“While having a break in a Starbucks shop, we watched fascinated by a tall, thin guy enthusiastically eating his take away lunch on the pavement, shirt off (so he didn’t get it full of food, we guessed) all the while rushing around, talking animatedly to no one in particular, reading papers which he pulled out of a nearby bin as if his life depended on them… “
Arrival – Sleepy in Seattle
Our first views of Seattle were on the limo trip from the airport, but we were barely recovered from our experience at Calgary airport where we encountered the worst of US security and we were just looking forward to getting to the Silver Cloud hotel and relaxing until Jakobus and Lynette, friends from SA, arrived. They were due to join us for our day and a bit in Seattle followed by the 8 day Alaska cruise which we had booked together some time ago.
Once they had arrived, and before the 9 hour time difference got to them, we joined up for a trip downtown and back – the hotel has a shuttle service to various drop off and collection points, which was an absolute boon during our short stay – followed by a walk to a nearby restaurant for pizza and back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep
Saturday 16th August 2014 – Discovering Seattle by foot and “Duck”
No major city can be fully experienced in a day so we decided not to rush around just so that we could say we had “been there, done that” which is the normal temptation, and rather took it easy, deciding as we went how we would spend the rest of the day. This proved to be a good approach and in the end we were well pleased with how much we managed to see and do.
After a late-ish breakfast, we headed to the downtown Westlake Centre for some shopping therapy (not my scene but I whiled away the time doing some people watching), followed by a walk to the Pike’s Place Market to jostle with the crowds of visitors and locals and marvel at the goods on display – seafood of all descriptions, fruit to drool over and a multitude of other fresh delights.
This was also the ideal place to buy some of the fresh produce for a hotel room supper later on and we left the market with fresh bread, enormous tomatoes, the best cheese, some magnificent looking peaches and a reasonable bottle of wine – all of this hectic shopping meant we deserved a Starbucks coffee and it wasn’t far to go to find one (apparently there are 170 Starbucks shops in Seattle including the original one which started the chain).
Returning briefly to the hotel to offload the purchases, we once again headed downtown, this time to buy tour tickets for the “Duck”, which we had spotted cruising around town filled with tourists and which looked like an interesting idea – basically a semi-open amphibious vehicle which not only does the usual city tour but takes you onto the waters of the lake which makes up Seattle’s harbour.
It turned out to be well worthwhile and a unique way of seeing the city – something which has taken off in North America it seems, as we saw similar tours being offered in a couple of other cities in Canada.
Our “Captain” of Scottish descent drove through town then towards the lake where our bus took to the water with no trouble and chugged along while he gave us an insight into the waterside life and activities, amongst others exploring the difference between “floating homes” and “houseboats” – important because of taxation issues apparently.
Along the way we also had good views of the old gasworks, now part of a recreational park and saw the lakeside house where the film “Sleepless in Seattle” was partly filmed. The return journey was along a different route so we had a view of quite a lot of Seattle and really enjoyed this introduction to the city.
Seattle – First Impressions
Seattle has a lot to attract the visitor and we hardly touched on the interesting spots that can be visited, but felt we had got to know it just a bit in the short time we spent there.
What really struck us was the “unusual” (for want of a better term) people we came across and perhaps it’s unfair to judge a place on the people you encounter in a city during a short stay, which is hardly representative of the population of the whole place, however it came across that Seattle has a very cosmopolitan population, including 20,000 Ethiopians apparently and many more cultures.
It also has more homeless people, druggies and mentally disturbed folk than any city of our experience – we came across them on every city block, every street corner, which made us wonder what the reason could be. Most just drift by, the dregs of society, some beg, others talk to themselves and whoever is in listening distance. Then there are the religious people peddling the message at every second street corner, including a group who, by their dress, seemed to have been transported from the 1960’s.
While having a break in a Starbucks shop, we watched fascinated by a tall, thin guy enthusiastically eating his take away lunch on the pavement, shirt off (so he didn’t get it full of food, we guessed) all the while rushing around, talking animatedly to no one in particular, reading papers which he pulled out of a nearby bin as if his life depended on them and generally behaving pretty strangely.
All quite fascinating and seemingly part of normal city life in Seattle.
Sunday 17th August 2014 : Time to set sail for the Last Frontier!
After another good breakfast at Jimmy’s, the restaurant next to the hotel, we packed and labelled our bags for the cruise, gathered in the lobby and called a large SUV to take us all, along with our copious baggage, to the Cruise Ship pier for the start of the next leg of our adventure – now I know going on a large cruise ship nowadays is hardly unusual, so probably doesn’t score highly as an adventure for most, but this was to be our first time on a cruise and it was to Alaska, billed as the “Last Frontier”, so for us was really adventurous.
Our whirlwind trip through the Canadian Rockies had been exciting so far, after just a day and a half – it seemed much longer as we had crammed a lot into it already, but even better stuff was to come as we headed to Jasper.
The rest of Tuesday : Athabasca Glacier – a Highlight!
Not long after leaving beautiful Bow Lake behind us, we turned off at a busy parking area for a memorable trip on to the enormous Athabasca Glacier – certainly the highlight of our trip so far. Tickets had been purchased along with the Banff Gondola tickets the previous day, but we still had to wait for an hour or so to get on a bus for this popular excursion, which is enjoyed by up to 3000 people per day during peak season, which is where we found ourselves, so we had a snack in the cafeteria while waiting.
A “normal” bus took us to the departure point for the glacier tour, where we switched to special balloon-tired vehicles, specially built for the purpose and capable of taking on 18 degree gravelled slopes (doesn’t sound much but quite hairy when you are looking up or down at them from the inside of the vehicle) and slippery glacier “roads” with ease. They are said to cost $1,2 million each!
The perky driver kept us informed and entertained along the way, even handling the banter from a bunch of Harley-Davison bikers on the bus, who had plenty to say, and soon we were standing on the glacier itself, tasting the icy crystal clear run-off water which was gushing out of the ice and just enjoying the sensation of standing on a veritable mountain of ice which was probably as thick as the Eiffel Tower is high, if not more. All in all, nothing short of spectacular!
I just had a concern that allowing these vehicles and so many people onto the glacier on a daily basis must be contributing to its demise, where it is already receding at the rate of some 10 m per year, nevertheless we were glad we were able to experience such a unique excursion.
Jasper National Park
Leaving the ice fields behind us, we drove a short distance before stopping to view the tumbling Sunwapta Falls which lie in Jasper National Park.
Next stop was the town of Jasper itself and once checked in at the Best Western, we made our way to the town centre and the Raven Bistro which Gerda had read about in some publication – it turned out to be a good choice with comfortable chairs (more important than many realize), great creative food and friendly service. My steak, accompanied by a unique thin, very tasty sauce was superb as were the other dishes including Gerda’s lamb dish which was declared to be sensational by the team.
Back at the hotel the kids were put to bed and we enjoyed a glass of wine with Sarah and Alex out in the garden, chatting beyond midnight (Sarah comes into her own at these late hours).
Wednesday 13 August : More falls, lakes and other good stuff
Sarah had arranged a late check out so we had until midday to enjoy the $9.95 breakfast which included my favourite for a change – oatmeal!
We spent some time exploring Jasper town around the station and surrounding streets and found it more than pleasant with a real small town feel.
First stop on the road back to Calgary was at the Athabasca Falls where the wide milky water rushes into a narrow gorge creating a mini “smoke that thunders”. Three hawks caught my eye in the top of a high tree – the light was too bright in the background to make them out clearly but the photos I took helped to ID them (probably) as Swainson’s Hawks.
Further along we stopped briefly at a viewpoint above another scenic lake where some tame Chipmunks (yes real ones) came right up and perched on my sandals for a moment.
The Rockies were quite magnificent today – not spoilt by haze and we especially enjoyed the stop at Bow Summit where we took a walk up the road and along forest paths to the lookout with an incredible view down at yet another glacier-fed lake nestled between the slopes far below. Meanwhile Gerda and Sarah were enjoying themselves finding and identifying flowers and berries at the stops.
On the birding front a Clark’s Nutcracker in the parking area broke the short drought of lifers for me.
Next, and the last stop for the day, was Lake Louise, a stunningly attractive lake with a background of mountains and glaciers setting it off to perfection. A number of people were on the lake in small boats, while others sat at the water’s edge, like us fascinated by the special beauty of the scene.
Complementing the scenery was the Chateau Hotel with its unique architecture and lush, colourful gardens fronting it right down to the turquoise water of the lake.
Reluctantly tearing ourselves away we travelled the final hour and a half back to Calgary and the new familiarity of the Najm residence
Thursday 14 August : Last day in Calgary
A quiet day (well, relatively) to recover, nicely set in motion with a slap-up Canadian breakfast of eggs, crispy bacon, pancakes and sausages. It was abundantly clear Sarah was going all out to prove her constant mantra that “The West is Best” and we were rapidly coming to that same conclusion – however (patience, Sarah) we thought it would only be fair to give the East a chance to “state their case” when we eventually got there, before bestowing the “Best” title on either the West (ie Calgary and the Rockies) or the East (ie Ontario and the other parts of eastern Canada we were to discover).
Not having had the chance to see a bit of Calgary, Alex set out to change that and took us on a quick drive into the country along roads which bisected verdant farmlands, giving us a glimpse of typical cultivated lands in this part of Canada. Swainson’s Hawks were the most common bird around, favouring the round bales of hay to perch on.
We were hardly back at the house when Sarah took a break from preparing a special dinner (told you she was going all out) to take us on a driving tour of Calgary, covering all four “quadrants” – Calgary comes across as an organised, busy, spacious city with plenty of open space and considerate drivers – a very comfortable place to live I imagine.
Another surprise awaited us at the house as Sarah and Rachel had arranged an early birthday celebration for the two of us (our birthdays are just 13 days apart and were coming up in the next few weeks) with hats and masks, banners, balloons, bubbly and all. Clearly the Denner girls like arranging parties!
The evening was spent enjoying a superb dinner of four courses prepared by Sarah and Alex with wine pairings to savour and remember.
Thanks Sarah and Alex, not to mention Cassie and Rio, for making our week “in the west” so unforgettable!
Friday 15 August : Seattle here we come
Travelling time again! Up early (poor Sarah, not her forté) to get to the airport for our 8.50 am flight to Seattle, which ended up being beyond stressful, only because we weren’t thinking – at check-in they wanted to charge $70 for our extra bag and, prompted by the check-in clerk, we decided to take it as carry on baggage, only realising once we got to security (USA heavy style) that the bag was full of “non-allowables”. With dry throats and pounding hearts (airports do this to us) we tried to work out what to do and eventually I decided to work my way back through security and passport control to the check in which, thanks to sympathetic personnel (maybe it was my wild pleading eyes) I was fortunately able to do, much to our relief. But it left us shattered and cursing the hassles involved in long-distance air travel.
The Air Canada flight was short and just more than an hour after taking off we were in Seattle where, after collecting our baggage, we got ourselves a bagel and a large cup of tea to calm our troubled spirits, before finding a limo to take us to the Silver Cloud Hotel on Broadway. We had some time to relax before Lynette and Jakobus van Dyk were due to arrive to join us for the next few days in Seattle and on the Alaska Cruise …..but more about that soon.
“Sarah had arranged a surprise on arrival in Calgary, in the form of an official tourist welcome with white cowboy hats for both of us, a ceremony in the Arrivals hall to pledge allegiance to Calgary and a certificate to prove it. What a nice way to be introduced to “The West”…
Some Background to our latest Adventure
Gerda and I had been wanting to visit Canada for some years and, spurred on by family in Canada, we decided that 2014 would be the year we finally ticked this box – not least because my sister and brother-in-law had visited South Africa the previous year from Canada and told us we “had to” come and visit them in Ontario at the earliest opportunity.
When nieces Sarah and Rachel, both of whom live in Calgary on the western side of Canada, heard about our trip, they made it clear that Calgary would “have to” (it’s a Denner thing) be part of our itinerary and Sarah in particular tempted us with her plans to show us the Canadian Rockies, all of which was an offer we definitely could not refuse.
Just to make such a long trip worthwhile, we decided to include an Alaskan cruise in the itinerary – something we had heard about from friends and which promised to make the trip really special.
And so our trip developed into four “stages” – week 1 in Calgary and the Rockies, week 2 on a cruise ship to Alaska, week 3 touring Nova Scotia and week 4 on the farm near Ottawa with Sheila (Sam as she is known) and John.
The easy bit was purchasing the air tickets – the actual trip to Calgary was a series of ups and downs, literally and mentally.
To start with, we arrived at OR Tambo airport Johannesburg well before our flight to Heathrow on Thursday 7th August, which was scheduled for 8 pm, only to find it was delayed by 12 hours and would depart next morning at 8 am. SAA put us up at a nearby hotel and we duly caught the flight next morning. On the positive side, a daytime flight is a lot more bearable than an overnight flight as it is not essential to try to sleep. The result was we missed our connecting flight to Calgary and had to overnight at a hotel near Heathrow (also paid for by SAA) to catch the next day’s flight – such are the joys of modern-day travel.
After breakfast the next day (Saturday 9th) we returned to Heathrow for the 9 hour flight to Calgary, which departed from the brand new “Queen’s Terminal” which impressed with its modern architecture and spacious security area with state-of-the-art systems, largely automated to make the experience a tad more bearable.
Welcome to Calgary!
Despite arriving 1 day later than planned, and unbeknown to us, niece Sarah had arranged a surprise on arrival in Calgary, in the form of an official tourist welcome with white cowboy hats for both of us, a ceremony in the Arrivals hall to pledge allegiance to Calgary and a certificate to prove it. What a nice way to be introduced to “The West” and a lovely group of volunteer ladies who arrange it all.
We immediately felt at home when we got to Alex and Sarah’s house in Dalhousie, where we met their offspring Cassie and Rio. They were in the final throes of preparing for their big “pig roast” which they have hosted for the past 5 years. By this time we were quite tired after a long day which was extended by some 8 hours of time difference, but after a nap we regained some energy and joined the party, which by now was gathering momentum, meeting lots of interesting and friendly Canadians from the neighbourhood and further afield.
By 10 pm (6am the next morning for us) we called it a day and collapsed into bed while the party continued well into the early hours – even the fire brigade turned up, responding to a call about a fire in the yard!
The Morning After….
Next morning (Sunday) was a quiet one – amazingly everything was cleared up by the time we surfaced – Alex and Sarah were up till 4am clearing most of it and finished the rest in the morning. We took it nice and easy on the outside deck with coffee, more coffee and leftover dessert cake and were joined by Derek and Karen from next door – seems they have a very friendly neighbourhood going here.
Lunch was cheeseburger and fries from a fast food place that had queues of people waiting outside 2 windows to be served – good filling food and we tried the poutine, which is a Canadian dish that we came across a few times, comprising fries, a gravy-like sauce and topped with cheese curds.
Feeling a little bloated after this healthy lunch, I took a walk through the neighbourhood to a nearby park – birds were not plentiful but I did spot a Swainson’s Hawk cruising the skies, other than that it was Magpies, Crows and House Sparrows.
Back at the house it was more chilling followed by a walk to the local shopping centre where we had a look at the local retail offerings and had a cappuccino at the Starbucks located inside Chapters bookstore. The perfect weather was holding, so we sat outside and chatted until late evening, mostly about what we could expect to see over the next 3 days touring the Rockies.
Monday 11 August – off to Banff
We awoke to warmer weather and a busy day of travel ahead, but initially the day was quite relaxed, plenty of time to pack our bags for 3 days on the road and enjoy “Lebanese eggs” for breakfast, courtesy of Alex – a tasty dish of fried eggs and yoghurt eaten out on the deck.
There was even time to check out the local bird life along the back paths and I was pleased to find Chickadees and Thrushes – but more about the birding in a future post.
Rachel, my other Canadian niece who we last saw in SA back in 2000, joined us for the first part of the trip, which we did in her car so it was an ideal opportunity to catch up on the intervening years.
We left around midday and headed west to Banff with one stop at Canmore to say hi to Rachel’s sister-in-law Kirsty, who has a charming house right on the Bow river
We spent some time admiring the view of the Bow River from the house
We followed this with a pop-in to the local knitting store (for Gerda’s benefit) and an iced coffee at the local coffee shop. Canmore has a nice small town feel to it.
From there it was a short drive to Banff through increasingly scenic countryside with beautiful mountain backdrops as we approached the Rockies.
Before entering Banff, Rachel took a short detour to show us Lake Minnewanka, the largest lake in the Rockies, probably because it is also a dam which was constructed back in 1941. This was the first of the large lakes we were to see, which did not have the turquoise colour of the glacier-fed lakes that we came across later in the trip – nevertheless an impressive sight.
Next a visit to Banff Springs Park where we took a short walk along the pathways and board walks with views of lakes and wetlands, bordered by pine forests
Our Best Western hotel was easy to find on the main street and we checked in, then headed straight to the Bison restaurant for an excellent meal.
Summer evenings are long and light until late in this part of the world, so we decided to squeeze in a visit to the Banff Gondola (no it’s not a boat – that’s what they call a cable car in these parts).
We were just in time to catch the last gondolas going up for the day and had to rush a bit when we got to the upper station, as the last one was due to depart for the lower station in about half an hour. Nevertheless this gave us enough time to get to the watch tower at the pinnacle and enjoy the spectacular, albeit hazy, views before heading back down.
Alex and Sarah had decided the day was not done yet, so off we went to the Bow Falls for a view at the spot where the Bow River tumbles over a 9m drop, which we managed just in time as dusk was well advanced. From there it was a short drive to the famous Banff Springs hotel for late night coffee and a look at this impressive hotel, before returning to our more ordinary, but very pleasant, hotel in town for a good night’s rest.
Tuesday 12 August
By now we were getting into the swing of things and the fact that non-stop action was the order of the day, but Alex and Sarah and the kids were looking after us so well that it was non-stop pleasure as well!
Breakfast was at Melissa’s Restaurant which, according to Alex and Sarah, served the best breakfast in town – hard for us to judge, but we could vouch for the Eggs Benedict being the best we’ve had and to go with it there was a great atmosphere plus friendly service, so we would have to agree.
Well satisfied, we strolled back along the main street to our hotel and could see that Banff is very much a tourist-driven town, but none the worse for it, with neat architecture that has a real Swiss feel to it, especially with the mountain peaks always visible in the background.
Once checked out we said goodbye for the time being to Rachel, who had to return to work, and headed along the road to Jasper for our next planned stop at the Icefields.
Part of the way there we stopped at Bow Lake to admire the scenery – and what scenery it was! This lake is fed by glaciers which are visible high up the mountain in the background, imparting the special colour to the water and the lake in turn feeds the Bow River which we had seen at a few places en route and which, according to Alex, runs all the way across Canada to the eastern side and eventually into the Hudson Bay.
This was a good spot for the kids to expend some energy and for us to stretch our legs and just enjoy the setting – my usual quest for birds turned up a White-crowned Sparrow and Alex found a pair of nesting Barn Swallows under the eaves of the small shop, which was interesting as we only ever see them as non-breeding visitors from the Northern Hemisphere.
This is where I am going to cut off this post and continue the story in the next post, which will cover the rest of our Rockies trip, crammed full of great experiences as it was, and the last day or so in Calgary. The highlight of the trip was still to come when we had a spectacular and unique trip up onto the Athabasca Glacier….
For the first time since starting this blog a year and a bit ago when I set myself a target of 2 posts a month, I did not manage to publish twice in August – reason being we have been on tour in Canada and Alaska since 7 August and will be returning to SA on 10 September
We have had an amazing time so far with week 1 covering Calgary and the Canadian Rockies, week 2 on a cruise to Alaska and week 3 being in Ontario and on tour through several provinces of Canada east such as Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia
Once I have sorted and edited the many photos and caught up with my diary I’ll be adding some posts on these wonderful places – watch this space!
Posted from aboard a ferry between Digby Nova Scotia and St Johns New brunswick – the wonders of technology!
“We soon got into a decadent routine of sumptuous breakfast, lazing on the beach with an occasional sortie to the beach bar for refreshments, lunch in the casual restaurant near the beach, followed by an afternoon relaxing around the pool”
Getting to Varadero
The bus transfer from Havana to Varadero, where we were to spend the next 11 days in an “All-Inclusive” resort, was uneventful and quite pleasant as it provided a glimpse of the Cuban countryside. Cubans have clearly cottoned on to the opportunities (and hard cash) that tourism brings, which was brought home when we stopped for a refreshment break at a roadside café, where a local band immediately started playing and made it obvious they were looking for some reward. Well, good for them – nothing like a money-making opportunity in a communist state!
The road was not very busy and in good condition and we noticed that there were fewer of the “classics” to be seen and more ordinary cars once we had left Havana.
Along the way I kept a look out for any birds and soon realised that the Turkey Vulture was one of the most common birds, perhaps because they are so obvious due to their large size and habit of flying around in flocks. Apart from them, I spotted a Shiny Cowbird in farmland and a Double-crested Cormorant in the water on the bay side of the Varadero peninsula.
Hotel Sol Palmeras
Our hotel was just one of many big resort hotels strung out along the narrow Varadero peninsula, all of them appearing to be full of tourists from Europe and Canada enjoying the fine warm weather.
We soon got into the swing of things at the hotel, revelling in the “all-inclusive” deal as part of our Virgin Holidays package – we had no experience of this so thought we would end up paying over the top for extras such as special coffees, al a carte meals and beach activities but were very happy to find that ‘all-inclusive’ meant exactly that – great value for money!
We soon got into a decadent routine of sumptuous breakfast, lazing on the beach with an occasional sortie to the beach bar for refreshments, lunch in the casual restaurant near the beach, followed by an afternoon relaxing around the pool before girding our loins for the evening meal in the main buffet restaurant or one of the 5 themed ala carte restaurants.
The only stress was beating the Europeans to the best beach loungers in the morning! As in Havana, we found that staff and residents were amazed when they heard we were from South Africa.
Suffice to say the beach met all our expectations and the photos say it better than I can
We particularly enjoyed the gentle sea which was ideal for just swimming and lazing in the water or the more energetic rides in the paddle boats
Sunset was a magic time on the beach
I had arranged beforehand for a local bird guide to take me to some nearby birding spots, which I did halfway through our stay at the resort – the trip is deserving of a separate post which will follow this one.
What I can mention in this post are some of the interesting birds I found without too much trouble in the hotel gardens, often by standing on the room balcony which overlooked the lush tropical gardens or wandering through the pathways that meandered past the chalets forming part of the complex and the occasional bird spotted from the beach.
90 Percent of what I saw were ‘lifers’ for me so each bird was a real thrill, but none more so than the tiny Cuban Emerald, a species of Hummingbird, which I first spotted feeding on top of a tree with bright red berries and later saw a few times perched on branches in the gardens. The pictures of Hummingbirds in books have always fascinated me but I never imagined seeing them ”live” so this was special.
Others that I came across in the gardens were (with apologies for photo quality – I didn’t have my usual telephoto lens with me) :
Palm Warbler – feeding on the ground
Summer Tanager – an all-red bird active in the upper canopy of the trees
Gray Kingbird – seen frequently, once with a small lizard prey
Greater Antillean Grackle (now there’s an impressive name) – in the gardens and often scrounging scraps at the outdoor restaurant – reminiscent of our starlings. The unusual feature of this bird is its V-shaped tail, which may be unique to this species, giving it the appearance of an old-fashioned jet plane when in flight
Cuban Green Woodpecker – an attractive bird which was busy at a nest hole in a Cocos palm
Cape May Warbler – one of many Warblers seen on the trip, all of which seem to be varying combinations of black, brown and yellow – this one had black streaks on a yellow breast, distinctive brown cheeks and a yellow rump.
Royal Tern – flying low over the shallow turquoise sea, diving occasionally for food. This was a particularly beautiful sight early one morning as the sun was coming up
Brown Pelican – also flying low over the sea
Muscovy Duck – seen on the golf course of an adjoining resort
The ‘Puppy-dog Lizard’ which we saw in Havana was also to be found in the gardens – quite habituated to people
Time to Leave
On the way to the airport I took some photos of ‘plain and ordinary’ Cuban scenes as we passed by
We were sad to leave Cuba after a most memorable trip, our minds full of all the interesting people, places and experiences
“I couldn’t tear myself away from the hotel window which overlooked a vibrant scene in the streets below”
It was all our Son-in-law’s fault! No, really.
Andre got invited to a conference in Havana and decided to take Geraldine and the girls along and make a full-blown holiday of it, prompted I think by the fact that they had been to Granada in the West Indies before and Cuba was a Virgin Atlantic package and a 9 hour flight away from their then home in the UK. When Gerda and I heard about it and were invited to join them for the trip, it was quite an exciting thought but at the same time a cause for some apprehension – people from South Africa (ordinary ones outside the government, that is) just didn’t go to Cuba. But we are always up for some mild adventure and so the last week of March 2011 saw us flying to the UK for a short stay with Andre and Geraldine in Stafford in the English Midlands before heading to Gatwick for our flight to Havana.
I have been particularly eager to write about this trip, which was full of surprises and memories and very different from what we had in our minds – that’s the beauty of travel, opening up your mind to what’s out there and getting rid of all the preconceptions that tend to muddle your thoughts.
Apologies for a long post but there’s plenty to tell and show about this interesting city….
Our itinerary included 3 days in Havana, followed by 11 days at a beach resort in Varadero, located on a narrow finger-like peninsula which juts out of the north-western extremity of the island of Cuba. It would have been foolish to go to Cuba and not include some birding, and had found a local bird guide to set up a day trip from the beach resort to some reachable birding areas, but I had no real idea what he would cover and where we would go, knowing that Cuba is a large island – some 1000 kms long – and we would not be able to travel very far in one day. All our flights, accommodation and transfers were part of the Virgin Holidays package from the UK, which was very affordable – in fact we could not have beaten it travelling from SA to any other island resort such as Mauritius, even taking into account the additional cost of flying to the UK first.
This first post in this series covers just the Havana part of the trip, later posts will cover the rest of the trip.
First Impressions of Havana
The flight on Virgin Atlantic was OK as these long-haul flights go – being a daytime flight helped as we didn’t have to face trying to sleep in those hellish seats. Arriving in Havana, there were no hassles getting through passport control etc and finding our bus to take us to our hotel – all part of the Virgin Holidays package, which made our lives easier.
First impression on the way into Havana was that the roads were not very busy and the buildings were either plain and utilitarian or old, ornate and crumbling. The cars on the road included a sprinkling of the American classics from the 1950’s that Cuba is famed for along with other more modern cars.
Our hotel, Hotel Telegrafo, in the older part of the city, looked quite modern and attractive but the surrounding buildings were less so.
Once we got to our upper floor room I couldn’t tear myself away from the hotel window which overlooked a vibrant scene in the streets below, with colourful ‘classics’ passing by, interesting looking people hanging about in doorways and the crumbling roofscape turning deep orange as the sun set.
The Classic Cars
It’s proof of human ingenuity that so many of the 1950’s American cars have survived for so long – when you look closely you notice that most have had major transplant surgery with new chassis’, wheels and engines, while the owners have managed to retain the old bodies and chrome trims. Even the hooters have been modified to make a pleasant squeak rather than loud honking. Car ownership is complex in Cuba but the bottom line is ordinary Cubans are not allowed to buy new cars so these old classics are handed down in the family and most if not all serve as taxis for the people. Some are battered, others are well-kept – all are colourful reminders of a simpler era and I could not stop taking photos of these beauties. Here’s a selection of those wonderful Fords, Chevrolets, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs and others –
Then there are the interesting number plates….. colours denote ownership status with yellow being ‘private’ (but licensed by the all-pervasive ‘Government’), blue is Government owned, orange, brown and black denote levels of government ownership.
With so few cars on the road, traffic is not an issue and only the centre city is relatively busy, but nothing like other major cities. It makes for a relaxed atmosphere in the city which, along with the complete lack of commercialism, creates a feeling of being transported back to the 1950’s or 60’s.
The hard years that Cuba has endured are evident in the state of the buildings in Havana, where the contrast is most stark between those that have been restored or maintained and those left to slowly deteriorate for 60 years or so. Many that we saw have fallen into such ruin that only the skeleton of the façade remains, the roof and inner structures having succumbed to total neglect.
On our walking tour of the city it was clear that restoration has been limited to the main squares, which have been beautifully restored, but walk a block away and the buildings are in a sorry state.
Despite this, the original Spanish-influenced architecture is still very evident – many buildings have internal courtyards to help cool the interiors. Look through once splendid front doors and you see grand staircases leading to the upper floors with elaborate wrought iron balustrades, some almost corroded to nothing.
Ornately carved stone cladding is common but unchecked weathering has worn away the beauty that it once projected.
We found Cubans generally friendly, apart from some waiters who were a bit surly, but then that’s the case wherever you go. Out on the streets it was obvious the people of Havana like to see what’s happening and sitting or standing in doorways seems to be a national sport – many will greet you as you walk past. Wherever we went the locals would ask where we came from and were amazed to hear that we were from South Africa, some even pointing to our skin and querying “but you are white?”
The overall impression is of not much activity amongst the general population and those that had something to do were fairly relaxed about doing it – this may just be the way things are done in this laid-back part of the world.
The Sights of Havana
On our first day in Havana we went for a walk down the main boulevard to the seafront and the promenade which overlooks the bay stretching into the distance one way and the Old Fort in the other direction.
Along the way we admired the classic cars and old buildings and just enjoyed being in such an exotic place. The longish walk and the warm conditions soon had us looking for a place to have lunch and we came across a pleasant restaurant which did the trick with beers and cold drinks to go with a plain but tasty pasta meal.
Later we ventured out again, this time taking some of the ‘back streets’ which took us to a square where we had coffee and viewed the restored church
Next morning it was time for our tour of Havana, which we had arranged just for the six of us. Our personal tour guide for the morning was one friendly and informative Cuban by name of Mora (who happened to be of African origin), previously a professor in English, who chose to become a tour guide because it was more financially rewarding with the tips she earned. She turned out to be an excellent guide taking us variously by kombi taxi, horse-drawn carriage and walking through the streets and squares of Havana – in 30 years of guiding we were the first South Africans she had taken and at the end of the tour she insisted on giving us a hug.
Our tour started with a trip by kombi to the old fort with stunning views across the bay to the city.
Then on to older style transport – horse and carriage for a clip-clop journey to the square called Plaza de San Fransisco.
From there we continued on foot along the streets to some of the other restored squares, stopping at a few interesting spots and for lunch at the restaurant that Hemingway favoured in his Cuban days.
The last part of the tour took in the upmarket area where most of the embassies are located, including the SA embassy, and the Revolutionary square where we could imagine Castro addressing the crowds.
That brought our tour to an end – all that was left to do was to visit the cigar factory where Andre was hoping to strike a bargain on some Cuban cigars – that’s a story on its own that I’ll fit in somewhere along the way…
The Birds of Havana
I really can’t say that I did Havana any justice from a birding point of view – it was just a case of a few incidental sightings as we toured the city. For the record I noted the following birds during our short stay in Havana – the underlined ones were ‘lifers’ for me. I had no telephoto lenses with me so decent photos were not possible.
Cattle Egret (just like the ones back home) – on the way from the airport
Rock Dove – in the city squares
House Sparrow – in the city
Magnificent Frigate bird – my first ‘lifer’ of the trip, seen flying over the city (a real surprise as I thought they were deep ocean birds)
Turkey Vulture – second ‘lifer’ and one of the birds we saw most frequently on our trip
Mourning Dove – perched on city roofs and in the parks
Eastern Meadowlark – in grassy fields near the Old Fort
Cuban Blackbird – ditto
Cuban Martin – nesting in a hole in a building façade
Those who have seen and read enough can stop here…
More Classics and old buildings
For those, like me, who can’t get enough of the American ‘classics’ and the beautiful old buildings, here are more photos of what we found in Havana – the cars :
– the buildings :
Unique Havana Moments
The Train Museum
Havana’s Train Museum, which is akin to a scrapyard, won’t be competing anytime soon with others I’ve seen (the National Train Museum in York, UK has to be the best) but certainly earns points for being unusual, and they don’t charge an entrance fee :
Oh, I might as well add the story of our trip to the Cigar Factory :
Andre was determined to take some real quality Cuban cigars back to the UK, but wasn’t keen (to say the least) to pay the very high prices charged in the more formal shops. And so he and I set off on a mission to find a bargain, starting with the Cigar factory not too far from the hotel – we ventured inside but could see straight away this wasn’t going to be the place for a bargain, as all the goods were priced with Euro and Dollar bearing tourists from Europe and Canada in mind.
Leaving the museum, we were approached by a local guy, harmless-looking, who sidled up and said ‘psst, wanna buy cheap cigar’ or something to that effect. Andre engaged him briefly and when he suggested we follow him to ‘his place’ Andre, to my slight horror, agreed to do so.
Well, he took us down the road, around a corner, down another road into a gritty part of town and then up a staircase to his small apartment where we were told to wait in a rather dingy sitting room. Minutes later our new-found friend brought in his ‘brother’ who looked more the part of a gangster, muscled, gold chains and all, and carrying a large bag which he proceeded to unpack, pulling out various boxes and types of cigars.
Not to be outdone, Andre brought all his negotiating skills to bear and I sat fascinated but very apprehensive as the scene unfolded in front of me, with the dealer getting more and more agitated as he saw his expected ‘killing’ fading away, while Andre calmly opened each box and inspected every cigar individually to make sure they were genuine. Eventually we walked out with the very best cigars for about a tenth of the price he started with and the dealer close to tears.
I must admit I descended the stairs from the apartment expecting a dagger in the back at any moment, but didn’t turn around and just walked away as fast as possible. Definitely one of the more memorable moments of my travels!
Having spent a few nights at Camdeboo and Mountain Zebra National Parks on this current trip, following our earlier visit to De Hoop Nature Reserve, we were looking forward to a further 3 nights at Addo National Park to complete the quartet of parks. So far we had found each one most enjoyable in its own way, with Mountain Zebra National Park top of our list for having provided the most “African” experience of the three.
The road to Addo – Thursday 1 May 2014
Leaving Mountain Zebra National Park behind us after checking out around 11 am, we headed for nearby Cradock to stock up at the local Spar, followed by a coffee at True Living cafe accompanied by the best carrot cake we’ve had in a long time (they bake on the premises so it’s as fresh as it can get)
From there we headed down the N 10 with a diversion to Somerset East to check out the local museum, which we discovered was closed on the public holiday, but it was interesting just to drive through this small historical Eastern Cape town that we would not otherwise have seen. By now it was lunchtime, so we found a roadside spot with large blue gums to provide some shade and ate our “padkos” rolls.
The next stop was a short one to view the Slagtersnek monument, just off the road beyond the small town called Cookhouse. The monument commemorates the spot where a number of Dutch rebels surrendered after being confronted by British forces on 18 November 1815, however we were disappointed to find the surrounds unkempt and apparently not cared for in a long time.
The road continued in winding fashion with lengthy road works making our progress slow, resulting in us only reaching Addo around 5 pm, but the scenery along the way was rewarding, reminding us of the lowveld in places with lush growth and fruit farms
Back in Addo
Our first visit to Addo was just over a year previously when Gerda and I had enjoyed a few days in the park after visiting PE, so we were familiar with the layout. Some of the photos and descriptions I have used in this post are from that visit.
We had booked a few months before but by then it was already close to full so we had to accept one night in a chalet followed by 2 nights in the Forest Cabins – not ideal but it meant we could try out the different accommodation units.
Settling into our chalet, some familiar calls resounded in the fading light – Sombre Greenbul with its piercing whistle, the loud “chip – ing” of Bar- throated Apalis and a pair of Bokmakieries performing a duet. A little later as it darkened a Fiery – necked Nightjar started its “Lord please deliver us” call – so evocative wherever you hear it but especially so in the bush.
Exploring Addo and beyond
While having our customary early morning coffee on the patio, a pair of Cardinal Woodpeckers made a noisy appearance in a nearby tree, followed by Grey-headed Sparrow and a Fiscal Flycatcher, the latter looking debonair in its crisp black and white plumage – about to ask for a ‘Martini – shaken not stirred’. Soon after, a Lesser-striped Swallow settled on the roof, making it easy to ID as opposed to when they are in the air, when it is more of a challenge to separate them from the Greater-striped Swallows.
Having a 3 hour gap before we could move into our Forest cabin, we decided to go in search of the grave of Percy Fitzpatrick, author of the classic story of Jock of the Bushveld, which we had heard was not far from Addo Elephant Park, off the road to Kirkwood. Passing through the village of Addo we spotted a building with the name ‘Percy Fitzpatrick Library’ and immediately stopped to find out more – good thing because the very helpful librarian was more than willing to chat about the library, the area and showed us a portfolio of historical photos in a large album kept by the library. She also pointed us in the right direction to the grave site and ‘Lookout’.
It didn’t take long to find both at the end of a dirt road with heavy encroaching bush both sides (bit nerve-wracking for those who don’t like getting the car scratched) and it was clear that not much is done to look after the site, which was completely overgrown and in a sorry state – another neglected opportunity to create something which I’m sure many tourists would enjoy visiting.
The ‘Lookout’, built to honour their son, turned out to be a stone structure with a short stair to take you to a lookout deck, with wonderful views across the countryside and the Sundays River below, but this too was in need of some TLC.
By the time we got back to the rest camp, it was past 1pm so we could move into our Forest Cabins, which turned out to be comfortable and cosy with a small bathroom, a private deck and use of a communal kitchen.
There was time for a swim at the pool, cold but invigorating, before setting off on a late afternoon drive. The thick bush on the route we followed wasn’t conducive to spotting any of the pachyderms that Addo is named and famed for, but at a viewpoint high up on a hill we looked down on a classic scene of more than a hundred Elephant in the distance.
Along the way the bush was good for several common species such as Cape Weaver, Common Fiscal in numbers, Bokmakierie and Karoo Scrub-Robin. A Denham’s Bustard in the more open area was a nice surprise.
I spent the next day mostly at Cape Recife in Port Elizabeth, looking for a Bridled Tern that had been seen there during the week, unfortunately without success.
Back at Addo there was time to relax before doing a last drive along the route where most of the dams and waterholes are and we came across numbers of game as well as a few new ‘trip birds’ such as Southern Tchagra, as always skulking in the bushes, and a far more brazen pair of Red-necked Spurfowl, common to Addo.
At the dams, SA Shelducks showed once again as did Little Grebe and some Thick-Knees (Dikkop is still a much better name). Hapoor dam, named after a famous elephant with a chunk of its ear missing, was a welcome sight with its wide open spaces surrounding the dam, ideal for game including Kudu and favoured by some Crowned Lapwings.
We hadn’t allowed ourselves much time so had to make haste (barely sticking to the 40km/h speed limit) back to the game area gate before it closed at 6 pm. The lone guard at the gate gave us a stern look but we had seen the same look each time we entered the game area so weren’t too fazed.
Jack’s Picnic Spot
We had visited this spot on our previous visit and found it to have a special charm with tables set into alcoves created in the bush, visited by cute little Four-striped mice and Red-necked Spurfowl, both of which latched onto any errant crumbs from our cheese and crackers picnic – not our usual style but we were in a rental car after flying to PE, so had to make do with a plastic shopping bag to carry our humble provisions. This picnic spot gets its name from an ailing Rhino which spent its last years at this spot in a protected environment – little did he know how vulnerable the next generations of Rhino would become with rampant poaching in our country to feed the Far East obsession with Rhino horn.
Most of the chalets and cabins have stoeps (patios) with views over the bush and are a great place to relax in the early morning and evenings – there is a constant stream of passing bird life to enjoy, most of which are tame and easy to photograph – Weavers (Cape and Southern Masked),Bulbuls (Cape and Dark-capped),Olive Thrushes and Bar-throated Apalises are most common with Malachite Sunbirds not far behind
The Small Stuff
Addo is famous for its elephants but we were fascinated by some of the smaller creatures and insects which make this park special and provide great entertainment. Several times we came across the Flightless Dung-beetle – one particular beetle was crossing the dirt road with his meticulously formed dung ball with a ‘Supervisor’ in close attendance all the way across, seeming to guide him and even assisting to get him back on his legs when he toppled onto his back at one point.
Such a pity that other visitors ignore the many signs asking them to watch out for Dung beetles which are so vulnerable when crossing the road, resulting in a lot of crushed beetles.
At another spot we watched a group of Meerkats as they scurried after food while their lone sentry stood watch like a Royal guardsman – right under the nose of a Pale Chanting Goshawk not 3 m above them, which they chose to ignore completely
The Bulbul puzzle
I mentioned seeing both Cape and Dark-capped Bulbuls, once side by side in the same tree – apart from the white ring around the eye of the Cape Bulbul, they are virtually identical but don’t seem to interbreed – how do they know?
Heading back home
We had enjoyed our month of much travelling and many highlights, but as always we were now looking forward to getting back home and settling into our normal routine. The trip back was once again spread over two days of about 600 km each, with an overnight stop at Oudekraal guest farm just south of Bloemfontein. It turned out to be a pleasant place with excellent food but somewhat overpriced compared to other guest houses we have tried over the years.
One thing I can never understand about guest farms is why the front house, gardens and rooms are well looked after, yet take a walk (as I always do) around the farmyard and surroundings and it’s often a mess – old scrap everywhere and generally untidy. This is the case with a number of places we have visited and again with Oudekraal. The overgrown tennis court was sad to see – even if no one uses it, just keep it looking decent.
As we left Oudekraal we spotted a Spike-heeled Lark alongside the road and stopped to view it, noticing with interest that it had a juicy insect in its beak. As we stopped it walked off quickly and we followed it for about 100m until it suddenly stopped and ducked towards a hidden nest where two very young chicks were waiting to be fed – what a lucky find! The nest was so well camouflaged that when I got out to take a photo (from a distance using the telephoto lens) I had to search for it again, despite being a few metres away.
And so we came to the end of a memorable month of traveling – can’t wait for the next trip!
Parts 1 and 2 covered our visits to De Hoop Nature Reserve and Camdeboo National Park. The latter was enjoyable from many points of view, not least having the small tented camp virtually to ourselves, but our overall impression was that it did not have the “feel” of a National Park, probably due its relatively small size and being in close proximity to the town of Graaff-Reinet. Our next destination – Mountain Zebra National Park, on the other hand, proved to be everything we look for in a major National Park and has the potential to become a major tourist attraction, especially when the current plans to extend it, and eventually have a protected area running from Camdeboo all the way to Mountain Zebra, come to fruition.
Getting there – Monday 28 April 2014
The park lies west of Cradock in the Eastern Cape and we reached the main gate off the R 61 road around 4.30pm, giving enough time for an unhurried drive of the remaining 12 kms to the main rest camp before the camp gates closed at 6 pm. On the way we had sightings of African Spoonbill, alone in a large pond, Familiar Chats and Ant-eating Chats at regular intervals and old “Fumanchu” aka Scaly-feathered Finch in small groups looking almost too small and cute to survive in an environment such as this. White-browed Sparrow-Weavers were chattering in small flocks not far from their scruffy looking nests, but a real surprise awaited as we found a Secretarybird perched in the top of a tree, perhaps on a nest.
We had only ever seen Secretarybirds on the ground, usually striding through long grass in search of a tasty lizard or snake (their scientific name sagittarius serpentarius hints at this dietary preference), so had never imagined them taking to a tree. My Roberts birding app mentions that they do indeed nest on top of thorny trees and pairs may roost on a prospective tree for several months before using it to build a nest – so I suppose in this instance it was simply getting ready to roost for the night. And that answers a question that has no doubt troubled you for a long time….
The landscape we travelled through was quite different to any other National Park we knew and we looked forward to seeing more of it the next day
The chalets were a welcome sight with comfortable beds and all the necessary facilities for self-catering. A fireplace meant we could make a wood fire for the cold evenings and enjoy a glass of red wine in the small lounge.
Tuesday 29 April – exploring the Park
Up early-ish for a game drive on the Rooiplaat Loop, starting with a steep climb up to a plateau where the views stretched forever.
The grassy slopes were home to several Sickle-winged Chats, flying between low bushes, wings flicking as they landed.
Blue Cranes seemed very much at home in the long wheat-coloured grass while overhead White-necked Ravens cruised the skies emitting their raucous cries.
Back at the rest camp, I added Streaky-headed Seedeater and Neddicky, both frequent visitors to the bush adjoining the camp roads, then a Chinspot Batis paid our chalet a visit and Pied Barbet called from a distant tree. Southern Double-collared Sunbirds kept busy as usual, twittering (the real kind, none were bent over cellphones) loudly and flashing their brightly coloured plumage in the midday sun.
The camp has a large swimming pool which the grandkids tried but the water was just too cold for their liking nevertheless the walk there was pleasant and a Rock Agama stood guard at the gate.
Later we took a short drive to the nearby picnic spots, set amongst big shady trees, the one with a formal swimming pool and the other with a rock pool fed from a mountain stream – both looked extremely inviting and perfect for a late morning brunch visit. Sadly time caught up with us and we didn’t get around to trying this out.
a Hoopoe in the late afternoon sunlight made a nice picture
On the way there a large flock of Pied Starlings made themselves known and at a large dam a lone Brown-hooded Kingfisher sat in the shade on a convenient branch, waiting for a meal opportunity to pass by – which despite its name would be a grasshopper or suchlike rather than something fishy.
On the way back a small herd of Buffalo caused a mild traffic-jam, one which is a lot easier to bear than the dreaded City kind.
Back at our chalet a braai on the stoep made a nice end to the day, with the call of a Spotted Eagle-Owl in the distance adding to the atmosphere.
Wednesday 30th April – last day
The last day of our short stay, so an early morning birding and game drive was in order, this time taking the route along the Kranskop Loop, but part of the way along the road was under reconstruction and I had to turn around. Views across the park were even more magnificent than the previous day and I stopped several times to take them in. Sometimes I’m tempted just to bear such views to memory and not spoil the moment taking photos, but hey, I’ve got a blog to think about, so I “forced myself” to take a few record shots.
Along the stretch that I was able to access, and despite a few construction lorries passing in both directions, birding was good and game plentiful, with some lovely sights of Kudu, Mountain Zebra, Springbok and Red Hartebeest.
Special birds in the grasslands, such as Eastern Long-billed Lark and Plain-backed Pipit made the birding exciting, with a sighting of a Verraux’s Eagle on a mountain-top radio mast a bonus. White-backed Mousebirds made up a “full house” of all the mousebirds (adding to the Speckled and Red-faced Mousebirds already ticked earlier in our visit).
After lunch we covered the open plains along the Ubejane Loop not far from the main gate, stopping at the pans and dams along the route. There we found Spoonbill again, patrolling the shallows with its typical stooped posture, constantly sweeping the water with its unique spatula shaped bill to pick up small organisms. Nearby SA Shelducks showed off their handsome plumage, while Black-winged Stilts busied themselves prodding the mud along the shallow edges.
Nearby a family of Ground Squirrels entertained us as they pranced around close to our vehicle, waving their long bushy tails every now and then – do they know how cute they are I wonder? Crowned Lapwings found the short grass to their liking as well.
This part of the park also held a number of Gemsbok which reminded us just how handsome these antelope are with their long straight horns. A couple of them were in a frisky mood, chasing each other around.
On the way back a pair of Pale-chanting Goshawks drew our attention as they defended their territory vigorously against a lone Pied Crow invader and soon saw him off.
What a nice Park!
The Mountain Zebra National Park has a lot going for it, not least the magnificent scenery and sweeping views across the valleys and plains that give it a real “Out of Africa” feel. It probably won’t satisfy the “Big five at all costs” visitors but will provide enough interesting sightings to keep the nature enthusiast happy during a 3 or 4 day stay – longer if you just want to relax in the pleasant surroundings.
Having “done” De Hoop and the wedding that took us there, we spent time at our home in Mossel Bay until Saturday 26th April 2014, when we took to the road again, this time to Camdeboo National Park which lies close to and almost surrounds the town of Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape province.
Graaff-Reinet is full of historical buildings, being the fourth oldest town in South Africa – in years past we made a point of booking a night or two in the town when on our way to the Southern Cape, but more recently we have limited our stops to a lunch or snack and coffee at the popular Polka cafe, which also has an array of bric-a-brac which women love to browse – and it’s a good place for the trainee women (aka the granddaughters) to spend some of their pocket-money.
Getting there – Saturday 26 April 2014
Leaving around midday in light rain, we took a slightly longer route from Mossel Bay, via Robinson Pass, Oudtshoorn and the small town of De Rust, where we stopped for a good coffee at the coffee shop followed by our padkos (a lovely South African word and habit, literally “road food”) of home-made chicken buns – padkos is always best when eaten by the side of the road in the shade of a big tree. Just after De Rust a right turn took us onto the R 341 which links the N 12 and N 9 National roads, then on to Graaff-Reinet with no further stops, as it was getting near to gate-closing time. After a fuel and fast-food stop (sometimes we cheat) we arrived at Camdeboo National Park with 15 minutes to spare and enjoyed our Steers burgers in the communal area before getting ourselves organised in our homely tents – compact living but cosy and equipped with a small fridge, kettle etc. Canvas is a poor insulating material so the night was cold outside and inside the tent, but the beds were comfy and a duvet and fleecy blanket kept us nice and warm both nights – with the exception of the obligatory middle of the night toilet excursion.
Sunday 27 April
Canvas is also not effective at sound insulation so you hear everything going on close by, which is a bit worrying when the creepy-crawlies get moving at night but only a pleasure when the morning chorus wakes you up – I lay in bed in the dawn hour “ticking” a few in my mind, including Cape Robin-Chat with its happy tune, Brown-hooded Kingfisher sounding excited, Pied Barbet calling nasally, Bar-throated Apalis “chipping” loudly as it moved through the bush and Hadeda Ibis doing its “bird with a fear of heights” imitation.
After this early chorus we drifted back to sleep, thinking it was still dark outside – that’s another thing about canvas, it doesn’t let light in and the window flaps were closed, so we ended up rising at the “gentleman’s hour” of 8.30am. Time to put some serious effort into birding and atlasing the camp and so I took an extended walk around the small camp and the adjoining caravan camp. The Lakeview Camp comprises just 4 tented units with a communal kitchen and ablutions – a setup we found much to our liking as it felt as if we had the whole place to ourselves (which we did save for one tent occupied by others). Importantly, the facilities are kept clean and neat at all times.
The walk produced a number of species with Cape Robin-Chat, Karoo Scrub-Robin and Familiar Chat most prominent, drawn by the quite dense bush surrounding the camp.
The call of a Pririt Batis resounded through the camp and I was able to track it down for a snatched photo.
Yellow-fronted Canary (at the edge of its range by the looks of it), Chestnut-vented Titbabbler and Southern Double-collared Sunbird (phew those are long names) were all nice additions to the growing list. Not to be outdone by the birds, Striped Mice and Karoo Bushrats inhabit the undergrowth, the latter occupying large rambling nests built of hundreds of dry sticks – as you walk around they pop up to have a look and then scurry off or dart back into their nests.
After tea it was time to explore the Park by car and we soon came across Anteating Chat, Fiscal Flycatcher and Red-billed Firefinch on the way to the bird hide which is not far from the camp.
The neat hide sits at a distance from the water’s edge, which probably moves closer when the Nqweba dam is fuller. It still provided the chance to ID the few visible water birds such as Yellow-billed Duck, Cape Shoveler, Darter and SA Shelduck while the surrounding grass / bush had Black-throated Canary, Amethyst Sunbird and Bronze Mannikin to keep things interesting.
Back at the camp, Greater Flamingo were just visible through a gap in the tall reeds that block most of the view of the dam (making the name of the camp “Lakeview” a tad misleading).
I was not entirely satisfied with my bird list up to then and took a late afternoon drive to the far side of the dam, ticking Ostrich and Hamerkop along the way as I crossed a stream, with Kudu browsing nearby.
At the viewpoint at the last stop on the road I had a good view across the water, which held Black Stork and Black-winged Stilt in the shallows and Kittlitz’s Plover and the ubiquitous Three-banded Plover at the muddy edge.
Heading back to the camp in the dusk, I came across a pair of Black-backed Jackals, the one nuzzling the other as I took some photos of this beautiful species. A few minutes later the sky turned a spectacular orange-red colour as the sun set.
With just 2 nights booked, we made the most of the facilities on our second evening, braai-ing in the boma and eating out under the stars, wrapped up against the cold early winter air. That night it was colder in the tent and we slept with our woollen hats pulled down over our ears.
Monday 28 April
Our short stay was over and we set about packing the vehicles while still enjoying the surroundings, as a Fish Eagle called in the distance, a pair of Cardinal Woodpeckers made their way through the camp followed by a flock of Common Waxbills. A trilling call jogged my memory but it took me a while to realise it was a Namaqua Warbler, who remained well hidden in the denser bush.
On the way out of Camdeboo, we visited the Andries Pretorius monument near the entrance –
On the road at last, we stopped briefly to check out a Rock Kestrel before heading into town for a coffee stop at Polka cafe, then on to the other, very different, part of Camdeboo which harbours the Valley of Desolation, with its steep access roads through beautiful landscape, culminating in viewing spots that provide quite breathtaking views. The first of these looks down over the town of Graaff-Reinet way below and the second provides sweeping views across the flat plains of the surrounding Karoo, framed by the craggy peaks of the nearby mountains.
This was also a good spot to enjoy our padkos burgers before heading back down the mountain road and on to our next destination near Cradock – Mountain Zebra National Park – which turned out to be a lot more impressive than we had expected. More of that in Part 3 of this series.
The thing about being “semi-retired” is that it gives you lots of time to travel and Gerda and I tend to make the most of it while we are able. With our second home being in Mossel Bay, we do like to spend as much time there as we can afford, without abandoning our Pretoria ties completely.
And so it happened that we decided to spend the Easter period this year in Mossel Bay – then, fortuitously, we received an invite to a wedding at De Hoop Nature Reserve over the weekend before Easter, and on top of that our daughter and son-in-law suggested we do a week’s touring through the Eastern Cape during the school break at the end of April, with 2 or 3 night stays at three National Parks – Camdeboo near Graaf-Reinet, Mountain Zebra a bit further east near Cradock and Addo Elephant Park not far from Port Elizabeth. Now that’s an offer that was difficult to refuse. We had been to Addo before – just last year for the first time – but the other three parks would all be first-time visits, which is something we are looking forward to.
Starting off – overnight in Springfontein
As often happens, we were loaded to the hilt when we left Pretoria (actually our VW Touareg was) – there are always surplus items from our main home which need transporting to Mossel Bay and this time was no different, plus our normal baggage. The trip to Mossel Bay is a two-day affair for us, so an overnight stop around halfway is always part of the planning. We have tried various B&B’s in the stretch between Bloemfontein and Colesberg / Hanover and they have all been quite acceptable – all you want is a comfortable bed, a clean shower that works properly and a decent dinner and breakfast and most have perfected those simple requirements. This time around we decided to try Prior Grange, a guest farm near Springfontein, as I had read that there was a Blockhouse from the Anglo-Boer war on the property and I was interested to see it.
Having left Pretoria a bit later than we had hoped, knowing we had over 600 km to travel, we nevertheless reached Prior Grange in good time and, after settling in, I drove the further 4 km to the hill on which the blockhouse was perched. According to Blackie de Swardt from Prior Grange, there were some 8000 of these block houses built by the Brits across South Africa, approximately 1000 yards apart so that they were visible to the next one, of which only 50 or so originals remain – he went to the trouble of rebuilding this one on the old foundations and well done to him, as it gives you a feel for what it would have been like to man these structures, watching over the railway line and the surrounding veld well into the distance.
At the same time I worked on a bird list for the pentad, which proved to be quite productive – Wattled and Pied Starlings were plentiful and a Desert Cisticola posed on the fence, while Cliff Swallows wheeled overhead near a culvert before settling in for the night. Common Waxbills twittered as they passed by in a flock and Barn Swallows swooped past, perhaps readying themselves for the long journey back north.
Next morning I was up at dawn to complete the 2 hours atlasing and walked to the dam just behind the main house. There I was met by a beautiful scene of dead still water in the soft morning light, reflecting the surrounding trees and disturbed only by the V-shaped ripples of the water birds enjoying the first light of day – I listed Red-billed Teal, Little Grebe, Cape Shoveler and a few handsome SA Shelducks.
White-throated Swallows skimmed the water and a group of Spotted Thick-Knees flushed like magic from the grassy verge when I got close. Then it was time for breakfast and the second leg of the long drive to Mossel Bay.
De Hoop Nature Reserve
We had just two days at our home in Mossel Bay before it was time to travel again – to De Hoop for the “Wedding Weekend” of Louis and Amelda (Rossouw). De Hoop lies south-west of Swellendam and less than 200 km from Mossel Bay so we didn’t rush to get away and stopped at Riversdale for lunch on the way at a farm stall, which has the only “dog pub” I’ve come across.
The last 50 km or so were on gravel and just before getting to the entrance gate to De Hoop we stopped for a photo of a pair of Blue Cranes which were mingling with some cattle at a watering hole – so intent was I on getting a good photo with my new lens that I didn’t notice I had stepped into …… (no, fortunately not what you were thinking) ….sticky yellow mud at the side of the road which immediately rendered my sandals unwearable. After checking in barefoot, Gerda kindly rescued my sandals by washing them and leaving them in the sun to dry – good as new again!
A Black-headed Heron flying off proved to be a good time to test my new lens’ ability to handle a Bird-in-flight – I was quite pleased with my new purchase.
From the entrance gate it was a short drive to the “Opstal” and by 5pm we were settled into our spacious and comfortable cottage – Black Oystercatcher cottage – which we would enjoy for the next three days. Birding started as we approached the complex of white-painted buildings and once we were settled in I took a walk to the Vlei, which I discovered is a large body of water trapped for centuries by the dunes bordering the nearby coastline and which has dried up completely in dry years, but right now seemed massive and full to the brim. On the walk to the vlei I came across some relaxed birds all of the “Cape” variety – Cape Robin-Chat, Cape Spurfowl and Cape Weaver – basking in the late afternoon sun.
At the vlei I found tens of Egyptian Geese, Coots and Great Crested Grebes back-lit by the fast setting sun, and a Grey Heron or two keeping watch at the edge of the vlei. Walking along the cliffs that border long stretches of the vlei, I noted a number of Rock Martins preparing to roost for the night, while a flock of Glossy Ibises flew overhead on their way to their preferred roosting site. All of the while I was aware of the biting horse flies which made it difficult to stand still for any length of time. The sun set in a blaze of red-orange reflected across the water.
Later on we enjoyed a fine dinner in the Fig Tree restaurant at the Opstal, which augured well for the rest of our short stay.
Exploring De Hoop
I had booked an extra day to allow time for some relaxed birding and atlasing, so only ventured out on Friday after a good lie-in to recover from an energy-sapping few days, starting with a slow drive past the short-grassed fields where several Capped Wheatears were showing and a flock of Pied Starlings were moving about in chattering fashion. Also present were Bontebok which are plentiful in the reserve and some colourful butterflies.
Heading towards the coastal dunes I was really pleased to come across a group of Cape (there it is again) Penduline-Tits, which I have only seen a handful of times in all my years of birding – as a bonus I was able to get a distant photo or two before they moved off again.
Further on, the vlei had encroached onto the road and, as the Opstal manager had told me last evening, there were a lot of birds taking advantage of the shallow water with plenty of food for all types. Spoonbills were prominent along with Darter, White-breasted Cormorant, Cape Teal, Little Grebe and a family of Cape Shovelers. Also in the scene were Pied Kingfishers hovering and diving now and then, Purple Heron flying in and landing gracefully near some Little Stints and Wood Sandpipers. On the opposite shore a few Great White Pelicans pottered about.
Carrying on along the road to the “Melkkamer”, a quiet inlet held Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebe and an African Darter stretching its wings, while the roadside bush was quite productive with the customary fynbos species such as Grey-backed Cisticola and Cape Grassbird, as well as Bar-throated Apalis noisilycompeting with Karoo Prinia for attention – if the latter two were schoolkids they would be the ones always being scolded for talking too much.
I turned around at the gate to the protected area and headed the opposite way to Koppie Alleen where I took a brief walk on the high dunes – the pentad ended just short of the parking area at Koppie Alleen, but not before I had seen a beautiful Black Harrier floating low above the dunes in their typical butterfly like way.
On the way I had an interesting sighting when I spotted a Cape Bunting in the road, only to discover it was “chasing” a large Puff Adder across the road and into the thick bush. Not for nothing then that signs have been erected warning visitors to brake in time for snakes in the road.
Saturday dawned bright and sunny – and warm for this time of year. The ceremony was only at 4 pm so there was time for further birding and I decided to return to Koppie Alleen to explore the beach which had looked enticing from high up on the dunes. The 15 km from the cottage took about 45 minutes with a brief stop at the vlei and I began to atlas the pentad at Koppie Alleen by 8.30 am, with Cape Bulbul featuring prominently in the fynbos on the long walk from the parking area down to the beach.
Southern Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds flitted about busily and vociferously while a few Barn Swallows proved that they hadn’t begun their long trek northwards just yet. Maybe they’d heard about the long cold European winter and were holding out as long as possible.
The beach, once I got there, was deserted except for a few Kelp Gulls, White-breasted Cormorants, African Black Oystercatchers and a few Cape Wagtails – later on the beach would see a handful of visitors but right now it was just me and the wide expanse of sand and rocks. It seemed to be low tide,as the rocks in the inter-tidal zone were exposed, some with crystal clear pools of water trapped between them. It was nice to see no sign of the plastic litter that is a feature of much of the coastline nowadays, just thousands of pristine seashells left behind by the tides.
A little unexpectedly, a Yellow Canary and Familiar Chat joined me on the beach, then a small flock of waders flew past which I was able to ID as Sanderlings based on their small size, tail pattern and call.
A boardwalk over the dunes and higher rocks was very welcome in getting past the rocky barriers between the beaches.
Trekking back up the long and sandy road (time to hum the similar-titled Beatles song), a Jackal Buzzard and a Black Harrier helped to close out the pentad before I made my way back to the cottage, then on to lunch. The wedding ceremony was held out in the open overlooking the vlei – I had to wonder where else you can carry on birding during a wedding, as I watched a Bokmakierie close by and the waterfowl on the vlei in the distance.
The reception was equally “cool” being held under the massive Fig tree near the restaurant and as darkness fell the lights strung around the branches turned it into a veritable fairyland – with fairy princess and all. Needless to say the evening was enjoyed by all and the younger set danced till the early hours. The perfect weather was made for partying outdoors.
After breakfast on Sunday morning and goodbyes, we set out for our next stop – Stellenbosch with a quick look-in at De Mond Nature Reserve. More on that at another time.
This Saturday 26 April will see us starting the next leg of our Four Parks tour – starting with Camdeboo National Park at Graaf Reinet