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Here is another tardy trip report, thanks to some lockdown downtime… this from April 2018…


We’ve made this whole safari business too complicated.  Flying from one camp to the next.  Is so and so available to guide us at such and such camp?  Is “tent number 3” available?  Lactose, glutens, nuts, decaf, etc.  What are the toilets like?  The purveyors have upped the ante; now some of them send out “client questionnaire” forms that include questions like what one prefers for sundowners.  


A traditional South African safari involves no such complications.  All you need is a good vehicle with spare tires and a GPS system. You can bring as much or little food and drinks as desired.  Most of the major parks offer restaurants, their food quality ranging from gourmet to school-cafeteria, and shops that sell groceries.  And if you are not necessarily looking for “big-game” in Kruger or Kgalagadi, tranquility awaits – and for a song, comparatively speaking.


I must confess here though that I am a lazy American, so I am not going to drive or cook.  Natasha Iles from Afrifriends (www.afrifriends.co.za), who has guided me twice in Kgalagadi, not to mention during small excursions from Johannesburg, is at the wheel in the familiar white Hilux packed with necessities such as beer, wine, various braai meats and biltong (surely, the first-aid kit is in there somewhere).  Hunters have an old saying, “bring enough gun”.  I don’t hunt, but I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment. And my heavy armament for this trip comes in the form of Squack Evans, the all-knowing, eagle-eyed and prescient yet humble guide – and friend.


I have made it a habit of visiting either the Rietvlei Dam Nature Reserve or Ezemvelo Nature Reserve (both easily accessible from Johannesburg) the day of arrival into Johannesburg in order to help shake off jetlag, and this time Rietvlei gets the nod.  It’s a delightful little place, Rietvlei – as long as you are not expecting too much.  There is much in the way of “visual pollution” in the form of power polls and even distant towns, but if you block your peripheral vision a bit you can conjure up what it must have been like a couple of hundred years ago.  The entire greater-Johannesburg area was part of the “Highveld” biome, characterized by tall, mostly sour grass, where enormous herds of plains zebras, black wildebeests and blesboks roamed and springboks and red hartebeests would occasionally visit.  Of course, these herbivores were pursued by lions, cheetahs and wild dogs.  Though a much tamer place today, Rietvlei does offer a pleasant afternoon of viewing the aforementioned herbivores as well as surprisingly good birding.  There were a few white rhinos in the past, but I do not know their current status. Interestingly, two cheetahs have been reintroduced, and Squack spots them lazing in the thickets.  It seems like an awful lot of work, as they are going to have translocate the cheetahs to and from elsewhere in order to limit inbreeding, but on this afternoon, I am grateful for it.



Black wildebeests at Rietvlei.  They were once called "white-tailed wildebeests" for good reason.  The black wildebeest is considered as separate species from the rest

of the wildebeests, which are all under a separate "umbrella".



A "gypy"



Red-knobbed coot



If you look closely, you will see two cheetahs.


All in all, a nice, pleasant warm-up it was.  Ahead of us:  two nights at Golden Gate Highlands National Park; two nights at Mountain Zebra National Park; one night at Karoo National Park; one night at Bontebok National Park; and two nights at De Hoop Nature Reserve.  Oh, and we do go conventional to finish it off <sheepish grin>: three nights at Phinda Private Game Reserve (Forest Camp); and three nights at Sabi Sands Game Reserve (Kirkman’s Kamp).

Edited by Safaridude
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Peter Connan

Lovely opening shot!

Looking forward to this report.

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Looking forward to reading a recent report from these smaller, less visited  parks. Thanks for posting.

Edited by Treepol
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Golden Gate Highlands National Park


At over 150,000 mi2, the Highveld biome in South Africa is roughly the size of Zimbabwe. It’s a strange thing then that it is so little-known to the rest of the world and that there is only one declared national park – Golden Gate Highlands – which is roughly the size of Malta.  The Highveld, composed mainly of highland grasslands, could never support the game density equivalent to that of, say, the Serengeti, because of Highveld vegetation’s relatively low nutrient levels (rain-leached soil and regular winter frost).  Nevertheless, 19thcentury voortrekkers reported encountering oceans of animals in their path in the Highveld.  No one bothered to count them, of course, since there was neither the wherewithal to do it nor the need to do so.  “Game as far as the eye can see” was sufficient.  Some unfortunate data, however, reflect Highveld’s former abundance.  In 1866, a trading company in Kroonstad (about 100 miles northwest of Golden Gate Highlands) reported exporting 152,000 black wildebeest and blesbok skins (the trade was mostly to Europe for winter wear).  And that was merely for that particular year.


Today, the vastly reduced wildlife of the Highveld can be glimpsed at Golden Gate Highlands, as well as the opportunity to hike, bike and horse-ride.  It is indeed more of a recreational park than anything else.  A major road cuts right through the park, and a serious annual bicycle race takes place through some peripheral roads, probably scaring the daylights out of the wild denizens once a year.  There is even a full-service hotel inside the park. None of the above are meant to be pejorative.  Golden Gate Highlands is just… different.


Our accommodation is at the relatively new Highlands Mountain Retreat.  It is highly recommended, as the units are well-kept and well-appointed with great views, and, as an added bonus, the occupants are de facto granted a small private concession of sorts, as the road leading to the Retreat is closed off to the general public.  Andre, Natasha’s business partner, decided to make a weekend out of it and cooks delicious meals for us (“unreal sausage and veggies” and “Karoo lamb, yay!”, my notes say).  


Out on game drives, black wildebeest, blesbok, eland, plains zebra and red hartebeest are easily seen (the red hartebeests were translocated, and it is possible that they never naturally occurred here).  The park offers a good chance of encountering the rarely seen mountain reedbuck, and it is probably the best place to observe grey rhebok.  The latter is the animal whose name got corrupted – both in terms of spelling and pronunciation – and transformed into a sneaker label.  The grey rhebok (also called, vaal rhebok; “vaal” meaning “drab” in Afrikaans) is a most European-alpine-looking animal confined to the highlands and fynbos environment of South Africa.  So drab is the coat and the surrounding environment, the animal is nearly impossible to make out.  Squack does his thing and points out several individuals, including a doggedly amorous male who won’t take “no” for an answer.


The birding turns out to be a bit of a disappointment.  Golden Gate Highlands is known for bearded vulture (or “Lammergeier”), and we see something flying miles away that could possibly be… hard to say.  Drakenberg’s rockjumper would have been nice, and I take a ghastly photograph (unfit for public consumption) of a southern bald ibis (nearly endemic to the Highveld).  Judging from things I have read and heard, the lukewarm birding should be chalked up to bad luck rather than the state of the park.


The one constant highlight of Golden Gate Highlands is the spectacular scenery punctuated by ancient basalt and sandstone formations, some of which have eroded into mushroom shapes. Both mornings, we are treated to a layer of fog enveloping the various formations.  Out on the veranda with a cup of coffee in hand, the urgent need to get up and go out sure dissipates quickly.  We must mobilize though.  A seven-hour drive is ahead of us, skirting Lesotho on our left and then straight through a vast farm country in order to reach our next destination.



The typical scenery in the middle of the park



Our first morning was a very foggy one



This black wildebeest bull held his territory near the Highland Mountain Retreat.  We would pass by him every time.



A black wildebeest against a spectacular backdrop



Two blesbok rams sparring



Water reflecting



What's Squack looking at?



What Squack was probably looking at



Plains zebras



Grey rheboks mating.  This ram was very persistent.



A grey rhebok ram



Eland.  Further south you go on the continent, the more elands lose their stripes.



A group of red hartebeests right next to our unit.



Another foggy morning



A lone blesbok



Could be summer in Switzerland



The scenery itself is worth a visit to Golden Gate Highlands

Edited by Safaridude
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LOVE LOVE LOVE your leopard photo! Looking forward to seeing more of your report. Your photos are gorgeous! 

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Mountain Zebra National Park


It is perplexing that an animal that lives in one of the driest areas of Africa is hefty and water-dependent.  The mountain zebra, like plains zebra but unlike desert-adapted animals such as oryx, has no particular physiological adaptations designed for water conservation.  The key behavioral adaptation, instead, points to the word, “mountain”.  Mountain zebras find water at natural springs in the mountains and hills, and, in the driest of times, they are known to use their extra-hard hooves to excavate for water. The Cape mountain zebra (there is also a separate subspecies, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, which occurs in Namibia), which formerly occupied most of the mountainous parts of Western and Eastern Cape, was almost hunted to extinction for their skins.  (The 1950 national survey only turned up 91 Cape mountain zebras.)


Established in 1937, Mountain Zebra National Park was proclaimed with single herd of six Cape mountain zebras.  Since then, by way of various translocations as well as organic population growth, the population in the park has grown to several hundred, with the national population now at over 1,200 (the vast majority are descendants from the original Mountain Zebra National Park stock).  Mountain Zebra National Park is undoubtedly a conservation success story.


The area is part of the Nama-Karoo biome, but with some grassy, Highveld-like plains one would not normally associate with the Nama-Karoo.  This is otherwise sheep-farming country, anchored by the unremarkable town of Cradock, where we fuel up after a long drive from Golden Gate Highlands.  From the entrance to the rest camp, the road follows the winding Wilgerboom River, which is surrounded by sweet thorn (Acacia karoo) thickets.  This is where eland and kudu are found and also where the park’s black rhinos hide (the area is perfect habitat for black rhinos, and we would see their tracks).  Before reaching the rest camp, the vegetation thins out a bit, and we see our first batch of Cape mountain zebras.  Both stallions and mares sport prominent dewlaps, the purpose of which are unclear other than for visual presentation.  The stallion’s mane is substantial, and the outer edge of the hairs is slightly convex, combining with the dewlap to exaggerate the neck’s thickness.  Not as “pretty” at first sight as plains zebras, the Cape mountain zebras will “grow” on you. 


The rest camp is reminiscent of a small ski village.  The restaurant serves up acceptable meals (always with the ubiquitous SANParks barbeque sauce), but the shop is not well-provisioned compared to other SANParks facilities (perhaps because the town of Cradock is so close).


There are basically three general areas of interest in the park:  (1) the aforementioned sweet thorn thickets; (2) the mountainous circuits in the southern section of the park where you may find mountain reedbucks and grey rheboks; and (3) the Rooiplaat Plateau in the west where Cape mountain zebras are also found, along with black wildebeest, blesbok, springbok, gemsbok and red hartebeest.


We spend most of our time on the Rooiplat Plateau enjoying the plains game and the spectacular scenery (the theme so far of this trip).  A few cheetahs have been reintroduced, and Squack spots one, but we quickly lose it in a thicket.  A few blue cranes and many jackal buzzards (quickly becoming a favorite of mine) are seen, but the blue korhaan, a specialty of the park, eludes us.  A handful of lions have been reintroduced as well, and we see them frolicking some distance beyond the rest camp fence as we walk to dinner. A night-drive offered by the park staff is a highlight.  Surprisingly, we are the only ones to sign up for it, and we enjoy a productive drive with sightings of porcupine, bat-eared fox, aardwolf and Cape fox.


Mountain Zebra National Park is already recognized by many as the most underrated national park in South Africa.  If the park’s expansion plans were ever to be realized – there are ambitious aspirations by SANParks to buy up the farms in between Mountain Zebra National Park and Camdeboo National Park to link up those two – Mountain Zebra/Camdeboo could become the third “destination park” in South Africa (after Kruger and Kgalagadi).  Presumably then, the area could serve as a significant black rhino reservoir, and more predators could be translocated (perhaps even wild dogs), elevating the area to more of an "open" ecosystem as it was in the past.  Here’s to hoping we see that in our lifetime.



A greater kudu bull near the entrance of the park.  Kudus in the Karoo/Eastern Cape area are often dark-colored.



Our first Cape mountain zebra stallion.  Note the dewlap and the concave mane line.



Mares also have dewlaps



South African shelducks (followed by an Egyptian goose) on the Wilgerboom River



Black wildebeests on the Rooiplaat Plateau



If you look closely, black wildebeests have very interesting eyelashes



A perched jackal buzzard



A springbok after a rain shower.  The latter part of the scientific name, Antidorcas marsupialis, is self-explanatory in this photo.



Black-backed jackal



Cape Longclaw






The Rooiplaat Plateau clearing after a shower



Another jackal buzzard



Blue cranes



A stallion grazing






Cape mountain zebras drinking on the Rooiplaat Plateau.  



Black wildebeest



Spotted Thick-knee on the night-drive



Cape fox.  We were initially confused as to whether it was a black-backed jackal due to the color of the coat (some Cape fox individuals develop silvery patches on their

backs).  Note the very narrow space between the ears though, compared to a black-backed jackal.  



Aardwolf.  A real treat.



Spotted Eagle-owl



Greater kudu



Yellow mongooses



An almost angry look

Edited by Safaridude
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Enjoying your report  @Safaridude Mt Zebra is one of our favourites 

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Wonderful visit to MZNP @Safaridude. I do hope that one day Sanparks can realise the dream of linking MZNP and Camdeboo.

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I should add that, because the Cape mountain zebras in Mountain Zebra National Park started from such a small population (six to start with, although more were added from adjoining farms), the population is inbred.  Although most other Cape mountain zebra populations in other parks and reserves (e.g., Karoo National Park, Bontebok National Park, DeHoop Nature Reserve, etc.) are from the Mountain Zebra National Park stock, apparently there are two small relict populations that reside in the Western Cape, which populations offer some genetically different zebras.  The idea is to rotationally translocate a few amongst each place to strengthen genetic diversity.  The current population at Mountain Zebra is at full capacity, and to ensure the future of the species, the park really needs to expand.  @Treepol


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Aha @Safaridude we have been there twice! It is a very beautiful  place!

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The title caught my eye and attention. The photography is, as always, fabulous. And I am looking forward to relive some of the lesser travelled places also through your eyes.

Edited by xelas
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Karoo National Park


The four-hour drive from Mountain Zebra to Karoo National Park takes us through immense country, gradually turning shrubby from slightly grassy.  There are virtually no people to be seen.  Only a few sheep and some wildlife (presumably on game farms), dot the landscape.  Inside the park, the scenery is classic “Great Karoo”.  Spectacular hills, many of which are flat-topped, surround valleys dotted with dwarf shrubs that look dry, drab and unappetizing.


The sprawling rest camp offers several different accommodation types, and the classically decorated restaurant serves up absurdly good meals (the venison curry potjiekos was one of the best meals I have ever had, period).  The road network is rather limited, but for good reason.  The terrain is as rough as they come due to the numerous hills.  Klipspringer Pass, a stretch of the main circuit that climbs up and down a substantial hill, is bit of an engineering marvel and a testament to how much SANParks was willing to invest in the national park system in its early days.


Karoo is drier than Mountain Zebra (in fact, Karoo is as dry as Kgalagadi), so, in terms of plains game, gemsboks are more prevalent here, and you lose the blesbok.  Klipspringers are to be seen from the eponymous pass, and Cape mountain zebras number in the hundreds just as they do in Mountain Zebra. We find signs of black rhino and lion in a valley thicket.  Karoo korhaan, one of the archetypal birds of the region, is seen twice, and ostriches are seen several times.  We also may have seen Verreaux’s eagles, for which the park is famous – or maybe not, as they were miles away.  


One very interesting experiment going on at Karoo National Park is an effort to resurrect the extinct Quagga – well, sort of…  Quagga was a plains zebra-like animal (and indeed a plains-zebra… see below) that once roamed parts of the Karoo, the Cape region and the Free State until, sadly, it was hunted out in the wild in 1878.  The animal had dark brown stripes – tending toward light brown mid-torso –  and primarily white legs and underparts.  Once thought to be a different species altogether, the quagga has since been declared as merely a subspecies of plains zebra.  The Quagga Project, which selectively breeds plains zebras that have certain morphological features of quagga, released some quagga-like individuals into Karoo National Park several years ago.  It may not be quite Jurassic Park, but this project appears to be bearing some fruit, judging from a group we encounter.


Spending only one night at Karoo was the mistake of the trip.  There is an entire 4x4 trail in the northern section of the park that we did not touch, and there are several birds endemic or nearly endemic to the region (mostly they are “little brown jobs”, but nevertheless…) that we did not actively seek, given the time limitation.  Unfinished business, this Karoo.



The typical scenery at Karoo National Park



Just one of many spectacular hills



A red hartebeest bull courting



Cape mountain zebra






A herd of eland



A grey rhebok ram



Karoo korhaan






Best friends



Ostriches near the rest camp



A herd of gemsboks



A group of quagga-like plains zebras



A closer look



Sundowner hour at Karoo

Edited by Safaridude
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Bontebok National Park


The moist, temperate air at Bontebok National Park, located near Swellendam, is a welcome change from the arid interior.  The word, “quaint”, describes everything at Bontebok, from the size of the park to the new welcome center to the chalets at the Lang Elsie’s Kraal Rest Camp.


The park was established in 1931 (initially at a different site) to protect the then-endangered bontebok. The bontebok is closely related to the blesbok, but the two were separated eons ago by the increasing aridity of the Nama/Karoo biome.  Post-split, the blesbok remained widespread in the Highveld and the eastern edge of the Nama/Karoo, while the bontebok became restricted to the Cape fynbos area to then become the subject of indiscriminate hunting.  Though various sources now report that the entirety of the bontebok population was once down to 17, that may have actually been the initial number in the park when started (with another handful extant in other areas at the time). Whichever the case, the bontebok was a hair away from extinction.  This beautiful antelope is distinguished form the blesbok by the former’s darker, glossier coat, with the darkness and the gloss most accentuated in the rump.  Also, viewed head on, the bontebok’s white facial blaze is almost always continuous from the base of the horns to the nose, while the blesbok’s white blaze is almost always split into two by a brown streak.


The park is also important for the conservation of the fynbos environment (more specifically here, the renosterveld, a component of the fynbos considered to be rare).  A staggering 470 plant species exist in this smallest park in the SANParks portfolio.  As such, Bontebok offers a good chance at encountering birdlife associated with the particular vegetation.  Indeed, we encounter a southern double-collared sunbird and an orange-breasted sunbird, and we have a fleeting glimpse of a black bustard (formerly, southern black korhaan).


After a quaint stay of one night, we are off on one of the most pleasant drives on the way to one of my favorite places in South Africa, De Hoop Nature Reserve.



The Langeberg Mountains seen from the rest camp



The beautiful bontebok



Note the continuous white blaze on the face and the dark, sheeny rump



This is a blesbok ram from Rietvlei Dam Nature Reserve.  Note the discontinuous white blaze on the face and the overall less sheeny coat.



There are a few Cape mountain zebras at Bontebok as well



Red hartebeests, recently reintroduced into Bontebok National Park



Southern Double-collared Sunbird



Orange-breasted Sunbird





Edited by Safaridude
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Stunning photo's and report thanks @Safaridude.

Your Sunbird shots are excellent.

Edited by Hads
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Very happy to see this report and photos. Great to while away some time with safaris tales. However, if I could always travel with Squack I would never again enquire about in camp guides … just saying. 😉😂

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De Hoop Nature Reserve


It’s such a trite thing to say, but I will say it anyway.  De Hoop Nature Reserve is one of the best-kept secrets in all of Africa (but not to the South Africans… they figured it out long ago).


The short drive from Bontebok to De Hoop skirts various wheat, sheep and ostrich farms.  Minus the ostriches, think Nebraska.  In recent years, this area has been colonized by the endangered blue crane, the national bird of South Africa.  Grasslands of the Highveld and the Karoo are blue cranes’ naturally favored habitat, but since much of those grasslands have been degraded, the cranes have migrated into these Western Cape agricultural lands.  Apparently, many farmers are partaking in the conservation of the cranes by practicing more organic farming methods.  Every now and then, we stop the car and walk out to take photographs of these elegant birds.


De Hoop is four worlds in one compact reserve:  (1) Sparsely grassed “limestone fynbos” covers most of the inland area.  This is where you find the majority of the reserve’s bontebok, eland, Cape mountain zebra and grey rhebok.  Conveniently, these herbivores tend to concentrate near the more grassy Opstal area, which is the central administrative part of the reserve where the restaurant and most of the accommodations are located; (2) The flooded “De Hoop Vlei”, which is a long and narrow wetland full of water-loving birds at the moment; (3) The gorgeous coastal dunes and the shoreline of the Indian Ocean from where you may see southern right whales from May to October and bottlenose dolphins year-around; and (4) The slightly elevated Potberg area, which is mainly “sandstone fynbos”, where there is a large Cape vulture colony.


We are booked at a charming old Dutch colonial farmhouse at Opstal.  During our daily short walks to the Fig Tree Restaurant (great food and drinks, by the way), Cape francolins and bokmakieries are seen, and bonteboks graze nonchalantly not too far away.  De Hoop is not a national park run by SANParks, but rather, it is a provincial reserve run locally by the Western Cape Nature Conservation Board (also known as “CapeNature”).  CapeNature has contracted out the hospitality bits to a private company, De Hoop Collection, and this company runs things without hitches at De Hoop.  Apparently, many weddings and business conferences occur here.


Between Opstal and the the De Hoop Vlei, most of the animal species of De Hoop can be encountered.  On the list are baboon, bontebok, eland, Cape mountain zebra, grey rhebok and ostrich.  Amongst the protea are orange-breasted sunbirds and Cape sugarbirds, the latter flashing their long, elegant tails.  The first morning, a thick layer of coastal fog envelopes the reserve, and we take advantage of the unusual photo opportunity of an eland herd moving silently through the mist.  You are allowed to get out of the vehicle at De Hoop, and we spend the afternoon on foot observing bonteboks near the De Hoop Vlei.


At the Vlei itself, there is a big gathering of red-knobbed coots, African snipes, black-winged stilts, white-breasted cormorants, Cape shovelers, Cape teals and yellow-billed ducks. The pleasant surprise is a group of greater flamingos, which I had not seen during my previous visits to De Hoop. We walk right up to the edge of the water and take ground-level shots of the birds while laid out flat on our bellies.


The white coastal sand dunes (at times radiating blue-grey when close-up) are without question the scenic highlights at De Hoop.  Or is it the Indian Ocean?  Well, one must climb up and down a few of the former to see the latter at the Koppie Alleen area.  From the top of one dune, Squack counts over one hundred dolphins out in the sea.  There are many kelp gulls to be seen on the rocky outcrops on the beach, but the big draw here is the African oystercatcher.  These rare, gaudy (Tiger Woods’ Sunday colors), slightly odd-looking waders seem to always be around at De Hoop.  With some persistence and patience, we are able to get them to relax for close-up photos. Minor scrapes on elbows and knees (from kneeling and leaning on the outcrops) are worth the cause. 


In the end, there isn’t enough time to visit the Cape vulture colony.  We reluctantly bid adieu to De Hoop, and we travel through the farmlands again, this time on our way to Cape Town.  Blue cranes, once again, abound, and several jackal buzzards are seen perched on power poles.  Natasha then springs a surprise on us…



Bonteboks grazing near the De Hoop Vlei






What is it?



It's a Cape Francolin (Cape Spurfowl)



A herd of eland moving through the fog






Ostriches are fairly common






A dune near Koppie Alleen



Fine sand









Kelp gull



African Oystercatchers









Bottlenose dolphins



Southern Boubou



Cape teal



Cape Francolin



Cape hare just outside our house






Early morning at the De Hoop Vlei



Greater flamingos



Bonteboks again






Grey-winged Francolin seen outside the reserve



There are lots of blue cranes in the surrounding farmlands






Jackal Buzzard

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Natasha announces that our lunch spot on the way to Cape Town will be Betty’s Bay, home to a large colony of African penguins.  Our short walk through the Betty’s Bay Marine Protected Area allows us a chance to be up-close and personal with the comical African penguins (formerly called, “jackass penguins” because of the donkey-like braying sounds they make), as well as observe the fairly rare Cape cormorants.


The final stretch of the drive to Cape Town along the coastline is (well, running out of superlatives here) spectacular.  Cape Town is where we say goodbye to Natasha.  After a night in Cape Town, we are off on a more conventional safari.  Phinda is next.



African penguins at Betty's Bay












Squack and Natasha



Cape cormorants

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you're up early, but just in time for me to finally catch up on this thread. 


Awesome shots of the bonteboks - they are just stunning. I loved them when I first laid my eyes on them. thanks for highlighting these lesser travelled (and wonderfully quieter) parks.


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Peter Connan

Thank you for a lovely report and excellent photos!

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Phinda Private Game Reserve


While the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 is probably the most significant event in KwaZulu-Natal’s history, the province’s past war on wildlife does not take much of a backseat.  A futile attempt to fight nagana (cattle sleeping sickness carried by tsetse flies) by indiscriminately killing wild animals – the theory being, eliminate the hosts – commenced in 1894 and accelerated a couple of decades later when newly settled farmers and ranchers demanded increased action.  (Many South African soldiers returning from World War I were allotted farms in KwaZulu-Natal.)  Only the later use of DDT, with its attendant problems, stopped the slaughter of wild animals.  


Phinda, the Zulu word for “the return”, is one of the finest examples of a private conservation effort successfully bring back a chunk of land from the dead.  While the game numbers had recovered from the brink, the land had degraded from years of overgrazing by cattle when CC Africa (the former name of & Beyond) consolidated several farms in 1990 into what is Phinda today.  After nearly three decades of active conservation, the land is once again wild and natural.  Phinda is basically bushveld with some coastal influences thrown in.  The majority of the reserve is quite thick, but the northern end opens up some.  There is a small sand forest in the middle of the reserve, an area favored by suni, four-toed sengi (four-toed elephant shrew) and crested guineafowl.  To the east of Phinda lies iSamangaliso Wetland Park, which extends all the way to the Indian Ocean.  


At the Forest Lodge, we are guided by Sarah (“ranger” is the term used at Phinda), who is aided by tracker Chris.  There are two ranger teams at Phinda, and Sarah happens to be the head ranger for the north section.  And it also happens that we are the last ever guests for Sarah, as she is about to launch a new career in Cape Town (hope she made that decision before meeting us).  She and Chris are determined to make her last assignment a memorable one.  The lodge itself is architecturally distinctive, with glass-walled suites that are ensconced in thick vegetation to ensure privacy.  The food and service are top-notch.


Near the mess deck of the Forest Lodge, nyalas are always around, males putting on their remarkable, erect-maned, hunchbacked displays toward each other or toward females.  What beautiful but strange animals they are…  There is so much sexual dimorphism, males and females don’t look at all like they belong to the same species.  It is the beginning of the impala rutting season, and the rams emit improbable, desperate sounds heard around the lodge that signal that they have lost all other thoughts.  Crested guineafowls would file out of the adjacent sand forest each afternoon, crossing the main pathway that runs from the mess deck to the units.  They almost never come out of the shade, and coupled with their dark colors and jerky movements, these birds are frustrating to photograph.  Squack catches a glimpse of a fleeting suni and photographs a Narina trogon one afternoon in camp, but those two species elude me.


Phinda is known perhaps as the best place in South Africa for cheetah.  The reserve was initially stocked with cheetahs translocated from Namibia, and the population has grown to such an extent that surplus Phinda cheetahs have been translocated to other places in Africa for re-stocking.  It is basically unheard of to get shut out of cheetahs at Phinda for a day and a half, but that’s exactly what happens, leaving Sarah and Chris flummoxed.  We finally catch up to a mother and three cubs in the middle of the reserve (the key, as always, is to not look for them) and a mother and two cubs at the northern end of the reserve.  Phinda is a good example that open landscape is not a requirement for cheetahs, and it may serve as an example that cheetahs can thrive in relatively small space (70,560 acres).


White rhinos (with their horns cut off to deter poaching), elephants (sparse for some reason) and lions (spotted at dusk) round out the big game we encounter.  A crowned eagle sighting would be the avian highlight.  Leopard tracks are detected, in fact lots of them, and Sarah and Chris are disappointed that they didn’t deliver the real thing. But Squack and I are not particularly fussed:  the next stop might as well be the world leopard headquarters.



A pair of nyalas.  They don't even look the same species.



Natal red duiker



Hadeda ibis



Fulvous whisling-duck



Black-bellied bustard



A group of lions found at dusk


















Sarah, our guide (ranger)



Chris, the tracker



De-horned white rhinos



A spotted hyena on a waterbuck carcass.  The snare on its neck is a reminder that there is still passive meat-poaching in the area.  Sarah called in the vets.



Impala rams



It's the rutting season and only one thing is on his mind



Chasing after the females



A crested guineafowl at the lodge



One of the rare times to pose still for a photo



Nyala seen near the lodge



In full display mode



From the mess deck






Finally, cheetah!















Black-chested snake-eagle



Crowned eagle



Brown snake-eagle

Edited by Safaridude
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