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KZN winter birding and mammals- July 2023


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Our (MrsQ and me) main focus was birding (and photographing birds) , but we would also be interested in seeing mammals and the landscape. Not to mention eating good food and enjoying good wine. We visited the Cape area in November 2018 and had really enjoyed it so thought we would try a different bit of South Africa. From a UK perspective it is a very good value option. We would self-drive (apart from one day).


Why go in winter when many birds are not in breeding plumage and many migrants are still north? We hoped the weather would not be as hot as it can be in summer in some of the places we would visit (correct) and the weather was likely to be dry (partially correct!).



There are a number of very good trip reports relating to KZN. All were very interesting, but of particular help for this trip were


From @Soukous giving good information on the Sani Pass and Sani Valley Lodge and he also did another report giving info on birding in KZN



from @Dave Williams We looked in particular at the KZN section



from @xelas  very helpful and practical




BA London to Johannesburg

AirLink Johannesburg to Durban


Howick Little Fields Country House (04.07.23) 2 nights

Sani Valley Lodge (06.07.23) 3 nights

Sani Pass 07.07.23 with Stuart Mclean and into Lesotho

St Lucia  Lodge Afrique (09.07.23) 4 nights

Ghost Mountain Inn (13.07.23) 4 nights

(Near to Mkhuze Reserve and a brilliant visit to Pangolin Conservation project)

Mtuzini    One on Hely (17.07.23) 2 nights

Drive to Durban, fly to Johannesburg then London



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Thank you @Treepol

The BA flight to Johannesburg was fine and on time. The AirLink flight to Durban King Shaka International Airport was also good.


We had booked our car through Zest from the UK (we have used them a number of times before). Our car was with Europcar, a high clearance SUV type car – Nissan Magnite automatic. (We watched a few videos before we left on how to drive an automatic). The car was good, comfortable and fine for our use. A drive around the car park helped to adjust to the strange controls.


South Africa drives on the left which is good for us. Petrol is cheap compared to the UK, roughly 2/3 of the price.


We decided to stop for lunch before doing much of the drive towards Howick. MrsQ had researched and we stopped at Bel Punto at Umdloti, only a short drive from the airport.

The was parking in front of the restaurant which meant we could see the car which had our cases in the boot.



Good fish, and we also bought a takeaway Parmigiana di Melanzane for one of our evening meals. We also saw the first bird of the trip!


Red-winged Starling


We then drove to Howick (about 1 ½ -2 hours with some roadworks on the N3. We stopped first at Woolworths in Howick to stock up for our 5 nights of Self-catering. For those in the UK, Woolworths in South Africa is very different to the Woolworths that I remember from my childhood. This was is a good supermarket. We then headed to our base for two nights, Little Fields Country House https://littlefields.co.za/

Arriving in time for a cup of coffee before it began to get dark.


View with cup of coffee


Load Shedding

This basically means a rolling programme of power cuts as there is insufficient capacity to produce the electricity the country needs. We downloaded an app from Eskom (power company) which showed when the area you were in was likely to have power cuts. Little Fields had back-up batteries so not really a problem. Other places we stayed later on had generators. I would recommend that you check when booking accommodation to find out how they cope with load shedding. (we didn't check but were lucky!)

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We stayed in Howick because we wanted to visit Karkloof Conservation centre.

“The Karkloof Conservancy is made up of local farmers, foresters and landowners interested in protecting the biodiversity in the Karkloof.”



There are a number of hides here that we were keen to visit, with the possibility of seeing different species of cranes. We spent a very enjoyable morning visiting the hides.


African Spoonbil disputing this patch of land


Cape Shoveller fly past


South African Shelduck


Malachite Kingfisher


Southern Reedbuck (f)


Southern Reedbuck (m) - these were a bonus as we didn't expect mammals here!


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Views from the hides continued


Pied Kingfisher


Purple Heron


Reed Cormorant


Hadada Ibis - very common, very noisy but pretty in the sunlight


Wattled Cranes fly overhead


African Stonechat


Black Crake


Green Woodhoopoe looking for insects

So we were very pleased with our trip to the hides - a relaxing and easy start to the trip

Edited by TonyQ
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In the afternoon we visited another local reserve – Midmar Dam. This is a short drive from Little Fields. (Pay at the Northern entrance but the best section for wildlife is the Southern section). The tracks were gravel and generally in good condition.


Black-headed Heron flies over


And a Black-winged KIte hovers above us

We were plwased to see a number of mammals here - though the long grass created some difficulties


Blesbok -we initially thought they were Bontebok but a little different


There were a lot of Zebra around


Blue Crane


Common Fiscal sits on a fence


Goliath Heron


Jackal Buzzard


A confident  Zebra at the side of the road


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Beautiful photos Tony, I’m glad you are doing this report. Interesting itinerary, we might copy in the future.🙂

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very nice photos   @TonyQ-and our first time driving an automatic was in south Africa- it ain't natural!

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19 hours ago, michael-ibk said:

Beautiful photos Tony, I’m glad you are doing this report. Interesting itinerary, we might copy in the future.🙂

I agree, and was thinking the same thing!

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@Towlersonsafarithank you - I think it must be easier moving from Manual to automatic than the other way round, but it is strange!

@michael-ibk@Zim Girlthank you. I think you would both probaly enjoy it


Little Fields was fine for a couple of days, but it was cold – who would have thought that in the middle of winter.


It had really nice grounds, and we spent a couple of hours exploring them


Amethyst Sunbird




Cape Canary


Cape White-eye


Speckled Mousebird




Village Weaver


Greater Double-collared Sunbird

Cape Robin-chat.jpg

Cape Robin-chat

Edited by TonyQ
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We then headed off towards Sani Valley Lodge. On the way we stopped at Himeville – firstly to visit a small nature reserve,


Blue Crane fly over


A distant Long-crested Eagle carries away a rat


Pin-tailed Wydah - not in breeding finery


Red-knobbed came very close





It was the middle of the day, and the light was very harsh. The ground has been burnt here - controlled burns are a way of stopping uncontrolled wildfires.


We then stopped in the small, quiet town of Himeville to have a good lunch.

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Sani Valley Lodge

We had three nights booked here. It was roughly 2 hours drive from Little Feilds (not including the stop at the Nature Reserve and for lunch)




A scenic 3.5km drive will take you around the lake to reception.

Please note that although a 4x4 is not necessary there is at least 3.6km of dirt road to drive on, if we have had heavy rain or snow the road can get quite slippery. Our road is a normal farm road so very low profile cars are not recommended.


Our car was fine (high clearance) but they were right about not taking a low clearance car.


The  Lodge is self-catering – there is no restaurant on site, though you can order some food in advance (we didn’t).


We chose this as a base to visit the Sani Pass, and it was recommended by @soukous. We were really pleased with it.

We had a few hours on arrival, then the day in the Sani Pass, then a full day at the lodge. I will cover the time at the lodge first, then I will cover the visit to the Pass.


The light was still good as we arrived at the entrance road. Sunset at this time of year is about 17.10 (sunrise 06.50) so pretty early. There is an entry-phone at the gate and someone came out to let us in. We then took our time driving along the track towards reception.


Long-billed Pipit

We also had one of our favourite sightings sitting unconcerned at the side of the track


Red-winged Francolin





We stopped a bit further on to watch Martins flying over the edge of the Dam catching insects


Rock Martin


After checking in at a very friendly reception we were led to our Lakeside Lodge.

Twilight was beginning to fall, but it was a lovely view sitting on our terrace overlooking the lake, drinking a glass of South African Chardonnay


View in one direction as the sun is going


and showing our balcony

Edited by TonyQ
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Next day we would go to Sani Pass (and I will describe that later), but the day after we would spend around Sani Valley Lodge grounds. Breakfast on the terrace and a then mixture of driving and walking.


Sun coming up


and it begins to light up the landscape as we have breakfast



(I think I forgot to mention most of the wide scenes are taken with my phone and the creatures are generally taken with my Canon R7 and 100-400ii)

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Some birds in the grounds


Common Bulbul


Cardinal Woodpecker


Hamerkop with nest building materials. We saw the nest - it was huge!


A group of Cape Vultures flew overhead


Common Fiscal


A White-necked Raven


A Buff-streaked Chat sat very helpfully on a rock at the side of the road


A Pied Kingfisher hunting over the lake in front of our ldge as we had lunch



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A few pictures showing the grounds


On the right of the picture you can see the dirt road


View across the lake to our lodge


ours is the one on the right


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The lodge is fenced and they do have a number of antelope here. There are no predators for these animals. So not a wilderness but a very enjoyable and relaxing place to be.






And Zebra





You will see that the grass is very dry at this time of year (to see it looking green, have a look at their website!). It was quite warm in the daytime, especially in the sunshine, but it did get cold at night.

We really enjoyed our stay here and would recommend it if you are visiting the Sani Pass.




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Did you use the hot tub @TonyQ?

also, were the wildebeest less grumpy? They weren’t happy with us walking in the same vicinity as them when we visited.

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Thank you for this excellent trip report with such good photos @TonyQ.


I appreciate the trip planning details and advice very much.

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Lovely views from the lodge, beautiful looking location.

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@Tdgraveswe are not really hot-tub people, and it was very cold in the evening. Getting the wood burner working seemed like a better activity! We didn't see any Wildebeeste here unfortunately.

Thank you  @offshorebirder

@Zim Girlit is beautiful - and you could do a lot more walking in the area than we did!

Sani Pass Day Trip

The Sani Pass is a road going from South Africa up into the mountains of Lesotho. It started as a track where herders took their sheep down into South Africa, developed into a mule track for transporting goods and then later into a 4X4 track. More recently parts of it have been paved – but there is still a difficult bit of road in the middle.

describes the road and history really well in his trip report (I can't get it to just post a link!)

We decided to go with Stuart McLean and his 4x4 (as did @soukous)



I will say more about him later, but just to say he was excellent and we recommend him without hesitation.


Stuart picked us up at 07.00 from our lodge. (Special note: You need your passport to this trip if you are a foreigner)


We stopped on the road for a couple of surprise early mammal sightings




Cape Clawless Otter (Photo MrsQ) – even Stuart took a photo of this


We stopped at a couple of places near the bottom of the pass to do a bit of birding


Black-headed Heron


Olive Woodpecker


Half-collared Kingfisher


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We then joined the tarmac road as it began climbing into the mountains



Stuart new his patch really well. Different sites along the way  were home to different species of bird.


Ground Woodpecker


Red-throated Wryneck


Gurney’s Sugarbird


Drakensberg Prinia


Notice near South African Border Post showing altitude of different features.


The names going upto and beyond the South African border post get more and more inmaginative!


The South African Border Post is not at the South African Border!


Cape Sparrow watches us as we show passports to the South African officials.

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The road from South Africa is tarmacked up to the Border Post, but there is still a steep climb for about 10km, gaining about 1000m over very rough, winding road before you reach the actual border (and the Lesotho Border Post).


A good section of the dirt road


We were pleased to see a few Rhebok at the side of the road




View back down towards South Africa – you can see the road in the bottom right corner


A car on the way up showing the scale (thank you MrsQ)


The weather was beautiful for our trip, though it was cold in parts, and it could be windy. In the winter some parts of the road do not get any sunshine, so you can get patches of ice in these areas – or even



Frozen Waterfall (I don’t think I have seen one like that before!)

Edited by TonyQ
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Eventually we reach the Lesotho Border. Stuart deals with the paperwork and we enter a new country for us – a small country completely surrounded by South Africa.


There is a pub here which claims to be the highest in Africa (although this is disputed). There are also toilets!



There are some interesting birds here




Drakensberg Siskin (F and M)



Cape Bunting - very common up here


We also see the Best Named mammal of the trip


Sloggett's Ice Rat (also known as Vlei Rat).


They are adapted to the cold with their rounded body, small ears and short tail. They also live in communal burrows for warmth


Lesotho will follow in the next posts....

Edited by TonyQ
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4 hours ago, TonyQ said:

Sloggett's Ice Rat (also known as Vlei Rat)


Cute little fellows!

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Sani Pass looks like a great day trip. The frozen waterfall is amazing and the Sloggett's rats are very cute.

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