Trip Report: "Autumn Break" at Kruger N.P. (South Africa), April 23-28, 2000

Mike Pope (author), Gill and Sean Pope, Gauteng, South Africa;


We hadn't spent more than 2 days in the Kruger National Park for many years, and the opportunity arose over the Easter holidays to take 5 days and spend some time in the north and central part of the Park.

At this time of year, the migrants have all headed north but after the cyclone which left most of the country waterlogged at the end of the South African summer - the bush in the park would still be green and thick and the rivers still swollen. This would make both birding and game viewing more challenging.

Our plan was to enter the park at Phalaborwa Gate and head to Shingwedzi in the north, we would then head south to Letaba and Olifants and exit at Orpen Gate. We had pre-booked night drives at Letaba and Olifants, which always has the possibility of producing interesting sightings and is something that national parks should have implemented years ago.


Sunday 23 April: Midrand - Phalaborwa - Letaba - Shingwedzi

Had a 02:30 start after a restless night, but the bonus was that the roads were quiet with the Easter traffic. We had no mist going through Dullstroom and Orighstad and got to Phalaborwa by 8am in time for a Wimpy breakfast.

The Phalaborwa Gate was really close by, and the entrance formalities were dealt with efficiently and quickly. The temperature was already rising, so got into our summer clothes at the neat ablution block at the Gate. Black-eyed Bulbuls and Kurrichane Thrushes were in the gardens. The park was lush, green and dense after the recent cyclone, and as a result a lot of the secondary roads close to rivers were closed. We tackled some of the secondary roads, game was scarce but Lilac-breasted Rollers and Bateleurs were abundant. Also picked up Hooded Vulture, African Hawk Eagle, Brown Snake Eagle, Fish Eagle, Gymnogene as well as Grey, Yellow-billed and Red-billed Hornbill. Watched 3 Yellow-billed Hornbills having a sandbath, which was quite comical.

It was a long drive from Letaba to Shingwedzi in the heat of the day, with a stop at one of the packed picnic sites. The campsite and restaurant at Shingwedzi had the usual array of Greater Blue-eared Starlings, hornbills, Grey Louries, Crested Barbets feeding off titbits. This camp has a river view, and it was quite evident how large this river became during the cyclone. Fortunately, the camp was not affected in any way. We checked in and relaxed in our large bungalow, had Scops and Pearl-spotted Owls calling from the bush on the other side of the camp fence.

An afternoon drive produced many lone bull elephants, all with large tusks which is always great to see. A small quail running across the road was probably a Kurrichane Button Quail. So far the Park for winter was great, 31°C daytime temparature meant that we could even have a swim in the camp pool. We were treated to a magnificent sunset, not a cloud in the sky, and as the sun set, the Fruit Bats started their pinging call.

We had a lovely dinner in the restaurant, which was a fitting end to our first long day.

Bird of the Day: African Hawk Eagle

Monday 24 April: Shingwedzi - Letaba

Slept a little too late, but was rewarded with the liquid calls of a Collared Palm Thrush outside our bungalow and a good sighting. The calling of the Mourning Doves on our roof was typical for this area of the Park. We took a drive north and encountered a grumpy elephant that was harassing the cars in front and behind him. The elephant seemed to be having fun. On the way back detoured on a secondary road and saw White-backed and White-headed Vultures on the riverbank, as well as a solitary lioness in very poor condition. She disappeared very quickly into the bush. We then came upon a family of Ground Hornbills foraging in the grass. The juvenile flushed and tried to catch a Bronze-winged Courser, but it eluded the ravenous youngster (this could have made a great photo opportunity). Just before camp detoured along the Shingwedzi River and flushed another Bronz-ewinged Courser and had a great daylight sighting. The riverine bush produced a Natal Robin before the camp. We packed up, had breakfast on the terrace and took a slow drive south to Letaba.

It was another 30+°C day, which had us wilting during the drive. At Letaba checked into our bungalow close to the river. The Letaba River must have been an awesome sight in full flood, the camp restaurant was just high enough to escape any water damage. After lunch, Sean and I took a walk through the camp and its lovely old trees and added Red-billed Hoopoe, Speckled Mousebird, Collared Sunbird, Woodland Kingfisher, Green Pigeon, Palm and Little Swift, Arrow-marked Babbler, Fork-tailed Drongo, Saddle-billed and Marabou Stork and Goliath Heron.

Afternoon drive gave us Hamerkop, Fish Eagle, Kori Bustard striding down the main road, Double-banded Sandgrouse (always in pairs), Tawny Eagles, Red-billed Oxpeckers on Giraffe and Zebra and a hovering Black-shouldered Kite.

Back at camp we showered and headed to the restaurant for dinner, with Scops Owl calling from one of the huge trees in the garden. Played card games into the night

Bird of the Day: Collared Palm Thrush/Bronze-winged Courser

Tuesday 25 April: Letaba

This time I didn't miss the alarm, Gill and Sean opted to sleep in. The mist was low and heavy over the whole area and made the Park quite eerie. Flushed 2 more Bronze-winged Coursers on the river drive and literally bumped into 2 Spotted Hyaenas loping out of the mist on the way back to their den. The sun was trying to fight through the mist and a pair of Ground Hornbills was strolling through the grass and dew. At a view site, picked up preening Burchell's Coucal, a pair of vocal Red-faced Cisticola's, Southern Black Tit, Grey-headed Bush-shrike and Red-billed Oxpeckers on a Zebra. Two lone elephants were quite tranquil. Watched one 'pick' up sand with its trunk and blow it quite hard into his ear - he then proceeded to 'scracth' his ear with the tip of his trunk. At a low level river crossing watched a magnificent male Giant Kingfisher fishing and preening with a Gymnogene doing a low-level fly past.

Had to wake Gill and Sean for breakfast and took another walk around this magnificent camp to the main office to confirm the evening game drive. At the restaurant there was a feeding frenzy around the tables - Greater Blue-eared Starlings, Red-wing Starlings, Black-eyed Bulbuls, Arrow-marked Babblers, Crested Barbets and squirrels. Since we were on holiday, a siesta was in order and then another walk, which produced no new birds.

We got our food and drinks ready for the night drive and headed out in a full vehicle. Got White-backed and White-headed Vultures and Tawny Eagle already roosting for the night. A large dark streaky eagle caused a lot of debate, with consensus being that it was a Steppe Eagle - but this was not conclusive. Park rangers had seen this previously in better light and also battled with identification. On the plains watched a large herd of cavorting Impala playing rutting games in amongst the Zebra and Wildebeest. Again, we were treated to a magnificent African sunset over the plains with the antelope in the foreground.

We picked up Bronze-winged Courser, Spotted and Water Dikkop and Fiery-necked and Mozambique Nightjars, as well as the usual Springhares, some grazing Hippo and feeding Elephants. An explosive puncture on the right back wheel of the night drive vehicle almost had all the guests jumping into the road with increased pulse rates.

Back at camp, cooked up a wonderful pasta and bolognaise with some red wine.

Bird of the day: Mystery dark streaked eagle (Steppe?)

Wednesday 26 April: Letaba - Olifants

Sean and I were up before the gates opened and headed north. Another real close view of an old bull elephant on the side of the road, this fellow was quite obliging. Picked up a big group of Double-banded Sandgrouse, again all in pairs and another (yawn) Bronze-winged Courser. We headed west along the Letaba River and heard the Brown-headed Parrots before we saw a pair of them and a lovely sighting of a calling Red-crested Korhaan. Today was another scorcher, which is actually a pleasure at the beginning of winter. We then bumped into an elephant striding purposefully down the road toward us, I knew he was not going to move off the center. We had to back down and reverse down the road 50m at a time. Another game vehicle came up to us and we agreed that I would turn around and we would both reverse back toward the elephant thereby creating a bigger silhouette, whilst revving our motors. This worked, and the elephant gave way and veered into the bush, and we were able to get back to the camp 2km away in time for a late breakfast.

We tried a secondary road on the eastern boundary of the reserve but had to turn back at a rather dubious mud crossing as a result of the floods. With only my vehicle and no winch it was too risky, so we had to backtrack to the camp and head down the tar road to Olifants Camp. We did see a magnificent male Waterbuck, with the biggest horns I have seen in a long time. By now the mercury was over the 30° mark, but still found a solitary Namaqua Dove, White-backed, White-headed and Lappet-faced Vulture's.

We arrived fairly early, booked in and took in the magnificent vista over the Olifants River below us. A Marico Sunbird was feeding in a nearby shrub, and there were Marabou Storks and Martial Eagle circling overhead with Wire-tailed Swallows below us. It was still too hot during the afternoon drive, not much activity at all - did battle to eventually identify a group of feeding Paradise Whydah's in eclipse plumage. We sat at one of the vantage points over the Olifants River and watched a small herd of elephants drinking from the river with the sun setting behind them - scenes like this are indelibly stored in my memory.

A 'hardekool' braai with lamb chops, sweet potatoes on a bright humid evening was just fitting for today.

Bird of the day: Martial Eagle

Thursday 27 April: Olifants

Had a full car for this mornings game drive, left with Red-wing Starlings calling from the roof. It was quite overcast and cool this morning, and the bush was pretty quiet, not even birds calling. We found some roosting Marabou Storks and then a lone male lion, marking his territory - he was in superb condition. Along one of the rivers another lone Saddle-bill Stork and a calling Red-billed Firefinch. There were many dispersed flocks of Helmeted Guineafowl and some more Red-billed Oxpeckers on a bachelor herd of Impala (grooming them for the rutting season?)

We then came across a magnificent pair of lions right near the side of the road. We watched them mate a few times, but from the other side of the road another male joined them, and then it was coitus interruptus as the two males glared at each other. After about 15 minutes the female had enough of this and strolled nonchantlily down the road, the two males then followed her at a distance, side-by-side (almost like brothers in arms). Once they disappeared into the bush, we headed back to camp for breakfast. From the vista outside the restaurant, we watched a herd of elephants and a hippo grazing in the short grass as well as Black-headed Oriole, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Little Swifts, Wire-tailed Swallows, Wooly-necked Stork, Greater Blue-eared Starlings, Marico Sunbirds and some soaring White-backed Vultures.

We decided to try to find the lion trio but had no luck. Did however find a stunning perched Peregrine Falcon below the cliffs next to the Olifants River. There were also White-crowned Plovers and a Fish Eagle quite near the Olifants River bridge. It started warming up when we found Spotted Hyaena, Blue Wildebeest, Burchell's Zebra, Kudu and Waterbuck. On the way back to camp for lunch, another calling Red-crested Korhaan on the road and a lovely Purple Roller. The lunch and service was terrible (the worst of the 3 camps), but a pair of African Hawk Eagles flying by distracted me from my dry and cold toasted cheese. A walk around the camp was quite fruitless, not a bird seen or heard calling. The weather started turning, with more clouds appearing from the south along with a brisk fresh wind.

Gill decided to give the night drive a miss, so Sean and I accompanied the rest of the guests and Justin the guide on a fresh night drive. Picked up Brown Snake Eagle, Kudu, Zebra, Impala and a breeding herd of elephant. It got a lot colder after the sun set, but we found a Giant Eagle Owl trying to catch Free-tailed Bats on the Olifants River bridge and then found a whole clan of Spotted Hyaena at their den. On the secondary roads, loads of Spotted and Water Dikkop and the Springhare, Small Spotted Genet, Side Striped Jackal, grazing Hippo and 3 female lionesses hunting - which made for a great night drive, despite the cold. Made it back to camp just in time for dinner and an early night.

Bird of the Day: Giant Eagle Owl

Friday 28 April: Olifants - Orpen Gate - Midrand

The wind howled all night, which was accentuated by the height of the camp above the river below. We had an early breakfast and were on the road by 7am. The wind blew all day with some squalls. Saw the usual Zebra, Impala, Giraffe, Eland, Black-backed Jackal, Hyaena and a juvenile Martial Eagle. Just after one of the picnic spots in the south, picked up 2 Tawny Eagles chasing each other a low level, Wattled and Burchell's Starlings and White-crowned Shrike. We found 3 male lions sheltering form the wind in the long grass and then 2 large herds of Buffalo (eventually). A 50km stretch along the river was quite disappointing and unproductive.

At Orpen Gate the formalities were handled swiftly, and we were soon on the way home after a wonderful and relaxing break. We didn't take too much time birding on the way home, as the weather was poor all the way home

Bird of the day: Whitecrowned Shrike


Bird List

No.Species Phalaborwa
to Shingwedzi
to Letaba
Letaba to
to Orpen
1Ostrich X   X
62Grey Heron  XX X
64Goliath Heron XX  X
71Cattle Egret XXX X
81Hamerkop  XX X
86Wooly-necked Stork   X X
88Saddle-billed Stork  XX X
89Marabou Stork XXX X
94Hadeda Ibis  XX X
102Egyptian Goose  X  X
121Hooded Vulture X   X
123White-backed Vulture  XX X
124Lappet-faced Vulture   X X
125White-headed Vulture  XX X
127Black-shoulderd Kite XXX X
132Tawny Eagle  XX X
133Steppe Eagle  X  X
137African Hawk Eagle X   X
140Martial Eagle   XXX
142Brown Snake Eagle X X X
146Bateleur XXXXX
148African Fish Eagle XXX X
161Gabar Goshawk X   X
169Gymnogene XX  X
171Peregrine Falcon   X X
189Crested Francolin XX  X
196Natal Francolin XXX X
199Swainson's Francolin XXX X
203Helmeted Guineafowl XXX X
205Kurrichance Buttonquail X   X
230Kori Bustard  X  X
237Redcrested Korhaan XXX X
249Three-banded Plover   X X
255Crowned Plover XXXXX
258Blacksmith Plover XX  X
259White-crowned Plover   X X
297Spotted Dikkop XX  X
298Water Dikkop  XX X
303Bronze-winged Courser XX  X
347Double-banded Sandgrouse XXX X
353Mourning Dove XX  X
354Cape Turtle Dove XXX X
355Laughing Dove XXX X
356Namaqua Dove   X X
358Green-spotted Dove XX  X
361Green Pigeon  X  X
363Brown-headed Parrot  X  X
373Grey Lourie XXX X
391Burchells Coucal  XX X
396Scops Owl XX  X
398Pearl-spotted Owl X   X
402Giant Eagle Owl   X X
405Fiery-necked Nightjar  X  X
409Mozambique Nighthar  X  X
415White-rumped Swift     X
417Little Swift XXX X
421Palm Swift  XX X
424Speckled Mousebird  X  X
426Red-faced Mousebird   X X
428Pied Kingfisher X   X
429Giant Kingfisher  X  X
433Woodland Kingfisher  X  X
435Brown-hooded Kingfisher XXX X
443White-fronted Bee-eater  XX X
444Little Bee-eater X X X
447Lilac-breasted Roller XXXXX
449Purple Roller  XX X
451Hoopoe  X  X
452Red-billed Hoopoe  X  X
454Scimitar-billed Hoopoe XX  X
457Grey Hornbill XXX X
458Red-billed Hornbill XXX X
459Yellow-billed Hornbill XXX X
463Ground Hornbill  X  X
464Black-collared Barbert  X  X
473Crested Barbet XX  X
486Cardinal Woodpecker  XX X
487Bearded Woodpecker X   X
498Sabota Lark XXX X
522Wire-tailed Swallow XXX X
541Fork-tailed Drongo XXX X
545Black-headed Oriole XXX X
554Southern Black Tit  X  X
560Arrow-marked Babbler XX  X
568Black-eyed Bulbul XXX X
576Kurrichane Thrush XX  X
580Groundscraper Thrush XX  X
593Mocking Chat  X  X
600Natal Robin X   X
603Collared Palm Thrush X   X
613White-browed Robin  XX X
643Willow Warbler  X  X
648Yellow-breasted Apalis  X  X
651Longbilled Crombec XXX X
657Green-backed Bleating Warbler XX  X
664Fan-tailed Cisticola XXX X
672Rattling Cisticola XX  X
674Red-faced Cisticola  X  X
683Tawny-flanked Prinia XX  X
701Chinspot Batis XX  X
711African Pied Wagtail XX  X
716Grassveld Pipit  X  X
735Long-tailed Shrike XXX X
740Puffback  XX X
743Three-streaked Tchagra X   X
744Black-crowned Tchagra X   X
751Grey-headed Bush Shrike  X  X
753White-helmet Shrike X   X
756White-crowned Shrike  X  X
760Wattled Starling  X  X
762Burchell's Starling    XX
765Greater Blue-eared Starling XXX X
769Red-winged Starling  XX X
772Red-billed Oxpecker  XX X
779Marico Sunbird   X X
787White-bellied Sunbird X   X
793Collared Sunbird  X  X
801House Sparrow XXX X
804Grey-headed Sparrow XXX X
810Spectacled Weaver XX  X
819Red-headed Weaver X   X
842Rebbilled Firefinch   X X
844Blue Waxbill XXX X
862Paradise Whydah   X X
869Yellow-eyed Canary  X  X
884Golden-brested Bunting  XX X
886Rock Bunting  X  X
 Total for each Camp 6996645 
 Total Species for Trip     127

Mammal List

Tree Squirrel
Vervet Monkey
Chacma Baboon
Epaulated Fruit Bat
Spotted Hyaena
Slender Mongoose
Blue Wildebeest
Spring Hare
Banded Mongoose
Small Spotted Genet
Side-striped Jackal
Egyptian Free-tailed Bat
Black-backed Jackal

Reptile List

Nile Crocodile
Mole Snake

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser;; August 8, 2000