After spending five glorious days in Kruger National Park, our South African trip was more than half over. We were on our way to the Indian Ocean town of St. Lucia, but were planning on taking several days to get there. The first stop was Wakkerstroom, a tiny hamlet in the far south of Mpumalanga. At 1800 feet elevation, this area is rolling hills and arid grassland. It was much colder than Kruger, with freezing overnight temperatures and afternoon highs in the low 60s. This was rural country, with cattle farms and isolated small communities. We reserved two nights at the very pleasant Wetlands Country House and Sheds. Neil looked at me quite skeptically when I told him that I had booked a nice shed for us to stay in. In actuality, Shed #3 was a lovely cottage with two soft beds, a wood burning fireplace, full-sized bathroom, and small kitchen.
One of our two days in Wakkerstroom we spent with local bird guide, Lucky Ndube. During our visit to South Africa, we were largely birding on our own without a guide. But Lucky promised to show us some of the very hard-to-get grassland specialties of the region, including some rare larks and several species of bustards. Lucky was true to his word, and we had a productive day tracking down three species of bustards and a whopping seven species of larks (including rarities like Botha’s and Rudd’s Lark). We also saw some other cool species like Blue Cranes, Black-winged Lapwing, and Sentinel Rock-Thrush.
We spent the other day doing local birding on the grounds of the Wetlands Country House, and at the Wakkerstroom Wetland Reserve, a marsh on the edge of town. We filed two eBird checklists, one for the general Wakkerstroom area, and one for the Wakkerstroom Wetlands. Neil got very excited about a pair of Rufous-necked Wrynecks we found in the trees right outside our shed, and regaled me with stories about the Eurasian Wrynecks he used to see as a child in England.
Lucky had mentioned that often times Gray Crowned-Cranes come back to the marsh to roost at sunset, so Neil and I headed there in the late afternoon. We saw some ducks, shorebirds, and an African Rail, but no cranes. The sun set, and it became quite cold and dark. I told Neil I was ready to give up. He wanted to “give it five more minutes.” I proceeded to go on a five minute mini-rant about how “giving it five more minutes” after waiting for two hours never, ever in the history of birding, proved productive. My mini-rant was rudely interrupted at about the four minute mark by two Gray Crowned-Cranes, which glided majestically down from the nearby hills and landed a short distance away in the darkening marsh. Neil was quietly smug, and I chagrined, but we both drove back to our shed very happy.