Central Kruger National Park – Letaba

About the Birding

The Kruger National Park covers 19,685 kilometres and is the 10th largest game reserve in the world. It has 3000 kilometres of road, 23 rest camps and a host of excellent picnic sites, walking trails, 4×4 routes, hides and massive dams. A remarkable new initiative involving the Kruger National Park is the creation of a fence free park that allows animals to migrate freely across national borders. In May 2002, Kruger, Coutada 16 (in Mozambique) and Gonarezhou (in Zimbabwe) formally merged into the 35 000 square kilometre Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park, one of the largest game reserves in the world.

The big game viewing in Kruger rivals that of any reserve in Africa with large elephant, buffalo and lion populations being relatively easily seen. Every year over a million visitors tally up in the region of 520 bird species. Birding is best in the summer months (November to March) with the arrival of summer migrants but a remarkable amount of birds can be seen in the winter months (May – July). Birding is fantastic throughout the park but the northern area is host to a number of species that are on the edge of their southernmost range and do not occur elsewhere in South Africa. A birding trip to Kruger National Park should be on the agenda of any birder in South Africa.

The Letaba area of Kruger National Park is centred on the Letaba River, but is otherwise dominated by extensive mopane woodland and the floodplain of the Letaba River. The camp itself is roughly 60km from the Phalaborwa Gate and is 80km to the north of Satara Rest Camp (treated separately). The Letaba Rest Camp is well spaced out with the highlight being a paved footpath that runs along the northern perimeter through broad-leaved riparian vegetation then back along the road skirting the southern perimeter fence. Here the Gabar Goshawk is readily seen, while other camp residents include the Red-headed Weaver, African Palm Swift, Mourning Collared Dove, Red-winged Starling, Red-capped Robin-chat, Bearded Scrub-robin, both the Bennett’s and Bearded Woodpeckers, Green-capped Eremomela, and Grey-headed Bushshrike. Check the swallows over the river for the Grey-rumped and Pearl-breasted Swallows, and even Horus Swift in the summer months. The river itself regularly holds the regal Saddle-billed Stork. After dark, look for African Scops Owl, Western Barn Owl and both the Pearl-spotted and African Barred Owlets.

Leaving camp, the route along the south bank of the river takes one south to Olifants Camp and in the direction of the Engelhardt Dam. Species to look for outside the camp include the Temminck’s Courser, Dusky Lark (summer), African Grey and Southern Red-billed Hornbills, Wahlberg’s Eagle, Mosque Swallows, Stierling’s Wren-warbler, both the Red-billed and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers, and Green-winged Pytilia. The Engelhardt Dam should be checked for Collared Pratincole in mid-summer. Water-levels are variable but other species to look out for include the African Openbill, African Spoonbill, Goliath Heron, and pelicans and flamingos.

Key species:

Dusky Lark, Collared Pratincole, Temminck’s Courser, Saddle-billed Stork, Green-capped Eremomela

About the Birding Site

The majority of birders actively plan birding trips to areas where they can either see a large number of birds in a short space of time or around rarities/localized species that would not easily be seen elsewhere. The Kruger to Canyons Birding Route offers both these highlights and a captivating wildlife experience to visiting birders.

Contained within the Kruger to Canyons Birding Route are 10 provincial nature reserves, the world’s largest collection of privately owned nature reserves, and the world-famous Kruger National Park. The route includes three vegetative biomes namely Montane Grassland, Afromontane Forest, Savanna and a fascinating vegetation unit of Northern Escarpment Afromontane Fynbos with strong links to that of the Fynbos Biome which is otherwise restricted to the Western Cape. This diverse range of habitats provides a home to a total of 76 bird families and a staggering 510 species of which 8 are endemic to the region. The Lowveld is a raptor watchers’ dream destination with approximately 85% of South Africa’s raptors being concentrated in this region. The fantastic road infrastructure and well-established tourism industry, offering accommodation in unparalleled surroundings, provides birders with an excellent platform from which to explore the area.

The route starts at Graskop and the top of the Blyde River Canyon from where it meanders along the course of the panoramic Canyon before plunging down through the Abel Erasmus Pass, the only known breeding site of the rare Taita Falcon in South Africa, and into the Lowveld. The drop in altitude from 1730 to 250 meters above sea level gives rise to a multitude of breath-taking views of a Tufa waterfall, wooded valleys and the expanse of open savanna below. Once down in the Lowveld the route reaches the town of Hoedspruit where a number of different birding opportunities are presented. The Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve, which includes the Swadini Dam, offers a wide variety of typical bushveld bird species and also includes African Finfoot, White-backed Night Heron and Green Twinspot. Mariepskop, which is one of the best-kept birding secrets in South Africa, is largely dominated by Afromontane Forest, but also includes a piece of Northern Escarpment Afromontane Fynbos habitat at the summit. Exploring both habitats assures a treasured day’s birding with species such as Orange Ground Thrush, Black-fronted Bush Shrike, Red-necked Spurfowl and Gurney’s Sugarbird.

Alternatively one can continue on to the town of Phalaborwa, which as well as offering a diverse range of bushveld birding, has a number of wetlands which is uncharacteristic of the area. The region offers some fantastic bird species such as White-crowned Lapwing, Pel’s Fishing Owl and Saddle-billed Stork. Phalaborwa is also a gateway to the central section of the Kruger National Park which has been rated as one of the top birding destinations in Southern Africa with a species list exceeding 500 species. Kruger’s rest camps of Mopani, Letaba, Olifants and Satara with their fantastic mixture of bushveld and riparian habitat birding anchor the Kruger to Canyons Birding Route. Look out for species such as African Barred Owlet, Southern Ground Hornbill, Collared Pratincole and Yellow-billed Oxpecker.

The Kruger to Canyons Birding Route offers an amazing and diverse number of species within three different biomes supported by well-maintained infrastructure and world-class accommodation options catering specifically for birders. Birding sites along this route are broadly divided by their proximity to several key towns in the area or notable features of this route such as the Abel Erasmus Pass and Blyde River Canyon. The central parts of Kruger National Park are then treated separately from the northern parts (covered in the Soutpansberg sub-route) of this expansive reserve.

Key species:

Dusky Lark, Collared Pratincole, Temminck’s Courser, Saddle-billed Stork, Green-capped Eremomela

Other Related Information

Take the N1 toll-road to Polokwane (Pietersburg). 40 km before Polokwane turn right onto the R71 and head for Tzaneen. After Tzaneen, head towards Phalaborwa and the gate. Allow between 6 to 7 hours for the trip to the gate. Letaba Rest Camp is 51 km away from the gate. Allow about 2 hours for the drive to the camp, however, if you want to enjoy the game viewing possibilities give yourself more time!

Other related information:

Recommended accommodation nearby:
SANPARKS offer a range of accommodation options within Letaba Rest Camp including 60 electrified campsites with communal ablutions and cooking facilities, 5 rusting 3-bed huts with communal ablution facilities, 20 safari tents with communal ablutions and kitchens, 86 self-catering bungalows, and 10 self-catering guest cottages. The camp also features a small picnic area for day visitors, a fuel station, and a small convenience shop. For more information or to make a reservation, please visit www.sanparks.org.

The nearest BirdLife Recommended Accommodations are in the nearby towns of Phalaborwa and Hoedspruit.

Hoedspruit – Toro Yaka Bush Lodge:
Physical address: Balule Nature Reserve,
(On the R40 between Hoedspruit & Phalaborwa)
Fax: +27 (0)12 991 5984 or 086 603 8251
Mobile: +27 (0)82 308 5763
E-mail: info@toroyaka.co.za
Web: http://toroyaka.co.za/

Phalaborwa – Abelana Game Reserve:
Abelana Game Reserve
Cell: (+27) 061 952 4302
Website: www.abelanagamereserve.com
Email: info@abelanagamereserve.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/abelanagamereserve/

Phalaborwa – Antares Bush Camp & Safaris
Cell: 083 2868281 (Ian) or 0828115696 (Mel)
Website: www.antares.co.za
Email: info@antares.co.za
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AntaresBushCamp

Phalaborwa – Sunbird Lodge
Physical address: 21 Aalwyn Street, Phalaborwa
Tel: +27 (0)15 781 5559
Fax: +27 (0)15 781 5559
Mobile: +27 (0)72 756 1875
E-mail: info@sunbirdlodge.com
Web: http://www.sunbirdlodge.com

Local guide information:
A number of guided activities are available through SANPARKS and bookings are made directly at the reception in Letaba Rest Camp.

Text prepared by:
Daniel Danckwerts (Rockjumper Birding Tours)

Key species:

Dusky Lark, Collared Pratincole, Temminck’s Courser, Saddle-billed Stork, Green-capped Eremomela

Contact details:

Letaba Rest Camp
Tel: +27 (0)13 735 6636/7
Fax: +27 (0)13 735 6662
Cell: +27 (0)82 802 1255