Lebombo 4x4 Eco Trail

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Baobab north of Xilowa, circumference 19m 

The Lebombo 4x4 Eco trail is an experienec that no-one will be able to forget, it offers a chance to see areas of the park that are not accessible to the public and gives a rare opportunity to sleep out in the bush with just killometers of veld between you and anyone else. The trail takes 4 nights to complete; it starts at Crocodile Bridge at between 9:00 and 10:00am on a Sunday, and finishes at Pafuri around 10:00am on the Thursday and covers a distance of over 500km. The campsites have 2 enviro-loos (toilets) and a fireplace usually in the middle of the camp; there are no fences or anything else at these sites, the first site is called Mlondozi due to the stream that runs close by the camp, it is fairly open and can be quite hot at the beginning and end of the season, the second camp is called Phumbe and is situated in the Phumbe Sandveld, the third campsite is Xilowa (often spelt Shilowa) and is situated just north of the tropic of Capricorn and the last campsite is called N’dzopfuri (local name for the Tamboti tree) and is situated along the southern edge of the N’wambia Sandveld (Nyandu bush). Although birding is very difficult for obvious reasons, all the guides are very knowledgeable and will be more than happy to show you some of the species where possible. The trail does not offer that many species that would not be found in the rest of the park, the only ones being Pink-throated Twinspot and Rudd’s Apalis in the Nwambia Sandveld, but the scenery more than makes up for that, even so, there is a bit of birding to be had, and as always, if there aren’t any animals to look at, there will always be some birds.  

Day1

 

Sabie Gorge

 The trail starts at Crocodile Bridge where the guide will meet up with everyone and check that each person has enough wood, fuel, water etc. and will discuss various things with the group either here, or a short distance out of the camp on the private road, these include all the general rules such as not straying too far from the cars and most importantly, to wait for the car behind you whenever the road splits or you take a turn off onto another road, it has happened on a few occasions that someone didn’t wait and it cost about an hour or two’s worth of driving to find the lost car again! The first section of the trail passes through some very open veld that holds a lot of general species such as Crowned Plover, Various Starlings and sometimes also Wattled and Lesser Blackwinged Plover and Wattled Starlings, the area also has a large number of Pearl-spotted Owls and calling them will often reveal their location, especially on a cloudy day. Raptors are also quite often seen here, Tawny Eagle, Yellow-billed Kite, Martial Eagle and at the right time of year, Wahlberg’s Eagle may all be found. The first stop of the day is right in the South Eastern corner of the park overlooking Reçano Garcia, the border post between South African and Mozambique and there are often Whitebacked Vultures and other raptors such as Martial Eagle flying past this area using the tall ridges to gain some lift and many also roost along the Crocodile river, all the way from Crocodile Bridge to this point one should check for flocks of Vultures as they start to search for thermals, it is quite possible to see almost all of the parks Vulture species in one of these flocks, White-backed Vultures are the most common, but Lappet-faced, Hooded, White-headed and Cape Vulture are all usually present. The stop at Reçano Garcia is usually quite long (30 minutes to an hour) and provides some time to get something to eat and also try and do some birding, Red-billed Queleas and various other seed-eaters might be found although it is usually fairly quiet and can be extremely hot at certain times of the year. From here on, the area is often fairly grassy in places, and when there area is still moist at the beginning of he season (April) there are often hundreds of Buttonquails and Both Harlequin and Common Quails, besides Kurrichane Buttonquail, there are very small numbers of Black-rumped Buttonquail here in the South Eastern part of the park, they are seldom seen by anyone else though as they usually just fly from the road into the grass alongside. The next interesting stop is at the Sabie gorge (Sabiepoort), this is a spectacular view where one looks down onto the river below, a couple of water birds are usually found here, Grey, Goliath and Green-backed Heron (with some good spotting) can be seen here as well as African Darter, Reed and White-breasted Cormorant and Egyptian Goose, there’s a short walk up to a view point on the right, from here you can see a large number of aloes in a valley next to the view point, these usually attract a lot of White-bellied and Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, I’ve also often heard Stierling’s Barred Warbler calling in this area but they are very difficult to see. After leaving the view point it’s a short (and very bumpy) drive to a small causeway, the bridge is partly broken up and usually submerged so the guide will probably stop here and explain where to drive, we once had someone in a Discovery put one wheel off the edge of the bridge, luckily he didn’t go any further or we would have been minus one car! This stream usually has Black Crake and African Jacana and it is here that I have seen both Rufous-bellied Heron and Madagascar Squacco Heron (although these were both rarities and vagrants).  From here on it’s a fairly short drive to Lower Sabie where one can then have a shower and buy whatever is necessary from the shop. From the camp, you drive over the bridge and follow the S29 for a short distance before turning onto a firebreak once again; this section of road to the camp is very good for Larks and Pipits, Grassveld and Bushveld Pipit, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Sabota, Red-capped, Rufous-naped and Flappet Lark, Chestnut-backed Finchlark and large numbers of Rock Buntings can all be seen here if there is sufficient grass cover, smaller birds like Rattling and also Croaking Cisticola, Quail Finch and sometimes African Stonechat might also be found. The campsite itself does not have a huge number of birds but Pearl-spotted Owlets are usually near by and are easily called up at dusk just before it’s too dark to see them, there are also some Vultures that often roost within site of the campsite along the Mlondozi stream and there are a pair of Gymnogenes that are resident in the area and are often seen, especially in the mornings.

 

Day 2

 N'wanetsi Gorge

This is the longest drive of all the days and covers about 130km. The drive from the campsite to the first stop is one of the nicest drives in my opinion and, as for the last section of the previous day, Larks, Pipits and other grassland birds are abundant, we also often find Red-crested Korhaan here. The first stop is next to the sabie river, exactly across from the Sabie Gorge viewpoint you would have been to the previous day, although most of the guides go down to this point as it is only about 2km out of the way, not all do so it is worth asking your guide to take you there as it really is a beautiful spot. Although you’re not right up against the river, there are usually a few Herons flying around, Grey, Goliath and Green-backed Heron along with Yellow-billed, Little and Great White Egret are usually seen and both Pied and Giant Kingfisher are regularly seen, also scan any of the trees for African Fish-eagle which may also be heard calling. Because you will be right next to the border fence, it’s worth having a look at the edge of the Koromane Dam which pushes almost all the way up to the fence, this is one of the only places in the park (although strictly speaking it’s not in Kruger) where I regularly see Sacred Ibis, they are often seen flying up and down the river and dam during the early morning, Wire-tailed Swallows also often perch on the fence line and Lesser Striped Swallows are also usually present. Form here you once again follow the border fence for quite a long distance, the next interesting stop is along the N’waswitsontso where you will have breakfast, there are quite a lot of birds here and usually the stop is at least an hour allowing ample time to have a good look around and have something to eat. The track next to this stream usually has Little Bee-eaters and is also a good place to see raptors; I have seen African Fish-eagle, Martial Eagle, Tawny Eagle, African Hawk-eagle, both Black-breasted and Brown Snake-eagle, all the Vulture species and also smaller raptors such as Little Banded and Gabar Goshawk, Little Sparrowhawk and Lizard Buzzard here. To my knowledge most of the guides stop at the same site underneath a large Jackal-berry (Diospyrus mespiliformus), the stream here almost always has Quail Finches present although their numbers vary greatly (the last time I estimated 300+ birds in an area of about 10x10 meters), the stream also always has Tawny-flanked Prinia and Red-faced Cisticola. The ridges around here also often have a Pied Barbet calling and Black-headed Orioles are often heard and seen. An interesting spot to see some seed eaters can be found if you walk about 20 meters down the road till you see a small stream, then walk about another 10 meters in towards the left, there is often a small pool of water here and a number of birds will come here to drink, Red-billed and African Firefinch, Rock Bunting, Golden-breasted Bunting, Blue Waxbill, Red-billed Quelea, White-winged Widows (usually in non-breeding plumage) and occasionally Green-winged Pytillia may be found. From here the road then passes onto an open rocky area for quite a long distance, Quail Finches are still seen from time to time next to the road, but generally, the area does not have many interesting species. The next stop of interest is at the N’wanetsi Gorge, this is a beautiful viewpoint, and similar to the Sabie gorge, one looks down onto the river, below, scanning the river with binoculars usually reveals a few species, Egyptian Goose, White-faced Whistling-duck, Saddle-billed, Open-billed, Yellow-billed, Woolly-necked and Black Stork, Black Crake, African Jacana, Pied and Malachite Kingfisher, as well as Grey and Green-backed Heron, Great White, Little and Yellow-billed Egret, African Darter, White-breasted and Reed Cormorant. The trees around here also often have Martial Eagles perched in them and I’ve also often seen Black-breasted Snake-eagle here, there are also a few aloes around that attract White-bellied, Marico and Scarlet-chested Sunbird. After leaving here you double back for a short distance before going down to a small causeway across the N’wanetsi river, here there are usually African Jacana and Black Crake present, and any of the species mentioned above along with a few other such as Common Moorhen. From here it is another fairly long drive to the campsite, which is situated in the Phumbe Sandveld. Just before reaching the sandveld though, one passes through numerous small valleys that often have large numbers of both Harlequin and Common Quail and Kurrichane Buttonquail, Swainson’s Spurfowl are also common. The Phumbe Sandveld is the only place in Kruger where, to my knowledge, Red-necked Falcon have been recorded, and although they are very rare, there’s always a chance of finding one so it may be worth having a look. The tall grass in this area also has many Coqui and Shelley’s Francolin, and although they are seldom seen, they are frequently heard, especially just before dusk and again at dawn, and White-crested Helmet Shrike are common throughout the area. The campsite also often has Nightjars flying past, and although I have only seen Freckled and Fiery-necked Nightjar here, I have heard Mozambique and Rufous-cheeked Nightjar so any of them may be seen. The Sandveld is also a good place to see Sable Antelope.

 

Day 3

Sunset at Xilowa

 

This day is usually quite a nice drive up to Olifants where everyone can have a shower, and then a fairly long drive up to the third campsite. The drive out of the camp through the Sandveld offers a reasonable chance of seeing either Coqui or Shelley’s Francolin, after a few Kilometres, the road turns to the left after which you go down a fairly long hill with a brilliant view, we usually stop at the top of the hill for a few minutes. I have seen Corncrake on this piece of road during very wet seasons when we went in April, once I saw one run across the road, and on two other occasions I saw one flying from the side of the road. Once you’re at the base of the hill, you enter open grassland and then meet up again with the public road (S90) which you follow past Balule, and then the S92 to Olifants, this section is very good for game; look for Cheetah, Lion, Elephant (which we almost always see here), and other general game such as Steenbok, Grey Duiker, Zebra, Blue Wildebeest etc. The birding is usually also fairly good here, Chestnut-backed Finchlark are usually common to abundant here, and Quail Finch, White-winged Widow, Melba Finch, Rufous-naped, Sabota and Flappet Lark, Grassveld Pipit, Yellow-throated Longclaw, Fan-tailed Cisticola and Paradise Whydah can all be found here, we also often find Kori Bustard, Red-crested Korhaan, Secretarybird and Ostrich along this road. Depending on the amount of rainfall the park has had during the summer, the Bangu stream is one of the best places in the park to find Painted Snipe and I’ve had some of my best sightings here (once saw a pair walking around 2 meters from the car in the open for about 10 minutes), they only seem to be here during the summer months though, probably because the Bangu stream only flows up to about April, sometimes even earlier, there are usually some Black Crakes and Burchell’s Coucal around, the area between Bangu and Balule is fairly dry, and during particularly dry spells, there are sometimes large numbers of Larklike Bunting present in this area. Eventually you reach the low-level bridge crossing the Olifants River at Balule, just before crossing the bridge though, you will notice that there are a large number of tall trees to the left of the road, these trees always have Vultures roosting in them and White-backed, Hooded and White-headed Vultures are all regularly seen here, I have occasionally seen Lappet-faced Vultures here and there is a possibility of seeing Cape Vultures. The river itself has a fair amount of birds, White-crowned Lapwing, Black Crake, Little, Yellow-billed and Great White Egret, several Heron species such as Green-backed, Grey and Goliath, both Pied and Giant Kingfisher can be seen here and smaller waders such as Common and Marsh Sandpiper, and Three-banded Plover are usually found. Form the bridge it’s a fairly short and uneventful drive to Olifants where you’ll get a chance to have a shower (which is almost the highlight of the day!!) and something to eat. We usually spend a fairly long time here, at least 1,5 hours and usually 2 hours, this gives everybody a lot of time to go have a walk around and also go sit at the viewpoint in front of the restaurant for a while, I won’t add too much about Olifants as I’m still planning to add a section on the area that will also cover the camp itself, however, the river does usually have some large Storks such as Saddle-billed and Woolly-necked Stork present, Black Storks also occur here as the Olifants Gorge is one of only a few breeding areas for these birds in Kruger and also some Herons such as Goliath and Grey Heron, there have been odd occasions when people have seen Pell’s Fishing Owl in the large trees directly across the river but this is very rare.

After leaving Olifants you follow a short piece of the S93 before crossing the Letaba causeway, strangely enough, we never really see a lot of interesting birds here, African Jacana and Black Crake are usually seen though, and there are some White-crowned Lapwings present. Because we usually stop on the bridge for a while (about an hour if the group decide to have breakfast here instead of in Olifants camp), it gives you a good opportunity to have a look for some Raptors, Tawny, Martial and Wahlberg’s Eagle are often seen here, along with many Vultures. From this point on you enter Mopani (Colophospermum mopani) veld, as many people know, this is not the best habitat for birds but some species such as White-crested Helmet Shrike are fairly common, the rest of the drive to the camp has no real birding spots worth mentioning although there are a few very nice valleys along the way. After a fairly long (and often bumpy) road, you eventually reach the ridge called Xilowa (Shilowa), this is the site where we usually go for sundowners if there is enough time and it has arguably the best view in the whole park. There is a pair of Verreaux’s Eagles that are resident in this area, and although they do move around a bit, they can sometimes be seen perching on some of the White Syringa trees found all over the ‘Koppies’ here. The campsite is only a few kilometres from here and we usually go there to pitch the tents before driving back to the hill, there are usually hundreds of Green-spotted Doves in this area, and although I haven’t seen any yet, there are surely Mocking Chats here as well. The campsite itself has both Three-streaked and Black-crowned Tchagra along with both Grey-headed, Orange-breasted and occasionally, Gorgeous Bush-shrike, there is also a pair of Southern Boubous that life along the small dry stream on the edge of camp and we often hear Brown-headed Parrots here; I have seen Eurasian Hobbies here at dawn and dusk as the dense vegetation along the stream provides roosting spots for many bats.

 

Day 4

Brunch on the Shingwedzi river

There are usually a lot of birds to be heard at the campsite in the early mornings, many of them mentioned above, but also Red-faced Mousebird, Natal Francolin, Burchell’s Coucal and many others. The drive up to the Shingwedzi river is usually very nice, the Mopani veld here sometimes attracts Monotonous Larks so it is worth listening for their frog-like calls, Grey Hornbills are also very common and although there are no real interesting birds to speak of, the drive more than makes up for this. After a while you reach a fairly steep hill, it used to be fairly bad and definitely required low range as the very last part was a bit eroded and exposed some pieces of rock causing the cars to slip a bit, however, this piece has been cemented over and is thus a lot easier. Just after going across this hill, you reach a very large Baobab just on the opposite side of the fence, it is 19m in circumference and is the second largest in Kruger (although it is actually not in Kruger it is included in the parks Baobab survey, this Baobab often has Mosque Swallows present and on many occasions we have seen a pair of Barn Owls roosting inside the hollow in the tree, although I have not seen any here yet, a friend of mine, Darren Pietersen, pointed out that it is possible that Grey-headed Parrots may breed here so it’s worth listening for their call. From this point on it’s a fairly short drive up to the Shingwedzi river causeway where we usually have brunch, this is a very nice spot and Pied Kingfisher, Giant Kingfisher, Goliath and Green-backed Heron, White-crowned Lapwing and African Fish-eagle are usually seen, other raptors such as Tawny and Wahlberg’s Eagle, any of the Vulture species and Yellow-billed kite are also regularly seen here.   

From this point on we usually take the S50 along the Shingwedzi river and Kanniedood dam to Shingwedzi, I have already written a section on this which can be seen here, Shingwedzi so I won’t add anything else. After having a shower and stocking up again on wood, water etc, we travel along the main road north (H1-7) for a while before turning off onto the S53 and then taking a firebreak again for the rest of the day, after a short distance you pass through a small area of open palm savannah, this is at the Nkulumbeni windmill and this open brackish piece often has Grassveld Pipit and I would expect this to be a good spot to look for Dusky Lark during the beginning of April just before they all migrate north again. From here on you pass an old Rangers post called Shingomeni (it unfortunately burnt down a few years ago but there are plans to rebuild it), after this the drive consists of mostly shrub Mopane up to about 10 kilometres from the camp site, the shrub Mopane is however a fairly good habitat for Dickinson’s Kestrel and although I’ve only seen one here before, it is the best chance of seeing one on the trip. Harlequin and Common Quails along with Kurrichane Buttinquails are common here at times and Lilac-breasted and Purple Rollers should be seen. After driving through the shrub Mopane for quite a while on a fairly large straight firebreak, you take a turn-off to the left, after a few kilometres along this road you will notice the vegetation changing quite quickly, within the space of 2 kilometres the vegetation will change from exclusively Mopane, to Bushwillows, this signifies the edge of the Nwambia Sandveld (also called Nyandu), the campsite is situated in this periphery vegetation and not in the Nyandu bush itself, even so, the camp does have a few interesting birds, Stierling’s Barred Warbler ore often heard and can be seen, though some patience is needed to get a good look, Golden-breasted Bunting are usually quite common, as are White-crested Helmet Shrike, Black-headed Oriole, Black-backed Puffback, Chin-spot Batis, Terrestrial Brownbul and Yellow-bellied Greenbul. After pitching the tents at the campsite, we go for sundowners at Langtoon Dam which is about a 30 minute drive from the campsite, this is a great place to sit and watch what comes down to drink, especially in late winter the amount of game here can be staggering, on our last trip there were 3 male Lions below the dam wall, A small heard of Buffalo, Elephants, many Zebra, Impala and Blue Wildebeest, and also a heard of about 15-20 Tsessebe, the Tsessebe are usually seen here as they stay around the dam, in the past we have also seen Rhino, Cheetah, Jackal and many other species here as during the dry season, this dam provides the only permanent water for many kilometres around. As you approach the dam, have a look along the water for any Vultures as they come here to drink and bath, often there may be upward of 20 individuals here and I’ve seen all the parks species here except for Cape Vulture; Ostrich are also often found here. The dam has a resident pair of African Fish-eagles and also has a fair amount of Kitlitz’s Plovers, these are usually easily seen by scanning around the edge of the dam, Three-banded Plovers are also common here but the dam does not usually support many waders, White-winged Terns may also be seen here during the first month that the trail is open (April). The grassland below the dam wall often has large numbers of Pipits, mostly Grassveld and Bushveld Pipit, but theirs is also a chance that Long-billed, Plain-backed or Buffy Pipit may be seen here, however, because of the grass, it is almost impossible to see the birds when they’ve landed and can only be identified if seen displaying; Quail Finches are also often seen flying over, as are Red-billed Quelea. It is usually dark by the time we get back to camp and along the way there is a chance to see a few night birds, at the turn-off to the dam where you meet up with the larger fire-break again, we often see Kori Bustard just after dark, Nightjars are also often seen, Mozambique, Fiery-necked and Rufous-cheeked Nightjar may all be seen here, Bronze-winged Coursers are also sometimes found but not very often and we’ve seen Spotted Eagle Owls along the way, however, it is difficult to get everyone to see them unless they are perched, besides night birds, we also sometimes see animals such as Serval, Springhare and Caracal and once even found a pride of Lions in the camp site busy sniffing the tents when we got back!

 

Day 5

Steep hill north of Xilowa

 

In the early morning we often hear and see African Goshawk circling high up while calling, there usually quite a lot of birds calling at this time and with some luck you may be able to find a Yellow-spotted Nicator, they are a lot less vocal during the winter months though and therefore the best chance of seeing one is during April. From the campsite the road carried on north and eventually into the Nyandu bush, this is a very dense vegetation and this small patch of bush represents the entire South African Distribution for many of the plant species here, the particularly dense woodland consist mostly of Baphia masaiensis and Guibortia conjugata trees, this is the habitat in which both Pink-throated Twinspot and Rudd’s Apalis occur, the Twinspots are often easy to find when you get a chance to get out, otherwise, if you know their soft call you regularly hear them alongside the road and it’s  worth stopping and quickly trying to get a look at one, they are very confiding though and it’s often difficult to see one properly. The Rudd’s Apalis is more difficult to see, the occur in the same habitat but respond to playbacks of their call, the best place to try this is at the Xirombe turn-off (ask your guide where this is), we often stop here anyway so it’s the best chance you will have. The Nyandu bush also has a lot of Crested Guineafowl, they often stand in the road during the early mornings and are also very vocal at this time so are usually seen. For quite a few Kilometres the road carried on in this type of habitat on the red sand, but eventually you take a turn-off to the right, you will notice very quickly that the habitat changes and is more open, and also, the sand changes from red to yellow, this open woodland is the habitat where Fawn-coloured Lark are found, if you’d like to see this species just let the guide know before hand as they often fly from the track and if he sees one he’ll possibly be able to find where it landed again and show the rest of the group, they are fairly common here in fact, we see one almost every trip, though, as mentioned above, they often fly away so the following cars don’t always get a look, Sabota Lark are also common here so you have to be careful not to confuse the two species, although, when seen well, it is clear that the Fawn-coloured Lark is quite different to the Sabota Lark. The sandveld also has a few other interesting species, Violet-eared Waxbill, Crowned Hornbill, Grey-headed Parrot; there is also an unconfirmed record here for Red-throated Twinspot so it’s worth looking carefully for this species and I would believe that the open woodland areas could occasionally have Red-necked Falcon. After a while you reach the edge of the sandveld and pass through a fairly large valley called Saselandonga, after you’ve gone through the valley you once again go onto some sandy soil and reach the fence, this area also has Fawn-coloured Lark and are also often seen here, though they are more common in the area previously mentioned; White-crested Helmet Shrike are also common in this area. From here on you basically drive up to Pafuri, along the way you pass through a valley with dense stands of Lebombo Ironwood (Androstachys johnsonii), we sometimes find large flocks of Crested Guineafowl here, especially in the area where you exit the Ironwood and go past some large Baobabs. After this it’s a short drive through some dry Mopane veld till you reach Pafuri, I have also written a comprehensive section on Pafuri so I won’t add anything else, it can be found here, Pafuri.

 

Overall, the Lebombo 4x4 Eco Trail is an unforgettable experience, and although the birding is often difficult, the overall experience more than makes up for it. The trail is very popular and therefore it is necessary to book as soon as possible, otherwise you would have to hope for a cancellation which also means you can’t go when you like, the best time for birding id obviously April, as some of the migrants are still present, however, the weather is often still hot at that time and there’s always a chance of rain, the best time for the trip is mid may when the veld is still very green but the weather is also very pleasant.