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Recap of Best of Cape and Kruger Rendezvous

By: Julie Zickefoose

Thanks to Rockjumper Birding for expert bird ID (Doug McCulloch and Rynart Bezuidenhout); and to our deeply experienced safari guide/drivers: Neil Watt, Heyn Neethling, and Dirk Neethling. We are grateful for their expertise and good humor, and for the exceptional catered meals the Neethling family prepared for us while we were at Skukuza Camp—a lifesaver for such a large group. Our bus driver for the Cape Town leg was the brilliant, sharp-eyed and satin-smooth Jacques Snyman. Special thanks to Raymond Van Buskirk for eagle-eye spotting and jaw-dropping ID skills in an unfamiliar land. And deep gratitude for outstanding logistical planning, caring attention and unflagging good energy, heart and enthusiasm to Rynart Bezuidenhout. You designed and made the trip what it was: awesome beyond description. But I will try my best below!

Day One, Oct. 2: Proteas and Penguins: Kirstenbosch Gardens and Boulders Beach

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens is traditionally where weary travelers arriving in the Cape go, in the peculiar haze of having flown for perhaps 17 hours in one flight. Kirstenbosch’s psychedelic botanical wonders, spectacular mountain backdrops, and gaily colored birds make for a fever dream when one is sleepless and bone-tired, and a pure delight after a night’s sleep. Endemic Cape sugarbirds and southern double-collared sunbirds were easy to photograph as they clambered among the big proteas. A spotted eagle owl winked at us from over the rim of a hanging planter as she incubated her eggs. And two notoriously skulky and hard-to-see species—forest canary and swee waxbill—foraged calmly at our feet, starting a run of lucky sightings that was to persist throughout this trip.

Because this was apparently not enough for one day, we proceeded to Boulders Beach in Simonstown, where a large colony of black-footed penguins breed in dense shrub-shrouded burrows on the rocky shore. Watching torpedo-shaped penguins come porpoising through the waves, to emerge clean and sparkling on the beach and march to the colony, was a delight. A young rock hyrax, rolling like a cat in the sand, almost outcompeted the penguins. These strange little relatives of manatees and elephants make their home in jumbled boulders, clambering through the penguin colony like big, affable guinea pigs. We returned, happy and exhausted, to de Noordhoek Village, where we would stay for the next three nights.

Day Two, Oct. 3: Table Mountain and Groot Constantia Winery

Anyone with a fear of heights had to leave it at the base of Table Mountain as our group crammed into a lozenge-shaped cable car, trusting Swiss engineering and the counterweight of the descending car to hoist us swiftly and smoothly up a nearly vertical rise to the top of the mountain. There awaited a fog-shrouded fairyland, with a dazzling diversity of elfin heaths and herbaceous plants, most sporting decussate, scale-like leaves and tubular flowers, the better to tempt dazzling orange-breasted sunbirds. Red-winged starlings alternated smoothly between plumbing the weird brown flowers of Salvia lutea for nectar, and picking up muffin crumbs that rained down from passing tourists. Most completely ignored the speckled pigeons pecking at their feet, but we appreciated these living jewels in all their finery.

We waited for the fog to clear, but never got the sweeping views we’d hoped for. That didn’t bother the generalists, who were crouching to see myriad diverse plant forms, and looking for girdled lizards in rock crevices. Too soon it was time to board the cable car and have a dizzying drop back down to reality. We motored to Groot Constantia Winery and had a wonderful lunch on linen-clad tables, did a little birding (featuring a spotted eagle owl) and headed back to de Noordhoek for the night.

Day Three, October 4: West Coast National Park and Chapman’s Peak Drive

With an early start, we motored to West Coast National Park, a vast fynbos preserve. Fynbos is a shrub community dominated by proteas and leucospermums, growing about head-high to a human. Protruding from the shrubbery at regular intervals were the pale necks of ostrich, a species one might think better adapted to shortgrass plains. A downy herd of six chicks stepping along behind their father argued otherwise, and we enjoyed watching these modern dinosaurs navigate a gray and misty moor. A sun-drenched walk out a marsh boardwalk to a hide fattened our list with shorebirds and both greater and lesser flamingos. On our way back to Cape Town, we stopped to admire some hoofed stock in a private game farm, only to find what was probably the rarest bird of the trip, three out-of-range Ludwig’s bustards strolling amongst zebra and wildebeest. Our smoothly excellent bus driver Jacques took us back to Noordhoek via Chapman’s Peak, a winding coastal road with spectacular mountain views, and the sun dropping too swiftly into a gilded sea.

Day Four, Oct. 5: Rooi Els and Strandfontein

Rooi Els is a time-honored spot to find the endemic rockjumper, for which our South African tour company is named. It’s an easy flat walk in the lee of enormous cliffs. In their shadows live the mockingbird-sized, ornately patterned rockjumpers who, thanks to the popularity of this site and long overuse of recordings do their best to remain elusive and distant. Sunbirds, familiar chats, tawny-flanked prinias and Cape siskins kept our attention as we continued our search for the target bird. A navy blue sea lapped gently on the rocks, and vivid magenta Martha Washington type pelargoniums, growing wild, gave a punch of color to the sun-baked path.

From the splendor of Rooi Els, we cut along the coast, passing miles of what once was fynbos and dune habitat, now covered as far as one can see with squatters’ housing of tin and wood. Displaced Africans of more northerly countries are flooding into South Africa in search of a better life, living without even the simplest of amenities in these congested settlements. It was humbling to roll in a plush, air-conditioned bus past a settlement of nearly 500,000 souls, crammed into tiny shacks an area that more properly should house 2,000. Being born into relative prosperity has nothing to do with one’s personal worth; it is luck of the draw, and that lottery might have landed any one of us here rather than on a luxury safari.

Processing the wastewater of some of this sea of humanity is Strandfontein, a series of shallow lagoons that offer suitable, if not aesthetically stunning, habitat to diverse waterfowl and both greater and lesser flamingos. We checked off many ducks, geese and grebes, while also stalking swamp and lesser reed warblers in the rushes. Strandfontein is really best birded and photographed from the cover of rolling vehicles, but because our tour bus was too large for the dikes, our group had a brief walk, sending the birds paddling quickly away, before we rolled on to our next destination.

Day Five, October 6: To Kruger!

This was a travel day, so we made our way to the airport at Nelspruit, and were picked up in open vehicles for the start of our Kruger safari. The wind and heat were impressive as we rolled along at 80 kph, and we were glad to finally reach the gates so we could slow down and start watching wildlife! Crested francolin, Verreaux’ eagle-owl babies and a lone marabou greeted us at sundown, and we all turned in, happily tired and looking forward to our first morning in Kruger Park.

Day Six, October 7: Skukuza to Lower Sabie via Nkhulu, to Lake Panic

Breaking the group up into three safari vehicles, we set out in a misty morning to an immediate and close-up banquet of wildlife: giraffe, a huge kudu bull, and waterbuck. An orange-breasted bush-shrike dazzled us, until a herd of elephants with two tiny calves crossed right in front of the vehicles. Many of us got excited to see the strange little brown stork called a Hamerkop, until we realized that it was attending the fishing activity of two large African clawless otters, certainly one of the rarer mammals to be seen in the Kruger! We watched the interaction between the three creatures for a long, leisurely time, the excitement of our driver Dirk providing a nice exclamation mark on this rare sighting. From there, we turned downriver on the Lower Sabie to find an African finfoot swimming around beneath a grey heron nest with two hulking young. This was an amazing combination of rarely seen creatures, all gathered together for us. But it was to get even better. A small group of southern ground hornbills stalked through the dry brush, looking for reptiles, their long lashed eyes tired, their weirdly short toes bringing to mind South African Peter Lawson’s assertion that ground hornbills “look like tired prostitutes, with too much eye makeup and too-tight shoes.”

A male leopard lounging over a tree limb with its impala prey hung nearby; hooded vultures circling, and classic waterhole scenes with elephant babies playing and large herds of wildebeest, backing up neat rows of drinking zebras brought us classic Africa. It seemed almost too much at once. A gigantic African python slowly feeding itself into its burrow, with an escort of deeply concerned impala, was easily the biggest snake any of us had seen in the wild.

Watching a pair of lilac-breasted rollers defend their nest cavity from a yellow-billed hornbill made those who witnessed it glad they weren’t a hornbill.

Two lionesses and their gangly cubs made short work of an impala before our eyes. We had terrific views of the more common white-backed vultures, as well as the hard to find white-faced and lappet-faced species. Vultures being particularly endangered due to poachers poisoning them at carcasses, this was really nice to see. A lunch stop along the Lower Sabie gave us a chance to interact and have our lunches stolen by highly entertaining vervets. The day ended with a gloriously close view of crested francolins calling in beautiful evening light. It had been the Day of Days. We couldn’t dream what awaited us the next morning!

Day 7, October 8: Skukuza to Orpen Dam. Tshoawane Nhkulune to Skukuza, then to kopjes (rock outcrops)

The only way to describe October 8 is: it was the best wildlife viewing day of my life. And I’ve been viewing wildlife most of my life. The day started with the whooping of hyenas, audible from camp, well before dawn. When we finally left the gates at sunrise there were two hyena clans, upwards of 25 animals in each, meeting on the main road, mostly oblivious to the starstruck onlookers in our open vehicles. Suddenly we were surrounded in enormous beasts, and beasts they are, 31” at the shoulder, sloping backs, ghoulish faces, raised tassel-tails and all. I can be heard whimpering on my own video; I did not feel safe at all, especially when one gigantic female, drool trailing from her jaws, laid her ears back and looked right into my eyes.

The hyenas milled and whooped and the rival clan up ahead pressed its advance for awhile, then the tension dissipated, leaving us with hair standing up on our arms and necks, and the unearthly lowing of the hyenas forever in our brains. No sooner had the hyenas melted into the brush than a river of wild dogs came flowing in. I counted 23 at one time, but there were more than that, and some pups as well. Just writing about it makes me swoon; they were so beautiful in the new golden light of morning. Painted Dog is a good name for these ornate, white-tailed beauties. We speculated that there must have been a large kill that brought all these carnivores together, for there were white backed and hooded vultures gathered in a snag, overseeing it all. Superlatives fail for October 8, and it was only getting started. Birds didn’t disappoint, with close looks at wooly-necked stork, a perched bateleur, a purple roller, magpie shrikes, and brubru (another species of shrike). Lunchtime brought some fabulous looks at displaying grey hornbill and the emerald-green Klaas’s cuckoo, the barred female also making a cameo.

Rolling on into open savannah in search of rhino, we found Temminck’s coursers, a gorgeous klatsch of zebra, and a small flock of chestnut-backed sparrow-larks, strange little larks that look like finches. And we finally had an audience with a lilac-breasted roller in good light, nearly satisfying the photographers in the group. There were so many prizes and highlights in this magical day, that an enormous bull sable antelope, standing calmly by the roadside, was just another jaw-dropping, surreal gift. “Guys. You have no idea how rare this is!!” was driver Dirk’s underline on so many of this day’s sightings. (Sable are generally viewed at great distances in very limited areas of the park). Intimate looks at Cape buffalo and nearby wildebeest were closely followed by a leopard shearing a leg off its kill, an impala hung in a thorn tree. We weren’t done with hyenas, stopping to watch their adorable cub/pups suckling right by their road-culvert den. These very dangerous carnivores are incredibly appealing up close, especially when young. Maybe I was missing my dog too much.

We stopped to watch a honeymooning couple of lions, loosely attended by two envious males, one of them badly crippled, the other bearing fearsome scars on his face. It was a sad reminder how hard their lives are, doing some kind of battle for food and mates on a regular basis. I tried to imagine killing all my food (dangerous hoofed mammals) with my teeth and hands, and couldn’t.

White rhinos, seen at great distances, were still a thrill. With all the poaching that’s gone on, some of us had been wondering if we’d see any at all. It was good to see them moving across the savannah!

A gorgeous pair of coqui francolins, the male sporting a bright cinnamon head, obligingly crossed the road, and we watched an enormous tusker calmly gathering dried grass with his mobile trunk. As dusk approached we were hurrying toward Skukuza gates when a pangolin crossed the road! This lowslung, heavily armored edentate is the most heavily trafficked animal in the world, with Asian trade in its supposedly medicinal horny scales driving it toward extinction, likely in our lifetime. The pangolin buried its head in grass and waited for us to go away. When we didn’t, it raised its tubular snout, peeked around, and slowly trundled into the bush, alive for another day. It was the most incredible end to a day against which all others can be judged.

Day 8, October 9: Northwest of Skukuza Camp, and a Night Drive

After October 8, the Day of Days, we were all pretty tired, as it had been extremely hot, in the 90’s and dry as dust. So Day 8 was more relaxed, with a half-day game drive to the northwest. Truth be told our drivers were looking for rhino! And their work was richly rewarded. A big bull elephant paused to eat right beside the road, and then we spotted a white rhino with a very long horn moving toward us. He paused in the long grass, where he defecated, then scraped repeatedly with his hind feet to spread the goodness around. He then sauntered right in front of our vehicles. What a privilege to see a rhino mark his territory. Elegant little Senegal lapwings skittered around, likely waiting for the invertebrates the rhino kicked up. More intimate looks at hyenas at the den awaited. Hyenas are fascinating to watch, as their societies are matriarchal, and females share care of the young.

Lunch at Praetoriuskop brought close looks at a number of birds, including collared barbet, African hoopoe and a gray go-away bird who posed on a cairn as if paid to do it. Seeing the bird life of the kopjes (gigantic granitic outcrops) was cool, but klipspringers, tiny antelope with suctioncup hooves, ruled the day. One female klipspringer was being groomed of her external parasites by two red-winged starlings, which were as large as her head. Our driver Hein said he had never seen this commensal behavior between red-winged starlings and klipspringers before, and Hein has guiding for many years. “But that’s The Kruger,” he said. “You never know what you might see.” A couple of lizard buzzards cooperated for us, and a lone young female giraffe briefly worried us before she floated back toward her mother, who we had failed to see on the other side of the road. Accompanied by its stately parents was a juvenile southern ground hornbill. We got a glimpse of their stunning white flight feathers when one in another group of three hurried across the road in front of us! Another heartening sight were several white-backed vulture nests, one with a well-grown downy youngster.

Four kudu bulls together, each one technically a trophy, made for a delightful tableau. These emblems of Kruger park were among our favorite antelope, so graceful, beautifully striped in dove gray, with mane, beard, and gorgeous corkscrew horns.

I’m not sure if Kruger Park’s night drive guide knew what was about to hit him when Raymond VanBuskirk boarded the oversized passenger vehicle, took up a rear seat, and spotted the first genet of the night within seconds of our embarking. It was to be a theme throughout the trip: Raymond’s mystical animal and bird attraction and perception. What a thrilling night ride it was, with multiple genets, a sad lame male lion at close range, five white rhinos at a water hole, and a tiny lesser galago, looking like a mini-monkey, bouncing across the road and into a shrub. We listened to the calls of fiery-necked nightjars and African scoops-owl, watched the stars wheel over the living landscape, and ended the night with a pair of leopards tucked into the grass, again thanks to Raymond’s preternaturally sharp eyes.

Day 11, October 10: Morning drive along the Lower Sabie, Southwest to Tshokwane Rd., with a loop through savannah and kopjes

The skies wept a little as we took our last morning drive. Watching a troop of baboons digging edible bulbs out of a recently burned area brought us back to our hunter-gatherer roots, and reminded us that wild creatures have survival skills we have largely forgotten. We had nice views of lots of interesting birds; wattled lapwings; African fish-eagle; water thick-knee; brown-headed parrots. A vervet entered our jeep, broke into my pack and stole my almonds at lunch, but a gorgeous little bushbuck and a tawny-flanked prinia came up to us as if to say goodbye. One last leopard killed a vervet right before one of our vehicles, and we glimpsed it as it lay on a sandbank. An exquisite bateleur rested a couple of feet off the ground, allowing us to admire it fully. Some smashing looks at white-headed and white-backed vultures (increasingly rare, no thanks to poachers, who poison carcasses to kill them) preceded viewing of a hyena at an impala kill. One hyena whooped a few yards away; the volume was tremendous, and the animal dropped its head to the ground with each call, as if to send its low-frequency waves directly along the ground.

Too soon, we gathered for our last brunch together and took a group photo of a tired but very happy group, heart-cups full of sightings for a lifetime. South Africa had opened her arms to us and showed us the best she had. Though Bill had visited the Cape region, he never made it to Kruger, and this Rendezvous was to be his chance. He was looking forward to it, and I was humbled to be there in his place. It seemed to me, at least, that Bill was with us all the way, bringing the birds and animals to us, one after another. I was filled with gratitude that the trip had gone as well for the participants as it possibly could have!

Check out a gallery of the event!