With the car packed and prepared for a bird active weekend, we set off at 7:50 a.m. this morning. The temperature was 15⁰C and raining and the mercury dropped to 12⁰ at the Tokai turnoff.
The first wild creatures we encountered were baboons on the pass through the Breede River Valley. We arrived in Ceres at 8:47 and had a quick and delicious breakfast at The Wimpy.
We drove on slowly and as we ventured further and further into the Karoo, the temperature rose and the rain stopped.
Because of the recent rains, dams were full, rivers were running, and so many water birds were included on our list. We stopped on river bridges and next to ponds and dams and also spotted the odd birds of prey about, the most abundant being Pale Chanting Goshawk and Jackal Buzzard.
After driving over Theronsberg pass where we encountered a bit of mist, the weather cleared and the sun came out although the temperature was only 16⁰C at 10:00 a.m. We stopped at Karoopoort where there is a picnic spot opposite a farmhouse. It is known for fairy flycatcher and Layard’s titbabbler in the poplar trees. Two weeks ago when we were on a trip with Brian’s Birding we’d seen both these birds among others but today we only got Greater-striped swallow, Cape Canary, Malachite sunbird, double-collared sunbird, pied starling and familiar chat.
At 11h10 we came to the place where the R46 forks into the R354 to Calvinia and the R355 to Sutherland. At this fork, there is a picnic site where we’d seen Karoo Eromomela and a Layard’s titbabbler nest with Brian. There was no chance of seeking birds here as being Heritage Day the local population were out in force with loud music and a determination to fulfil their mission of making the braai, which the country had been exhorted to do to celebrate their heritage! We did, however, see a little bird we were not sure of. It called out a cheerful prrr prrr from a perch some distance away, we took its portrait, and later identified it as a grey-backed cisticola.
We then followed the R354 and the birding was good. We saw White-throated canary, yellow canary, Jackal buzzards – many – pale chanting goshawk – many – one black harrier flying, large-billed lark, another grey-backed cisticola, many Cape weavers and black-headed canaries briefly as we crossed the Doring River. There were also two tortoises crossing the road and I hopped out to put them into a safer location.
At around 4 o’clock we arrived at Bizansgat, which is halfway between Ceres and Sutherland. We found this little cottage on the net and had no idea what we were coming to other than that it had no electricity! Deville Wickens, the owner, is based in Cape Town and told us that Petrus, his farm labourer would see to our needs.
We crossed a little river and were met by the most charming sight – a tiny-whitewashed cottage with a rietdak and wooden stable door and small windows designed to keep the building warm in winter and cool in summer and not for view or light! The kitchen had a small, square skylight, which lit the room perfectly. None of the internal walls reached all the way up to the ceiling and there was no running water anywhere in the cottage, which consisted of a bedroom, kitchen and living area. It was delightful. The walls were hung with family photographs, the rooms simply furnished in the style of earlier years. On the top of the wall in the bedroom were perched the cutest hats and gloves reminiscent of those my grandmother would have worn.
“Where,” I wondered was the bathroom and wash-up area – the kitchen had a fridge and gas stove, dressers with crockery and cutlery but little else. We explored and found an outhouse which I was loathe to go into but then Earl called – “Look, Die Wasklip”. And there was the ablution black. The wash up sink was on the stoep and there were two delightful bathrooms each with double basins, shower and loo. Everything was prettily furnished; there was a place to hang towels, a cubicle for dressing in and a full-length mirror. When going to the Wasklip one had to cover one’s head with one’s hands as the swallows bombarded one for fear that their chicks would be disturbed! There was also an old barn converted into a recreation room where one could light a fire in a lovely old hearth, read the many magazines and books or play an assortment of games. This place is a find! It’s charming, peaceful and has a view to die for.
Close to the cottage is a lovely pond “all set about by willow trees” and two farm geese think they have sole rights to it. Should you dare to intrude the white male honks and rushes at you with neck scarily outstretched! We had to teach him his manners but he was a slow learner. Fortunately, it was more for show than meanness.
Petrus who arrived shortly after we arrived was just as I imagined – a throwback from the indigenous people he is clearly descended from and we could not have wished to meet a more charming and willing man. I asked him to pose for a photograph, which he did with great pride.
After unpacking and settling in we went for a walk and were thrilled at the birdlife we found. Namaqua warbler were calling invitingly and we saw malachite sunbirds, white-backed mousebirds, Karoo robin, sickle-winged chat, Karoo chat among others. We were thrilled with our photographs too.
The braai was in a sheltered boma, protecting us from the wind and chill. Earl produced a stunning early meal before it got dark and because there was little else to do without electricity, we went to bed early and read using our headlamps. It was not as cold as I expected and we slept snug and warm.
I woke early but did not want to get out of bed fearing that I’d be met with an icy chill in the air but eventually I got up, donned slippers and fleece and went out to the loo. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not that cold after all although when I checked later at 8 o’clock it was 9⁰C. We ate our breakfast of delicious fruit salad and yogurt on the stoep. From where we sat, we observed Karoo thrush, wagtails, three-banded plover, white-backed mousebirds, common fiscal, sickle-winged chats and Cape weavers.
Earl wanted to see Sutherland, 100km away, before making our way to Op Die Berg where we would spend the next two nights. What he didn’t realise is how long the trip would take on the dirt road, stopping frequently to observe interesting Karoo birds! One of the highlights was a bar-throated apalis and later a rufous-eared warbler
My picture of rufous-eared warbler
We were becoming quite weary of travelling the unexpectedly long road when in the middle of nowhere we came across a round construction/skerm with a chalk board at the side of the road, inviting us to stop. We read – Rek jou litte, krap en neem saam. Gee ‘n regverdige donasie en reis veilig verder.
We hopped out and went inside to find a delightful array of goodies set neatly on a table. Against the walls were cool boxes filled with drinks and cookies. The prices were listed on a black board and there was a milk urn for the takings. There wasn’t a soul in sight – it was all on trust!
We were so impressed that we spent R100 on cookies and fudge! In addition, it rose our spirits and gave us a warm glow to think that there are still people out there who have faith in human nature!
Sutherland was delightful – a typical little Karoo dorp. We went to the local butcher and bought a whole lamb, which they cut up and packed in a cardboard box. Little did we realize that it was just ‘chucked’ in. Earl had expected them to pack like portions with like! I had to do that later!
Having snacked on our ‘skerm’ snacks we were not that hungry so after filling up with fuel we went to a little tearoom called “Halley-sê-Kom-Eet” (a play on Halley’s comet or Halley’s Komeet in Afrikaans) Of course everything in the town relates to star-gazing. I had a chocolate milkshake and Earl a cappuccino and apple cake – yes, I gave into temptation and had a few tastes.
It was 1 o’clock when we left and retraced our way back along the R356. At quarter to two, we reached the border between the Boland and Cape Winelands. From a bridge, we looked down the river and saw a shelduck family with 10 babies. We also saw a Cape Batis quite beautifully perched on a twig but it flew off before I could snap its portrait.
We continued on our way continuing to find more and more birds but unfortunately no coursers, korhaans or bustards. Booted eagles were conspicuous by their absence – surprisingly as we’d seen many when we were with Brian two weeks ago.
Earl had a vague idea where we were staying but thought it would be on a farm before we came off the Katbakkies pass. After much searching and a bit of frustration we realized that it was on the Op Die Berg road. The confusing part was that we were looking for Houdenbek but it is part of a group called Môre Stêr and those were the signs we saw!
- We had to come through a security gate but did not have a code and there was nobody to open up for us for several minutes. Then somebody drew up behind us, entered his code and we passed through. There was nobody at reception either. A guest who was housed next to the office told us that the receptionist had gone off duty. We decided to simply find the cottage and move in and as we came up to it, we heard shouts and a woman came running down to welcome us. She said that she’d tried to phone us but got no reply. Not surprising since there was no cell reception there or on the road we had just travelled.
The cottage was lovely, the highlight being a ball and claw bath in the corner of the bedroom with just a screen for privacy! It provided a deep and luxurious soak! There was also a separate shower and loo.
Earl braaied outside although it was a tad chilly. I did the vegetables in the micro and made a small salad and we finished our meal with a delicious fruit salad and yogurt.
It was freezing this morning, about 10⁰C with a stiff wind blowing. After a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs and kidneys, we went to check out the dam. The rock formations in the area are fascinating and the dam is surrounded by these rocky hills. The first bird that I spotted this morning was a hoopoe perched atop a rock outside our cottage. High up on the rocks at the dam we saw Egyptian and Spur-winged geese. We were parked on the crest of a hill and Earl wandered down to get a better fishing spot then came back and called me to see a cute little bird he didn’t quite recognize. I reluctantly put my nose out into the chill, wandered down the hill, and into my path hopped said bird – a little Cape Siskin but he did not stay long enough for a photo shoot. Earl decided that it was not worth braving the elements in the slim chance that a trout would jump onto his line so we headed out toward Skitterykloof to search once again for the cinnamon breasted warbler. We’d seen it two weeks earlier with Brian’s Birding but this time we dipped on the experience.
While we were parked a skedonk of a little red car passed us and pulled up in front. A bohemian looking man emerged. Leica binoculars dangling on his chest, he strode toward us.
“You are looking for the Cinnamon Breasted Warbler,” a French accent politely asked. “I’ve seen him here yesterday.’
Well, thanks for that – but he could not be found today!
We chatted to the fascinating Frenchman who was armed with Callan, Clare and Jonathan’s Southern African Birdfinder and he told us that he was spending a few months in the country looking for all the specials. It was clear that he was widely travelled and had an excellent knowledge of the birds of all the countries he visited. In fact, he was probably more clued up than we were.
“You should get in touch with the Cape Bird Club,” Earl suggested and pointed to me. “You are talking to the secretary right now.”
I hoped he did not have expectations that just because I was a committee member I would be an expert on the birds of the Little Karoo and the rest of South Africa!
He was delighted at the news saying he had been thinking of contacting the club and I gave him my details saying we would do anything possible to help him with guides and outings. I mentioned Brian Vanderwalt of Brian’s Birding and he continued in his delightful French accent, “Yes I met him at Rooiels while looking for the rock jumper which I did not find. But because of that, I decided to go to Sir Lowry’s Pass and there I find the Rock Jumper. And there is something else I must tell you though it is nothing to do with birds and you might not be interested but while I am there, I see a leopard (he pronounces it lee-oa-pard).
My mouth drops open – not be interested – is he kidding!
We tell him that a lee-oa-pard – is an amazing sighting even in a game reserve and he sees it on Sir Lowry’s Pass! There are Cape Leopards in the surrounding mountains and particularly near Betty’s Bay, but at the rock jumper spot – not that I know of. This is most exciting.
After chatting a little more and discussing routes that we planned taking, he drove off.
We passed him further on and took the R354 to Tankwa Karoo National Park. A chilly wind was blowing and there was a spit and a spot of rain, but not enough to wet the ground. We stopped to look at a lark when suddenly a bird I instantly recognized dropped on the ground in front of me. Earl and I got a beautiful view of a black-eared sparrow-lark – not as easy to find as his cousin the grey-backed sparrowlark – so I was thrilled but as I was about to snap he flew far into the low scrub and disappeared. Just then, the Frenchman pulled up behind us. Earl told him what we’d just seen and he said, “That eez ze bird I am looking for!” We walked into the veld and soon a few of the little birds flew up and then just as quickly dropped down and disappeared. This went on for some time and Earl and I left him to try to get good views of this Karoo Special.
He caught up to us later and reported that he had got good views of the birds and even watched them protecting their fledglings.
I knew that European Bee-eaters were arriving in the area for summer but did not expect to see one so when we stopped on a bridge it was a thrill to see two although the photograph was disappointing.
A little later we almost rode over a puff-adder impersonating a thick stick! Ugh!
Our French friend was also searching for bustards, korhaans and coursers and we kept our eyes peeled for all of the above. The only other exciting thing we found for him were Namaqua Sandrouse and he was thrilled with that.
Just before getting to Tankwa Karoo National Park Reception, we saw two Ludwig’s Bustards, but they raced off toward the crest of a hill and all but disappeared into the veldt, which is the same colour as them.
We went to the loo, filled our water bottles with beautifully cooled filtered water at reception and asked for advice on the best route back to Houdenbek. My South African pride swelled when I saw the clean facilities and experienced efficient service from the staff. Well done Sanparks for achieving high standards.
We retraced our steps and met Stephane again, told him to look out for the bustards and then left him to enquire about accommodation at Tankwa.
We drove home as quickly as the dirt road would allow and stopped only for the most interesting birds and managed to get some fair pictures of grey-backed sparrowlark, red-capped lark, thick-billed and Karoo lark.
It was bitterly cold when we arrived home so we decided to braai indoors. This was a wise decision as the rains came too.
After a lovely fruit salad breakfast, we packed up and set off for home. On our way out, we stopped to photograph Karoo Thrush and to watch common fiscals with their fledglings.
It was cold and wet, so birding on the way home was not that great but we took a picturesque drive over Bain’s Kloof and enjoyed the magnificent scenery. It was sunny on the other side and we arrived home to a sunny but cool 15⁰C in Sun Valley.