Marievale Bird Sanctuary, not far from Johannesburg, is one of those places where you can quietly exhale, settle down in a bird hide, and be at peace with water birds wading through the shallows before you. As a bonus, this Ramsar wetland sometimes yields wildly exotic vagrant bird species.

Did you know?

An excellent birding spot at Marievale is on a bridge built in 1880.

If you are in Johannesburg and crave a spot of birding, there is only one place you should go, and that is the Marievale Bird Sanctuary.

Set in a floodplain near the little town of Nigel near Johannesburg, this interesting provincial nature reserve has Gauteng province’s highest bird count: 280 species. In addition, this part of the Blesbokspruit – a perennial river – has been declared a Ramsar wetland of international importance.

As if that weren’t enough, Marievale has also been declared an Important Bird Area.

Go there in Spring (September and October) when the migrants arrive, before the rains, and you will be greeted with sights that make your jaw drop. Here, not far from gold mining areas, you will see thousands upon thousands of water birds wading in the shallows. Up to 4 000 ruffs, for example, have been seen at one time.

Here you can often see specials like little bittern and slaty egrets, black and squacco herons and handsome red-knobbed coots along with the usual aquatic suspects – african rails, crakes, moorhens, cormorants and snipes.

It’s probably the only place in Gauteng where it is relatively easy to see the Goliath heron, fulvous duck and african shelduck.

But what gets birders excited is that Marievale sometimes attracts extremely rare vagrants. In the past, there have been good sightings of buff-spotted flufftails, buff-breasted sandpiper, an American pacific plover, and a black-tailed godwit.

This is usually a quiet place, but you will immediately know if something extraordinary has been spotted, because birders from all over the country will have descended here.

Marievale has been shaped by mining – much of the water that fills its open areas is pumped up from underground. Yet this has created an extraordinary body of water attractive to birds.

The sanctuary is very oriented towards things winged, but you can also look out for reedbuck, blesbok, cape clawless otters, black-backed jackal, yellow mongoose and the odd cape hare.

And if that doesn’t convince you to go, the entrance fee is irresistible. It’s free.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Suikerbosrand Nature Reserves (with chalets) also handles Marievale enquiries
Tel: +27 (0)11 439 6300
Cell: +27 (0)71 602 7581

Friends of Marievale
Stan Madden
Tel: +27 (0)11 734 3661
Email: stmadden@telkomsa.net

How to get here

From Johannesburg, budget about an hour for the drive. Take the N3 towards Durban, then take the N17 toll road and follow it until you take the Endicott turnoff onto the R42. Turn right and follow the road until you get to the Marievale Bird Sanctuary sign. You'll see the gate after a few kilometres.

Best time to visit

Spring and early summer (September, October and November) are best because that's when the migrants arrive - and before there's a lot of water elsewhere from the summer rains.

Get around

Walking or by car. The hides are quite far apart, so a car is the best bet. The roads are stony and quite rough, so drive carefully.

What will it cost

Entrance is free.

Length of stay

Depending on how keen a birder you are, this is a perfect destination to spend half a day.

What to pack

Take along your own provisions because there's nowhere easy to buy food there unless you drive into Nigel.

Where to stay

There are two self-catering chalets which sleep four: adults R132 per night, pensioners and children, R99 per night. Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve is not too far and has self-catering chalets.