Time to look back at the 7 months since I started the blog in July 2013 ……
Well, I’m loving it simply because it brings some of my favourite pastimes together – birding, keeping journals of our travels, and photography. I’m also happy to report that “views” passed the 1000 mark last week and are averaging 10 per day, with people from almost 40 countries having visited the blog (some by chance, such as the one looking for a wedding venue at Gosho park in Zimbabwe). These figures are quite unimpressive compared to many blogs, but I’m encouraged that the numbers seem to be growing steadily. Anyway enough of that and on with this fortnight’s episode :
Kruger Park in the winter
Winter is widely acknowledged as the best time for game viewing in Kruger and I wouldn’t disagree, but having made as many summer visits I find each season has its pros and cons. Summer from a birding aspect is tops, as the migrants are present and generally birds are at their most colourful, being in breeding plumage. Winter is often better for game viewing as the animals are more easily seen and are tempted to spend more time near water in the dry season.
Winter is also the time when many of the aloes are flowering, making for attractive displays and, most importantly for birders, attracting a variety of bird life. Some of the best flowering aloe displays are in the camps and at their peak are crowded with birds feeding on the nectar.
When we visited Kruger in August 2011, it seemed to be prime time for flowering aloes and we came across many beautiful flowering specimens, especially in the camps, which were often buzzing with activity as various bird species, bees and other insects made the most of the nectar bonanza. We stayed in 2 camps : Letaba in the middle of the park for 4 days and in Tamboti, which is a tented camp close to the Orpen camp and gate on the western side of Kruger, for a further 7 days. We also visited some of the other camps on our day trips, including Satara, Olifants and Skukuza and we spent time at a couple of the wonderful picnic spots where we made our customary brunch stop, cooking up a storm on the gas-fired “skottels” (a large concave metal frying pan, based on the old plough disks that were used for this purpose in days gone by) that are hired out.
Our little “group” was made up of myself and Gerda, Andre and Geraldine (Son-in-law and daughter), their 2 daughters Megan and Maia and Andre’s parents (and our Brother and Sister-in-law of course) Tienie and Pieta Leonard. We have spent many a pleasant time with them in Kruger over the years we have known each other, Tienie being an Honorary Ranger and all of us being keen “Kruger Park-ers”
Letaba and surrounds
This is one of our favourite camps in Kruger, with its lush gardens and large old trees providing lots of shade, and the added bonus of bordering the Letaba River with views across to the distant bank and a good chance of seeing game as they make their way to and from the river. There is almost always an elephant or two (or more) in view near the river, along with buffalo and various other game.
It was mid-afternoon as we entered the park through the Phalaborwa gate and on our way to Letaba we were very lucky to come across a pack of Wild Dogs – seen very infrequently and such special animals.
Along the same stretch we spotted two well-camouflaged terrestrial bird species – Double-banded Sandgrouse and a Red-crested Korhaan, both close to the road and quite confiding. Both have colouring that blends in with the surrounding bush and soil, particularly in winter.
We settled into our bungalow accommodation at Letaba, while the others in our group went for the tented units a short walk from where we were. Over the next few days we followed our usual Kruger Park routine – some mornings we opted for a relaxing day in camp with an optional short game drive later on, other mornings we set out early for a game/birding drive with a brunch stop at one of the picnic spots and a lazy drive back to the camp for an afternoon siesta.
Letaba is well-suited to spending time in the camp, walking the gardens and along the river where many bird species have their own established routines :
On the lawns and amongst the leaf litter, Arrow-marked Babblers and Kurrichane Thrushes allow a close approach, hardly noticing as I fired away with my camera
In the trees, there was plenty of action ranging from Bearded Woodpeckers to Tree Squirrels and even a couple of charming granddaughters :
Other birds around the bungalows and tents were Blue Waxbills and the ubiquitous Greater Blue-eared Starlings, found throughout the park and mostly habituated to humans.
Not to mention the bird with the funky hairstyle –
The beautiful Impala Lily is a feature of the northern camps in Kruger in the winter months –
But to get back to the main theme of this post, the array of flowering Aloes is a magnet to many bird species, more than I had imagined, as I thought they would attract only the nectar-loving species such as sunbirds and perhaps a Bulbul or two. The following photos are a selection of the birds I came across enjoying the Aloes, by no means comprehensive :
The area around Letaba and up to Olifants camp, where we drove on one of the days, is rich in game with Elephant and Buffalo being regular sightings. The viewpoint from Olifants camp overlooking the River is always a treat and brings home the value of preserving natural areas such as Kruger – the view of the river far below and the open bush beyond, with Elephants, Giraffes and other game making their way slowly to the river, has not changed in the more than 40 years we have been visiting the park.
On our drives we came across some of the more spectacular bird species – Kori Bustard, which is a ground-dwelling bird which can fly and is renowned as the largest bird in the world capable of flight, the colourful and lanky Saddle-billed Stork which is usually found in shallow rivers but which we saw in flight, a regal looking Fish Eagle and a Temminck’s Courser, not common and always exciting to see.
At the end of our 4 nights in Letaba, we headed south towards Orpen and the nearby Tamboti Tented camp for the next part of our Kruger Park holiday, but that’s another story….
My earlier Post on “Paardeberg (Finding the Canadians)” covers our trip with Sheila (Sam) and John Denner to Kimberley and the Paardeberg Battlefield. The follow-on trip took us to Kwazulu-Natal where we visited a number of battlefield sites, a few of which were described in Part 1. This post takes up the next leg of the trip, which was to cover more of the battlefield sites identified by John over the northern and central parts of Kwazulu-Natal (KZN) province, which lies in the north-eastern quadrant of South Africa.
We continued to enjoy the wonderful hospitality of Pieter and Anlia Genis , family of my wife Gerda, who farm near Vryheid and who had offered their farm as a base for us to visit the various battlefield sites. They went far beyond normal hospitality in driving us around and providing meals and a place to sleep for four days – they surely deserve a medal!
We decided to do the Ladysmith area next, with a number of battlefield sites in the area and the Ladysmith Siege museum on the agenda. We left the farm after an early breakfast, to give us enough time to explore the area thoroughly and headed to Ladysmith via Dundee.
Battle of Elandslaagte (21 October 1899)
Our first stop for the day was just off the main road at Elandslaagte, where we found the by now familiar, well-kept cemetery commemorating the fallen soldiers.
Second War of Independence 1899-1902. After the Boer ultimatum to the British, to withdraw troops from the Transvaal and Orange Free State, had expired, the Boers invaded Natal and in the process took Elandslaagte station between Ladysmith and Dundee. The battle ensued when the British sent troops to recapture the area and resulted in high casualties on both sides, with the British regaining control of the area.
Where is it?
Signposted off the R 602 between Dundee and Ladysmith, cross the railway line and follow signs to the sites.
Ladysmith – Siege Museum
After a brief stop at the Information centre, we found the Siege Museum in Murchison Street – it turned out to be a very informative museum, not just about the Siege of Ladysmith but also about some of the battles in KZN and the circumstances leading up to them – it was well worth the visit.
The museum has a number of displays consisting of “newspaper cuttings” which set out some of the history in a concise way
There are also historical photos and displays which give a feel for the time
From early October 1899 the British had a garrison stationed at Ladysmith, which was swelled to 13000 by the garrison in Dundee after the Battle of Talana on 20 October and their withdrawal to Ladysmith. On 30 October the combined garrisons took on the Boers in the Battle of Ladysmith but failed to rid the area of the encroaching Boers – by November 1899 Ladysmith was surrounded and besieged and was only relieved 3 months later after much suffering.
Battle of Wagon Hill (Platrand) (6 January 1900)
Our next stop was the Wagon Hill Battlefield and Cemetery, after once again having to contend with minimal signage and going on “gut feel”. Reading through the names on the commemorative monuments, I came across Lance Sergeant R Reid of the Gordon Highlanders – not any direct relation but just brought it a bit closer to home, as did the others with our surname that we were to come across at other battle sites.
Second War of Independence 1899 – 1902. This was the Boers attempt to take this strategic hill, during the long siege of British occupied Ladysmith. After a lengthy engagement the British managed to hold the hill, but suffered 183 men killed and 249 wounded while the Boer casualties were 68 men killed and 135 wounded.
Where is it?
Take the R 103 to Colenso and on the outskirts of town turn off at Platrand Lodge. Follow this road past the hotel and continue up the hill until you reach a crossroad from where it is signposted. The GPS position I recorded was 28º 35′ 15.12″ S , 29º 45′ 54.68″ E
Battle of Spioenkop (24 January 1900)
Moving on, our next stop was the well-known site of the Battle of Spioenkop, sited on a hill with magnificent views all round of the green landscape and the overflowing Spioenkop dam far below – we can enjoy the views today but on that day in 1900 it was the site of massive losses of young soldiers on both sides as the British forces tried to defend the hill against the attacking Boers.
As with Wagon Hill, I came across the Reid surname 3 times amongst those who perished – interestingly, two Reid’s appear on the British memorial while one was listed with mostly Afrikaans surnames on the Boer memorial, which was also the first time we had come across a formal Boer memorial at a battlefield site – apparently the Boers tended to remove their casualties to be buried elsewhere, even taking them home again. The Reid’s commemorated were Private PL Reid and Sergeant R Reid on the British side and CK Reid from Pretoria on the Boer side.
This was the climax of a week’s fighting on the north bank of the Tugela river, with the British attempting to break through the Boer line. The battle began after midnight with the British taking the hill early morning, but they were subjected to heavy artillery fire from the Boers below, followed by a day long battle that ended with neither side claiming a decisive victory. There were massive casualties on the British side, less so on the Boer side.
Where is it?
Take the Bergville / Exit 230 offramp from the N3 National road between Jo’burg and Durban and head towards Bergville. After 4 km turn off at the signposted gravel road and follow this road to the entrance. The GPS position at the entrance is 28º 38′ 19.83″ S , 29º 30′ 52.57″ E
Train Incident – Winston Churchill capture (15 November 1899)
The next stop entailed a lengthy search for the site of the train derailment and capture of Winston Churchill, at the time a journalist for a London newspaper. Poor signage caused us to miss a turnoff and we drove for an hour in the wrong direction before some local people took us to the site with its not very prominent plaque on a small stone base. This was a good opportunity to take a tea break and have a look around – we discovered the train line still passes nearby when a long goods train came rumbling past.
Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. With Ladysmith under siege and Boers occupying Colenso, the British needed to know where the Boers were heading and part of their reconnaissance was done by sending an armoured train part way up the line from Estcourt to Colenso. On one of these recces Winston Churchill accompanied the soldiers on the train, being a young reporter for a London newspaper and out for adventure. That morning the train got as far as Chievely before starting the return journey in reverse – however the Boers had spotted the train and placed rocks on the track at the bottom of a slope, then opened fire on the train as it approached, causing it to speed up to escape the fire. This resulted in the train derailing massively at the point where the rocks had been placed and fighting ensued. A number of British withdrew after getting the engine going again but Churchill was captured and taken to Pretoria, where he later planned and executed a dramatic escape to Mozambique.
Where is it?
Take exit no 194 / Bergville/Colenso from the N3, travel on the R 74 then turn onto the R 103 towards Colenso – almost immediately turn left at a gravel road and drive a short distance to the memorial
Bloukrans (16/17 February 1838)
Finally, for the day, we stopped at this moving site, where a number of Boer families, men women and children, were camping and were attacked by Zulu Impis, leaving most of them dead
The Plaque reads :
“When the Trekkers entered Natal in November 1837 a large number of family groups camped in this valley. Only a few laagers were formed. During the night of 16 / 17 February 1838, Zulu Impis which had left Dingane’s kraal shortly after the murder of Retief attacked these groups killing 41 men 56 women 185 children and about 200 retainers besides destroying wagons and encampments and driving cattle away”
Where is it?
From the train incident site take the R 74 and turn off a short distance further, then follow the gravel road for about 8 kms to the monument
A Bit of Birding
Birding was a side issue on this trip, limited to some snatched sightings while travelling and when investigating the battlefield sites.
In between travelling to the sites we continued to enjoy the hospitality of Pieter and Anlia and much lively discussion happened at mealtimes The next day was set aside for a visit to two of the best-known sites, Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift – the subject of the next Post
We love Cape Town and the surrounds and take every opportunity to visit – so it was an easy decision when Gerda suggested we “pop down” from Mossel Bay, where we spend the December/January holidays, to say ‘hello’ to the fairest Cape and visit family at the same time. It’s just less than 400 kms with lots of pleasant scenery on the way along good roads and we tend to stop often so 4 hours turns into a comfortable and non-taxing 6 hours for us. Always on the lookout for birding and bird atlasing opportunities, I was eager to start the new year with a Western Cape outing or two……. or even three as it turned out.
We didn’t have too many fixed plans for the 4 days but Gerda wanted to visit her ex-Pretoria hairdresser, now resident in Kommetjie, which would give me a couple of hours to atlas the area. Kirstenbosch is always part of our itinerary and we would surely spend at least 2 hours there, enough to complete a “full Protocol” atlas card. Our last stop was to be Worcester for a couple of days with the family and I was sure I could fit in a pentad or two in the early mornings, knowing how hot it can get in that part of SA in January – not conducive to middle of the day birding.
It almost worked out that way …..
Kommetjie (Pentad 3405_1815)
Having dropped Gerda off at the hairdresser, I set off to explore the pentad covering Kommetjie (a pentad being 5 x 5 minutes in degrees latitude/longitude or about 8 x 8 kms in extent) – about 90% of this pentad is in fact in the sea, so atlasing is limited to a part of Kommetjie jutting into the pentad in the south-east corner. I stopped at the first beach area I came across and was immediately struck by the numbers of seabirds flying past and, looking for their source, noticed huge colonies of them further out on the exposed rocks. Swift Terns and Hartlaub’s Gulls were especially abundant, numbering in the hundreds if not a thousand or more and making quite a sight.
Walking along the sandy paths towards the next-door bay, I noticed other seabirds in between the massed Terns and Gulls, including African Black Oystercatchers and Little Egrets – the latter not strictly a seabird but I have often found them in this type of habitat. A number of Cormorants were in attendance, mostly Cape and White-breasted Cormorants but also a few Bank Cormorants with their all black faces – I looked for the white in their rumps but it was not showing, so checked my Roberts bird book (on my Ipad) which confirmed that it only shows when Bank Cormorants are breeding.
Both African Sacred and Hadeda Ibises were foraging amongst the seaweed-littered rocks, while Barn Swallows swooped low overhead probably catching flying insects attracted to the seaweed litter – never an opportunity missed!
A few White-fronted Plovers were exploring the rocks and seaweed as well, running to the white sandy areas when I approached – I was struck by how amazingly well camouflaged they are against the bright sand when they stand still – I had to look twice to find them even though they were just 5 to 10 metres away.
A short distance down the road I stopped at a vlei which the board informed me was called Skilpadsvlei (Tortoise Vlei) but found it was undergoing rehabilitation and had no water. It’s apparently home to the Western Leopard Toad (Amietophrynus pantherinus) which occurs in restricted parts of the Western Cape. However a short walk around the vlei did produce Red-winged Starlings and Rock Martins doing fly-bys plus a Cape Canary in the long grass.
By this time Gerda was done and I joined her for coffee and a light lunch at a very pleasant outdoor restaurant. From there I closed out the 2 hours minimum time required for a “full protocol” atlas session with a drive to the nearby Slangkop lighthouse and through the suburbia of Kommetjie, adding a few of the regulation western Cape birds in the process and stopping to admire the great views. I ended with a list of 30 species for the pentad – not a large number compared to other pentads, but a stunning area to go atlasing.
Kirstenbosch (Pentad 3355_1825) ….. well almost
The next day we had planned an excursion to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, one of our favourite places to visit, with a walk and lunch in mind. That morning I woke up to a very upset stomach and flu-like aches and pains and wasn’t up to doing much at all. We did go to Kirstenbosch hoping to catch a “golf cart” guided tour, but our timing was out so we just sat in the restaurant and had tea – no scones for me this time!
Saturday was spent getting to Worcester via Tokai (to visit my brother and sister-in-law) and along the coastal road past Strandfontein, where there were Kelp Gulls by the hundred along the beach and kite surfers enjoying the windy conditions that pulled them at high speed across the breaking waves – what a spectacular sport! Then we proceeded through Stellenbosch to Helshoogte on the way to Franschoek for a lunchtime stop at our other favourite venue – Hillcrest Berry farm. There we enjoyed a light lunch and tea with magnificent views of the mountains across the valley and the vineyards spread like patchwork over the lower slopes.
Worcester / Karoo Desert National Botanical Gardens (Pentad 3335_1925)
In complete contrast to Kommetjie, the area around Worcester, just 110 kms from Cape Town, presents typical Karoo habitats, although not as stark and barren as further inland in the “real” Karoo, as well as suburbia and farms with extensive vineyards.
I started out at 6h30, still too early for the Botanical Gardens which I discovered only open at 7h00, so I drove around suburbia and up a lonely road which dead-ended at a quarry. Once I gained entry to the Gardens, I drove to the upper parking area and took a walk through the various desert-like biomes represented there, with displays of desert and semi-desert plants – fortunately there is enough signage to inform you on what you are seeing – a good thing when your knowledge of trees and plants is as limited as mine. I do know Quiver trees from our trip to Namaqualand last year and there were a number of magnificent specimens to admire.
The Gardens have an interesting history, having been established at a site near Matjiesfontein in 1921 but due to serious water supply problems it was moved to its current site in Worcester in 1945, along with many of the unique plants, some of which are still present in the gardens, including the Quiver trees mentioned above.
Birds are plentiful throughout the Gardens but restricetd in the number of species, with the feature birds being Bokmakierie calling vociferously in the early morning, White-backed Mousebirds and Red-faced Mousebirds flying about in groups between the larger bushes and trees, Southern Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds enjoying the flowering aloes. Common Fiscals and Acacia Pied Barbets added to the mix with their distinctive calls, the Barbets outdoing all the others with their piercing, nasal call heard at a distance.
Overhead White-rumped Swifts and Greater-striped Swallows competed for flying insects. Exiting the gardens, a winding road took me up the hill to Brandwacht which is mainly vineyards with large farm dams, the latter quite productive around the fringes with the likes of Yellow bishop, Common Waxbill, Stonechat and Familiar Chat helping to boost the pentad list to 43 for the 2-3 hours spent atlasing.
Worcester / Hex River Valley (Pentad 3330_1930)
Just north of Worcester lies the Hex River valley and the pentad I had targeted for my third and last atlasing outing of the trip, comprising mostly mountains with the N1 national road bisecting them through the valley, with the flat sections along the river taken up by vineyards and the lower slopes of the mountains covered in fynbos. This is a very attractive part and some of the last vineyards before getting into the flatter and drier Karoo further down the N1.
My first stop was at the Seekoeigat Padstal (Farm stall) where I kicked off with some regulation birds such as Red-winged Starling, Steppe (Common) Buzzard and White-rumped Swift amongst others. At the first opportunity I turned off, glad to get off the busy N1 with large trucks thundering past each time I slowed and pulled over to check out a bird seen fleetingly. This was a far more peaceful birding environment and quickly produced Pied Barbet, African Stonechat, Bar-throated Apalis, African Hoopoe and several Southern Double-collared Sunbirds.
Returning reluctantly to the N1 and continuing cautiously through the cutting that makes its way through the mountains, I spied a pair of White-necked Ravens. Further on a broader verge allowed a safe roadside stop with a view down the slopes to the river below, where I spotted Cape Rock-Thrush, Cape Spurfowl, Cape Robin-Chat and Cape … sorry Karoo Prinia. A bit further on I was able to get closer to the river where an unexpected Giant Kingfisher was watching over one of the deeper pools in the river and not far from him a Cape Bunting was hopping about on the railway tracks.
The next turnoff took me into prime farming area with vineyards on both sides of the road – nice to look at with bunches of grapes just about ready for harvesting but quite a sterile environment for birding so I didn’t dawdle too long and returned to the N1 for the last stretch before reaching the northern boundary of the pentad. There I found a large dam some way off the road but close enough to make out a few cormorants and coots plus a good old “gyppo” or Egyptian Goose. Turning back, I spotted a raptor soaring high above and was able to ID it as a Booted Eagle, which seems to have a fondness for the Western Cape as I have seen several in my trips around this province.
All in all a nice variety of birding and habitats about as far removed from each other as you can get, each one with its own beauty and attraction.
My previous Post on “Paardeberg (Finding the Canadians)” covers our trip with Sheila (Sam) and John Denner to Kimberley and the Paardeberg Battlefield. This is the follow-on to that trip.
There was just a day to recover and prepare for the next leg of the trip, which was to cover a number of battlefield sites identified by John over the northern and central parts of Kwazulu-Natal province, which lies in the north-west quadrant of South Africa. When we had discussed the visit with Pieter and Anlia Genis , family of my wife Gerda, who farm near Vryheid, they immediately offered their farm as a base for us to visit the various battlefield sites and went far beyond normal hospitality in driving us around and providing meals and a place to sleep for four days – they surely deserve a medal!
Majuba Battlefield (27 February 1881)
Saturday 9th February 2013 : We left Pretoria by about 10h00 and drove the “back roads” via Delmas, Leandra, Standerton (where we introduced the Canadians to Spur Burgers) through to our first stop at the Majuba Battlefield site, which lies between Volksrust and Newcastle just off the N 11, with the Majuba Hill being visible from some distance away. We drove in to the Commemorative Farm, wondering if it would be open for visitors and came across the caretaker, one Hendrik de Beer, who took a break from tractor-mowing the vast lawns to show us the small museum – not particularly impressive but he was quite informative and willing to tell us what he knew, in the absence of a guide.
Unfortunately we did not have time to walk up the Majuba Hill, which requires 2 to 3 hours, which would no doubt have given us a better feel for the battle.
First War of Independence 1880 – 1881. This was the major deciding battle of the war. This was the second attempt by General George Colley and his troops to break through the Boer defences and enter the Transvaal. They climbed the imposing hill overnight intending to shell the Boer positions from above. The Boers scaled the summit and eventually forced the British to flee, killing Colley in the process. 280 British men were killed, wounded or captured while the Boers lost 2 men. This led to the signing of a peace treaty at the nearby O’Neill’s Cottage.
Where is it?
Signposted off the N 11 between Volksrust and Newcastle.
Laing’s Nek Battlefield (28 January 1881)
From Majuba it was a short drive to the roadside Laing’s Nek Battlefield site where we found that there was nothing at all to indicate it or the events that took place but nevertheless stopped and scouted around for a while. It seems best to arrange with local farm owners to access the site which is on private land.
First War of Independence 1880 – 1881. This was the first attempt by British forces under General George Colley to break through the Boer defences to the Transvaal. The Boers were entrenched on both sides of the road through the nek and successfully defended their position.
A further short drive took us to O’Neill’s Cottage which served as a hospital and was where the peace talks were held and the treaty was signed after the Battle of Majuba. It originally belonged to Eugene O’Neill.
From a distance the old house looks attractive but on closer inspection was clearly run down and had nothing at all inside – definitely an opportunity waiting, to turn it into something special which will persuade passing traffic to drive the short distance from the main road to view it.
Where is it?
Signposted off the N11 between Volksrust and Newcastle, not long after the Majuba and Laing’s Nek sites.
Battle of Schuinshoogte (Ingogo) 8 February 1881
The rest of the day’s drive to the farm went quite slowly once we turned off the National road, due to the condition of the road and occasional “stop and go’s”; unexpectedly we saw a sign to Schuinshoogte, which was not on our agenda but, curious to see it, we took the turn-off and followed the country road for a few Km’s until we came to the cemeteries and memorials a distance from the road on both sides and spent some time exploring them in the tranquil setting of rolling hills.
General George Colley and troops were escorting a convoy from Mount Prospect to Newcastle when they were attacked by Boer forces near the Ingogo River, on the Schuinshoogte plateau. Under siege the whole day, Colley withdrew his forces overnight. British casualties were high.
Where is it?
From Newcastle take the R 34 and after about 11 Km turn right onto a gravel road, continuing for 2 to 3 Km until you find the cemeteries on both sides of the road
We eventually reached the farm after dark and were warmly welcomed by the Genis family – Pieter and Anlia
Talana Battlefield, Dundee (20 October 1899)
Sunday 10th February 2013 : We enjoyed a bit of a lie-in and a leisurely breakfast (my favourite – krummelpap!!) before setting off for a visit to Talana Battlefield and the many-faceted museum on the site. Anlia had booked us for lunch which was traditional “boerekos” (farm style food) and we spent some time afterwards checking out the exhibits, spread over the large site in various old and new buildings, as well as the gravestones marking the burial of those who died in the battle.
We were fascinated to see that a group of people were dressed up in the uniforms of the participants and were practising for a re-enactment of the battle – “British” in their redcoats with white strapping and the “Boers” in khaki shirts and pants.
Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. This was the scene of the first battle of the war, following the expiry of the Boer ultimatum to the British on 12 October 1899, also the first time the British forces wore khaki uniforms. The Boers attacked the garrison at Dundee and succeeded in occupying the town while the British garrison withdrew to join the troops in Ladysmith, which shortly thereafter came under siege by the Boers for 118 days.
Where is it?
On the outskirts of Dundee on the R 33 road to Vryheid
Blood River Battlefield (16 December 1838)
Then we moved on to the Blood River Battlefield for a look at the famous site of the battle between Boer and Zulu, which has such significance for the Afrikaners – the friendly caretaker showed us around and had us watch the short film of the background to and events of 16 December 1838, which was quite moving. We walked down to the laager of bronze wagons a short distance away and enjoyed a picnic tea while imagining the traumatic events of that day.
Later, on the way out, we took the road to the “other side” of the river where a new Zulu commemorative complex has been built. Interesting to see a somewhat different take on the battle.
At this battle a party of Voortrekkers, intent on avenging the killing of Piet Retief and his 70 companions earlier in the year, were on their way towards Dingane’s headquarters and, when they heard the Zulu army was close by, formed a laager of wagons on the banks of the river. Waves of attacks by the 15000 strong Zulu army were repulsed by Boer rifle and cannon fire and up to 3000 Zulus were killed while 4 Boers were wounded. The battle marked the end of Dingane’s power in Natal. The Ncome river ran red from the blood and became known as the Blood River
Where is it?
Signposted about 20 Km from Dundee on the R 33 to Vryheid.
Blood River Poort Battlefield (17 September 1901)
Next on our itinerary and not far from Blood River, but arising from a completely different era, lies the Blood River Poort Battlefield, with a simple cemetery to commemorate the Boer and Brit soldiers who fell on the day
The British forces based at Dundee engaged a large Boer Commando at Blood River Poort, but were outflanked by the Boers and forced to surrender.
Where is it?
Off the R 34 to Utrecht – 5 Km from the junction with the R 33, turn right onto a secondary gravel road and after another 8 Km turn left at the sign to Goedekloof farm – about 1 Km further lies the cluster of graves.
A Bit of Birding
Birding was a side issue on this trip, limited to some snatched sightings while travelling and when investigating the battlefield sites. At Talana I did some ad hoc atlasing and listed some 20 species including an African Harrier-Hawk and Mocking Cliff-Chat
In between travelling to the sites we enjoyed the hospitality of Pieter and Anlia and much lively discussion happened at mealtimes
The next couple of days were to be very busy with visits to some of the better-known sites such as Spioenkop, Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift – the subject of the next Post
We (Koos Pauw and myself) had planned this trip long in advance as part of our “Birding and Flowers” trip with our wives which, by the time we got to Simon’s Town, was at day 14. The original date of the trip was 31 August 2013 but was postponed to the next day due to the rough seas, following a week of stormy weather around the Cape Peninsula. My only previous trip of this kind had been in 2005 in equally stormy weather and I had memories not only of the incredible experience of seeing thousands of seabirds up close, but also of the nausea that I had to endure that whole day. So it was with somewhat mixed feelings that I anticipated this pelagic birding trip with “Zest for Birds” out of Simon’s Town.
We were up early and at the hotel breakfast table, which overlooks the Zest boarding spot, for a light breakfast at 6h00 with some feelings of anxiety about the day ahead, mainly due to a fear that sea-sickness would spoil the day for us. As it turned out the medication Koos and I took was effective and made our day (well, mine at least) nausea free which was a great relief – not that the sea wasn’t rough as the Zest II rocked from side to side and back- and forwards as she rode the heavy swells and strong winds. We were soon beyond Cape Point and heading for deeper waters, with long skeins of Cape Cormorants passing the bow and stern of Zest II, making a beautiful picture in the early light, but one that would have to be in the mind as my camera was stowed below for the time being. Cape Gannets joined the Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gulls that appeared at the start of the trip and a few African Penguins eyed us curiously as they swam near the boat. Penguins are so at home swimming in the rough seas that it is sometimes hard to see them as birds.
From there on the numbers and variety of seabirds started to grow and we added Subantarctic Skua, known by its dark brown colouring with white flashes under the wings, White-chinned Petrel, Sooty Shearwater and our first Albatross of the day – a Shy Albatross which, despite its name, came in boldly close to the boat. Sudden excitement and grabbing of cameras by our contingent of guides (John Graham, Trevor Hardaker and Peter Ryan) signaled something special and we were fortunate to view a juvenile Wandering Albatross in graceful flight.
One of my favourite seabirds then came into view as a group of Wilson’s Storm Petrels approached the boat – they look so much like White-rumped Swifts that have got lost at sea, but in fact they are clearly at home in the deep waters as they skim deftly above the waves, touching the water occasionally with their lowered legs or beaks – what amazing control they have!
Accompanying them was a Great Shearwater and several Black-browed Albatrosses, followed by many Pintado Petrels in their handsome black and white plumage and a single Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross.
Happily the next bird up was a lifer for me as a Sabine’s Gull put in an appearance and I somehow managed to lock onto it briefly in the growing melee of seabirds for a reasonable photo, followed shortly thereafter by a another special sighting of a Northern Royal Albatross as he sat in the water and then took off across the bow.
All the while we were getting closer to the trawler which was our target for the day and the bird melee gradually grew until we were right behind the trawler and witness to a bird frenzy as all the species fought for a share of the discarded parts of the catch.
We spent some time close to the trawler, adding a few more species as our guides picked them up among the hundreds of other birds – species such as Northern Giant Petrel and Arctic Tern (another lifer for me). Once sated with the numbers and variety of birds, we headed back to Simon’s Town. Prior to docking the captain took us close to a large offshore rock which is used by Bank Cormorants to breed and roost and this was also the cue for a Southern Right Whale to greet us with a blow or two.
There is nothing quite comparable in birding to this experience – a bombardment of all your senses that leaves you elated but exhausted at the end of the day. Until next time……..
Billed as a Team Birding Challenge, this is a special event for birders keen to spend time in one of the top birding spots in South Africa, at a time of year when the majority of migrants are present. Under the direction of Joe Grosel and with the assistance of the SANParks Honorary Rangers (HR’s) from the West Rand Region as well as guides from SANParks, the group of some 40 people is taken through a series of challenges which focus on birding but also include other aspects of nature such as mammals, trees, insects and the odd reptile. This was the 3rd such event and the second that I have attended and “knowing the ropes” helped to make this version even more enjoyable (for me anyway) than the previous one.
Our group of 4 (Myself, George Skinner, Pieter Rossouw and Pieter Lombaard) left Pretoria early-ish to make sure we would be in time for the start of activities at 15h00 on Thursday 14 November 2013, with enough time for a hearty brunch at our usual stop near Polokwane, after which we turned off towards Giyani and reached Punda Maria gate by 13h30. In our air-conditioned cocoon we had noticed the temperature rising as we traveled north but only felt the 37º C heat when we got out to stretch our legs at the gate, much like the blanket of hot air in your face when you open a hot oven door except it envelops your whole body. From there we drove slowly to Punda Maria camp, arriving just in time for the rendezvous with the rest of our team for the weekend and the vehicle to take us to the Visitor Centre for the briefing. We joined up with 2 other couples – Brian and Joy Falconer-Smith and Elouise and Christo Kalmer – to make up our team, the Shrewd Shrikes, and were pleased to see that Jobe, our guide from last year, was again allocated to our vehicle. William Dunn, our HR representative completed the team line-up.
The birding from the gate to the camp was slow, being the hottest time of day and we were wilting along with the animals and panting bird life that was to be seen. An African Firefinch in the low bushes, Red-billed Oxpeckers on a group of Impalas and Yellow-fronted Canary in the upper branches of a tree kept us interested.
The Challenge and first Activity
At the initial briefing, Monika O’Leary, organiser of the weekend, introduced the proceedings, then Andy Branfield described what the HR’s do with the funds generated by these events and finally Joe Grosel took us through the various habitats in this northern part of Kruger and the animal and bird species that find these habitats to their liking. The Challenge details were spelt out and, as before, points would be awarded for bird species ID’d, mammal species seen (which our team only discovered at the final dinner!) plus the treasure hunts and quizzes as well as the atlasing and team spirit.
The drive to the Visitor Centre had produced Tawny Eagle as the bird life started to liven up. During the talks the continuous calls of Monotonous Larks and Woodland Kingfishers competed with the speakers, as if beckoning us all to “come have a look”.
Then it was time for the first sunset drive with the main destination being the ‘lek’ frequented by Pennant-winged Nightjars in the early summer months – we had enjoyed them on 2 occasions during the previous Punda Mania but this is not the sort of sighting you are likely to tire of. The drive was punctuated by a few good sightings such as European Golden Oriole and Great Spotted Cuckoo, a pair of African Hawk Eagles in a treetop and a Pale Flycatcher almost hidden amongst the bushy undergrowth and trees. The only negative was the road chosen to get to the lek, supposedly a short-cut but which can best be described as abominable as we bounced over endless rocks, taking so long that we arrived with minutes to spare for the Pennant-winged Nightjar display, which was nevertheless as magical as before. Apart from the main attraction, an African Scops-Owl and Red-chested Cuckoo made themselves heard from nearby trees. A bring-and-braai back at the camp closed out the day.
Friday 15 November 2013
An enthusiastic Red-chested Cuckoo was already calling when our alarm went off at 03h45 and we left the camp at 04h30 as the first light of dawn approached, heading north to Pafuri in the northernmost section of Kruger. We were soon adding birds at a steady pace, but were also working at the cryptic clues for the Treasure Hunt part of the weekend, which involves taking photos of birds, animals and trees, based on solving the clues put together by Joe. At least I now have a reason for doing those cryptic crosswords, apart from keeping the mind active. It didn’t take long to resolve the clues which boiled down to 2 mammals (Nyala, Elephant) 2 Trees (Nyala Tree, Ironwood Tree) and 11 birds (from memory they were White-fronted Bee-eater, Mosque Swallow, Red-crested Korhaan, Water Thick-Knee, Meve’s Starling, Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, Any Red Data species, Bateleur, Sabota Lark, Crested Francolin, Goliath Heron, but correct me if any are wrong) so from there on it was just a matter of finding the actual species to photograph.
The drive took us to the far north-east corner known as Crook’s Corner, where we spent some time enjoying the bird life in the Limpopo river and surrounding bush. On the way we spent quality time at Klopperfontein dams where we were able to stretch our legs and enjoy coffee, while watching the myriad Swallows, Martins and Swifts including many House Martins and a few Grey-rumped Swallows. Lark-like Buntings were moving about busily near the water and a Shaft-tailed Whydah made a brief fly-past, while Water Thick-Knees flew across low over the water. In the Pafuri area we saw our first Meve’s Starling moving amongst the low branches and higher up a Burnt-necked Eremomela worked his way through the foliage.
A surprise ‘sighting’ was the 4 ‘illegals’ from Mozambique that we came across near Pafuri, making their way through the Kruger on foot (one was barefoot) – they looked quite weary and despondent at being found and our guide contacted the camp to pick them up but we didn’t find out what happened to them.
The Limpopo River at Crook’s Corner had enough water to support Green-backed Heron and Pied Kingfisher as they hunted in their particular ways, while White-fronted Bee-eaters hawked insects from an overhanging dead branch. From the surrounding bush the regular calls of Orange-breasted and Grey-headed Bush-Shrikes could be heard, a Tropical Boubou made a brief appearance and Chinspot Batis, Red-billed Firefinch and Purple-crested Turaco were all welcome sightings. Overhead numbers of White-backed Vultures circled lazily and an African Cuckoo-Hawk appeared from nowhere and disappeared just as quickly
Our next stop was the Pafuri picnic spot, one of my favourite spots in Kruger, where a brunch had been set up by the busy HR’s. This was also the chance to add more species, with White-crowned Lapwing being an easy sighting in the river, Red-faced Cisticola calling from the riverine bush and an obliging Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove posing for photos meant we could tick off another on the treasure hunt list.
Back on the road we came across a lone Secretary Bird before heading back to Punda Maria – just a pity we didn’t have enough time to visit the bridge over the Luvuvhu which usually delivers a plethora of bird species, but a special sighting on the way back made up for this. Joe led us to a spot along the road, lined by tall Mopane trees, where Arnot’s Chat were known by him to breed and a brief playing of their call brought a male and female to investigate and eye us from a roadside tree, affording magical views of this sought-after bird.
Then it was back to the camp to report back on our photos taken for the treasure hunt, for which we managed to get a full house. A short while later we were at it again, this time following more cryptic clues to items around the camp itself, which we completed successfully except for Passer Domesticus (House Sparrow) which we could not decipher. The Cicada was easy enough to unravel but quite difficult to find, camouflaged as it was against the bark of the Mopane trees in the camping area.
During the pursuit of the items we came across Bearded Scrub-Robin along the Flycatcher trail and spent some time at the hide overlooking a water hole just outside the camp fence, popular with everything from Elephants to Eremomelas. A Broad-billed Roller was showing off his skills as he swooped down from a nearby tree and skimmed the surface, as if showing the Bee-eaters present that he could do it just as well as them.
After the report back, dinner was served followed by a short night drive, during which we added Fiery-necked Nightjar and Barred Owlet to our list.
Saturday 16 November 2013
An early start again – advisable in the extremely hot conditions. By this time we were getting accustomed to the extreme heat and the prospect of atlasing some remote areas of Kruger was something I was looking forward to – the area we were allocated to atlas turned out to be located in a little visited but beautiful part of Kruger, covering lush bushveld and riverine habitats. This, for me, was the highlight of the weekend – going down those usually forbidden roads with those no-entry signs and knowing there will be no other vehicles is part of what makes these events really special. Bird life was plentiful and the pentad list was rapidly added to in the allotted time.
The pentad list kicked off with an Eastern Nicator which made an exciting change from my usual atlasing, followed by some other specials such as Tawny Eagle, Wahlberg’s Eagle cruising above us, Green Pigeons in the taller trees and both Little and European Bee-Eaters hawking insects at low level.
A magnificent Baobab tree full of greenery was alive with birds, having a number of Red-billed Buffalo-Weavers and Red-headed Weavers using it as a nesting base. Even the arrival of a couple of Common Mynas could not spoil this classic scene.
The area atlased included stretches of the Levuvhu River and we made a few stops at convenient spots for walks along the river, watched by pods of Hippo in the cool waters and disturbing Green-backed Herons and Water Thick-Knees which took off and flew across to the opposite side as we progressed along the bank.
One stop was at the temporary Nyalaland Trail camp, located at an ideal spot above the river while the flood-damaged permanent camp is under reconstruction. The river walks added Pale Flycatcher, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher and White-crowned Lapwings amongst others, the latter calling excitedly and flying up and down the river. The bush away from the river was equally rewarding with Bennett’s Woodpecker, Striped Kingfisher and Black Cuckooshrike being some of the more notable sightings.
On the way back we heard what we thought to be Southern Hyliota calling and excitedly searched for this uncommon bird, only to find a White-browed Scrub-Robin imitating its call!
Back at the camp it was time to recharge with a nap, followed by a repeat of the late afternoon drive to the Pennant-winged Nightjar lek which was a lot more relaxed this time around.
Then all that remained was the dreaded Team Quiz (which again proved to be our downfall) and the final dinner and prize-giving. Oh well, there’s always the hope that the HR’s will present this event next year again, in which case the Shrewd Shrikes can have another go at improving our score.
Congrats to the West-Rand Honorary Rangers once again for presenting a really interesting and worthwhile event – long may they continue!
Thanks to Dr PeteZac Zacharias for providing the correct name for the Sekelbos (Dichrostachys cinerea) with its beautiful flowers, which I had wrong in the photo caption
A message received from Birdlife SA is worthy of a special Post on my blog.
A couple of years ago I was fortunate, along with scores of keen birders, to have a brief sighting of this enigmatic bird at a high altitude wetland near Dullstroom in Mpumalanga, South Africa, some 200Kms from Pretoria. We trudged through the shorter grass on the edge of the wetland while a group of about 12 people with the help of tracker dogs thrashed there way through the longer grass to try and flush the flufftail. After lots of walking and hoping, one did flush briefly and we were able to view it at a distance before it dove back into the cover of the long grass. So little is known about it, but it is a fascinating little bird which seems to migrate between Ethiopia and South Africa – but no one really knows! There are estimated to be just 250 birds remaining, with about 50 of these in South Africa. If they all got together in one place, standing side by side they would probably fit in a medium sized bathroom!
The media release is copied below :
South African flufftail on brink of extinction
Johannesburg, 28 November 2013:
The White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi is the latest addition to the growing number of the world’s birds which are threatened with extinction. The tiny and secretive flufftail, one of nine flufftail species in Africa, is now listed as Critically Endangered, one step away from extinction. The White-winged Flufftail is only known to occur in South Africa and, nearly 4000 km away, in Ethiopia.
Ornithologists are of the opinion that fewer than 250 adult White-winged Flufftails remain in the wild and that the South African population is estimated to number less than 50 birds. These estimates, combined with the emergent threats of habitat degradation and habitat loss, saw BirdLife South Africa and the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society, two BirdLife International partners at the opposite ends of the continent, motivate for the uplisting of the White-winged Flufftail to globally Critically Endangered. This category represents the highest risk of extinction in the wild. White-winged Flufftail is the second South African bird species to be listed as globally Critically Endangered, with the other being the Tristan Albatross.
According to BirdLife International: “destruction and degradation of its high altitude wet grassland habitat, including wetland drainage, conversion for agriculture, water abstraction, overgrazing by livestock and cutting of marsh vegetation, have driven it to this precarious state. Urgent action is now needed in both Ethiopia and South Africa to better understand the species’ ecology and to address these threats and save it from extinction”. The preferred high altitude wetland habitat in South Africa, which is mostly limited to Mpumalanga, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal, is threatened by mining, pollution from industrial effluents, domestic and commercial sewage, acid mine drainage, agricultural runoff and litter. The three Ethiopian wetlands where the birds are known to occur and breed are threatened by overgrazing and grass-cutting.
There is growing concern for the future of the White-winged Flufftail. “BirdLife South Africa and the Middelpunt Wetland Trust (MWT) have rolled out a number of research projects during 2012 and 2013 to focus on the conservation of the White-winged Flufftail”, according to Dr Hanneline Smit-Robinson, Conservation Manager at BirdLife South Africa. She added that “it is only with a better understanding of the connection between South Africa and Ethiopia, the flufftail’s movements and its habits, that we can implement correct conservation measures”.
A survey of suitable wetland habitat in South Africa is currently underway and will contribute to a better understanding of the extent of its occurrence in our country. Smit-Robinson further explains, “the analyses of blood and feather samples will shed light on whether the birds move between Ethiopia and South Africa or whether the two populations are in fact isolated”.
According to Malcolm Drummond, founding trustee of the MWT, solely established for the conservation of the White-winged Flufftail and its habitat, the Trust has long understood the importance of protecting habitat for the species in South Africa and Ethiopia. “As a means of gaining the support of the local community at Berga wetland in Ethiopia, where the flufftail breeds, the MWT has provided financial support over the past ten years for the building of a primary school for 700 pupils”. In return, the site support group patrols the wetland during the breeding season to prevent grazing and grass cutting.
The research and conservation work on the White-winged Flufftail is supported by the BirdLife International Preventing Extinctions Programme through funding from Eskom, the BirdLife Species Champion for the White-winged Flufftail.
Our good friend’s daughter, Jessie van Dyk, now resident in Toronto, Canada, was to get married on Saturday 9th November and she and a group of her Canadian friends and new family had come to South Africa the week before to spend a few days at Ngwenya Lodge near Komatipoort, prior to the wedding. We were invited to join the group from Monday to Thursday and it wasn’t a difficult decision to accept with the hope that we could provide some support to Jacobus and Lynette van Dyk. Having Canadian family myself (a sister and brother-in-law plus 2 nieces) we were looking forward to meeting some of their compatriots and we had the pleasure of meeting most of them on the Sunday that they arrived, before leaving for Ngwenya the next day.
The big disappointment is that not one of them wore a red-checked woolly shirt or a Mountie style hat – in fact they all looked quite decent and civilized, just like us!
While the excited group of some 20-plus went by bus, we made our way separately by car, with our customary stop at Millies near Machadadorp for trout pie and coffee. The trip of just over 400 Kms was uneventful but the “stop-and-go” between Nelspruit and Komatipoort delayed us by a good 40 minutes.
The chalets we were allocated are set around calm dams, while other chalets overlook the Crocodile River, which also forms the southern boundary of Kruger National Park. Water Monitors frequent the bush around the dams and are quite habituated to people, loping around the chalets in the hope of picking up morsels of food. Much smaller in size but just as reptilian are the colourful lizards in the gardens and around the chalets.
Bird life is plentiful and I was able to list 70 species during our stay, including a few in Kruger itself, despite not having much birding time in between the social activities. Bright yellow Village Weavers and Lesser Masked-Weavers are most prominent in front of the chalets where a number of the trees next to the water are bedecked with their carefully woven nests. The calls of Dark-capped Bulbuls, White-browed Robin-Chats, Green-backed Camaropteras and Sombre Bulbuls are heard throughout the day and act as a gentle wake-up call in the mornings.
A walk around the lodge gardens mid-morning added many birds to the list with Violet-backed Starlings showing their spectacular colouring in the top of the trees and the sound of African Reed-Warblers emanating from the waterside bushes. Trees are a mix of indigenous and exotic with Fever trees being quite prominent. At the hide overlooking the river it was fairly quiet on the mammal front, with just a lone African Buffalo wading in the river.
Numerous birds in the water and riverside bush boosted my list by a dozen in 20 minutes with specials such as Lappet-faced Vulture circling above, Water Thick-Knee patrolling the water’s edge in search of a meal and a Black Crake showing briefly among the exposed rocks.
A Taste of Kruger
Social interaction with the Van Dyks and their guests from Canada and Belgium took place over brunch and dinner and gave us all the chance to find out a little about them, their homes and family. They were all keen to see some of Kruger Park, being so close to the Crocodile Bridge gate, and I offered to do a game drive on the Tuesday afternoon from 3 pm which was taken up by some of the group, knowing that we were all due to do an organised game drive the following morning in Safari vehicles with guides. Between the 2 drives we were lucky enough to see all of the “Big 5” – in fact the Wednesday morning game drive accomplished that on its own with the help of the guides who communicate with each other and share special sightings. The Tuesday afternoon drive was almost as successful, chalking up 4 of the Big 5.
Two separate sightings of Lion, plenty of Elephants, a large herd of Buffalo and Rhino spotted at a distance, kept everyone on the edge of their seats during the drive and just as we were due to turn around and head back to Ngwenya our guide had a radio call during which I heard the word “Ingwe” and immediately knew we were in for a special sighting. Our guide didn’t say a word but headed at speed in the direction of Lower Sabie camp then past it to the bridge over the Sabie river where a magnificent Leopard was lazing on a rocky ledge, unconcerned by the many vehicles jostling for a good view of this most impressive of the big cats. After moving into a good viewing position, we spent some time watching him rolling around and yawning, then we headed to Lower Sabie for a comfort break and from there back to Ngwenya.
Plenty of other game was seen on the drives, including the ubiquitous Impala but also numbers of Giraffe, Zebra, Wildebeest, Warthogs, Kudus and a few Waterbuck with their distinctive white ring on the backside – many had youngsters in their group especially the Warthogs which seemed to have had a good crop of babies, which looked a bit like very large rodents. The bush and veld were looking beautiful after the first summer rains, but the dense bush does make it more difficult to spot animals even when close to the road. The game drives were thoroughly enjoyed by all, even ourselves who have done so many drives in Kruger, never tiring of visiting this special part of South Africa.
With the focus on game, the birding took a back seat, but I managed to keep the list ticking over with some of the typical Kruger Park birds that did not need stopping to ID them – Pin-tailed Whydahs were active near the gate and Rattling Cisticolas were making themselves heard at regular intervals, while Bateleurs and White-backed Vultures soared overhead. Francolins and Spurfowl occupied the road edge and scattered as we approached, their features distinct enough to easily make out Swainson’s and Natal Spurfowl as well as Crested Francolin as we passed by.
Canadians do the Braai
Come Wednesday evening and the visitors decided they would do the braai – this time at the lodge’s boma. We had to admit as proud South Africans that they did a great job and we enjoyed juicy steaks with salads and traditional pap – now if only we can get them to pronounce “pap” correctly (as in “pup”)
Then it was time to say goodbye for the time being, until the big event on Saturday.
Growing up in South Africa in the second half of the 20th century, I was aware, mainly through history lessons at school, of the conflicts that took place between the Boers and the British forces in the latter part of the 19th century and the battles fought between both of them and the Zulus which preceded those conflicts.
However it never got beyond history lessons until we heard that John and Sam Denner were planning a 4 week visit to South Africa in February 2013, and that John in particular was very keen to visit as many of the battlefield sites as possible. Now, my sister Sam, or Sheila as we know her, has lived in Canada for 4 decades or so, but had visited us a few times in the intervening period – however we had never met John, our brother-in-law, although he did spend a year in SA in his 20’s.
We were aware of John’s passion for all things related to military events and the fact that he runs a business from their home in Canada trading in war memorabilia, weapons, uniforms and the like. What we came to realise as our tour of the battlefields progressed, is that his knowledge of the battles that took place in the 19th century is extensive and he often proved to be more knowledgeable than some of the local people we came across.
John sent a list of the sites they most wanted to visit and, because many of them were just names to me, it took some research via Google to establish locations, confirm travel routes and look at accommodation options. Between Sam and I we drafted an itinerary which allowed for visits to selected battlefields of the Northern Cape and Kwazulu-Natal, followed by a few days in Kruger Park and touring Mpumulanga, after which we would fly to George to spend some time in Mossel Bay and the Garden Route, then a brief visit to Cape Town before returning to Pretoria.
A few days were set aside to show them Pretoria and Johannesburg and to spend some leisure time in between the main parts of the tour. I had decided to take the time off myself and see some parts of the country that we had not experienced ourselves – and of course there would hopefully be a chance to do a bit of birding along with the other activities. The research I did on the battlefields had already pricked my interest to the extent that I was really looking forward to finding out more about the often turbulent history of South Africa.
The Arrival and first trip
John and Sam (Sheila) arrived on Tuesday 5th February 2013 on the early BA flight and we were at our home in Wapadrand, Pretoria by 9 am. After settling in and catching up a little, we decided to get “warmed up” for the touring ahead by taking a drive through Pretoria with stops at the historic Union Buildings and the Voortrekker Monument.
We could already see where their interests lay as John checked out the cannons at the Union Buildings and Sam enjoyed the curios on sale, with all of us admiring the good views over Pretoria.
The Voortrekker Monument was really worthwhile visiting, with its special aura and amazing carved reliefs – even the museum downstairs was full of interesting artifacts from the Great Trek era and it was immediately clear that John in particular has an affinity for the Boers and relates strongly to their ideals.
Off to Kimberley
We set off for Kimberley in the Northern Cape around 9 am on the following day, with a journey of some 650 Km ahead of us, taking the route via Krugersdorp, which we bypassed on the back roads, Carletonville, Potchefstroom, Klerksdorp and Bloemhof. It was a long drive with a couple of comfort stops, a stop for Steers Burgers in Bloemhof and a brief “look-in” at our son Stephan’s house on the outskirts of Potchefstroom to say hello to Liesl and the 2 kids, Jocelyn and Christopher.
The landscape changed from built-up Gauteng to the wide open landscape of the Northern Cape, with steps in between and eventually Kimberley appeared on the horizon at about 5 pm that afternoon – it was a quick decision to head out to Paardeberg museum and battlefield in order to recce before tomorrow’s planned visit, despite thinking that it would be closed at this time of the day.
Having found the Battle of Paardeberg site on Google Earth the previous day, we knew to head out on the N8 Bloemfontein road south-east of Kimberley for 44 Km and found the little museum without too much difficulty a couple of Kms off the main road near the “Perdeberg” station – the different spelling of “Paardeberg” almost put us off, but fortunately we followed our instincts.
Amazingly, we found the caretaker sitting outside the locked museum, despite it officially having “closed” an hour and a half before we arrived and, as if by magic, a local lady assistant appeared out of the bushes with a key to open the museum specially for us. From the visitor’s book entries it was clear that not many people visit this charming museum, which made us even more appreciative of having found the caretaker at his post.
We spent the next half hour going through the exhibits which set out quite nicely the background and events leading up to the battle and the battle itself.
From the museum we took the gravel road to where we had been told the battlefield sites were and after about 7 Kms we found the first monument/grave site just off the road in the middle of a field, which by now was bathed in late afternoon sunlight which lent a beautiful glow to the long, dry grass.
We discovered it was the grave of Colonel Hannay, who led a suicidal charge on the Boer encampment and died at that very spot. This was to be the only war grave we visited that was for an individual – all of the others at Paardeberg and the other sites we visited later in Kwazulu-Natal were multiple war graves.
It was also the first poignant reminder of the sacrifices made by young men on both sides, but particularly those in a strange land so far from their family.
Travelling further along the road, with the sun starting to dip towards the horizon, we were on the verge of calling it a day, when we saw a further site with a number of graves and stopped to investigate – it turned out to be the site of a monument to the Burgers (Boers) who had died at Paardeberg.
While we were stopped, a local farmer who introduced himself as “SF” Marais, turned up in his bakkie (pickup) and in broken English and his home language of Afrikaans told us a bit about the area and that his family had farmed the area for more than 100 years. He gave us directions to some of the other sites where the “Engelse” (the British forces) were buried on the other side of the Modder River, which we thought would be good place to visit the next day.
By now it was close to dark and we ended up investigating the Paardeberg battle site with a torch, after which we headed back to Kimberley for a late check-in at the Cecil John Rhodes guest house – the managers had tired of waiting for us so we had to wait for them to return and open up. After a decent meal at Mario’s across the road we collapsed into bed.
Return to Paardeberg
After spending some time in the recreated village adjoining the famous Big Hole of Kimberley, we headed back to Paardeberg with the main mission of finding what John had come for – the graves of the Canadian soldiers who died in the battle.
After spending some time on the southern side of the Modder River where we found a large grave site but no sign of the Canadians, we found our way back to the northern side of the river where we had been the previous evening and carried on in the direction that SF Marais had said more of the “Engelse” were buried.
It was with much excitement that we found the site at the last brown “Cannon” sign, indicating a battlefield site, and discovered that the Canadian soldiers had been buried there. John and Sam and indeed myself, were thrilled to find what they had come such a long way to see, while at the same time feeling sad for the losses incurred on both sides.
Excited by our find, which had proved to be challenging on these back roads and with very little signage to guide us, we proceeded to Bloemfontein and back to Pretoria via Ventersburg, Kroonstad and Johannesburg, eventually arriving at 7.30 pm, having travelled some 1400 Kms in the 2 days. Mission accomplished!
The Battle of Paardeberg began on 17 February 1900 and was to become the longest and biggest battle of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), ending with the Boers under General Piet Cronje surrendering on 27 February 1900. The British forces under command of Lord Kitchener surrounded the Boers at Paardeberg – the next morning Lord Roberts took charge to continue with the battle. The Boer forces lost 100 men, 250 were wounded and 4096 captured. British forces lost 258 men with 1211 wounded and 86 taken prisoner.
Where is it?
This is one of the more difficult sites to find but it’s best to visit the little museum first and then ask directions from there. The museum is at 28° 59′ 1″ S / 25° 4′ 48″ E and the battlefield and grave sites are mostly along the same gravel road heading east – just don’t give up too soon, as you have to travel quite a few Kms before you come across the sign to where the Canadians are buried. To get to the southern side of the battlefield, return to the N8, head towards Bloemfontein and just after the bridge over the Modder river, turn left and follow the gravel road, keeping a look out for the sites, some of which are signposted.
The Big Hole, Kimberley
During our quick visit we managed to fit in a visit to the “Big Hole” museum complex, where we were fortunate to just catch the 9 am tour. The guide took us to the auditorium for an excellent film introduction to the history of the Big Hole, then out onto the viewing deck overlooking the gigantic hole and finally “down” the mine shaft to a reproduction of the original mine workings.
Out on the deck I looked for Bradfield’s Swifts which are known to frequent the hole and found a couple fairly easily among the Alpine and Little Swifts, which seemingly also use the open air above the big hole for feeding on small flying insects.
A Bit of Birding
Birding was a side issue on this trip, limited to some snatched sightings while travelling and when investigating the battlefield sites. A couple of short ad hoc pentad lists were submitted, which included a Familiar Chat (being a new species on the one list) and a handsome Pale Chanting Goshawk perched on a pole. On the other list 3 out of the 5 species were Swallows – Greater-striped, SA Cliff and Barn Swallows.
This is the follow-on to Parts 1 and 2 , which covered the first 10 days of the road trip. In this Part 3, we (Don & Gerda Reid and Koos & Rianda Pauw) tackle the last stretch of our Birding and Flowers trip, taking in more of the prime flower-spotting areas of Namaqualand and heading south to Cape Town, from where we were to start the return journey via Bontebok National Park to Mossel Bay for a longer stay at our home there, before returning to Pretoria and completing the full circle.
Day 11 (29th August 2013) :
We had arrived at De Lande guest farm, not far from Niewoudtville, the previous day and were nicely settled in the “Sinkhuisie” just a stone’s throw from the main house. After a hearty breakfast in the main house we wondered whether to venture out into the rainy weather, but having come all the way to this part of South Africa, did not want to waste the opportunity and so we set off for Papkuilsfontein some 10Km further down the gravel road. By this time it had been raining for 12 hours and the road, which unfortunately had just been scraped and leveled by the local authorities, had turned to slush and it became an anxious trip as my vehicle, a VW Touareg, slipped and slid in all directions on the greasy surface, despite being in 4 x 4 mode – something like a fried egg in a non-stick frying pan. Mud splatter from the unavoidable pools of water obscured the windscreen and it was a battle to see where we were heading. Amazingly there were still some hardy birds about to keep our list going and make something of our bird atlasing efforts, with Southern Red Bishops , Yellow Bishops, Cape and Yellow Canaries carrying on their activities alongside the road. Under the circumstances the Touareg handled the conditions well but looked quite bedraggled when we stopped at Papkuilsfontein farm.
The rain had by this time abated and we had a chance to bird around the gardens, while Gerda and Rianda explored the gift shop, followed by tea and delicious cake in the “Waenhuis” restaurant where a welcome fire was blazing in the hearth.
After some consultation with the farm owners, Willem and Mariette van Wyk, we followed their suggested route, which traverses the farm down towards the river, past the cottages which they rent out. Approaching the cottages, we were rewarded with a wonderful sight of yellow “cat’s tail” flowers carpeting the fields, with the backdrop of the stone cottages and the ruins of an old homestead giving the scene a feeling of being in the middle of a beautiful landscape painting. Tearing ourselves away, we carried on for a few Kms into more rocky countryside with a variety of natural flowers and plants vying for attention with their range of colours and forms.
The scenery almost made us forget to do some birding for a while but we nevertheless kept at it, the highlights being an African Harrier-Hawk and our first Cape Spurfowl of the trip. The trip back to De Lande was a bit less harrowing, having now got the hang of the road conditions – however, it was getting even colder and, once back in the warm “Sinkhuisie”, we only ventured out to have dinner at the main house, which was another round of excellent “comfort cuisine” – including the best roast potatoes we’ve had in a long while.
Day 12 (30th August 2013) :
My birthday today and some surprises were in store!
We were up early to pack and load the vehicles for a quick getaway after breakfast, so that we would not be rushed on the longish drive to Simon’s Town (near Cape Town) and have time for a celebratory lunch on the West coast along the way. The temperature gauge in the car showed 3°C and a watery sun was trying its best to break through the low clouds. It was just after 8h00 when we got to the breakfast table at the main house, only to be greeted by rain which quickly turned to sleet and then, magically, it started snowing heavily. This prompted everyone in the dining room to rush out and take photos and just feel the large flakes drifting down and settling on the garden and on our clothes – a unique experience in South Africa and particularly this part, where the 27-year-old waitress informed us she had never seen snow in her life. Within 20 minutes the garden and our vehicles were covered in a layer of snow which was very photogenic, but we couldn’t help thinking of the 13Km of slushy gravel road we had to negotiate to get to the nearest tar road and wondered what added dimension the snow would bring to the experience.
We had breakfast a little faster than usual, stopping just short of gulping it down, then set off with some trepidation along the, by now, very slippery road with snow falling and our windscreen wipers trying to keep our windscreens clear, while we studiously followed the ruts left by earlier vehicles as we had been advised. Snow buildup on the car’s roof cascaded over the windscreen each time I braked and we took it very slowly to avoid a mishap. We made it to Niewoudtville without incident, found a toilet in the local tourist centre and set off on the rest of our journey. In the fields, the cattle and sheep had a layer of snow on their backs and even a group of Blue Cranes were sprinkled with snow. The snow interspersed with rain continued all the way to Vanrhynsdorp and only abated as we turned back onto the N7 heading south towards Cape Town. At Clanwilliam we followed the directions given by the chef at De Lande and took the road west to get us to our planned lunch venue at Paternoster.
It turned out to be a good choice of route as we soon saw the coast and followed the road south, bypassing the coastal towns of Elands Bay, Dwarskersbos (no idea where that name comes from) and Velddrif. A few tempting bodies of water, such as Verlorevlei and Berg River estuary, caught our eye but there was not enough time to stop and explore, so we had to be satisfied with some snatched sightings as we went past. Lunch at Voorstrandt restaurant in Paternoster was a pleasant interlude and we enjoyed the fish on offer, so much so that one of our group (who shall remain nameless) had fish for dessert as well! From Paternoster we returned to the main road for the last stretch into Cape Town and through peak hour traffic to Simon’s Town for our 3 night stay at the Quayside Hotel, which we were pleased to find has large comfortable rooms and wonderful views over the harbour and the bay beyond. The reception staff didn’t bat an eyelid at the amount of baggage they had to cart up the stairs including our portable freezer/fridge, which was fortunately a lot lighter than when we started. By this time we were “plain tuckered out” and after a light meal in the nearby restaurant, we were glad to get some rest.
Day 13 (31st August 2013) :
The pelagic (deep-sea birding) trip we had planned and booked for today was postponed to the next day, Sunday, due to the stormy weather in the Cape and so we decided to brave the cold-ish weather and threatening rain by going to Kirstenbosch, the world-famous (and rightly so) Botanical Gardens which lie on the lower eastern slopes of Table Mountain. The road from Simon’s Town to Kirstenbosch winds along the coast initially and we could see that the sea was rough, which did not bode well for the pelagic trip the next day, however we focused on the day’s mission which was to cover as much of Kirstenbosch as we could, recording the species for our next bird atlas cards.
First stop was the famous tea room for traditional (in our family) tea and scones, which were as good as ever, while the others enjoyed various items from the menu. Memories of my childhood outings to Kirstenbosch, some 50+ years ago came flooding back and I couldn’t help reminiscing about our mother, who always enjoyed her Kirstenbosch outings, and her last trip to have her ashes spread in the upper gardens. Well satisfied with our scones and tea/other good things. we set off for a walk up the gardens which were as magnificent as ever and alive with Sunbirds, (Southern Double-collared and Malachite), Cape Robin-Chats in every second bush, Canaries in song (Cape and Forest), Cape White-eyes busily flitting about in the upper branches and Karoo Prinias making themselves heard on the tops of bushes.
In the more forested areas Sombre Bulbuls were announcing their presence with their loud sharp calls while keeping hidden from view and Cape Batis appeared fleetingly among the foliage. A special sighting was a large Spotted Eagle-Owl, pointed out to us by another group, which had taken up a position in a large tree and looked about imperiously, ignoring the excited chatter of the smaller birds which were in a mild state of frenzy.
Of course Kirstenbosch is about the flora and at this time of year in particular the pincushions are in full bloom, giving a spectacular and colourful display of the different varieties.
After a lengthy walk and a good cup of coffee, we took the “long way home” back to Simon’s Town, via Hout Bay and along the Atlantic seaboard into town, then through the southern suburbs to Muizenberg and Fish Hoek, eventually arriving at our hotel in time for dinner.
Day 14 (1st September 2013) :
We were up early for breakfast at 6am before heading to the pier just below our hotel, where we were to meet the Zest for Birds team ahead of the pelagic birding trip into the deep waters south of the Cape Peninsula. This is deserving of its own posting so I won’t cover it here except to say that it was a spectacular trip with some amazing sightings. We left just after 7am and returned around 4pm, by which time we were quite exhausted from the intensity of the whole experience and the rough weather and sea conditions – we had just enough energy to drag ourselves to the nearby restaurant before collapsing in bed. There is nothing comparable in birding to this experience – a bombardment of all your senses that leaves you elated but exhausted at the end of the day. A small sampling of photos from the day are included here.
Day 15 (2nd September 2013) :
Time to move on to our next and final stopover before Mossel Bay – the Bontebok National Park near Swellendam, an easy 2 to 3 hours drive from Cape Town. We enjoyed a late breakfast in the hotel, greeted the genuinely friendly staff of the Quayside Hotel and were on our way. I stopped at Fish Hoek to get the wheels cleaned of the dried mud, collected during our trip to Papkuilsfontein, which was causing severe imbalance at speed and was happy that cleaning the wheels made all the difference.
After yesterday’s rough and windy seas, today was the complete opposite and I couldn’t help wishing we had been blessed with this weather for the pelagic trip – hopefully next time? By the time we reached Houw Hoek pass it was lunchtime and it was an easy decision to stop at the roadside farmstall for a simple but delicious lunch with good coffee. From there it was a short hop to Swellendam and the nearby Bontebok National Park – on the way in a Dusky Indigobird caught my eye where it sat on the roadside wire – an unusual sighting for the area which produced an “Out of Range” form when I later submitted the atlas card. Further on a Black Harrier flew low over the scrub as we approached the park reception. After checking in we proceeded to the riverside chalets for a 2 night stay – the wooden chalets are set on a bend in the Breede River which was in flood from the recent heavy rain and snow in the catchment area and it stayed that way during our stay. The partly submerged trees and pathways were an indication of just how high the river was compared to its normal state.
Once we were settled in, it was time to explore the gardens and surrounding bush, which were alive with the calls of several species as they went about their late afternoon business – Cape Robin-Chats, Fiscal Flycatchers, Cape Weavers, Speckled and Red-faced Mousebirds were all prominent as was a flock of 100 plus Common Waxbills. On the grass a turf war (literally) was happening as Southern Boubou chased a Fiscal Flycatcher and a Speckled Pigeon bullied the Waxbills.
Day 16 (3rd September 2013) :
The early part of the day was spent enjoying the peaceful ambiance of the chalets and surrounds and was highlighted by a Booted Eagle flying low over the chalets as he hunted for prey. Then it was time for an exploratory drive of the park which is not extensive and can be covered in a couple of hours. The drive took us to the viewpoint further up the river and along the way we enjoyed sightings of Cape Sugarbird, Cape Canary, a displaying Clapper Lark of the Agulhas subspecies and several Sunbirds. At the picnic spot the variety of flowers were an attraction, with one deciding to open its petals as we stood and watched! Grassbirds were prominent while a Fish Eagle called in the distance. The rest of the day was spent relaxing and braai-ing the evening meal.
Day 17 (4th September 2013) :
We left Bontebok National Park in beautiful calm, sunny weather with all the local species coming out to greet us, including the Pin-tailed Whydah which had spent most of the time energetically trying to impress the females with his freshly developed breeding plumage and active fluttering. We spent some time in Swellendam admiring the old church dating from 1802 and the many well-preserved Cape Dutch houses and enjoying a coffee stop at one of the local restaurants. The last stretch to Mossel Bay was uneventful and took us to the end of our journey for the time being.
All in all, this was a trip that was chock-full of wonderful experiences , one which will provide good memories for a long time of places visited and sights seen, not to mention birds listed, lifers added and plenty of bird atlasing done.
The only questions now are …….. where to next time and how soon?