Sunday 10 December 2023

Kruger National Park, South Africa - July 2023 - Day 1 - Jo'Burg to Malelane

We landed just after 9am. It had been an excellent flight due in no small part to a very fortunate family upgrade, so I got a very good sleep as we flew over nearly the whole of Africa. The kids meanwhile got a much larger seat, nicer food, and had a thoroughly marvellous time. They didn't have to drive at the other end!

Research somewhere over France

It took an age to get through immigration, but picking up the car was straightforward and perhaps by 11.30am we were on our way. I had heard various horror stories about the drive, and with my offspring in the car I was keen not to get waylaid or crash, and so was super alert and drove extremely cautiously. I needn't have worried, it turned out to be very straightforward - we stopped exactly where we intended to stop to top up the fuel and get water and provisions, and mostly took exactly the roads we wanted to take. The coal trucks that support South Africa's stuttering power grid are a right pain in the backside though, not only are they incredibly slow, but there are thousands upon thousands of them.

Malalane - our first view of the Kruger

At around 4pm we pulled up at the Malelane Gate where a security guard checked that we had accomodation booked and then waved us across the bridge. Naturally we stopped on the bridge to look at the river, erveryone else was for some reason...... Oh sweet Jesus, that'll be a Hippo then. And immense Crocodiles. It was so odd - we had spent half the day in the car and not really seen anything unusual at all - the first hour of driving had been downright regular, urban sprawl giving way to a featureless agricultural landscape with power stations on every the horizon. Gradually this had given way to some much nicer open country, and there had been a few hills, but the only real clue that we were in Africa had been the immense Aloes (probably marlothii) by the side of the road. We hadn't seen a single animal and birds had been virtually non-existent. Then we had turned off the main road and driven through a gate and onto a bridge and all of a sudden we were in AFRICA!! It was like somebody had flicked a switch! But wait, what are those birds!! Egyptian bloody Geese!! (and they would turn out to be one of the commonest birds in South Africa by far!)

We carried on the Park buildings on the other side where I went inside and did the registration. Birds around here were Hadada Ibis, Southern Red-billed Hornill, Blacksmith Lapwing, a Water Thick-knee, and African Palm Swift. It was intensely perfect, perhaps the stress melting away now that the dangerous part of the first day was over, a feeling that the holiday could now truly start, complete with a cast of near mythical animals as far as Londoners were concerned. 

It was to get better though. With about 45 minutes to go before the gates to Berg-en-Dal closed for the evening we returned to the car and headed that way. We had not gone that far when my keen eyes spotted a large grey shape on the opposite hillside. Elephant!! Oh my god this place is mental! It was probably about a mile away but we were super excited as only a first time visitor can be. A short while later we came across one by the side of the road and got even more excited! Of course by the end of day two we were at the "Oh, another Elephant" stage, but I will always remember that first sighting. Birds on this drive included a couple of Grey Go-away-birds and a Crowned Lapwing, also to become very familiar over the course of the next few days. We also spotted Fork-tailed Drongo, Lilac-breasted Roller, Magpie Shrike and best of all, a pair of Bataleur which I did not yet realise were common as muck and so were also put into the mythical bucket next to the Elephant and Hippo.

We reached the camp with a few minutes to spare and got settled into our bungalow. Then we went shopping, loaded up on wood, cold beer and Wildebeest steaks and had one of the best barbeques, sorry, brais we have ever had. We had only been in Kruger for about two hours by this point but it was already one of the most epic holidays ever as far as the three of us were concerned. We could scarcely believe that we had made it and were here. The previous evening we had been in London, and now after having seen Elephants we were sat next to a sizzling grill with strange shrieks coming from the bush as sparks drifted up into the night sky. Brilliant.

Cape Starling

Saturday 9 December 2023

Kruger National Park, South Africa - July 2023 - Logistics and Itinerary



  • A five day trip in the second week of July with two of the kids on a self-drive safari in the peerless Kruger National Park. The kids met me after work at the airport on a Thursday evening and we took the late flight. We returned overnight on the following Wednesday, after which I went straight to work and the kids went home. 
  • Flights: British Airways from Heathrow to Johannesburg, once again booked with a car to turn it into a holiday. I booked Premium Economy and upgraded with miles to Business - I was nervous about the drive across to Kruger and wanted a good sleep in a flat bed. I booked air miles tickets for the kids in Economy for about £350 each, they weren't driving!
  • Car: A regular petrol saloon, some kind of Toyota I think. A 4x4 would have been better simply due to the extra height, but even the gravel roads in Kruger are perfectly navigable in a normal car if it is dry and you are careful. We went everywhere!
  • Getting to and from Kruger: It is at least a four hour drive from Jo'burg to the Kruger's Malelane and Crocodile Bridge Gates via Mbombela (formerly Nelspruit), and often longer, on the 12 and 4. The dangers of driving in South Africa are well documented, the roads are good but driving standards are poor in addition to other hazards. Drive in the day, stick to the main roads, don't stop other than in petrol stations, have nothing on show and keep windows closed and doors locked at traffic lights. Study the route in advance and don't blindly follow the SatNav. Poverty is extreme and you are rich. Once you are inside the Park you are fine. The remaining family members  in the UK apparently watched our progress every step of the way!
  • Accomodation: We stayed in basic but well-appointed bungalows and huts in the KNP Public Rest Camps, with all nights booked well in advance via the SanParks website as this was during SA school holidays. You need to create an account which is rather a faff and will likely require an email in addition to the automated process as it does not quite work properly, or didn't in late 2022. Other accomodation is available, including much posher private camps both inside and outside the Park.
  • Public Rest Camps
    • The camps are self-contained villages, encircled by high electric fencing to separate you from the wildlife. All have a variety of accomodation, a visitor centre, a restaurant, a shop, and a petrol station. The key benefit is that you are already inside the Park when it opens, and will have it to yourself for a while before people and tours based outside make it in.
    • You can camp, or you can choose from various permanent dwellings depending on how many you are and how much you want to spend. 
    • Most huts and bungalows sleep 2 or 3 people, and all have basic cooking facilities including a permanent brai. As a guide these huts cost something like £70-80 per night in 2023.
    • All the camp shops sell food (mostly red meat and game it has to be said), cold beer, wine, soft drinks, some limited vegetables, and most importantly wood and lighting materials for the fire. You literally don't need to bring a thing, nor transport anything between the camps. They close much later than the camp gates do, so you have plenty of time to get organised and then go buy dinner.
    • All the camps have strict opening and closing times depending on the season. Make sure you get there on time before they close the gates!
    • The camps all offer various game drives or walks, either in the morning, at sunset, or after sunset. These can be booked online with your accomodation, afterwards, or when you arrive. The sunset drive is a little longer, usually 3 hours, as it leaves at dusk and returns after dark, whereas the night drive is 2 hours entirely in the dark. Spotlights are provided.
    • You can enter all public camps as a day visitor to use the faciilties, shop, petrol station etc.
  • Park Information
    • You have to have booked accomodation at the point of entry to the Park.
    • You cannot enter the Park if it would be dark by the time you got to your booked accomodation and the Rest Camp was closed. There may be some wiggle room but you should absolutely not count on it.
    • The Park has a number of entrance gates, and the one you use should be picked carefully, mainly to avoid driving through more dangerous urban areas. We entered and left via the Malalane Gate near the southern Mozambique border, as this is very close to a main road.
    • In addition to the camps there are also Picnic Sites found here and there which serve breakfast, lunch, coffees etc. It is a good idea to buy a map which shows where these and other facilities are.
    • You can use credit cards everywhere within the camp.
    • The Park itself has an entrance fee per person, or rather a fee per person per day you spend inside it, known as Conservation Fees. You can pay this upfront or when you get there, but make sure you factor it in to your costs as it quickly adds up at about £20 per (foreign) person per day. A "Wildcard" (an annual family pass to all SA Parks) might save you money even if you are only going for a week.
    • The Park staff are super-friendly and helpful, but their IT is shocking and on reflection it would have been easier to have bought our Wildcard before we got there.
    • Roads are slow, and traffic jams are common when people stop so look at animals, especially big cats! Make sure you leave plenty of time to get where you are going that evening. 
    • For your first and final nights book accomodation that is close to the edge of the Park.
  • Literature/Resources
    • I used the Kruger Website to understand the different areas in the Kruger which is absolutely vast.  There are sections on each area, which roads are good for which game, which lookout points to try. It is a must read.
    • Books: SaSol Birds of Southern Africa (Sinclair, Hockey, Tarboton and Ryan), and the Kingdon Guide to African Mammals.
    • For birds I printed eBird checklists for all the camps.
    • Tinkers do a foldable map of the Park which shows all the major and minor roads, camps, and facilities, as well as driving times between locations. It can be purchased in all camp shops. Indispensable.
    • At work I sit very close to a native South African who has been to Kruger many times and gave me masses of hugely helpful advice. Cheers Anthony! This page is really a summation of everything he told me and what I learned when I was there.
  • Food - Brai all the way! 
  • Animals have right of way and cars stop. If an Elephant or other large mammal seems to be deliberately coming towards you, back up. Turn around and leave if you have to.
  • Birds are plentiful, but not often easy to see from the car, which of course you are not allowed to get out of and it would be foolish to do so. Birding is actually best inside the camps.
  • Insects - I deliberately went during the two months of the year when the mosquitos are dormant. Kruger is in the malarial zone but we didn't see a single one.
  • Vegetation - varies by season, and is lusher and more inpenetrable in the summer as you would expect. In winter it is probably easier to see animals. Bush fires are common so take precautions and don't ever risk it. There are always other roads to take.
  • Other - South African plugs are odd, and most travel adaptors don't have what you need. Phone signal was OK, especially around the camps, but it wasn't consistent.


  • Day 1 - We landed in Johannesburg just after 9am local time. It takes a while to get through immigration and out of the airport, so time was already pressing when we finally got on the road. The drive was incident free along Route 12 and then Route 4, and took about four and a half hours. We arrived at the Malelane Gate about an hour or so before it closed. It took about half an hour to do the paperwork, which included showing them all my printed copies of my booked accomodation and ID etc. It was then about a 30 minute drive to Berg-en-Dal rest camp.
  • Day 2 - Berg-en-Dal to Lower Sabie via Afsaal Picnic Site and Skukuza. Lower Sabie overnight. Night drive from the camp at 8pm.
  • Day 3 - All day driving around the Lower Sabie region, down to Krokodilpoort and back up (as there was no petrol at LS). Overnight at Lower Sabie again. Sunset drive from the camp at 4.45pm.
  • Day 4 - A long drive up through the grasslands via Orpen Dam, Satara and Olifants to Letaba. Overnight at Letaba. Sunset drive from the camp at 4.45pm. Ideally we would have stayed further south, but the trip was initially booked as two people before adding another indecisive child, by which time we couldn't add a third person to our hut at Skukuza (all the other camps were fine). Letaba, 170km and nearly 4 hours further north was the closest I could find. You really do have to book early.
  • Day 5 - All the way back down south to be in position to leave the camp at lunchtime the following day and do the drive back to Jo'Burg in daylight. Overnight at Berg-en-Dal.
  • Day 6 - We spent the morning looking for game close to the Crocodile River along roads like the S114, before leaving the Park at around 1pm at the Crocodile Bridge gate for the drive back to Jo'burg. This was very slow indeed and we only just made it in daylight. 

Friday 8 December 2023

Lifestyle choices. Writing choices.

There has been some online disappoval of my travel write-ups. Not the write-ups per se, or their content, but more that I write them at all. Possibly even that I travel full stop, though maybe I am taking that a little far. The view expressed was that my travel write-ups sat uncomfortably in a time when many people are struggling with the bare necessities. It wasn't said quite like that but that was the general thrust. Personally I take the view that if I dislike what I am reading I stop reading it, but if one person feels strongly enough to mention it, however bluntly, then there are likely others who will feel the same. Maybe I should not be rising to the bait but here goes.

Let me start by saying that I am not tone deaf. I appreciate that I am exceptionally lucky to be able to travel as I do, and that many people cannot and probably will never be able toIs that a reason not to write about it, for fear that I could come across as ostentatious? I'm not a particularly showy person, but I do have a good job that allows me to travel and pursue other interests. That said it's some way from a free ride - I take it very seriously and I work pretty hard. I lost it once, wasn't my fault, and was unemployed for over two years. Travel simply stopped. When I got another job, at the same company as it happens, I started going on holiday again. Sounds fair to me. Do other people work harder than I do in more difficult jobs for less money? You bet they do. Is that fair? Maybe not. Is that a fact of life? Yes. Can I do anything about it? Not really. Am I going to preface every single post about a trip I've been on by apologising for having been able to go on it? Absolutely not.

This is just what it is. I can't be paralysed by the circumstances of other people and the times we live in. Maybe that is the definition of tone deaf? For most of my working life there has been some catastrophe or other that makes peoples lives hard, it is just constant. The fallout from Brexit, high inflation and high interest rates are just the latest ones. Is it worse than it has ever been? Old people will say no and with good reason, young people will say yes, also with good reason. I'm somewhere in between. It wears you down, how can it not? But I appreciate I'm one of the lucky ones, I've generally always had options. But to forgoe those options because I'm worried about what people might think of me? Inequality is inescapable and in my view it's getting worse. I will be at the ballot box as soon it opens in order to try and reduce inequality by getting rid of those who think that living in a tent is a lifestyle choice, but I am not going to be stymied by it. That's not me. I write what I want to write about, and nobody dictates to me what that is. I feel very strongly about this.

I'm not contracted, not paid, not conflicted in any way. Total freedom to write about what I want. Blogging is a dying medium, very few people read them and the stats back that up. So what? Have you seen me try and change with the times? No you have not. Within this slowly diminishing format it is the travel posts that gain the least response and the fewest views - I am well aware that they have the least capacity to resonate but have you seen me give up writing them because of that? No you have not. Any ideas why that is? If anyone thinks it's because I'm trying to show off they are very much mistaken. My writing isn't in a crowing style, like some gormless influencer being paid to promote the so-called high life; I write because I want to. That's all it is. I enjoy planning my trips, I enjoy going on them, I enjoy going through the photos I've taken, I enjoy looking at historic eBird lists, and I enjoy reliving them by writing them up. I hope that other people may find them useful, informative or interesting, but I don't expect it or demand it. The key words are "I" and "enjoy".

Sometimes - more often that not - I don't write at all. Mostly this is because writing is mood-related in ways that even after all this time I am unable to fully fathom. I just don't feel like it, it's not enjoyable, and so I don't do it (witness February to June this year). Periodically this changes and you cannot hold me back, which is a period I am in right now. And this is when I encounter the second impediment to writing: my life is on the whole exceptionally dull. I work as a middle manager for a multi-national firm. As mentioned above I've worked for this same company for close to 25 years now, my whole adult life more or less. I get up in the morning, spend the day in an office in London, and come home again. Often I just go straight to bed. My day, such that it was, has contained nothing of interest whatsoever, but I don't go and write a blog post about it to try and demonstrate solidarity. I just get up the next day and do the same thing again. This same job that has for years funded my lifestyle is also extremely restrictive.

Now the blog may not currently paint that picture, and it may appear as if I am on some kind of permanent jolly. I'm not. I am just writing up prior trips whilst I have the mental and emotional capacity to do so. There are admittedly a lot - see above, I'm fortunate - but is that really so offensive? It's that or bread. Actually the stats would suggest that people prefer bread, but also, see above. Any suggestion that I should stop writing about trips in recognition of the general malaise and cost of living crisis just isn't justified in the context of why I do it and what I get out of it. I do not write in order to shove my lifestyle down people's throats. If it genuinely upsets somebody that I spend money travelling and then have the temerity to write about it afterwards then they're reading the wrong web page, and I would respectfully suggest that they seek whatever it is that they are looking for elsewhere. I'll take the stats hit, no problem.

Thursday 7 December 2023

London liberal metropolitan elite

I think we qualify. This is not a post per se but really a Public Service Announcement to say that nobody should be spending £4.15 (Gail's), £6.10 (Paul), £9 (some piss-taker on Etsy!) on a loaf of sourdough bread. We are still at it using the original starter that we were given during lockdown. Occasionally it explodes in the fridge, testament to its continuing vitality, but provided you keep an eye on it and use it, say, at least every three weeks, you can essentially keep it going forever. Although I am working from home less frequently than I used to, when I do it is likely that in addition to being on Zoom calls you will find me kneading and stretching dough. It is unbelievably cathartic, and between Mrs L and I we have it down to a fine art. She prepares the starter before she goes to work whilst I prepare the initial dough. During the day I then mix these together and do the periodic kneading and stretching between meetings. The following morning she applies the final touches such as scoring the top and adding an appealing flour pattern, and then bakes it. When it is done, I eat it. With gusto. The flour that goes into the loaf currently costs 88p. The small amount of salt is practically free, and then it is a question of heating the oven for a hour - ever more expensive but still barely 60p. Gail's saw you coming. 

I am sorry if this comes across as crass to people who have never bought Sourdough from Gails. I have and it is very nice, but it is a) nowhere near as nice as our home made sourdough b) significantly overpriced for what it is and c) they get away with it because even mass produced sliced bread is approaching £1 these days, 'freshly baked' supermarket loaves are £2, and so maybe it does not seem much of a difference to upgrade to a so-called artisanal loaf. But if you make the effort, which to be fair is what defeats a lot of people, you can eat nice bread all the time for cheaper. And get nice pics for your insta*.

The latest masterpiece

* I don't have an 'insta'. Or a tiktok. Or a whatever the latest thing is. And Twitter looks doomed. So I am just going to be shoving it down my own throat.

Wednesday 6 December 2023

Frigid. No birds.

All local birders look forward to cold snaps because cold snaps deliver unusual birds. Imagine for a moment that I was really really desperate to see a Lapwing or a Snipe for my Wanstead year list. Well were that the case I would have been out every morning freezing my butt off whilst gazing hopefully at the sky.

In unrelated news I've been out birding a lot recently and it has been rather cold. I read somewhere that sometimes cold snaps deliver good birds, but that must happen elsewhere as Wanstead has been completely dead. There was a flock of Redpoll early one morning but other than that nothing at all. Nothing moved. I'd go as far as to say that even the regular birds seemed to go to ground. Snipe or Lapwing? Huh, what? Here? No, of course not, we don't get those.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

My love affair with birding in the USA

I really like America. Partly it is my heritage but mostly it is just a magnificent country. Think of a habitat and it is likely to be found somewhere in America. The grandeur of its National Parks, the sheer size of the landscape, the brilliant birds and yes, the people, who are for the most part delightful. I know plenty of people here who have zero desire to go anywhere near America but they are missing out. It is undeniably weird in many ways, and downright backward in others, but taken as a whole it is just superb. I go there as much as I can, I feel a part of it, I am just at ease there. My trips are about birding, sure, and especially lately, but I go for plenty of other reasons. 

I've been every year since 2014, something like 30 trips in all between then and now. I've not been birding on all of them, but the majority have seen me break out the binoculars. The map below is adapted from my eBird profile and very much appeals to the obsessive part of my personality. Yellow, orange and red are where I have been birding and recorded lists of birds, with the depth of colour indicating density - i.e. red States are where I have seen the most birds, light yellow the fewest, and orange somewhere in the middle - the darker the shade the more birds. I've now been birding in 27 States. California has the most, with New York and Ohio second and third, whilst Georgia and Nebraska languish at the bottom. As you can see I have now shaded in the top eastern corner of the map which was one of the aims of the trip in May 2023. The green ones are States that I have definitely been to but failed to record any birds. Oregon and Montana were when I was 11 years old, and no doubt I did see some birds, but at that point eBird was but a twinkle in some developers eye, and as an 11 year old I failed to assiduously keep lists. I have on my to-do list to go through the family photo albums from that road trip, maybe I'll find the odd Gull or whatever, or a Bald Eagle, but it's a pretty poor way of going about it. This is how I managed to stick one species onto Georgia - a Mockingbird. Nebraska I drove through in the dark, hearing a Mallard and jamming a Snowy Owl. Anyone who knows me will understand how irksome I find this, and will also know that I intend to do something about it. I mean bloody hell, my Aunt lived in Maryland for years, and I visited several times yet I have no records in any medium that show a single feathered creature! Ditto a family road trip that took in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, and a week-long trip to Utah with my son.

So where next then? Well it is already booked. That big blank space to the right of Texas, that's where I am going. Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee. And I might just squeeze in an hour in Kentucky for good measure. If I can manage all of those that will take me 34 States birded and 40 visited. I should just go and live there. I could. Maybe I will one day, but for now I'm restricted to short trips. Pointless? Very much so. Pleasing? Oh yes.

Monday 4 December 2023

New England - May 2023 - Trip List

I ended the trip on 160 species which included 14 new species for the USA. I notched up 105 in Maine, 75 in Massachusetts, 70 in New Hampshire, 67 in Vermont, 34 in Rhode Island and 12 in Connecticut. And then 53 in Canada either side. My kind of trip, which is not entirely surprising given I was the one that planned it. This eBird link will give you everywhere I went and everything I saw, but for convenience here is a table by species and State, and with counts. I was very dedicated, recording birds as I went along, so this is really quite accurate. Of note are the 20 species of Wood Warbler - a great time of year to go to the US