Western Cape, South Africa - October, 2007
TEXT ONLY VERSION
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 )
The meeting 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 )
Knysna was 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)
“Insight Fleximap of Cape Town” (1:17000; Insight Guides)
Oudtshoorn - The Yot Club
One of the main objectives of the trip was to see Meerkats in the wild. We were therefore heartened when Grant from Meerkat Magic sent a message the evening before the first of our two planned outings confirming that he had located the overnight sleeping burrow. The weather throughout the day had been variable – cool with intermittent showers – which is not the best for Meerkats. We arose at 5:20 the next morning and were just about to leave the B&B when a message was received saying that it was too cold and wet, thus the trip had to be cancelled. Not much could be done about this, although it was a massive blow, so a couple of hours were spent wandering around the grounds of the Yot Club to assuage the disappointment. The setting was very attractive and good for birds, with the quite extensive extended property being adjacent to a reed margined river. The gardens are quite well manicured, but did have a few larger trees for perching posts. Some of the more common birds were both regular and noisy, such as the family of carnivorous Common Fiscals in residence below our balcony. The reeds held a mixed breeding colony of Cape & Southern Masked Weavers, as well as Red Bishops, which were caught by the rising morning sun. African Reed Warblers were slightly less obvious, with the liquid song and larger frame of Lesser Swamp Warbler further down towards the ford crossing. It was in the main elusive, showing occasionally as it actively fed at the base of the reed stems. A Brown-headed Kingfisher perched for some time on the wires above this crossing, unperturbed by my gently swaying frame on the adjacent swinging footbridge. The trees hosted calling African Hoopoe, Red-eyed & Mourning Doves throughout the morning. A small posse of Speckled Mousebirds preceded the ridiculous sight of 10 or so perched and calling Helmeted Guineafowl on the bare branches above me at a height of around 10 metres from the ground. Cape Wagtails were a fairly constant feature here, but there was no sign of the Black-crowned Night Herons which had been active the previous evening in the reed. Regular parties of hirundines and swifts circled overhead, the most obvious being Little Swift and Greater Striped Swallow. Occasional White-rumped Swifts were reasonably obvious, but Horus Swifts needed more diligent checking. The much larger Alpine Swifts mingled in singles, and it has to be noted that many of the hirundines and swifts passing over remained unidentified. Long-tailed Cormorants and Egyptian Geese flew past sporadically.
Oudtshoorn - Cango Wildlife Ranch and Buffelsdrift Game Reserve
As if to further soften the disappointment of missing out on the mornings Meerkat visit, we headed for the Cango Wildlife Ranch, which was a small zoo by any other name, but having a core breeding programme of indigenous species as its primary aim. Part of the therapy was unexpected, coming in the guise of 5 Meerkats in one of the first enclosures, and although unnatural and against many personal principles, we just had to sit and watch them for some time. Among the pens within the park were numerous Cape Wagtails, with a regular Cape Robin-chat appearing at various points within the premises. Just as we were about the leave the car park, a female African Paradise-flycatcher passed by in the trees in front of us.
A short drive further out of Oudtshoorn, passing the numerous Ostrich farms which are a feature of the area, we reached the Buffelsdrift Game Reserve ( www.buffelsdrift.com ), which in itself is only about 8km from town. As with many of the South African reserves, this is a large fenced in area, which contains replenished stocks of only originally indigenous species to the locale. The property is actually a game lodge and reserve, and so accommodation packages can be arranged, which would make it an alternative place to stay (yet a lot more expensive) than B&B’s within Oudtshoorn, with the addition of included wildlife packages. The purist naturalists limitations of this are obvious when looked at from the perspective of the wildness of the animals encountered, but as we approached the reception the lure of a safari drive encountering now free roaming wildlife was far too tempting. We spent a highly enjoyable 2˝ hours in an open back 4x4, with only 2 others for company, watching an interesting and healthy population of animals and a small selection of birds. One of the pair of resident rhinos even approached the side of the vehicle to give us a cursory checking out. Stocks here included the Red variety of Hartebeeste, good numbers of Beisa Oryx, Springbok, a pair of Giraffe with a calf, Black Wildebeeste, etc. We initiated the visit with a sit on the reception / dining room veranda overlooking the lake, taking in the site of 7 Hippos on the opposite shore. 2-3 White-throated Swallows were not only flying around here, but also landing on the fencing of the decking. A pair of Familiar Chats were almost as obliging just around the corner, again on the fencing. A Giant Kingfisher was spotted flying over the lake twice, the second directly in front of us. The small garden area beneath the walkway to the reception held a nesting pair of Karoo Scrub-robins, a small collection of Karoo Prinias, and a flying male Orange-breasted Sunbird. The nearby car park was host to a singing trio of Red-headed Cisticolas, conducting vertical song flights. The first Pied Starlings here proved to be quite numerous throughout the whole of the reserve, with the largest flock also including Wattled Starlings. The most obvious birds throughout were Mousebirds, most of which were specifically unidentified, but the rump of White-backed and a trio of Red-faced Mousebirds were picked up. A pair of Pale Chanting-goshawks were circling over our second encounter with the White Rhinos. Only the olive back and distinctive yellow tipped tail of Bokmakerie was seen.
Waking up at 5:20 morning, we were greeted with a lot more optimism than yesterday, since the weather during the previous day was a lot more settled and hot with no rain, with the additional benefit of no messages from Grant cancelling the morning. Things looked even better when we met Grant at 6am, with only 4 others to share the experience with – tours can hold up to 16 guests. We arrived only about 10 minutes later in an open area of karoo, which had previously been farmed with livestock. This was where Grant had located the Meerkats last evening, and so we approached a small mound looked upon by a small pile of black plastic chairs. We sat patiently for almost 45 minutes, listening to Grants interesting diatribe, for the first of the much vaunted gang to appear. During this time, a Black Bustard was calling from another mound to our rear. Larks, prinias, and cisticolas were constantly calling, but were difficult to identify from our seated position. However, the subsequently common Karoo Lark was pinned down, and a Bush Karoo Rat with young was the first mammal to rise in a bush near to us. The somewhat tardy appearance of the Meerkats was fantastic, with an initial lone climate checker standing on the mound, followed by the rest of the gang 10 minutes later, standing on hindlegs as a unit only metres from where we were sat. This would have been reward enough for our endeavours, but we then followed the foraging group through the scrub for the next hour or two, seeing in real life many of the idiosyncratic behaviours we had become accustomed to from numerous television programmes. One or two birds were seen while following the gang, with at least one positively identified Spike-heeled Lark, a few Pearl-breasted Swallows flying through, a pair of Crowned Lapwings in the distance, numerous Cape Sparrows, and at least one pair of Karoo Scrub-robins. The delights eventually came to an end at around 9:30, when the Meerkats crossed the boundary fence to an adjoining property, where we were unable to follow them.
This property is set in a relatively small grazing meadow surrounded by hills, which was originally a dairy farm, and has unashamedly restocked with original indigenous wildlife. It does offer a reasonably priced game encounter in a very relaxed setting, holding some well nourished free roaming species. It also holds some interesting birds. Our accommodation was overlooking the open plain, and was contained within an electric fence. This enclosed a well mown lawn, and one or two trees, backing on to the forest, holding mainly Cape Weaver, Greater Double-collared Sunbird, and a single male Black Cuckoo-shrike, showing both yellow shoulder and gape. Around the reserve, apart from the usual ubiquitous Helmeted Guineafowl, we also picked out Jackal Buzzard circling overhead, African Hoopoe on the ground, and at least 3-4 Fork-tailed Drongos feeding from low perches.
We were due to go on a game walk through the forest at 8am, so I awoke early and looked for the birds contained within the electrified fence area of the accommodation beforehand. This is only a very small part of the reserve, and looks out over the grazing plain, but did play host to a small but interesting assortment of birds. Cape Weavers were again the most noisy and obvious, with a small colony of nests in one of the nearby trees. As expected, Common Fiscals were dotted around the premises. Doves were of three varieties – Laughing, Ring-necked, and Red-eyed, but the Black Cuckoo-shrike of the previous evening couldn’t be refound. A pair of Fiscal Flycatchers hunted insects to the calls of Greater Double-collared Sunbirds. A loud bubbling call within the edge of the forest was traced, and eventually an elusive Southern Boubou emerged on to a branch above me. Helmeted Guineafowl were a constant sight, along with a single Sacred Ibis feeding on the open grass. After a delicious breakfast taken on the lawn, the walk was both informative and enjoyable, and had held the potential of Narina Trogon, which was possibly heard, but certainly not seen. Only birds seen during the forest walk were Cape Robin-chats and Sombre Greenbul.
Leaving the room at first light, one of the first birds to be seen was a Spotted Eagle-owl which had been seen for the first time the previous evening, perched in its supposed roosting spot almost within touching distance of the back door. The road in front of the Beach House overlooks part of Brenton and the Indian Ocean, and had shown promise on a quick sortie the previous evening, but initially only offered Laughing Dove and Cape Robin-chat, both of which were calling from the telegraph wires. However, the small fynbos nature reserve just down from the accommodation was quickly located, and it was here that the fun began. The entire reserve seems to cover a length of no more than 100m, with a width of half that, but this was obviously ideal for the Bushbuck staring at me from its centre. The Greater Double-collared Sunbirds found around the Beach House were replaced here by Southern Double-collareds, and also a pair of Amethyst Sunbirds on the wires. Streaky-headed Seedeaters were either building nests or in the throes of courtship, with occasional Yellow Bishops not so obliging. A Spotted Thick-knee appeared from the bush on to the road in ahead of me, gradually making its way further away until it disappeared again in the gardens. Coucals were heard but not seen, but much better luck was had with a Didrik Cuckoo, calling from the top of a small bear bush. The briefly seen Bar-throated Apalis of yesterday was seen again, within the same stand of bushes, but for a lot longer this time. Mouse birds here were White-backed and possible Red-faced, but they kept to the interior of the vegetation and didn’t show particularly well. Another surprise was a lone Cape Sugarbird, which turned out to the only one seen on the entire trip.
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
were made here, one late morning, returning again for just over an hour in the
evening. The gardens are located on the south-eastern base of Table Mountain,
and are very ornamental and picturesque. They cover quite a large area, and
form varied habitat for a range of birds. The lawned areas give way to hikes
through the more natural slopes on the mountain. The most common bird initially
was Cape Canary, feeding on flower heads just outside of the reception tea
rooms. Progression through the gardens found even more regular Cape White-eyes
and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds, interspersed by singing Olive Thrushes
and Cape Robin-chats. One of the main target birds was Cape Sugarbird, but none
could be found, even in the likely setting of the Protea Garden, suggesting
that their presence could be seasonal. Also absent were Orange-breasted
Sunbirds, seen in good numbers higher up on the plateau of Table Mountain, in
this case possibly pointing to altitudanal migration for breeding. However,
they were replaced by a stunning Malachite Sunbird feeding on the proteas, with
a much more dowdy female close by. The protea garden was the most active area
for birds, since this was the only location for other species such as Rameron
Pigeon, Cape Francolin, Karoo Prinias, and a single Forest Canary. The
afternoon visit was during the progression of the shadow of Table Mountain as
the sun set on the opposite slopes, and bird activity noticeably decreased as
the evening wore on.