the best bird for the trip as a whole, was Narina Trogon perched at nose height only a few yards away!

We also heard Green-backed Cameroptera, both Red-fronted and Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird, Emerald Cuckoo and Chorister Robin and saw Gymnogene for the second day running and our only view of an African Crowned Eagle.  Sue was able to walk a less accessible track to see nesting Spotted Ground Thrush.

By the Interpretation Centre were a number of very large grasshoppers.

We stayed in the Eshowe area and took a look around the town for other birds including Southern Black Flycatcher and then lunched at a restaurant near the historic fort and a museum which displays some wonderful examples of Zulu basket work. It was a very hot day and we rather lingered over lunch and the cold drinks with Hamish and his wife before resuming birding; returning to the coast to spend the late afternoon birding in Umlalazi Game Reserve before returning to our lodgings at Richards Bay. This is near Mtunzini which has an area of palms [Raffia Palm Monument] famous for Palmnut Vultures but we failed to see any as we passed by.

Umlalazi Game Reserve mainly consists of mangroves and mudflats seemingly alive with at least two different varieties of brightly coloured fiddler crabs. On these mud flats were a few waders including Common Ringed Plover & Three-banded Plover, Common Sandpiper and a small party of Whimbrel. We also saw a lone Woolly-necked Stork here and had an African Fish Eagle fly over us.

The name Mtunzini [112] is derived from the Zulu word eMthunzini meaning ‘at the umthunzi (milkwood tree)’ or ’n the shade of the umthunzi’. In the case of the town of Mtunzini it refers specifically to John Dunn’s Indaba Tree, a large milkwood Mimusops caffra. The earliest inhabitants of the area were the Khoi-Khoi and Khoi-San people. They were later displaced by Nguni-speaking tribes who had migrated to southern Africa from further north in the continent. The area became a magistracy in the Natal Colony on 1 October 1895.

John Dunn, an interesting and colourful character in the history of Zululand, once lived near Eshowe and Mtunzini. Dunn was one of a group of six Englishmen, who established themselves in Port Natal (Durban Harbour) in 1824 with the express purpose of trading in ivory and hides with the Northern Nguni. He established himself as a hunter, trader and shopkeeper and soon became prosperous through his trade in ivory, hides and other Western merchandise. Through his daily contact with the Zulu people Dunn was fluent in the Zulu language and customs, many of which he adopted in his daily life.

The Zulu king, King Mpande, died in 1856 and civil war broke out in Zululand between the supporters of his two eldest sons, Cetshwayo and Mbuyazi. Dunn tried to mediate between these two contenders for the Zulu throne. In spite of his efforts Mbuyazi was attacked by Cetshwayo’s warriors and was convincingly defeated near the place he later named Gingindlovu (meaning ‘the swallower of the elephant’).

After being installed as King of the Zulus Cetshwayo offered Dunn the post of his diplomatic advisor. He was granted control of a large tract of land in the coastal region of southern Zululand. He established his authority in the region by 48 Zulu women (in addition to Catherine Pierce who remained his head wife) for whom he paid lobola (bride price) of between 10 to 15 head of cattle for each. Cetshwayo offered him two women from his own isigodlo (court), in addition he also married five women from the Mzimela clan, four women from both the Nzuza and Dube clans, and three women each from the Mthethwa, Shandu and Mdletshe clans. Traditionally marriage was an easy way of assuring political and economic bonds between clans.

Overnight: Protea Hotel, Richards Bay; Host: Errard Sullivan

Day 27 – 25th October: We left the Protea early morning to drive to St Lucia be we had a superb breakfast courtesy of Marth du Buisson at Kingfisher Lodge a place we had considered staying had there been accessible rooms. The grounds of the Lodge produced another new species Red-capped Robinchat – an excellent accompaniment to an excellent breakfast!

We spent an hour enjoying the grounds where a number of passerines eluded us but many common species were more obliging including Yellow-bellied Greenbul and Dark-capped Bulbul.

We had planned to embark on a boat trip along the eNseleni River [115] but this is not currently available so, instead we birded a little around the St Lucia Estuary first visiting a reed-bed where we saw our only African Golden Weavers of the trip nesting alongside Southern Brown-throated Weavers. Whilst scanning the far bank I happened to stop on a bush and find a Green-backed Cameroptera in my scope – a relief to actually see one after hearing so many. Here were also Pied & Brown-hooded Kingfishers and a Squacco Heron as wells as more common herons, and egrets and Water Dikkop.

We stopped closer to the estuary mouth and got out the scopes and viewed the river with its pod of hippos and a small island covered in crocodiles. Most especially around this crocodile-infested island were many common waders, such as Wood & Curlew Sandpipers, Greenshank, Little Stint, Sanderling and Ruff, and the less common Terek Sandpiper and White-fronted Plover, and some superb Pink-backed Pelicans and a Yellow-billed Stork. Some of the party saw Caspian Tern further up-river.

St. Lucia, once a fishing resort frequented mainly by unruly fishermen with four-wheel drive vehicles and a high beer-guzzling capacity, has developed into a resort town of international significance. This has come about primarily as a result of it’s location within the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park which has risen to international prominence since its declaration as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance and World Heritage Site. Four-wheel drive vehicles are now restricted to a small portion of the beach only and present day visitors are far more environmentally friendly than they used to be.

We lunched in a Greek Restaurant before driving toward Cape Vidal; another fishing and snorkelling resort some 35 km north of St Lucia town. The resort is sandwiched between the Indian Ocean to the east and Lake St Lucia to the west. [The only accommodation here is operated by KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife Services but it is not wheelchair friendly]. The Cape was named after Lieutenant Vidal of the HMS Leven who apparently surveyed the coast in this area.

To access Cape Vidal one passes through an enclosed Game Park where one is not supposed to stop nor get out of vehicles because of the game. We tried our best to drive quickly through promising ourselves we would linger longer when we came back but we still stopped periodically seeing such species as Broad-billed Roller, Rufous-naped Lark, Rattling Cisticola and Tawny-flanked Prinia before reaching the camp site for some very special birds. The prize birds here were undoubtedly Brown Scrubrobin & Woodward’s Batis; the former surprised us be being on the road as we drove in to the camp and the latter was in the trees at the same spot as we drove out! In the camp site we also saw Southern Boubou for the only time on this part of the trip and our first decent view of Green-backed Cameroptera.

On the drive back through the game reserve we saw Wahlberg’s Eagle and our only European Honey Buzzard of the trip. We stopped to get good views of a superb Burchell’s Coucal and Sue caught a glimpse of Rhino which seemed to disappear but we re-located them not far off in a dip behind some scrub and were able to get good long looks. Here we also saw Southern Banded Snake-Eagle.

We then set off for Bonamanzi our home for the next three nights.

At over 4,000 ha Bonamanzi Game Ranch[118] a South African Natural Heritage site, is one of the largest private wildlife and birding parks in Zululand.  Bonamanzi is a Zulu name which means: “Look! Water!” The densities and diversity of birds heightens dramatically during summer and regular birding trips here can produce in excess of 120 species on a good summers’ day.

Overnight: Bonamanzi Game Ranch

Maggie & I, as well as John, stayed in one of the ‘Tree Houses’ which were very nice accommodation up a flight of stairs so well out of the reach of most critters except Baboons and Monkeys and we were told to keep windows closed because of possible incursion.

The ‘house’ consisted of a bedroom with either a double bed or two singles, incorporated in the room was a dining table with comfortable chairs and a kitchen area as well as an en suite shower room. There was both a ceiling fan and a very effective air-con unit. Generally it was comfortable and clean and a great place to wake up and watch the wildlife albeit being rather hemmed in by trees for the most part.

The facilities of the ranch were generally good with a large [if rather hot and noisy when full] dining room, a bar area, accessible toilets etc. In the cabin area where Brian, Joanna and Sue stayed there was also a very nice bar overlooking a large pool which was great for birds. My only criticism would be of the dinners [breakfasts were great]. There was not a great deal of choice [hardly anything for vegetarians] and not up to the high standards we had become used to elsewhere. Our tree house came into its own when we went into the nearest decent supermarket and bought food to cater for our main meals. Pre-breakfasts snacks were terrific on the early morning safaris around the ranch where we were driven by Richard a knowledgeable and affable Zulu who was tireless in his search for the most special birds.

Wheelchair access comments:

The cabin provided was accessible because of the construction of concrete slope. This was a little steep but manageable.

Once inside we found the bedroom large with plenty of room to get the wheelchair alongside.

The bathroom was large and accessible, but I found that the shower was difficult to use because it had a fairly high metal seat and a fixed shower head. I did have a shower but I had to hang on for grim death because my feet did not touch the floor and there were no side arms to lean against. The fixed showerhead was a problem because of the need to adjust the water temperature before sliding along the seat to shower. The wash basin was a good height and the toilet was ok but had no grab rails to assist getting on and off. There was also a separate bathroom etc. which my wife was able to use even though it was a very deep one.

There were good concrete paths around the site and access to the covered dining area was very easy

Day 28 – 26th October, 2006: An early start gave us maximum birding time on Mkhuze Game Reserve [120], arguably one of southern Africa’s top birding spots – unfortunately the accommodation here is not very accessible so we were restricted to a day visit to the reserve. We stopped for breakfast at a fast food outlet in Mkhuze village before entering the reserve.

Situated in northern Zululand, the 40,000 ha Mkhuze Game Reserve was proclaimed a protected area in 1912. It was de-proclaimed and run for 15 years by the State Veterinary Department to get rid of Tsetse flies which cause the livestock disease “nagana”. During this time in the 1940’s and 50’s 38 000 head of game were destroyed, large tracts of bush cleared and tons of DDT and BHC insecticides sprayed to rid the area of Tsetse flies. There was further threat of de-proclamation in the 1960’s which was met by great public resistance. Mkhuze has survived all these trials to survive as one of KZN Wildlife’s most popular wildlife parks. It now constitutes the north western spur of the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park, a recently declared World Heritage Site.

A place of great beauty and high contrasts, Mkhuze is renowned as a Mecca for bird lovers with more than 420 bird species on record. The Mkhuze River curves along the reserve’s northern and eastern borders with a fine stretch of fig forest along its banks. The reserve has an astonishing diversity of natural habitats, from the eastern slopes of the Lebombo Mountains along its eastern boundary, to broad stretches of acacia savanna, swamps and a variety of woodlands and riverine forest. A rare type of sand forest also occurs in the reserve.

The name Mkhuze is thought to come from the isiZulu word for “place of reconciliation”

In the park is a small lake; Nsumo Pan, which has some good birds, hippos and crocodiles. Here we saw hippos and a variety of waterbirds including gallinules, herons, spoonbills, pelicans, storks such as African Openbill, egrets and some waders such as stilts and jacanas and our first Caspian, Whiskered and White-winged Terns and our only Glossy Ibis of the trip.

We birded a number of spots around the reserve and eventually managed to catch up with Neergaard’s & White-bellied Sunbirds by looking for areas with flowering trees.

We spent a good deal of time around a toilet block where there was an open area with scrub where we could hear a number of bush shrikes calling. Here we saw Black-crowned Tchagra, Brurbru, Black-backed Puffback and a beautiful Orange-breasted Bush Shrike as well as hearing Grey-headed Bush Shrike but the real prize was Gorgeous Bush Shrike which called continuously from a large bush which we surrounded but still only managed a few short views of although we are pretty sure that a pair was nesting there. Here too were Violet-backed as well as Red-winged and Cape Glossy Starlings. We had great views here of African Hoopoe, Cardinal Woodpecker, Golden-breasted Bunting, Blue Waxbill and Black-collared Barbet and Red-fronted Tinkerbird and Green-winged Pytilla [Melba Finch].

At various locations around the park we also saw African White-backed Vulture, Bateleur, our first Crested Guineafowl, Black-bellied Korhaan, Purple-crested Turaco, Klaas’s Cuckoo, Red-faced Mousebird, Common Scimitarbill, Green Wood-hoopoe, Crowned Hornbill, Southern Black Tit, and our first White-browed Scrub Robin, and only Yellow-throated Petronias of the entire trip and our only Thick-billed Weavers.

Mid afternoon we used the heat of the day to return to Bonamanzi where we caught up with some commoner species including Emerald Spotted Dove. After leaving the park we had good views of Livingstone’s Turacos in roadside trees near Musi Pan.

Overnight: Bonamanzi Game Ranch

Day 29 – 27th October: Our day started with what we all agreed was one of the real highlights of our southern African birding adventure – a pre-breakfast drive in Bonamanzi’s four-wheel drive vehicle to the Hluhluwe River floodplain [117]. We left the camp at around 6 a.m. and returned around 10:30 for a full breakfast.

The vehicle is high up so that one had to duck as we brushed through trees along the tracks down to the plain. The first highlight was Pink-throated Twinspot – albeit rather brief looks at a small flock flitted about in low bushes in front of the vehicle. In more open scrubland we saw Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird.

When we were out of the forested part of the reserve we went out of the park proper into a small area of fishponds owned by the local villagers some of whom were quietly fishing here. Amongst the reeds and pond-side bushes we saw both Croaking and Rufous-winged Cisticolas and Lesser Swamp Warblers; over the ponds flew Wire-tailed, Lesser-striped and Barn Swallows. Here too were Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and several species of herons and egrets, Hadada Ibis, Egyptian and Spur-winged Geese.

We drove down on to the flat floodplain and made our way to the edge of the river – or rather the almost fry mudflats stretching hundreds of yards to the last remaining water. Here we saw a few common waders including Black-winged Stilt, Greenshank, Common and Wood Sandpiper, Little Stint, Three-banded Plover, Blacksmith and Wattled Lapwings as well as Kittlitz’s Plovers and several Collared Pratincoles.

Our main targets here were longclaws and we spent much time circling the flatlands searching for these colourful but surprisingly cryptic birds. Soon we had found many Yellow-throated and Orange-throated Longclaws as well as commoner pipit species. Eventually we triumphantly saw the very beautiful and rare Rosy-throated Longclaws.

We celebrated our success by having a very welcome cup of coffee and snack next to a small area of bushes amidst the flowering plants [such as the wonderfully-named ‘Grandfather’s Balls’]. A Black-shouldered Kite roosted in the bushes and African Marsh Harriers quartered the plain.

Moving off the plain we entered an area of scrub and virtually circled the ranch picking up species as we went. Our only Crested Francolin of the entire trip was closely followed by a Black-bellied Korhaan. Then we saw a small group of Senegal Lapwings. As we turned away from the rushy banks of part of a river Maggie and I saw an Africa Grass Owl drift away over the reed-beds and quickly out of sight. We then saw a large party of the strange and exotic White-crested Helmet Shrikes which Richard informed us were thought to be signs of good fortune by the local people. Finally, we caught up with a quite large flock of Lemon-breasted Canaries.

We returned to camp having had at least an hour more than we had agreed and, moreover, an excellent birding jaunt. We agreed to take the opportunity to have a leisurely time for a few hours and most people returned to their cabins. I spent a short while birding down by the pool watching the warthogs wallow and the various birds coming and going, African Jacanas running across the lilies, African Pied Wagtails teetering at the water’s edge, huge fish coming to the surface to take flies, a Pied Kingfisher hovering then plunging into the water and a Brown-hooded one fishing from a secluded perch. Sue came by and told me she had seen a Thick-billed Weaver by the small pool directly behind the dining room so I went to take a look before going back to my tree-house for a rest.

At around 4.00pm we all got together to drive the paths around the cabins and the old camp site. This proved to be an excellent decision and we saw a lot of birds not seen elsewhere including Bearded Scrub-Robin, Rudd’s & Yellow-breasted Apalis, White-starred Robin, White-browed Scrub-Robin, Ground-scraper Thrush, Red-capped Robin-chat, Green-backed Cameroptera, Southern Black Flycatcher, and various doves, turacos, weavers and the like. It was also a very good time for the mammals and we saw at one point no less then 31 Banded Mongooses cross the road en mass as well as the beautiful Nyala with his orange sock, warthogs, baboons, monkeys, kudu, duiker etc.

We also scanned the roads when it was dark and tried to tape lure night-birds but only succeeded in hearing the distant calls of Fiery-necked Nightjar.

When we returned to camp we found that the staff had begun to lay out our food in the pool-side bar… as the upper enclosed part is not wheelchair accessible they were laying it our in the lower part open to the air and the pretty candles in paper shades they had set out had attracted hundreds of moths, flies and other flying insects which now covered the cutlery, plates and tablecloths. Reluctantly we helped the re-locate the food to the dining room which was rather cooler than before having a nice breeze coming through the mosquito screens.

Overnight: Bonamanzi Game Ranch

Day 30 – 28th October: We had decided the previous evening that the best possible use of the next morning before needing to leave for Wakkerstroom would be to take another drive with Richard in the high vehicle. This once again proved to be very enjoyable. As we had seen all the flood-plain specials we drove around the wooded part of the reserve and the more open scrubby areas.

I spotted one of the highlights of the outing, a pair of very smart African Cuckoo-hawks [Bazas] sitting just above us only a few yards away and we all had tremendous views. Other highlights included Brown Snake Eagle, Crowned Lapwing, brief views of bronze-winged Coursers, Red-chested Cuckoo, several fine Burchell’s Coucals, Black Saw-wing and lots more Lemon-breasted Canaries, Little & Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and various barbets. We also saw Giraffe here much to Sue’s delight as we had not caught up with them elsewhere.

After a leisurely breakfast we left the low-lying coastal plains of the East Coast Littoral Zone and climbed up the African Escarpment to the high altitude grasslands surrounding the small town of Wakkerstroom for a two night stay. Our route took us through the South Africa-Swaziland border and we managed to get enough common species such as the ubiquitous Common Fiscal in the 45 or so minutes we were there to justify creating a Swaziland list! After leaving Swaziland we stopped in the town of Piet Retief to re-fuel and buy snacks before resuming the drive to our destination. Along the route we picked up more birds including our only White-winged Widow of the tour and our only Swainson’s Spurfowl.

As we entered the Wakkerstroom area we lucked upon some Secretary Birds getting a really good close view of these enigmatic birds. John also stopped at a spot he knew would be good for a local special; South African Cliff Swallow and we saw many flying around and under a road bridge which is a favoured nesting site.

We arrived in Wakkerstroom and checked into our accommodation which was a little cramped but otherwise well appointed. The view from the window is a pretty uninspiring patch of bare earth facing a newly constructed house but someone puts out feed which attracted various weavers, sparrows, starlings etc. and, surprising for so small a yard, Hadada!

We were joined for dinner by John’s wife Elise whom none of us had met before.

Unluckily dinner turned out to be a bit of a disaster, we waited well over an hour for our first course and another half an hour for the second and even then one order was delayed so Brian sat and watched everyone else eat before his arrived. Some people had ordered vegetables that never arrived at all and those eating fish decided against finishing the meal as the fish was most certainly well passed its best.

We complained to the owner who was not very helpful giving the excuse that the restaurant was very busy as was the bar where meals were also served. Whilst we could understand him giving priority to locals it is not a great idea to treat your paying guests poorly as they may well tell the truth to the world in their on-line trip reports! Needless to say we did not dine there the following night.

Wheelchair access comments:

The bedroom area of our room was large except, once again, for an inadequately narrow space for the wheelchair by the sides of the bed. The bathroom was not disabled friendly because of an inward opening door. This meant that I had to take the footboard off the wheelchair to make the chair smaller so that I could get in the room. Once inside I could not use the bath and the wash basin and toilet were a little high – but I coped. There were no grab rails.

Getting to the dining room meant being lifted up and down three steps, and more steps had to be negotiated in and out of the building.

Wakkerstroom [131] was founded in 1859 as a town on the border of the then Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (South African Republic or ZAR) and the British colony of Natal. The town plans were laid out by Dirk Uys whose instructions were to find a site for the new town between Potchefstroom (then the capital of the ZAR) and Port Natal (now Durban) in an area where there was sufficient water and grazing for the inhabitants’ livestock. Although officially named Marthinus Wesselstroom, from its founding the town has been known as Wakkerstroom – “lively stream” – in an apparent mistranslation of the Zulu name (uThaka) of the stream that runs past it. The name uThaka probably refers to the Red-collared Widows which are common in the area.

After a promising start the town’s economy entered a century-long downturn when the city fathers refused to allow the railway line from Port Natal to the recently discovered goldfields around Johannesburg to pass through the town. The local town economy is on the upswing again, but the town is now heavily reliant on avitourism for its survival. Nowadays Wakkerstroom is no longer a separate Municipality, but is part of the Pixley ka Seme Municipality which incorporates the towns of Wakkerstroom, Volksrust, Amersfoort, Perdekop and Daggakraal.

Approximate distance travelled for the day: 350 km

Overnight: Wakkerstroom Country Inn Host: Paula and Danny Leahy

Day 31 – 29th October: The endemic rich high altitude (1,800m or 6,000ft+) grasslands around the small town Wakkerstroom are still in a relatively pristine state thanks largely due to the prevailing climate. The mild summers and cold, frosty winters make the growing season too short for commercial crop farming. Extensive livestock ranching (mainly cattle and sheep) are the mainstay of the agrarian economy here. This has proved to be reasonably compatible with the needs of the many rare and often highly localised species occurring naturally in the area.

So we were literally up with the lark for a pre-breakfast start meeting a local birding guide who was to help us find the two very rare and special larks of the area. Norman Mncube rode with us to the best fields for the larks and, when we were searching he walked on ahead and beckoned the vehicle forward so we could all get views of first Rudd’s then Botha’s Lark as well as several commoner lark species and Wing-snapping Cisticola. In the same area we also saw the very localised Blue Korhaan with views of several Grey-crowned Cranes too. We had a welcome coffee whilst watching Red-capped Larks in the foreground and Botha’s Larks in the background. We drove back into Wakkerstroom past the local lake where, as well as lots of other waterfowl we saw Hottentot Teal and, best of all, Spotted Eagle Owl – an adult roosted on the branch of a large willow whilst a baby came out of the nest in a hollow broken trunk and sat atop it in all its glory. We dropped Norman off near his home and went back to the inn for breakfast where Maggie joined us after her lie-in!

As Norman cannot be contacted over the web its worth adding his contact details in here as he is a fine birder and guide and a most interesting chap who I am sure will one day figure prominently in local if not national politics: Norman Mncube, PO Box 185, Wakkerstroom 2480, Mpumalanga, South Africa – Cell Phone: 082 584 1542

After breakfast we took Maggie to see the Owls and then, accompanied by Elise in the family car, explored the Wakkerstroom area in search of other new birds. We first drove around the wetlands in search of African Snipe which we eventually saw having seen many water associated birds too. Amongst the passerines were Red Bishops, Fan-tailed, Red-collared and Long-tailed Widows and Cape Canary.

We then drove to the higher areas around a huge reservoir and stopped at a gorge which has had reports of Cape Eagle Owl feasting on Rock Hyrax. Whilst we saw the hyrax we saw no owls, on the other hand we did get excellent views of as many as 4 different Ground Woodpeckers and could even see evidence of their excavations in the soft sandstone. In this higher, rocky area we also saw Sentinel Rock-Thrush, Mountain Wheatear and Buff-streaked Chat, as well as African Stonechat and Southern Ant-eating Chat, Drakensberg Prinia and Orange-throated Longclaw.

On the banks of the reservoir we saw four Heron species including good views of Goliath Heron. We also added Grey-winged Francolins to our growing list. Somewhere en route we added Banded Martin to the Eastern South African list.

On the way back to our accommodation we stopped off for a coffee and some people had a late lunch.

That evening we sat in Paddy’s Pub part of the ‘Weavers Nest Country Lodge‘, on the outskirts of Wakkerstroom whilst an electrical stormed thundered around the valley. Our meal in their ‘Two Crane Restaurant, was as good as the previous night’s had been bad! Three delicious courses served by a genial host; Mark Devenney in a room full of old bird paintings and the like. It made for a memorable farewell meal.

Overnight: Wakkerstroom Country Inn

Animals to look for over the next two days;

Day 32 – 30th October: After some final birding at Suikerbosrand we drove to Johannesburg International Airport, arriving in time to check in for the evening flight to the United Kingdom.

En route to Suikerbosrand John told Maggie to look out for Southern Bald Ibis as we had only had poor views on the other legs of our journey… true to form she found a couple feeding on the edge of a field close to the road so we were able to get great views of this interestingly ugly bird. We saw several other birds on the road which were new for this part of the trip such as Grey-headed Gulls when we stopped for gas and Barn Owl over fields bordering old gold mine tailings close to the airport.

Our motivation for going to Suikerbosrand was the possibility of Lazy Cisticola which, despite some searching we never found. Nevertheless there were some really good birds there including one we had seen before but only fleetingly, Crested Barbet, the one here came out of a tree to feed on close cropped grass very close to where we parked affording excellent views. However, we also saw several birds which were not only new for this part of the trip such as good views of Bar-throated Apalis, but for most of us new for ever. These were Karoo Thrush, Fiscal Flycatcher and Black-throated Canary. It was good to still be picking up lifers even although we were on our way home!

We stopped off at a Mall in Johannesburg to buy some souvenirs then headed off to the airport where John said his goodbyes.

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