Mariepskop Nature Reserve

About the Birding

The Mariepskop Nature Reserve is located against the slopes and on top of the Drakensberg escarpment. The relatively small area on top of the escarpment (± 2000 m above sea level) is unique in supporting small areas of fynbos, a biome normally only found in the cape regions. This small and isolated pocket of fynbos harbours an extraordinary diversity of plant species that attract birds that are hard to see elsewhere on this Birding Route such as Gurney’s sugarbird, Greater Double-collared Sunbird and Cape canary.

Going up to Mariepskop will take you through three different biomes: bushveld, montane forest and fynbos. Because of the great variety of habitats present over a relatively short distance, this area can be highly rewarding for birding. Along the dirt road towards Mariepskop, raptors such as African hawk-eagle are often perched on the power lines along the road. On the way up to Mariepskop, the disturbed areas are good for Red-collared widowbirds, Pin-tailed Whydah, Southern Red Bishop, Cape White-eye and Common Buzzard (summer only). Around the Forestry Office and the adjoining forest, you can find African Olive-pigeon, Knysna Turaco, Grey-headed Bush Shrike, Olive Woodpecker, Sombre Greenbul, Bar-throated Apalis, Southern Boubou and if you are patient enough even Buff-spotted Flufftail. The latter is best searched for in mid-summer when the haunting call given by males can be heard in the early mornings and later afternoons, especially on misty days.

Key species:

Gurney’s Sugarbird, Orange Ground Thrush, Knysna Turaco, Buff-spotted Flufftail

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:

Gurney’s Sugarbird, Orange Ground Thrush, Knysna Turaco, Buff-spotted Flufftail

Other Related Information

At the Forestry Office, you can obtain a permit to visit the fynbos area on top of the escarpment. An obligatory guide will accompany you to the top to show you around and give information about the area, flora and fauna. There are a variety of hiking trails of varying distances and difficulty available. All the trails start at the Forestry Office, where a booklet with information about the various trails is available.

Other related information:

The walks are all mostly guided walks and a small fee for the guide is to be paid at the Forestry Office. Accommodation is available in two well equipped and very affordable chalets that both sleep up to 5 people. Bookings can be made through the Forestry Office. The stunning location of the picnic spot on the Blyde River makes it worthwhile visiting. A small entrance fee is charged. The forest surrounding the picnic spot is endemic and offers some good birding opportunities. Along the river several heron species and other water birds such as African black duck can be found.

To reach Mariepskop Nature Reserve, coming on the R40 from Phalaborwa or Hoedspruit, you take the R531 towards Ohrigstad on the right-hand side. Immediately after you have turned onto the R531 you pass under a bridge and the Klaserie1stop is on your left. Take the left turn towards the Klaserie1stop and take the first dirt road on your right. Follow this road to the foot of the mountain and keep following the signs to the Forestry Office.

Recommended accommodation nearby:
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

Phalaborwa – Abelana Game Reserve:
Abelana Game Reserve
Cell: (+27) 061 952 4302

Phalaborwa – Antares Bush Camp & Safaris
Cell: 083 2868281 (Ian) or 0828115696 (Mel)

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

Local guide information:
Thabelo Sekome is a community bird guide that operates at Mariepskop. He knows the area exceptionally well and can help you find specials such as the Orange Ground Thrush. You can contact him directly on + 27 (0)84 955 2975.

Text prepared by:
Daniel Danckwerts (Rockjumper Birding Tours)

Key species:

Gurney’s Sugarbird, Orange Ground Thrush, Knysna Turaco, Buff-spotted Flufftail

Contact details:

Mariepskop Forestry Office
Tel: +27 (0)15 7932581/3