The magnificent Lowveld and surrounds are the perfect place to spread your legs, especially now that day trips into the Kruger National Park are permitted! We chat to bird guide and wildlife enthusiast Marc Cronje on the splendours of our heritage.
Born in Johannesburg, Marc’s introduction to the natural world came from, of all places, the Johannesburg Zoo, where his dad was the curator of primates and small cats. He moved to the Lowveld when his family came to start up the first chimpanzee sanctuary in South Africa, Chimp Eden, which is affiliated with the Jane Goodall Institute, where Marc worked for five years. He started up the educational and tour programme at the chimp sanctuary, and also began getting involved in guiding school groups in Kruger.
“I have been exposed to a wide variety of wildlife from an early age,” says Marc, “and have been involved in wildlife education and the threats which face our wildlife for a while now. While finishing my degree in nature conservation I soon realised the only way to protect our wildlife is through education, and exposing people to it in a positive manner.”
This led to him deciding to qualify, and he is now a THEATA/FGASA level 2 guide. Marc is a keen birder, and sits on the Birdlife Lowveld committee, his world birding list is at just over
2 000. He spends most of his days in the wild, leading birding and wildlife tours across Africa and abroad.
‘‘I have been a guide now for just over eight years now. I enjoy my wildlife and bird photography, and love sharing my passion for birding and wildlife with all who come to marvel at my ‘office’ in nature,” he laughs.
Marc is also actively involved in research projects including the Southern African Bird Atlas project and wild dog monitoring within the Kruger.
His love of birding started when he worked at the chimpanzee sanctuary. “I was given the opportunity to travel to Central and West Africa to rescue chimps, and realising the sheer bird diversity in the tropical rainforest was an eye-opener. One day on a game drive in Kruger a report of a Pel’s fishing owl came in from an area I frequent regularly, and this was the turning point for me. It opened my eyes to the amazing birdlife on my doorstep, which led to me starting a bird list. From there on I began travelling Africa and the world to find birds. Ever since then I have been hooked.”
One of the aspects of Marc’s job that he loves, is the travelling. Being able to spend time in nature while visiting and exploring new places is a dream come true. “I get to learn about a new country, its culture and wildlife while being able to go birding! Teaching people about the birds, showing them species they have never seen before is so rewarding, their faces light up. Many of these people also become friends, which is another plus. I wouldn’t change it for the world!” Being such an avid traveller, Marc has seen many diverse and beautiful destinations. Costa Rica’s sheer amount of wildlife and birds took his breath away, while his time spent in North India was especially memorable to him, one of the reasons for this being seeing a tiger, a bucket list item.
Still, Africa is in his blood. “I get to spend a lot of time in northern Namibia and the Caprivi Strip, and the Okavango is one of my favourite places to explore,” he muses. “The birds in the area are still so wild, and there is so much wildlife. I feel I am in a David Attenborough documentary! Spending time in Uganda and birding in the tropical forests is truly amazing, and seeing a huge silverback gorilla is the ultimate wildlife experience. Crooks Corner, Pafuri and northern Kruger are also places I absolutely love spending time at.”
Unfortunately, Covid-19 has put a damper on Marc’s guiding activities. With the reopening of day trips to Kruger, he is now offering people his services as a hop-on guide, joining them on their trips into southern Kruger, as well as a few other choice spots in the Lowveld. Many people are taking this opportunity to learn more about the birds in their garden and immediate vicinity. “We have some incredible local birding and are host to some wonderful species,” Marc smiles.
“By acting as a local guide I hope to get folks interested in some of the local bird and birding spots we have in the area. In Kruger we have so many birds, and if we take the time to notice them we get to see so much more than just the Big 5. Kaapsehoop, for example, has the Malachite sunbirds and Gurney’s sugarbirds feeding on the aloes that are in flower at the moment.” The Lowveld National Botanical Garden hosts some great birds, of particular interest are the southern bald ibis, also endemic to SA, that nest there, and are sometimes seen behind Halls Farm Stall. Sought-after birds like the African finfoot can be seen along the Crocodile River at the Grace Hall Bridge just before the garden.
“The Steilties Nature Reserve also offers some great birding with the likes of trumpter hornbill, green twinspot, striped pipit and crowned eagles breeding there,” Marc continues. “Some other special birds seen within the Mbombela/Barberton and White River areas include bat hawks, gorgeous bushshrike, narina trogon, African pygmy goose, Abdim’s stork (a rare summer visitor) and purple herons, among many others. The Lowveld has many different habitats with many different species occurring. As you can see, the area has some great birding and many options for day trips to go out and enjoy nature and the birds on your doorstep.” The importance of appreciating the natural world around us is not lost on us at this time, being homebound has caused many people to sit and take notice of their surroundings.
As with all things, education is key. “I truly believe wildlife and birdwatching have a crucial role to play in wildlife protection and conservation,” says Marc. “Eco-tourism, avi-tourism and wildlife tourism bring in so much money and create so many jobs, and we need to realise the importance of our wildlife and our national parks. Our parks have a good solid future, as long as people realise their importance. I think Covid-19 has shown us how important wildlife is, in attracting tourists to our parks and country. Wildlife can benefit people’s lives in positive ways, if we protect it.”
Contact Marc on 083-705-6436 or visit Nature Travel Birding on Facebook or go to www.naturetravelbirding.com