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What a change our 2017 trip would turn out be, when compared to the parched, drought-affected trip of last year




We were too late to arrange a GTG in 2016, when several of us Safaritalkers were in RSA at the same time. So as soon as we were back and the flights were booked, I arranged to meet @@Peter Connan who offered to drive us around Rietvlei Dam Nature Reserve to try and get some shots of widowbirds in flight. I think he would have preferred to take us to Marievale, but given that it was in the opposite direction to where we would be going later in the day, we opted for Rietvlei instead.


As we like to spend a few days with friends at their country place, I couldn't squeeze in any extra nights in KNP, but I think 10 is a good total. We tried a different wilderness camp as we had liked them last year, but also as Skukuza was booked out, presumably for a conference and by the time I booked, Lower Sabie only had very basic accommodation available.




13/1 Friday the 13th! Arrive Johannesburg

14/1 Rietvlei day trip and then drive to Ditholo 3 nights

17/1 Drive to KNP via Phaloborwa gate, Letaba 2 nights

19/1 Satara 3 nights

22/1 Biyamiti 3 nights

25/1 Berg-en-Dal 2 nights

27/1 Drive back to Johannesburg

28/1 Return to UK


We had upgraded with miles, so the journey was fine. Arrivals into OR Tambo was slightly better than last time and we were in our rental car and off by an hour or so after we landed. The downside of landing on Friday rather than Saturday, is that the traffic is busier, especially with the roadworks, but it still better to get an extra day in Africa!

Edited by Tdgraves
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Rietvlei Dam Nature Reserve


We awoke at 6am to drive to Rietvlei and it was very overcast. I am glad that we did not follow @@Peter Connan's suggestion to get there for sunrise, as I don't think there would have been much to see. Also, as we were staying with friends, it would have been impossible to get up at 4am without disturbing them and given it was day 1 of our holiday, I'm not sure that we would have been able to get up anyway, as we were so tired! So a coffee in a travel mug, load the car and we were on our way, to meet Peter at the gate at 7am. As it was now Saturday and early, the traffic was a breeze. The entrance to the reserve is through a housing estate and just off of the main road, very inauspicious!


About two weeks before we arrived, there had been significant rainfall and the drought had been declared as over. This was perfect timing, as there was a good two feet of fresh grass growth and really unusually for us, a profusion of flowers (although trying to focus through grass blowing in the wind is tricky, to say the least...). Beautiful. Given the rain and the mud tracks, Peter offered to drive in his 4x4 as our rental was only a 2x4 with a lower height for photography.


The main reason for going was the birds, but there are mammals there as well, although not in large numbers, including apparently cheetah, although Peter has never seen them. Our first mammal sighting was a pair of white rhino, but no chance of a photo. The main herbivores were zebra, hartebeest, blesbok and black wildebeest, which we are not convinced that we had seen before.


















We saw lots of birds, including a few new ones for us, but the overhead conditions may photography tricky, to say the least. The new ones:


Cape longclaw




Levaillant's cisticola




Yellow-billed duck




White-throated swallow




Red-collared widowbird




Long-tailed widowbird




Thick-billed weaver




A full list and photos of every bird we saw can be found on my big year thread:




We did get a few goes at the widowbird in flight that we hoped for, but they were all quite far away from the road. Every time we spotted one and Peter stopped, it would fly that bit further away from the road. Grrrr. :huh:

Our best chance of one flying backwards and forwards to the same perch, was in front of electricity pylons and its' perch was an electrical box :mellow:


Time to get out the extender and hope for the best....










It would have been so much easier if the sun was out :(


Some other birds:


African stonechat - these were very numerous




Pied starling






Spotted thick-knee




Southern masked weaver




Cape white-eye




Helmeted guineafowl








White-fronted bee-eater - with bee!!




There are several hides dotted around and the centre point of the reserve is the dam, so there are lots of waterbirds


Reed cormorant




African darter




We were so distracted with photography that by the time we stopped for breakfast, they had stopped serving it, so we had lunch instead! A thoroughly lovely day out with lots of photographic opportunities, not bad for ZAR 100 each. There weren't that many other people there and they mainly seemed to be looking at mammals, rather than bird. Although I suspect if you went on a week day, it'd be much quieter. The busiest places were the hides and of course the restaurant! Thanks again @@Peter Connan for your hospitality, driving skills and homemade camera supports! Maybe next time we can do Marievale?

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Hurrah for your trip report @@Tdgraves - your earlier Kruger trip reports were a factor in our decision to go this Feb and a splendid time we had!

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It looks like everyone will want to start their SA safari with a birding day with @@Peter Connan after your words! The photos are great despite the overcast day, but I am missing the one of your guide :) .

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@@Tdgraves - the Widowbirds, Thick-knees, Starlings and Weavers are great - but the Yellow-billed Duck photo is OUTSTANDING! It leaps off the screen and smacks me between the eyes. Super stuff.

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Peter Connan

@@Tdgraves, That was a lovely morning. Thanks once again for allowing me to share it with you.

Edited by Peter Connan
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@@Tdgraves - the Widowbirds, Thick-knees, Starlings and Weavers are great - but the Yellow-billed Duck photo is OUTSTANDING! It leaps off the screen and smacks me between the eyes. Super stuff.


Thanks @@offshorebirder I shall let the OH know as I was on the wrong side of the vehicle....

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It looks like everyone will want to start their SA safari with a birding day with @@Peter Connan after your words! The photos are great despite the overcast day, but I am missing the one of your guide :) .

No portraits or selfies @@xelas just the feathered and furry things!

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Stunning photo's @@Tdgraves - I'm looking forward to comparing notes around Satara. Did you get to the Sweni hide?

I am half way through my TR.

Edited by Hads
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@@Hads we did go to the Sweni hide, as it was where we managed to get leaping and fighting impala last year. What a difference a year makes, from a puddle to a massive body of water!!


Kruger Jan 2016: drought, duiker and dead hippos


post #200122


(for some reason I can't paste into this reply...)


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@@Tdgraves - if you get a chance have a look at the Sweni hide pics in my TR. There was only a small pool of water and a dead hippo.

I am looking forward to reading on.

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What a beauiful set of photos from your first outing, in spite of the dull weather!

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I forgot the hoopoes, which seemed to go down well on the big year thread, so I thought I'd add them here as well





Edited by Tdgraves
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Ditholo Wildlife Estate


Our friends have a house here. It is one of several areas of rehabilitated farmland that have been turned over to wildlife, game farms and lifestyle estates. This one has a hotel and conference centre as well as private homes. There are antelope, including giraffe, but mainly it is good for birds.


Including a new one for us - yellow-crowned bishop








As well as the usual suspects...


Yellow-billed kite




White-browed scrub-robin




Bennett's woodpecker








Fork-tailed drongo




We saw a little game, but probably less than on previous years. It all depends on where they wander, but also they had recently sold off some, so perhaps it had not repopulated yet












A termite mound with termites!!









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@@Tdgraves, That was a lovely morning. Thanks once again for allowing me to share it with you.


@@Peter Connan where are your photos from that day - holding them back to avoid embarrassing us??? ;)

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Peter Connan

Tracy, in fact it's me who is embarrassed...


I did go in a little earlier, and, although as you guessed the light was very poor, I did see something nice:




But for the whole day, I only got one fairly decent bird photo:



Edited by Peter Connan
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@@Peter Connan lovely jackal - you didn't tell us it was so close! I'm sure there must be some other birds which are "fairly decent" for your big year....

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Day1 (of the proper safari): Into Kruger via Phaloborwa gate to Letaba Camp, 17/1/17


It is about a six hour drive up to Polokwane and across via Tzaneen to get to the Phaloborwa gate, so we set off at 8 after coffee and planned to stop for brunch to break the journey. We made very good progress and the N1 north is much quieter when it is not the weekend. We stopped for brunch and swapped drivers. After turning off of the N1, the first section is a never ending township, with lots of traffic and pedestrians, before getting into the mountains and eucalyptus plantations. I was rigidly sticking to the speed limits and was frequently overtaken, but the last part of the road is on a steep downhill bend and my concentration must have slipped, as the speedo crept up to 100 (it was an 80 km/hr limit). I immediately slowed down, but it was too late, there were traffic cops with a camera. I apologised and tried the bland indifference technique that usually works. However, this cop was absolutely determined to get a bribe. He made no attempt to complete the paperwork and was blatantly asking for money, without actually asking. "We have been here all day, you could get us something for lunch" etc. At one point he just turned around and lent on the car, waiting for us to make a decision. He made no effort to get my licence checked or to confer with his colleagues. He tried again "we are hungry". Given that the car was fully loaded for a self-catering trip to the Kruger, I offered him food. This was NOT what he wanted. He tried again by telling us how expensive the fine was and said "how much could you afford?". Of course, being foreign tourists, with the favourable exchange rates, we could afford the actual fine and weren't going to offer him money and then be arrested for attempting to bribe a police officer. It was clear that he was not going to give up and we ended up giving him ZAR 200 with a heavy heart and it left a very bitter taste in the mouth. We have been stopped for actual and alleged speeding a few times over the years and this was the most blatant attempt to extort money that we have encountered. Very sad. We shouldn't have paid, but we really felt that we had no option.


Any way that was the last part of the boring road and we continued to make really good progress to the park and ended up not stopping again to change drivers. We bought a couple of supplies in the supermarket and got to the gate at around 2.30. It was very windy in the park and the temperature had steadily dropped during the drive to 25 degrees. We decided that we would use the 50 km to camp as a game drive, rather than rushing to Letaba and then leaving camp again. We stuck to the tar roads and did a detour to the Sable Hide, which meant we were in a little convey until we got to the dam. I had the new 7D today.


First sighting - ground hornbills




It was apparent how much rain had fallen - this terrapin was crossing the road!












As the other vehicles occupants had gone into the hide, we thought we'd see from the car if there were any birds on there, otherwise we would just drive on. This blacksmith lapwing was on the shoreline.




As we were photographing him, there was an almighty racket from the bush to our right (I was not driving). The OH moved nearer and found this - a mating pair of great spotted cuckoos, our first new species on our first drive!!










Good job that we hadn't gone into the hide as we would have missed this!




It was mainly overcast for the rest of the drive. These guys were camouflaged - not spotted by the driver!




Sabota lark




Black stork




?Steppe buzzard




The sun did come out a bit








Water thick-knee




We got into Letaba at around 5 pm and unpacked into our room. It was one with an uncovered porch, so the fridge had to be rotated against the wall to stop the monkeys getting in! The wind got stronger and the short walk to the restaurant was quite cold. We had our second new species of the trip at dinner, but unfortunately didn't even have a phone on us to take a proof shot. A kurrichane buttonquail got blown onto the stoop!!

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Mating Great Spotted Cuckoos, what a rare opportunity and you got some excellent photos!

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lovely cuckoo pictures! and what a fine spot!

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The sequence of cuckoos could be named"50 shades of grey ... and some spots!"

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Day 2: Morning drive from Letaba, 18/1/17


The weather was still strange when we got up and the wind had scared off the game to start off with. But also the other humans :D I had the 7D still








We were surrounded by a small herd of waterbuck by the river










And lots more feathered friends








North of letaba and the sun started to come out. The weather had brought a feast of caterpillars that various birds were feeding on...




Hornbill courtesy of the OH














And these little guys were testing out their legs








More birds....














So not that quiet after all! Back to camp for a well earned breakfast.

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Tey are wonderful Waterbuck photo's @@Tdgraves

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I agree with @Towelersonsafari - the waterbuck pics are great.

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