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!
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
Annasrust Farm Hoopstad (Free State)
Pine Lake Resort near White River (Mpumulanga Province)
Mossel Bay – our second “Home” town
Oaklands Country Manor near Van Reenen (Kwa-Zulu Natal)
La Lucia near Durban (Kwa-Zulu Natal)
Shongweni Dam (Kwa-Zulu Natal)
Onverwacht Farm near Vryheid (Kwa-Zulu Natal)
Kruger Park Olifants camp
Herbertsdale area (Western Cape) – atlasing
Karoo National Park near Beaufort West (Western Cape)
Kuilfontein Guest Farm near Colesberg (Northern Cape)
Lentelus Farm near Barrydale (Western Cape)
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
Karoo National Park
Chobe Game Reserve
The eyes have it
Wild but beautiful
Who needs a horse when you have a mom to ride on
Oh, and the news is hippos can do the heart shape with their jaws – they don’t have fingers you see
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
White-fronted Bee-eaters doing what they do best – looking handsome
The usually secretive Green-backed Camaroptera popping out momentarily for a unique photo
African Fish-Eagle – aerial king of the waters
Kori Bustard – heaviest flying bird
Crowned Hornbill – he’ll stare you down any day
Large-billed Lark in full song
Village Weaver – busy as a bee
Thick-billed Weaver – less frenetic, more particular about its nest-weaving
African Jacana with juveniles
Juvenile African Jacana – a cute ball of fluff with legs longer than its body
Reed Cormorant with catch
Wishing all who may read this a 2019 that meets all of your expectations!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 …..
Nevertheless an exciting moment.
Some other birds
Here is a selection of some of the other photos from the week’s birding –
Continuing the story of our unplanned week in Kruger in early September this year ……..
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It was a different Kruger trip in several ways …….
(Yep, here come the bullets – I can’t help it, I’m a QS, we like things to be ordered) –
The booking was a last-minute one instead of the usual micro-planned, 6 to 12 months ahead booking we have always stuck to – I suddenly had this desire to wake up in Kruger on my birthday and scanned the availability of the camps, ending up with 5 nights in Olifants and a further 2 in Skukuza, starting in the last week of August this year
It was just Gerda and myself – the first time we have been on our own in Kruger, going back to our first visit with Gerda’s parents as newly weds in 1972. Since then we have made umpteen visits with our kids, with friends, with birding groups, even with clients and latterly with our grandkids adding to the delight.
We had no fixed plans other than to enjoy ourselves and take it at a relaxed pace
Ummmm that’s it with the bullet points……..
So what is it about a visit to Kruger National Park that makes it so special to ordinary South Africans like us, who keep going back for more, year after year, literally for decades?
With time to think about it during our week in Kruger, I can put it down to the several parts that make up the quintessential Kruger trip, starting with –
For us, any holiday starts with the road trip which, if you tackle it in the way that we prefer, becomes an integral part of the holiday. We could have travelled to our Kruger destination, Olifants camp, in one day, but including an overnight stop at Phalaborwa, close to the entrance gate, meant we had a full day to get organised and travel at a relaxed pace.
It also means there is time to stop for coffee and lunch and to slowly ease into holiday mode. At our first stop at Kranskop on the road north, Gerda’s enthusiasm in identifying the weavers we spotted there helped to shift the focus from the “must do’s” that dominate life to the ” do what you feel like’s”. They were Village Weavers and for the next half hour on the road Gerda grilled me on the main differences between the most common genus Ploceus Weavers, covering Southern Masked, Village, Lesser Masked and Cape Weavers.
There is also enough time to take in the character of the surroundings and the road being travelled on, which changed as we progressed –
N1 highway all the way to Polokwane – predictably smooth and comfortable, not requiring much effort beyond maintaining concentration
Polokwane east to Moria and beyond – busy double road through end to end built up area, the road requiring utmost concentration even at low speeds with a stream of pedestrians crossing, taxis stopping unexpectedly (although we have long learnt to expect it), wandering dogs and goats. Beyond Moria, which accommodates an estimated 1 million people during the Easter pilgrimage, the road enters rolling countryside for some relief
Through Magoebaskloof and down to the lowveld, the road twists and turns and drops all at the same time for perhaps half an hour until it flattens out as you approach Tzaneen
Suddenly it is fruit and veg growing area with roadside stalls offering produce at prices way below the city supermarkets – avos galore (bag for R50 / $3.50 ), sack of potatoes (R30 / $2 ), tray of tangerines (R30 / $2 )
The last stretch to Phalaborwa gradually changes to game farms and bushveld, the road down to a single lane with no shoulders.
The overnight stop in Phalaborwa was at La Lechere guest house in the suburbs – a good choice with neat, comfortable rooms and a full English breakfast to set us on our way the next morning.
We entered Kruger before 11 am and made our way slowly to Letaba camp, where we planned to lunch.
The route from Phalaborwa to Olifants camp
I tried to think what entering Kruger means to me and the only comparison I could come up with was that of entering one of the great cathedrals of Europe – the sudden calmness that spreads over you, the splendid surroundings that seem to envelope you, the happy thought that it’s been like this for a long time and is not likely to change.
We explored the side roads around Masorini on the way, stopping for a while at Sable Dam, which has a bird hide that can be booked for overnight stays.
On the way back we could not resist a “short cut” road signposted Track for high clearance vehicles only, low maintenance , which was true to its word – a unique experience, not having driven on a proper 4 x 4 track in Kruger before, except with rangers in their vehicles.
The track ran for 5 km and took us through an area dotted with exceptionally large termite mounds, some as tall as a double-storey house, with a pointy top giving them the appearance of rondawel roofs from a distance. I suspected the large size of these mounds – certainly larger than I have ever encountered – had something to do with the type of soil – white/grey in colour and very sandy.
Our route did not produce much in the way of special animal sightings, but as usual the bird life made up for it with several interesting encounters –
African Hawk-Eagle spotted by Gerda in a far-off tree
Yellow-fronted Canaries in a group, flitting from tree to tree
Various Swallows in one spot – Lesser-striped, Red-breasted and White-throated Swallows
Crested Francolin scurrying off when we stopped nearby
Groundscraper Thrush rather unexpectedly in the middle of the bush (you get used to seeing them on lawns in Suburbia so it comes as a surprise when they choose a more barren natural habitat)
A soaring African Fish-Eagle patrolling a dam
Elephants made an appearance as we crossed a bridge near Letaba, heading to small pools of water for a refreshing drink. They have a way of looking like they are enjoying every sip of water.
Lunch at Letaba was fish and chips (there goes our credibility) and ahead lay the last stretch before Olifants, which went quite quickly.
The state of the Letaba River was a bit of a shock as we could not recall having seen it so dry, even after the normal dry winter months – another sign of the severe drought that most of Kruger has experienced for the last few years.
By 5 pm we were settled in our pleasant rondawel – we were prepared for the lack of kitchen facilities in the rondawel, knowing there would be a communal kitchen nearby, however we had not thought of bringing a kettle, so resorted to buying a cheap stove-top model that worked well, albeit slowly, on the communal hot plate.
We enjoyed tea while taking in the incomparable view from our small stoep – I patted myself on the back for choosing a perimeter rondawel which looks over the Olifants river far below.
The rondawel is typical of the accommodation in many Kruger camps – hardly luxurious, in fact the kindest description would be basic, but I had already decided that this was part of the charm of Kruger, almost like camping but with solid walls around you, comfortable beds and a small bathroom at hand.
With no kitchen (I probably would have booked a rondawel with a kitchen if one had been available) cooking happens on the braai, washing up is done in the communal kitchen and the simple task of making tea and coffee becomes a drawn-out ritual of sorts, all at a much slower pace than home and in the pleasant surroundings of a well looked after camp.
Even the view as you lie down to sleep is quite soothing (before the lights are off of course) …
Still to come in “Kruger Unplanned” – more about the drives, the wildlife encounters, the birding highlights and just chilling
One of the highlights of our visits to Annasrust Farm, near Hoopstad in the Free State, is the river cruise that Pieter likes to lay on for us. During our April 2018 weekend visit to their beautiful farm, Pieter and Marietjie once again arranged to take us out on a late afternoon cruise and we duly set off around 4.30 pm from the riverside landing spot and headed out onto the smooth waters of the Vaal River on their purpose-built raft – basically a large platform on pontoons with a roof over, driven by a large outboard motor.
The Vaal River forms part of the Bloemhof dam at this point – Wikipedia has the following to say on the dam : The dam was commissioned in 1970, has a capacity of 1,269,000,000 cubic metres and has an area of 223 square kilometres, the wall is 33 metres high. It is fed with the outflow from the Vaal Dam (located upstream in Gauteng) as well as rain collected in the Vaal, Vet, Vals and Sand River catchment areas.
Gerda and I sat right in front with glorious views of the river, the slowly setting sun and the varied bird life already into their end of day activities – flying about restlessly, perhaps watching the other birds to see where they’re heading, possibly even wondering what this bunch of humans on the raft are up to… that sort of thing.
Some of this activity was along the shoreline – Cormorants aplenty, groups of Spur-winged Geese and solitary Goliath Herons standing sentry at regular intervals as we cruised smoothly along. The setting sun made for picture-perfect scenes as the rays created multi-coloured patterns from behind the clouds lining the horizon.
Several birds passed the boat in graceful flight
Passing a mid-river island, we saw signs of large colonies of various roosting and breeding bird species along its length. Approaching the colonies, the numbers of birds present were amazing – Darters, Cormorants, Spoonbills, Grey Herons, Yellow-billed Storks and, almost more than all the rest, Great Egrets.
I have seen individual colonies of most of these species at one time or another in the past, but never this variety in one place. The trees that made up the roosts were stained white from the bird’s presence and every available perch seemed to be occupied while numbers wheeled overhead, then dove down and pushed and shoved their way in with flailing wings and legs. Quite a sight to behold!
These photos give an idea of the extent of the colonies – just imagine the racket generated by all these birds to get an inkling of the full experience.
By now the sun was heading inexorably to its meeting with the horizon and Pieter took us back along the river to the spot where we had departed from (ooh, there I’ve done it again – the worst of english grammar crimes, ending a sentence with a preposition – but then, I love living on the edge)
Close to the berth I spotted a Common Sandpiper at the water’s edge………
Just to round off a magnificent outing, Pieter took a detour on the way back to the farm-house to show us the deep orange sunset against a backdrop of some picturesque trees. Only in Africa ……
Now, if only I can get a job as game ranger on the farm……….
The north-eastern part of Free State Province is known as one of the major maize, sunflower and wheat farming areas with its deep sandy soils and seemingly endless vistas across the flat landscape.
By kind invitation of Pieter and Marietjie, part of Gerda’s extended family, we spent a glorious weekend on their farm Annasrust near Hoopstad in April this year, together with our son Stephan and family – pretty much the perfect venue for a relaxing yet stimulating stay, raised to an even higher level by the company, it has to be said.
Annasrust farm is not your average Free State farm, lying as it does on the southern shores of the Vaal River (which forms part of the Bloemhof dam at that point) and stocked with a variety of game which enjoy the largely undisturbed plains, making it more of a mini Game Reserve than a farm.
With its varied habitats, the farm presents plenty of exciting birding opportunities, which started as we drove from the entrance gate to the farmstead through grasslands interspersed with patches of woodland. Once we had greeted our hosts Pieter and Marietjie and had settled in our house – did I mention we had a house to ourselves? – I recorded the species seen on the way in –
several Northern Black Korhaan rising up out of the long grass and flying off in a wide circle, croaking their objection to being disturbed
Ant-eating Chat perched on a termite mound
Sociable Weavers at their enormous communal nest (more fully described in my earlier post Sociable Weaver)
the usual doves and Helmeted Guineafowl and a Spotted Thick-knee which seemed to be awaiting our arrival in the middle of the road, only giving way at the last moment
My plan was to do some early morning birding over the two-day stay, leaving the rest of the day for family activities and any ad hoc birding opportunities that may arise. The only decision needed was whether to head out on foot, limiting the area I could cover, or to take the Prado and explore further and wider. In the end I chose the walking option, one of my favourite forms of exercise and one that trumps any other way of getting close to nature in such beautiful surroundings
Sunrise was at 6.30 am and I was on my way a few minutes later – almost immediately I heard a soft piping call – vaguely familiar and I scanned the tall blue gum trees near the house. I soon found the responsible bird – a Gabar Goshawk which was seemingly agitated by a group of cackling Green Woodhoopoes who had dared to trespass in his territory.
The more familiar call of Rufous-naped Lark – a clear, plaintive “tswee – twooo” – accompanied me as I walked along the sandy track lined with long grass both sides, wet with morning dew.
A bushy tree some way ahead drew my attention – the whitish blob did not fit the pattern of the rest of the tree and through my binos it turned almost magically into none other than a Pearl-spotted Owlet – I had scarcely begun my walk and already had a highlight of the morning. I cursed the fact that I hadn’t taken my camera and turned to go and get it, just as the Owlet disappeared.
This tiny member of the Owl family has to rate as one of the cutest birds around – all fluffy and round with those penetrating yellow eyes and if you’re lucky it will perform its party trick of turning its head 180 degrees to show you the back of its head, complete with false “eyes”.
I found these photos in my archive from 2007 which show the front and back “eyes”
The walk continued with regular sightings of some less common arid bushveld species –
Kalahari Scrub-Robins calling, but difficult to spot amongst the foliage
Barred Wren-Warbler emitting its trilling call that can be heard at a distance despite its small size
Groundscraper Thrush perched high up in a tree and calling melodically for minutes on end
Pririt Batis with its descending, drawn out series of short whistles, heard initially then seen later
An isolated outbuilding which seemed not to be in use, had attracted a pair of Ashy Tits, not seen by me in a few years, while Scaly-feathered Finches occupied a nearby tree along with an excited pair of Neddickys.
And being a game farm there were other sightings of a few of the animals that roam the grasslands ………….
By now I had been walking for an hour and a half and could feel breakfast and coffee beckoning so turned back and headed for the farmstead, where I took off my shoes which were wet through from the dew and caked with the sand from the tracks and left them in the sun to dry out.
Breakfast was duly enjoyed with the family – a feast of fruit platters conjured up by Gerda and Liesl, followed by a baked egg and bacon dish which really hit the spot. The rest of the day was given over to long chats, a midday snooze and a stunning late afternoon river cruise (more about that in the next post)
I was up early and out again for another extended walk, this time my plan was to do a circular route past the old house, down to the river and back along the riverside fence where I would look for the most direct route homewards.
Initially the birds I encountered were mostly the same as the previous morning, then Zitting Cisticola showed, fluttering over the long grass and Cape Penduline Tit made a welcome appearance, moving restlessly among the bushes.
Before reaching the river I added White-browed Sparrow-Weavers to the list and at the river the shallow flats were a moving feast of birds with Yellow-billed and Little Egrets and Cape Teals prominent amongst many others and White-winged Terns flying in elegant fashion just above the water, turning and retracing their path every 50 metres or so.
Walking along the fence, two grazing horses followed me on the other side – hoping for a treat perhaps? I don’t usually have an affinity for horses, so tried to ignore them but they followed me all the way to where I turned for home.
Two hours of walking had left me quite weary and caffeine deprived, so I took the shortest route back to the house where the family were slowly emerging and I was in good time to join them for much-needed coffee.
Later that day we reluctantly left this bit of paradise and headed back to Pretoria – the slow drive out of the farm and along the first stretch of road past Hoopstad was good for a few interesting species to round out a memorable weekend –
Long-tailed Paradise Whydah
Lesser Kestrels in numbers on the overhead wires
A lone White Stork
I can recall reading an article many years ago on a visit to the Free State in which the writer suggested a weekend in the Free State is like a week in the country – I would tend to agree.
Following on our visit to Champagne Valley in February this year, we found ourselves heading back to the same area scarcely a month later – reason being my brother Andrew came to visit from Devon in the UK where he has been for some 20 years. This time we had traded in some timeshare points for a midweek at Drakensberg Sun, a resort we last visited some 19 years ago, so what memories we had were vague to say the least. How nice to re-visit a place that we enjoyed so long ago and find it well-kept and just as attractive after so many years!
On the Monday morning that Andrew was due to arrive from London, we were up early to do some last packing and head through the morning traffic to OR Tambo to meet him just after 8 am. All went according to schedule and by 9 am we were on the N3 heading south towards Heidelberg, where we decided to stop for a coffee and pain au chocolat “filler” at the Mugg and Bean – Andrew declared it the best cappuccino he had enjoyed in a long time. So easy to please some people!
On to Harrismith in surprisingly light traffic with fewer lorries than we have become accustomed to – mental note to travel this route on a Monday in future. We broke the journey once more at Harrismith for brunch and by mid afternoon had reached our destination.
Chalet 213 was our allocated home for the next few days – it turned out to be in the “back row” of two rows of chalets a short distance from the hotel, separated by extensive gardens and with a large pool and a dam as the main features. Getting our luggage and self-catering provisions down the awkward steps outside the chalet and then down and up to the different levels inside proved to be quite strenuous for us semi-pensioners (another mental note to book the front chalets if ever we return) and once done we made haste to the pool for a refreshing swim in the humid weather.
Tea revived us enough to take a walk around the gardens –
Later we enjoyed a delicious bobotie and salads which we had bought freshly cooked at our local Super Spar the previous day and which was the perfect way to end the day with the minimum amount of cooking effort. We had thought of watching the Oscars on TV that evening but a heavy thunderstorm passed through the area and put paid to that idea as it temporarily disrupted the power and affected TV reception for the rest of the evening. This was a blessing in fact as we were all quite weary and happy to get an early night.
Still in “take it easy” mode, we slept later than usual and even Andrew, early riser most times, slept in to catch up on lost sleep on the flight over. After a fruit brekkie we set off on a drive without any fixed plans other than a stop at the Valley Bakery nearby, set hidden away behind plantations but well worth finding, as we had on a previous visit. Relaxed surroundings and a really good roast chicken wrap, followed by cappuccino and pasteis de nata (Portuguese custard tart) made for the ideal way to catch up on news with Andrew and just enjoy the ambiance for a couple of hours.
The road took us further to Winterton for some stocking up and on the way back we popped into The Hand Woven Rug Co for a look at their attractive products, including some interesting colourful rugs woven from leather off-cuts. The quirky signage outside and in added to the interest.
Back at our chalet it was time for a walk down to the dam and surrounds – wide lawns leading to the water’s edge in places and to reed beds in others. A variety of birds were doing their thing –
Yellow-billed Ducks in the shallows looking rather aloof and scudding away at my approach;
Common Moorhens dipping at unseen organisms in the water;
Thick-billed Weavers by the dozen busily moving up and down, out and back, never far from their perfectly woven nests strung between sturdy reeds.
It made me realise that the human weavers we had seen earlier, good as they were, are amateurs by comparison with these little brown experts!
We closed out the day with a braai of chops and wors and chatted well into the night – so nice to catch up with family after a couple of years.
I set off early to the hotel reception to enquire about walking the Forest trail – the hotel insists that anyone wanting to walk the trails check-in first and pay a small deposit, presumably to give them some record and control of hikers. My aim was to do a portion of the trail or possibly the whole one, with the objective of looking for a bird that has eluded me until now, the Bush Blackcap, a bird of the forests in these elevated parts. It was not to be as the staff had decided the trail was too slippery and dangerous after the night’s heavy rain – a wise precaution but disappointing.
Having set out to do some birding I walked the gardens and along the dam edge, then took a short drive along the road back to the R600, adding to my growing pentad list with the likes of Cape Grassbird, Lesser-striped Swallow, Fan-tailed Widowbird and Jackal Buzzard.
A substantial breakfast awaited back at the chalet, after which we headed off on an exploratory drive towards Monk’s Cowl, branching off at side roads that looked interesting.
One such road took us past an interesting looking building where we decided to have a closer look. We were the only visitors and a small fee of R20 allowed entry to the inside of the old Trading Store, which we were told was transported lock, stock and barrel from Lesotho some 12 years ago by the owner of the farm. The inside was filled with old-fashioned provisions, as if waiting for the next customer to come in and order from the assistant behind the counter – fascinating and absolutely unique. What a gem and another example of the quirky attractions that lie hidden in South Africa’s countryside.
Another rainy morning meant no chance to try for the Blackcap along the forest walk so we enjoyed a fruit brekkie in between packing. Not wanting to exhaust ourselves lugging everything back up the long flight of steps to the road above, I approached one of the security guards to assist – he was more than willing and had all our luggage and provision crates at the car in no time. Quite a relief for all of us!
We had planned a few stops, the first one being Scrumpy Jacks for their delectable cheesecake accompanied by good coffee. It was the same one we had tried for the first time a month ago but this time it was drizzled with a dark berry dressing – oh so good!
Once again we took the “old” road via Winterton and Bergville to Harrismith where we joined the N3 highway back to Gauteng and we were back home by late afternoon.
After not visiting the Drakensberg area for close on 20 years we have ” re-discovered” this beautiful part of our country during 3 visits in the last 12 months or so – and we’ll be going back next year I’m sure.
The further story of our 4 day stay in Prague, Czech Republic, prior to our “bucket list” Danube River Cruise in April 2016 ……
Into the (Petrin) Hills
We slept a little later this morning, recharging our batteries after a busy couple of days of traveling and touring. Our plan, as recommended by friends who had done a similar trip, was to take the funicular to the top of Petrin Hill, walk through the parkland to the Palace and from there make our way back down to the Charles Street Bridge. Well, it didn’t quite work out fully as planned, but we certainly walked a lot and saw many sights. After all, travel tends to be more interesting when it doesn’t go entirely according to plan – and that’s coming from someone who plans things to the last detail!
The day began in earnest, after a relaxed breakfast brought to our room by the ever-friendly staff at our hotel, at around 11 am with a walk to the nearest tram stop, which I had located on a map during a swot up of the commuting options. Two tram rides later we found ourselves, somewhat miraculously as we were guessing where to get off the tram, at the lower funicular station. The short ride to the top of Petrin Hill was through forested slopes with brief glimpses of the city beyond.
I have been fascinated by all things mechanical since childhood, especially those involving transport of some sort, and I’m always on the lookout for the chance to take a ride on unusual forms of transport, so the combination of trams and funicular was right up my street … or track in this case, and anyone observing me would probably have seen the boyish joy in my expression as we ascended the hill.
At the top we emerged from the station into an extensive park with wide lawns, gardens, many trees and shrubs and a curious mixture of structures here and there – an old Observatory, a House of Mirrors, a small church and a steel observation tower in the style of the Eiffel tower but on a much smaller scale.
A restaurant beckoned us for a hot chocolate and feeling suitably refreshed by this injection of goodness we set off to find the Palace. Pathways through the park were pleasantly shady and birdsong accompanied us as we meandered along, creating such a relaxed feeling that we may not have fully concentrated on where we were heading (mistake!).
Branches in the pathway required a quick decision as to which would be the shortest route to the Palace, but without signposts we knew we were guessing, but were nevertheless confident that we would find the right path eventually.
Downhill all the way
It soon became obvious we were on the wrong route, but by this time it was already too late to turn back as we had descended part of the hill and we found ourselves having to negotiate ever steepening downward paths and hundreds of steps – not good news for our rather aged knees. Realising that we would have to see it through, we negotiated one set of steps after another and just to prove there’s no stopping a birder or his intrepid wife, we stopped every now and then to view the few birds that caught our eye.
In the depths of one wooded area a cute squirrel with furry ears was an equally pleasant surprise.
By the time we got to the bottom we were virtually back at the lower station of the funicular, still in good spirits but decidedly weary. Not knowing how to get to the castle, we headed in the direction we thought it was – fortune guided us past a small restaurant called U Svatého Václava where we took sustenance in the form of Goulash soup, which perked us up no end and off we went again. Just around the next corner we asked directions of a friendly Prague-ite and were glad to hear the palace was “oh, about 7 minutes walk up that hill”, pointing to an ominously steep-looking, winding, narrow street with no visible end.
And up again
Well, Bruce Fordyce (famous South African marathon athlete) in his prime would have done it in that time, but for us it was a long trek on our already tired legs and uphill all the way. We only just made it to the top with very little left in our tanks.
What we found after this strenuous walk was a large complex of various buildings rather than one identifiable “Palace”. The complex was handsomely designed, enclosing halls, offices, stables, a lane of residences, extensive gardens and the impressive St Vitus cathedral. However the combination of tired legs and a rather exorbitant entry fee put us off going inside the cathedral and instead we were content with a slow amble around the palace precinct.
The curious thing I find about some ancient cathedrals, as with St Vitus, is the gargoyles (rainwater spouts) at all the corners featuring some strange figures often with really grotesque forms – they just seem so out-of-place on a building supposedly designed to bring inner peace……. here are some examples of those found on St Vitus.
St Vitus Cathedral has an interesting history – the foundation stone was laid on the Hradčany Hill in 1344 at the behest of Charles IV, the future king of Bohemia and Holy Roman emperor. The architect Petr Parléř gave the cathedral its late Gothic style, but construction was not completed until 1929.The martyred Prince Wenceslas I (the “Good King Wenceslas” of the Christmas carol) was interred in 932 in the Church of St. Vitus, predecessor to the cathedral dedicated to the same saint
Eventually, after treating ourselves to a take-away coffee which we enjoyed on a nearby bench like true tourists, we found our way to the tram stop where we soon caught the right trams to within a short walking distance of the Old Town Square and the comfort of our hotel for a welcome rest.
So what happened to the Charles Street bridge visit, I hear you ask? Well, we saw it from the tram, lined on both sides with tourists, and having seen and experienced so much else we weren’t too fussed about not actually standing on it and taking a selfie like a zillion other people.
Taking to the streets
Dinner was a street affair, at one of the many food stalls along one side of the square – a Czech sausage (klobása – much like a frankfurter) with a side of a potato and sauerkraut mixture.
The latter was far too much for us, mainly due to not understanding what quantity we were ordering, but we noticed a “gentleman of the road” standing nearby with his dog and he was more than happy to take our leftovers. Funny how sometimes you feel things happen for a reason, even something as simple as ordering too much food – end result was we fed a hungry soul.
Our visit to Prague was over and the Danube trip lay ahead – we were happy that we had decided to spend the time to experience this handsome and interesting city.
For no other reason than to utilise our expiring RCI points, we booked a long weekend getaway from 9th to 12 th February this year at Champagne Valley Resort near Winterton in the area known as the Central Drakensberg.
We departed from home in Pretoria at around 9.30 am, late enough to avoid the peak hour traffic as we made our way through Johannesburg’s eastern side and headed south on the N3 towards Harrismith, where we had arranged to meet up with Koos and Rianda for a “padkos” brunch of hard-boiled eggs, frikadels (courtesy of Woolies) and jam sandwiches. Padkos is long-standing South African tradition, translating literally to “food for the road” and tastes even better when you stop at one of the large roadside service centres where there are umpteen choices of take-away and sit-down fast food restaurants – a nose-thumbing at conventional practices. (Just to show we’re flexible we stopped at the same spot for a Wimpy breakfast on the way back)
We reached Champagne Valley by 3.30 pm after a fairly relaxed drive from Harrismith, the scenery progressively becoming greener and prettier as we got closer to the central Berg area. On checking in we were allocated a chalet overlooking the dam with pleasing views of the Drakensberg range in the background and we quickly settled in. I had a refreshing swim in the crystal clear pool then joined the others on the stoep for beverages as we all spotted a few birds to get our list going in true keen birder/atlaser fashion.
By sundown there were 18 species on my list including a Black-headed Oriole calling sweetly, Cape and Village Weavers busying themselves on the lawns, as well as Common Moorhen, Red-knobbed Coot and White-faced Duck on the dam.
After a late rise (after all we were there to relax and are of the age where a crack of dawn start is not always first choice) we were back on the stoep in pleasant but humid weather to savour our first coffee along with Gerda’s health rusks. Before long we were entertained by no less than 3 different raptors – Cape Vulture at high altitude soaring majestically in wide circles, a Yellow-billed Kite cruising just above the tree tops delicately adjusting its flight path with twists of its distinctive broad V-shaped tail and a Bearded Vulture so high that I could only ID it from a magnified photo. They were joined by a group of White-necked Ravens calling from aloft in their croaky fashion.
Yellow-billed Kites were a feature of the weekend as we came across them several times in different localities. What struck me when looking at the photos I had taken of one individual was its rather un-fierce look which I deduced was because of its dark eyes and fluffy feathers on the head, creating a look unlike most large raptors with their piercing eyes.
Mid-morning Koos and I braved the humid weather for a walk around the resort, starting with a walk through the grassland area along a mown path then wading through knee-high grass pods down the gentle slope until we found another path to take us back to the resort proper.
Grassland species such as Fan-tailed and Red-collared Widowbirds, Zitting Cisticola and Streaky-headed Seedeater were active and visible, while an unusual “chip-chu” call had us puzzled until we discovered an Amethyst Sunbird calling from a tree – not the call we are used to, so something new added to our birding knowledge.
A passing Martin caught my eye and the white rump said Common House-Martin – one of those birds seen infrequently, although we came across a few more in flocks of Swallows during the weekend.
By the time we got back to the chalet I was drenched in sweat from the humidity and mild exertion – a cold drink was most welcome and stoep-based birding became the order of the day.
Late afternoon we drove to Monk’s Cowl camp, stopping on the way to see if we could coax a Bush Blackcap to show itself, but to no avail. Nevertheless we had good sightings of Steppe Buzzards and Yellow-billed Kites, a Dusky Indigobird and a Black-backed Puffback with a Juvenile in tow.
Another relaxed morning for me starting with a quiet walk along the edge of the dam where odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) were almost more numerous than the avifauna so I spent a pleasant hour or so chasing them down and taking a few photos.
Late morning we set off on a drive along the R600 towards Winterton with the main purpose of popping into Scrumpy Jacks for coffee and a taste of their recommended cheesecake. On the way Koos pointed out the Long-crested Eagle he had seen on his earlier walk, perched in the open for all to see.
Soon after we arrived at the small farmstall with a few tables outside, a parking area fairly muddy from earlier rains and a notice on the flimsy gate to “please close the gate to protect the dog”. The only visible animal in the garden was a large pig with an even larger pot belly dragging on the ground – presumably the “dog” referred to in the notice. It seemed a strange pet to allow near guests – such as us – coming for coffee and honey-baked cheesecake, however we did not let it detract from the treat.
Said coffee and cheesecake did the trick of turning on the switch in the brain that says “I am contented with life” and we ventured further down the R600 with the intent of doing a “bit of birding”. At the signpost indicating “Bell Park Dam 8 km ” we turned left – this was a route Koos and I had explored a year ago and it turned out to be a good choice again as we were soon into rolling grasslands and farms planted with tall green mielies (corn). Amur Falcons were numerous, perched at regular intervals on the roadside wires, sometimes in small groups, scanning the fields for their next grasshopper or termite alate meal.
The attractive farm dam where we had seen Grey-crowned Cranes landing the year before, was occupied by various waterfowl including SA Shelduck, Spur-winged Goose and a complement of the usual Egyptian Geese and Red-knobbed Coots plus a lone Grey Heron.
We continued in the same slow fashion past the Bell Park dam wall with cascading overflow creating a nice picture, then turned off onto the road leading to the dam’s entrance gate. After a brief leg-stretch accompanied by yet another Yellow-billed Kite eyeing us from his perch on top of a pole, we decided to turn back and head for the resort.
On the way back Koos spotted a flock of Geese and was elated when he found two Grey-crowned Cranes amongst them. A small Cisticola like bird in the top of a tree had us puzzled for a while with its grey breast and white belly, until we decided it was a form of Neddicky – later reference to Roberts showed that there are no less than 7 subspecies of Neddicky in southern Africa so I deduced that a wide variance in appearance can be expected. (another snippet of added knowledge).
Amazingly our “bit of birding” had been so absorbing that we found we had spent the required 2 hours in the pentad for a “Full protocol” card – and we all had an enjoyable afternoon of birding in a beautiful environment along a quiet road – what more can one ask for?
Time to return to Pretoria – Arrow-marked Babblers visited the chalet while packing and I couldn’t resist a quick photo…..
By 9 am we were on our way, this time choosing the scenic route via Winterton and Bergville then via the spectacular Oliviershoek pass to Harrismith. What a good choice it turned out to be – the scenery was quite stunning for most of the way, certainly the greenest we have ever seen this part of our country, both cornfields and grasslands alike, stretching into the distance in checkered patterns.
We’ll be back! Sooner than you can imagine – in a couple of weeks we return to the same area but a different resort when my brother visits from the UK.