The primary and unashamed reason for our trip to South Africa was to see Meerkats in the wild. This had been an ambition for some years, and we had thought that we would have to visit Namibia or Botswana to do this. Well known distribution in South Africa is in the North-west of the country, but we had wanted to plan a holiday in South Africa to cover the Garden Route, which is to the East of Cape Town. This was then found to be possible when I came across the Meerkat Magic project (www.meerkatmagic.com). Grant McIlrath had suspected that Meerkats could be found in the Klein Karoo of South Africa, which is within throwing distance of the coastal route. He duly found a few gangs of them near Oudtshoorn, and now runs small group tours to see them, as a secondary objective to the research.
Working around this, following two booked visits with Grant at the beginning of the 11 nights holiday, we spent a further 3 nights in the Garden Route area, before returning to Cape Town for 5 nights at the end of the vacation. Casual birding was possible around the many and varied activities which we did, such as game drives, a beach walk, table mountain, Robben Island (good for the seabirds on the boat trip out), and the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. In addition, the accommodations which we stayed at along the Garden Route where surrounded by good birding (and scenic) locations, leading to a few early morning walks before breakfast.
In addition to the birds which were seen, there was also some potential for mammals. Unlike the central African countries of big game reserves and free flowing herds, much of South Africa is fenced and owned, with many of the indigenous species being either hunted or moved from original habitat. The answer for many is the setting up of fenced game reserves, quite often covering a large area. Originally indigenous species are then reintroduced and left to fend for themselves (on all but the more purely commercial and poorly run operations). Thus, mammals can be seen, and these will include some truly wild animals, usually of the smaller and more mobile varieties. Sorting out these truly wild animals can quite often be tricky, but it also does not detract from the enjoyment that can be had from seeing reintroduced wildlife in the correct game reserve settings.
The timing of our trip meant that we were in the country during mid-Spring. Considering that the northern counterpart of our latitude was Morocco, the temperatures should have regularly been in the 30’s, as experienced towards the end of our stay. However, we landed in unseasonably cold and wet conditions which were not too different from the British Autumn we had just left behind.
For drivers from the UK accustomed to having a steering wheel on the right hand side, South Africa is a dream come true, since they also drive on the left hand side of the road. The road system in the country is excellent, with very good roads, clear sign posting, and generally a safe standard of driving. Even the city of Cape Town is relatively straight forward, with one or two main arterial highways cutting through the city bowl. Safety in the Western Cape is much better than in the larger cities, such as Durban and Johannesburgh. However, this is still something of a problem in certain quarters, and it is best to keep the car doors locked at all times, and be careful of quieter areas after dark (and even some parts during the day). The Garden Route is reportedly a much safer area to be, although it has to be said that we didn’t come across any problems during our trip on any day.
Our flights from the UK were via Amsterdam (using KLM), leaving our home and landing at Cape Town on the same day, with no time difference between Europe and our destination. Since the arrival time was at about 10pm, we stayed in the airport Road Lodge overnight, picking up the hire car from Europcar after breakfast the next morning. The airport is situated next to the main N2 motorway, which links Cape Town and the coastal Garden Route, making initial navigation very easy. With the Pound sterling strong against the Rand, petrol was much cheaper than at home (about half the price).
Meerkat Magic ( www.meerkatmagic.com )
For those wanting to see Meerkats in the wild, this is an excellent experience. The major distribution areas of Meerkats are within Namibia and Botswana, but even then they tend to spot humans from some distance and so are hard to see. Grant McIlrath has been researching three gangs of Meerkats near Oudtshoorn in the Klein Karoo for 7 years, and it has taken a fair portion of this time to gain their confidence and so be able to see them at very close quarters. It has to be stressed that these are truly wild, with no human contact whatsoever. To aid the financial side of the research, Grant leads small groups to a sleeping burrow, where they tend to emerge at very close quarters once the sun has risen. He then follows the foragers for some time. It is advisable to book ahead via the website, and it has to be noted that the Meerkats don’t emerge if it is cold and wet (particularly the latter) as we found out when the first of our two mornings was cancelled just as we were leaving for the rendezvous at 5:40am. However, the next morning was stunning, with the whole gang performing until just before 10am. In addition, a Black Bustard was calling behind our stakeout in the rising sun just behind us, with Karoo and the less common Spike-heeled Larks often encountered.
Our experience of hotels in South Africa is very limited, but we opted for B&B’s since they seem to be cheaper yet of an excellent standard, with notably good breakfasts in every case. An additional benefit of the places we stayed (apart from Cape Town) was that they were surrounded by open habitat, and so spare time for a walk out from them was good for an interesting range of bird species.
The Yot Club, Oudtshoorn ( www.gardenroute-yotclub.com )
point for Meerkat Magic is on the outskirts of Oudtshoorn, with the viewing not
far from town. Grant has a list of favoured accommodations within the area on
the Meerkat Magic website, based on the level of support to the cause, and so
we plumped for the Yot Club, which was a superb choice. It is very easy to
find, with a scenic and birdy location on the river flowing through town. If
staying here, the room to go for is the Luxury Double, not a great deal more
expensive than the other internal rooms, but it overlooks the river and the
garden, giving entertaining views of your own personal Common Fiscals as well
as a good selection of species within the property boundaries.
Buffalo Hills Game Lodge ( www.buffalohills.co.za )
While visiting the Garden Route, we wanted to see some of the larger mammals living in the wild, and this lodge was not far from our other chosen spots. For a reasonable price, we had a very comfortable en-suite lodge overlooking the meadow, with an electric fence surrounding us to keep out unwanted visitors. The site was originally a dairy farm, and the rather picturesque hill enclosed grazing meadow has been restocked with indigenous and subsequently free roaming wildlife. It is a very relaxing spot, and the stay included a game drive on the evening, with a game walk (dependent on the current location of the Rhino and Buffalo) the next morning. Walking is very limited due to the obvious dangers of the larger animals on the reserve, but the small lodge enclosure was good before breakfast (served in the open).
Other game reserves along the Garden Route which may be of interest are:
J&C’s Beach House, Brenton, near Knysna ( www.jcbeachhouse.com )
chosen for 2 nights due to its beach side location, with ample walking in the
forests close by. Rather than stay in Knysna itself, we opted for
Brenton-on-Sea, a more upmarket and quiet hamlet on the western side of the
lagoon inlet. It is also at the eastern extremity of a 4˝ mile long crescent of
a beach, which held African Oystercatchers but very few people. The beach house
overlooks this, and again offers spacious and well appointed accommodation at a
very good price. In addition, it had its own pair of Spotted Eagle-owls
roosting in the grounds, and a small fynbos reserve only metres to the rear
which held an interesting selection of birds.
Dunkley House, Cape Town ( www.dunkleyhouse.com )
We ignored the temptations of the Mount Nelson hotel just across the road for this comfortable and spacious B&B, set in the suburbs of the Gardens are of the Cape Town Bowl. Costs within the Western Cape’s capital town are predictably more than along the Garden Route, but staying here was well worth the reasonable rates charged. Armed guards patrol the surrounding streets 24 hours a day, and the drive to the V&A waterfront was only about 10 minutes in good traffic.
“The Illustrated Guide to the Birds of Southern Africa” by Ian Sinclair et al (New Holland)
“The Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals” by Jonathan Kingdon (A&CB)
“The Rough Guide Map to South Africa” (1:1700000; Rough Guides)
Fleximap of Cape Town” (1:17000; Insight Guides)