Larking about in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province
by John McAllister
John runs "Beautiful Just Birding" send for a Brochure
For most people South Africa’s Northern Cape Province, if they know anything about it at all, consists of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park. Perhaps they may have heard of Namaqualand and its wildflowers. Maybe they have heard of the region’s exciting 4-wheel drive routes.
For birders there is another reason to visit this area of semi-desert sands, hard gravel plains and rocky mountains. If you’re a raptor freak then few places in southern Africa can compare with the Kalahari. As impressive as these raptors may be they do not constitute the main appeal of the area to me, however. I am in love with southern Africa’s larks. At least twenty species of these cryptically coloured little birds are to be found in the starkly beautiful area south of the Orange River.
Birding was tailing off in Wakkerstroom after a fabulous summer so Elize and I set off to explore the area between Kimberley and the Atlantic Ocean during the first two weeks in March this year. Our holiday began in earnest when we came across our first “dry west special” - a Pale Chanting Goshawk - in the Free State west of Kimberley.
The accommodation at Langberg Guest Farm 25 km south of Kimberley proved to be a very fortunate choice. The owners of this historic farm (it was the scene of a battle between the Boers and the Poms during the Anglo-Boer War) have converted an old “Cape Dutch” barn into a beautiful guest house containing many artefacts from a bygone era. Here we picked up our next four special birds - Dusky Sunbird, Karoo Robin, Blackcheeked Waxbill and Shorttoed Rock Thrush.
Reluctantly we had to leave Langberg after only one night. We will certainly return for a longer stay sometime in the future. We came across our first Sociable Weavers on the road west to Griquatown. They were just across the fence in the southern portion of the Vaalbos National Park - yet another area we want to explore sometime.
Our next stopover was a three-night stay at Witsand. Formerly privately owned this wonderful place of startling white sand dunes is now one Northern Cape Conservation Services newest reserves. We stayed in their newly opened luxury cottages and at R 95,00 per person per night these have to be one of South Africa’s best bargains. Each cottage sleeps six people (with only one set of ablution facilities four is probably a better number) in three bedrooms and there is a beautifully appointed lounge/dining room/kitchen. All rooms are air-conditioned - almost essential in this harsh climate. The braai area is under a cluster of shady Camel Thorns Acacia erioloba and there is a communal swimming area for those who want to socialise with guests from the other cottages. There is also a lovely camping and caravan area with sites under huge, spreading Camel Thorns interspersed with the much smaller, but equally attractive Grey Camel Thorn Acacia haematoxylon.
For me the birds of the area were unquestionably the abundant Fawncoloured Larks and a single Swallowtailed Bee-eater. Other endemic species that we saw included Northern Black Korhaan and Southern Redcrested Korhaan. “Dry west specials” included Pririt Batis, “Largebilled” Sabota Lark (also known as Bradfield’s Lark and arguably a separate species from the “Slenderbilled” Sabota Lark further east) and Kalahari Robin. Kori Bustards were also plentiful. All in all we recorded more than 50 species of which nearly half were South or southern African endemics. A serious twitcher would have got far more than this.
Mammals included many Springbok, Common Duiker and many charming Cape Ground Squirrels. For those interested only in “charismatic megafauna” Witsand is not the place to go. If you enjoy peace and tranquillity, being able to walk where you please in unusual surroundings and enjoy the finer things in life Witsand is certainly the place for you. Eventually other mammals are to be re-established in the reserve, but for the moment the veld is being allowed to recover from earlier mismanagement and abuse. There is also an active programme in place to remove the interminable alien species that the human race seems bent on introducing into places of great natural beauty.
Our next stop was Augrabies Falls National Park. The Gariep River was very low (a consequence of the large new dams being built upstream in Lesotho?) and the falls were not as spectacular as I’ve see them. Air temperatures reached a blistering 420 C. This heated the rock strata underfoot to nearly 800 C! All in all a wonderful reason for having an afternoon nap in the air-conditioned comfort of our hut.
Birds seen here include Namaqua Sandgrouse, Palewinged Starling, Karoo Longbilled Lark (recently separated from Longbilled Lark which has been split into five species), Karoo Korhaan, Layard’s Titbabbler and Whitethroated Canary. Our search for Cinnamonbreasted Warbler and Rosyfaced Lovebirds turned out to be in vain, however.
While the staff at the Park were most friendly and helpful the accommodation was very mediocre At R 135,00 per person per night prices were almost 50% more expensive than Witsand. The advertised trip to look for Black Rhinos on the northern bank of the river had been discontinued so our visit was restricted to the southern bank. In line with other National Parks visitors are not allowed to leave their cars other than at a few designated areas. This is restricts birding to staring through frustratingly dense bushes or over “dead” ground from the window of an intolerably hot motor car. There did not seem to be any valid reason for this. All in all I will not be easily persuaded to revisit this National Park.
From the searing heat of Augrabies we drove across Bushmanland and Namaqualand to Port Nolloth on the rather chilly Atlantic Coast for yet another three-night stay. Our destination was McDougall Bay six or seven kilometres south of Port Nolloth. Our accommodation was in a wonderful chalet right on the beach at the municipal campground and caravan park. The view from the front porch (when you could see it through the mist coming off the cold Benguella current) was straight over to Bird Island and a very busy cormorant colony. Bank, Cape and Crowned Cormorants as well as Black Oystercatcher were all in evidence. Whitefronted Plovers, Sanderlings, Turnstones and Knots were running around busily in front of our bedroom window. For us landlubbers from Wakkerstroom it was a wonderful experience indeed.
The next day Elize and I went in search of the main reason for us undertaking the trip - the newly split Barlow’s Lark which is endemic to an area between Port Nolloth and Aus in Namibia.. Around three hours later, but less than 20 km out of Port Nolloth along the road to Alexander Bay we found a magnificent individual! The bird was so confiding and unconcerned that it almost climbed into the Kombi. The heavy streaking on the breast stopped abruptly before reaching the belly and flanks. It was so close that there was no chance of it being a Karoo Lark in faded plumage. On a scale of one to five it was definitely a class five sighting! The sad part of the whole episode was that my camera had stayed behind in Wakkerstroom. The following day we found another individual in almost exactly the same spot.
We carried on to Alexander Bay and the Gariep River estuary which is now registered as a Wetland of International Importance under the United Nation’s “Ramsar Convention” - an international environmental treaty to protect the world’s major wetlands and their waterfowl drawn up in Ramsar, Iran in 1972. The road down to the river mouth is raised above the level of the surrounding mudflats. This must give a wonderful view of the estuary and its bird life during an incoming tide. Unfortunately the tide was out during our brief visit. We will definitely return to the estuary. Hopefully we will be able to time our next visit better. The most interesting birds here were five far out of range Fulvous Ducks, six Eastern White Pelicans and two Caspian Terns.
Our last three-night stopover was at Pofadder, back in Bushmanland. Instead of following the tarred road back to Steinkopf and Springbok we took the gravel road south towards Kleinsee. Casual tourists are not allowed to visit Kleinsee, but we were able to go as far south as Grootmis where we had to turn inland towards Spektakelberg and Springbok. I would recommend this route to anyone not phased by gravel roads. The road was in excellent condition and highly scenic, especially around the Spektakelberg Pass. It apparently also follows the route used by Simon van der Stel way back in the late 17th century. In addition to all of this we found Karoo Lark in the succulent karoo on the road’s edge. With our sighting of Barlow’s Lark still fresh in our minds we were able to compare the differences in the plumage patterns of these to closely related species. The major difference is that the streaking on the breast of the Karoo Lark extends onto the belly and flanks.
Pofadder was wonderful. Oom Koos Louw, our host in the town, not only provided us with cheap accommodation (the Pofadder Hotel provides wonderful accommodation for those with more money to spend than we had), but was a mine of information as well. He regaled us with stories from the area ranging from natural history to human history and politics (he is a former member of the Provincial Council).
“A whole inch” of rain had fallen a few days before we arrived Oom Koos told us excitedly. The affect of this was startling. Plants, notably the Wild Ghaap Hoodia gordonii, were flowering, birds were displaying and roads were washed away in places. We drove out from Pofadder to the Koa River valley south of Aggenys. Here the road passes through an extensive area of red sand dunes.
Almost 18 months earlier a Swedish birding group had told me that they had found Red Larks at this site. There were a number of Wild Green-hair Trees Pakinsonia africana on the crest of the dunes. The dunes themselves were dotted with grass clumps with plumed awns. Everything fitted the Red Lark habitat described in the Atlas of Southern African Birds. A quick check of Guy Gibbon’s tape-recorded calls confirmed that the rather pretty bird calls we could hear were indeed emanating from Red Larks. Once it dawned on me that they were not calling from the ground we found at least four Red Larks singing from the tops of low bushes or engaged in aerial display - another Class five sighting!
The Roman Catholic Mission Station at Pella was founded in 1814 as a London Missionary Society station, abandoned by them in 1872 and taken over by Roman Catholic missionaries in 1878. A “cathedral” was built by the early missionaries with only a encyclopaedia to guide and instruct them. The cathedral is surrounded by large date plantations in a walled garden. Surrounded as it is by bare rocky hillsides rich in minerals but virtually devoid of vegetation the whole settlement looks for all the world like an archetype desert oasis. Visitors to this area should not miss the drive from Pella through the hills to Pelladrift on the Gariep. Pelladrift is also a starting point for the 600 km long Namaqua 4x4 route down the Gariep to the coast.
Other special birds that we tracked down in the fascinating area around Pofadder include Greybacked and Blackeared Finchlarks, Ludwig’s Bustard, Karoo Korhaan, Sicklewinged Chat, Rufouseared Warbler and Larklike Bunting. We missed out on Stark’s Lark, Sclater’s Lark, Namaqua Warbler, Cinnamonbreasted Warbler and Rosyfaced Lovebird. This was disappointing but gave us a very good reason to return.
Mark Anderson of Northern Cape Conservation Services had told me that Sclater’s Larks had been congregating south of Kenhardt a few weeks before. On the off chance that these nomadic larks were still around we decided to cut across country on our homeward journey. We didn’t find the larks, but we did get Rosyfaced Lovebirds south of Kenhardt right at the southernmost extremity of their range.
Sadly our holiday had ended and we continued on our long journey back to Wakkerstroom. We had missed out on a few birds but they presented a challenge for the future. Our main aim had been achieved - to find reasonably reliable sites that we could return to for Barlow’s and Red Larks - birds that were lifers for both Elize and I.
John McAllister is the proprietor of Beautiful Just Birding - (Send for a Brochure)