North-west Zululand – Pongola Lebombo Cliffs

About the Birding

The Lebombo Mountain range stretches from Phinda in the south to the southern parks of Kruger National Park in the north, dividing the coastal plain for the higher inland escarpment. At their highest point, the Lebombo Mountains rise about 800m above the surrounding lowlands. They are blanketed in dry bushveld and grassland, but isolated forest patches occur in the ravines. Extensive cliff systems may also be found throughout this range, the most accessible of which can be found on the main roads leading into Tongaland.

The lower sections support a high diversity of bushveld species including the Scarlet-chested Sunbird, Long-billed Crombec, Jameson’s Firefinch, Bearded Woodpecker, Burnt-necked Eremomela, Familiar Chat, Striped Kingfisher, Jacobin Cuckoo, Brown-crowned Tchagra, and Orange-breasted Bush-shrike. Higher up, the vegetation is noticeably thicker and these moister habitats support the Red-fronted Tinkerbird, Olive Woodpecker, Black-backed Puffback, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Purple-crested Turaco, Yellow-breasted Apalis, White-throated Robin-chat, Spectacled Weaver and Sombre Greenbul. Seeding roadside grasses may yield the Swee Waxbill, African Firefinch and Streaky-headed Seedeater. Closer to the cliffs, look for the Red-winged Starling, Mocking Cliff-chat, and Cape Rock Thrush.

The Lebombo Cliff systems attract an impressive diversity of birds-of-prey. Several pairs of Peregrine Falcon and Black Stork are known to breed in the area, while the thermals attract the Lesser Spotted, Steppe, Tawny, Wahlberg’s, Martial and Botted Eagles, Rock Kestrel, Lanner Falcon, African Harrier-hawk, Gabar Goshawk, Black-chested Snake-eagle and African Hawk-eagle.

Key species:

Martial Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Mocking Cliff-chat, Purple-crested Turaco, Olive Woodpecker

About the Birding Site

North-west Zululand is one of the most varied of the birding routes in KwaZulu-Natal ranging in habitat from high altitude temperate grasslands in the west, to low lying subtropical thickets in the east including several large wetlands. Given this incredibly high habitat diversity, it is no surprise that the route also boasts an impressive checklist of birds including 58 of Southern Africa’s endemic and near-endemic species, many of which are confined to the extensive grasslands and wetlands.

Birding is generally best in the warmer summer months (September-April) when the resident species are supplemented by the influx of migrants, though the dry winter months often facilitate large congregations of birds around several nationally important wetlands. Many sites on the route are easy to access on fair roads though drivers are cautioned that gravel roads may become impassable during the wet season limiting access to a few sites. Moreover, given the size of the sub-route in general, the region is further divided into five distinct birding areas each treated individually. These include the Louwsberg, Pongola, Ulundi, Umfolozi, and Vryheid areas.

The Pongola sub-route covers much of the eastern coastal plain including the immense Jozini Dam and several areas bordering the Lebombo Mountains. These regions feature the only examples of Sweet Lowveld Bushveld, supporting a vast array of species including several species that are rare in other parts of KwaZulu-Natal. Among these are the Burchell’s Starling, Bennett’s Woodpecker, Levaillant’s Cuckoo, Purple Roller, Magpie Shrike and Red-headed Weaver. The route includes small areas of habitat which are more characteristic of eastern Zululand, in which several of the coastal plain endemics may be seen including the Rudd’s Apalis, Pink-throated Twinspot, Lemon-breasted Canary and Neergaard’s Sunbird. Notable sites along this sub-route include the Hlatikhulu Forest, Lebombo Cliffs, Pongola Game and Nature Reserves and the Mkuze Falls Game Reserve.

Key species:

Martial Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Mocking Cliff-chat, Purple-crested Turaco, Olive Woodpecker

Other Related Information

Situated off the N2 highway, about 12km north of the village of Mkuze turn right onto the Jozini/Ndumo/Tembe/Kosi road. The road up the mountain is visible from the highway. Follow this tar road up, stopping at any of the 5 or so spots where it is safe off the road.

Other related information:

Recommended accommodation nearby:
White Elephant Safari Lodge and Bush Camp is the only listed Birder Friendly Establishment in the Pongola area, situated within Pongola Game Reserve. White Elephant features 12 ‘glamping’ units, and self-catering accommodation for up to 17 people split across seven 6-sleeper chalets or the Umkhaya Cottage.

For more information or to make a booking please contact.
Tel: +27 (0)34 413 2489

Diverse accommodation options are also available within the town of Pongola itself including caravan and camping, self-catering, B&B and more luxurious options.

Local guide information:
The nearest BirdLife Community Guides operate out of Mkuze and Lower Mkuze, to the south of Pongola. For more information, please visit:

Text prepared by:
Daniel Keith Danckwerts (Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Tours)

Key species:

Martial Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Mocking Cliff-chat, Purple-crested Turaco, Olive Woodpecker

Contact details: