Category Archives: Holiday Trips

Australian Adventure – Victoria : Apollo Bay

Continuing our road trip through Victoria, we had spent the night in  Sassafras in the Mount Dandenong area outside Melbourne and the following morning, after continental breakfast in our room, we set off to Apollo Bay, a distance of about 250 kms from our overnight stop. Ordinarily, this distance would be a comfortable half-day drive for us, but in this instance it meant finding our way through Melbourne’s inner city suburbs, then taking the M1 highway around the south of the city and further eastwards.  I had to avoid the more direct tolled highways which required an electronic tag or special account, neither of which were available to us

Our route

Closer to our destination we turned off the highway and found ourselves on narrow country roads with pleasing scenery, whereafter the road became seriously twisty as it wound its way through forested hills, so much so that the constant turning had me feeling somewhat light-headed. Thankfully, we eventually crested the last hill and saw the sea far below and we were soon enjoying the last stretch of the trip along rugged coastline up to Apollo Bay. 250 kms has never felt so long!

I stopped at the first opportunity to stretch and take in the coastal views, which included the first of many surfers we were to see on the Great Ocean Road and a pair of Maned Ducks at a small pond in the sand

Surf’s up – near Apollo Bay
Maned (Wood) Duck – female
Maned (Wood) Duck – male

After checking in to our comfortable accommodation at the Stay Inn, we followed the advice of the B&B owner and enjoyed a memorable dinner that evening of freshly grilled salmon, chips and coleslaw at the Fishermen’s Co-op at the small harbour. Seating was at a “rough and ready” table outside in less than comfortable weather but the superb food made us forget everything else.

We got chatting to the guys at the next table – just  another example of how friendly we found the majority of Aussies to be – one was from Melbourne, the other his cousin visiting from Israel and they demolished 3 platters of seafood between them while our jaws dropped at the sight of whole crayfish being so casually eaten.

Next morning we awoke to cold, overcast weather which brought squalls of rain at regular intervals. We took our time enjoying the continental breakfast provided in the room, hoping the weather would improve. Our room overlooked the front garden which provided a lively source of entertainment as numerous birds visited  the bird-friendly plants.

Room with a garden view – Stay Inn, Apollo Bay

New Holland Honeyeaters, which I had come across in Sale, were true to their name and reveled in the nectar-producing plants while Eurasian Tree Sparrows searched the grass and pathways for seed.

New Holland Honeyeater, Apollo Bay
Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Apollo Bay

I was fascinated by the cutely named Willie Wagtail which popped up briefly, a perky bird elegantly coloured black and white and with a  broad tail that he wagged vigorously, but from side to side rather than the up and down of other wagtails.

Willie Wagtail

After breakfast, with the rain letting up, we drove through the village – I soon spotted a sign pointing the way to “Scenic Route” and headed along the indicated road into attractive countryside with green fields, plenty of picturesque cattle and the odd river – all adding up to a totally idyllic scene –  whoever had decided to call it a scenic route knew what they were about (in fact that’s something we noticed frequently – Aussies do seem to know what they’re doing)

Scenic drive, Apollo Bay
Scenic drive, Apollo Bay
Scenic drive, Apollo Bay

Apart from the many Cattle Egrets amongst the cattle, there were Maned Ducks at the river and a lifer in the form of a Grey Shrikethrush sat briefly on the fence – too briefly for a kodak moment. There was also a Little Pied Cormorant perched on a tree stump in the river

Eastern Cattle Egret, Apollo Bay
Little Pied Cormorant, Apollo Bay

It happened to be our wedding anniversary and the rest of the day was taken up with a drive to the famous Twelve Apostles, which did not turn out quite as we had imagined – but that’s another story……..

 

 

 

Australian Adventure – Victoria : Mount Dandenong

We had made no specific plans beforehand to travel while visiting Stephan and Liesl and the grandkids in Sale, Victoria but decided to “play it by ear” once we had a better idea of the area, this being our first visit to Australia. That said, we were keen to see more of Victoria State during our stay and to give the family a “mid-term” break from having us around  for the full 5½ weeks (not that there was any hint of this from their side, but we knew from our own experience with our parents).

After much discussion and studying of maps and info on the attractions, we decided on a 7 day road trip that would take us to Mount Dandenong area outside Melbourne, then to Apollo Bay and the Great Ocean Road, returning to Geelong near Melbourne and on to Philip Island where we would meet up with the family for the weekend.

It did not take long to book a rental car and the various B&B’s that fitted our budget and looked as if they would meet our expectations. Come Monday 6 May 2019, I collected the rental car and we set off, heading out on the Princess Highway towards Melbourne.

The map below shows the route we followed :

Sassafras-17

Gerda and I love a road trip almost more than any other form of travel – not sure why, though – perhaps because it lets you feel part of the countryside as you move along and you have the freedom of stopping on a whim, whenever and wherever you please. So we were both in a state of mild excitement, but also a touch of anxiety at the prospect of driving unknown roads – thank goodness I had activated my old I-phone with a prepaid Australian sim and enough data to work the navigation app for the full duration of our trip!

And what a pleasure driving on roads where other vehicles, large and small, are doing pretty much the same speed and in a predictable fashion! I did not see a single guy in a sleek sedan slicing through the traffic to show how amazingly superior he is (oops, my prejudices are showing again)

Towns in this part of Victoria are surprisingly close together, something I did not foresee, and we passed through several and bypassed others on our way to Melbourne – it’s worth mentioning some of the names just because they are so curious – Rosedale (OK that one’s ordinary) a pretty little town, Traralgon (try saying that quickly), Moe, Warragul and my favourite – Nar Nar Goon, followed closely by Narre Warren.

At the latter town we left the highway and the rolling landscape soon changed to hills that became higher and the roads steeper and narrower. Passing through Belgrave we soon found ourselves on the Mount Dandenong Tourist Road, a steep, winding road that had me slowing down even more as we passed through tall forests on both sides that almost touched high overhead and formed a majestic tunnel, lined with enormous ferns at ground level.

Sassafras-18
The winding road to Sassafras and beyond
Sassafras
Ferns are massive
Dandenong Ranges
Dandenong Ranges National Park

We found the tiny village of Sassafras, our chosen overnight destination, after some agonising about whether it actually existed and even stopping to ask directions in a particularly weak moment. Relieved at eventually finding it, we enjoyed a late lunch at Miss Marples Tea Room in a proper “Ye Olde Englishe” cottage in the main road, accompanied by a room full of other tourists (sans selfie sticks thank goodness)

Miss Marples tearoom, Sassafras
Miss Marples tearoom, Sassafras

After lunch we strolled around the village, popping into a few of the interesting shops – we were on the lookout for something to enjoy that evening in-room rather than go out to dinner and peered into the only shop that looked promising – a deli kind of place. The owner saw us and beckoned us closer and proceeded to feed us samples of just about every delicacy in the shop while keeping up a chatter and assuring us we were just the best people to have visited his shop – what a salesman! Needless to say we left with a bag full of salmon paté, Wensleydale cheese, crisps, a superb fig and quince jam and a punnet of organic strawberries, all of which became a yummy supper later on.

sassafras-19.jpg
It did not take long to walk the whole village
Sassafras
Sassafras main road
Morgan, Sassafras
This Morgan V8 looked perfectly in place in Sassafras and the owner was kind enough to stop when I indicated I would like to photograph it

Our accommodation – Belle le Vie, just outside the village – turned out to be exotically furnished, very comfortable and well appointed, set in lush gardens. A Laughing Kookaburra made its presence known with a solid demonstration of why it got that name – a cackling sound like no other.

Belle le vie, Sassafras
Belle le vie, Sassafras
Belle le vie, Sassafras
Belle le vie, Sassafras
Laughing Kookaburra, Sassafras
Laughing Kookaburra, Sassafras

There was just time for a walk before dusk, so I walked back up the road leading to the B&B and found an ANZAC memorial on the edge of more forest with even more massive trees towering above, making me feel quite insignificant.

Sassafras
The road to Belle le Vie
Sassafras
Autumn colours
Sassafras
So many enormous trees
Sassafras
Sassafras

Bird life was scarce the whole day, but I was thrilled at being able to get up-close photos of the Crimson Rosellas after seeing another tourist pointing his cellphone at a tree in the middle of Sassafras village and finding a pair of them showing off their vivid colours.

Crimson Rosella, Sassafras
Crimson Rosella, Sassafras
Crimson Rosella, Sassafras
Crimson Rosella, Sassafras

Next morning we made a brief detour before heading towards our next destination, to have a peek at a flower farm that Gerda had read about somewhere – it was worth the trouble!

Flower nursery, Sassafras
Flower farm, Sassafras

A promising start to our road trip indeed!

 

 

 

Australian Adventure – Cruising down the River

I mentioned the Sale canal in an earlier post and that it links the Port of Sale, now a small boat harbour, to the Thomson River and beyond to the Gippsland Lakes. The Port, the canal and the Swing Bridge were all part of the solution to the challenge of transporting resources out of and bringing supplies in to the area during the late 1800’s when gold was discovered in the area and fine cheese was being made and exported to Europe

There is a twice daily cruise of around two hours by boat down the canal and the Thomson River to the Old Swing Bridge and back and we had waited for some warmer, less windy weather to join the afternoon cruise. The last day of April, a Tuesday, turned out to be such a day and we reported at the dock at 1.45pm where we met Alan, the Captain and owner of the Rubeena, paid the requisite amount and stepped on board the historical boat.

A guard of honour was waiting for us and the navy band struck up as we boarded ………….. actually I made that bit up but that was what it felt like, despite the boat being quite small.

The Rubeena was built in Sydney and was originally licensed on 4 April 1912 (that’s just 11 days before the Titanic sank) and spent most of her working life on the Gippsland Lakes. She has been carefully restored and takes up to 40 passengers, but on our trip there were just 6 others apart from Gerda and myself so we had plenty of room to move about.

Rubeena at its berth in the Port of Sale
The Rubeena

The electric motor is a bonus as it makes the cruise a quiet, gentle experience, especially when the weather is as perfect as it was, with a mild breeze hardly stirring the smooth surface of the river as we set off.

Setting off down the canal

Alan was an excellent captain and guide, giving a running commentary on the features we passed and the significance of the canal, particularly how it served the Sale area during the pioneer years. The canal was dug by horse and scoop and was completed by 1890

Captain and owner Alan in full flow

We were fascinated by the “canoe” trees – old gum trees with visible indentations where the original inhabitants of the area had harvested timber for canoe-building without destroying the tree. According to Alan, some of these trees were  350 to 400 years old and still standing on the banks of the river.

A typical “Canoe Tree”
The canal/river is lined with majestic old trees

At certain spots he also pointed out the sections of the original river course that were diverted and “straightened” to make it more shipping-friendly

Our turnaround point was reached after just more than an hour of gentle puttering – the Old Swing Bridge, which we were able to study in detail as we passed slowly beneath it, then turned around and retraced our route back.

Swing bridge
The mechanics that make it work

Swing Bridge – one half showing with the other half hidden behind vegetation

The bridge is a remarkable example of 19th century engineering with its intricate mechanics which swing it open 180 degrees to allow taller vessels to pass by on either side. It is the oldest intact, operational bridge of its kind in Australia.

I had mentioned my interest in birding to Alan and he kindly made a point of identifying the birds that we spotted along the river, most of which I had already got to know, but happily there were two new birds to add to my growing Australia list –

  • Nankeen Night-heron – as the name suggests, these birds are mostly nocturnal but Alan knew where they roosted during the day and pointed them out high up in a tree, warily watching us from behind a veil of feathers, much like a mysterious eastern dancer may do
Nankeen Night-heron

  • Azure Kingfisher – I spotted it first some way upriver whereupon it flew past the boat, landing briefly right next to us before flying further – unfortunately too quick for me to photograph it

(The photo is taken from The Complete Guide to Australian Birds by George Adams)

Other birds that we encountered along the way were –

  • Australasian Darter

  • Great Cormorant

  • Eurasian Coot

  • Australian Swamphen

  • Australian White Ibis

  • Dusky Moorhen

  • Pacific Black Duck – see the featured image at the top of the post

Two hours had passed and we were sorry it had ended – a really pleasant way to spend a sunny afternoon

 

 

Australian Adventure – Going walkabout on Sale Common

We had been in Sale, Victoria for about 10 days and we were getting into the swing of suburban life in this charming Australian town. Sale presents a number of opportunities for pleasant walks, with two lakes and a nature conservation area nearby, and the weather at this time of year is often ideal – not too hot, sometimes chilly, but not so that it puts you off getting out an about.

Just after arriving in Sale I joined the family for a short walk through Sale Common Nature Conservation Reserve, which was just enough to whet my appetite for a longer birding-orientated walk on my own. One cold and windy weekday afternoon, with the family otherwise occupied with work, school and household activities, I chose to do so and drove the couple of kms to the parking area where I began my walk.

Somehow I had managed to leave my binos at home but fortunately had my new Sony “bridge” camera with me and decided to rely on my eyesight with backup from the telephoto camera lens to help ID the distant birds. The camera was a pre-trip purchase to avoid having to carry my heavy Nikon DSLR with its equally heavy lens halfway round the world – the Sony is about a third of the weight and a remarkably good substitute, so I have had no regrets so far, although the bank balance took a knock in the process as it is one of the more expensive bridge cameras.

Sale Common was proclaimed in 1863 and was used for farming for 101 years before being declared a nature conservation reserve. It consists of freshwater marshes, red gum woodland and introduced grasslands. The wetland is listed as a RAMSAR site and has a network of tracks and boardwalks leading through the varying habitat which provide a wonderful environment for birds and small animals.

I proceeded along the trail, stopping briefly to chat to a similar-aged gent eating his sandwich at a picnic table with his old-fashioned black bicycle leaning against a nearby tree – he pointed the way and wished me good spotting as I carried on. The trail proper started as a track through Eucalypt forest with the tall, sturdy trees forming a high tunnel overhead, the foliage attractively coloured in autumnal shades.

Start of the trail

So far I had found the forests to be devoid of obvious bird life other than the Laughing Kookaburras which favour this environment and make themselves heard with their loud cackling calls, but they do make for a very attractive walking environment.

Signage advised that the boardwalk over the wetlands was closed for repairs and in any case the wetlands were dry after the recent drought in the area, so I stuck to the sandy track. Soon I reached the first visible stretch of the river, called the Flooding Creek at this point, and checked the waters for water birds but saw none. However movement at the water’s edge caught my eye and I approached carefully to see what they might be.

A few photos later of the tiny birds with long tails held erect clinched their ID as Superb Fairywrens, a nice lifer and a lovely spot to find them.

Superb Fairywren (non-breeding male) – in breeding plumage they are brightly coloured

The trail continued along the river with raised boardwalks where it crossed a part of the wetland.

Sale Common

Rounding a bend, the river was once again visible ahead and several larger birds in the shallows made me approach cautiously, using the trees as a partial screen where possible. The slender, graceful form of a Great Egret on the near side was a familiar sight, looking identical to the SA version of this large all-white egret. The Australian bird book I use has it as Eastern Great Egret and some taxonomists consider it to be a subspecies but there were no features that I could pick up to differentiate it from the Southern African bird.

Eastern Great Egret, Sale Common

On the far side of the river four Yellow-billed Spoonbills were sweeping the shallow water from side to side with their spatulate bills – the smallest creature – fish, crustacean or insect – touching the inside of the broad tip triggers it to close instantly.

Yellow-billed Spoonbill, Sale Common

I watched them for a while then, looking up, a couple of soaring raptors caught my eye and I guessed they could be Whistling Kites, having seen one over the wetlands a few days earlier. Fortunately I spotted one that had landed high up in a tree, making it a far easier photo ID target than trying to shoot against the bright, grey sky and was able to confirm my initial ID of Whistling Kite.

Whistling Kite, Sale Common

The river held plenty of Ducks including Chestnut Teals in large numbers and some Pacific Black Ducks.

Chestnut Teal, Sale Common – males in front, female just visible in the rear. On the left is a White-faced Heron
Chestnut Teals, Sale Common

Maned Ducks (aka Australian Wood Duck, depending on which book you use) were almost as numerous but on the grassy banks. I have yet to see this latter duck actually in the water so they obviously don’t seem to understand the adage “takes to the water like a duck” for some reason.

Maned Duck, Sale Common – female on left, male on right

I had walked a good distance along the track and decided to turn around, with the light starting to fade, as it does from around 4.30 pm in the autumn in these parts. As I did I came across Little Black Cormorants and a Great Cormorant on dry tree stumps in the river.

Little Black and Great Cormorants, Sale Common

Something moved in the middle of the river and as I focused my camera on the ripples a fish leaped out and I instinctively pressed the shutter button, capturing it in mid leap – a really lucky shot! I’m not a fish expert but took this to be a trout

I did not see anything new on the way back but at the bridge I stopped to view the Masked Lapwings at the water’s edge, accompanied by more Maned Ducks.

Sale Common

Just before reaching the car park a flock of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos descended on the trees, very noisily, probably getting ready to roost for the evening. South Africans of a certain era will remember the NBS adverts which featured this unmistakable bird – seeing it in numbers in the wild is a somewhat bizarre birding experience!

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo

Here and there a plaque provided more info on the history of the area

Sale Common
Sale Common
Water trough, Sale Common

All in all a thoroughly entertaining and interesting afternoon spent in a safe environment

 

Australian Adventure – Going Walkabout in Sale Town Centre

I love walking and have always found that it is by far the best way to explore a new town or city – you may not get to see everything they tell you about in the guide books but it lets you get closer to the soul of a place, discovering little gems as you go, watching people going about their business, seeing all the many ordinary things that make a town what it is.

So when Gerda and Liesl went shopping one afternoon. I took the opportunity to tag along, but only as far as the main shopping street where I left them and started my random walk.

The main shopping street is called Raymond Street and is lined with a variety of “small town” shops along both sides with the road reduced to a minimum size to allow maximum pedestrian space and room for parking and landscaping.

Sale map

I started by walking up to an intersection where a tall brick clock tower stands – there I found a second-hand book store to browse in and came away half an hour later with a very readable novel for $8 (R80). From there I meandered around the block past the shopping centre and came upon my first surprise – an old Railway Signal Box building, looking spick-and-span but rather forlorn and out of place across the road from the shopping centre parking area.

Clock Tower, Sale
Old Signal Box, Sale, Victoria

I later found it was erected in 1888 on the site of the original Railway Station, which was demolished in 1983 to make way for the shopping centre. The Signal Box, railway gates and 2 signals were left as a reminder.

Old Signal Box, Sale, Victoria

Wandering further, I passed the Catholic School with its neat brick buildings and came to the busy main road through Sale, which I crossed. On the other side, signage pointing to “Port of Sale” piqued my curiosity – carrying the name “Port” implies being located at the sea or at least on a major waterway, neither of which apply to Sale, so what was this about?

I had read about the Sale Canal but hadn’t absorbed the details – later I read up more on the subject and found that the pioneers of the area, seeing the advantage of access to the Gippsland Lakes, cut the 2,5 km long canal which links the town to the Thomson River and beyond to the Gippsland Lakes, establishing Sale as a busy port for steamers plying the 400 square kms of the lakes system.

Port of Sale, Victoria
Port of Sale, Victoria
Port of Sale, Victoria

Now it’s a dock for pleasure boats and the precinct has been developed into an attractive spot for picnics and leisure activities. I wasn’t planning to bird so had left my binos at home, but sight of some waterbirds on the water had me using my backup plan – the telephoto lens on my camera which brought them digitally closer for ID purposes – Australasian Grebe as it turned out.

Australian Grebe, Sale, Victoria
Eurasian Coot, Sale, Victoria

Next, I was drawn to the new-looking Port of Sale civic centre, got several pamphlets from the Visitor Centre and did a quick tour of the Art Gallery, before heading back towards the town centre.

Civic Centre, Sale
Art Gallery, Sale

On the way I passed a few older buildings – the Court House, Victory Hall and some charming houses that have been beautifully maintained with their Victorian style architecture.

Court House, Sale
Court House, Sale
Victoria Hall, Sale
Old House, now offices
Old house, Sale

Seeing Sale’s Cinema took me back to Saturday mornings at the Scala cinema in Cape Town back in the ….. oops almost gave my age away. Anyway, it was quite a long time ago.

Cinema, Sale, Victoria

By now it was close to 2 hours since I had left the girls and I met them for coffee at the Centre Bakery, housed in a tiny old church in Cunningham Street, concluding a lovely walk through this most civilised town

Australian Adventure – Paynseville and Raymond Island

We were beginning to settle in Sale, Victoria, the new home of our son Stephan and family, although jet-lag brought on by the 8-hours-ahead time difference was playing tricks with our sleeping patterns. Nevertheless we were eager to see a bit of Victoria and were more than happy to go along with Stephan’s suggestion that we do a day trip to Paynesville and Raymond Island, a comfortable hour’s drive from Sale.

Just for orientation, here are a couple of maps (courtesy Google Earth) to show the position of Sale relative to Melbourne and the other major cities in the south-eastern part of Australia, and the location of Paynesville –

Map Sale position
Sale lies about 200 kms east of Melbourne
Map Sale-Paynesville
Sale – Paynesville

We left just before lunchtime after a relaxed morning at home in Sale and drove to Paynesville which is situated on Lake King, a seawater lake not far from Lakes Entrance where – you guessed it – the sea enters the lake. The drive was along smaller country roads through pleasing landscapes of farming areas, expansive fields and occasional rivers, or creeks as they are often called in Australia. Interestingly some of the stretches of road either side of the river have signage indicating that they are “subject to flooding” and strategic posts indicate the depth just in case you feel like testing it during a flood!

Paynesville-1
The road is lined with trees in places (iphone shot while driving – don’t try this at home}

We felt at home when we passed a roadside farm stall advertising avocados at 49c each – we should have stopped as they are $2.50 in the shops, but were already well past by the time we realised what it was.

After an hour of easy driving we arrived in Paynesville and headed to the Esplanade where we found parking and walked to the Pier 70 restaurant for a delicious lunch of fish and chips, with a view over the channel that separates Paynesville from Raymond Island just a couple of hundred metres away.

Australian Magpie, Paynesville & Raymond Island, Victoria
Australian Magpie, Paynesville – one of the more common birds encountered in Australia
Silver Gull, Paynesville & Raymond Island, Victoria
Silver Gull, Paynesville & Raymond Island, Victoria – a really handsome species of gull with its bright eyes and red bill contrasting with the white body
Pier 70, Paynesville, Victoria
Pier 70 restaurant, Paynesville, Victoria

I kept getting distracted from the important business of eating by various birds that were visible on and above the water but had my binos on hand to determine what they were. There were many Silver Gulls / Chroicocephalus novaehollaniae wheeling above the water and I spotted a single Pacific Gull / Larus pacificus on the opposite side. I had already found that Black Swans / Cygnus atratus and Australian Pelicans / Pelecanus conspicillatus seem to pop up wherever there is a large-ish body of water and this spot was no exception.

Black Swan, Paynesville & Raymond Island, Victoria
Black Swan, Paynesville & Raymond Island, Victoria
Australian Pelican, Paynesville & Raymond Island, Victoria
Australian Pelican, Paynesville & Raymond Island, Victoria
Eurasian Coot, Paynesville & Raymond Island, Victoria
Eurasian Coot, Paynesville & Raymond Island, Victoria

On the opposite bank I spotted a heron, which turned into a White-faced Heron / Egretta novahollandiae when I had it focused in the binos. Nearby Little Pied Cormorant / Microcarbo melanoleucos  preened on a bollard projecting from the water.

Little Pied Cormorant, Paynesville & Raymond Island, Victoria
Little Pied Cormorant, Paynesville & Raymond Island, Victoria
Paynesville-8
A nice plate of fish and chips to accompany the birding

A large Tern swooping over the water looked familiar and once I could get a good enough view I realised it was a Swift Tern – or Greater Crested Tern / Thalasseus bergii as it is listed in my Australian bird book – a species I am very familiar with as it occurs in numbers in Mossel Bay.

Lunch over, we walked to the nearby ferry for the short ride of just 4 minutes across the channel on the chain-driven ferry to Raymond Island, a small island (6km long and 2km wide) which lies some 200 metres inland of the coast.

Ferry, Paynesville & Raymond Island, Victoria
Ferry, Paynesville & Raymond Island, Victoria

On the island we followed the Koala trail which initially winds between houses then emerges into bush interspersed with tall trees. It did not take long to spot the first Koala, sleeping high up in the branches, and several more thereafter, some sleeping just as soundly, others feeding slowly and methodically on the green foliage. Koalas were introduced to the island as a conservation measure in 1953 and now number more than 200.

Koala, Raymond Island, Victoria
Koala, Raymond Island, Victoria
Koala, Raymond Island, Victoria
Koala, Raymond Island, Victoria
Koala, Raymond Island, Victoria
Koala, Raymond Island, Victoria
Koala, Raymond Island, Victoria
Koala, Raymond Island, Victoria

Next up was a relaxed pair of Laughing Kookaburras / Dacelo novaeguineae, a bird I was particularly hoping to see, looking as I expected like a very large Kingfisher – they posed like old pros and left me with a few photos to treasure.

Laughing Kookaburra, Raymond Island, Victoria
Laughing Kookaburra, Raymond Island, Victoria

Stephan was ahead of us and called us closer as he had spotted a couple of Eastern Grey Kangaroos in the low bush! We approached cautiously and there they were – our first views of this famous animal with its unusual shape and looks. One came bounding our way, showing how effective this technique is to propel the animal at a fair speed

Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Raymond Island, Victoria
Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Raymond Island, Victoria
Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Raymond Island, Victoria
Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Raymond Island, Victoria

In between viewing these (for us) brand new animals, we also spotted several of the colourful birds that Australia is renowned for – groups of Crimson Rosella / Platycercus elegans, Eastern Rosella / Platycercus eximius and Rainbow Lorikeet / Trichoglossus moluccanus moved through the trees giving glimpses of their brilliant colouring while Galahs / Eolophus roseicapilla simply paraded on the lawns, showing off their pink, grey and white plumage.

Rainbow Lorikeet, Raymond Island, Victoria
Rainbow Lorikeet, Raymond Island, Victoria
Galah, Raymond Island, Victoria
Galah, Raymond Island, Victoria

We had heard from Stephan about the Common Bronzewing / Phaps chalcoptera, a pigeon-like bird with interesting multi-coloured plumage, and were thrilled to find one sitting on a nearby fence

Common Bronzewing, Raymond Island, Victoria
Common Bronzewing, Raymond Island, Victoria
Paynesville & Raymond Island, Victoria
Paynesville & Raymond Island, Victoria

We had seen a lot in one afternoon and made our way back to the ferry as dusk fell, most satisfied with the outcome of our first outing

Paynesville-24

 

Australian adventure – the Start

Life is full of surprises, some good, some less so and our son’s announcement that they were thinking of relocating from Potchefstroom in South Africa to a small town in Victoria, Australia definitely belonged to the latter when he first raised it some two years ago. The family moved lock stock and barrel to the town called Sale in September 2018, which meant that, if we wanted to see them other than on video calls, we would have to travel a little further to do so – about 11 000 kms further in fact!

It did not take much persuasion to make the trip, and on Sunday 14th April 2019 we boarded Qantas flight QF64 to Sydney then took a further short flight to Melbourne where we arrived after 7pm local time.

The flight route is almost over Antarctica

Stephan and the whole family had come to meet us – so good to see them all in the flesh again! Fortified with a good coffee and a sandwich we proceeded to the mini-bus that Stephan had rented and set off to Sale some 2.5 hours drive further east, taking our total travel time to 24 hours door-to-door – it’s not easy being a senior jet-setter but sometimes you just have to do these things! That wonderful invention – Premium Economy – certainly helped to ease the pain of a long-haul overnight flight, however we felt the effects of the 8 hour time difference for a few days before settling into a new body rhythm.

We had glimpses of the city skyline at night as we skirted around Melbourne on the way east to Sale –

Melbourne skyline

Melbourne’s suburbs seemed to be endless but eventually the road became narrower, the traffic lighter as we left the bright lights behind and passed through several smaller towns before reaching Sale

The City of Sale

Sale is a city situated in the Gippsland region of the state of Victoria, with an estimated urban population of 15,000 and was founded in 1851. It lies 212km east of Melbourne and is named after a British army officer, General Robert Sale, who won fame in the first Afghan war before being killed in battle in India in 1845. Although a small town by our standards, the building of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1884 may have ensured that it would earn the name “city” as per the tradition in the UK.

First impressions are of a quiet, neat, organised town with good facilities – very civilized in all respects and far removed from the big city life that we are used to.

First day in Sale – Someone left the Aviary door open!

I was curious to see what birds would be around the suburbs, but wasn’t expecting my first bird to be a Common Myna – probably the most disliked, introduced bird in South Africa! However that shock was soon forgotten as I stood in the small garden and watched the comings and goings of some more exciting species.

Oh No! (Common Myna)

Pied Currawongs, a Raven-like large black bird with white markings, and Australian Magpies were the most obvious birds around, followed by Red Wattlebirds, a medium-sized, long-tailed bird with features and giss similar to our Sugarbirds and also a nectar eater.

Pied Currawong
Australian Magpie
Red Wattlebird

Another regular, the Magpie-lark flew in and sat on the fence then dropped onto the lawn – a handsome pied bird that reminded me of our Pied Wagtail but on steroids.

Magpie-lark

The real surprise was the birds that Australia is famous for – the colourful parrots – flocks of bright green, yellow and blue Rainbow Lorikeets flashing by and settling in trees where they chatter away and screech so that you cannot ignore them and unexpected Galahs on grassy pavements, looking completely out-of-place with their deep pink, white and grey colouring. When you are accustomed to seeing these birds in cages it is a revelation to realise that they are, like all birds, able to cope and at their best in the wild.

Rainbow Lorikeet
Galah

Late afternoon we went for a walk in the wetland area not far from the house. The area has suffered from a drought for some time so the wetlands were mostly dry and fairly barren but a lone Masked Lapwing was a good find and the cattle in the fields were accompanied by Cattle Egrets, much as they would be in South Africa but here the species is the Eastern Cattle Egret.

Sale Common – pathway to the wetlands

Another feature of Sale is the numbers of Australasian Swamphens that are around and inhabit open lawns and verges. The African species we are used to seeing is mostly a skulker whereas the similar looking species in Australia seems to be comfortable wandering around the suburbs and parks.

Australasian Swamphen

By the end of day one my brand new Australian bird list (courtesy of the wonderful Birdlasser app) stood at a modest 13 species, but 11 of those were “lifers” so a very pleasing start

 

My Photo Picks for 2018

With the new year in its first week, it’s time to select a few photos which best represent our 2018. In some cases, selection is based on the memory created, in others I just like how the photo turned out, technically and creatively  

If you have any favourites, do let me know by adding your comment!

The Places

This was an unusual year for us, in that for the first time in several years we did not journey outside Southern Africa once during the year.  But we made up for that with plenty of local trips, such as –

Champagne Valley resort in the Drakensberg

Champagne Valley Drakensberg

Annasrust Farm Hoopstad (Free State)

Sunset, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

Pine Lake Resort near White River (Mpumulanga Province)

Pine Lake Resort

Mossel Bay – our second “Home” town

Mossel Bay coastline

Oaklands Country Manor near Van Reenen (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

Oaklands Country Manor, near Van Reenen

La Lucia near Durban (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

La Lucia beach

Shongweni Dam (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

Shongweni Dam

Onverwacht Farm near Vryheid (Kwa-Zulu Natal)

Controlled burn on Onverwacht Farm

Kruger Park Olifants camp

Bungalow roof, Kruger Park

Herbertsdale area (Western Cape) – atlasing

Herbertsdale area

Karoo National Park near Beaufort West (Western Cape)

Karoo National Park

Kuilfontein Guest Farm near Colesberg (Northern Cape)

Kuilfontein, Colesberg – the drought has hit this area badly

Verlorenkloof (Mpumulanga)

Verlorenkloof – view from upper path

Lentelus Farm near Barrydale (Western Cape)

Lentelus Farm near Barrydale

The Wildlife

With visits to Kruger National Park, Karoo National Park and Chobe Game Reserve in Botswana, there was no shortage of game viewing opportunities and it turned out to be a great year for Leopards

Kruger National Park

African Wild Dog, Kruger National Park

Zebra, Kruger Park

Leopard, Phabeni road, Kruger Park

Karoo National Park

Waterhole scene, Karoo National Park

Klipspringer, Karoo National Park

Chobe Game Reserve

The eyes have it

Chacma Baboon, Chobe River Trip

Hippo, Chobe River Trip

Wild but beautiful

Leopard, Chobe Riverfront game drive

Leopard, Chobe Riverfront game drive

Who needs a horse when you have a mom to ride on

Chacma Baboon, Chobe Riverfront game drive

Oh, and the news is hippos can do the heart shape with their jaws – they don’t have fingers you see

Hippo, Chobe River Trip

The Birds

Bird photography remains the greatest challenge – I am thrilled when it all comes together and I have captured some of the essence of the bird

Great Egret flying to its roost

Great Egret, Annasrust farm Hoopstad

White-fronted Bee-eaters doing what they do best – looking handsome

White-fronted Bee-eater, Kruger Day Visit

White-browed Robin-Chat

White-browed Robin-Chat, Kruger Day Visit

The usually secretive Green-backed Camaroptera popping out momentarily for a unique photo

Green-backed Camaroptera, Kruger Day Visit

African Fish-Eagle – aerial king of the waters

African Fish Eagle, Kruger Park

Kori Bustard – heaviest flying bird

Kori Bustard, Kruger Park

Little Bee-eater

Little Bee-eater, Olifants, Kruger Park

Black-chested Snake-Eagle

Black-chested Snake=Eagle, Kruger Park

Crowned Hornbill – he’ll stare you down any day

Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu, Kruger Park

Kittlitz’s Plover

Kittlitz’s Plover, Gouritzmond

Large-billed Lark in full song

Large-billed Lark, Herbertsdale area

Village Weaver – busy as a bee

Village Weaver, Verlorenkloof

Thick-billed Weaver – less frenetic, more particular about its nest-weaving

Thick-billed Weaver, Verlorenkloof

African Jacana with juveniles

African Jacana, Chobe River Trip

Juvenile African Jacana – a cute ball of fluff with legs longer than its body

African Jacana, Chobe River Trip

Reed Cormorant with catch

Reed Cormorant, Chobe River Trip

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, Chobe River Trip

White-crowned Lapwing

White-crowned Lapwing, Chobe River Trip

 

Wishing all who may read this a 2019 that meets all of your expectations!

Kruger unplanned – the Birds

Continuing the story of our unplanned week in Kruger in early September this year ……..

Kruger National Park is seen by many birders, including this one, as one of the most desirable places to visit and indulge their passion in an incomparable natural environment –

Our week was full of interesting sightings and memorable moments covering the full spectrum of wild life, birds aplenty, glorious landscapes – here is a selection of some of the standout birding moments –

First night in Olifants

With the evening braai done, we were relaxing on the stoep, sipping our coffee and enjoying a handsome moon rise, when Gerda was first to hear a distant grumpy sound and suggested it was an Owl. We identified the call as that of a Verraux’s Eagle-Owl and I went to investigate when it seemed to be getting closer, finding it in a nearby tall tree, illuminated by neighbouring visitors who had a powerful torch handy.  Besides its trademark pink eyelids, this is one impressive Owl, with a length of 62cm (think 6 months old  child) and capable of taking prey the size of a half-grown Vervet Monkey or a Warthog piglet but also content to hunt tiny Warblers and insects.

The envy of many a woman with those eyelids

Balule Low Water Bridge

Our second day in Kruger and also my birthday – the main reason for us being there as my wish was to wake up on my birthday to a Kruger sunrise. The day started in perfect weather – sunny yet cool to warm. Gerda wasn’t up to an early start so I made coffee and set off to atlas the Olifants pentad over the next two hours returning in time for morning tea.

The drive was a slow one to Balule where I spent some time on the low water bridge, a great birding spot in its own right, then returned to Olifants camp along the S92 road, thereby completing a full circuit.

A v-shaped formation of Cormorants flying high above the river set the tone as I started the drive and at the bridge a Malachite Kingfisher flashed its bright colours as he darted between the reeds.

Parked on the bridge, I chalked up Black Crake, African Jacana, Common Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper and Green-backed Heron amongst others, in quick succession.

Black Crake, Balule, Kruger Park

What makes this such a good spot is the low water level at this time of year, creating small ponds, streams and sandbanks across the full width of this large river, ideal for a mix of water birds, waders and birds just coming to drink at the water’s edge.

Olifants River Bridge

Gerda joined me for an afternoon drive which took us to the main bridge over the Olifants river, a few kms south of the camp turn-off. She ended up “chatting” to a curiously tame Cape Glossy Starling who perched on the railing then, when I got out of the car (permitted on some of the longer bridges), hopped onto the door mirror and seemed to reach out to Gerda with its happy chirping. Perhaps he thought he was on Twitter and was just tweeting the latest news.

Bird’s eye view of Olifants River, Kruger Park

Glossy Starling does Twitter with Gerda

While on the lookout for birds I spotted a raptor in a dry  tree near the end of the bridge and was immediately puzzled by its odd appearance – mostly dark brown but with a white crown – nothing like any bird I had seen before. I took a number of photos to help with an ID whereupon the raptor flew off, only to be replaced moments later in exactly the same spot by an adult Wahlberg’s Eagle – reminiscent of a quick-change magic act!

Wahlberg’s Eagle (Juvenile intermediate morph)

Wahlberg’s Eagle (adult brown morph)  – compare the pose with the juvenile above!

That led me to think the first one was a juvenile Wahlberg’s Eagle but my Roberts App – usually a comprehensive source of bird information –  made no mention of the white cap feature and further searching on the internet came up with one other photo that resembled this one – it was referred to as an “intermediate morph” presumably meaning that it was overall a dark morph but with the white crown of the light morph. Just a tad bizarre!

Spring Day Atlasing

While atlasing along the river towards Letaba, I stopped at one of the turn-offs leading to a viewpoint, when I noticed a Little Bee-eater hawking from a branch then, as they often do, returning to the same spot to look for the next opportunity. As it returned for a third time I focused on it and at the same time noticed it had caught something, so I rattled off a series of shots as it prepared to swallow its prey, hoping for a special photo, although I knew I was not close enough and would have to crop the photos quite substantially to get frame-fillers.

Well I was initially thrilled at the sequence I had caught digitally, but disappointed that my camera had seemingly let me down by not focusing sharply – a rare occurrence with my Nikon. The photos below are the best of the bunch and reasonably focused, but could have been winners, if only I had been closer …..

Little Bee-eater – insect hawked and securely held

Softening it up

Getting it into position

Down she goes

Ooh, that was rather good what?  ( clearly a cultured bird)

Nevertheless an exciting moment.

Some other birds

Here is a selection of some of the other photos from the week’s birding –

Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, Olifants, Kruger Park

Yellow-billed Oxpecker, Balule, Kruger Park

Mocking Cliff-Chat, Olifants, Kruger Park

Yellow-breasted Apalis, Sjukuza, Kruger Park

 

Kruger unplanned – Skukuza to Lower Sabie

Continuing the story of our unplanned week in Kruger in early September this year ……..

Skukuza

Our preference would have been to spend the entire week in Olifants camp in the northern part of Kruger, but last-minute booking meant we were limited to a maximum of 5 nights in Olifants and had to find accommodation in one of the other camps for the remaining 2 nights. We chose  Skukuza, the largest camp in Kruger and also a bit of a trip down memory lane as some of our first trips to Kruger had included stays in this  camp, which is geared to cater for large numbers of tourists and even boasts a conference centre nowadays.

On the way to Skukuza from Olifants we had a few interesting encounters, including a stately Verraux’s Eagle Owl, perched amongst branches in a roadside tree and peering from under those famous pink eyelids at the few cars that had stopped with a rather disdainful expression.

Verraux's Eagle-Owl, Kruger Park
Verraux’s Eagle-Owl, initially not terribly interested in our presence

Verraux's Eagle-Owl, Kruger Park
Verraux’s Eagle-Owl, deigning to look vaguely in our direction

Verraux's Eagle-Owl, Kruger Park
The famous pink eyelids

As we drove further, I spotted a soaring raptor high above and braked to get a view of it and rattle off some photos to help with the ID – it turned out to be a handsome Black-chested Snake-Eagle, probably out on the hunt for its next slippery meal.

Black-chested Snake=Eagle, Kruger Park
Black-chested Snake-Eagle

Then a bird of a different kind landed loudly in the road ahead of us just as we were approaching Tshokwane picnic spot – a “whirly bird” helicopter with a team of the anti-poaching unit on board, who had also stopped for a cold drink to boost them on their mission. May they be successful in curbing the atrocity of Rhino poaching!

Whirly bird, Kruger Park
Whirly bird at Tshokwane

Further on, a large herd of Cape Buffalo was grazing on both sides of the road, with some crossing the road to join the main group – I noticed some Cattle Egrets around and one hopped on the back of a Buffalo to hitch a ride as he crossed over in front of us, comically balancing like a surfer riding a wave, then flying off as the buffalo became too wobbly for its liking.

Buffalo herd, Kruger Park
Buffalo herd, Kruger Park

Cattle Egret on Buffalo, Kruger Park
Cattle Egret hitching a ride on Buffalo

Cattle Egret on Buffalo, Kruger Park
Cattle Egret decides its safer to fly

One feature we enjoyed after self-catering for the first 6 nights, was a candlelight dinner on the newly constructed deck overlooking the Sabie River and with a view of the iconic steel railway bridge in the background (as shown in the heading photo above). Admittedly not quite in keeping with the quintessential Kruger experience, but for us it made a nice change and the meal turned out to be excellent. The visit to the river below us of a small herd of elephants when we were halfway through our meal added some excitement to the unique location of the restaurant.

Skukuza deck, Kruger Park
Skukuza deck, Kruger Park

Skukuza deck, Kruger Park
Skukuza deck at night

Skukuza to Lower Sabie

When it came to deciding on a game drive for the one full morning we would be there, we settled on doing the drive that we knew would be busy but hopefully filled with good sightings, and we were not disappointed. The road between Skukuza and Lower Sabie camps is renowned for its big cat sightings, making it a drawcard for tourists who often spend just a couple of days in Kruger.

We set off from Skukuza well after gate opening time, hoping to avoid the early morning scramble and found the road to be reasonably quiet and devoid of other vehicles for the first stretch, allowing us to stop frequently for game and birds, without much disturbance.

Kudu, Kruger Park
Kudu with Red-billed Oxpeckers hanging on

Mkhulu picnic spot is located about halfway along the road to Lower Sabie and is the ideal spot for a brunch, positioned as it is on the banks of the Sabie river and shaded by grand old trees which seem to have been there forever. While preparing our meal on the skottel, a female Cardinal Woodpecker entertained us and our fellow picnickers as it hammered away at a cavity in a nearby overhanging tree, not letting up despite a growing audience just metres away beneath the tree, all pointing cameras at her.

Cardinal Woodpecker (female), Mkhulu,  Kruger Park
Cardinal Woodpecker (female), Mkhulu

Further avian entertainment was provided by Paradise Flycatchers and Purple-crested Turacos in an enormous Wild fig tree and as we packed up to venture further a Crowned Hornbill, unusual for this part of Kruger, flew in and promptly lay flat on the dusty ground for a minute or so, dust-bathing. Many birds do this to maintain their plumage – the dust absorbs excess oil and keeps the feathers from becoming too greasy. I was just too late to capture this behaviour on camera so had to be content with a few conventional “bird on a stick” poses.

Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu, Kruger Park
Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu

Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu, Kruger Park
Crowned Hornbill, Mkhulu

Leaving Mkhulu, the road seemed busier and the way a couple of full safari vehicles passed us at speed (relative to our slow pace of course) suggested that they were on a mission – probably involving a “big cat” or two, at a guess. So we speeded up a tad while making sure we stayed within the 50 km/hour limit and followed the other vehicles. It wasn’t long before we came upon the first “scrum” of vehicles which told us there was something of interest.

The object of their interest turned out to be a Leopard, just visible on the far side of the river, resting in the shade of the riverside vegetation.

Leopard, Sabie River, Kruger Park
Leopard, Sabie River

A couple of kms further along the road, Lions were using the rocky outcrop next to the river as a vantage point and we endured another scramble of vehicles, manoeuvring to try to get a decent view.

Lion, Kruger Park
Lion, Kruger Park

Last stop before Lower Sabie was a brief one at the Sunset dam to view the resident hippos and the many birds lining the shore and wading in the shallows.

After enjoying coffee on the deck at Lower Sabie, we headed back to Skukuza without further stops to give us time for some relaxation on the stoep of our rondawel, more than satisfied with our morning’s outing.