Updated: Oct 1, 2020
Every patron has a favourite camp. And every Kruger camp has its own attractions, and there is great birding to be had in every single one of them, but since my first visit there in April 1984, as a 13 year old boy, mine has always been Punda Maria. I know that has a lot to do with the anticipation and expectation of what birds I will find there, both within Camp, and in the surrounding drives, with Punda’s proximity to birding hotspots like the Mahonie Loop, Klopperfontein, Babalala, Dzunzwini, and of course Pafuri. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fond of all camps in the Park, and there is a lot of appeal about camps with vistas from elevated vantage points like at Olifants or Mopani, or looking out over a river, like at Shingwedzi, or Letaba, and the more flat and open nature of some camps, but the embrace of the Punda’s dense vegetation, the elevation and habitat of the hillside it rests on, the historic quaintness of the camp, plus the many glorious memories I’ve had there, do it for me…
My birding memories from my first trip to Punda are of Bearded Scrub Robin and Yellow-bellied Greenbul (they both had different names then… operating as Bearded Robin and Yellow-bellied Bulbul) and both were lifers for me at the time, and through the years the calls of both species are synonymous for me with a stay at the camp.
I think I stayed at Punda Maria three more times in the eighties, once more in a family cottage, once in the traditional bungalows, and once in the campsite. The camping trip was part of my matric holiday with a class-pal and fellow bird enthusiast, who had just got his driver’s license, and while most of our school mates headed off to the mayhem of the coastal raves, we elected to first go on a three week camping trip to the Park, starting at Crocodile Bridge and culminating in four nights at Punda Maria.
A couple of years later I was at university, and being a typical unruly, adventurous student, and somewhat foolhardy, I ended up falling off Table Mountain one night, and became a paraplegic. Luckily I was able to adapt to a new way of life and resume my studies and life in general, and then I started working for SANParks in 1998. For my first five or six years working in the Park I was unable to stay at Punda Maria, because none of the accommodation units nor the campsite had any accessible ablutions suitable for wheelchair guests. But I was lobbying hard behind the scenes and eventually when the Park built the safari tents, higher up the hill in about 2003, set in the indigenous bush, the first unit was built as a wheelchair friendly one. A little later the Park converted one of the family cottages and a bungalow too, and between these units I now had a base where I could stay on my work and private trips there. And luckily over the years I’ve had quite a few projects, studies and events in the far North of the park, so I’ve got to spend a fair bit of time there.
Birding from the Safari Tents can be very rewarding, and the trick is just to let the birds come to you. I learnt to travel with an extension cord and would set up my laptop on the table on the deck and have my binoculars within easy reach. Eastern Nicators, with their wonderful liquid warble are regularly heard frustratingly close, but ordinarily a good visual is nigh impossible to achieve… yet every now and then one will behave atypically and oblige with a decent view. Another common sound from the undergrowth around the tents is the Grey-backed Camaroptera – unlike most of the Park, but similar to the Pafuri area, I always found Grey-backed Camaropteras around these tents and not the similar Green-backed. Ashy Flycatcher is another of the skulking collection of birds that are easier to hear than see, but far more obliging are the Crowned Hornbills that announce themselves with their piping chant and will often get incredibly close and pose nicely.