Namaqualand and the Western Cape

The Trip (continued)

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 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.

Papkuilsfontein, near Niewoudtville
Papkuilsfontein, near Niewoudtville
Touareg after a mudbath (find the number plate)
Touareg after a mudbath (find the number plate)

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.

Waenhuis restaurant at Papkuilsfontein
Rianda, Koos & Gerda at the Waenhuis restaurant at Papkuilsfontein

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.

Cat's Tails flowering at Papkuilsfontein
Cat’s Tails flowering at Papkuilsfontein
Cat's Tails flowering at Papkuilsfontein
Cat’s Tails flowering at Papkuilsfontein
Papkuilsfontein
Papkuilsfontein
Flowering bush at Papkuilsfontein
Flowering bush at Papkuilsfontein
The road is aptly named when it's muddy ("Hope Lost")
The road is aptly named when it’s muddy (“Hope Lost”)

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.

Snow just starting to fall at De Lande
Snow just starting to fall at De Lande
Snow scenes at De Lande Guest Farm
Snow scenes at De Lande Guest Farm
Snow scenes at De Lande - Koos's vehicle
Snow scenes at De Lande – Koos’s vehicle
Snow scenes at De Lande - Don's vehicle
Snow scenes at De Lande – Don’s vehicle
Snow scenes at De Lande
Snow scenes at De Lande
Snow scenes at De Lande
Snow scenes at De Lande
Snow scenes at De Lande
Snow scenes at De Lande

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.

Simon's Town
View from the hotel at Simon’s Town

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.

Protea at Kirstenbosch
Protea at Kirstenbosch
Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Kirstenbosch
Southern Double-collared Sunbird, Kirstenbosch
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
Protea, Kirstenbosch
Protea, Kirstenbosch
Pincushion, Kirstenbosch
Pincushion, Kirstenbosch

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.

Spotted Eagle-Owl, Kirstenbosch
Spotted Eagle-Owl, Kirstenbosch
Olive Thrush, Kirstenbosch
Olive Thrush, Kirstenbosch
Kirstenbosch, Cape Town
Kirstenbosch, Cape Town

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.

Pincushions, Kirstenbosch
Pincushions, Kirstenbosch
Pincushion, Kirstenbosch
Pincushion, Kirstenbosch
Kirstenbosch, Cape Town
Kirstenbosch, Cape Town

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.

Pelagic birding trip
Pelagic birding trip
Shy Albatross, Pelagic Trip
Shy Albatross, Pelagic Trip
Pintado Petrel, Pelagic Trip
Pintado Petrel, Pelagic Trip

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.

Breede River in flood
Breede River in flood
Bontebok National Park
Bontebok National Park
House Mouse, Bontebok NP
House Mouse, Bontebok NP
Speckled Mousebird, Bontebok NP
Speckled Mousebird, Bontebok NP
Karoo Scrub-Robin, Bontebok NP
Karoo Scrub-Robin, Bontebok NP
Flooded pathways at Bontebok National Park
Flooded pathways at Bontebok National Park
Chalet at Bontebok National Park
Chalet at Bontebok National Park

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.

Cape Robin-Chat, Bontebok NP
Cape Robin-Chat, Bontebok NP
Southern Masked-Weaver, Bontebok NP
Southern Masked-Weaver, Bontebok NP
Bar-throated Apalis, Bontebok NP (not impressed by my playing his call)
Bar-throated Apalis, Bontebok NP (not impressed by my playing his call)
Pathway, Bontebok NP
Pathway, Bontebok NP
Bontebok
Bontebok
Cape Grassbird, Bontebok NP
Cape Grassbird, Bontebok NP

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.

Booted Eagle, Bontebok NP
Booted Eagle, Bontebok NP
Bontebok National Park
Bontebok National Park
Bontebok
Bontebok
Cape Bulbul, Bontebok NP
Cape Bulbul, Bontebok NP

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.

The old NG Church, Swellendam
The old NG Church, Swellendam
Swellendam, Western Cape
Swellendam, Western Cape
Swellendam, Western Cape
Swellendam, Western Cape
Swellendam - unique decorations (plastic bottles painted yellow)
Swellendam – unique decorations (plastic bottles painted yellow)

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.

Sunset, Bontebok National Park
Sunset, Bontebok National Park

Exploring Southern Africa's Natural Wonders and beyond

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