South Africa: Durban & Kruger

Durban & Kruger National Park
December 13–21, 2007

We left London on the evening of the 12th and arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa the morning of December 13, 2007, where we met Susan’s brother, Martyn. The airport was utter chaos. The conveyor belt wasn’t working on the luggage carrousel and throngs of people were climbing onto it trying to get their luggage. We finally collected our things and then met Martyn and his two kids and flew from Johannesburg to Durban, a coastal town on the Indian Ocean. We drove from Durban Airport to Umhlanga Rocks, to a large flat owned by Martyn’s in-laws, overlooking the Indian Ocean. I looked out the cab window on the drive from the airport with extreme sadness as we passed large tracts of shanty towns. Once in Umhlanga everything changed as we entered white South Africa, a swanky resort town for rich white folks with their high end cars, gated housing with security guards, electrically wired fences, and fancy accommodations. Our room opened onto a large deck with expansive views down the beach and across the ocean. Each morning I was able to use my photography and video equipment on the deck on the third floor without fear of being mugged, a high possibility in crime-ridden South Africa. After settling into our room we went for a walk down the board walk along the ocean. Police were stationed up and down the beach; it was the holidays, summer in South Africa, and the beaches were full of tourists. Helicopters patrolled the beaches incessantly as well. As we walked down the beach I noticed right away how little wildlife there was to see in the ocean itself. In fact, the only ocean birds we saw that day were a couple of Cape Gulls and one Lesser Crested Tern. Common Mynas, an introduced bird that has thrived there, were everywhere as were the symbol of South African birding, the Hadeda Ibis and Cape Turtle Dove which makes a sound embedded in my brain permanently. Despite the presence of many tourists, in the shrubs along the boardwalk there were quite a few birds including Dark-capped Bulbul, Tawny-flanked Prinia, Drakensburg Prinia, Lemon Dove, and Red-winged Starling. After walking down the boardwalk a ways we came to the entrance to the Umhlanga Lagoon Nature Reserve. It looked very inviting but a sign warned of the dangers of muggings and recommended entering only on Thursdays between 11:00 and 2:00 PM when a guard was there. Overcoming my extreme fear of being mugged and having my camera stolen we entered the reserve. It was the best part about Durban. My heart pounded as we entered a thick jungle with overhanging limbs and then came to a rickety boardwalk over the lagoon. In the jungle area we saw a Green-backed Camaroptera, African White-throated Robin-Chat, and Red-capped Robin-chat. Our fears overcame us and it was getting late so we turned back before exploring the boardwalk.

December 14, 2007, I got up and checked out the lawn below the balcony. I found more Mynas, Laughing Dove, European Barn Swallow, Dark-capped Bulbul, Cape White-eye, Bronze Mannikin, Gray-headed Gull, and Cape Sparrow. Out on the ocean was a pod of Common Dolphins. After breakfast we decided to walk back down to the Nature Reserve. Martyn’s brother-in-law, Allistair, warned us that it wasn’t safe but we went anyway. In the jungle we found a Cardinal Woodpecker, Brown Scrub Robin, and a Green-backed Camaroptera. An alternative trail to the one to the boardwalk went toward the Beachcomer Hotel and we took it as it seemed safer so close to the hotel. One tree there was full of butterflies and also had a Speckled Mousebird, Black-collared Barbet and a family of Vervet Monkeys. We stood in this one spot along time as it felt the safest. Then we decided to chance the rickety boardwalk and came across dozens of nesting weaver birds, Speckled Weaver and Cape Weaver. There was one Southern Red Bishop in the reeds. As we stood on the boardwalk right in the middle we had a good vantage point for both shorebirds in the river mouth and passerines in the woods. Along the canal there was a White-breasted Cormorant, Goliath Heron, Grey Heron, Little Egret, Wood Sandpiper, and Common Sandpiper. A Giant Kingfisher flew out of the woods and landed on a post in the canal. Then a Pied Kingfisher flew out of the same area and landed on a reed. In the woods on the far side that went toward the ocean I spotted a Black Flycatcher perched in a tree. We looked in the mud flats closely and saw a Three-banded Plover briefly come from behind some reeds. A Common Ringed Plover made an even briefer appearance before disappearing behind the reed bed. We decided to brave crossing the boardwalk to the other side. The jungle only continued briefly after that before descending to the beach. Out on the beach an African Fish Eagle flew overhead. Back at the flat we put on our swimming suits (called swimming costumes in South Africa) and went down to the beach to swim in the Indian Ocean. I had never even seen the Indian Ocean before much less swum in it. You could only swim in about a 50 yard section of the beach. So about 500 people were all crammed in this one section of the beach all trying to boogie board and ride waves and swim all the while bumping into each other while trying to avoid contact. If you went outside the 50 yard markers a life guard blew a whistle and asked you to get back in the swimming area. Another guard sat on a surf board right at the breakers to make sure no one went beyond the breakers. White Sharks are a huge threat in South Africa but as all the announcement were in Zulu I’m not sure if that was the reason or something else. Crime was always a threat even with the presence of guards, helicopters and police. So Susan watched our towel while I got in the ocean. It was chilly but not nearly as cold as the Pacific Ocean. Everyone said the Indian Ocean was much warmer than the Atlantic Ocean. I would find out later in the trip when we got to Cape Town.

December 15, 2007, I got up and scanned the ocean from the balcony. It was overcast. A stream of Palm Swifts flew past the balcony. A Cape Wagtail walked across the lawn below me. After breakfast we returned to the Nature Reserve. We first took the trail toward the busy tree next to the Beachcomber Hotel. A suspicious looking man was walking the other way. I was very frightened but felt somewhat safe by the hotel. Two men walked toward us and I hurriedly put my Canon Rebel into my backpack. If we had been robbed he would have hit the jackpot getting both my Canon Rebel and my Sony Video camera. The two men turned out to be police officers who had just returned from checking the nature reserve trails. One of the officers asked if we planned to go into the reserve when we said yes he said that there had been two muggings the day before. We were so frightened and jittery that I could barely even look at the birds much less film them. We walked toward the boardwalk slowly looking ahead and back constantly. We stood out in the middle of the boardwalk checking both sides and that felt safer as we had a chance to run either way if a criminal came. An African Darter was in the channel as well as a Ruff and another Common Sandpiper. I didn’t want to go either way as I felt entering the woods was very dangerous but we had to either return the way we came through the jungle or up the hillside to the beach. We finally decided that the shorter route to the beach was safest since once we reached the beach we were much less likely to be mugged with other people there, constant helicopters flying over and many people on holiday at the beach. In the woods that went up the hillside we found a Fork-tailed Drongo, a female Eastern Olive Sunbird, my first sunbird of the trip, Dark-backed Weaver, and Common Fiscal. We decided it would be safer to walk back along the beach where there was more security. While walking down the beach, a Rock Kestrel zoomed past us. Later in the day we went out to the pool area which was enclosed by the electrical fence so filming was easier and safer there. While looking around a Black Kite flew overhead and a Black-collared Barbet went repeatedly to this same tree overlooking the pool area.

December 16, 2007, was our last day in Durban. In the morning before our flight we walked down the boardwalk to the reserve one last time. While standing on the boardwalk a Black Crake popped out of the reeds. I could have stood on the boardwalk all day just to see what else popped out but we had to go. We crossed the boardwalk and walked through the jungle to the beach where we found a Wahlberg’s Eagle perched in a tree. We walked up to the river mouth and found a Brown-headed Shrike perched in a tree. The only additional birds we found in the jungle were Common Fiscal and a Collared Sunbird. A man and his son were just about to head back into the reserve and so we felt safe enough to continue back that way as well instead of back along the beach where there were less birds to see. When we were nearly back to the flat we passed the police officer who warned us earlier about the mugging and he said, “you made it!” Back at the flat we packed our bags and then headed back to Durban Airport. We flew from Durban on a tiny twin prop to Nelspruit Airport where we were greeted by our guide from Bushwise Safaris, Ludaweick. The drive from Nelspruit Airport to Marloth Park is about an hour and passes some dramatic mountain scenery before following along the Crocodile River and into the park. Marloth Park is a nature reserve that borders Kruger National Park. On the drive I saw my first Pied Crow, a Black-shouldered Kite, Little Swifts, and Cattle Egrets. Soon after passing through the security gate we came across a Black Mamba snake in the road. Then we passed some Impalas along the road. Ludaweick said they were too common to stop for even though I had never seen one. We also saw a Diuker in the woods but Ludawieck wouldn’t stop for that either. We settled into our room which had a balcony with eye level views into a tree hosting a number of birds including a very vocal Gray Go-Away Bird and a Blue Waxbill amoung others. The lodge is just feet from the fence that runs for miles along Kruger National Park. Although you are not permitted to get out of your car in Kruger, at Marloth you may walk all along the fence line. So after settling into our room we went for a walk about one kilometer to a shelter and back. Immediately we came across a Natal Francolin and just minutes into our walk we came upon an elephant right next to the fence! It was the first elephant I had ever seen in the wild. The fence runs parallel to the Crocodile River where many animals and birds congregate. In the low shrubs along the fence line were hundreds and hundreds of Red-billed Queleas. White-browed Scrub-Robins hopped along the ground. We found a Bearded Woodpecker in a tree. There was a drab looking bird skulking in the reeds that I believe was a Willow Warbler. Along the banks of the river were many Blacksmith Lapwings, Egyptian Geese (abundant in SA), Yellow-billed Egret, and White-faced Ducks. A Burchell’s Couchal was perched in the low shrubs. We also found a Fork-tailed Drongo and Cape Glossy Starling in the trees. Just feet from us we found a Goliath Heron and a Diderick Cuckoo. On the ground on the way back we got a brief glimpse of a pretty Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove. We had dinner with Ludaweick and another guide named Heinrich. Luaweick and Heinrich frequently lapsed into speaking Afrikaans even though Susan told them that she grew up in Cape Town and spoke Africaans. Ludaweick said we would be the only ones on the safari the next day which would only last a half day since we would be taking a night drive that night with a park guide. He also said that he would be our guide for our stay. We asked him if he knew about birds because we had a particular interest in them. Ludaweick assured us that he was required to know about all aspects of nature in the park in order to be a guide and that he knew about birds but that his special interest was elephants.

December 17, 2007, we got up at 4:00 AM for an early start in Kruger. It was a thirty minute drive from our lodge to the Crocodile Bridge Gate at Kruger and all the safari companies line up before the gate opens at 5:30 AM to try to find the “Big Five” which is what everybody is most interested in. It was raining lightly but Ludawieck was wearing shorts. While waiting for the gate to open I spotted a Yellow-fronted Canary. Finally the gate opened and we crossed the Crocodile Bridge which is a low concrete platform that barely clears the river. Despite the rain, we saw many spectacular birds from the jeep all of which we of course new to me. Many vultures were perched in the trees, mostly White-backed Vulture but also one Lappet-faced Vulture. We also saw three different kinds of eagle, Steppe Eagle, Martial Eagle, and Brown Snake-eagle. We had no trouble finding Giraffe, Zebra, and Buffalo but Ludaweick didn’t think they were worthy of a stop. Not too long into our drive Ludaweick slammed on the brakes (probably because he saw an elephant) sending my Canon Rebel camera to the floor of the jeep shattering the LCD readout and making it impossible to see the settings or the picture preview. Every time we wanted him to stop for a bird he became extremely resentful. We came across some Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills and Red-billed Hornbills which I thought were fantastic looking but Ludaweick was uninterested and wouldn’t stop long enough for me to get a picture. (I later got a picture of a Yellow-billed Hornbill while walking in Marloth but it wasn’t very good because I had to use my video camera). After a couple of hours we stopped at a rest area with a restaurant and gift shop. We tried to order something vegan but they had none of the items we wanted so Ludaweick yelled at the black workers there. We finally just had coffee and some toast. Ludaweick said he could not buy us water even though the water is not potable and we had pre-paid all inclusive! So Susan bought us some from the shop. It wasn’t that cold but since the jeeps are completely open the rain comes in and gets everything wet and eventually we began to feel cold. The rest area looked out over the Crocodile River where you usually can see lots of birds but with the rain visibility was limited. I only saw one Diderick Cuckoo, one Woodland Shrike, and some very tame Village Weaver and Masked Weaver birds that came right up to the table. Back out on the road we passed numerous gorgeous looking Lilac-breasted Rollers and European Rollers. Magpie Shrikes, a black bird with a very long tail, were everywhere. We stopped at a blind where a Hamerkop was busy building a nest next to the blind. Hippopotamuses were in the water and there was a Long-tailed Widowbird. It cleared up after lunch and we continued down some other roads that Ludaweick chose and found an accommodating Black-bellied Bustard. Every elephant we came across Ludaweick stopped the jeep and turned off the engine so he could study them in detail. We crossed some other bridge and saw a beautiful Saddle-billed Stork, Marabou Stork, and a Wooly-necked Stork. At one point Ludaweick turned into a dirt road and we saw a group of White Rhinoceros. I wanted to get a photo but no L:udaweick decided to drive the jeep right toward them scaring them away into the bush. On the way back out of the park we came across some Wildebeast, another animal I have never seen but Ludaweick didn’t deem it important enough to stop. Near the end of the tour he did slow down as a family of warthogs crossed the road. We left the park and returned to Bushwise Lodge. Susan and I spent the rest of the day walking along Marloth Park where we were treated to numerous butterflies including African Monarch, Fig Tree Blue, Common Diadem, Natal Acraea, Orange Tip, Scarlet Tip, White-cloaked Skipper, and Blue Pansy. There were water buffalo and hippos in the river and I came across a Speck’s Hingeback (tortoise). I saw the same Bearded Woodpecker from yesterday and Brown-backed Honeybird, Red-breasted Swallow, the beautiful Violet-backed Starling, and Red-billed Oxpeckers on the buffaloes. Way on the other side of the river was a lone Kudu. We had no hot water in our room and had to take a cold shower.

At 5:30 PM we went back to Kruger where a park guide took us on our night drive. Our park guide was named Kisani and she was excellent. She pointed out a Magpie Shrike and Woodland Kingfisher that were near the jeep. At dusk we came upon a lioness lying in the road. The male was sitting in the bush nearby. Kisani parked the jeep and within a few minutes an entire family with three tiny cubs trotted across the road. After the sun set Kisani got out some spotlights for the customers to hold and point into the bush looking for eyeballs. In this way we found a Pearl-spotted Owlet, Barn Owl, Spotted Hyenea, Springhare, and Porcupine. We went back to Bushwise for a very late dinner with Luda. We never got to say anything and ate silently while he pontificated about elephants.

December 18, 2007 was the day for our all day tour. It was raining when we woke up so I put on long pants and wore my rain jacket. Unforunately even this was not enough clothes as it rained all day long and was quite cold. It was still just Susan and me in the jeep with Ludaweick but we were to meet up with the other guests who were riding with Heinrich in another jeep, for breakfast at a picnic area on a mountain inside the park. Not long into our drive I spotted a Yellow-billed Hornbill perched right next to the road. It would have made an excellent photo. Unfortunately Ludaweick deemed it unimportant and zoomed right past it. Susan asked him to stop but he was already a kilometer past it and it was unlikely to still be perched in a perfect photo style so I just said forget about it. Ludaweick became very mad and moped the rest of the day. We made an unscheduled stop at the rest area where we met up with Heinrich and his group. Luda and Heinrich sat down and started having coffee. Luda started telling Heinrich in Africaans the story about the blow up with me around the hornbill. Susan was in the shop and he assumed I couldn’t understand– I could not understand that dreadful language but it was clear from body language that they were talking about me as I stood there. I was furious. Later I told Susan about it and we were outraged at our ill treatment. We continued to the mountain where Susan and I were fed a bowl of cereal while the guides and the rest of the group had a gourmet meal of sausage, grilled beef, potatoes, sautéed onions, and I don’t know what else. After my cereal and some nasty instant coffee I wandered over to another picnic area to look for birds. I found my one and only Jameson’s Firefinch of the trip, a beautiful Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, Red-backed Mannikin, Collared Sunbird, and Groundscraper Thrush, all birds I would have never seen if I had relied solely on Luda. He was so concerned with finding the “big five” and particularly elephants that he frequently drove right past many fascinating birds I would have loved to have seen better or even studied. I looked down the mountain into the river banks and saw Spotted Thick-knee, White-faced Duck, and Marabou Stork. As I was filming some birds Luda stormed over and demanded that I get into the jeep. He told Susan that I was not supposed to walk around but he never mentioned anything about that to me. We drove further north into the park where the bush gives way to open savannah. We saw many eagles and vultures along the way including Lessser-spotted Eagle, Steppe Eagle, Tawny Eagle, Martial Eagle, African Fish Eagle, and many Bateluers. In the savannah we found Black-bellied Bustard, African Green Pigeon, a rare Namaqua Dove, and a Red-collared Widowbird. We came to an opening and Luda said there were some Southern Ground Hornbills. I said can we stop and Luda barked “of course.” We passed some rocky outcroppings and I spotted a little buck that Luda said was a Steenbok. He was very upset that I spotted it before he did. We saw several different kinds of bucks including Waterbuck, Kudu, Bushbuck, and of course Impalas. We continued north into an area that followed along a riverway that looked very promising. We heard a distinctive call from the forest that Luda said was a Red-breasted Cuckoo. I said I wanted to see some bee-eaters but Luda was wet and cold and wanted to turn back and go home. He had promised us we would go all the way to the visitor center where Susan and I were to have lunch and do some shopping. Luda was stuffed from his humongous breakfast but we were hungry as we had only had cereal so even though we were cold and wet we insisted that he press on. He showed his displeasure but crimping his shoulders up to his ears and not saying another word to us. He was driving along way too fast for me to see anything when I saw something red and tan out of my eye and I knew it was something good so I yelled “stop.” Luda was well past it but he reluctantly backed up and there were several beautiful Carmine Bee-eaters and one European Bee-eater perched out in the open. It was raining steadily and so my picture was inferior but I was thrilled to see these gorgeous birds nevertheless. As I snapped off some hurried photos Luda propped his hand on his hand and sighed audibly. As we raced toward the visitor center and our much awaited lunch, Susan saw a chameleon on the road; Luda ran over it. He said he didn’t see it and hunched up his shoulders above his ear line. We finally made it to the visitor center and Susan and I went in and ordered some vegetarian burgers and beers. Luda went off as far away as possible from us and we were relieved to be away from him. While waiting for our food I checked the river banks and found a Collared Sunbird in the trees and a Red-collared Widowbird. Luda told us we did not have time to go into the shop even though before the trip he said we would have time to have lunch and visit the shop. We sat under a canopy and ate our lunch while Luda moped. I looked up into the rafters and saw hundreds of Egyptian Fruit Bats roosting. While Luda wasn’t looking we went into the shop and bought some rain ponchos to at least cover our legs from the rain that pushed into the jeep. On the way back we saw a crocodile completely out of the water lying on a sand bar. Luda said there was no time to stop at all! We continued driving toward the Crocodile Bridge Gate in a very rushed manner because Luda said there would be a big fine if we didn’t get back before closing time (we were late because he insisted on making the unscheduled stop at the rest area to have coffee with Heinrich and tell him his little story in Africaans). With 30 kilometers to go Luda saw an elephant on the side of the road and slammed on the brakes and stopped the engine. He wanted to see if it would pull down a branch from a Marula tree. I looked out the other side of the jeep hoping some great bird would fly by but nothing did. A few minutes later Luda slowed down the jeep but didn’t stop. Susan and I couldn’t see what he was looking at but instead of stopping and giving us a chance to see he just kept pushing toward it until he finally flushed a Wood Hoopoe out of the road and over the top of the jeep. I just barely made out a blur of tan, black, and white as it flew over. That is one bird I would have really enjoyed seeing better than just a colorful blur of wings but Luda didn’t deem it sufficiently important for us to see it I guess. We made it to the gate with time to spare so Luda consented to pull over briefly while a family of warthogs ran across the road.

December 19, 2007, we got up at 3:45 AM in order to arrive at Kruger in time for a morning walk with two Kruger Guides, Kisani, our night guide from the day before, and Duncan. On the drive out of Marloth it was still dark and so we were lucky to spot a night bird, a European Nightjar, in the road and a small cat, a Long-tailed Genet. Luda was anxious to get rid of us so he wouldn’t really stop for either one except to avoid running over the Nightjar. I had just about had it with that Africaaner bastard. Africaaners are the people who brought us apartheid and the shame of South Africa. You can draw your own conclusions.

Duncan and Kisani both carried loaded rifles in order to protect us as we walked about the park. During the walk Kisani pointed out a Burchal’s Couchal, a Red-backed Shrike, and a Bateleur high in the sky spotted with her naked eye. During our walk in the bush we came across many large mammal tracks but the only ones we saw were elephant, giraffe, and zebra. We stopped for a rest and snacks provided by Duncan and Kisani and I asked about a bird perched nearby that Kisani said was a Purple Indigobird. Duncan told me that of the 800 birds found in Kruger he had seen 500 which is pretty amazing. At the end of our morning walk Luda came to pick us up. I would have loved to have spent another day in Kruger but Luda just took us straight back to the lodge without asking us what we wanted to do and we never saw him again. So Susan and I took a long walk along the path in Marloth. We saw many amazing birds during our walk which were mostly very close to the path. It was warm compared to the day before and not precipitating at all. In the river were African Jacana, African Black Duck, Comb Duck, and Great Egret. As we walked along we came across more Bee-eaters including a White-fronted Bee-eater, Marico Sunbird, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Black-headed Oriole, Lesser Striped Swallow, Green Wood-Hoopoe, Jacobin Cuckoo, and White-bellied Sunbird. There were several Blue Waxbills, White-winged Widowbirds, a few Black-backed Puffback, and more Violet-backed Starlings. Two Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills flew into a tree finally giving me the opportunity to get a photo. We also came across a very accommodating Golden-breasted Bunting and a gorgeous Yellow-breasted Apalis. On the river banks were many hippos and a crocodile basking on the sandbar. We also saw a waterbuck and a giraffe and more impalas. As we headed back to the lodge we just made out a jackal in the bush. More guests arrived for dinner that evening and as it was not raining we had a dinner with all the guests at a long table outside. Just before dinner began Luda came over and said goodbye before we could even give him his completely undeserved tip. Before we went to sleep we heard Heinrich return with the two guests he had picked up from their night drive in Kruger. I went outside and told Heinrich that we had been unable to say goodbye properly to Luda and would he please give this money to Luda. I handed Heinrich 500 Rands.

December 20, 2007 was our last day with Bushwise Safaris (I hope it is patently obvious by now that under no circumstances would I recommend anyone pay to go on a safari with Bushwise Safaris). After breakfast Susan and I took a last long walk along the path in Marloth Park. On our walk we saw more exciting butterflies, a Giant Kingfisher, Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, Brown-backed Honeybird, Olive Tree Warbler, Rattling Cisticola, African Pied Wagtail, and a Klaas’s Cuckoo. We reluctantly concluded our hike and returned to the Bushwise Lodge. We packed our bags and Heinrich took us to the Nelspruit Airport. On the way he spotted a Long-crested Eagle in the sky. Heinrich stopped to pick up his girlfriend on the way to the airport; he said it was her birthday and he was taking her to lunch after dropping us off at the airport. On the drive to the airport Heinrich gave his girlfriend a birthday card and inside were 400 Rands. Hmmm.

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