What makes a birding trip to Northern Kruger extraordinary?

Relentless heat, exceptional bird-watching and uncontrolable laughter don’t let you forget. During Eco-training‘s week-long birding course, we (fellow bush-loving friend Lauren and I) laughed until our stomachs hurt, doubled our bird knowledge, and showered three times a day to keep cool.

The course took place in the Makuleke concession in South Africa – 24 thousand hectares of pristine wilderness in Northern Kruger’s Pafuri area, including 34 km of river frontage with the “Great green greasy Limpopo” and an equal stretch of the softly-flowing Luvuvhu River.

Oh what I would do to be back there right now … how often does one get to walk on foot for three hours daily in the Kruger National Park?! And in an area not accessible to general Kruger Park visitors? Once in a lifetime perhaps – well, unless you happen to be our legendary bird guide, Bruce Lawson. Bruce, with his lovely wife Dee, has lived at Ecotraining’s Makuleke camp for eight years now. “The attractive thing about where we are and what we do”,  he says, “is how simple it is. We’ve got no electricity (the camp makes use of solar lanterns), no cell phone reception which is absolutely fantastic and we live in a tent. We take nothing for granted – I can walk out of our tent to go to the kitchen, which is only 20 metres away, and meet a big bull elephant blocking my way.” Bruce’s Dad is an ornithologist which encouraged his interest birds from a young age “through the process of osmosis”.

My favourite mornings were those spent under the canopies of magical fever tree forests that fringe the river banks. In a one by one formation we followed behind Bruce, any morning sleepiness was forgotten by the beautiful dawn chorus. “90% of the birds I see are located by sound”, Bruce explained between his own whistles. The audible sounds of flapping wings could also be heard in the tree-tops above us as the birds went about their daily lives, moving from branch to branch and tree to tree. Some of the special birds that we heard/saw included the Grey-headed parrot (Poicephalus fuscicollis), the Trumpeter hornbill (Bycanistes bucinator), and the near-endemic Lemon-breasted canary (Crithagra citrinipectus). 

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“Walking is definitely the best way to experience wildlife and wilderness areas simply because you are part of it. In a vehicle you are always inside looking out, or outside looking in.” (Bruce Lawson)

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When we got tired we stopped for a peaceful snack and a rest under the trees

I was continually amazed by the variety of eco-systems we explored (over 80% of the Kruger Park’s diversity is found in the concession!). Some mornings we meandered through floodplains with sunlit Cats tail grass (Perotis patens) and others we spent strolling through mopane bushveld or sand-veld where Lilac-breasted Rollars and Red-backed Shrikes seemed to rest on every second tree. We even spent a morning at Bayini Pan, watching Wood Sandpipers, Black-winged Stilts, Red-billed Teals, a handsome Comb Duck (Sarkidiornis melanotos) and a warthog family with piglets, much to Lauren’s delight!

The reason that the Makuleke area is so rich with birdlife is because it is it situated in an area where the tropical and subtropical bird species converge. Subtropical species end in the concession and tropical species, (found further north) come down as far south as the concession. This cross over brings out new and exciting birds each year.

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I was happy to discover that the Makuleke area is a RAMSAR site

Evenings were game drive time! We bumbled over dirt roads in the open Land Rover along palm-fringed flood plains and bright green thousand-year-old baobabs. If only these trees could talk, what marvellous stories would they tell about the area’s rich history, the ancestral home of the Makuleke people?

“We only stop for things with feathers”, Bruce said grinning. Luckily the buffalo we saw had Red-billed Ox-peckers sitting on them and opportunistic Cattle Egrets catching insects stirred out of the grass by their heavy hooves. We saw a number of fantastic raptors on these drives – a Long-crested Eagle (the “elvis bird”), a juvenile Marshal Eagle, several resident Tawnys, and to our great pleasure , a Pels Fishing Owl (Scotopelia peli), a first for Lauren. It was already dark when we spotted it, silently hunkering on a fallen branch beside the Limpopo.

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Lauren and I delighted in the novelty of the tracker seat at the front of the vehicle which we took turns sitting in.

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“Wilderness, the feathers in my wings” – a quote by Alan Smith shared with us by Bruce. (Photo by Ben Coley)

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“People get a hell of a lot more than just birding from the course – when birds are a bit quiet we do some medicinal tree uses, tracking, geology and mammals. Its all very important to the bigger picture. If you come to a place like Makuleke and you’re there only for the birds you are limiting yourself. Yes you have a special interest but you bring everything else into that interest. Mammals, trees, geology, soils, rivers all came into why those birds are in that area.” (Bruce Lawson)

Every night sundowners were had in a different spot – perched on rocks overlooking Lanner Gorge, or strolling the sandy beaches of Crooks Corner keeping an eye out for crocodiles.

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Lanner Gorge (named after the Lanner Falcon), forms the boundary between the Kruger National Park to the South and the Makuleke Concession to the North. The 11 km long gorge was carved by the Luvuvhu River which winds along the bottom of it through sandstone and shale. Perched on rocks more than 150m high and looking into the valley is a thrilling, memorable experience.  The archeological site of Thulamela (built by the same early civilisation that built the Great Zimbabwe Ruins and inhabited the Mapungubwe area) can be seen from the lookout point. Legend has it that a former chief used to throw criminals and enemies to their death from the highest points of the gorge. Dinosaur fossils have been discovered in the walls of gorge and rocks in the surrounding region.

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Crooks Corner is a small triangle of land where three countries; South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe meet. It was once a haven for ivory poachers, gun runners and other outlaws who could escape capture by hopping across the borders.

It was usually dark on the way back from our evening drives and with the help of a spotlight we were lucky to see some interesting nocturnal mammals, including big-eyed Thick-tailed Bushbabys (Otolemur crassicaudatus), Small-spotted Genets (Genetta genetta) and two brilliant sightings of an African Civet (Civettictis civetta).

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Our rustic thatched tented accommodation could not have been more perfect. (Elephant photo by Ben Coley)

While elephants chewed on leaves at our window, we went to sleep at night giggling about the little funny moments that had happened each day. Having a group of such delightful people to share the trip with meant an endless supply of hilarious stories and situations!

I absolutely loved EVERY moment of this camp – and so did Lauren – what’s great is that it’s suitable for any level of birder, perfect for beginners! The learning happens naturally because you’re having so much fun and there’s no pressure of having to write tests at the end. It’s all about being out in the field and experiencing the delight of birds in their natural wild habitat.

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Left top corner = Our dear friends Lisa and Lorna, we miss you!!

Some Tips:

Water: there is a borehole and water is safe to drink – but it doesn’t taste very nice (if you’re not used to it). Small bottles of still water are available to buy, athough I would suggest bringing your own larger bottles if you are able to.

Shoes: Normal sports takkies will not do, you need proper sturdy hiking boots for all the walking.

Bird Sounds: Downloading a bird sound app (Sasol or Roberts) on your phone is a great idea and helped us a lot.

Temperatures at the camp: Hot summers (average 40 ̊C 104 F) and warm, dry winters (average minimum 9.3 ̊C and average maximum 26.3 ̊C). Suncream and hats are very important!

No electricity and the camp is unfenced, you will need a strong torch or headlamp. There is a generator at the main dining area where you can charge cameras during the day.

Malaria: It’s a malaria area so please do take precautions.

No Cellphone Signal: The camp’s satellite phone is for emergency use only.

To book a course or find out more:

www.ecotraining.co.za

Tel.: +27 13 752 2532

E-mail: enquiries@ecotraining.co.za

Look out for our feature article “Girls Gone Birding” coming out in The Intrepid Explorer magazine soon!

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5 things that every bush girl should know

1) Reading the right books will enrich your safari experience (and life)

In the African bush there is so much more than what meets the immediate eye. Every inch of Africa has a unique essence – a soul if you like – of it’s own, carved from journeys, shiftings of continents, local legends, bloodstains of man and animal and footprints both old and new.

Some of these things will remain mysteries to us, perhaps known by 1000-year-old baobab trees. The eroding traditional African art of oral storytelling has also, sadly, left some gaps in our knowledge of African culture and history – but for the rest, there are books! Fascinating, brilliant books about nearly every inch of our colourful continent!

Before visiting a place, do a bit of research online, download a book on your kindle, or wander the shelves of a local library or Africana second-hand book shop and find something to read that relates to the area you are visiting. I have found this incredibly rewarding, a way to acquire knowledge that has added lots of joy to my travel adventures!

There are awesome field studies like Veronika Roort’s Trees and Shrubs of the Okavango Delta, biographies of explorers such as To the Heart of the Nile and West with the night, memoirs by conservationists such as Ian Player’s Zululand Wilderness, An African Love Story by Daphne Sheldrick and Richard Leakey’s Wildlife Wars. Then there all-time classics like Jock of the Bushveld, Born Free and The Story of an African farm, delightful (sometimes terrifying) true stories of the most unconventional lives like Twenty Chickens for a saddle,  The boy who harnessed the wind and Harry Wolhuter’s Memories of a Game Ranger. Some books, like The Challenge for Africa by Wangari Maathai will make you think, while non-fiction stories such as Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies Detective series and Lauren’s van de Post’s exquisite novels A Story like the wind and A Far off Place will make you laugh and cry! There are also well-researched books on specific places such as African Thunder on the Victoria Falls and Okavango, Jewel of the Kalahari that are well worth a read. These are but a few of the favourites on my bookshelf!

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2) Get stuck in! 

Making campfires, putting up tents, braaiing – some things are better left to men… not!!!  Get as involved as you can in camp life, it’s SO satisfying. If you’re not on a self-drive safari you can still offer to help your guide out with carrying cooler boxes, setting up drink stops on game drives and wherever possible!

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3) Practical is better than pretty

 When it comes to life in the bush, it’s less about appearance and more about practicality. Going on a bush trip with someone who spends too much time in the bathroom applying make up can be frustrating – especially because mornings are the most valuable time of the day and you want to be able to get out on a game drive as early as possible. Dawn, before the heat of the day sets in, is when animals are most active and predators often still on the move. The light is gentle and perfect for taking photos. So brush your teeth, throw on your clothes and smile at your messy morning hair, the animals won’t mind!

On the other hand, I do understand that just because your’e in the bush doesn’t mean you have to look as if you just crawled out of one. Sometimes I like to sleep with my hair plaited, which keeps it a little neater for the next day. You can also wear a buff on open vehicles which will keep your ears warm too! Wet-wipes are very useful to keep in the cubby-hole of the car for dusty faces and grubby paws. But forget your feet – they’re going to get filthy whether you wear shoes or not, just embrace it.

I would definitely recommend wearing shoes though – a pair of comfortable, durable open shoes for the day and a pair of closed shoes for the evenings to protect you from scorpions and snakes. This is something that has been hard for me to learn because I like being bare-foot, but at night it’s just not worth the risk.

I love khaki. It’s a practical colour; it’s cool, it blends in with the bush and it handles dirt well too. Other essentials are a good sun cream, sunglasses, hat, long pants for the evening to protect you from mosquitos and a jacket and beanie for nighttime. Of course, this again depends on the place and time of year. I got totally caught off guard in the Kalahari last year, not realising how cold the nights would be as the days were so warm! Luckily my Mum was able to send some thermal underwear up with friends, it is well worth investing in some of these. I promise you won’t regret it!

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4) People

Try to be as friendly and open as you can to everyone you meet, there’s nothing to lose! Some of my most treausred moments have been sitting and listening to people’s stories. There are several ways to break the ice – greeting someone in their local language often puts a big smile of their face, having a soccer ball handy can instantly make you a friend or two or three, and sharing a packet of chips or offering someone a drink can be the beginning of some amazing stories shared.

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5) The Importance of time alone

don’t know about you but I NEED time by myself to completely connect with the beauty of my surroundings. I’m never really alone of course, with all the trees and birds and animals, which makes it the opposite of lonely. In quiet submission to the wild sounds and stirrings around me, I feel more alive and connected to nature than ever.

Even after just 20 minutes of sitting silently or strolling around camp on my own, I feel joyful and rejuvenated. Most importantly, I feel insignificant, which I think is the way it should be. In many ways trees and animals are a whole lot more amazing than people – smaller brains (or none at all) but adapted to life in many superior ways. How incredibly lucky I feel to spend time in these beautiful places! I bet you do too…

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Do you have any thoughts or helpful tips to share? Please comment below, I would love to read them! 

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My sister becomes a birder

My little sister Beth loves the bush – but it’s not so much the animals or birds that she’s interested in – it’s the family time and the peaceful atmosphere, the sipping of g&t’s as the sun goes down (with the essential Instagram selfies) and the chance to wear a pretty new hat. One can never have enough hats.

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Hyena Den at Vumbura Plains

Two large inquisitive eyes stared up at me like big black buttons fixed to a rather scruffy but adorable face. It’s been a while since I’ve been this close to a hyena cub, I thought. I’d forgotten just how delightful it is in their presence! We (photographer Em Gatland and I) were in the Okavango Delta, on a game drive with Luke, our ranger from Wilderness Safari’s Vumbura Plains Camp.

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Interview with Will Burrard-Lucas – An inventive photographer with a heart for Africa

“I always aim to be inventive” says professional photographer Will Burrard-Lucas.  This seems almost an understatement! Will’s photos must be some of the most innovative that I have ever come across! On a quest to find a new perspective to capture the wild animals he loves, Will developed remote control buggies or BeetleCams –  contraptions allowing his camera to get up really close to his subjects. He then founded Camtraptions and developed  a whole range of inventive gadgets including flying Copters.

Although Will is from the UK, his love of Africa is rooted in early childhood memories…

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Categories: Animals, Conservation, Inspiring People, Photography, Uncategorized, Wildlife, Zambia | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

One night in the Kalahari

I recently stayed at beautiful remote Haina Kalahari Lodge in Botswana, thanks to Sun Destinations. One of the novel experiences offered by the lodge is an overnight adventure to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, which has to be one of the most unique biodiversities in Southern Africa. For me, this was an absolute highlight!

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Categories: Animals, Birds, Botswana, Inspiring People, Travel Adventures, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Birding jargon explained!

Recently, I was doing a bit of birding with Birding Ecotours guide John Kinghorn. As we wandered along a path in a lovely birding area, I listened intently for any little chatters and chirps around us. It was so peaceful, so beautiful …. and then “PPPPIIIISSSSSSSSHHHHHHH!!!” 

What the heck was that?! The sound was so loud and sudden that I almost jumped out of my pants.

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Okavango River Monsters and other secrets of the Hambukushu people

The sun is just beginning to set as you poll your mokoro along the panhandle of the Okavango. It’s been a successful but long day of fishing, and tonight there’ll be tilapia for dinner, enough for the whole family!  Suddenly, your mokoro [traditional dugout] won’t move. Nomatter how hard you pull, it remains stuck. You notice dust and ripples spreading over the water and then you realise – with horror –  that there is a Dikongoro under you; a huge snake-like monster. Although you’ve never seen it before, you’ve heard about it plenty of times. Your mokoro begins to spin and then the front of it starts to rise up out of the water for the Dikongoro to swallow. Fortunately – and just in time – you remember what to do. Scrambling for your wrist your heart sinks as you realise that you are not wearing a watch today. So you take out your fishing knife and cut through some skin on your wrist, holding your arm out so that blood drips into the water. Dikongoro lowers your mokoro again, what a relief! As he releases you there is no need to paddle as he pushes you with an almightily lurch across the water and up the bank…

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Categories: Botswana, Cultural Adventures, History, Inspiring People, Namibia, Travel Adventures, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lost mekoros, bucket showers and the art of polling

As we set out for our walk that morning, something strange happened – a helicopter flew over us. This little reminder of the outside modern world seemed so outrageously out-of-place, which made me realise what a dream-fantasy I had been living in for the last two days. We were tourists on a two-day mobile safari in the Okavango Delta, but really we were Livingstone’s lost offspring on an intrepid expedition through uncharted Botswana wilderness. You can’t blame me for getting the two mixed up. If you were there, I bet you’d have done so too…

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Categories: Adrenalin Adventures, Botswana, Cultural Adventures, Uncategorized, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brave baby honey badger at Camp Linyanti

We were staying in Botswana’s Linyanti concession, at Sun Destination’s Camp Linyanti  when we had this amazing sighting. Game drives in the area, one of my favourite corners of Africa, are through beautiful mopane woodland. As we came around a corner there were two honey badgers – a mother and baby – right on the edge of the road. Surprisingly, the mother ran off leaving her youngster behind. He was crouching in a small hollow, staring up at us with big adorable eyes and seemed rather shy…

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