Northern Escarpment – Cheerio Valley

About the Birding

The Cheerio Valley covers nearly 100 ha of forest and includes the world-famous Cheerio Gardens with their Azaleas, flowering cherries and crab apples. Interestingly, these exotic gardens attract a remarkable array of forest and mountain birds, and a walk along the well laid out paths may provide sightings of Lemon Dove, White-Starred Robin, Barratt’s Warbler, Orange Ground-Thrush and Green Twinspot. There have even been a few sightings of Bush Blackcap here.

Trails lead through a section of indigenous forest in which the elusive Narina Trogon is regularly spotted. Numerous small dams on the property attract the likes of Half-collared Kingfisher, African Black and White-backed Duck, Purple Heron, and the resident Cape Clawless Otters.

Key species:

Orange Ground-Thrush, Green Twinspot, Barratt’s Warbler, White-starred Robin, Bush Blackcap

About the Birding Site

The Capricorn-Letaba birding route stretches from the city of Polokwane in the west to the Great Letaba River beyond the Letsitele valley in the east. The route runs just a few degrees south of the Tropic of Capricorn, mainly along the R71 road which links the towns of Polokwane, Haenertsburg, Tzaneen and Gravelotte.

An interesting geographical feature of this route is its varying altitude. Polokwane lies on a plateau at approximately 1300 masl, further east lies the escarpment of the Northern Drakensberg and Wolkberg mountain ranges where the altitude reaches 2300 masl. The route then drops down into the Lowveld where the altitude is approximately 480 masl at the Letaba River. These extreme variations in altitude result in a great range of vegetation types within a relatively small area. Within these diverse habitats, over 500 bird species are to be found.

The open thornveld habitat of the Polokwane plateau supports a great variety of both Bushveld and Kalahari-type birds. Typical species here include Crimson-breasted Shrike, Barred Wren-Warbler, Short-clawed Lark and Black-faced Waxbill. Just before reaching the foothills of the Drakensberg and Wolkberg Mountains, one passes through the outcrop strewn Mamabolo Bushveld. These granite inselbergs hold many rock-dwelling species, including Southern Bald Ibis’s northern-most population. In the Northern Drakensberg and Wolkberg sections of the route, birders enjoy vast tracts of montane grassland, which is Blue Swallow territory and houses other sought after species such as Broad-tailed Warbler, Croaking Cisticola and Drakensberg Prinia. The afro-montane forests of Woodbush and Magoebaskloof offer amongst the best forest birding in the country with specials like Brown Scrub-Robin, Black-fronted Bush Shrike, Barratt’s Warbler, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, and Orange Ground Thrush. The eastern lower slopes and valleys of Magoebaskloof provide reliable sites for the elusive Bat Hawk and Green Twinspot. The Tzaneen area is well-known for its sub-tropical fruit industry and the interesting mix of lowland habitats here support a wide range of species including Gorgeous Bush Shrike, White-browed Robin-chat and Purple-crested Turaco. The Lowveld region around Letsitele and along the Letaba River is blanketed in extensive Mopane Woodland where Arnot’s Chat is resident. There are many Lowveld rivers with their associated riparian forest habitats where the likes of Greater Blue-eared Starling, Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver, Retz’s Helmet-Shrike and Thick-billed Cuckoo can be found. This is also one of the prime raptor areas in the region.

The Capricorn-Letaba Birding Route is further divided into four different birding areas, namely the Northern Escarpment, Polokwane, The Lowveld and Tzaneen. Each area has its unique character and a set of special bird species. The area is also well-supported by a variety of different accommodation options as well as several easily accessible birding sites.

The Northern Escarpment is the route’s mountainous area and is made up by the Wolkberg and Northern Drakensberg mountain ranges, where the altitude reaches 2300 masl. The high annual rainfall of the area results in lush Afromontane forest and rolling montane grassland habitats. Unfortunately, most of the grasslands have been lost to commercial forestation, but patches of this unique habitat and its diverse inhabitants still occur around Haenertsburg and in the Wolkberg Wilderness Area.

These grasslands support a small population of Blue Swallow, as well as, Gurney’s Sugarbirds, Malachite Sunbirds, Broad-tailed Warbler, Red-winged Francolin and Striped Flufftail. The Afromontane forests are amongst the most extensive and beautiful in the country, with the Woodbush, Grootbosch, Swartbosch and Black Forest forming an interconnected band of pristine habitat along the eastern and southern slopes of the escarpment. Look out for specials like Cape Parrot, Black-fronted Bush-Shrike, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, and African Crowned Eagle in these forests.

Key species:

Orange Ground-Thrush, Green Twinspot, Barratt’s Warbler, White-starred Robin, Bush Blackcap

Other Related Information

Other activities include trout fishing, mountain biking and hiking. There are picnic sites and a beautiful tea garden that serves light meals.

Approaching Polokwane on the N1, just after the Shell Ultra, the road separates into two and there is a sign (Tzaneen 600mts.) Slow down, as the turn is very sharp left onto the Tzaneen bypass.

Other related information:

Pass through two 4-way stops before reaching the R71 coming from Polokwane and turn right to head towards Tzaneen. Do not go directly across the road as you will end up in Duiwelskloof. If you miss the Tzaneen bypass, proceed directly to and through Pietersburg and you will be directed to the R71 – Tzaneen.
Proceed on the R71 for approximately 57kms.

After passing Zion Christian City and going up and down a winding mountain pass, you will come to the village of Haenertsburg.
Just past the village is a signboard giving directions to Tzaneen. Make sure that you continue on the R71 (via Magoebaskloof). Do not turn right at the bridge (via Georges Valley).

3kms from Haenertsburg, turn left onto a sand road clearly marked “Cheerio”. From Tzaneen, the “Cheerio” sign is 3kms after the Magoebaskloof Hotel.
GPS: S23° 53’47.3 E29° 57’10.3

Recommended accommodation nearby:
Cheerio Valley offers a range of self-catering accommodation options, sleeping anything between 2 and 6 guests in each cottage. For more information or to make a reservation, please contact Cheerio using the details provided above.

Local guide information:
Paul Nkhumane: +27 (0)73 670 5857
David Letsoalo: +27 (0)83 568 4678

Text prepared by:
Daniel Danckwerts (Rockjumper Birding Tours)

Key species:

Orange Ground-Thrush, Green Twinspot, Barratt’s Warbler, White-starred Robin, Bush Blackcap

Contact details:

Cheerio Valley
Tel: +27 (0)72 650 2366