The route runs just a few degrees south of the Tropic of Capricorn, mainly along the R71 road, which links Polokwane, Haenertsburg, Tzaneen and Gravelotte. The varying altitude makes for a spectacular road-trip! Polokwane lies on a plateau at approximately 1300masl (metres above sea level), further east lies the escarpment of the Northern Drakensberg and Wolkberg mountain ranges where the altitude reaches 2300masl. The route then drops dramatically down into the Lowveld where the altitude is approximately 480masl at the Letaba River.
These extreme variations in altitude offer birders a great range of vegetation types within a relatively small area. It is within these diverse habitats that over 500 bird species are to be found. The open thornveld habitat of the Polokwane plateau supports a great variety of both bushveld and Kalahari-type birds. Typical species here include Crimson-breasted Shrike, African Wren-Warbler, Short-clawed Lark and Black-faced Waxbill. Just before reaching the foothills of the Wolkberg Mountains, one passes through the outcrop-strewn Mamabolo Mountain Bushveld. These granite inselbergs hold many rock-dwelling species including the northern-most population of Southern Bald Ibis.
Birders can enjoy vast tracts of montane grassland with soaring views in the Northern Drakensberg and Wolkberg sections of the route, where several sought-after species such as Broad-tailed Warbler, Croaking Cisticola and Drakensberg Prinia can be seen. The mistbelt forests of Woodbush and Magoebaskloof form the second-largest indigenous forest area in the country and offer some of the best forest birding with specials like Brown Scrub-Robin, Black-fronted Bush Shrike, Barratt's Warbler, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, and Orange Ground Thrush. Forest Drive passes the scenic Debegeni Waterfalls picnic spot, where Grey Wagtail can be spotted in the summer months. This area is also the home of some of South Africa’s ‘Champion Trees’, the largest of their kind. The eastern lower slopes and valleys of Magoebaskloof provide reliable sites for the elusive Bat Hawk and Green Twinspot.
Local bird guides David Letsoalo and Paul Nkhumane can help you tick the forest specials. Other attractions include the exhilarating Canopy Tours over waterfalls and gorges at Magoebaskloof Adventures; the blaze of colour at Cheerio Gardens; organic cheeses and vegetables at Wegraakbosch and craft beers at Zwakala Brewery. This area is also renowned for its trout-fishing waters and mountain-biking trails.
The Tzaneen area is known for its sub-tropical fruit industry and is a great place to stop and shop at a well-stocked farm stall. The interesting mix of lowland habitats supports a wide range of species including Gorgeous Bush-Shrike, White-browed Robin-Chat, Tambourine Dove and Purple-crested Turaco. The nearby legendary Modjadji Cycad Forest is the home of the mystical Rain Queen and ancient giant cycads.
The Lowveld region around Letsitele and along the Letaba River has habitats including Mopane woodland where Arnot's Chat is resident. There are various Lowveld rivers with their associated riparian forest habitats where Greater Blue-eared Starling, Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver, Retz's Helmet-Shrike and Thick-billed Cuckoo can be found. This is also one of the prime raptor areas in the region!
Birdlife Polokwane 082 415 5250 www.birdlifepolokwane.co.za
Tzaneen Eco Club 082 835 4185