BEST OF SOUTH AFRICA TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
Best of South Africa: Day 1 Our tour begins this morning at the airport in the city of Cape Town, where we will stay for three nights.
After checking in to our hotel, and a chance to get ready, we will begin our exploration of the beautiful Cape Town region.
Best of South Africa: Days 2-3 Cape Town is famous for its fine natural setting close to the magnificent scenery of Table Mountain and the Cape of Good Hope. This wind-swept area at the meeting point of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans has an interesting avifauna with a high proportion of endemic species.
The area is famous for its botanical richness (indeed, the Cape Floristic Kingdom comprises a unique floral region with a diversity far in excess of temperate regions in the Northern Hemisphere). A family of plants characteristic of this region are the proteas, and, wherever there are concentrations of their beautiful and spectacular flowers, we should find Cape Sugarbirds, one of two members of a Southern African endemic family which resemble gigantic sunbirds, and gorgeous endemic Orange-breasted Sunbirds.
(Endemic as used here refers to Southern Africa rather than South Africa alone, as so many of the regional endemics overlap a national border or two.)
Amongst the other endemic and near-endemic species we should find while exploring the scrubby vegetation around Cape Point, at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens or in the woodland at the foot of Table Mountain are the attractive Jackal Buzzard, Cape Francolin, Cape Bulbul, Cape Grassbird, Karoo Prinia, the attractive Cape Batis, Southern Boubou, Bokmakierie, Cape White-eye, Southern (or Lesser) Double-collared Sunbird, Cape Sparrow, Cape Weaver and Cape Canary. Two of the more difficult Cape endemics are Knysna Warbler and Cape Siskin, the former because it is so secretive, the latter simply because it is scarce and a bit unpredictable.
Species of wider distribution include Hamerkop, Black-headed Heron, Hadeda Ibis, Egyptian Goose, Yellow-billed and Black-shouldered Kites, Steppe Buzzard (sometimes split from Common), Common Kestrel (the form found here is sometimes regarded as a separate species, Rock Kestrel), Helmeted Guineafowl, Speckled and African Olive Pigeons, Cape Turtle (or Ring-necked), Laughing and Namaqua Doves, Spotted Eagle-Owl, Alpine, Little and African Black Swifts, Speckled Mousebird, Rock Martin, Greater Striped Swallow, Black Saw-wing, Sombre Greenbul, Olive Thrush, Cape Robin-Chat, Familiar Chat, Pied and House Crows (the latter a relatively recent arrival), Common Fiscal, Red-winged Starling, Malachite Sunbird, Southern (or Vitelline) Masked Weaver, Southern Red and Yellow Bishops, and Brimstone Canary.
A highlight of our time at the coast will be a visit to a colony of African (or Jackass) Penguins, and as these dapper endemics wander unconcerned around us we will come to appreciate the appropriateness of their vernacular name as they give their braying calls. We also have an excellent chance of finding a huge Southern Right Whale loafing offshore in False Bay and, whilst looking offshore, we will see a number of Cape Gannets and may well be able to pick up a few pelagic seabird species such as White-chinned Petrel, Sooty Shearwater or even Shy Albatross. We will also be searching the coastline for Bank Cormorant, a Southern African endemic that has declined in numbers by over 60% in recent years, as well as endemic Cape and Crowned Cormorants.
Along the coast, or in nearby wetlands, we should also find the endemic South African Shelduck, Cape Shoveler, African (Black) Oystercatcher and Hartlaub’s Gull, as well as Little Egret, Glossy and African Sacred Ibises, Egyptian Goose, Yellow-billed Duck, Cape and Red-billed Teals, Common Moorhen, Red-knobbed Coot, Pied Avocet, Black-winged Stilt, Cape (split from Kelp) Gull, Common, Sandwich and Greater Crested Terns, Levaillant’s (or Tinkling) and Zitting Cisticolas, and Little Rush, African Reed and Lesser Swamp Warblers.
Cape Town is famous for the concentrations of seabirds that can be found offshore. Weather permitting (there is a low but real risk of cancellation for Cape Town pelagics), our boat will take us out to the trawling grounds which lie about 30-40 nautical miles offshore in the cold Benguela Current.
Shortly after leaving port the first seabirds to join the boat will be White-chinned Petrel, Sooty Shearwater and Cape Gannet. Further from the shore, an occasional albatross will inspect our wake and as we reach deeper waters they may be almost continually in view.
We may spot a long-liner before we even sight the fishing boat itself, simply from the cloud of birds following it, and once one has been sighted we will steam directly for its wake. The commonest birds associated with the long-liners are Black-browed, Shy, Atlantic Yellow-nosed and Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, Cape and White-chinned Petrels, Great and Sooty Shearwaters and Cape Gannets. We should also find smaller numbers of Southern and Northern Giant Petrels, Wilson’s and Black-bellied Storm-Petrels, Arctic Skuas (or Parasitic Jaegers), Subantarctic Skuas, Arctic Terns (newly arrived from the breeding grounds) and dainty Sabine’s Gulls. There are literally thousands of birds around some of the boats and seeing seabirds in these numbers, with huge albatrosses repeatedly sweeping past our vessel at very close range, is an unforgettable experience.
We shall also be looking out for less common species such as Wandering Albatross and European Storm-Petrel and if conditions are sufficiently windy, Soft-plumaged and Great-winged Petrels.
The Cape Peninsula gives some shelter to False Bay and here we may well come across a pod of Southern Right Whales loafing at the water’s surface, while there is also a slim chance of Bryde’s Whale or Humpback Whale.
Best of South Africa: Day 4 This morning we will leave Cape Town and head eastwards into the Hottentots Holland Mountains, a dramatically rugged, windswept range which receives the brunt of the southeasterly gales that are so frequent in the Cape during the winter months. Here we will be looking in particular for the superb endemic Cape Rockjumper and the colourful but shy endemic Victorin’s Warbler, and we are also likely to find White-necked Raven and Neddicky (or Piping Cisticola).
From here, we continue eastwards into the rolling grasslands of the Overberg and on to Swellendam for an overnight stay.
As we head east, we will be delighted by the large numbers of elegant endemic Blue Cranes, South Africa’s national bird, in the roadside fields, and we will visit some areas of grassland and cultivation to search for the localized endemic Agulhas Long-billed and Agulhas Clapper Larks, and the streaky Cape form of the minuscule Cloud Cisticola, a bird that seems to vanish into the heavens during its song flight!
We will also explore the scenic and productive De Hoop Nature Reserve, which is home to the skulking Southern Tchagra and the secretive Knysna Woodpecker. Whilst looking for these two rather secretive endemics, we are likely to come across some other new species for the trip, such as Common Ostrich, Great Crested, Black-necked and Little Grebes, Long-tailed Cormorant, African Darter, Great White Pelican, Crowned and Blacksmith Lapwings, White-rumped Swift, Giant Kingfisher, the near-endemic Acacia Pied Barbet, Red-capped Lark, Pearl-breasted and White-throated Swallows, Capped Wheatear, Bar-throated Apalis, the shrike-like, endemic Fiscal Flycatcher, Cape Wagtail, African (or Grassveld) Pipit and the stocky, near-endemic White-throated Canary.
We will also spend time admiring the mammals of the park, which include the attractive Bontebok, the endangered Cape Mountain Zebra and, if we are fortunate, the shy Cape Grysbok. In the surrounding grasslands, we should find stately Denham’s Bustards (with their spectacular ‘chrysanthemum’ display). We also have a slim chance of encountering the rare Hottentot Buttonquail, which is perhaps Southern Africa’s most difficult endemic!
Best of South Africa: Day 5 After some final birding at De Hoop we shall return to Cape Town for an overnight stay. We will stop at one or more sites along the way if we are still missing any of the specialities.
Best of South Africa: Day 6 Today we shall drive northwards to Langebaan for an overnight stay.
We will stop for long periods in the coastal ‘fynbos’ (heathland) and we shall also explore open areas and some coastal wetlands. We will be looking in particular for such endemics as the superb Black Harrier, the stunning Southern Black Korhaan, Cape Clapper, Cape Long-billed and Karoo Larks, Grey Tit and Cape Penduline Tit (the region’s smallest endemic).
Other likely new species include Greater and Lesser Flamingos, Grey Heron, Common Quail (as usual, hard to see), Spotted Thick-knee, Common Ringed, Kittlitz’s, Three-banded, White-fronted and Grey (or Black-bellied) Plovers, the exquisite Chestnut-banded Plover, Curlew Sandpiper, Eurasian Whimbrel and European Bee-eater. From time to time we may come across Steenbok and Grey Duiker feeding amidst the low scrub.
Best of South Africa: Day 7 We will head northwards into the Karoo today, our destination the small town of Calvinia where we will spend two nights.
Along the way, after skirting the impressive Cedarberg mountain range, we will stop at a good site for the uncommon and localized endemic Protea Canary, while other endemic or near-endemic additions here may well include Mountain Wheatear, Layard’s Warbler (or Layard’s Tit-Babbler), Chestnut-vented Warbler (or Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler) and Fairy Flycatcher.
Part of the day will be spent exploring the Karoo plains and we are sure to have seen quite a number of dry country specialities by the time we reach Calvinia.
Best of South Africa: Day 8 Calvinia is situated deep in the desert region of the Northern Cape. Here, we will focus our attention on the starkly beautiful northern Karoo where arid, stony plains, bisected by sandy wadis dotted with thorn trees, give rise to shimmering mirages during the heat of the day. We will explore the area surrounding Calvinia out as far as the tiny settlement of Brandvlei, even deeper into the desert.
These harsh landscapes hold some very interesting endemics and near-endemics. Here we should find Karoo Korhaan, Namaqua Sandgrouse, White-backed Mousebird, Grey-backed Cisticola, the handsome Rufous-eared Warbler, Chat Flycatcher, Pririt Batis, African Pied and Pale-winged Starlings, Dusky Sunbird, Black-headed and Yellow Canaries, Cape Bunting, the undistinguished Lark-like Bunting and, with a bit of luck, the elusive Karoo Eremomela. Larks and chats are well represented here and we will be looking for the restricted-range Red Lark, Sabota Lark (here of the form sometimes split off as Bradfield’s Lark), Spike-heeled, Large-billed, Karoo Long-billed and Sclater’s Larks, Grey-backed and Black-eared Sparrowlarks, Sickle-winged, Tractrac and Karoo Chats, and Karoo Scrub-Robin. Less predictable are two nomadic near-endemics, the splendid Ludwig’s Bustard and Stark’s Lark, although with a bit of luck we will see both. We will also visit a small reedy patch that holds the shy and furtive endemic Namaqua Warbler. Other species we may well find in the Calvinia region include Booted Eagle, Southern Chanting Goshawk and Greater Kestrel.
Best of South Africa: Day 9 We will have time for some final birding in the Karoo today before we head back to Cape Town for an overnight stay.
Best of South Africa: Day 10 We will take a morning flight eastwards to Durban on the coast of Kwazulu-Natal and then head inland and uphill to the Underberg area in the Drakensberg range for a three nights stay. We will stop for some birding en route.
Best of South Africa: Days 11-12 During our time in the Drakensberg we shall explore grasslands, small lakes and marshes, alpine scrub and high altitude woodland. The high peaks of the magnificent eastern Drakensberg (rising to over 3000m or 9800ft), with their massive craggy spikes and rock buttresses, form an impressive backdrop as we look for such special birds as the strange endemic Southern Bald Ibis, the huge endemic Cape Vulture and the rare and endangered Wattled Crane.
We will have to transfer to four-wheel-drive vehicles in order to ascend a precipitous and scenic mountain pass amongst the loftiest peaks of the high Drakensberg and then continue into Lesotho. Known as the Sani Pass, at nearly 3250m it is the highest road in the eastern Drakensberg.
On the lower slopes, we will look for the rare and localized endemic Gurney’s Sugarbird around flowering proteas, and other species we may see in this zone include Red-throated Wryneck, the endemic Bush Blackcap (a species which is variously considered a babbler or a bulbul), African Stonechat, the stunning endemic Buff-streaked Chat (surely one of the best wheatears of all), the endemic Cape Rock Thrush and Streaky-headed Seed-eater. As we climb further, stands of proteas and grasslands, which are thronged with displaying Long-tailed Widowbirds at this season, give way to crags and cliffs with open alpine meadows bisected by fast-flowing streams where Drakensberg (or Orange-breasted) Rockjumpers should be seen bounding from rock to rock along the roadside.
Eventually, passports in hand, we will cross the border into Lesotho. It is not unusual to see snow still on the higher peaks, even at this time of year, and the local inhabitants scale these mountain passes astride small ponies and wrapped in colourful blankets. Endemic specialities are everywhere. Sentinel Rock Thrushes and Sickle-winged Chats are common, and we should also find the highly localized Mountain Pipit and the often secretive Yellow-tufted (or African Rock) Pipit, while Drakensberg Siskin is another local speciality. A few pairs of Lammergeiers (or Bearded Vultures) nest on the towering basalt ramparts of the high plateau and we may even see this magnificent raptor at the nest, while with luck we will encounter Black Stork, another cliff-nesting species with a breeding outpost in Southern Africa. Large mammals are scarce in Lesotho (most have been eaten!), but we should see one high-altitude speciality, the endearing Sloggett’s (or Ice) Rat.
During our time in the uplands of Kwazulu-Natal, we will also visit some remnant ‘mist forest’ with its tall yellow-wood and stinkwood trees heavily festooned with ‘old man’s beard’ lichens. These cool, damp forests are good for Red-chested and Klaas’s Cuckoos, the stunning African Emerald Cuckoo, the glorious endemic Knysna Turaco, Olive Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, the skulking endemic Barratt’s Warbler, Lazy Cisticola, the gorgeous but elusive Orange Ground Thrush, the endemic Chorister Robin-Chat (a species which can produce near-perfect imitations of almost any other, causing some confusion at times), White-starred Robin, Blue-mantled Crested Flycatcher, Black-backed Puffback, the endemic Olive Bushshrike, the endemic Forest Canary, African Firefinch and sometimes the endemic Swee Waxbill. With luck we will also encounter a party of endangered endemic Cape Parrots flying over the forest, attracting attention with their raucous calls, but while we may hear the moaning calls of Buff-spotted Flufftails we shall count ourselves very fortunate if we see one of these ultra-skulking little crakes.
Tours operated between mid-October and December will also explore some relict patches of natural mist-belt grassland where we have a fair chance of finding the migratory Blue Swallow, a supremely elegant, steel-blue hirundine that nests in Aardvark burrows in pristine grasslands and is South Africa’s most threatened bird.
Other species that we should find in this region include Grey Crowned Crane, Secretarybird, African Harrier-Hawk, Long-crested Eagle, Lanner, Black-headed Oriole, Cape Crow (or Cape Rook), the endemic Southern Anteating-Chat, Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, Green-backed Camaroptera, the endemic Drakensberg Prinia (split from Karoo), Wailing Cisticola, African Dusky and Southern Black Flycatchers, the endemic Cape (or Orange-throated) Longclaw, Amethyst and Collared Sunbirds, Pin-tailed Whydah, Fan-tailed and Red-collared Widowbirds, Bronze Mannikin and Southern Grey-headed Sparrow.
We could also encounter two or three of the scarcer species, which include Black, Little and Rufous-chested Sparrowhawks, the endemic Forest Buzzard (a bird widely distributed but very hard to observe), Red-necked Spurfowl, the near-endemic Natal Francolin, Black-winged Lapwing and Half-collared Kingfisher. Large mammals regularly observed in the area include Common Reedbuck, Mountain Reedbuck, the handsome but endangered Oribi, Blesbok and Black Wildebeest.
Best of South Africa: Day 13 After some final birding in the Drakensberg we will cross over into the Mpumalanga (formerly Transvaal) and work our way up through the grassy uplands to Wakkerstroom for a two nights stay.
Best of South Africa: Day 14 Of all the diverse habitats we will have travelled through, the upland grasslands of the central plateau of South Africa are the most threatened, and as a direct consequence its endemic birds are now endangered. The area we will be birding in is one of the few extensive stretches of this ‘highveld’ habitat left and is typified by small wetlands (‘vleis’) surrounded by lush, marshy meadows, rugged, rocky peaks and open stretches of pristine grassland. This bird-rich area has some exciting endemic species, in particular Blue and Barrow’s Korhaans (the latter split from White-bellied Bustard), Eastern Long-billed, Rudd’s and Botha’s Larks, and Yellow-breasted Pipit.
Other birds we should see in the Wakkerstroom region include Purple Heron, Hottentot Teal, Southern Pochard, White-backed Duck, African Marsh Harrier, Red-winged and Grey-winged Francolins, African Swamphen, African Wattled Lapwing, African Snipe, Wood Sandpiper, Spotted Thick-knee, Whiskered Tern, Banded Martin, Pink-billed and Spike-heeled Larks, South African Cliff Swallow, Wing-snapping Cisticola, the introduced Common Myna, Red-billed Quelea, African Quailfinch, Common Waxbill and perhaps also Maccoa Duck, African Rail, Orange-breasted Waxbill and Golden-breasted Bunting. At dusk, we will spend some time overlooking a grassy wetland where we may see hunting Marsh Owls or perhaps a Spotted Eagle-Owl.
This evening we will enjoy a celebratory dinner to mark the upcoming end of the tour.
Best of South Africa: Day 15 After some final birding in the Wakkerstroom area we will return to our hotel to wash and change. Afterwards we head for Johannesburg airport, where the tour ends in the early evening.