One of the enjoyable aspects of planning a trip is the pleasant anticipation that goes with it. A few years ago Gerda and I were intent on doing a birding trip through the Northern parts of South Africa to coincide with the time that the Namaqualand flowers are usually at their best, but circumstances stood in the way and we had to cancel at the last moment. Koos and Rianda Pauw, who we were to join for that trip, did the trip on their own and their stories afterwards only served to make us more determined to do the trip at a future date. When Koos & Rianda suggested “going for it” in 2013, Gerda and I jumped at the chance and immediately started planning the route, accommodation etc in order to make sure we would get bookings at the preferred spots during the popular flower-viewing season which runs from mid-July to mid September.
The anticipation was heightened by the fact that we would be travelling through parts of South Africa that we had not experienced before, with places and towns to see for the first time. The bonus was the prospect of seeing the famed Namaqualand flowers for ourselves, not to mention the possibility of a number of “lifers” (birds not seen before) along the route. Then there is the all-important atlasing of bird species which we intended to do at each overnight stop as a minimum.
Afrikaans names of bird species have been added where the bird is first mentioned, because many birders in South Africa know the birds by their Afrikaans names which are often charming and more descriptive.
Day 1 (19th August 2013) :
After much intense packing and arrangements, we set off just after 2pm and headed west along the N14 National road to our first overnight stop via Krugersdorp, Klerkskraal, (blink and you’ll miss it) Ventersdorp and Coligny, at which point we turned south to the farm Ouplaas near Ottosdal in the North-West Province, arriving late afternoon. Coert and Magdalena welcomed us warmly to their guest house and turned out to be excellent hosts and the accommodation proved comfortable enough. They served a tasty four course dinner that, along with the décor, took me back 30 years – soup starter, then a fish salad followed by the main course with roast lamb and veg, then a rich pudding and coffee in tiny, fancy cups.
Day 2 (20th August 2013) :
An early morning walk was a good start to the day and an ideal time to do some atlasing of the bird species to be found in the area – the garden was fresh and cool and lush compared to the dry surroundings. White-browed Sparrow-Weavers (Koringvoël) are one of the signature birds of the area and are plentiful everywhere, made evident by the untidy nests in many a tree – some were busy nest-building at the entrance gate closely attended by Crimson-breasted Shrikes (Rooiborslaksman) in their bright red plumage. Bird calls livened up the garden, announcing the presence of Pied Barbets (Bonthoutkapper), Cape Robin-Chats (Gewone janfrederik), Red-throated Wryneck (Draaihals) and Orange River White-eyes (Gariepglasogie) in between the background calls of Laughing, Red-eyed and Cape Turtle-Doves (Lemoen- Grootring- en Gewone Tortelduif).
The roads near the farmstead produced Bokmakierie, Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler (Bosveldtjeriktik), Neddicky (Neddikkie) and Kalahari Scrub-Robin (Kalahariwipstert) and on the way back a Brubru (Bontroklaksman) announced himself with his telephone-ring-like call. With atlasing duties done it was time for a leisurely breakfast after which we headed out to Barberspan some 80km away, first stopping at the farm’s own dam, which had looked promising from a distance. It proved to be a worthwhile stop as we added Lesser Flamingo (Kleinflamink) and a Goliath Heron (Reusereier) in the shallows as well as an early Wood Sandpiper (Bosruiter) and Kittlitz’s Plover (Geelborsstrandkiewiet) along the edge.
From there we made our way to Barberspan which we reached just after midday and immediately started atlasing Pentad 2630_2535 covering the north-east quadrant of the very large pan. Birds were plentiful, visible at a distance from the adjoining road – both Greater and Lesser Flamingos were working the shallows along with another Goliath Heron and the usual Geese, Egyptian and Spur-winged (Kolgans, Wildemakou). Once we entered the Bird Sanctuary itself, we added species at a constant pace with a Common Scimitarbill (Swartbekkakelaar) being a highlight, before heading through the low grass surrounding the pan where we encountered Spike-heeled Lark (Vaktelewerik) and African Quail-Finch (Gewone Kwartelvinkie) amongst others.
Moving along the shoreline on the roadway skirting the pan, we found Black-winged Stilts (Rooipootelsie), African Snipe (Afrikaanse Snip), African Swamphen (Grootkoningriethaan), Wood Sandpiper and newly-arrived Ruff (Kemphaan), all mixing with the Flamingos. From there we moved to the picnic spot for our traditional “wors-braai” and continued to enjoy the coming and going of the birds that frequent the area, such as Pied Barbet, Tit-Babblers, Cape Glossy Starling (Kleinglansspreeu) and a charming Fairy Flycatcher (Feevlieëvanger) flitting about busily in the upper branches of the shady trees. Sparrow-Weavers were abundant and by far the dominant bird of the area and a pair of Yellow Mongoose skirted the picnic area and eyed us as we braai-ed. Our mid-afternoon meal of boerewors (traditional sausage) on a roll with side salad was simplicity itself but perfect in the peaceful surroundings and with the added pleasure of having the entire spot to ourselves.
Well satisfied with the birding and our catering efforts, we left Barberspan Bird Sanctuary, but before heading back to our guest farm we decided to have a “quick look” at Leeupan a couple of kms north of Barberspan. By this time the sun was getting low and causing a glare on the pan so not much was visible, but just as we were about to turn around Koos spotted a large bird in the veld on the opposite side of the road and excitedly called us to have a look. It turned out to be a real surprise – an Eurasian Curlew (Grootwulp) in the veld hundreds of metres from the water. I managed to get a few long-distance photos which I later submitted to the SA Rare Bird Report which duly mentioned our find and described it as an “interesting inland sighting”. This exciting find capped an excellent day all round.
Returning to the guest house we came across a Spotted Eagle-Owl (Gevlekte ooruil) silhouetted against the already dark skies.
Day 3 (21st August 2013) :
We spent virtually the whole day travelling the 700 Km to Augrabies National Park, via towns such as Delareyville, Vryburg, Kuruman, Olifantshoek, Upington, Keimoes and Kakamas – all towns we had never seen before, but unfortunately we did not have time to stop and explore any of them – maybe next time. This was partly due to the “stop and go” method of road reconstruction now familiar to all South Africans, which is very time-wasting and adds significantly to a day trip when there are 7 or 8 of them to negotiate in one day. We arrived at Augrabies by late afternoon and settled into the lovely chalet, after which we enjoyed a good meal in the park restaurant. By this time we were getting into the swing of packing and un-packing our loaded vehicles and the whole process was much quicker.
Day 4 (22nd August 2013) :
After a good night’s rest we had a leisurely breakfast before taking a walk around the camp and along the extensive network of board walks which lead to the various viewing decks, in the process building up an interesting array of birds for our ongoing daily and trip list, which Koos was keeping up to date in admirable fashion.
We soon saw that Pale-winged Starlings (Bleekvlerkspreeu) and Pied Wagtails (Bontkwikkie) were the signature birds of the camp with Orange River White-eyes being almost as prominent. Over the gorge below the falls, a short walk from our chalet, many Alpine Swifts (Witpenswindswael) appeared to be reveling in the spray thrown high into the air by the tumbling torrent of water and with some patience I managed to get some photos of these fast-flying Swifts, which look for all the world like miniature jet-fighters as they swoop past. According to Koos, this is one of his favourite birds.
A feature of the viewing areas is the localized Augrabies Flat Lizard (Platysaurus broadleyi – in case you were wondering) with its bright colouring – it apparently depends on the black flies that congregate in their millions along the Orange River and they also feed on the figs from the Namaqua Fig Tree. Dassies were plentiful and in the vegetation that skirts the board walks I heard African Reed and Namaqua Warblers (Kleinrietsanger, Namakwalangstertjie) but both stayed out of sight. The call of an African Fish-Eagle (Visarend) was loud enough to be heard above the constant rumble of the falls.
The camping area was alive with Starlings, Thrushes, Scrub-Robins and Bulbuls. At the outdoor section of the well-run restaurant, a Dusky Sunbird (Namakwasuikerbekkie) announced himself loudly as we enjoyed a cappuccino and on the walk back we checked the skies and found other Swallows (Greater-striped / Grootstreepswael), Martins (Brown-throated / Afrikaanse oewerswael)) and Swifts (Little, African Palm- / Kleinwindswael, Palmwindswael) had joined the abundant Alpine Swifts catching flying insects in the air.
After lunch we went for a drive through the park proper to the viewpoint called Ararat, which has spectacular views up and down the river gorge. Despite the short trip to the viewpoint we managed to spot some good specials including a group of Namaqua Sandgrouse (Kelkiewyn), Swallow-tailed Bee-Eaters (Swaelstertbyvreter) hunting from low branches, numerous Lark-like Buntings (Vaalstreepkoppie), Pied Barbet and then my first lifer for the trip – a lone Pygmy Falcon (Dwergvalk), a raptor so small and un-fierce-looking that it elicited a “shame” from us. At the viewpoint we enjoyed a picnic coffee while enjoying the view and scanning the gorge for birds – a Verraux’s Eagle (Witkruisarend) in the distance and Reed Cormorants (Rietduiker) far down in the river were our reward.
Back at the chalet it was time to braai the evening meal and prepare for our next long stretch down to the west coast at Port Nolloth
Day 5 (23rd August 2013) :
We had targeted an 8am departure knowing we had another lengthy drive ahead to Port Nolloth and wanting to fit in some roadside birding along the “back road” between Pofadder and Aggenys, as described so well in the “Southern African Bird Finder” book which many birders use to plan their birding trips. We duly left just after 8am and stopped briefly in Pofadder to fill up our vehicles with diesel, where after we followed the book’s directions to the P2961 secondary road which was to take us through a part of Bushmanland known for some of the sought-after “specials” of the area. Our first stop was just 1,6 Km along the road as directed, where we found Karoo Long-billed Lark (Karoolangbeklewerik) and Tractrac Chat (Woestynspekvreter) (another lifer for me) without too much trouble. Spike-heeled Larks were spotted a couple of times and a group of Namaqua Sandgrouse obligingly waited for us at the roadside to allow close-up views, before scurrying away into the scrub.
We progressed slowly along the dusty road, stopping frequently in search of the special Larks of the area but without much further success as it was by now the middle of the day when birds are less visible. At one point we took what we thought was the turn-off to the Koa dunes where Red Lark is known to be found, but we realized after some time that the landmarks were not as described in the book and retraced our steps back to the “main” road and continued until we came across other Gauteng birders in search of Red Lark who advised us on the correct route. We duly followed their directions and found the Koa dunes close by where we spent a good hour-and-a-half scanning and listening but to no avail as the lark eluded us – perhaps another day? By this time it was getting late so we made haste to Port Nolloth via Springbok and Steinkopf, arriving as the sun was setting over the town and our overnight destination at McDougall’s Bay a few Kms south of the town. The beach house accommodation was right on the beach with a small rock-protected lagoon directly in front of the house, with a variety of birds present to whet our appetites for the following day.
Just as significantly, we had started seeing scattered patches of flowers in the veld as we approached Springbok, which augured well for the days ahead. So far each day had been an adventure with new places seen, new birds added to our growing trip list and regular roadside stops for coffee and refreshments without the hassle of heavy traffic to disturb the sense of tranquility that we were developing.