As soon as you cross the cattle grid and close the rickety farm gate behind, a sense envelops you, signaling entry into a different world. From that moment on, each breath not only fills your lungs with clean farm air but also ushers in a sense of renewal deep within the soul. Surely, this is how life was meant to be lived—connected to the natural world where peace saturates the very depths of one's being.
What sets Penwarn Farm Lodge apart? Surely, its birds can be seen elsewhere. Are there not accommodation venues offering more?
What I discovered is that Penwarn isn't merely a destination; it's an experience that permeates deep into one's soul.
In early December 2023, I had the privilege of visiting Penwarn. The farm is nestled in the foothills of the Southern Drakensberg, 25 kilometers outside of Underberg, KwaZulu-Natal.
The farm is a birder's dream, boasting over 170 recorded species. Notable sightings include Secretarybird, Denham's Bustard, Blue Crane, Wattled Crane, Martial Eagle, Amur Falcon, African Marsh Harrier, Half-collared Kingfisher, Eastern Long-billed Lark, Nicholson's Pipit, Plain-backed Pipit, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Southern Pochard, African Rail, Bearded Vulture, Cape Vulture, Ground Woodpecker, African Yellow Warbler, and Fairy Flycatcher.
After stocking up on provisions in Underberg, I arrived at the farm in the early afternoon. The bumpy dust road winding through the farmlands to the venue isn't the smoothest, but the advantage is that, as you need to drive slowly, you get to see more birds! What's the rush anyway? Species like White Stork, Black-winged Kite, Cape Longclaw, and Long-tailed Widowbird kickstarted the Birdlasser list.
I was initially concerned about finding the farm, but my worries were unfounded. Upon arrival, it was well-marked and easy to locate
As soon as you drive through the gate, the beauty of Penwarn overwhelms the senses. The grasslands wind lazily through the valleys and ascend the dominating mountains, kept short by the cattle calling the farm home. Be prepared to take some time driving from the gate to your accommodation. The birdlife on the vast property is fantastic from the moment you arrive. Get ready to identify a few tricky 'Little Brown Jobs'—a variety of pipits and larks will be seen often. The entrance area is an excellent spot to look out for Eastern Long-billed Lark and Secretarybird. Take the time to scan not only the grasslands but also the skies above for raptor species. Have your camera ready as soon as you drive through the gates; the farm's scenery and birds offer numerous photography opportunities.
The descent into the valley where most of the accommodation is found affords the first view of the dams and wetlands. Despite being a working farm, the owners have ensured that nature thrives. The dams and wetlands provide fantastic habitat for excellent birding. Take some time to scan the dams before checking into your accommodation, watching out for species such as Red-knobbed Coot, Whiskered Tern, Little Grebe, African Snipe, African Spoonbill, Reed Cormorant, South African Shelduck, African Rail, and African Swamphen.
Upon reaching the reception, I was warmly welcomed by Bapsie, a friendly gentleman I would get to know better during my stay. The reeds around the small dam near the reception are worth scanning as you may be lucky enough to see the Little Bittern. After a painless check-in process, I was escorted to the stunning Mthini Lodge, a 10-sleeper homestead overlooking a dam.
This is how Penwarn describes the lodge: "Our Mthini Lodge sleeps 8 adults and 2 children in four bedrooms, divided into three king bedrooms and one suite with two ¾ beds (2 single day beds are provided for smaller kids). All rooms have luxury en suite bathrooms and fireplaces. There is also a fully equipped kitchen and a large open-plan living and dining area. The dining and living area has a fireplace and DSTV with selected channels. The 4 bedrooms all open onto the large wrap-around patio, and each room has its own private access. Relax on the patio on a day bed and enjoy the mountain and lake views. Just off the patio is the firepit and outdoor braai area."
Walking into Mthini, I was taken aback not only by the spacious living spaces but also by the stunning view. Sitting on the veranda, sipping coffee, I enjoyed the birds right on my doorstep. Without leaving the veranda, I saw species like Cape Robin-Chat and Giant Kingfisher. One late afternoon, a pair of Wattled Cranes walked past the accommodation in the distance.
Once you've taken in the 'bigger picture,' the attention to detail becomes apparent. Everything needed for a comfy stay is provided—firewood, matches, and firelighters for the braai and the fireplace in each room. Blankets on the couches on the veranda set the stage for late-night fireplace chats. Each bed features an electric blanket for a snuggly and warm night. The kitchen has all the necessary appliances, including good-quality pots and cutlery for guests to use. As I walked around, I marveled at the care taken to ensure guests had a comfortable stay. Mthini exudes luxury while maintaining a homely feel.
Due to the wet weather during my stay, I didn't get to explore the trails around the farm as much as I wanted to. However, on the last morning, I walked a trail winding along the mountain behind the lodge. The trail, though with a few tricky spots, was easy to follow and offered amazing views. It was excellent for birding, with sightings including Malachite Sunbird, Willow Warbler, Yellow Bishop, Drakensberg Prinia, and Buff-streaked Chat. At least 6 Wailing Cisticolas noisily called alongside the trail. Being on foot allows for closer encounters with species, providing great photographic opportunities.
With the rainy weather, I did a lot of birding from my car. For photography on the farm, consider driving and parking close to one of the dams. I managed to get some decent Grey Crowned Cranes photos while parked in the car. In better weather, walking closer to the dam allows for photo opportunities of species such as White-winged Terns, Red-knobbed Coot, and various kingfisher species. Guest access, both on foot and in vehicles, to various areas on the farm makes Penwarn a photographer's dream.
I recommend booking a 4x4 drive with Bapsie to a spot where you can see both the Wattled Crane and Yellow-breasted Pipit. This allows access to areas you may not find yourself. Birding with local guide Stewart McLean one morning was a lucky addition to my trip. Stewart's knowledge of local birds adds value—he knows the farm well and spots some of the specials. As mentioned earlier, encountering many LBJs on the farm, having someone with Stewart's knowledge is beneficial while exploring.
I heard a lot about Penwarn Farm Lodge before my visit. People spoke highly of the place, describing it as amazing. I am usually cautious when expectations are set high, just in case reality falls short. Penwarn not only met but far exceeded what I was told. Words can never fully capture how special this place in the Southern Drakensberg is. The management went out of their way to ensure I felt valued, not just as a 'paying customer' but as someone they cared about. What Bapsie lacks in bird knowledge, he more than makes up for in passion and the 'heart' with which he does things.
Without a doubt, Penwarn stands out as one of the Drakensberg's best accommodation and birding destinations. Whether staying on the farm or using it as a base for exploring the Underberg area, it's the perfect destination. The farm is family-friendly, offering various accommodation options catering to different budgets and requirements.
What are you waiting for? Book a stay at Penwarn—you deserve it!
Read more about Tyron Dall's visit to Penwarn in 2020 https://www.thebirdinglife.com/post/review-of-penwarn-farm-lodge-southern-drakensberg
To discover more about Penwarn Farm Lodge, explore their profile on our accommodation directory at https://www.thebirdinglife.com/penwarn-farm-lodge, or reach out to them via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources used in this article:
Best Getaways. "Penwarn Farm Lodge." Best Getaways, https://www.bestgetaways.co.za/go/penwarn-farm-lodge