Updated: May 9, 2021
In this two part article I am going to invite you to be a be a part of a trip where I visited a place that holds a special place in the hearts of so many South Africans. I am not going to attempt to wow you with my limited bird knowledge, instead I am going to allow you to experience just what it feels like to visit the Kruger National Park for the first time.
I remember when I was a lot younger, and we used to visit my mother’s aunt and uncle in Benoni. I remember the house vividly – the old school furniture – that kitchen table that stayed the same for many years that we used to sit around and eat all our meals at. My aunt with the big heart and how she always seemed to be busy looking after everyone – and I remember the stories, stories from my great uncle who at the time was a tour guide that would take groups of tourists into the Kruger National Park. His stories gripped me and birthed a desire within me to see this special place. I also used to sit on those aged carpets – that had been vacuumed many times by my busy great aunt and read through the magazines that they had all about the game parks around our country. Sadly, as a family we never had the means to visit many of these special places that I read about.
Fast forward many years, went through a difficult part in my life and through a good friend in Johannesburg I was introduced to birding. I saw some amazing birds, but in this social media age I was constantly bombarded with images and stories of the amazing birds that had been seen in Kruger, and again the desire to visit this special place was rekindled. I am not one of these rich birders that can travel as often as I want to, so it took me 2 and a half years to get to see this amazing place and all I can say is that the trip far exceeded my expectations.
So, after much planning and feeling like a young kid the night when Santa slips through the chimney with the bag of Christmas gifts, March 2019 finally arrived and the Kruger trip that I had been eagerly waiting for arrived. On Saturday the 2nd of March in the wee hours of the morning my friend Tyron, his family and myself started the long trip to the Kruger. The trip was made a little trickier by the thick mist in some parts but leaving early meant that we arrived at the Malelane Gate at lunch time giving us lots of time to explore the park for the afternoon. Before we went through the gate, we stopped to look what we could find in the Crocodile River, and besides the crocodiles in the aptly named river, we got to taste the starter that would prepare us for the birding feast that lay ahead. Swallows and swifts elegantly flew over the water. The sounds of the Woodland Kingfisher filled the air wooing us to come inside. Bee-eaters, thick-knees and herons were showing around as we peered through our binoculars, and a small group of Saddle-billed Storks was showing off with their stunning colouration on their bills and long stilt like legs! My appetite for birding was taken to a new level!
We entered through the gate and the check in was smooth and easy. Something that I can vividly remember even right now is the ‘smell of Kruger’ – that smell might be different for different people, but when I stood in that check in area and even later in the rondaval – that smell from thatched roofs just makes me think of the bush! It’s also a smell that I remember from Mkuzi Game Reserve in KwaZulu Natal, but for me that’s something that just sticks in my mind and reminds me of the welcome home that Kruger whispers when you book in!
Once through the gate we decided to head to Berg-en-Dal to get the birding kicked off and as well as get out of the oven called also known as a car. On the way already I managed to see amongst other birds Greater Blue-eared Starling and Magpie Shrike, which were both lifers for me. When we got to the camp site Tyron and myself eagerly started to look for birds which Lydia, Tyron’s wife looked for the pool for her and the baby. Over the water we managed to see Red-billed Buffalo Weavers at their nests as well as a Dark Chanting Goshawk in the distance on a tree (another lifer for me). We then started to walk along the paths alongside the waterhole and the bird of the day was about to allow itself to be seen.
Now what I have learnt in birding is that there are silent, unwritten laws that govern the birding universe. There some sort of secret power that operates behind the scenes. I have seen how this rules start to come into play on the field while I bird. Firstly, birds often don’t mind people...well unless those people are birders and they show and any interest in the bird. People that don’t bird send me photos of things like flufftails and buttonquals that show up and even seem to pose for photos like they have a magazine centrespread...but let me glance at a bird and swoosh it flies away! This goes to a new level when you pick up you binoculars – they fly away even quicker. But, try pick up a camera – they may let you look, even look at them through the binoculars – but pick up a camera and that bird sighting becomes something historical – but this bird that we saw defied all these laws of birding!
We walked on the path and all of a sudden Tyron called out in excitement that there was an owl. When I saw the owl it was no more than 3 metres away from us, not just any owl by an African Barred Owlet, which just happened to be one of the birds VERY high on my wishlist. What was amazing was that it just sat there not in the faintest way concerned about this strange camera bearing humans looking at it and taking photos of it, Tyron was even able to go and call Lydia to see the owl. We got to enjoy this stunning bird and savour the special moment where time seemed to stand still for a moment! On the way out after we had enjoyed some cold meat sandwiches, we saw a small flock of Brown-headed Parrots in the treetops – what a cracker of a way to get this Kruger trip started.
I for one was overcome with excitement! On the long drive from Berg-en-dal to Pretoriuskop Rest Camp, where we would be staying for 2 nights, we managed to see Stierling’s Wren Warbler hoping about in the trees near the road as well as a distant view of another lifer – an African Cuckoo! I wasn’t able to get great photos but was able to enjoy this stunning bird. We managed to get to the camp late that afternoon and after checking in, we lit the braai fires and end an amazing day of birding!
The next day we woke up early to cloudy and overcast conditions, with clouds overhead that looked like rain was on the way. We drove through the winding back roads taking the time to try and see as many birds as we could. We managed to see many common species such as Golden-breasted Bunting, Rufous-napped Lark and that sort of thing, and a Wahlberg’s Eagle to make sure that the raptors didn’t get left out. The rain that the clouds promised eventually came with an early morning storm that made the birding prospects look bleak for the day. We kept on driving with the windows opened just enough to look through but closed enough to try keep the rain out, the visibility was terrible but then in the pouring rain we managed to see a pair of Southern Ground Hornbill in the short grass next to the road. We would be lucky to have another sighting this special species later on in the week.
The day had two very specials for me that came once the rain had gone away. As we got back onto the tar road that links Pretoriuskop and Skakuza I got to see a special lifer – for a change it wasn’t the feathered kind...instead it was a pack of African Wild Dogs that were lying right next to the road. We were privileged to get to see these dogs while there were very few other cars there which made the sighting even more special. These animals have quickly become my favourite species as I have started to understand them better and how they relate socially to each other. We eventually managed to tear ourselves away from this special sighting – sometimes the measure of how good a sighting is how long you talk about it after you drive away from it – we spoke about this for a while in the car while we drove towards Skakuza.
When I had just started birding I did an online birding course on bird identification, during the course they spoke about how when there were large flocks of Red-billed Quelea flying around in Kruger, that Lesser Spotted Eagles can be sometimes found feeding amongst these flocks. I had seen large flocks of Red-billed Quelea in my garden but had never seen the Eagle feeding spectacle. As we drove towards Skakuza we came around a corner and there was a massive flock of Red-billed Quelea flying all around and as the course had said, there was the Lesser Spotted Eagles flying around amongst them. This is something that makes Kruger a very special place – these moments where your breath is taken away for a few moments and things that you have only heard and read about unfold before your eyes!
On the way to the Skakuza we also managed to see a Klipspringer sitting in a rocky area near the road. After grabbing a bite to eat at Cattle Baron at Skakuza we started a route back to Pretoriuskop getting to see amongst other birds that stunning Southern Carmine Bee-eater. Back at Pretoriouskop, following a tip we got from one of the guides, we managed to spot our second owl of the trip near the movie screen, the Pearl-spotted Owlet. What a great way to finish a day!
The next day would see us making the long traverse between Pretoriuskop and Satara as we moved camps. On the way while driving on the dust ‘back roads’ we managed to see both Bearded and Cardinal Woodpecker as well as some more Brown-headed Parrots – as well as a special sighting of an African Hawk-Eagle (Tyron Pic). As with every other day there were many, many sightings of European Roller. Part of driving in Kruger during roller season looks a little like this - you drive, you see a bird, ask what bird it is? A roller…drive. Stop roller…
We also stopped the Lake Panic Hide, which many people speak very highly of. The hide was really amazing with some great views of birds but for me personally it wasn’t my favourite place in the park – I just found there were too many people in the hide and even though you could see the birds, unless you were seated in the right place there was no chance of getting decent photos. The seats were not just filled with people but with equipment of the photographers that were sitting in the hide. I personally preferred the wide open places with fewer people. For people who’s number one passion is photography its worth spending a day there – but for a birder who does photography I feel there are better places in the park – but that’s just my opinion.
After our time in the hide we drove through some of the smaller back roads and we managed to see a Knob-billed Duck sitting in a tree – another lifer and bird that I had wanted to see for a long time. Again, we had lunch at Cattle Baron – this time choosing the cheap side and not the rich folks side. I enjoyed a good Pap, Wors and Gravy – which only cost R50! We headed off towards Satara watching both the bush around us as well as the skies above us – the bush around us rewarded me with another lifer for the day - a Purple Roller. We had been looking for the species for the past three days and finally we got to see one. The skies above us would cause much excitement in the car, we saw some raptors flying high above us and we could see that they were vultures – but as we took a closer look I managed two lifers in one sighting – there was both a Lappet Faced Vulture as well as a White-headed Vulture! I was able to get a few shocking record shots but the sighting for exceeded what a photo could ever portray. We made a quick stop at the Tshokwane Picnic Sight – which became my favourite stop at the park. They have some amazing breakfasts that are super cheap as well as a well-stocked curio shop with great mementos. While had something to eat and drink, I managed another lifer, the African Mourning Dove, which is tough to see in other places but super easy to get at this picnic sight. We eventually got to Satara late in the afternoon and after having a braai a walk around the camp allowed us to hear the African Scops Owls calling across the trees.
I thought by the end of day three that this had to be as good as it gets – but the next day was going to go to a whole new level – both for birding as well as with a very special animal sighting. Kruger was about to turn up the heat!!!
But you will have to wait for part two later this week to read about that!
This article has been adapted from a talk that I did for Birdlife eThekwini KZN. For more information about the club please visit https://blpn.org/