One of the most coveted bird sightings in our area is that of Pink-throated Twinspots. This morning Bheki, my very experienced Thanda Safari tracker, spotted four of these beautiful birds and I was lucky to get this shot of a male. I do not often post bird pictures on my photography channel (as I have dedicated birding Instagram and Facebook accounts for bird photography @ChristianSperkaBirding), but I thought this was too beautiful to let it pass!
Over the last three weeks I have been on a very special Custom Luxury Tour with a 79 year old lady from Nashville, Tennessee, USA.
Irene, being an animal enthusiast working as a docent for the Nashville Zoo since 20 years, always wanted to experience African wildlife in its native environment. She called it ‘A Trip of a Lifetime’.
It was planned for 2020, but after two years of COVID-delays her dream finally came true.
I really enjoyed being her guide and photographer for her 21 days in South Africa.
The journey started and ended in Johannesburg/Pretoria. It included visits to Rietvlei Nature Reserve, Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, Kruger National Park, Pakamisa Private Game Reserve, Ithala Game Reserve, iSimangaliso Wetland Park and Thanda Safari. As this was to be a road trip (with no flight delays, no crammed airplanes, no luggage restrictions and no endless waiting around) I had rented a very comfortable Toyota Fortuner SUV for the complete tour (about 2,200 miles / 3,500 kilometers).
We recorded sightings of 32 mammal species and 76 bird species. A note for the birders among you: we were not seriously birding on this trip, but enjoyed the sightings of colorful birds and larger birds.
Here is my report for this exceptional trip. I took over 1,300 photos, but for this report I have selected one picture for each day in the bush!
Day 1/2 After a 16 hour flight (arriving late at night) a good night’s rest and a slow second day to start were indicated. We went to Rietvlei Nature Reserve near Pretoria where I took this picture of a Little Grebe with its ‘kill’. We also saw White Rhino, Cape Buffalo, Black Wildebeest, Eland and much more. We stayed at the Menlyn Boutique Hotel for the first two nights.
Day 3 We started very early just as the sun rose to drive to the Timbavati Game Reserve. I chose the Northern route via Polokwane as it features good roads, few trucks and beautiful scenery. We arrived at Simbavati River Lodge in the early afternoon and had our first Lion, Leopard and Elephant sightings on the evening game drive. Irene saw the Big Five in her first two game drives! As picture of the day I chose a Leopard at night.
Day 4 We had two more productive game drives around the Nhlarumi river. At lunch time a Hippo walked along the river bed just as we were eating on the Simbavati lodge deck. The picture of the day is of a Dwarf Mongoose in the morning sun.
Day 5 After a very quiet morning drive the afternoon one was ‘pumping’. We followed a large pack of African Wild Dog hunting. They were trailed by Spotted Hyena and Vultures. After the dogs encountered two angry Elephants and a not less angry herd of Cape Buffalo the Hyenas stole the fresh kill from them. An action filled afternoon! This pictures shows some of the dogs focused during their hunt.
Day 6 We left the Timbavati very early in the morning, entered Kruger National Park via the Orpen gate, and had a good drive to our destination: Shalati’s ‘Train on the Bridge’ at Skukuza. The roomette on the train was one of the most spectacular places I ever stayed in my life. I skipped two morning game drives to experience two incredible sunrises from the comfort of my bed. The picture of the day was taken from a bridge near the Satara rest camp: A small herd of Elephants having a drink!
Day 7 We chose to do a midday game drive along the Sabi river from Skukuza to the Lower Sabi rest camp with our own vehicle. The most memorable sighting was to watch a herd of 50+ Elephants crossing the river. This is one of the many pictures I took on this occasion.
Day 8 Our next travel day we drove through the Kruger Park to the Mapelane gate and then proceeded to Pakamisa Private Game Reserve in Northern Zululand. I love this picture of a small Chacma Baboon hanging in between the legs of its mother which I took on our way out of Kruger.
Day 9 Neither Irene nor I are able to ride horses any more, but we nevertheless enjoyed our time at Pakamisa throughly. The cuisine is always superb and the scenery is stunning. In between game drives we walked in the Pakamisa valley. I love this picture of the young Kudu looking at its mum taken on one of the game drives with Chamu, Pakamisa’s very knowledgeable guide.
Day 10 We went on an all day excursion to Ithala Game Reserve. The wildlife sightings were very limited but the beautiful mountainous scenery and an enjoyable picnics made the visit worthwhile. Today’s picture: Burchell’s Zebras at Ithala. We had another very memorable Pakamisa dinner that evening.
Day 11 Lizelle, Pakamisa’s horticulturalist, gave Irene a very interesting Aloe garden tour. We had a relaxing day with two short game drives and some horse riding photography. Today’s picture features Irene, Isabella Stepski (Pakamisa’s owner) and some Giraffes on one of the walks.
Day 12 Another change of scenery with an interesting drive through the western shores of the iSimangaliso wetland park. We arrived at the Serene Estate Boutique Guesthouse mid afternoon and went for another drive on the Eastern shores. It was there I took this picture of a young Hippo running after its mother in the soft evening light.
Day 13 We got up quite early for a morning boat cruise (by a company called Shakabarker) on the Lake St.Lucia estuary. I prefer this sunrise tour as there are no other boats on the lake during that time. We saw Hippos and many different bird species. I especially liked this Malachite Kingfisher all puffed up against the morning cold. In the afternoon we went on the board walk to the estuary mouth, enjoyed a lunch at the Skiboat Club, and had dinner at my favorite restaurant in St.Lucia called Reef and Dunes.
Day 14 Cape Vidal features a beautiful sand beach on the Indian Ocean. We walked along the beach and wetted our feet in the Indian Ocean. My picture of the day: A Grey-headed Gull sitting on the sandy beach. We also booked a proper night drive into the park (from 8pm to 11pm, again with Shakabarker) and had some incredible sightings: Serval, Hippo, Genet, Chameleon, Night Heron, and Nightjars. I will follow up with a separate post about this drive.
Day 15 When I asked Irene about her top highlight of the trip her answer was clear: Thanda Safari. For the last four nights (and for seven game drives on the Green Mamba, my photographic safari vehicle) we had some great sightings. It would be a very long list to mention all of them. It started off with a pride of Lions with four small cubs on an Ngala bull kill. My chosen picture for the day: Three cubs and their older sister drinking at a waterhole.
Day 16 We saw Elephants, Rhinos, Lions, Buffalo, Giraffe, Kudu, and many other species on day 16. But I chose one of the countless birds as the picture of the day: A Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill in flight.
Day 17 All the children and my guest had great fun together as we dropped of some sweets and snacks at the crèche. The animal highlight picture of the day was of a Cheetah cub.
Day 18 Another day with four of the big five. It was very hard to choose one picture but I thought a family picture would be good!
Day 19/20/21 We left Thanda in the early morning back to Pretoria. Here we stayed for two more nights enjoying excellent food, working a slide show for my guest to take home to her friends, and visited Rietvlei one last time. I chose this Zebra picture as the farewell image!
I think this incredible trip planted the ‘safari bug’ firmly into Irene. The longing to come back to Africa will never leave her. And hopefully it will come true, again!
… and two ‘bonus pictures’:
PS: I took very many more interesting pictures during this trip which will feature in many posts to come. Stay tuned!