This story was first published on 25 August 2016 and was updated on 20 December 2018 by Leigh Hermon.
An exceptional mix of game viewing and birdwatching lies between Orpen and Satara. Peter Chadwick goes birding in the Kruger National Park…
In the early light, the 24-strong pack of wild dogs stirred. The youngsters, about six to eight months old, were first up, yawning, stretching and greeting each other with gentle shoves that soon turned to boisterous play. This got the adults up and soon the entire pack was running eastwards along the tar. What a welcome to Kruger.
I had been sure to be at the outer security gate – en route to Orpen Rest Camp – as it opened for the day, and hadn’t travelled a kilometre before finding this pack of one of Africa’s most endangered mammals. The dogs now were clearly on the hunt, stopping occasionally to listen, and to watch impala herds that were snorting loud alarm calls at one of their most deadly predators.
The younger dogs were having a great time, pulling around a large stick, tossing it into the air, and then pouncing on it to make their final ‘kill’, when the adults suddenly turned off the road and began to run after something, at speed.
Orpen Rest Camp
At Orpen camp the aloes were in flower, and I wandered around watching Scarlet-chested- (4 on checklist), Collared-, White-bellied- and Marico Sunbirds drinking nectar. Black-headed Orioles, Village Weavers and Dark-capped Bulbuls soon arrived and ignored the aggressive Scarlet-chested Sunbirds that chased away any birds smaller than themselves.
A light drizzle was falling but the impact of the current drought became more apparent the further east I drove. The Timbavati River was bone dry and only showed where the tracks of numerous animals had criss-crossed its sandy bed in the hope of finding water. Here and there, elephants had dug deep holes in the sand to find water and these were now a meeting place for bees, wasps, butterflies and other insects all trying to find a drink.
Grass had been grazed down to its base, leaving large areas of barren soil. All along the road’s edge were numerous leopard tortoises and it took me a while to figure out that they were grazing on a flush of grass that was sprouting as a result of moisture running off the roadway. Families of Magpie Shrikes perched on top of the leafless shrubbery. Below them, Yellow-billed- and Red-billed Hornbills and Burchell’s Starlings (9) scratched hopefully in the dry ground.
Docile African elephant bulls were plentiful along the route, pulling at upper branches that still carried a few leaves, pushing them into their massive mouths and chewing them nonchalantly before spitting out the dry core. As they moved slowly through the veld they disturbed Double-banded Sandgrouse (5) and Red-crested Korhaans. Fork-tailed Drongos and Southern Black Flycatchers closely followed the elephants and swept in after any insects disturbed by the movement.
Along the way, Lilac-breasted- and Purple Rollers added vivid splashes of colour. A family of harshly squawking Natal Spurfowls drew my attention to a honey badger. Occasionally it would pause to dig wildly into the ground, burying its head deep before again lifting its soil-covered head to cautiously look around it.
To add to this amazing sight, the badger suddenly stiffened its posture and growled in anger as a cheetah and her single cub appeared a short distance away. The stern warning from the badger was enough to ensure that the cheetahs quickly changed direction and disappeared.
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There was still plenty of water in Nsemani Dam, and herds of waterbuck grazed at the edge. Several large crocodiles sunned themselves with a small pod of hippos that were covered in Red-billed Oxpeckers. Grey Herons and a single Goliath Heron stood patiently in the shallows, while Three-banded Plovers and Blacksmith Lapwings scurried backwards and forwards between a troop of chacma baboons.
Cape Turtle Doves, Cape Glossy Starlings, Grey-headed Sparrows and Swainsons Francolins drank from small muddy pools next to the dam. Across the road, four adult Bateleurs and two Hooded Vultures (10) drank and bathed at a small stream trickling through a narrow gully that was overhung by large trees, where they would preen and dry themselves.
What’s great about Kruger from a birding perspective is that it still holds good populations of the larger birds. Lappet-faced-, White-backed- and White-headed Vultures soared effortlessly in the currents. I also saw Southern Ground Hornbills (1), a Martial Eagle, a pair of African Hawk Eagles and several Tawny Eagles, and a Little Sparrowhawk bathing in a small puddle in the tar. It flew up into a tree on my approach, but continued to wash itself with fluffed-out feathers that caught every drop of the light drizzle still falling.
As I entered the turn-off to Satara, a young spotted hyena scampered away, panicking the mixed herd of blue wildebeest and Burchell’s zebras that rested in the shade of knob-thorn acacias.
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Satara Rest Camp
Satara Rest Camp is one of my favourite places for ‘in-house’ birding, and, in camp, Crested Francolins, African Mourning Doves (7), Red-Billed Buffalo Weavers, Grey Go-Away-Birds (3), Grey Hornbills, Red-headed Weavers, Bennets Woodpeckers and Crested Barbets are always easily found.
With a careful look, the Verreaux’s Eagle Owl, African Scops Owl (2) and Pearl-spotted Owl can usually be located, and loud cackling calls give away the presence of Green Wood-Hoopoes (6). In the vegetated areas around the restaurant and shops, Brubru, Black-backed Puffback, Yellow-breasted Apalis, Orange-breasted Shrike, African Green Pigeon, Brown-headed Parrot (8), Sombre Greenbuls and Brown-hooded Kingfishers can be seen with tree squirrels and dwarf mongoose families.
Bronze Mannikins, Blue Waxbills, Yellow-throated Canaries and Red-billed Firefinches feed on the ground and quickly fly into the shrubbery at the first sign of danger. Flap-necked chameleons, grey foam-nest tree frogs and, in the right season, numerous flowering plants such as impala lilies and sausage trees all add to the specialness of this camp.
Although the drive between Orpen Gate and Satara is a small section of the Kruger National Park, the incredible diversity and abundance of life, even in times of extreme drought, make it a worthwhile birding and game-viewing route that can be a gateway to exploring the rest of the park.
Season & weather
Summer is extremely hot and afternoon thundershowers can be expected. Vegetation is lush and large numbers of migratory birds are present. Note that this is a malaria area. Winter is pleasant with cool temperatures and more stable weather patterns. Birds congregate in increased numbers in the camp.
Knob-thorn and marula savannah is the predominant habitat and this provides open areas with easy game viewing. A number of large watercourses also bisect the area, with plenty of riparian trees.
- Martial Eagle
- Lappet-faced Vulture
- White-headed Vulture
- African Mourning Dove
- African Scops-Owl
- Brown-headed Parrot
Accommodation & Activities
Satara offers a selection of rustic camping and self-catering accommodation. There is a well-equipped shop and restaurant facilities, and fuel is available. Guided bush walks and game drives are carried out under the supervision of professional guides.
Satara camp is situated in the central area of the Kruger National Park and is best approached through the Orpen Gate about 50km from Hoedspruit. Satara is 48km from Orpen Gate where speed limits of 50km/h are strictly enforced. Alternatively, Satara may be reached from within Kruger via the S100 road.
South African National Parks
012 428 9111, sanparks.org
Birding Checklist: 10 specials to try and spot around Satara
The carnivorous Southern Ground Hornbill (Bromvoël) feeds on reptiles, frogs, snails, small mammals and insects and will even take small tortoises. It has a powerful booming territorial call that is most often heard at dawn.
The African Scops Owl (Skopsuil) is often seen in Satara camp and can be located by its high-pitched repetitive prrrrup calls. When disturbed, it elongates its body and closes its eyes almost completely.
The Grey Loerie aka Go-Away-Bird (Kwêvoël) is alert and inquisitive and raises and lowers its crest when alarmed. It’s named after the loud ‘go-away’ call that is often uttered when it is disturbed.
The large size, sooty black coloration, with bright, metallic-green crown and throat patch and scarlet chest make the male Scarlet-chested Sunbird (Rooiborssuikerbekkie) unmistakable. It is an aggressive and vocal species.
A common resident of dry bushveld savannah, the Double-banded Sandgrouse (Dubbelbandsandpatrys) is mainly crepuscular, lying up during the day in the shade. It is usually found in pairs or small family groups.
The Green Wood-Hoopoe (Rooibekkakelaar) breeds mainly between September and November and may rear two broods in a season. The nest is usually an old barbet or woodpecker nest, or natural holes in trees.
In South Africa, the African Mourning Dove (Rooioogtortelduif) is restricted to the extreme north and north-east in lowland riverine and acacia habitats. It is common in Letaba, Shingwedzi and Satara camps.
Of the 330 parrot species worldwide, eight occur in Southern Africa, with the Brown-headed Parrot (Bruinkoppapegaai) restricted to the extreme east of the country. It is a common resident, usually found in small flocks.
A heavy build, larger size, longer tail and darker eyes distinguish the Burchell’s Starling (Grootglansspreeu) from other glossy starlings. It has a slow and heavy flight on broad wings.
The smaller Hooded Vulture (Monnikaasvoël) cannot compete with its larger relatives for a carcass and rather picks up the scraps left by the other vultures. It also feeds on insects dug from dung piles and soil.
Add more of our birding checklists to your own as you travel the countryside.
Words and Photography Peter Chadwick, peterchadwick.co.za