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A Safari of Returns: Tswalu and Welgevonden, South Africa, September 2015


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This TR has been delayed by my trying to finish my big year in time http://safaritalk.net/topic/14834-tdgraves-big-ish-year-2015/, but also as @@Alexander33 and I were in Tswalu at the same time and he was doing his TR, I thought I'd leave it a while. However, we are off to the Kruger in two weeks and I did not want to have two TRs hanging over me, so I thought I'd at least make a start on this one before leaving, but there may be a long gap......


Given the brilliant (from our perspective) exchange rate, we thought we'd go back to South Africa again in September. The original plan had been Namibia, but given that it is relatively cheap anyway, the savings were more apparent in South Africa, especially at high-end lodges, such as Tswalu. So we thought we'd go back and base the trip around Tswalu. We had been to Tswalu in the Summer of 2012 (Jan) and really enjoyed it. We had been intrigued that the guides had mentioned it was one of the best places in the world to see rare nocturnal creatures, such as aardvark and pangolin and that in winter, these were visible in the daylight at the extremes of the day, as temperatures were lower. We had been very lucky during our last trip and had "ticked off" all of the desert/rare species that we had not previously seen (except for the pangolin). But fleeting glimpses under a spotlight are not conducive to photography.


Despite booking in February, we struggled to get accommodated in Tswalu as it is peak season and exceedingly popular. They have a 5 nights for 4 offer, which I wanted to do, but there were no free rooms for 5 nights, so we did the 4 nights and fly free offer. However, the only way we managed that was because our friend (a TA) managed to persuade them to let us have a family suite for the price of a normal room!


After the success of our visit last year to Mashatu http://safaritalk.net/topic/13650-mashatu-madnesstuli-tastic-our-first-trip-to-botswana-august-sept-2014/, we really wanted to include that as well, so we did and we added a night compared with last year. This will be in a separate report, as it is in Botswana.


So that left us a choice of where else to go. As we would fly to Tswalu and drive to Mashatu, somewhere between the Tuli block and Johannesburg seemed appropriate. We did not feel like the long drive to Sabi Sands was worth it for three nights, on top of everything else. I wondered about Marakele National Park, but our friend suggested Welgevonden. This was the place that we fell in love with safari. We had been travelling to South Africa annually for a while and thought that we would like safari. Before taking the plunge on an entire trip to a safari destination (we already had Zambia on our minds), we thought we'd go somewhere for three nights to see if we liked it, instead of a beach or other destination, as a sort of glorified B&B. Of course we did. So back in January 2009, with our entry level DSLR and a 70-250mm lens, we had three days in the bush in green season and we loved it. The lodge which we stayed at then had burnt down and was still in the process of being rebuilt, so our friend suggested Makweti, which seems to be one of the top-end lodges looking online (these are the sorts of clients he deals with). So the trip was completed with three nights here. It was an ideal lodge for us, as there are only 5 rooms.


Having finally worked out the British Airways reward flight programme, we were lucky enough to travel business in both directions, although this meant travelling on weird days. So, as an added bonus, our trip was longer than usual. We flew out on the Thursday night and back on the Monday night, extending by three days our normal trips. We filled this with a trip to our friends' lodge on a game farm. We have only been there in January before, so thought it'd be interesting to compare to "peak" season. Also, we had never been there with our TA friend and he and his family came as well.


So our itinerary was:


3 nights Ditholo Wildlife Estate, Limpopo, RSA (our friends' lodge)

4 nights Tswalu Kalahari, RSA (31/8/15-4/9/15)

1 night Johannesburg

5 nights Mashatu tented camp, Tuli block, Botswana (5/9/15-10/9/15)

3 nights Makweti, Welgevonden, RSA (10/9/15-13/9/15)

1 night Johannesburg


Here we go....

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~ @@Tdgraves


I've been looking forward to this.

A family suite for a normal room rate? Great!

Tom K.

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Our friends' lodge is one of these wildlife estates which seem to be popping up all over South Africa. This one is a little different in that there is also a hotel and conference centre on site, although it never seems to be very occupied. There is plains game and abundant birdlife. They have a sable and nyala breeding programme (to pay for the rest of it) and have a few buffalo and hippos in enclosures. They used to have white rhino, but unfortunately they were poached by helicopter a few years ago :(


It is really nice to go up to "their place in the bush" as it means we get to spend quality time with them, as the have to not work and we get the added bonus of free nights in the bush. It is an easy 2-21/2 hour drive north from Johannesburg. August is still winter and last year we had purchased thick coats to take with us, which we wore a lot. However, on arrival it was very warm. Unseasonably hot in fact and we wondered whether we had taken up valuable suitcase space for nothing (this did NOT turn out to be the case!). The whole three days there it was in the high 20's low 30's.


The other nice thing about this place is that game drives (either by lodge owners of hotel guests) are on electric golf buggies, so it is peaceful and easier to get close to birds.


The main difference between January and September in fact, was the birds. We saw several new species, but also many birds that we have never seen there before on January visits.


New birds:


Several types of sunbirds enjoying a bath in the sprinkler (mostly new to us)








Greater double-collared




Amethyst female














An African yellow white-eye




White-browed scrub-robin






Sickle-winged chat



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~ @@Tdgraves


I've been looking forward to this.

A family suite for a normal room rate? Great!

Tom K.



@@Tom Kellie not as much of an upgrade as you would think. The standard rooms are airy and open plan. In order to get two bedrooms and two bathrooms, you lose that feeling. I preferred the standard rooms, but this was the only way it was possible.....

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And some not so new birds


Violet-cheeked waxbill






Blue waxbill




Crimson-breasted shrike




Crested barbet




Arrow-marked babbler




Yellow-billed hornbill










Red-billed hornbill



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The bonus of being near water is also good...


African jacana












Reed cormorant



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The other bonus is that birds are habituated to the buildings etc. So these Bennett's woodpecker often sit on the windowsills (tapping their reflections)!










Pied babblers were also new to us






And I didn't realise until we got home that this was another new one - brown-crowned tchagra



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There are of course mammals around, but due to the relative lack of vehicles and people, they are not as habituated as in National parks etc. However, we had a couple of nice evening game drives.


















Including one of the best duiker sighting we have ever had (which is not saying much)




You can also watch animals from the lodge, which has a deck under the eaves overlooking a plain, where a salt lick is placed. These two weren't happy to share...







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The hotel also offer a "mini-game drive" in the morning to accompany the workers as they feed the penned animals. I'm not sure if this is only available to lodge owners or if hotel guests can also attend. You stand on the back of the bakkie with the lucerne and pellets, as they drive between the different enclosures. Because the animals are fed daily, they are accustomed to the vehicle and have the Pavlov response to food, so you can get really close...


First to the buffalo pen






Then the nyala




And the two male kudu who have decided to join them in the enclosure of their own accord (presumably they really love the pellets - they were eating them out of the workers hands!!)






And lastly to the hippos, which were hiding in the lake....finished by 9am and it was already really hot

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It certainly wasn't necessary for you to hold off on starting your trip report on account of mine.


I look forward to my hearing about your experience.

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It certainly wasn't necessary for you to hold off on starting your trip report on account of mine.

I look forward to my hearing about your experience.

Just one of my excuses ;)

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I remember when you wrote you had gone to Tswala and I wondered when we'd get to read about it. Your big year was happening at that estate with all those birds. You may have a Tswala and Kruger report going simultaneously. If I got any closer to that Nyala I'd be getting a butterfly kiss (brushed with its eyelashes.) I could see you in his iris. Very cool perspective.

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I remember when you wrote you had gone to Tswala and I wondered when we'd get to read about it. Your big year was happening at that estate with all those birds. You may have a Tswala and Kruger report going simultaneously.

I fear you may be correct.....

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Day 1 Tswalu Evening Drive 31/8/15


I am starting this as the official day 1 as the time at our friends lodge was an added extra and not a true safari. We had a good send off with a full South African breakfast and set off for the 2 hour drive to the Fireblade aviation hangar at OR Tambo airport. This has newly opened as last time we visited, we left from the AngloAmerican hangar. Needless to say, the new hangar is spectacular. We were worried, as they have a ridiculously restrictive checked luggage allowance of 12kg (which we were well over). However, it was not an issue. The bags were taken away and weighed before loading onto the aircraft. But we were neither told that they were over nor charged extra for it. On arrival we were ushered upstairs to the restaurant, where the waiter was very disappointed that we had no space for lunch! There were only 4 guests on the flight and a private guide who was coming back from leave. It was a very smooth flight. When we arrived at the airport in Joburg it was 28 degrees, it was considerably cooler in Tswalu. Our guide suggested that we go straight out on a drive, rather than wasting time going to the lodge, which is approx 45 mins drive away from the airstrip. So we had to dig around in our suitcases to find some warmer clothing, before our cases were taken to the lodge on another vehicle. So a quick comfort break at the airstrip and hastily putting the cameras together and we were off, about an hour earlier starting the drive than the subsequent days. It was fairly overcast.






We saw lots of birds, but none would oblige for a photo. We slowly made our way down to cross into the other section of the reserve. It was quite windy, so the game was skittish. We saw a selection of antelope, including sable and roan, but all quite far from the road. We then made our way to the sighting that they obviously had in mind for us - a cheetah and cubs. Anyone who has read @@Alexander33 's recent TR will have already seen them. They were the only other vehicle at the sighting and we guessed that they were the fellow STers that we were looking for, but we were only to officially meet later!






Our guide moved the vehicle to get a better view and much to our surprise, the sun came out










After the other vehicle moved off, we moved again






























This guy was waiting around for scraps, but not too close..




I apologise for the number of photos, but I hope you can appreciate them. Maybe @@madaboutcheetah will enjoy?


We did not stop for sundowners as we were quite cold (and needing a bathroom break). I also wanted to unpack and settle in before dinner. We saw some game on the way to the lodge, including these cute guys.



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It is impossible to have too many photos of cheetah cubs!

Beautiful animals and great pictures.

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Agree with Tony, wonderful sighting, and terrific shots! :)

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Enjoyed it, indeed - Thank You!!! and the rest of the report too - will be following eagerly as I note that Tswalu is THE place to go to for Aardvark!

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Enjoyed it, indeed - Thank You!!! and the rest of the report too - will be following eagerly as I note that Tswalu is THE place to go to for Aardvark!


aardvark to follow.....

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Day 2 Tswalu morning drive 1/9/15


I didn't make a note of the time of our wake-up call, but I seem to remember a 5.15 call, to meet for coffee at 5.45 and leave around 6ish. Soon after we left, they were reverting to the summer timetable, which was a lot earlier, due to the heat. It was certainly only just getting light when we emerged from our room. Our guide was really happy that we were staying four nights, as it seems that a lot of their recent guests had only been staying 2 nights. This seems ridiculous to me, given that you have to get a long flight to get there and how unique it is, it seems like a complete waste. This basically means three and a half game drives. There was particular pressure on them, if the weather was not good, especially for the meerkats, which are a big draw to the reserve. I wonder why TAs would send clients somewhere like that, when you are really not going to get the most of it? Maybe they are doing a whole of South Africa tour, with Tswalu and a greater Kruger lodge as a small part of it? They have changed the flight schedules to accommodate this kind of option, which works best if you arrive from Cape Town, as the plane arrives in the morning, maximising your first day and you now leave to Johannesburg at around 10am, which connects with Kruger flights in JNB. Whereas last time, we left after a late brunch and so the game drive was not curtailed. This time we only arrived mid-afternoon, whereas last time we arrived before lunch.


Anyway, the upshot was, that we had a happy guide, who could take us wherever in the reserve he wanted, without worrying about time pressures, or showing us the lions etc. He was also able to indulge in his love of birds and to play with his new toy - digital files of bird calls. Our requests for the trip were 1) an AM visit to the meerkats (AM was better than PM last time) 2) aardvark in the daylight (to get some photos) 3) wild dog (as they were not here during our last trip) and 4) black rhino, as this is probably the best place in Southern Africa (or all of Africa?) to see them. Apart from that, we were easy. Anything nice to take photos of and of course, birds for my big year. So this first morning game drive was completely at his discretion and was one of the few times that we crossed into the other part of the reserve.


The first thing we came across, was a new species for us, the ant-eating chat. I'm sure that we must have seen some last time, but given our lack of safari experience, we took less in about the birds then....








We were on the hunt for the lions. There is a coalition of two and they had spent the night patrolling the boundaries of their patch. Our guide estimated that they had covered 15km overnight, from the tracking which we did. We met up with another vehicle which had been tracking them from another direction. We then had to do some serious off-roading to try and locate them in the block where they had left the road. The reason it took so long, was mainly the dense bush, but they had also taken time out to kill a porcupine, which they barely ate!
















As it had taken so long to tack them, it was already quite late, so it was time for a coffee break. In order to get to the top of a dune ridge and be able to get back onto the road, our guide had to reverse up the hill, as they are not allowed off road on the dunes, in order to protect them!


Here is a shot from my iPhone - my first attempt at a panorama, definitely a different skill!




We slowly made our way back and across into the other section of the reserve. We saw lots of birds along the way, including quite a few new ones.


Fawn-coloured lark




Fiscal shrike




Short-toed rock-thrush






Black-chested prinia







We also had a lovely sighting of some sable






and giraffe




and back to camp for breakfast.

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Enjoyed it, indeed - Thank You!!! and the rest of the report too - will be following eagerly as I note that Tswalu is THE place to go to for Aardvark!


aardvark to follow.....


Flashing lights, sirens, weeeeeeeoooooooooooooo,weeeeeeeeeooooooooooo


The contrast of the cute and innocent cheetah cub face with the blood dripping from its facial fur is an attention grabbing contrast. You display that so well.


Such symmetrical necking giraffes.


The buffalo immediately struck me as carrying themselves differently from most shots. Your caption of buffalo pen explained it. I remember a wildlife artist Robert Bateman stating that using captive animals as models for his paintings produced different results. Even the the slack in the jaw is different between wild and domesticated/captive animals.


Iphone Panorma is a success!

Edited by Atravelynn
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I remember when you wrote you had gone to Tswala and I wondered when we'd get to read about it. Your big year was happening at that estate with all those birds. You may have a Tswala and Kruger report going simultaneously.

I fear you may be correct.....

Banish any fear, that's living the dream!

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Oh the Sable among the flowers is just sooo beautiful..

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Day 2: Afternoon game drive, 1/9/15


Today was the day for dogs. Although they have radio-collared several of the pack and the guide knew their recent GPS location, it still took a lot of driving around the block to locate them. Another vehicle was also looking (containing Alexander33), so we both worked from opposite directions, which was eventually successful. They were resting (well, the adults were) after devouring a hartebeest kill sometime previously.


I apologise in advance, there are a lot of photos here....who can resist a puppy or eight?




just like domestic puppies






they were all fascinated by this poo (not sure what species it is from)










We were trying to follow the puppies, as the adults were just resting, when all of a sudden, there was mayhem and we were still moving, so photography was very difficult.














No one was clear what had happened, but it was over as soon as it started and they all tried to rest again (for a while)




slowly they all started to activate and we thought that we may be able to see a hunt












the pack all started to gather, but they kept resting frequently






Although they covered quite a distance, it became clear that they had full bellies and were not hunting. There was plenty of education going on for the pups though












we kept following, hoping for the best. Maybe they were just putting distance between the pups and any scavengers attracted to the carcass overnight?






and eventually they went onto the dunes, where we encountered a male kudu, but they were too far away and it was wise to them




We had sundowners on the dunes, as the dogs slowly dispersed.


En route back to the lodge and we met our first nocturnal creatures




a bat-eared fox, and, drumroll please, aardvark




We did get out and walk up to it, but being far away from the spotlight did not support photos. A good day :)

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That puppy portrait is wonderful!

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