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KwaZulu-Natal February 2019: sea, mountains, and birds in between


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For many years our winter holidays were spent in the Caribbeans. Only last years, after being introduced to Africa (Zvezda) and birding (Alex) we have shifted our destination towards the latter.


A year ago we have spent New Year and two excellent weeks in Western Cape ( http://www.safaritalk.net/topic/18430-western-cape-2018-new-year-with-friends-and-birds/). Being to Kruger and Kgalagadi already, I was looking for a destination that might have some beach, and of course plenty of birds.


After reading through few reports here, I have set my mind on KwaZulu-Natal area. Selling it to Zvezda required some fine touches, one being buying flights without informing her in advance :huh:.


We both wanted to have a more relaxed trip, less driving, and more time at each location. Final result of planning was below itinerary:


31-Jan            ZAG-IST                      

01-Feb            IST-JNB -> Piet Retief                       Aloe Country Lodge

02-Feb            Piet retief -> uMkhuze                     Mantuma Camp 2-bed chalet

03-Feb            uMkhuze                                            Mantuma Camp 2-bed chalet

04-Feb            uMkhuze                                            Mantuma Camp 2-bed chalet

05-Feb            uMkhuze - St.Lucia                            St.Lucia Wetlands Guest House

06-Feb            St.Lucia                                               St.Lucia Wetlands Guest House

07-Feb            St.Lucia                                               St.Lucia Wetlands Guest House

08-Feb            St.Lucia -> Imfolozi                           Mpila Camp, 2-bed chalet

09-Feb            Imfolozi                                              Mpila Camp, 2-bed chalet

10-Feb            Imfolozi -Hluhluwe                           Hilltop Camp, 2-bed chalet

11-Feb            Hluhluwe                                            Hilltop Camp, 2-bed chalet

12-Feb            Hluhluwe -> Drakensberg                Phinda cottage

13-Feb            Drakensberg                                      Phinda cottage

14-Feb            Drakensberg                                      Phinda cottage

15-Feb            Drakensberg -> Johannesburg        Woodpecker's Inn

16-Feb            Johannesburg                                    Woodpecker's Inn

17-Feb            JNB-IST                       

18-Feb            IST-ZAG                      


This is our roadmap:




As always we have rented a car, and most of our accommodations were on self-catering basis.


Our photo equipment consisted of Nikon D7200 + 200-500 zoom and Nikon D610 + 24-120 zoom and as a backup, my trusty Sony RX100II. No monopod or tripod, and also no window support (my bad :().


As now a golden standard, I have collected most of information about this new to us destination by reading firstly trip reports here. 


@Game Warden trip report’s trilogy was the one that set the basic route:




Then, in chronological order from older to newer (and I do apology to those I have missed), and each worthy to be read, are:


By Bugs: http://www.safaritalk.net/topic/7612-ithala-ndumo-tembe-bayette-mkuze-hluhkluwe-and-st-lucia/


By RSPhorses: http://www.safaritalk.net/topic/10666-wildlife-act-volunteering-kwa-zulu-natal-south-africa/


By Panthera Pardus: http://www.safaritalk.net/topic/12961-seeking-the-rare-birds-of-kwazulu-natal/(unfortunately photos are not anymore visible)


By Game Warden: http://www.safaritalk.net/topic/14486-south-africa-2015-indaba-and-kwazulu-natal/(a very different type of adventure)


By Game Warden: http://www.safaritalk.net/topic/14498-the-primitive-trail-hluhluwe-imfolozi-kwa-zulu-natal/


By pedro maia: http://www.safaritalk.net/topic/16585-kwazulu-natal-land-of-rhinos-and-hippos/


By Soukous: http://www.safaritalk.net/topic/19219-birding-in-kzn/(as good as reading a bird guide)


Thanks for all above, and extra Thank You to Matt for replying to several of my questions, and to Pedro Maia for giving me that much needed nudge to finally start writing this trip report B).


I have forgotten to add one more name who gave me many useful up-to-date informations. That person is Mark, owner of SafariKZN - http://safarikzn.com - although he knew from the beginning that I am not a potential customer, he was kindly answering my several emails. So anyone from UK who prefers to use a travel agent, Mark might be a man for the job.

Edited by xelas
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Your final paragraph reminded me that I never got to finish mine :rolleyes:.

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I'm looking forward to reading all about your trip! I wish I had the courage to self-drive in South Africa, but I am very afraid of driving on the opposite side of the road (for us Americans)!

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7 hours ago, mtanenbaum said:

I wish I had the courage to self-drive in South Africa,


Many of our overseas trips were to the countries with left-hand driving. Using automatic makes the first kilometers much easier; yet after all those years I am still having problems with wipers and blinkers :D.

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Looking forward to this @xelas

We are going to Mkuze. St Lucia area next year so will follow with great interest 

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How nice referencing all those trip reports that lead you to this trip. Just shows how valuable these are.


Looking forward to hearing all about it.

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5 hours ago, TonyQ said:

We are going to Mkuze. St Lucia area next year so will follow with great interest 

Oh, you are not making my job any easier, @TonyQ ;)!

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4 hours ago, wilddog said:

Just shows how valuable these are.


Trip reports and related comments are indeed very valuable! It is not that difficult to find related TR but when they are all posted together, it is much easier for future visitors.

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We have arrived at JNB airport on time, at 11:00 am. Got some cash from the ATM, and a local SIM card then waited a bit longer for our car at Europcar.


Before arriving I have exchanged a couple of emails with Europcar office at JNB; my last wish was for a set of new tires on the vehicle they will allocate to us. The tires were indeed new, yet with new tires came also a brand new vehicle! Toyota RAV4 automatic with only 350 kilometers on the odometer. I hate driving new rental cars, as any tiny scratch is so easily noticed. On the positive side, I did not need to do any inspection for pre-existing damages. Only checked if the spare tire is actually in the booth, then we hit the road. 




Knowing from previous visits that leaving OR Tambo is not that easy I have prepared a set of instructions for Zvezda, and her navigation was perfect, so we arrived at out midway overnight stop at Piet Retief well before sunset. Traffic was busy while we were closer to Johannesburg but has thinned out when we hit the countryside. All roads were with good tarmac. We have had a tool box in the vehicle so passing through toll stations was quick.





Aloe Country Lodge - http://www.aloecountrylodge.co.za - is located near the main road yet it has a large garden so no noise can be heard from that road. It is also only a short drive to the supermarket/shopping mall, which was very convenient as we were able to do our shopping already that same evening.







I was hoping to collect our first SA birds already here, yet the selection was not as good as I was hoping to be. The sign in the parking lot promised a lot, well, maybe next time.


African Wood Birds (not counted in the BY)



Southern Masked Weaver




On the other hand, our room was large and beds were comfortable, we have slept well, and next morning the breakfast was to the always high South African standard.




Every shopping mall has a decent fast food joint, and burgers in South Africa are much better then those that are sold in Slovenia (I should mention some of the large chain names but I will not).





Our next stop was Mkhuze Game Reserve. Stay tuned!





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First park on our route was Mkhuze Game Reserve.  Mainly chosen for its very good birding, and good hides.  Not much driving to reach it from Piet Retief. All straight driving until we have reached Mkuze; there we needed to ask for directions but were on the right road quickly. The Mkuze town has a couple of markets but it is more comfortable to shop at Piet Retief, IMO.


Gate buildings are very new, and staff was efficient so we did not lost much time. There was one Tortoise welcoming us, to the park, and another one escorting us out of the park. I still wonder were they sent by Dave?? 






Leopard Tortoise #1



Leopard Tortoise #2




There is a campsite just after the Mshopi entrance gate. The main camp is Mantuma Camp, where one can either stay in own tent or in a bungalow. There are 15 bungalows and 2 family houses in Mantuma. First I have made reservations through a website managed by TourSA however those were cancelled and later I have booked directly through http://www.kznwildlife.com/Mantuma . Prices were the same, and communication with TourSA via email was quick and efficient, but I have had a better feeling to book with the provider directly. The same quick and efficient replies was given also by KZNWildlife.


The nice and welcoming touch in the camp was a large board with our name on it so one feels as a welcomed guest even before entering the reception. In the same building is also a small shop, yet as those inside Etosha camps, also this one only has had bare necessities like ice cream and beer.







The bungalow allocated to us was #11.  I was a bit nervous as some of the reviews about the camp chalets were less than promising. I must say, either our chalet was recently renovated, or those others have much higher standards/expectations to ours. 




Two large beds, a spacious bathroom, well equipped kitchen with extra large fridge, and covered patio. Comes with fully working A/C (not that we have used it a lot).





Outside awaited us nice views, and enough birds and grazers to keep one happy when sitting on the patio with a cold beer (or similar) in hand. 


Trumpeter Hornbill



Red-backed Shrike







Of course there was also a braai. Nothing better than a juicy steak for the dinner. Steak was of beef meat.





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Hi @xelas - enjoying your trip report so far.

Interesting you stayed at Piet Retief - my In-laws have a farm about 25 km's from the town.

Wakkerstrom is also close by and has excellent birding. My last visit to SA my in-laws paid for me to go on a birding tour with a guide, it was pretty good seeing many species including Blue and Crowned cranes.

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6 hours ago, Hads said:

Wakkerstrom is also close by and has excellent birding.


That was my other choice! I have decided for more direct route, but next time I will stop there. And, thanks for reading.

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looking forward to your report @xelas. Kwa Zulu was part of our very first trip in 1997 and it is one of the several places that we are loking at for our next but one trip! also glad other folk have fun getting out of the airport-last time we did several laps until a policeman took pity on us and flagged us down! How was the car?-we have one booked for Kruger next year

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Finally Alex - looking forward to your report!

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2 hours ago, Towlersonsafari said:

How was the car?


It was comfortable but I don't like this new streamlined design. Rear windows do not retract fully into the doors, and front windshield is at such an angle that really messes up with both camera focus and overall quality when photographing through it is the only option. I have also opted for automatic gearbox, and this was not what I was hoped for. All modern cars have "stop&go" option. This one did not have it. So before starting to drive again I have to put the gear into P mode, start the engine and move the gear into D position. With a manual gearbox it would be enough to operate the clutch, as the gear can be left in 1st or 2nd.

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The area of this game reserve is flat, and very green. Main roads are paved, side roads gravel, and they were all very well maintained.  Main road traverse the park between Mshopi entrance gate and Opansi entrance gate, and is all tar road. There is one section of tar road also that can be used for quicker access to Nsumo Pan.











Drives between hides are relatively short (in comparison to Etosha or Kruger so the bungalow is always close to any food or drink or nap emergency.


There was not that much wildlife to be spotted along the roads, maybe also because the greenery was dense.  Definitively no Etosha or Kgalagadi, so we spent bulk of our time in the hides. Saying that, we have spot enough of larger mammals and birds also while driving between hides. 















But for a keen birder there were enough targets also outside of bird hides. Most of them of larger version, like birds of prey and some larger dwellers of the bushes.


Black-shouldered Kite



Black-chested Snake Eagle



Sabota Lark



Striped Kingfisher




Mkhuze Game Reserve is famous for its birding hides. There are 4 of them that we have visited in different times of the day: Malibala, kuMasinga, Nsumo  and Mahlahla. Malibala and kuMasinga are set next to a waterhole, Nsumo (there are 2 hides there) next to a pan, and Mahlahla should be closer to the river. This one was the only disappointment, no water and long grass gave us zero sightings. This one I will only post 1 photo while others will be described in separate posts.


Mahlahla hide


Edited by xelas
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Dave Williams

Couldn't be more timely Alex, I'm booking accommodation via Booking.com right now!


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Malibala is the smaller of the two waterhole hides. Also the waterhole is smaller so the animals are closer; but we have not expected to be that close! On our arrival day we have stopped at Malibala before check-in, and there was an elephant just on the other side of the wooden fence. He then moved to the waterhole, and looked at us from close distance. I do not exaggerate, he could touch me with his trunk! But he was a placid giant, so we did enjoyed watching him while he was playing in the water.













Birds were our main target. I will try not to overload this report with their photos, as they have all been submitted to Big Year 2019 thread. 

Smaller ones were either hanging on bushes, or drinking at the edge of the waterhole.


Blue Waxbill



Lesser masked Weaver



Red-billed Firefinch




Larger birds were wading around, looking for an easy snack.


African Spoonbill



Wooly-necked Stork







One day we a flock of ducks gave us a good show.


White-faced Whistling Ducks






There were always visitors to this waterhole, like Greater Kudu, Nyala, Blue Wildebeest and Burchell’s Zebra.











Spiky thorns did not bothered Cattle Egret or Burchell’s Coucal, and gave a protection to Slender Mongoose.









While dense undergrowth is where a Crested Francolin should be found, this two lovers indeed found a very strange place to enjoy the morning.




Frogs - Please help me ID them!




Edited by xelas
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" Frogs - Please help me ID them! "  I would guess they are mating frogs.  You're welcome.:P


Such crisp shots from roads to burgers to eyeballs to...mating frogs.

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6 hours ago, Atravelynn said:

I would guess they are mating frogs.


Mating frogs?! They looked like a sleeping frogs to me :P. I wonder, does the male frog also bite the female at the end, like the lion? Hmm, probably not, due to the size difference :D such a move might not get well for him.

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