For no other reason than to utilise our expiring RCI points, we booked a long weekend getaway from 9th to 12 th February this year at Champagne Valley Resort near Winterton in the area known as the Central Drakensberg.
We departed from home in Pretoria at around 9.30 am, late enough to avoid the peak hour traffic as we made our way through Johannesburg’s eastern side and headed south on the N3 towards Harrismith, where we had arranged to meet up with Koos and Rianda for a “padkos” brunch of hard-boiled eggs, frikadels (courtesy of Woolies) and jam sandwiches. Padkos is long-standing South African tradition, translating literally to “food for the road” and tastes even better when you stop at one of the large roadside service centres where there are umpteen choices of take-away and sit-down fast food restaurants – a nose-thumbing at conventional practices. (Just to show we’re flexible we stopped at the same spot for a Wimpy breakfast on the way back)
We reached Champagne Valley by 3.30 pm after a fairly relaxed drive from Harrismith, the scenery progressively becoming greener and prettier as we got closer to the central Berg area. On checking in we were allocated a chalet overlooking the dam with pleasing views of the Drakensberg range in the background and we quickly settled in. I had a refreshing swim in the crystal clear pool then joined the others on the stoep for beverages as we all spotted a few birds to get our list going in true keen birder/atlaser fashion.
By sundown there were 18 species on my list including a Black-headed Oriole calling sweetly, Cape and Village Weavers busying themselves on the lawns, as well as Common Moorhen, Red-knobbed Coot and White-faced Duck on the dam.
After a late rise (after all we were there to relax and are of the age where a crack of dawn start is not always first choice) we were back on the stoep in pleasant but humid weather to savour our first coffee along with Gerda’s health rusks. Before long we were entertained by no less than 3 different raptors – Cape Vulture at high altitude soaring majestically in wide circles, a Yellow-billed Kite cruising just above the tree tops delicately adjusting its flight path with twists of its distinctive broad V-shaped tail and a Bearded Vulture so high that I could only ID it from a magnified photo. They were joined by a group of White-necked Ravens calling from aloft in their croaky fashion.
Yellow-billed Kites were a feature of the weekend as we came across them several times in different localities. What struck me when looking at the photos I had taken of one individual was its rather un-fierce look which I deduced was because of its dark eyes and fluffy feathers on the head, creating a look unlike most large raptors with their piercing eyes.
Mid-morning Koos and I braved the humid weather for a walk around the resort, starting with a walk through the grassland area along a mown path then wading through knee-high grass pods down the gentle slope until we found another path to take us back to the resort proper.
Grassland species such as Fan-tailed and Red-collared Widowbirds, Zitting Cisticola and Streaky-headed Seedeater were active and visible, while an unusual “chip-chu” call had us puzzled until we discovered an Amethyst Sunbird calling from a tree – not the call we are used to, so something new added to our birding knowledge.
A passing Martin caught my eye and the white rump said Common House-Martin – one of those birds seen infrequently, although we came across a few more in flocks of Swallows during the weekend.
By the time we got back to the chalet I was drenched in sweat from the humidity and mild exertion – a cold drink was most welcome and stoep-based birding became the order of the day.
Late afternoon we drove to Monk’s Cowl camp, stopping on the way to see if we could coax a Bush Blackcap to show itself, but to no avail. Nevertheless we had good sightings of Steppe Buzzards and Yellow-billed Kites, a Dusky Indigobird and a Black-backed Puffback with a Juvenile in tow.
Another relaxed morning for me starting with a quiet walk along the edge of the dam where odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) were almost more numerous than the avifauna so I spent a pleasant hour or so chasing them down and taking a few photos.
Late morning we set off on a drive along the R600 towards Winterton with the main purpose of popping into Scrumpy Jacks for coffee and a taste of their recommended cheesecake. On the way Koos pointed out the Long-crested Eagle he had seen on his earlier walk, perched in the open for all to see.
Soon after we arrived at the small farmstall with a few tables outside, a parking area fairly muddy from earlier rains and a notice on the flimsy gate to “please close the gate to protect the dog”. The only visible animal in the garden was a large pig with an even larger pot belly dragging on the ground – presumably the “dog” referred to in the notice. It seemed a strange pet to allow near guests – such as us – coming for coffee and honey-baked cheesecake, however we did not let it detract from the treat.
Said coffee and cheesecake did the trick of turning on the switch in the brain that says “I am contented with life” and we ventured further down the R600 with the intent of doing a “bit of birding”. At the signpost indicating “Bell Park Dam 8 km ” we turned left – this was a route Koos and I had explored a year ago and it turned out to be a good choice again as we were soon into rolling grasslands and farms planted with tall green mielies (corn). Amur Falcons were numerous, perched at regular intervals on the roadside wires, sometimes in small groups, scanning the fields for their next grasshopper or termite alate meal.
The attractive farm dam where we had seen Grey-crowned Cranes landing the year before, was occupied by various waterfowl including SA Shelduck, Spur-winged Goose and a complement of the usual Egyptian Geese and Red-knobbed Coots plus a lone Grey Heron.
We continued in the same slow fashion past the Bell Park dam wall with cascading overflow creating a nice picture, then turned off onto the road leading to the dam’s entrance gate. After a brief leg-stretch accompanied by yet another Yellow-billed Kite eyeing us from his perch on top of a pole, we decided to turn back and head for the resort.
On the way back Koos spotted a flock of Geese and was elated when he found two Grey-crowned Cranes amongst them. A small Cisticola like bird in the top of a tree had us puzzled for a while with its grey breast and white belly, until we decided it was a form of Neddicky – later reference to Roberts showed that there are no less than 7 subspecies of Neddicky in southern Africa so I deduced that a wide variance in appearance can be expected. (another snippet of added knowledge).
Amazingly our “bit of birding” had been so absorbing that we found we had spent the required 2 hours in the pentad for a “Full protocol” card – and we all had an enjoyable afternoon of birding in a beautiful environment along a quiet road – what more can one ask for?
Time to return to Pretoria – Arrow-marked Babblers visited the chalet while packing and I couldn’t resist a quick photo…..
By 9 am we were on our way, this time choosing the scenic route via Winterton and Bergville then via the spectacular Oliviershoek pass to Harrismith. What a good choice it turned out to be – the scenery was quite stunning for most of the way, certainly the greenest we have ever seen this part of our country, both cornfields and grasslands alike, stretching into the distance in checkered patterns.
We’ll be back! Sooner than you can imagine – in a couple of weeks we return to the same area but a different resort when my brother visits from the UK.