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Ken Borland

Punda Maria & Pafuri

Posted on July 01, 2014 by Ken

Impala ram resting on the Mahonie Loop

My favourite part of Kruger National Park is the far north – around Punda Maria and Pafuri. There is something mystical about this area, it has a very tropical feel with its diverse habitats and rich birdlife, featuring several rarities.

And so it seems entirely fitting that this area is one of two (the other being the Pilanesberg) where I have seen the mysterious Monotonous Lark, a little-known nomad that may or may not be an intra-African migrant because it only ever seems to be seen in Southern Africa in irruptions of breeding birds making their characteristic, persistent “for syrup is sweet” call. There seems to be no pattern to their movements, save for a link to above-average rainfall and even then, they’ll be present in an area in one year and totally absent the next.

It was also fitting that this mercurial bird was the last added to my list of 163 Kruger sightings on this trip.

As one heads out of Kruger Park via the Punda Gate, there is a little detour one can take to Thulamila Koppie, rising 604m above the mixed sandveld woodlands of the Punda Maria area. It’s a great vantage point to look out over the expansive plains to the east and south and it was from this spot that I watched the solar eclipse in 2002.

But the 3km drive to the top of the koppie also takes you through interesting birding habitat with the diverse vegetation featuring bushwillows, Marulas and Tree Mopanes. It’s ideal habitat for Monotonous Lark and sure enough, there they were calling away from the trees in the plain below the koppie.

The Purple Roller, a real lover of woodlands, was there as well and Crowned Hornbill was seen flying over before the turn-off to Thulamila.

The Punda Maria region is famous for its beautiful broadleafed woodlands, flourishing in an area that boasts the second-highest rainfall in the park (650mm per annum; compared to the 700-750mm in the relatively high altitudes of the rolling hills around Pretoriuskop in the south-west).

The Mahonie Loop is a fabulous drive around the hill that hosts Punda Maria camp, with a stunning diversity of trees growing in the sandveld and a concurrent multitude of birds.

Doing the loop counter-clockwise, the Dimbo stream is a profitable early spot. A pair of African Black Duck were in the shallow water, while Black Widowfinch was in the trees above.

There are plenty of Buffalo this far north and Redbilled Oxpecker was in attendance, while African Green Pigeon were enjoying the Jackal Berries. Longtailed Paradise Whydah was present on the south-western side of the loop.

Punda Maria camp is surrounded by Mopane, which is never the richest of birding habitats, so the camp provides an island of woodland habitat and is excellent for birding.

Heuglin’s Robin, resident in the thickets on old anthills, was somewhat frantically calling away and the cute Collared Sunbird were passing through as I returned from the Mahonie Loop. That night a Thicktailed Bushbaby came and visited my campsite, clambering along the trees above me at suppertime.

There is another dirt road to the east of the Mahonie Loop, the S60, which is also a beautiful route, great for birding. The S60 skirts the Gumbandebvu Hill and travels through wonderful subtropical sandveld woodland as well as mature Mopane forests, before reaching the open grasslands around Klopperfontein Drift, where many exciting sightings have been made.

White Helmetshrike is a regular on the slopes of Gumbandebvu, while the grasslands around Klopperfontein produced Western Redfooted Falcon, Dusky Lark, Amur Falcon, Martial Eagle and Browncrowned Tchagra. A Black Crake was pottering around the actual dam, where Diederik Cuckoo were also present.

Wiretailed Swallow on dead tree stump in Luvuvhu River

Beyond Klopperfontein, the undulating tar road (H1-8) takes one towards the sandstone ridges that signal the floodplains of the Luvuvhu and Limpopo Rivers, and Pafuri, probably the most famous birding spot in Kruger Park.

Pafuri is lushly vegetated with acacia woodland grading into fever tree forests and then thickening as one enters the tropical riverine forest.

The area has changed considerably, however, since my first visit in 1998. Since then the 2000 floods and elephant damage have thinned out the taller trees and thicker bushes, and lately the Nyala Drive, heading westwards, has been more profitable than the better-known drive eastwards to Crooks’ Corner.

Redbilled Helmetshrike, Longtailed Starling – a tropical African species that is rare in South Africa but far more common around Pafuri – Redheaded Weaver, Hooded Vulture, Brubru, Woollynecked Stork and screeching Brownheaded Parrots were good sightings along Nyala Drive.

Pafuri picnic site always throws up something interesting though and on this occasion Grey Penduline Tit was with the more common Tawnyflanked Prinia in the undergrowth.

There are some interesting pans north of the Luvuvhu River bridge along the H1-9 and Marsh Sandpiper was in attendance at one of these.

Sightings list

African Black Duck

Little Swift

Common Caco

Egyptian Goose

Leopard Tortoise

Forktailed Drongo

Black Widowfinch

Goldenbreasted Bunting

Redeyed Dove

Blackeyed Bulbul

Blue Waxbill

Cape Turtle Dove


Yellowthroated Sparrow

European Swallow

Plains Zebra

Southern Greyheaded Sparrow

Yellowfronted Canary

Redbilled Oxpecker

Rattling Cisticola

Grey Hornbill

Green Pigeon

Lilacbreasted Roller

Paradise Flycatcher


Laughing Dove

Crested Barbet

Greater Kudu

Crested Francolin

Brown Snake Eagle


European Bee-Eater

Longtailed Paradise Whydah

Collared Sunbird

Grey Lourie

Redbilled Woodhoopoe

Woodland Kingfisher

Grey Duiker

Blackbacked Puffback

Vervet Monkey

Emeraldspotted Wood Dove

Heuglin’s Robin

White Helmetshrike

Southern Masked Weaver

Blacksmith Plover

Threebanded Plover

Whitewinged Widow

Spotted Flycatcher

Fantailed Cisticola

Western Redfooted Falcon

European Roller

Dusky Lark


Yellowbilled Hornbill

Tawny Eagle

Amur Falcon

Swainson’s Francolin

Longtailed Shrike

Melba Finch

Crowned Plover

Cinnamonbreasted Rock Bunting


Whitebacked Vulture

Hadeda Ibis

Wattled Starling

Martial Eagle

Little Bee-Eater

Browncrowned Tchagra

Redbacked Shrike

Greater Blue-Eared Starling

Thicktailed Bushbaby

Burchell’s Coucal


Redbilled Buffalo Weaver


Redbilled Helmetshrike

Natal Francolin

Longtailed Starling


Whitefronted Bee-Eater

Tree Squirrel

Jacobin Cuckoo

Redheaded Weaver

Southern Black Flycatcher

Slender Mongoose

Hooded Vulture

Kurrichane Thrush


Striped Cuckoo

Woollynecked Stork

Arrowmarked Babbler

Steelblue Widowfinch

Marabou Stork

Brownheaded Parrot

Whitebrowed Scrub Robin

Cardinal Woodpecker


Grey Penduline Tit

Wahlberg’s Eagle

Tawnyflanked Prinia

Yellowbreasted Apalis

Marsh Sandpiper

Black Crake

Chacma Baboon

Carmine Bee-Eater

Wiretailed Swallow

Pied Kingfisher

Wood Sandpiper

Brownthroated Martin

Diederick Cuckoo


Redbilled Firefinch

Nile Crocodile

Common Scimitarbill

Greenbacked Heron

African Hoopoe

Crowned Hornbill

Purple Roller

Glossy Starling

Monotonous Lark


2 to “Punda Maria & Pafuri”

  1. Alex says:

    Hi there Ken,

    Was this post from a trip done recently? If so, did you get a good look at the Limpopo river at any stage? Did it look fairly full? We are planning on driving up and crossing it near Pafuri, but trying to get some intel as to how strong it’s flowing.

    Many thanks,

  2. Ken says:

    Hi Alex
    No, this trip report was a while ago.
    The last time I saw the Limpopo was last November and it wasn’t particularly full then … Sorry I can’t help you more.

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