South Africa – Feb 2019

In February 2019 we set off on a long-awaited birding trip in South Africa, from Cape Town to Kruger National Park, with Birding Africa. Our tour was bookended with several days on our own in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Note: click any photo for a larger version. To skip the narrative and go straight to the photo galleries (especially if you just want to see the birds and the animals), click here. Also, if you’re interested in Liza’s food blog, click here.

In Cape Town, before the birding tour, we were based in the Gardens district not far from downtown at the Villa Zeezicht B&B. From there we explored the V&A Waterfront, visited the Two Oceans Aquarium, and went on an easy 1/2 day hike in Table Mountain National Park (Camps Bay Pipe Track) with the Fynbos Guy. (Would totally love to go back in the springtime to see the fynbos – “fine bush” – in riotous bloom.)

We also made the trip out to Robben Island, a little more than 4 miles from the mainland. The island has a long history as a prison dating to the 17th century but of course more recently for anti-apartheid political prisoners including Nelson Mandela (18 of his 27 years in prison were here), Jacob Zuma, Robert Sobukwe, and many others. Having a former prisoner conduct the prison part of the tour was particularly memorable.

We also managed a full day excursion out to wine country, to the La Motte Wine Estate in Franschhoek, and Spier Wine Estate in Stellenbosch. It nearly didn’t come off as the tour Liza booked managed to get wrong where we were staying, and never picked us up. But our B&B host Elize fixed us up right away and we had a private tour that also included a fun stop at Butterfly World, a small zoo that also included an aviary. 🙂

A last Cape Town note, friends of ours who went in other seasons (say, winter) noted that they never or almost never saw the top of Table Mountain. Since we were there in summer, we had clear skies and views most of the time (the wind may have had something to do with that…). But the last day on our own we did get a nice view of what locals call “the tablecloth” – the clouds blanketing the top of the mountain and drifting down the face. (Click here for the cool video of the tablecloth in action.)

So, we went for a birding tour! After the jam-packed three days on our own in Cape Town, we joined the Birding Africa group led by Vincent Ward. That full trip report (focused on the birding) is to come, following are just some of the highlights. Our first destination was the world-renowned Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, showcasing the plants of the Cape (many of which are well known to southern Californians). We then visited Cape Town’s wetlands at the Rondevlei Nature Preserve and Strandfontein wastewater treatment (False Bay Ecology Park).

Over the next couple of days we explored the western cape, visiting a wildflower reserve in the Darling Hills, birding in West Coast National Park, looking for Cape Rockjumper at Rooi-Els, checking out Harold Porter Botanical Garden (which sadly had a serious fire in January 2019), and enjoying the penguins (and other birds) at the Stony Point Penguin Colony in Betty’s Bay. (Click here to see a penguin on the move!)

Next we spent a couple of days at De Hoop Nature Reserve to the east, birding a variety of habitat including the wheat fields of the Overberg area and also the beach in the reserve at Koppie Alleen. En route back to Cape Town we stopped at the southernmost point of Africa, Cape Agulhas (sorry, Cape Town, it isn’t Cape of Good Hope). Cape Agulhas also says they are where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet, although Cape Town/Good Hope likely has the better claim on that one.

The original plan was for a pelagic trip out of Simonstown earlier in the week, but we were thwarted by the weather (it was *really* windy most of the time). With our schedule re-arranged we were able to get out on the pelagic, out of Hout Bay, our last full day before flying to Johannesburg. The weather basically held, it was choppy going out but easier coming back. Liza took a lot of photos of sky and water, but between her and Robert managed some good birds too, including four species of albatross. And never did a cappuccino back on land taste so good.

Amazingly, all that activity was in the first week. We then flew to Johannesburg, then drove a couple of hours to Dullstroom, where we stayed one night. There we birded the Dullstroom Nature Reserve / dam area, as well as Verloren Valei (lost valley) Nature Reserve.

From there it was on to Mount Sheba Nature Reserve up on the Drakensberg escarpment, staying at the Mount Sheba Lodge. There we were fairly high – at about 5500 ft elevation, after coming down from nearly 7400 ft at the highest. We birded the relatively scarce Afromontane forest, finding among other things Narina Trogon. We also birded the grasslands of the escarpment and in Pilgrim’s Rest, a gold rush town on the Blyde River.

The final big birding destination was Kruger National Park. After first stopping for a picnic breakfast at the Drei Rondavels in the Blyde River Canyon, and a stop to look (and find) the endangered Taita Falcon, we entered Kruger via the Orpen Gate and made our way to the Satara Rest Camp. There we were met by Andrew of Safaria; he drove us our days in Kruger in a great high open-sided vehicle (seating built on a Toyota pick-up truck). We also had one night drive by park personnel.

All told we spent two nights in Satara, and two in Skukuza Rest Camp. The birds were spectacular but of course so were the big game – including the lions mating in the road that didn’t really care that we were there, and a young bull elephant who decided it was more fun to challenge a little bitty car than our big vehicle.

Leaving Kruger via the Kruger Gate, we birded just a little that morning before the long drive back to Johannesburg. We said goodbye to the birding tour at the airport, then hopped on the sleek and fancy Gautrain out to the Sandton district and to our hotel, the Radisson Blu Gautrain. Two full days got us out to the Cradle of Humankind and the Sterkfontein caves, the Apartheid Museum, and the SAB World of Beer. A bonus at the Cradle of Humankind was the relatively new exhibit, “Long March to Freedom“.

The day we flew out, we had most of the day free, so went on the Hop-on/Hop-off double decker bus and did the sightseeing tour. We got off at the South African Museum of Military History and spent some time there, and otherwise just enjoyed the drive around the city with narration.

A few remaining idle thoughts … Uber rocks, at least in Cape Town and Johannesburg. It makes it extremely easy to get around, and we enjoyed talking with the drivers (most of whom were from the Congo). We greatly enjoyed the food and wine (be sure to check out Liza’s food blog for more on that), and from our perspective the prices were all very reasonable. Well, maybe except for the hotel in Sandton, Jo’burg, which is a pretty ritzy district. We’d heard plenty before going about petty crime, don’t walk here, don’t walk there, but as we are typically fairly careful we didn’t experience any issues. (Have to say all the warnings make you rather hyper-alert.)

If you do want to see the birds and animals, check out the photo galleries. We saw or heard over 360 species, got four of the big five animals (Lion, Elephant, Buffalo, Rhinoceros; missed Leopard), and we photographed most of them, including this lovely Lilac-breasted Roller. Also hippo, kudu, impala, waterbuck, warthog; baobab, mopane, and terminalia trees; flowers … you get the idea.

Last but not least, Buddy Bison was there too! His favorite? The African Buffalo, of course. His photos are also on the photo gallery page.