Visit your favourite destinations
|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Western and Northern Cape, South Africa – November 2010,
This was our first visit to southern Africa, and lots of friends had advised us how straightforward it would be. And it was. A great country, easy to get around and plenty of wildlife. We decided early in the planning not to try and do the whole country in one visit, so we spent three weeks taking a clockwise circuit around the Western and Northern Cape in November. With hindsight (and an absence of other commitments), we’d have gone in October and possibly seen more, especially in the desert area – but as South Africa’s winter rains all but failed in 2010, it may not have made a huge difference this year.
We spent the first few days on the Cape Peninsula, then took the coastal route north to West Coast National Park before striking inland. We spent a few days exploring the Cedarberg Mountains and the Tankwa Karoo, then headed north to Calvinia and then Brandvlei. We then turned southeast, visiting Karoo National Park and the Swartberg Pass, before hitting the south coast at the Garden Route National Park. The third week was spent heading west, visiting Bontebok National Park, Grootsvadenbosch and De Hoop NR among other sites, before returning to Cape Town for the flight home.
Travel and accommodation
We flew from London Heathrow to Cape Town with Virgin Atlantic (£837 each including taxes). Good service and better than faffin’ around in the Middle East with a marginally cheaper flight.
After a lot of webtrawling for the best price, we booked our car hire through www.drivesouthafrica.co.za, which was cheaper than booking directly with Budget. It was a class B car, a Toyota Yaris, which suited two of us and our luggage fine, though would have been a squash if we’d had passengers and not a bag on the back seat. It had air conditioning, though we only used it twice, when the temperature exceeded 40ºCelsius.
Details of our accommodation are in the main trip report, but we booked only the first few days near Cape Town (at Afton Grove); and the three days on the edge of Tankwa Karoo (at Klein Cedarberg ), where we knew accommodation options were very limited. Everywhere else, we just rolled up and found somewhere in our price bracket very easily. This is, apparently, easy in November, but less so in December and January when South Africans take their holidays.
The final comment is how impressive South African National Parks accommodation is. Having been decidedly unimpressed by state-run places elsewhere in the world, this was a pleasant surprise. All were clean, well-equipped, and good value considering you got to stay within the Parks and so were well placed to get out birding at first light.
Weather and climate
Aside from a wet afternoon on the Cape Peninsula and a drizzly day on the south coast between De Hoop and Rooi Els, we saw only sunshine, though the first few days around Cape Town were mostly overcast, such that a trip up Table Mountain was only possible on our final afternoon in South Africa. Along the coast, daytime temperature was typically 19-25ºC, though on the west coast it hit 44ºC before we started climbing into the mountains. In the Tankwa Karoo, it hit 40ºC most days. The winter before our visit had barely seen any rain, so the river levels and pans were very low or completely dry. This meant that any water usually had some birdlife around it, but the opportunities to find water near the road were few and far between. The breeze was ever-present, on the west coast and the Tankwa Karoo at least, which was welcome in the heat until mid afternoon, when it became like standing in front of a hair dryer.
Inevitably, the resulting dust got everywhere, but R70 in Hermanus gave the car a thorough inside-and-out clean and probably saved us being charged when we returned the hire car.
We tended to plan our days so that we’d get out birding for a few hours in the morning, have a late breakfast/brunch, then travel to our next destination during the heat of the day, looking for accommodation in mid afternoon, then doing some birding and/or chilling in the late afternoon. In November, sunrise is about 5.30 am and sunset around 7.15 pm.
We didn’t go far enough north or east to worry about malaria. In fact, with such dry conditions, mosquitoes were barely an issue, though Sandra did get plenty of bites at the Brandvlei Hotel. I picked up ticks in Cape Point and Bontebok National Parks, so a pair of tweezers is a handy inclusion in your washbag. For the pelagic, I’m glad that I’d bought some Scopoderm patches on private prescription. I’d not taken them before, had no side effects and didn’t feel at all nauseous.
Books and maps
Crucial to our birding was Cohen, Spottiswoode and Rossouw’s Southern African Birdfinder, which I’d kindly been given by colleagues when I changed jobs. We used it both to plan and follow our route. Even though it was published in 2006, most of the information remains correct, and only where it differs have I mentioned details in this report. You really shouldn’t go without it.
For field guides, we used mainly Sinclair, Hockey and Tarboton’s SASOL Birds of Southern Africa. The plates and the detail are mostly excellent and it was the book that I always carried. We also had Hugh Chittenden’s Roberts Bird Guide. We found the plates less useful because many species are represented by just a single illustration or in an unhelpful pose. However, it was a useful cross-check when the colour rendition in the SASOL guide didn’t match what we’d seen, and I found the maps easier to interpret.
Rather than take a stack of other books, we bought a couple of fold-out guides published by Eco-Educational: Jonathan Kingdom’s Mammals of Southern Africa and Johan Marais’ Snakes of Southern Africa (£9.99 each from www.wildlifebooks.com. The mammals guide was well-used; the snakes wasn’t (but perhaps that’s a good thing). As a general tourist guide, we used The Rough Guide to South Africa.
We bought a couple of small-scale maps before we left the UK, the most useful for planning being Sunbird’s 1:750,000 Touring Map of the Western Cape. However, once in South Africa we went to a bookshop and bought a road atlas for the whole country: Book of the Road (www.mapstudio.co.za). This was R200 well spent as it provided much more detail of the minor roads – particularly useful in the desert – and includes dozens of town plans, including of places that barely merit the label village!
Finally, if you’re likely to visit several National Parks, we’d strongly recommend a Wild Card (www.wildcard.co.za). Although it was a large initial outlay (R1850 for two of us), it provides entry into all the National Parks, plus a whole load of other places including nature reserves managed by Cape Nature, and gives discounts to other sites, such as Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens. You can buy it at National Park gates, but we ordered ours in advance and it arrived by post within a couple of weeks.
Pound sterling had slid rapidly against the Rand in the months before we went away, and while we were there it ranged between £=R10.26 and R10.60. We took travellers’ cheques as well as cash, though discovered that not all banks (even branches in fairly large towns) have a currency exchange. Despite comments in the Rough Guide and some previous trip reports, we found that credit cards were widely taken in hotels and restaurants. Just a couple of family-run B&Bs did not.
10 November – Cape Town to Noordhoek (sunny, 29ºC)
Rule number one of driving from the airport into a large city on your first visit is that you’ll take a wrong turn off a busy highway and go in the opposite direction to the one you intended. We did, and ended up taking the west coast route from Cape Town beneath the Twelve Apostles, to Noordhoek. It really didn’t matter and did mean that we got to visit Llandudno. The other Llandudno, the one we don’t live in. The scenery was fantastic as the road hugs the cliffs, and we became familiar with the common birds and some of the local specialties, including rock kestrel and black oystercatcher.
In the evening, we went for a wander along the huge sandy beach at Noordhoek, where African olive pigeon was a surprise fly-over, and watched dozens of ibises and egrets fly into roost at the wetland close to Afton Grove.
Overnight was at Afton Grove (www.afton.co.za/), where Chris Spengler was really helpful in providing us with the low-down on local birding sites, including photocopies of hand-drawn maps with birding notes. The accommodation and breakfasts were good, with several restaurants within a few kilometres. We’d particularly recommend Rioja (www.rioja.co.za/), where an excellent three course meal with a bottle of wine cost R250 each. A shopping mall close to the hotel includes a supermarket.
11 November – Cape Point National Park (overcast, 17ºC; wet from 4.30 pm)
We explored the road to Oliphantsbos, west of the main road running through the spine of the Park. Very few other visitors travelled this way, and there were several trails to explore through the rocks and fynbos. Cape specialties included orange-breasted sunbird, cape sugarbird and cape grassbird, as well as our first ostriches. Down on the coast, a huge roost of sandwich and swift terns, and Hartlaub’s gulls were on the rocks with cape and white-breasted cormorants. Several avocets and black oystercatchers were on the beach, while cape canaries, cape bulbuls and yellow bishops fed in the scrub. A white-necked raven repeatedly picked up and dropped something that I was pretty certain was a tortoise. Damn difficult to crack, them shells.
We drove to Cape Point itself, had a late lunch at the restaurant (the chocolate fondant pudding was one of the best R39 I spent all trip), but the drizzle had started when we emerged and so we ditched a walk to the lighthouse and a drive round the side roads and headed back to Afton Grove, where Sandra picked up the song of a chaffinch in the garden, and common waxbills came to the feeders.
12 November – Jonkersdam, Kirstenbosch and Strandfontein Sewage Works (misty start, then warm and sunny, 21ºC)
A dawn start saw us walking up a footpath at Jonkersdam, at the top of the pass between Noordhoek and Glencairn (M6, Blackhill Road). This was among the maps of sites that Chris Spengler recommended; the access is from a wide lay-by at the peak of the pass about 3 km southeast of Afton Grove. We were still rather raw in identifying the songs and calls, so probably missed several species here. Nonetheless, we had great views of cape robin chat, grey-backed cisticola, cape sugarbird and both malachite and orange-breasred sunbird. Several rock hyrax were on watch at the top of the cliffs.
After breakfast at Afton Grove, we weaved through the suburban traffic to Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens (not well signposted from the northbound M3). Entry was R37 each (with a Wild Card). Immediately into the formal gardens we started seeing new birds, including olive thrush and black saw-wing. We saw little on the Braille Trail, perhaps mid-morning was too late, so climbed up the Skeleton Gorge (well made path but steep in places), along the contour path on the side of Table Mountain, then back to the formal gardens via the Nursery Ravine.
Getting into this semi-natural forest was excellent, though finding the birds was hard work. Among the new species were southern double-collared sunbird, sombre greenbul (it took us ages to pick out our first, but once we’d learned the call, we found them everywhere) and the brilliant Cape batis. We didn’t see anything here that we didn’t see elsewhere, but if you’ve only got time to visit Peninsula sites, this walk is a must. At higher elevation we had great views of a pair of African dusky flycatchers, and back in the gardens discovered how obliging Cape francolins and helmeted guineafowl could be.
After lunch in the Kirstenbosch café (nothing special), we drove east across the suburbs to Strandfontein Sewage Works, arriving around 4 pm. There’s a speed hump and a roadside ‘office’ about a kilometre along Zeekovlei Road, but it wasn’t always occupied. The first of the lagoons (‘D’ on the map on page 36 of Birdfinder) was full of birds, particularly avocets, greater flamingos, maccoa ducks and black-necked grebes. In fact, I saw more black-necked and little grebes at this one site than I’ve probably ever seen in 30 years of birdwatching in the UK.
We signed in at the water treatment plant office (as you approach the office, swing to the right and stop in front of the red and white pole; a member of staff will bring the paperwork to you), we birded the area for a couple of hours. Groups of huge great white pelicans dropped in like Bomber Command; purple swamphens tramped around the reedy edges where black-headed herons stalked; a couple of African marsh harriers quartered the lagoon banks and as we got to the more southerly lakes (S7, H in the Birdfinder), the lakes were full of southern pochards and yellow-billed ducks. The reeds and long grass swayed with Levaillant’s cisticolas and a black-crowned night heron waited patiently for dusk. Along one of the deep ditches fed white-throated swallows, brown-throated martins and greater striped swallows among dozens of barn swallows.
As we left at dusk, huge flocks of avocets, black-winged stilts and greater flamingos were preparing to roost in the pools, against a backdrop of the darkening mountains that ring Cape Town. Fantastic!
13 November – Pelagic from Simonstown and Cape Point National Park
Saturday morning dawned wet, with and moderate northwesterly wind. We’d prebooked a trip through http://www.capetownpelagics.com/, confirmed the previous afternoon, but down at the quay, the skipper said it was touch-and-go as to whether we would get out beyond Cape Point. With the wind veering southwesterly, he and our guide Dalton Gibbs agreed to give it a go. With just one other paying guest, a Kent birder, and a couple of Capetonian nature reserve wardens, it took about 45 minutes to reach Cape Point, seeing plenty of swift terns, African penguins and Cape gannets as we reached the edge of False Bay.
The rain eased, but we hit the swell soon after rounding the Cape and the next five hours involved clinging on to part of the boat’s superstructure while trying to spot seabirds. The big disappointment was failing to locate any trawlers or long-liners in the 25 miles or so we travelled west of the Point, so there was no seabird spectacle. Nonetheless, we had multiple fly-by views of shy albatrosses and white-chinned petrels, Wilson’s and European storm-petrels foot-pattering close to the boat, sooty and a single great shearwater. We also had good views of flying fish, a couple of Sabine’s gulls and Arctic tern, and as we returned to False Bay, a bonus Northern giant petrel. Back in the Bay, sheltered by the hills, we enjoyed some food, steering close to the islets that are home to hundreds of bank, Cape and white-breasted cormorants, and caught up with four crowned cormorants, as well as plenty of fur seals. As I left the boat, I asked skipper Justin what it was like out there in a real storm; he described today’s conditions as ‘bad’…
Back on terra firma and after an excellent ice cream, we returned to the south end of Cape Point to see the bits we missed in the rain a couple of days previously. Just below the upper funicular station we found half-a-dozen cape siskins; hard to see at first as they fed on the ground among the bushes, eventually they flicked over our heads to feed on an open slope below the lighthouse. The other new bird here was our first large-billed lark by the roadside as we drove back to Noordhoek. We took the scenic western road back, through Scarborough and Kommetjie.
14 November – West coast drive: Cape Town to Langebaan (sunny, 31ºC)
First stop out of the city was Rietvlei (page 45 of the Birdfinder), a frustrating wetland in that the R27 highway was far too busy to stop and view the pools. To the north of the marsh, we turned right and right again into the housing estate and eventually found an access point from Flamingo Road/Stiltslaan. It wasn’t ideal as we couldn’t get to the water’s edge or any elevation, but nonetheless we saw a wide range of birds, similar to those at Strandfontein, but with great crested grebe, African spoonbill and spur-winged goose. We also flushed a suni deer from the grass, and enjoyed watching the great white pelicans thermalling against the backdrop of Table Mountain. We enquired at the sailing club on Sandpiper Avenue, where access to the hide is R10 each and R16 to park, but decided that we’d push on north as it was already late morning.
Our next stop, Koeberg Nature Reserve (page 45 of the Birdfinder) proved a non-starter at the gate. It’s closed at the weekends… and today is Saturday. A nature reserve that follows office hours. This wasn’t proving a great start to our weekend.
Back on the road, we turned onto our first (of many, many miles) dirt road, following the Darling Wildflower Route (page 46 of the Birdfinder), and cheered up almost instantly. In the first few kilometres, we were adding to our trip list: yellow-billed kite, a female black-headed canary (a bit out of range, but we saw more later), kittlitz’s plover, red-capped lark, capped wheatear, blue crane, little swift and African sacred ibis all around a new irrigation pond to the east of the road (at B on the map). Around the next bend came cape sparrow, cape weaver, African pied starling, African hoopoe, southern masked weaver, Namaqua dove and yellow canary, all from the roadside. Driving this road was the first indication of how dry it was, but we did find a kilometre of road with a river running alongside, around which we found our first white-backed mousebird, acacia pied barbet and, more surprisingly, black cuckoo-shrike, which seemed slightly north of its range, so we took video to be certain. It proved to be the only one of the trip.
Turning north on the R307, Sandra managed to spot a well-camouflaged African snipe in a pool set back from the road. Again, our only one of the trip. Through Darling, we stopped at Tiene Versveld Nature Reserve (H on the map), where we easily found a couple of cloud cisticolas, a male African-race stonechat, and a tiny tortoise that nearly ended up under my boot.
It was late afternoon by the time we got to the southern gate of the West Coast National Park (Birdfinder, page 48). In the remaining time, and having checked the tide online, we opted for the Seeberg Hide (E on the map). En route we enjoyed our first views of black harrier, undoubtedly one of my favourite birds of the trip, though great care was needed to dodge the tortoises along the road and look out for birds.
Walking through the scrub to the hide added speckled mousebird and karoo scrub-robin to the list, while the small pools behind the hide contained three-banded plover and sanderling. A wealth of waders being pushed towards us by the tide were mostly Western Palearctic breeders, with curlew sandpiper and knot especially abundant. A pair of white-fronted plovers buzzed along the sand in front of us and a black-shouldered kite flew over. Frustratingly, we had to exit the Park by 7 pm so left the hide by 6.45 pm with at least half an hour of daylight and incoming tide to go.
We found a B&B for R50 (without breakfast, as we wanted to be out at dawn) in Langebaan, close to the road to the northern Park gate and ate inexpensively at Driftwood Restaurant on the beach. As we drove back to the B&B after dark, we spotted a barn owl hunting over some rough grassland by streetlight.
15 November – West Coast National Park and related sites (sunny, 44ºC)
We were first through the gate at opening time, 7 am, driving south to the hide close to the Visitor Centre at Geelbek (A on the map). In addition to some of the species seen the previous evening, the rising tide brought cape shelducks, marsh sandpipers and ruff towards us, while the nearby trees rang to the calls of bokmakieries and Acacia pied barbet. It was already getting warm, so we travelled a few kilometres farther south to Abrahamskraal waterhole (F on the map). An hour spent in the hide gave us yellow canaries, cape turtle dove and cape reed warblers at the water’s edge, and pearl breasted swallow nesting in the hide.
After brunch and a supermarket sweep in Langebaan, we drove to Langebaan Quarry (Birdfinder, page 50). Development has altered the road layout: from the crossroads (with Club Mykonos to the south), drive a few hundred metres east and follow the tarmac road that veers off to the north, then take the left fork once it becomes a dirt road. We found the Verraux’s eagle nest, but no occupants, though there were plenty of African black swifts, brown-chested martins and a couple of rock kestrels.
We then spent an hour or so driving the Vredensburg to Paternoster road (Birdfinder, page 51), though struggled to find most of the featured species. A roadside pool hosted plenty of red-knobbed coot and blacksmith plovers, while towards Paternoster we saw our first of many jackal buzzards, grey-backed sparrowlark, African pipit and European bee-eaters of the trip. At Paternoster, we turned right towards Stompneus, but this dusty and badly rutted road added little to our list and by mid afternoon we decided to bail out and take the three hour drive to Klein Cedarberg, via Piketberg and Citrusdal. The first section was unpleasantly hot (at 44ºC, the open window was like standing in front of a hair-dryer at 60 mph), but as we climbed the mountain passes to and beyond Citrusdal, the temperature became acceptable and the scenery more stunning; the whole journey added little by way of birds, though the yellow-billed kite count was impressive.
The next three nights were spent at Klein Cedarberg (www.kleincedarberg.co.za/), about 30 km east of Op die Berg. We had pre-booked this, as there is limited accommodation in the area. A slightly bohemian farmstead run by a Swiss couple, it was R2800 for three nights’ dinner, bed and breakfast for the two of us, with fantastic home-cooked dinners. With only solar panels providing electricity, remember to charge mobile phones and cameras before you arrive as there are no sockets. We fell asleep to the call of rufous-cheeked nightjars, though never did see any.
16-18 November – Swartruggens and Tankwa Karoo (sunny but windy, 40ºC)
Over the next few days, we travelled widely across the area, but with a limited number of roads, we visited some places several times, so have lumped these sites together. Note that all these are dirt roads, whose condition generally deteriorates as you go north.
The farmstead includes a huge area of land which, working with neighbouring landowners, has been consolidated into the Swartruggens Conservancy. A walk along the access road to the farm before breakfast on our first day afforded good views of the regular Cape species, plus several black-headed canaries, karoo larks and long-billed crombecs. A couple of pools among the intensive farmland between Klein Cedarberg and Op die Berg (the only source of petrol) held various ducks, African darter and our only reed cormorant.
Stunning views from the top of the second-highest canyon in South Africa, though the only bird of note was spotted eagle owl on the second evening.
Katbakkies Pass to Skitterykloof
Various random stops along the plateau provided views of booted eagle, jackal buzzard, rock kestrel and Layard’s tit babbler. The view of the Tankwa Karoo from the top before dropping into Skitterykloof is extraordinary.
The gorge and picnic area (Birdfinder, page 59) were a target stop on each journey, largely as one of the best places for cinnamon-breasted warbler, though we failed to see one in four stops there. My abiding memory of this place will always be two huge Verraux’s eagles sweeping across the valley, pursued by two white-necked ravens that looked tiny by comparison. The valley sides contained mountain wheatear, rock hyrax and klipspringer, while the scrub around the picnic area held numerous long-billed crombecs, fairy flycatchers, Levaillant’s cisticola, Layard’s tit babbler, cape robin chat, southern masked weaver, bokmakieries and malachite sunbirds. I found a point where I could cross the river fairly easily and found more of the same in the ravine west of the car park, including a singing cinnamon-breasted warbler that I couldn’t locate. On our last visit, we had great views of spotted flycatcher, our only one of the trip.
R355 Karoopoort to Calvinia
We did this road in several visits, driving south from Skitterykloof to Karoopoort on one day and north to Calvinia on our last day. Pale chanting goshawks and red-capped larks were probably the most abundant species and there were long stretches where we saw little in the dry heat. Along with the common familiar chats and karoo chats, we also saw tractrac chat and sickle-winged chats along the stretch between Skitterykloof and Eierkop. At Karoopoort, the strong wind interfered with watching the roadside scrub, which looked like a great place to be at daybreak, but since we were staying more than two hours’ drive away, this wasn’t practical. Nonetheless, we did see white-throated canary, more long-billed crombecs and fairy flycatchers, European bee-eater and African paradise flycatcher.
At the Dorling River crossing, just north of the turning to Skitterykloof, the puddle of water held greenshank, three-banded plover and a Namaqua sandgrouse. We saw another Namaqua sandgrouse a mile farther north at the next riverbed (dry, but with some acacia scrub still in leaf), along with a yellow mongoose peering meerkat-like over the vegetation, plus the first of several chestnut-vented babblers and rufous-eared warblers, white-throated canary and yellow canary. We saw several ant-eating chats by the roadside, and as we drove north to Calvinia found several Karoo long-billed larks and spike-heeled larks. Also, around 15 km south of Calvinia we found our first Cape crow.
P2250 road to Tankwa guesthouse
The Birdfinder write-up (page 60) meant we drove this road with great anticipation, but were deeply disappointed. In fairness, having spent so long at Skitterykloof, we didn’t turn onto the road until 10 am, so probably missed the best of the day. We saw very few birds in five hours, and only a couple were new: black-chested snake eagle (several, and we didn’t see many elsewhere), large-billed lark and spike-heeled lark, plus more grey-backed sparrowlarks. The vegetation is more sparse here, and although there were larks, they saw us coming and melted into the landscape before we could clock them. We took the track from point H (on the page 57 map) to Tanqua Guest House looking for karoo korhaans, greater kestrel and Burchell’s courser, but couldn’t find any. As far as the Guest House it was fine for a two-wheel drive saloon, but farther west it became very rutted, especially through the gated Stonehenge camp where it was hard to spot the track from the rocky desert. You realise that few people come this way!
18-19 November – Calvinia and Akkerendam Nature Reserve
After finding some accommodation in Calvinia (Die Hantam Huis, R325 each for B&B plus dinner for around R350 for two including wine), we went in search of the nature reserve featured in Birdfinder (page 77), and visited again the following morning. The entrance is off Hospital Road on the R27 to Williston (don’t – as we did – follow the roadsigns to the hospital, which is a brand new complex to the northwest of town). However, as the reserve is open 8 am – 7 pm, dawn and dusk visits are frustratingly out of the question, though I can’t be certain whether the gates are locked every night.
The reservoir, although low, held cape shelducks, black-winged stilts and little grebes, plus 20 springbok grazed around the edges. The highlight was seeing dozens, perhaps hundreds, of white-necked ravens drift in from the southwest as the sun sank and rise high to roost on the plateau high above the desert floor, joined by a single booted eagle and a few yellow-billed kites. A ground-woodpecker was a flash-past sighting, and we saw a steppe buzzard on our morning visit. A small group of rhebok was another ungulate tick, but the highlight was a cinnamon-breasted warbler that we heard regularly on the first low outcrop west of the track walking north from the reservoir. We heard it first, and frequently over the next 45 minutes, but saw it only very briefly and distantly a couple of times.
Our pre-breakfast walk was down to the river at Calvinia, on the edge of the town. Lots of bird activity here, including speckled mousebird, yellow bishop, African reed warbler, common waxbill and Levaillant’s cisticola among others.
19-20 November – Brandvlei and surrounds (overcast, 35ºC)
The drive from Calvinia to Brandvlei was enjoyable in that it was the first tarmac for several days, but none of the many rivers held any water. We saw white-rumped swift by one, and as we drove north chat flycatcher became the commonest species (from 15 km south of Brandvlei). African cliff swallows appeared among other hirundines and both karoo long-billed and thick-billed larks were common, with sporadic ant-eating and tractrac chats. Finally, some 30 km south of Brandvlei, at 70 kph I spotted two Karoo korhaans sheltering in the shade of an acacia.
Late in the afternoon we took the road east from Brandvlei and then turned north on the R357 to Van Wyksvlei. Here we saw another couple of Karoo korhaans, chestnut-eared warblers, bokmakieries and karoo scrub-robins, plus as we drove back to town, a huge martial eagle perched on a telegraph post. Fantastic. With a dust storm coming in, visibility rapidly reduced nearly to zero, blocking out the sun, so we packed in the evening’s birding and followed the same route at dawn the following day, when we saw two martial eagles on successive poles. Driving slowly north, stopping to scan frequently, I fell out of the car in a desperate effort to scope a massive bustard flying away and behind us: Kori’s bustard. It was huge, though not a great view. We found yet another karoo korhaan, three Namaqua sandgrouse and, just south of point G (on the Birdfinder map, page 78), three Sclater’s larks making short fluttering flights and short, rapid runs through the vegetation. This was a bonus; we hadn’t seen any red larks, but this was pretty adequate compensation.
At the bridge (point C on the map, page 78), the highlight was undoubtedly a Ludwig’s bustard that flew low over the road just ahead of us and dropped into the scrub, where this huge beast just disappeared. We also saw African stonechat, rock kestrel, capped wheatear and probable Burchell’s courser in flight. Frustrating.
With no other accommodation open, yet mindful of the advice of several friends who had been this way before, we booked a night at the Brandvlei Hotel. It was basic, very hot and with plenty of mozzies. On the upside, the barman Jason was up for a chat, used to birders (though with little interest himself) and even got up at 5 am to check we were awake, bring us coffee and make a packed breakfast for us. It was also cheap, at R660 for both of us for dinner, bed, packed breakfast and included beers at just R10 a bottle!
20 November – Brandvlei to Beaufort West (sunny, 39ºC)
This was the single longest leg of our trip, and we saw relatively few birds. Between Brandvlei and Williston were several ant-eating chats, including one displaying, plus another three Namaqua sandgrouse, and our first bush hyraxes and steinbucks of the trip. From Williston south (via Fraserburg), we concentrated on getting to our next destination rather than too much roadside birding. The scenery, especially the desert rock formations, provided a welcome diversion.
20-21 November Karoo National Park (sunny, 30ºC)
This proved to be one of the highlights of the trip, even though it was a last-minute decision to take an hour’s eastward diversion instead of heading straight for the coast. Despite arriving on a Saturday afternoon with no booking, we were able to stay in one of the well-appointed cottages with some of the best verandah views in the world, with zebras and springboks grazing just beyond the fence. (R900 for two, including breakfast in the restaurant).
As we pulled away from the entrance gate, the guard told us, in no uncertain terms, that we must not get out of the car: “there could be lions anywhere…”. Lions? We were convinced we’d misheard him until we arrived at the accommodation reception to see a photo of a huge male lion standing in the middle of a track, taken a few days before. It turned out that SANParks had, just a week earlier, released a pride into the National Park as the first phase of an exciting reintroduction programme, joining the black rhinos released a few years previously. We didn’t see either, as it turned out, but it added an extra dimension to know they were out there somewhere.
Since the Birdfinder map (page 96) was published, a new trail has been opened, which forms a southern loop between points A and D. The afternoon we arrived, we drove the first few kilometres, but didn’t make it all the way round, such was the diversion of photographing large mammals. Booted eagle, thick-billed and spike-heeled larks were among the birds, with red hartebeest, cape mountain zebra, Burchell’s zebra and gemsbok on the mammal list. We returned for an early dinner, seeing karoo thrush and red-eyed bulbul from the restaurant verandah, before taking a night drive with the rangers. This was a bit of an indulgence, as there were no other bookings so we had to pay R560 for the two of us in a game truck that could carry at least nine. We drove the Lammertjiesleegte loop, the highlight being a caracal lying in the grass next to the road; cape hare, two young black-backed jackals, common duiker and kudu were among the other mammals.
The following morning, we were out of the compound and into the Park at 6 am, and this time drove the full loop, and even then we had to rush the last bit in order to get back and check out. A long list of typical plains species in the southern section, including chat flycatcher, ant-eating chat, Karoo long-billed lark and rufous-eared warbler; the highlight of this section were four Kori bustards flying low over the veld. Driving into the hills, the habitat changed quickly and we started coming across lark-like buntings. Lots of them. How had we failed to see any so far? As we negotiated the hairpins through the scrub, we also finally saw a southern grey tit, and higher up were mountain wheatears and bokmakeries. On the rocky plateau at the top, several pipits gave us the run around, though we did nail African rock pipit. It was slightly frustrating not being able to get out of the car to follow them on foot.
After checking out and a late breakfast, we drove back up the scenic Klipspringer Pass, where the scrub revealed chestnut-vented and Layard’s tit-babblers in the same bush, long-billed pipit and pririt batis as well as malachite, southern double-collared and a possible dusky sunbird.
With hindsight, I wish we’d stayed a second night, but this had been a snap decision to come out of our way and we knew there were other places we wanted to see on the south coast, so reluctantly we left the Park early in the afternoon and headed to Prinz Albert, less than two hours away on the north side of the Swartberg Pass. There was little of note on the journey, much of which was on the busy N1, and by late Sunday afternoon we were at the wonderful Lazy Lizard, which organised both afternoon tea and accommodation at Mai’s (R380 per person for bed and breakfast). With a strong breeze getting up, we chilled out by the pool and planned our final week, then headed to The Gallery for the most superb dinner of our trip. If you stop in Prinz Albert, don’t miss it: http://www.princealbert.org.za/PAgallery.htm#cafe
22 November – Swartberg Pass (warm and sunny on north side, 10ºC and drizzly on summit, 20ºC and overcast on south side)
We woke to the sight of a flat tyre; not surprising given the miles of dirt road we’d driven, but better in town than at the top of the Swartberg Pass. This delayed us for half an hour while we got it repaired (for just R80), and so we began the drive up the Pass. The scenery was fantastic, with layers of rock folding into each other in vertical ravines above us. The picnic area held karoo scrub-robin, fairy flycatcher, chestnut-vented tit-babbler, cape robin chat, long-billed crombec and fiscal flycatchers, while the edges of the river also proved worthwhile, with speckled and white-backed mousebirds and African dusky flycatcher. As we climbed to the summit, we drove into the cloud and the car thermometer plummeted, and by the top it was a wet whiteout. Unfortunate, since the top ridge can hold some good birds, but it was pointless (and possibly dangerous) to go wandering out in the mist so we started our descent.
We stopped at every vegetated gully to listen for Namaqua warbler, but just heard the sound of falling rain. Just below the cloud base, bird activity livened with two ground woodpeckers showing well on some large boulders, with yellow bishop and (African) stonechat nearby. At the southernmost site mentioned in Birdfinder (0.5 km before the tarmac starts), we pulled over to watch the last gulley. Still no Namaqua warbler, but I had a brief view of southern tchagra, a distant view of sentinel rock thrush on the mountain ridge, as well as cape sugarbirds and orange-breasted sunbird.
22/23 November – Wilderness Section, Garden Route National Park (sunny, 21ºC)
En route to the Park (and on our way back), we stopped at the bottom of Kaaimans River Gorge, looking for African finfoot. We gave the area a good grilling, but without success. However, we saw chorister robin, giant kingfisher and had optics-blowing views of half-collared kingfisher, which Sandra spotted upstream and which landed on the causeway just in front of the car.
After booking a room at the Park Restcamp (a wooden chalet on stilts, basic but adequate and just R404 for both of us), we went in search of Rondevlei (site D, Birdfinder map page 71). Using the backroads to the north, we got hopelessly lost as signage is non-existent, but did eventually find it by 6 pm, giving us just over an hour of daylight. The lake held thousands of waterfowl, mainly southern pochards, yellow-billed ducks, red-knobbed coots, little and great-crested grebes and cape shovelers. The near-shore featured a handful of avocets, three-banded plover and a ruff, while pied kingfisher and common tern fished in the lake. Our target here was African rail (and red-chested flufftail if we were incredibly jammy). I saw a rail for a few seconds, but couldn’t get Sandra on it. She stared intently at the place it came out for another 40 minutes, and her patience was rewarded with great views. The reedbed also held grey-backed cisticolas and brimstone canaries.
We also repeatedly heard a strange, echoing kow-kow-kow call from the trees behind the hide, which the ex-pat British wildlife photographer in the hide couldn’t identify. We weren’t even sure if it was avian or mammalian!
The following morning we were up at dawn and walked from the southern Restcamp through the northern one to the start of the Giant Kingfisher Trail. The trail was still closed, but as other trip reports had said it was worth pursuing, we carried on. We saw some good birds along this stretch, on the east side of the river, but none that we were not to see elsewhere and the trail is in poor condition. I’d advise taking the Half-collared Kingfisher along the west bank.
As we started to walk, we flushed a brown-hooded kingfisher from the lawn of the restcamp and spied a malachite kingfisher perched on the side of the canalised ditch by the road. Greater double-collared sunbirds fed on the flowering plants and the North Restcamp held olive woodpecker, fork-tailed drongo and a black-hooded oriole feeding a youngster.
As we walked up the steep, wooded hillside there seemed to be few birds, but we did eventually squeeze a couple of bar-throated apalis from the scrub, and then had great views of a chorister robin emerging from a nesthole. Yesterday’s kow-kow-kow mystery was resolved as we saw a Knysna turaco drop to the river edge to drink, resplendent in its bright green garb and ‘80s eyeliner. In fact, this species proved relatively easy to see, with two groups of three on the top end of the Half-collared Kingfisher trail, two other singles and, towards the end of our walk, an adult feeding a well-grown young on a branch just above the trail. Superb.
Clambering over rocks, ducking under tree trunks and sliding along broken boardwalk, we also saw African paradise flycatcher, several yellow-throated warblers, African olive pigeon and black saw-wings over the canopy. A repeated whistle from deep in the vegetation eventually led to one of many sombre greenbuls, we saw several cape batis, and the long whistle of an African fish eagle led us to its lookout high on the cliffs above the river.
A flash of crimson stopped me in my tracks and I grabbed Sandra to point out a Narina trogon that had just landed on a branch yards away from us. This was awesome. The birds were coming thick and fast, and this was probably my favourite six hours’ birding of the whole trip. We saw a second trogon farther up the trail towards the waterfall, where on the return walk we stalked a shadow through the treetops that turned into a red-chested cuckoo. After crossing to the west bank on the self-propelled pont, a medium-sized bird flicked over our heads and landed in the tree above us. It’s green hue to the back made me immediately reach for the picture of Klaas’s cuckoo in the field guide, but the heavy breast barring and absence of white head patch made us work out it was an African emerald cuckoo giving us excellent views. Finally, as we were almost back to the restcamp, Sandra spotted a terrestrial brownbul in the dark undergrowth by the trail. Frustratingly, I could only see blurred movements, but thankfully a few yards farther we found a group of around ten, including several youngsters, working their way across the trail. A great end to an excellent morning.
24 November – Grootvadersbosch NR
From the coast, we drove west along the N2 for a couple of hours and overnighted at Sandy’s Place in Barrydale, about 40 minutes northwest of the nature reserve (R180 per person for an entire house!). We could have stayed much closer to the reserve had we been able to find it on our journey in, but driving in from Heidelberg it was too easy to miss the turn which, while well signposted from the west, is unmarked on a sharp left-hand bend from the east.
So we didn’t arrive at the reserve until 9 am, much later than we’d have liked. We walked the Redwoods Road loop (C, E and D on the map, Birdfinder page 69), where we saw several blue-mantled crested flycatchers, including a female feeding a fledged juvenile. We had good views of olive woodpecker, Cape batis and African dusky flycatcher, then in one of the few flowering trees, a superb pair of amethyst sunbirds, surely one of the smartest looking birds of the trip. The tower hide was of little value, since all the action was on the forest floor, such as a clearing where a couple of forest canaries were easy to see. The rest of the walk produced bar-throated apalis, African paradise flycatcher, fiscal flycatcher and, as we started to climb back towards our start point, a grey cuckooshrike, perhaps out last chance to see one.
From the main entrance track, we took a detour to the other elevated hide along Melkhoutpad, from which the views of the forest canopy and the hillsides beyond were superb. Sandra quickly picked out a forest buzzard flying over the trees, then diving amongst them, while a rock kestrel hovered distantly over the grazing land and black saw-wings fed above us. Walking back to the reserve offices, a cape robin-chat fed on the campsite and, as we drove back down the entrance track, we finally saw a cape longclaw, perched on the top strand of a roadside fence.
24/25 November – Bontebok National Park (sunny, 26ºC)
During a lunchstop in Swellendam, we decided to stay in the National Park on the edge of town, and booked a night through the local tourist information centre. With no catering on site, it was back into town for a visit to the supermarket before heading south to Bontebok (Birdfinder, page 68). This is one of the smallest National Parks, but worth a visit nonetheless. The entrance track gave us several (African) stonechats, African pipit and long-billed pipit, as well as plenty of bonteboks. After getting the keys from reception, we drove slowly through the Park. Mid-afternoon wasn’t ideal timing, but from one of the viewpoints we did manage to ‘scope a Denham’s bustard through the heat haze. And then, back on the main track to the accommodation, a Secretarybird stepped out in front of the car and stalked nonchalantly across the grass, jinking briefly in pursuit of a snake or lizard. Fantastic, one of the most memorable moments of the trip.
As in the other Parks, the self-catering chalet was excellent (R775 for two), with a verandah facing the setting sun. Although we did take a walk along one of the trails, we saw plenty from the chalet while tucking into our roast chicken and red wine: a juvenile fiscal flycatcher, African hoopoe, pin-tailed wydah, bar-throated apalis, cape batis, malachite sunbird and speckled mousebird with little effort, and a bonus bird, a streak-throated seedeater that fed briefly on the seedheads of a tree in front of the chalet.
The following morning we were out soon after dawn (no restrictions here on visiting hours if you’re already in the Park). Although the loop trail is only a few miles long, we saw plenty: a male and two juvenile lesser kestrels were the first surprise, followed shortly afterwards by a black-shouldered kite. Somehow we managed to pick out a thick-knee standing motionless in the grass, and eventually saw enough to identify it as a water thick-knee. The larks were plentiful, with red-capped, Aghulas long-billed and the highlight being displaying Aghulas clapper lark, complete with wing-claps.
A plainly-marked bird was, we concluded, the Cape form of cloud cisticola, while far brighter were more cape longclaws. A grey-winged francolin flushed from the roadside, dropping into the grass in a whir of wings, while a couple of blue cranes and another Denham’s bustard walked in the distance. The place is definitely worth an overnight stop if you can fit it into your schedule.
25 November – Agulhas Plain Loops (overcast, 26ºC)
With all the expected larks in the bag, we took the road from the N2 to Malgas easy, stopping when we saw something of interest but not scouring every field (Birdfinder, page 65). Our first stomp on the brakes was only a kilometre south of the N2 when something green flashed across the windscreen. It eventually worked its way through the roadside bushes and perched up: a superb male Diderick cuckoo. Bonus!
Along the stony roadside and fields, we saw several more Aghulas clapper and Aghulas long-billed larks, along with more capped wheatears, jackal buzzards and a few blue cranes. South of Malgas, where two men pulled our car across the river on a pont, we saw our first… mallard of the trip on a roadside pool, and shortly afterwards namaqua dove and a black-necked heron. A couple of kilometres north of the junction to Potberg, a cape vulture flew overhead, causing us to jump out of the car to scope it – much to the surprise of two cameramen about to film a cycle race soon to pass along the road.
25/26 November –De Hoop Nature Reserve (rain, 20ºC)
As we drove closer to the coast, a fine drizzle started, and the second blow of the day came when a sign on the gate of Buchu Bushcamp informed us that it was closed due to fire damage, so we would have stay at the more expensive accommodation inside the nature reserve. Our Wildcard gave us free entry to this Cape Nature site, which has some of the largest, whitest sand dunes I have ever seen. If it hadn’t been blowing a gale and raining throughout our visit, we’d have probably appreciated them even more.
Our rondavel was basic but fine (though not cheap), but had the benefit of being positioned by the Vlei, a huge lagoon that runs along the western boundary of the reserve (number 3 has the best view of the Vlei). We spent the afternoon sitting on the steps watching the birds, including cape shelduck, yellow-billed kite, bokmakierie, African hoopoe and a rock hyrax that would surely have made a dive through the door given the chance. A late afternoon drive to the coast (the left fork at the south end of the main spine road) revealed Burchell’s zebras, eland, bontebok and plenty of tortoises, plus bar-throated apalis, close views of black harrier shortly followed by a fork-tailed drongo harassing an African goshawk that was harassing a black-shouldered kite. The goshawk was a trip tick.
With the light starting to fade, we returned via a detour to the south end of the Vlei where there is really only one viewpoint from the car, but here we found tens of thousands of birds. None were new for the trip, but it was an impressive sight: greater flamingo, knot, black-necked grebe, curlew sandpiper, southern pochard, spur-winged goose, great white pelican and black-winged stilt in abundance. With more time and better light (it was still raining) this would have been worth an even more thorough grilling.
Eating in the restaurant that night, it was a slightly surreal drive back to the rondavel with zebras suddenly appearing from the mist in the headlights, and usually in the middle of the road.
The following morning it was still raining when we got up and out at 6 am. This didn’t look hopeful, but we decided to work the bushes along the edge of the Vlei. First new bird were several white-crowned lapwings feeding on the campground behind the rondavel where a rather damp bunch of teenagers were breaking camp. One of our targets here was knysna woodpecker, as this was our last chance to find this tiny endemic. We saw a bird flick into the next bush, and then a woodpecker-like call came from a huge bush on the side of the Vlei. Somehow, Sandra spotted a flicker of movement deep in the dark branches that we looked down into. The bird called several times, but getting the right viewing angle was essential, and it was a while before I could see it too. Perched completely immobile along a branch was a knysna woodpecker. Brilliant, but it seemed to call without opening its bill… Close by in the same bush was a calling cardinal woodpecker, a quick check of the field guide confirmed this as the bird we’d seen flick across moments earlier. Result.
Over the water several white-winged black terns fed and a cattle egret flew across the Vlei. Southern boubou was another target, and I’d had a brief view while Sandra was in the washrooms, but thankfully we saw another very well in bushes close to the office and restaurant complex, followed shortly afterwards by two southern tchagras, another target for De Hoop. The weather may have been terrible, but it didn’t stop the birds. We walked a short way along the east shore of the Vlei, but with the path becoming more precarious and just black saw-wings to show for it, we decided to cut our losses and return to base for some dry clothes. In just over an hour we’d seen three difficult birds, and had a brief glimpse of what should’ve been a much easier one!
26/27 November – De Hoop to Hermanus to Rooi Els (rain, 20ºC)
After a great start to the day, the rest was mostly a birding non-event. From De Hoop we drove west, via Bredasdorp, on the R319 towards the coast. We eventually found the tuning to Struisbaai Plaat mentioned in Birdfinder (page 67) but found the storms had pushed the sand dunes across the track, and on the beach our only find was a Caspian tern. We walked a kilometre east along the beach but there were no signs of Damara terns feeding offshore or nesting. As we walked back, an angler told us that the nesting colony is now four kilometres east of Struisbaai and 1.5 km inland. Uncertain whether we’d be able to access it through De Mond nature reserve, which would be a 40 km drive in the ‘wrong’ direction, and not knowing whether they would even yet have returned from their winter quarters, we decided to give up on Damara terns and drove on to Cape Aghulas, the most southerly point in Africa, where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet.
We continued our journey west along the road between Struisbaai and Pearly Beach. The maps show a huge wetland area known as Soetendalsvlei, which has huge potential after a wet winter, but were today pretty dry despite the continuing rainfall. Via Franskraal and Stanford, we drove west to Hermanus, whale capital of South Africa, but we were clearly too late for the humpbacks. Grey-headed gull and peregrine were the only additions to our list, and we overnighted at Hermanus Guest House (R600 for two, with the best breakfast of the whole trip).
The weather was little better on 27th, so we spent the morning shopping and getting the car cleaned – for just R70, it was the most thorough clean I’ve ever seen a car given. I might start taking mine there at that price – though shipping it 6000 miles may be an issue. After lunch we drove towards Rooi Els, but still it rained and low cloud, almost to sea level, meant we couldn’t see the habitat we wanted to bird. We found accommodation in a self-catering flat at La Cotte (signposted in the village; R480 for two); the owner phoned Alison, an ex-pat birder who popped round with some maps and was brilliantly helpful in where we should go if it ever stopped raining. It clearly wouldn’t do so tonight so we had dinner at the only bar in the village and watched Wales get tonked by South Africa in the rugby. Boo!
28 November - Rooi Els (sunny, 25ºC)
Having been advised against looking for cape rockjumper at Sir Lowry’s Pass (for personal safety reasons) and with the Swartberg Pass lost in cloud, it was with some relief that we woke soon after dawn to find a clear, windless day, as this was our last remaining chance to see the classic Cape bird. The village of Rooi Els (Birdfinder, page 40) has expanded in recent years and the unsurfaced road has become Porter Drive and forms the south side of the only crossroads that the R44 intersects. You can drive the first 500 metres and there is enough space for a couple of cars before the gate, beyond which you walk.
We birded this track hard from 6.45 – 9.15 am, getting great views of a juvenile Verreaux’s eagle (the nest is in an aloe farther south along this track), a male and two juvenile rock thrushes, cape sugarbird, rock martin, rock kestrel, yellow bishop and orange-breasted sunbird. Neddicky was our 250th species of the trip (no, we’re not sure how we hadn’t seen one before then either), while a booted eagle flew along the ridge of mountains above us. Needing to check out and get some breakfast, we walked back to La Cotte and packed everything into the car.
We tried a different approach, finding a track that climbed from the R44 on the east side of the mountain ridge, but this didn’t help. We tried accessing the Kogelberg Nature Reserve on the east side of the R44 but the gate was locked and the fences high, though there was lots of suitable habitat beyond. So we decided to give the track one last try. All the advice and received wisdom was that cape rockjumpers are easiest to find in the morning. We were about 1 km south of the gate when, just after 11 am, we heard their whistling call and caught first one, then its mate, jumping and flying from boulder to boulder; we were pretty elated. In a fantastic landscape, with joggers and dogwalkers bidding us a good morning, we were ‘scoping one of our ‘must see’ birds.
We couldn’t really top that, and with all our birding destinations in the bag, we spent the rest of the day driving through the Hottentots-Holland mountains, taking in the breathtaking switchback of the pass above Franschhoek and staying in Stellenbosch (Just Joey’s B&B, R980 for two).
29 November – Cape Flats (sunny, 26ºC)
We’d missed Rondevlei, perhaps more famous for its reintroduced hippos on the edge of Cape Town, during our first few days in the city. It’s not huge and the viewing opportunities are limited, but it was a pleasant way to spend an hour (R10 entry per person). A strong wind prevented practical birdwatching from the tower platforms, but from the shelter of a couple of hides, a typical array of wetland birds included pied kingfisher, great white pelican, African darter, great crested grebe, purple swamphen and black-headed heron. A surprise, and what proved to be our last tick of the trip, was a single goliath heron.
We then moved next-door (though it’s a 20 minute drive) to revisit Strandfontein Sewage Works. We covered the same ground as on our first visit. No new trip ticks, but good to see maccoa duck, purple heron, Caspian tern, red-billed teal, Cape longclaw and African marsh harrier, as we hadn’t seen many during our trip. Actually, to say we didn’t see any new birds isn’t strictly true. But the black swan was presumably no more wild here than the one I sometimes see at RSPB Conwy.
And that was it for our birding. We spent the rest of the afternoon taking the cable car to the top of Table Mountain and enjoying the last few hours of sunshine before we returned to the start of Britain’s coldest December for a century.