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.
One doesn’t even have to get out of bed in the morning to become aware of some fantastic bird company. The elevated position of the tents means that early morning serenades are funnelled up the hillside. One can listen out for the boom of Southern Ground Hornbill, the almost haunting trills of Striped Kingfisher and Grey Tit-Flycatchers, and the resonant cries of Crested, Coqui, and Shelley’s Francolin, the latter threatening to commit heresy and steal your beer.
One of the main advantages of the Safari Tents is to watch the surrounding skies from their elevated vantage point. Various swifts and swallows are usually present, and with the camp’s position at the eastern end of the Soutpansberg Mountain chain, some of the Park’s more uncommon swifts in Alpine and African Black should be watched out for. Then every morning there will be a regular flyover of both Kruger’s resident parrot species, and the gruffer shriek of the highly localised Baobab specialist, the Brown-necked Parrot, should be picked up against the more squeaky shrieks of the widespread Brown-headed Parrot.
In the evening time, and even on overcast and drizzly mornings there is the chance of seeing the Camp’s resident Bat Hawks. Soaring vultures, eagles, and storks (mostly Marabou, but occasionally Black) will be seen. Ayres’s Hawk-Eagle and Verreaux’s Eagle are two of the more unusual eagles for the Park I’ve seen from the tents, and so too another Park rarity in White-necked Raven.
At night there is the usual array of owls and nightjars to listen out for amidst the churr of the Banded Rubber Frogs and nocturnal insects, but one to particularly listen out for is the Freckled Nightjar which must make their home on the camp’s rocky hillside.
The Camp’s two family cottages are excellent value bird-wise too, also being set within the Camp’s indigenous bush. Greenbuls, robin-chats, scrub robins, Collared Sunbirds, and Terrestrial Brownbuls will be heard and hopefully seen at close quarters, and the busy and charismatic Crested Guineafowl with their punk hairstyles are bound to entertain residents of these units. There will also be visits from a few interesting mammals to both cottages and at the safari tents, probably fed by ignorant previous residents. These include Thick-tailed Bushbabies, Large-spotted Genets, and the enigmatic Gambian Giant Pouched Rat, found only in the well-wooded far northern reaches of the Limpopo Province in South Africa, but having a wider distribution throughout tropical Africa.
Punda Maria’s bungalows are declared heritage buildings, having been built in the 1930s, and though their interiors have been modernised, they are a multiplex style and don’t have the indigenous bush at their doorstep like the tents and cottages, but they have the advantage of easy access to the communal braai and picnic area, the paths through the undergrowth down to the campsite/swimming pool, and to the fantastic Flycatcher Trail named after the African Paradise Flycatchers that are likely to be found there by trail-goers. This trail takes one up the hillside above the accommodation units into thick indigenous woodland for which the Punda Maria area is so renowned. Because of my use of a wheelchair I have not been able to walk this trail since I was a teenager, but have some spectacular childhood memories including close encounters with many of the species already listed, and additionally special moments with African Barred Owlet and Narina Trogon.
Birding from the campsite is in a flat, sandy-soiled expanse of open woodland, and has a different profile to the almost impenetrable thicket that covers the hillside where the fixed accommodation is located. The typical woodland species found throughout the Park hang out in this part of the camp; barbets, hornbills, starlings, weavers, and sparrows, and there was even an unwanted Common Myna that probably hitched a ride in a delivery truck a few years ago. It hung around for a while, until it moved off, was killed by a predator, or one of my colleagues from the alien biota unit captured it. A good place to bird from the campsite is around the swimming pool and at the fringes of the campsite where it runs up against the side of the hill and the dense vegetation begins. All three of the Park’s resident robin-chats (Red-capped, White-browed, and White-throated) can be found and a lot of interesting stuff moves through the undergrowth.
Also don’t ignore the taller mopane trees between the fuel station and the camp fence. Eastern Nicators hang out there, and African Golden Oriole have been seen there too. And the one bird I link to the campsite is the Brubru. Of course one is more likely to hear their ring tone like call first, and work a little harder to get a good visual.
Even if you haven’t been to Punda Maria before, the chances are you will have heard of the camp’s renowned bird bath… made famous by becoming South Africa’s most reliable spot for Orange-winged Pytilias between 2016 and 2019. They may well still be around, but I have not been to the camp since then. The bird bath is near the communal braai area, across the road from the bungalows, just over the area’s retaining wall before the steep descent of the thick foliage of the hillside. Don’t get confused with the pond a little closer to the Reception building. The great thing about this bird bath is that it is very compatible with accommodating early morning and afternoon drives, as the best results are achieved by positioning oneself in the late morning and sitting quietly until the inevitable procession of thirsty birds come to drink… mostly diminutive seedeaters, like waxbills, firefinches, and pytilias, but with a handful of other random characters promising exciting action. Green Twinspot, presumably using the Soutpansberg Range as a travel conduit, has also been recorded at the bath.