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Ken Borland

Lower Sabie to Letaba

Posted on May 06, 2014 by Ken

Lilacbreasted Roller

Driving from Lower Sabie to Letaba is one of the lengthiest routes (160km) one can hope to fit into a day in Kruger National Park, but the eastern sweetveld plains you travel through are richly rewarding.

This is prime birding country, travelling through the open savanna grasslands between Lower Sabie and Satara, heading into the Olifants rugged veld and then into the Mopane-dominated woodland around Letaba. Several of the roads also flirt with the Lebombo Mountains in the east, all of which adds up to numerous different habitats and a lengthy bird list.

The central grasslands around Satara are known as big-game country – there is plenty of grazing and therefore plenty of predators, whose kills attract the vultures.

And the king of the South African vultures – the Lappetfaced – is best found in this area and mine was duly spotted on the tar road (H1-4) between Satara and Olifants. It was an archetypal sighting as well – attending a kill, looking like the Red Skull with its featherless head and neck and malevolent, massive bill.

The Red Skull

On the other side of Olifants, as the Mopane becomes more and more prevalent, Kori Bustard, another of Kruger’s “Big Five” birds, was spotted and other quintessential grassland birds seen between Lower Sabie and Letaba were Steppe Eagle, Rufousnaped Lark, Pintailed Whydah, White Stork, Wattled Starling (particularly common around Satara), Blackshouldered Kite and Swainson’s Francolin.

It’s also great raptor country and, apart from the vulture, resident Blackshouldered Kite and the migratory Steppe Eagle (in the Mlondozi/Muntshe area), Bateleur, Brown Snake Eagle, Whitebacked Vulture and Wahlberg’s Eagle were also seen.

But there are enough different habitats on the route to throw up all sorts of interesting things, and Jacobin Cuckoo, Carmine Bee-Eaters dashing around like the Red Arrows, Melba Finch (in the mixed woodland of the Trichardt Road heading into the Lebombo), Namaqua Dove, Natal Francolin and Helmeted Guineafowl were all spotted.

Late summer in the central savannas of Kruger Park are a time of feast and even the smaller birds were cashing in: just north of Lower Sabie there were a handful of Crested Francolin on the tar road, gorging themselves on a swarm of mayfly-like insects.

Crested Francolin enjoying an insect swarm along the H10

Aquatic habitats along the route further boost the tally; as you leave Lower Sabie you cross the Sabie River and from that causeway Wiretailed Swallow, Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, Pied Kingfisher and Brownthroated Martin were seen.

Temporary pans on the basalt produce Wood Sandpiper, while there was even water in the watercourse at Tshokwane and a Threebanded Plover in attendance.

A typical temporary pan on the basalt plains in central Kruger Park attracts a pair of elephant

The Mazithi Dam on the side of the road just north of Tshokwane was full and a Grey Heron was perched on a half-submerged log of dead tree, with a couple of Hippo for company down below.

Grey Heron and Hippo at Mazithi Dam

Turning off east shortly thereafter, one travels along the Trichardt Road (S37), which takes one through highly nutritious grasslands and mixed woodland as it skirts the Lebombo Mountains, eventually coming to the Sweni River and Sweni Hide, where Malachite Kingfisher was spotted.

There is unsurprisingly plenty of game along the route from Lower Sabie to Letaba as well, with 14 species of mammals, including Hippo, Elephant, White Rhino and Buffalo, seen along the way.

Sightings list

Little Swift

Blackeyed Bulbul


Blue Wildebeest

Wiretailed Swallow


Common Sandpiper

Pied Kingfisher

Brownthroated Martin


Blacksmith Plover

Egyptian Goose

Redbilled Buffalo Weaver

Lilacbreasted Roller

European Roller


Lesser Grey Shrike

Sabota Lark

Redbacked Shrike

Yellowbilled Hornbill

Longtailed Shrike

Arrowmarked Babbler

Plains Zebra


Grey Hornbill


Grassveld Pipit

Woodland Kingfisher

Spotted Flycatcher

Glossy Starling

Marabou Stork

Slender Mongoose

Brown Snake Eagle

Grey Lourie

Laughing Dove


Brownhooded Kingfisher

Blue Waxbill

Southern Greyheaded Sparrow

Grey Duiker

Steppe Eagle

Crested Francolin

Jacobin Cuckoo

Whitebacked Vulture

European Swallow

Rattling Cisticola

Carmine Bee-Eater


Rufousnaped Lark

Pintailed Whydah

Wood Sandpiper

White Rhinoceros

Burchell’s Starling

Cape Turtle Dove

European Bee-Eater

Forktailed Drongo

Threebanded Plover

Greater Blue-Eared Starling

Grey Heron

Melba Finch

Malachite Kingfisher

Vervet Monkey


White Stork

Wattled Starling

Marsh Terrapin

Blackshouldered Kite

Lappetfaced Vulture

Namaqua Dove

Kori Bustard

Swainson’s Francolin

Natal Francolin

Wahlberg’s Eagle


Chacma Baboon

Helmeted Guineafowl

Red Toad


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