The floral displays in Namaqualand can be stunning. Photo: Steve Rooke
In recent years South Africa has become a very popular destination for birdwatchers, and a glance at one of its many excellent field guides soon reveals why. Over 700 bird species occur here, over 100 of which are endemic or nearly so; thousands of kilometers of shoreline harbor a myriad of migrant and resident birds; and some of the largest concentrations of seabirds in the world congregate offshore.
Early September is the very best time to visit western South Africa. Spring is everywhere, and many of the birds will be in full breeding plumage as they busy themselves with the onset of nesting. If the early rains have been good, we should also be treated to one of the best wildflower displays anywhere. Our journey will take us from the rolling red sand dunes of the Kalahari Desert through the hauntingly beautiful plains of Bushmanland to the Atlantic coast. From there we travel to the vast expanse of the Great Karoo before ending our tour where two oceans meet, at the windswept Cape of Good Hope.
This will be Steve’s twelfth year of tours in South Africa, and he has designed this itinerary to highlight the best birding the Western Cape has to offer.
You can see a map of our tour route here.
Day 1: The tour begins this evening in Johannesburg.
Day 2: We’ll fly this morning to Upington, gateway to the Kalahari Desert. Upington sits on the Orange River, and our first stop will be along its banks, where our birding begins with White-throated Swallow, White-backed and Red-faced Mousebirds, African Hoopoe, Crested Barbet, Red-eyed Bulbul, Orange River White-eye, the localized Namaqua Warbler, Cape Sparrow, and Black-throated Canary.
Later we’ll begin our drive into the Kalahari. As the landscape gradually becomes more arid, the birdlife will also change, and we won’t have gone far before seeing one of the region’s characteristic features, a massive Sociable Weaver nest. Other species that will break our journey could include White-backed Vulture, Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk, Pygmy Falcon, and possibly Double-banded Courser or Short-toed Rock Thrush. Night in Askham.
Day 3: Sandwiched between Namibia and Botswana, Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Reserve is one of Africa’s wildest and least known national parks. We’ll start early to be at the reserve gate at dawn, then head for a small waterhole where we should be treated to flocks of Namaqua Sandgrouse (and possibly a few of the rarer Burchell’s Sandgrouse) coming to drink, along with hordes of other birds such as Namaqua Dove, Cape Sparrow, Gray-backed Sparrowlark, Red-headed Finch, and of course the ubiquitous Sociable Weaver. We’re allowed to leave the vehicle at only a few designated places, so we’ll spend the morning slowly driving along roads along an old river bed, using the vehicle as a mobile blind. Small birds that will be instantly obvious will include Chat and Marico Flycatchers, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater, and swarms of Scaly-feathered Finches; among the special birds we’ll be looking for are Fawn-colored Lark, the stunning Crimson-breasted Shrike, Ashy Tit, and Kalahari Scrub-Robin.
The reserve is also a great place for raptors, and we can expect to encounter Gabar Goshawk, Lanner and possibly Red-necked Falcons, Bateleur, and Martial Eagle; the massive Verreaux’s Eagle Owl can usually be found with ease. In the more open areas, we stand a chance of finding the strange Secretarybird or a Kori Bustard.
Gemsbok are common here, as are Springbok and Blue Wildebeest, while there’s always the possibility of an encounter with an endearing troupe of Meerkats. We might also see a pride of the large, black-maned Kalahari Lions, or a skulking Cheetah.
The countryside outside the reserve is also good for birds, and we’ll be on the lookout for Northern Black Korhaan, African Grey and Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills, Pearl Spotted Owlet, and Groundscraper Thrush to mention a few. Night in Askham.
Day 4: Today we’ll retrace our steps to Upington, stopping on the way to look for Eastern Clapper and Pink-billed Larks. We’ll also stop at Augrabies National Park, where the Orange River tumbles into a deep and spectacular gorge before flowing on to form the border with Namibia. We’ll take time to admire the falls and to look at some of the plentiful birdlife, including Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Acacia Pied Barbet, Pale-winged Starling, White-throated Canary, and Southern Masked Weaver. Night in Pofadder.
Day 5: South of the Orange River lie the arid and semi-arid regions of Bushmanland, a hauntingly beautiful landscape where, in the not too distant past, San tribes hunted the migrant herds of antelope. This area is still sparsely populated, and it’s possible to travel all day without seeing another person. Driving along the endless dirt roads that serve the remote farms, we’ll hope to see Great Kestrel, Karoo Korhaan, Ludwig’s Bustard, Tractrac, Sickle-winged and Karoo Chats, Layard’s Tit-babbler, Southern Gray Tit, and Lark-like Bunting, among many other species. Water is a great attraction in this arid region, and we’ll stop at the many small drinking troughs to see what is coming in. In particular, we’ll be hoping for even more of the region’s larks, including Sabota, Sclater’s, Stark’s, Thick-billed, Karoo Long-billed, and Spike-heeled Larks. Later in the day we’ll visit an area of red sand dunes in search of the rare Red Lark, found in just a few small areas of the northern Cape. Night in Pofadder.
Day 6: We’ll leave early this morning to travel west to the town of Springbok, gateway to Namaqualand and its world-famous wildflowers. Close to town lies the reserve of Goegap, and a visit here will instantly tell us whether the rains have been good, as in those years the place is covered in sheets of pastel-colored flowers. Whether the flowers are there or not, there are still birds to see, including Mountain Chat, Bokmakierie, Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Malachite Sunbird, and Black-headed and Damara Canaries.
Later we’ll take the main road south, perhaps venturing out onto the side roads and the maze of dirt tracks that weave through the mosaic of hills and fields. Here, too, we may find whole fields of wildflowers; it won’t be easy to drag ourselves away from this botanical extravaganza, but an equally dazzling ornithological one awaits us farther south, at the thriving fishing port of Lambert’s Bay. We’ll arrive just in time to sample the delights of an excellent open-air fish restaurant on the beach, with the waves of the Atlantic crashing just a few yards away. Night at Lambert’s Bay.
Day 7: We’ll start the day with a dawn visit to the extensive coastal fynbos that surrounds the town, where we’ll look for Karoo and Cape Clapper Larks, both of which should be performing their song flights. Other species here might include Karoo Scrub Robin, Karoo Prinia, Gray-backed Cisticola, Cape Penduline Tit, and Bar-throated Apalis.
We’ll move on to breakfast, then visit the famous Cape Gannet colony, which will be teeming with tens of thousands of birds well into their breeding season. The sight, the sound, and, it must be said, the smell of all those birds packed together is unforgettable. We should also find Cape and Crowned Cormorants jostling for space among the gannet throng, and we’ll watch Cape Fur Seals basking on the rocks.
Leaving Lambert’s Bay, we’ll follow the coast south to Veldriff, at the mouth of the Berg River. Swift Terns will be much in evidence here, along with Caspian Terns, Cape and Hartlaub’s Gulls, and shorebirds including Pied Avocet and Marsh Sandpiper. Flocks of both Greater and Lesser Flamingos and thousands of Cape Cormorants should also be present. Later we’ll move on to Saldana, where we can get close views of Bank Cormorants and where we’ll have our first encounters with African Penguin and African Black Oystercatcher. Night in Saldana.
Day 8: The nearby small town of Langebaan lies at the head of an enormous inlet that forms the spectacular West Coast Nature Reserve. We’ll visit the reserve to search for striking Black Harriers quartering the flower-strewn coastal fynbos, and spend time searching through the flocks of shorebirds that make this huge natural lagoon their winter home. In addition to the many migrant shorebirds from the north, we should also find such residents as White-fronted and Kittlitz’s Plovers; with luck, we may also encounter the scarce Chestnut-banded Plover. At the edges of the small pools we’ll find nesting Cape Weavers and vivid Southern Red Bishops, while Southern Black Korhaans and Cape Francolins can frequently be found along the roadside. There should be some superb flower displays here, and if the weather is clear, we’ll get our first distant glimpse of Table Mountain.
After leaving the reserve, we’ll visit a smaller reserve a little ways inland, famous for its display of wildflowers, where we’ll be hoping to see Orange-throated Longclaw and Cloud Cisticola. We’ll continue inland to the Cederberg Mountains, where we’ll spend the night at a remote guest house high in the hills.
Day 9: We’ll awake to some truly spectacular mountain scenery and the sound of displaying Cape Clapper Larks. We’ll begin our full day exploring these hills and the wonderful karoo habitat with a visit to a rocky gorge, where we’ll look for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler, Fairy Flycatcher, Pririt Batis, and Layard’s Tit Babbler. Moving on, we’ll drop down into the karoo, an endless stony plain covered in the most beautiful array of small euphorbias and succulent scrub. If there has been rain, we may find flocks of Black-eared Sparrowlarks visiting waterholes or Double-banded Coursers running over the stony ground; a Karoo Korhaan could turn up anywhere.
This is good chat country, and we’ll have time to compare Karoo, Tractrac, and Sickle-winged Chats. Elsewhere we may find Rufous-eared Warbler, Karoo Eremomela, or Gray-winged Francolin, while a visit to the town of Ceres should give us African Black Duck or a noisy Giant Kingfisher.
Day 10: We’ll leave Cederberg Mountains to drive over some high passes and through stunning scenery. Before arriving in the quaint town of Swellendam, we’ll detour to Paarl, where parts of a large sewage plant have been converted into a bird reserve. Here we may find some species not seen elsewhere on the tour, such as Black Crake, White-faced Whistling Duck, Hottentot Teal, Little Bittern, or Malachite Kingfisher. We’ll also visit the Paarl mountain reserve to look for Protea Canary and Olive Woodpecker before continuing to Swellendam. Night in Swellendam.
Day 11: Close to town there is a reserve established for the beautifully marked Bontebok. In addition to good numbers of this endangered antelope, we could also see Stanley’s Bustard, Knysna Woodpecker, Pearl-breasted Swallow, Agulhas Clapper and Agulhas Long-billed Larks, and Southern Tchagra.
Later we’ll head south, driving through undulating agricultural fields where we should find large groups of Blue Cranes. We’ll cross the Breede River on the Malgas ferry, the last working ferry in South Africa. We’ll also stop at Potberg, a towering hill which is one of the last strongholds of Cape Vulture; we should have good views of these magnificent birds overhead. As the day draws to a close, we’ll head west on the road to Cape Town, crossing the Overberg Mountains at Sir Lowry’s Pass for some superb views of False Bay, the Cape Flats, and Table Mountain. Night in Cape Town.
Days 12-15: We’ll have four days to sample the delights of birding around the tip of Africa. The weather here is notoriously fickle, but if conditions permit we’ll venture out onto the South Atlantic one day in search of seabirds. Our objective is to find a deep-sea trawler that appears to have a thick dark cloud of smoke trailing for several kilometers behind it. Astonishingly, this “smoke” will be a throng of thousands of seabirds, mostly albatrosses, petrels, and shearwaters, following the ship in search of offal being dumped overboard. As we cruise among this mass of birds, binoculars will hardly be necessary: many of the birds will be almost too close to focus on. The mix of birds is variable, with a wide variety of possible species, but we should see Shy, Black-browed, and Yellow-nosed Albatrosses; Southern Giant, Pintado, and White-chinned Petrels; Sooty and Great Shearwaters; Sub-antarctic Skua; and Wilson’s Storm-Petrel. Less common possibilities include Antarctic Fulmar, Wandering Albatross, and Soft-plumaged Petrel, and there’s always the chance of a real seabird rarity. There may be a few Antarctic Terns heading to their southern breeding grounds or a Sabine’s Gull freshly arrived from the north. All of these will be mingling with thousands of Cape Gannets, Cape Gulls, and Cape Fur Seals.
Back on dry land, we’ll explore the Cape’s verdant mountains, passes, and valleys looking for Ground Woodpecker, Knysna Warbler, Grassbird, Orange-breasted Sunbirds, and Cape Siskin. We’ll take time to visit the world-famous Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in the shadow of Table Mountain. These gardens are not just a wonderful place for plants, but also very good for plenty of birds. A resident Spotted Eagle Owl can usually be found at its daytime roost, Cape Batis and Forest Canaries feed in the undergrowth, and Cape Sugarbirds, Cape White Eyes, and Lesser Double-collared Sunbirds buzz around the masses of flowers, while Sombre Greenbuls call loudly from the undergrowth. Black Sawwings skim overhead, and there is a good chance at seeing a majestic Black Eagle or Red-breasted Sparrowhawk soaring around the slopes of Table Mountain.
On one day we’ll cross to the other side of False Bay to visit an area famed for close views of Southern Right Whales. We’ll search rocky slopes for Cape Rockjumper and the shy Victorin’s Warlber, while a visit to the famous Strandfontein Sewage Farm should produce close encounters with Greater Flamingo, Glossy Ibis, Pied Avocet, and waterfowl including Southern Pochard and Maccoa Duck. We’ll also visit an African Penguin colony, and of course we’ll fit in a visit to the Cape of Good Hope itself. Nights in Cape Town.
Day 15: The tour concludes this afternoon in Cape Town.
Updated: 05 October 2010
- 2013 Tour Price : $4,750
- Single Occupancy Supplement : $420
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a modest discount. Details here.
* This tour is organized by our British company, Sunbird. Please review the explanation of our Sunbird pricing here.
This tour is limited to seven participants with one leader; 14 with two leaders.