On Wednesday 24 September (Heritage Day) ten birders from Gauteng joined Joe Grosel and Lisa Martus from the Greater Limpopo Birding Routes for an adventurous 5-day birding and cultural excursion into the heartland of Venda. The event kicked off at the lovely Shiluvari Lakeside Lodge situated on the banks of the Albasini Dam. Once everyone had settled in our host at Shiluvari Michel Girardin accompanied the group on an afternoon sundowner cruise on the dam aboard a motorized raft. The dam was at its highest level in many years and the flooded patches of Acacia trees created the perfect nesting and roosting site for large numbers of waterbirds including African Darter, White-breasted and Reed Cormorant, Little Egret and Grey Heron. The quieter upper reaches of the dam produced excellent sightings of Malachite Kingfisher, African Jacana and the highlight of the cruise, if not the trip a pair of the rare White-backed Night Heron. After this excitement the customary sundowners which featured the sponsor's product were enjoyed even more. Back at the lodge Joe gave a presentation about the ecology of the Soutpansberg before we were further entertained by master raconteur Michel who regaled us with the history of his forefathers and other colourful historical characters who frequented the Elim region. At dinner time the group took great pleasure in Shiluvari's excellent cuisine.
Day two started early as the convoy of three vehicle set off for the far north-eastern region of Venda and the Soutpansberg via the sprawling communities of Thohoyandou and Sibasa. At the Golwe community campsite the group was welcomed by local GLBR bird guide Christopher Nethonzhe who, after giving us a brief background about the camp took the group on a short birding walk. Good views of Pink-throated Twinspot were enjoyed before we decided to have our packed breakfasts under the shady Water Berry trees of Golwe. Other notable birds seen in the camp included Tambourine Dove, African Harrier-Hawk, Olive Woodpecker, Narina Trogon, Black Sparrowhawk, Collared Sunbird, Lesser Honeyguide and Ashy Flycatcher. Following brunch we commenced the journey travelling north to Makua Park via the Tshikondeni Mine. Our base in Makua for two nights was the rustic Singo tented camp situated on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Levubu River. The views from this camp are magnificent taking in the Nyalaland Wilderness area of the Kruger National Park with its Baobab 'forests', riparian thickets and sandstone ridges. A relaxed late afternoon walk from the camp gave everyone the opportunity to get some stunning photographs of silhouetted baobabs. Back at camp 'national braai day' was celebrated a day late but with all the enjoyment that a campfire and bush braai can give.
After receiving a wake-up call from the resident Mocking Cliff-Chats a pre-breakfast drive up the Levubu River was an excellent way to start day-three. Several stops were made at various points along our route and fresh buffalo, elephant and leopard tracks were a good reminder that we were in Big-5 country. A nice variety of raptors were seen along the river and in the adjacent sandstone ridges such as Verreaux's, Wahlberg's, African Hawk- and African Fish Eagles, Bateleur and White-backed Vulture. Other birds of interest were Swallow-tailed Bee- eater, Mosque Swallow, Retz's Helmetshrike and distant Grey-headed Parrot. Back at camp Lisa served a great breakfast before everyone went into siesta mode. Sitting on the large, lounge balcony during the heat of the day proved quite rewarding as many mammals, birds and reptiles could be seen along the river's edge. Singo Camp also provided the group with good sightings of two lesser-known small mammals in the form of Eastern Rock-Elephant Shrew and Yellow-spotted Hyrax.
Once things stared cooling down a bit we took a drive to the 'Segole Big Tree' near the settlement of Klein Tshipise. This Baobab is reputed to be the largest of its kind in the World and an added attraction is the colony of Mottled Spinetails which the tree houses in its large central cavity. Fortunately the Spinetails were around and at least 12 birds gave us good views as they wheeled around the tree. With shadows lengthening it was time to get back to camp for well-earned sundowners. The day ended with another laughter-filled dinner after which some intrepid participants went on a scorpion search armed with UV torches.
Day-4 started with a short bird walk outside the camp during which a very active bird party containing Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Brown- backed Honeybird, Klaas's Cuckoo, Green-winged Pytilia, Yellow-throated Petronia and Red-headed Weaver entertained the group for about 45 minutes. After breakfast it was on the road again as we left Makua and retraced our steps to the village of Vondo were another GLBR guide, Samson Mulaudzi was collected. Samson proceeded to direct us to two of Venda's special places; the hallowed Fundudzi Lake and the sacred forest of Thathe Vondo. Samson entertained the group with stories of the myths, legends and folklore associated with these two fascinating sites. A delightful pinic lunch was enjoyed in the cool Thathe Vondo forest after some folks added a few forest specials to their lists including African Crowned Eagle, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, Knysna Turaco and Yellow-throated Woodland-Warbler. An hour or so later we were back in the familiar surroundings of Shiluvari Lakeside Lodge. The rest of the afternoon was spent at leisure in the Shiluvari grounds. After another delicious dinner a rather amusing 'fun quiz' was held where everyone ended up being a winner.
As the last day of the tour dawned the weather had turned rather nasty with heavily overcast skies and gusty conditions. This however didn't put off a few intrepid participants who went on a walk along some of Shiluvari's trails and although the birds remained well hidden the interesting trees and shrubs of the area provided some reward. Then it was back to the lodge for breakfast and shopping in the gift shop before we packed up and headed home. Fortunately the birds did eventually have the last say with a delightful flock of Crested Guineafowl strutting their stuff in the road as we were leaving Shiluvari.
Our appreciation goes to Paul Slabbert from Edward Snell and Co for the generous sponsorship, to Lisa Martus for marketing and coordinating the event and to Monika O'Leary for assembling a great group of participants. Thanks also to the GLBR guides for their part in making this such a successful outing.