Mokala National Park was officially proclaimed in 2007, making it one of South African National Park’s newest conservation areas and at 27500 hectares, it gains its name after the Tswana word for the magnificent Camel Thorn Acacias, that were prominent features across the diverse landscape.
It was six o’clock in the morning and I was about 20kms along an isolated gravel road when I pressed the intercom buzzer to gain access to my latest birding destination. Instantly, a warm and friendly voice replied “Good morning and welcome to Mokala National Park, we certainly hope that you will enjoy your visit with us!” This heartfelt response immediately melted away the tensions built up after long hours on the road and I sat with eager anticipation, waiting for the security gate to open, allowing me access into the park.
1 of 11: Golden-Breasted Bunting.
My journey had begun the previous day, when I left the southern end of Africa and travelled northwards through the small towns of the Karoo where sightings of Lesser Kestrel flocks and occasional Martial Eagles whet my appetite for the arid region birding that I was setting off to enjoy. After an uncomfortable night sleeping in the back of my bakkie at a noisy, windy truck stop, I had arisen at 4.00 am so that I could reach the Mokala National Parks entrance gate at opening time and I was soon to find out that the effort was well worth it.
2 of 11: Arid landscape of Mokala National Park.
Driving the six kilometers up to the camps reception, I had to make numerous stops to view bountiful herds of Tsesebe, Gemsbok, Kudu, Red Hartebeest, Springbok and Impala. Cape Glossy Starlings fed at the antelopes feet and Golden-Breasted Buntings, Black-Chested Prinia’s and Kalahari Scrub-Robins all sang from the tops of trees and shrubs, using the height of their positions to help carry their liquid calls across the still early morning air.
3 of 11: Scaly-Feathered Finch.
After checking in at the reception, I drove the short distance to the Stofdam Bird Hide and spent a couple of relaxing hours watching the toing’s-and-froing’s of countless birds and animals as they moved around the large dam. On the far bank, a Hadedah had its nest in the upper branches and the adults were flying constantly backwards and forwards to feed their three oversized youngsters that would soon be too large to fit on the nest and would be taking flight to independence. Southern Masked Weaver males busied themselves by building nests that were spied equally by the female weavers and parasitic Dideric’s Cuckoo’s. Below the nests, Water Monitor Lizards patrolled in the hope of finding weaver chicks that had fallen from the nests, flicking out long sensory tongues that helped them find the hapless chicks that were then swallowed whole.
4 of 11: Marsh Terrapin.
Waterbirds were plentiful with numerous Egyptian Geese, South African Shelducks, Yellow-Billed Ducks and Little Grebes floating on the open water as Black-Winged Stilts, Three-Banded Plovers, Greenshanks, Marsh Sandpipers and Blacksmith Lapwings wandered around the edge of the dam. European Bee-Eaters, Greater-Striped Swallows, Brown-Throated Martins and White-Throated Swallows swooped low over the dam, occasionally bobbing down to scoop water to drink or plunge briefly into the water to bathe. Around mid-morning, a small herd of Cape Buffaloes appeared over the dam wall and in a flurry of dust plunged into the cooling waters to drink deeply. The Red-Billed Oxpeckers that were ridding on the buffaloes backs found this commotion too much and took to flight with loud alarm calls, settling again on the backs of Kudu’s that were browsing more sedately from buffalo-thorn trees.
5 of 11: Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eater.
A slow drive on a circuitous route, led me past an old windmill and reservoir that was spilling water into a shallow muddy wallow. Cape Turtle Doves arrived and departed in their scores between Southern Grey-Headed Sparrows, Larklike Buntings, Yellow Canaries and Red-Faced Mousebirds. High overhead, White-Backed Vultures soared with the rising thermals and cast dark shadows over the waterhole that sent the smaller birds flying away in panic. With the heat of the day now settling in, I headed back to camp and the safety of my air-conditioned chalet. Little and White-Rumped Swifts and Greater-Striped Swallows all nested under the eaves of the chalets as Mountain Chats, Sociable Weavers, Familiar Chats and Cape Sparrows all hopped about on the ground busily searching for food.
6 of 11: Cape Buffaloes at Stofdam.
As the afternoon began to cool and large puffy white clouds began to form on the horizon, I explored the camp further to find Warthog families grazing the lush green lawns as African Hoopoes probed their long bills deep into the ground to pull up juicy caterpillars and worms. In the acacia trees Chestnut-Vented Tit-Babblers, Acacia Pied Barbets, Pririt Batis’s and Common Scimitarbills added to the feathered diversity.
7 of 11: Little Grebe.
Driving out along the network of roads, herds of Eland, Tsesebe, Nyala, Sable and Roan antelopes kept my attention and reinforced the focus of this National Park as the place “where endangered species roam”. I was thrilled to find a Suricate den where an adult guarded three small pups at the entrance, occasionally having to storm at the Ground Squirrels that were sharing the den and approached too close to the dozing Suricate pups. Ant-Eating Chats and Capped Wheatears must also have been breeding within the dens burrows as the adult birds made repeated trips underground, having to dodge the aggressive Suricate and the more relaxed Ground Squirrels.
8 of 11: Camel-Thorn Tree at dusk.
As I continued to drive slowly along, flashes of colour drew my attention to a small flock of Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eaters that were using a dead tree as a launching point from where they caught small white butterflies or bees in flight. The insects were then taken back to the tree, where the bee-eaters removed the butterfly’s wings and expelled the poison from the bee-stings by beating the insects against the branches.
9 of 11: Little Swift.
Red-Crested Korhaan, Scaly-Feather Finches, Black-Throated Canaries, Desert Cisticolas, Rock Pipits, Lesser Grey Shrikes, Red-Backed Shrikes and Wattled Starlings were all sighted as I drove through the thornveld and short grasslands. With dusk quickly falling, the clouds had darkened in colour and flashes of distant lightning heralded an oncoming storm. Shafts of sunlight set the clouds aglow in yellows and gold’s and it was enthralling watching the building storm across the arid plains. Black-Backed Jackals and Cape Hares emerged from their daytime shelters and after shakedowns and grooming sessions set off in search of evening meals as Rufous-Cheeked Nightjars also emerged and swooped with wide-open mouths at the flying ants that were taking to flight in anticipation of the rain. As the first drops of rain began to fall, I headed back into camp and spent the next hour watching an impressive thunderstorm develop angrily with heavy thunderclaps and flashing lightning bolts.
10 of 11: Electrical storm over Mokala National Park.
As the storm began to finally clear and the angry clouds were replaced by thousands of twinkling stars, Blue Wildebeest, Tsesebe, Burchelles Zebra, Cape Buffaloes and Red Hartebeest all came down to drink at the waterhole in front of the camp that was well lit up by spotlights, providing a fitting end to an absolutely exhilarating day spent in one of South Africa’s conservation treasures.
11 of 11: Gemsbok feeding on a rocky hillside.
Season & Weather: Rainfall is erratic and varies between 300 mm and 700mm with a 400mm average. Winters can be cold with temperatures as low as -4 °C, while summer temperatures reach as high as 44 °C.
Habitats: Acacia woodlands with open shrubland and grasslands interspersed with boulder outcrops and dolerite intrusions. One of conservation objectives of the park is to conserve the interface of two biomes, namely the Savanna Biome and the Nama-Karoo Biome.
Specials: White-Backed Vulture, Martial Eagle, Kori Bustard, Swallow-Tailed Bee-Eater, Rock Pipit, Red-Billed Oxpecker
Getting There: Mokala National Park is most easily reached via the N12 between Hopetown and Kimberly. Turn left on the Hayfield / Heuningneskloof Crossing, onto a gravel road and travel 21km until you reach the gate of Mokala National Park. The main Administration and Reception Building is a further 6km inside the park.
Accommodation & Activities: The park currently offers a range of different accommodation types from luxury bungalows to camping. Mosu Lodge has 15 chalet units while Lilydale Rest Camp offers 12 self-catering, air-conditioned units overlooking the Riet River. The restaurant at Lilydale Rest Camp offers guest breakfast and light lunch. Please book this upon arrival at reception. Camping is offered at the Motswedi Camping site.