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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
Tel.: +27 13 752 2532
Look out for our feature article “Girls Gone Birding” coming out in The Intrepid Explorer magazine soon!