Four Parks and a Wedding (Part 1) – De Hoop

Where to this time?

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.

Prior Grange, Springfontein
Prior Grange, Springfontein
Prior Grange cottage - our home for the night
Prior Grange cottage – our home for the night

 

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.

British Block house, Anglo-Boer War
British Block house, Anglo-Boer War
View from the blockhouse
View from the blockhouse

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.

The dam at Prior Grange
The dam at Prior Grange

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.

IMG_1088

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!

Blue Crane
Blue Crane

 

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.

Black-headed Heron
Black-headed Heron

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.

Cape Robin-Chat, De Hoop NR
Cape Robin-Chat
Cape Spurfowl, De Hoop NR
Cape Spurfowl

 

Cape Weaver, De Hoop NR
Cape Weaver

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.

Sunset over De Hoop Vlei
Sunset over De Hoop Vlei

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.

Bontebok
Bontebok
False dotted-border (Belenois thysa thysa)
False dotted-border (Belenois thysa thysa)

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.

Cape Pendiline-Tit, De Hoop NR
Cape Penduline-Tit

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.

De Hoop Vlei - over the road
De Hoop Vlei – over the road
Vlei at De Hoop
Vlei at De Hoop
Spoonbill, De Hoop NR
Spoonbill
Cape Shoveler, De Hoop NR
Cape Shoveler

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.

Great Crested Grebe, De Hoop NR
Great Crested Grebe
Little Grebe, De Hoop NR
Little Grebe
African Darter, De Hoop NR
African Darter
Karoo Prinia, De Hoop NR
Karoo Prinia

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.

Puff Adder
Puff Adder

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Wedding Day!

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.

De Hoop NR - Koppie Alleen
De Hoop NR – Koppie Alleen
Cape Bulbul, De Hoop NR
Cape Bulbul

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.

Beach at Koppie Alleen
Beach at Koppie Alleen
African Black Oystercatcher
African Black Oystercatcher
Cape Wagtail, De Hoop NR
Cape Wagtail

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.

Yellow Canary, De Hoop NR
Yellow Canary
Familiar Chat, De Hoop NR
Familiar Chat

A boardwalk over the dunes and higher rocks was very welcome in getting past the rocky barriers between the beaches.

Beach at Koppie Alleen
Beach at Koppie Alleen
Just me and the birds
Just me, my Hi-tecs and the birds

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.

Louis and the minister (his dad Johan)
Louis and the minister (his dad Johan) await the arrival of Amelda

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.

Louis and Amelda - all over bar the dancing
Louis and Amelda – all over bar the dancing
Louis and Amelda arrive at the reception in style
Louis and Amelda arrive at the reception in style
The reception under the grand old Fig tree
The reception under the grand old Fig tree

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

 

 

 

Potchefstroom – Bird Sanctuary surprise

Why Potch?

Potchefstroom and the surrounding area does not immediately spring to mind when considering where to go birding, however it is one of those parts of South Africa that is quite rewarding if you “dig a little deeper” and the good thing about atlasing is it can be done anywhere.

Our son Stephan and his family – wife Liesl, kids Jocelyn and Christopher –  have been resident in Potch for a few years now and we tend to visit them on a fairly regular basis, especially when one of the grandkids is having a birthday, as it’s an easy 2 hour’s drive from our home in Pretoria. When we visit it is usually for at least a weekend, so I always try and fit in some early morning atlasing and have atlased a number of pentads (5 x 5 minutes if measured by coordinates, about 8 x 8 km’s in actual size) over the past few years, most of which do not attract atlasers, making the effort seem that much more worthwhile.

So what’s Potch got?

It has a University (which my wife Gerda attended back in the late 1960’s so clearly a top university) and a nice “small town” feel – you don’t have to go very far for anything and traffic is not really an issue. It also has a Bird Sanctuary – the OPM Prozesky Bird Sanctuary – which I was aware of but didn’t get around to visiting until March 2013, probably because my experience of bird sanctuaries in general has been mixed.

OPM Prozesky Bird Sanctuary

I was glad that I ignored my better judgement and the lukewarm response of a few Potchers when I enquired about the bird sanctuary, and paid it a late afternoon visit. The sanctuary borders the suburbs on the southern side of Potch and adjoins the sewerage treatment works so the smell may be a problem for some but I found it entirely bearable during my 2 hour visit. I parked at the entrance where there is a small office, but as there was no one in sight I proceeded to walk towards the ponds. Encouragingly, there was a signboard erected by Birdlife Westvaal which provided some info on the sanctuary.

OZM ProZesky Bird Sanctuary Potchefstroom
OPM Prozesky Bird Sanctuary, Potchefstroom

The sanctuary comprises a number of large ponds, some with neat bird hides, with wide pathways around and between the ponds which make for a pleasant walk, while keeping an eye out for birds in the sometimes dense undergrowth along the pathways. Where there are gaps in the vegetation you can look over the ponds which were well populated with Ducks (Yellow-billed Duck, South African Shelduck) and Teals (Cape Teal, Red-billed Teal). As I got too close for their comfort the Ducks and Teals took to the air and wheeled around, landing on a more distant part of the same pond or moving to an adjoining one.

SA Shelducks and Yellow-billed Ducks
SA Shelducks and Yellow-billed Ducks

As they flew past I was able to get photos of the Shelducks, Male and female showing how they differ in plumage, particularly from the neck up.

SA Shelduck, male following female (so what else is new?)
SA Shelduck, male following female (so what else is new?)

Sacred Ibises were also plentiful and doing their best to look elegant as they flew up and past me, though not quite managing it. The Afrikaans name Skoorsteenveër translates literally to “chimney sweep”  – clearly from images of chimney sweeps in Europe of old, getting ready to wash after a day’s work, blackened by soot on the face, neck and arms, otherwise lily-white over their body.

Sacred Ibis
Sacred Ibis (Skoorsteenveër)

There were not many waders present as suitable wading territory is limited, but the ubiquitous Three-banded Plover was present, not far from an African Purple Swamphen making his way carefully through the reed fringes. On a smaller pond, a hide allowed me to observe a Little Egret in action without disturbing it.

African Purple Swamphen
African Purple Swamphen
Little Egret
Little Egret

Moving away from the ponds, the bush and long grass held numbers of birds, among them Red-eyed Bulbul, Red-billed Firefinch and Black-throated Canary.

Red-eyed Bulbul
Red-eyed Bulbul
Red-billed Firefinch
Red-billed Firefinch
Black-throated Canary
Black-throated Canary

On the way back to my car I spotted Wattled Starlings high up in the trees, while a mixed flock of swallows entertained me with their swooping fly pasts – I noted Barn, Greater-striped and SA Cliff Swallows all enjoying each other’s company.

Back in the car I reflected on how pleased I was that I had taken the time to explore this worthwhile sanctuary – the fact that I was the only person there (as far as I could tell) during the 2 hours, attests to the fact that not many people know about it or frequent it. On the plus side I’m sure the birds enjoy the peaceful habitat for feeding and breeding opportunities and that’s surely what a sanctuary is all about.

Potch has some fine birding in the surrounding areas, but more about that later.

 

 

 

Mostly Battlefields – Kwazulu-Natal (Part 3)

The background

My earlier Post on “Paardeberg (Finding the Canadians)” covers our trip with Sheila (Sam) and John Denner to Kimberley and the Paardeberg Battlefield. The follow-on trip took us to Kwazulu-Natal where we visited a number of battlefield sites, some of which were described in the similarly captioned Posts, Parts 1 and 2. This post takes up the next leg of the trip,  covering more of the battlefield sites identified by John over the northern and central parts of Kwazulu-Natal (KZN) province, which lies in the north-east quadrant of South Africa.

We continued to enjoy the wonderful hospitality of Pieter and Anlia Genis , family of my wife Gerda, who farm near Vryheid and who had offered their farm as a base for us to visit the various battlefield sites. They went far beyond normal hospitality in driving us around and providing meals and a place to sleep for four days – they surely deserve a medal!

Next on our agenda were the well-known sites of Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana, where fierce battles took place between the British and the Zulu nation. To close out our KZN visit we tracked across the province to visit the Ulundi battlefield and the nearby sites of Piet Retief’s grave and the mock-up of Dingaan’s Kraal. Lastly we visited the site of the Battle of Khambula, just a couple of km’s from where we were staying on the farm.

A tour of the farm was in order before making our way back to Pretoria

Battle of Rorke’s Drift (23 January 1879)

Following an early farm breakfast, we traveled via Dundee to Rorke’s Drift, arriving just after 10h00.

Rorke's Drift Battlefield (23 January 1879)

Rorke's Drift Battlefield
Rorke’s Drift Battlefield

This was the site of a heroic defence, by around 100 men, of the hospital and surrounds against thousands of Zulus. The house used as a hospital has been reconstructed on the old foundations and acts as a museum, while the immediate area that was successfully defended is marked out with white stone lines, making it easy to picture just how the battle progressed and where the main lines of defence were positioned.

Rorke's Drift Battlefield
Rorke’s Drift Battlefield
Rorke's Drift - the house used as a Hospital
Rorke’s Drift – the museum on the site of the original Hospital
Rorke's Drift - side view of house used as hospital
Rorke’s Drift – side view of the museum
Rorke's Drift - one of the heroes
Rorke’s Drift – story of one of the heroes
Rorke's Drift Battlefield Cemetery
Rorke’s Drift Battlefield Cemetery

Rorke's Drift Battlefield (23 January 1879)

Rorke's Drift - inside the small chapel
Rorke’s Drift – inside the small chapel, used as a storehouse at the time of the battle

We walked up to the ridge where numbers of Zulus hid in caves and fired downwards at the British defenders – now one looks down on the local school grounds and some scattered dwellings, which seems a waste of an opportunity to turn the site into a significant attraction, famous as it is throughout the world.

Rorke's Drift Battlefield
Rorke’s Drift Battlefield – view from the ridge behind the house where Zulus hid in caves
Rorke's Drift - a recent monument
Rorke’s Drift – monument to the fallen Zulus

The Battle

This battle started on the same day as the Battle of Isandlwana, continuing to the next day, and it soon became clear that the two battles are inextricably linked.

With the main British column being involved in the invasion of Zululand, just 104 men were left at the camp at Rorke’s Drift, on the border between Natal and Zululand, at a point where a drift provides a crossing point across the Buffalo River. The hospital was looking after 39 sick men. Hearing of the battle at Isandlwana and receiving reports of Zulu warriors heading in their direction, the men left at Rorke’s Drift set up barricades close to the hospital using biscuit tins and bags of mealie meal and prepared for the onslaught, which came in waves of Zulu warriors numbering about 4000 in all. Eventually some of them gained access to the hospital and the British broke holes in the walls to escape to the outside barricaded area, taking the hospital patients with them. The Zulus continued to attack throughout the night and managed to set fire to the thatched roof of the hospital, but were repulsed each time – at first light the Zulus withdrew when they saw some of the remaining forces who had managed to escape from Isandlwana returning to Rorke’s Drift.

The map below is taken from the book Field Guide to Battlefields of South Africa

Battle of Rorke's Drift

Where is it?

 Travel on the R 68 to Nqutu, turn right after about 26 km to Rorke’s Drift and turn left after a further 6 km at a T-junction and travel to the entrance gate. The gate is at 28º 21′ 28.3″ S , 30º 32′ 06.3″ E

Battle of Isandlwana (22 January 1879)

Isandlwana was our next stop, not too far along the road. A number of monuments commemorate the battle and tens of stone crypts are dotted across the vast site, marking the spots where the fallen soldiers were buried. The battle took place on the same day as Rorke’s Drift, when a massive Zulu force wiped out about 1300 British soldiers, making it one of the most disastrous battles for the British and a major triumph for the Zulus.

Isandlwana Battlefield
Isandlwana Battlefield
Isandlwana Battlefield - one of several monuments
Isandlwana Battlefield – one of several monuments
Detail of the monument
Detail of the monument
Isandlwana Battlefield - another of the monuments
Isandlwana Battlefield – another of the monuments
Monument detail
Monument detail

The Battle

The British army invaded Zululand in 3 separate columns, of which the central column consisted of some 4500 men under Lord Chelmsford, who were headed in the direction of Ulundi, the seat of the Zulu king, Cetshwayo. At the same time the Zulu army of some 22000 warriors had left Ulundi and were heading towards Rorke’s Drift with orders to engage the British forces. The Zulus employed an attack strategy known as “the horns-of-the-buffalo” formation and eventually surrounded the depleted British forces who began to retreat. The battle ended in disaster for the British, as all men who stayed to the end were killed, with 1329 British dead in total. The Zulus also suffered around a 1000 dead, making it an expensive victory, which turned out to be short-lived when the British came out victorious some 5 months later at the final battle of the war at Ulundi.

The map below is taken from the book Field Guide to the Battlefields of South Africa

Battle of Isandlwana

Where is it?

The site is south-east of Dundee in KZN – travel on the R 68 to Nqutu where you turn right in town then take the R 68 further to Melmoth – the turn-off to the site is about 14 km out of Nqutu.

Battle of Ulundi (4 July 1879)

From Isandlwana it was a long drive along some very rough back roads, expertly negotiated by Pieter in his Nissan Pathfinder, via Babanango to Ulundi where the final battle of the Anglo-Zulu War took place. The site is well-preserved and presented, with a commemorative domed building in the middle of the site and pathways radiating out from the centre, delineating the area where about 5500 British soldiers were formed in a “fighting square” and managed to keep some 15000 Zulu warriors at bay.

Ulundi Battlefield
Ulundi Battlefield
John checking the facts
John checking the facts
Ulundi Battlefield - the stone building serving as monument
Ulundi Battlefield – the stone building serving as monument

Ulundi Battlefield (4 July 1879) Ulundi Battlefield (4 July 1879)

The Battle

This was the final battle of the Anglo-Zulu war. The British forces, numbering about 5500 men, were advancing on Ondini, home of Cetshwayo the Zulu king, formed into a fighting square with companies of fighting men on four sides with guns and wagons alongside them, covering an area of some 3.5 hectares. The Zulus employed their famous “horns-of-the-buffalo” formation and began to attack the British formation, but suffered huge casualties and were beaten back and subsequently pursued with many being killed, probably as a brutal revenge for the British losses at Isandlwana. The British dead amounted to 12 men.

Where is it?

Travel to Ulundi town and take the airport road turn-off – shortly after you pass the airport the site is visible on the left. The GPS position at the monument in the middle of the site is 28º 18′ 39.3″ S , 31º 25′ 32.2″ E

Piet Retief’s Grave (Murdered on 6 February 1838)

By this time it was getting late and we were all tiring after a long day’s drive – not surprisingly, we were wavering about whether to look for the site where Piet Retief was buried, but John was adamant that we should “pay our respects to old Piet”. After a further short drive from Ulundi and a couple of wrong turns, we found the site at the end of a dirt road. The grave of Piet Retief and the monument to him and the 70 burghers who were all murdered, was well-kept and quite moving to visit, knowing some of the history leading to this tragic event.

Monument and cemetery - Piet Retief's murder
Monument and cemetery – Piet Retief’s murder
Piet Retief's grave
Piet Retief’s grave
Monument and cemetery - Piet Retief's murder
Monument and cemetery – Piet Retief’s murder
The Burghers who were murdered along with Piet Retief
The Burghers who were murdered along with Piet Retief

The Murder

The Trekkers under Piet Retief were seeking permission to settle south of the Tugela River and he and his entourage entered into negotiations with the Zulu king Dingane at his homestead, but were all executed on Dingane’s orders.

Where is it?

We had some difficulty finding the site due to poor signposting – the GPS position is 28º 25′ 37.7″ S , 31º 16′ 12.6″ E

Dingaan’s Kraal

We followed this up with a look-in at the nearby mock-up of Dingaan’s Kraal which has been re-created in the same position that it was at the time of the murder.

John Pieter Sam and Donald at Dingaan's Kraal
John Pieter Sam and Donald at Dingaan’s Kraal
Dingaan's Kraal re-created
Dingaan’s Kraal re-created

Where is it?

Very close to the grave of and monument to Piet Retief and his entourage – best to visit both in one trip.

Battle of Khambula (29 March 1879)

The closest battlefield site to the farm, just a few km’s away, is that of the Battle of Khambula, which Pieter took us to view before returning to Pretoria. Once again we were pleasantly surprised to find the cemetery and monuments well-kept,  despite it being on private ground and not being one of the “popular” sites, so probably visited very infrequently.

Battle of Khambula
Battle of Khambula
Khambula Battlefield - cemetery
Khambula Battlefield – cemetery
Khambula Battlefield
Khambula Battlefield
Khambula Battlefield
Khambula Battlefield
Khambula Battlefield - monument
Khambula Battlefield – monument
A lizard keeps watch at the cemetery
A lizard keeps watch at the cemetery

The Battle

This battle followed some 3 months after the disastrous loss for the British at Isandlwana and just a day after the Battle of Hlobane on a nearby mountain the previous day where further losses were suffered. The battle of Khambula took place at the British encampment which housed the northern British column of the forces that had set out to invade Zululand. The 1800 British soldiers successfully defended their position against up to 20000 Zulu warriors and inflicted heavy casualties on them while suffering 18 dead and 65 wounded

Where is it?

Turn off the R33 between Vryheid and Paulpietersburg about 5 km outside Vryheid and follow the dirt road for a further 5 km to the site. There is no gate to the site so use the GPS positions to find the cemetery at 27º 41′ 15.5″ S , 30º 40′ 04.4″ E

The Farm

In between travelling to the sites we continued to enjoy the hospitality of Pieter and Anlia – before departing for Pretoria, Pieter took us on a tour of the farm, including the grazing land for his herd of fine Boran cattle high up on the plateau, accessed by a mildly hairy dirt road that switchbacks up the side of the mountain.

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The herd up on the plateau

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John getting up close and personal with a friendly bull
John and Pieter getting up close and personal with a friendly bull

Having seen a lot of KZN in the few days at our disposal and having covered almost all of the battlefield sites on John’s “wish list”, we returned to Pretoria quite tired but well satisfied. Next on the itinerary was a couple of days to take it easy, perhaps explore the Pretoria and Joburg area a bit and get ready for our trip to Kruger Park and the other attractions of Mpumulanga province, followed by a flight to George to “do” the Garden Route.

Special note : much of the detail info is taken from the excellent book Field Guide to the Battlefields of South Africa and summarised in my own words – the cover is reproduced below. It is highly recommended for anyone seeking more info and intending to visit some of the sites.

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Flowering Aloe time in Kruger – continued

Tamboti Tented Camp

At the end of our 4 nights in Letaba, we headed south towards Orpen and the nearby Tamboti Tented camp for the next 7 days of our Kruger Park visit. Tamboti lies a couple of km’s off the main Orpen – Satara tarred road, along a river course which is dry for most of the year. All of the units are tented, with some having their own private bathrooms and others sharing an ablution block – we had chosen one with a bathroom and an outside kitchen, more like a chalet with canvas walls than an actual tent. The whole unit is raised above the ground and has a deck which overlooks the river bed – really comfortable as long as you realise that in winter canvas walls  provide very little insulation from the cold nights, so warm blankets and a warm body next to you are highly recommended for a good night’s sleep.

Early morning coffee and rusks on the patio is all part of our ritual when visiting Kruger and Tamboti was no different once we had dragged ourselves out of the warm cocoon of the bed and onto the deck to get the kettle boiling in the chilly morning air – it took some cajoling to get a slightly reluctant Gerda to join me but once we had a steaming mug to hand, the sights and sounds of the awakening bush and the crisp, fresh air made it all worthwhile.

Tamboti Tent camp - view from the deck
Tamboti Tent camp – view from the deck

A slow walk around the camp with binos and camera was next on the schedule and it was soon evident that there was plenty of bird life working their way through the dry bush – Southern Boubou was particularly prominent and vocal, while both Red-billed and Yellow-billed Hornbills showed themselves, the latter having caught a large centipede which he deftly worked into his long curved bill until just the legs were showing and soon disappeared altogether.

Southern Boubou, Tamboti
Southern Boubou, Tamboti
Yellow-billed Hornbill with doomed centipede
Yellow-billed Hornbill with doomed centipede
Yellow-billed Hornbill finishing breakfast
Yellow-billed Hornbill finishing breakfast
Red-billed Hornbill, Tamboti
Red-billed Hornbill, Tamboti

The bush between the units, set well apart, was home to many other species, some of which I was able to capture digitally –

Black-crowned Tchagra, Tamboti
Black-crowned Tchagra, Tamboti
Burnt-necked Eremomela, Tamboti
Burnt-necked Eremomela, Tamboti
Blue Waxbill, Tamboti
Blue Waxbill, Tamboti
White-browed Robin-Chat, Tamboti
White-browed Robin-Chat, Tamboti
Jameson's Firefinch, Tamboti
Jameson’s Firefinch, Tamboti
Magpie Shrike
Magpie Shrike
Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Tamboti
Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Tamboti

Besides the numerous birds, other visitors to our unit included the usual mischievous Vervet Monkeys, which you always have to keep an eye on if you value your fruit and bread, which they will grab in a flash and jump onto the nearest branch. An unexpected “robber” in the guise of a Tree Squirrel gained access to our tented unit via a tiny gap in the canvas and got into one of the biscuit tins while we were out one morning so after that we kept all our food in crates, weighed down with heavy items. A few Dwarf Mongooses (Mongeese? No, don’t think so) were also regulars around the tent, looking for food amongst the leaf litter and there is often a Gecko or Lizard to observe, in and around the tent.

Tent visitor
Tent visitor
Dwarf Mongoose, Tamboti
Dwarf Mongoose, Tamboti

Once we had spent a day or so relaxing in camp we were keen to get out on the road for a game and birding drive – the road to Satara is usually good for a variety of game, especially as you get closer to Satara and was fully up to expectations –

Zebra - Most photogenic animal in Kruger?
Burchell’s Zebra – surely the most photogenic animal in Kruger
Another Oxpecker take-away
Another Oxpecker take-away
Kudu
Kudu
African Buffalo
African Buffalo
Black-backed Jackal
Black-backed Jackal

The nice thing about being a birder in Kruger is that whenever you stop for a bird, as often as not an animal is spotted and vice versa, so there is never a shortage of interesting  sightings. The area close to Satara is also one of the best for spotting Ostrich – yes, you can see hundreds at a time on farms around Oudtshoorn and every second farm across SA has a few in the fields, but there is just nothing like seeing the real thing in one of the National Parks – they just look more handsome and genuine than the farm-raised Ostriches.

Ostrich near Satara
Ostrich near Satara

Then a group of White-crested Helmet-Shrikes drew our attention – I have this theory that says these birds must be able to count, as you always see them in a group of 7 or 8 – how else would they know when to allow a newcomer to the group or get rid of an unwanted member? Anyway that’s a theory that probably needs some more work to make it believable.

White-crested Helmet-Shrike
White-crested Helmet-Shrike

Satara Camp

Satara camp is one of the Kruger camps that has managed to retain a lot of its old-style atmosphere, despite being the second busiest camp and very popular with tour groups. The restaurant doesn’t serve those glorious burgers  and pies that were worth looking forward to, but the stoep and the view across the lawns with the grand old trees in the middle, full of Buffalo-Weavers and like-minded species, is still there. Fortunately, the aloes in Satara were also in full bloom and attracted a variety of birds –

Collared Sunbird, Satara
Collared Sunbird, Satara
Speckled Mousebird, Satara
Speckled Mousebird, Satara
Bee on Aloe
Bee on Aloe

Near the reception the resident African Scops-Owl was still attracting knots of tourists and is probably one of the most photographed birds in Kruger but maintains a rather disdainful attitude towards his fame –

African Scops-Owl, Satara
African Scops-Owl, Satara

The picnic spot for day visitors is set to one side and attracts a steady stream of avian and butterfly visitors to entertain while you picnic –

Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver, Satara
Red-billed Buffalo-Weaver, Satara
Orange-tip Butterfly
Orange-tip Butterfly (Colotis evenina evenina)

During a walk around Satara I came across a couple of species which allowed a close approach  – a Bennett’s Woodpecker  was so engrossed with inspecting the lower leaves of a large Aloe that he paid no attention as I crept closer to get some nice sharp photos and a Black-headed Oriole was equally unconcerned when I got up close and personal.

Bennet's Woodpecker, Satara
Bennet’s Woodpecker, Satara
Black-headed Oriole, Satara
Black-headed Oriole, Satara

Destination Muzandzeni

The loop that lies south of the Orpen-Satara road is good for a morning’s drive, bypassing Talamati Bushveld camp and with Muzandzeni picnic spot ideally placed for a brunch break. On the way there is a good chance of spotting game and at the picnic spot there is always a gathering of birds and Tree-squirrels to keep the grandkids busy.

Croc and Crake
Croc and Crake
Impala at waterhole
Impala at waterhole
Buffalo with Oxpeckers
Buffalo with Oxpeckers
Red-billed Oxpecker on Buffalo
Red-billed Oxpecker on Buffalo
Crested Barbet, Muzandzeni
Crested Barbet, Muzandzeni
Muzandzeni picnic spot - brunch being prepared
Muzandzeni picnic spot – time for brunch

Late afternoon in the camp is time to get the evening meal together, rounding off another day in our private paradise –

Preparing a meal in the outside kitchen
Preparing a meal in the outside kitchen
Spotted again - Maia and Megan (Leonardii Mosselbayi)
Spotted again – Maia and Megan (Leonardii Mosselbayi)
Rear view of Leonardii Mosselbayi just as pretty
Rear view of Leonardii Mosselbayi –  just as pretty

Flowering Aloe time in Kruger – bird magnets

Firstly, how’s the blog doing?

Time to look back at the 7 months since I started the blog in July 2013 ……

Well, I’m loving it simply because it brings some of my favourite pastimes together – birding, keeping journals of our travels, and photography. I’m also happy to report that “views” passed the 1000 mark last week and are averaging 10 per day, with people from almost 40 countries having visited the blog (some by chance, such as the one looking for a wedding venue at Gosho park in Zimbabwe). These figures are quite unimpressive compared to many blogs, but I’m encouraged that the numbers seem to be growing steadily. Anyway enough of that and on with this fortnight’s episode :

Kruger Park in the winter 

Winter is widely acknowledged as the best time for game viewing in Kruger and I wouldn’t disagree, but having made as many summer visits I find each season has its pros and cons. Summer from a birding aspect is tops, as the migrants are present and generally birds are at their most colourful, being in breeding plumage. Winter is often better for game viewing as the animals are more easily seen and are tempted to spend more time near water in the dry season.

Winter is also the time when many of the aloes are flowering, making for attractive displays and, most importantly for birders, attracting a variety of bird life. Some of the best flowering aloe displays are in the camps and at their peak are crowded with birds feeding on the nectar.

When we visited Kruger in August 2011, it seemed to be prime time for flowering aloes and we came across many beautiful flowering specimens, especially in the camps, which were often buzzing with activity as various bird species, bees and other insects made the most of the nectar bonanza. We stayed in 2 camps : Letaba in the middle of the park for 4 days and in Tamboti, which is a tented camp close to the Orpen camp and gate on the western side of Kruger, for a further 7 days. We also visited some of the other camps on our day trips, including Satara, Olifants and Skukuza and we spent time at a couple of the wonderful picnic spots where we made our customary brunch stop, cooking up a storm on the gas-fired  “skottels” (a large concave metal frying pan, based on the old plough disks that were used for this purpose in days gone by) that are hired out.

Our little “group” was made up of myself and Gerda, Andre and Geraldine (Son-in-law and daughter), their 2 daughters Megan and Maia and Andre’s parents (and our Brother and Sister-in-law of course) Tienie and Pieta Leonard. We have spent many a pleasant time with them in Kruger over the years we have known each other, Tienie being an Honorary Ranger and all of us being keen “Kruger Park-ers”

Letaba and surrounds

This is one of our favourite camps in Kruger, with its lush gardens and large old trees providing lots of shade, and the added bonus of bordering the Letaba River with views across to the distant bank and a good chance of seeing game as they make their way to and from the river. There is almost always an elephant or two (or more) in view near the river, along with buffalo and various other game.

It was mid-afternoon as we entered the park through the Phalaborwa gate and on our way to Letaba we were very lucky to come across a pack of Wild Dogs – seen very infrequently and such special animals.

Wild Dogs on patrol near Letaba
Wild Dogs on patrol near Letaba
Wild Dog heads off into the bush
Wild Dog heads off into the bush

Along the same stretch we spotted two well-camouflaged terrestrial bird species – Double-banded Sandgrouse and a Red-crested Korhaan, both close to the road and quite confiding. Both have colouring that blends in with the surrounding bush and soil, particularly in winter.

Double-banded Sandgrouse
Double-banded Sandgrouse
Red-crested Korhaan
Red-crested Korhaan

We settled into our bungalow accommodation at Letaba, while the others in our group went for the tented units a short walk from where we were. Over the next few days we followed our usual Kruger Park routine – some mornings we opted for a relaxing day in camp with an optional short game drive later on, other mornings we set out early for a game/birding drive with a brunch stop at one of the picnic spots and a lazy drive back to the camp for an afternoon siesta.

Letaba is well-suited to spending time in the camp, walking the gardens and along the river where many bird species have their own established routines :

On the lawns and amongst the leaf litter, Arrow-marked Babblers and Kurrichane Thrushes allow a close approach, hardly noticing as I fired away with my camera

Arrow-marked Babbler, Letaba
Arrow-marked Babbler, Letaba
Kurrichane Thrush, Letaba
Kurrichane Thrush, Letaba

In the trees, there was plenty of action ranging from Bearded Woodpeckers to Tree Squirrels and even a couple of charming granddaughters :

Bearded Woodpecker, Letaba
Bearded Woodpecker, Letaba
Tree Squirrel (Paraxerus cepapi) , Letaba
Tree Squirrel (Paraxerus cepapi)
Maia and Megan (Juvenile Leonardii mosselbayi)
Maia and Megan (Juvenile Leonardii mosselbayi)

Other birds around the bungalows and tents were Blue Waxbills and the ubiquitous Greater Blue-eared Starlings, found throughout the park and mostly habituated to humans.

Blue Waxbill, Letaba
Blue Waxbill, Letaba
Greater Blue-eared Starling, Letaba
Greater Blue-eared Starling, Letaba
Yellow-throated Petronia
Yellow-throated Petronia

Not to mention the bird with the funky hairstyle –

Dark-capped Bulbul, showing off its modern hairstyle
Dark-capped Bulbul, showing off its modern hairstyle

The beautiful Impala Lily is a feature of the northern camps in Kruger in the winter months –

Impala Liliy, Letaba
Impala Liliy, Letaba
Impala Liliy, Letaba
Impala Liliy, Letaba

But to get back to the main theme of this post, the array of flowering Aloes is a magnet to many bird species, more than I had imagined, as I thought they would attract only the nectar-loving species such as sunbirds and perhaps a Bulbul or two. The following photos are a selection of the birds I came across enjoying the Aloes, by no means comprehensive :

Red-winged Starling, Olifants
Red-winged Starling, Olifants
Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Olifants
Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Olifants
Red-headed Weaver, Letaba
Red-headed Weaver, Letaba
Black-headed Oriole, Letaba
Black-headed Oriole, Letaba
Black-headed Oriole, Olifants
Black-headed Oriole, Olifants
White-bellied Sunbird, Olifants
White-bellied Sunbird, Olifants
Butterfly in on the act
Butterfly in on the act as well

The area around Letaba and up to Olifants camp, where we drove on one of the days, is rich in game with Elephant and Buffalo being regular sightings. The viewpoint from Olifants camp overlooking the River is always a treat and brings home the value of preserving natural areas such as Kruger – the view of the river far below and the open bush beyond, with Elephants, Giraffes and other game making their way slowly to the river, has not changed in the more than 40 years we have been visiting the park.

African Buffalo, Letaba
African Buffalo, Letaba
Elephant at water hole
Elephant at water hole
Crocodile, Letaba River
Crocodile, Letaba River
Impala
Impala
Letaba River
Letaba River
Giraffe, Letaba
Giraffe, Letaba
Pod of Hippos on Olifants River
Pod of Hippos on Olifants River

On our drives we came across some of the more spectacular bird species – Kori Bustard, which is a ground-dwelling bird which can fly and is renowned as the largest bird in the world capable of flight, the colourful and lanky Saddle-billed Stork which is usually found in shallow rivers but which we saw in flight, a regal looking Fish Eagle and a Temminck’s Courser, not common and always exciting to see.

Kori Bustard, Letaba
Kori Bustard, Letaba
Saddle-billed Stork
Saddle-billed Stork
African Fish-Eagle, Letaba
African Fish-Eagle, Letaba
Temminck's Courser, Olifants
Temminck’s Courser, Olifants

At the end of our 4 nights in Letaba, we headed south towards Orpen and the nearby Tamboti Tented camp for the next part of our Kruger Park holiday, but that’s another story….

Mostly Battlefields – Kwazulu-Natal (Part 2)

The background

My earlier Post on “Paardeberg (Finding the Canadians)” covers our trip with Sheila (Sam) and John Denner to Kimberley and the Paardeberg Battlefield. The follow-on trip took us to Kwazulu-Natal where we visited a number of battlefield sites, a few of which were described in Part 1. This post takes up the next leg of the trip, which was to cover more of the battlefield sites identified by John over the northern and central parts of Kwazulu-Natal (KZN) province, which lies in the north-eastern quadrant of South Africa.

We continued to enjoy the wonderful hospitality of Pieter and Anlia Genis , family of my wife Gerda, who farm near Vryheid and who had offered their farm as a base for us to visit the various battlefield sites. They went far beyond normal hospitality in driving us around and providing meals and a place to sleep for four days – they surely deserve a medal!

We decided to do the Ladysmith area next, with a number of battlefield sites in the area and the Ladysmith Siege museum on the agenda. We left the farm after an early breakfast, to give us enough time to explore the area thoroughly and  headed to Ladysmith via Dundee.

Battle of Elandslaagte (21 October 1899)

Our first stop for the day was just off the main road at Elandslaagte, where we found the by now familiar, well-kept cemetery commemorating the fallen soldiers.

Well-kept cemetery at Elandslaagte
Well-kept cemetery at Elandslaagte
The cemetery at Elandslaagte
The cemetery at Elandslaagte
Fallen soldiers commemorated at Elandslaagte Battlefield
Fallen soldiers commemorated at Elandslaagte Battlefield

The Battle

Second War of Independence 1899-1902. After the Boer ultimatum to the British, to withdraw troops from the Transvaal and Orange Free State, had expired, the Boers invaded Natal and in the process took Elandslaagte station between Ladysmith and Dundee. The battle ensued when the British sent troops to recapture the area and resulted in high casualties on both sides, with the British regaining control of the area.

Where is it?

Signposted off the R 602 between Dundee and Ladysmith, cross the railway line and follow signs to the sites.

Ladysmith – Siege Museum

After a brief stop at the Information centre, we found the Siege Museum in Murchison Street – it turned out to be a very informative museum, not just about the Siege of Ladysmith but also about some of the battles in KZN and the circumstances leading up to them – it was well worth the visit.  

Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith

The museum has a number of displays consisting of “newspaper cuttings” which set out some of the history in a concise way

Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith

There are also historical photos and displays which give a feel for the time

Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Typical Boer uniform
Typical Boer uniform
Siege Museum, Ladysmith
Siege Museum, Ladysmith

The Siege

From early October 1899 the British had a garrison stationed at Ladysmith, which was swelled to 13000 by the garrison in Dundee after the Battle of Talana on 20 October and their withdrawal to Ladysmith. On 30 October the combined garrisons took on the Boers in the Battle of Ladysmith but failed to rid the area of the encroaching Boers – by November 1899 Ladysmith was surrounded and besieged and was only relieved 3 months later after much suffering.

Battle of Wagon Hill (Platrand) (6 January 1900)

Our next stop was the Wagon Hill Battlefield and Cemetery, after once again having to contend with minimal signage and going on “gut feel”. Reading through the names on the commemorative monuments, I came across Lance Sergeant R Reid of the Gordon Highlanders – not any direct relation but just brought it a bit closer to home, as did the others with our surname that we were to come across at other battle sites.

Wagon Hill Cemetery
Wagon Hill Cemetery
Wagon Hill Cemetery
Wagon Hill Cemetery
Lance Sergeant R Reid commemorated
Lance Sergeant R Reid commemorated

The Battle

Second War of Independence 1899 – 1902. This was the Boers attempt to take this strategic hill, during the long siege of British occupied Ladysmith. After a lengthy engagement the British managed to hold the hill, but suffered 183 men killed and 249 wounded while the Boer casualties were 68 men killed and 135 wounded.

Where is it?

Take the R 103 to Colenso and on the outskirts of town turn off at Platrand Lodge. Follow this road past the hotel and continue up the hill until you reach a crossroad from where it is signposted. The GPS position I recorded was 28º 35′ 15.12″ S , 29º 45′ 54.68″ E

Battle of Spioenkop (24 January 1900)

Moving on, our next stop was the well-known site of the Battle of Spioenkop, sited on a hill with magnificent views all round of the green landscape and the overflowing Spioenkop dam far below – we can enjoy the views today but on that day in 1900 it was the site of massive losses of young soldiers on both sides as the British forces tried to defend the hill against the attacking Boers.

Spioenkop Battlefield (24 January 1900)

Spioenkop Battlefield
Spioenkop Battlefield
Spioenkop today - a beautiful spot
Spioenkop today – a beautiful spot with magnificent views
You can see for miles around from Spioenkop
You can see for miles around from Spioenkop

Spioenkop Battlefield (24 January 1900) Spioenkop Battlefield (24 January 1900)

Many British dead were buried in the trenches that were dug before the battle
Many British dead were buried in the trenches that were dug before the battle for defensive purposes
John contemplating the battle - an overflowing Spioenkop dam far below
John contemplating the battle – an overflowing Spioenkop dam far below

As with Wagon Hill, I came across the Reid surname 3 times amongst those who perished – interestingly, two Reid’s appear on the British memorial while one was listed with mostly Afrikaans surnames on the Boer memorial, which was also the first time we had come across a formal Boer memorial at a battlefield site – apparently the Boers tended to remove their casualties to be buried elsewhere, even taking them home again. The Reid’s commemorated were Private PL Reid and Sergeant R Reid on the British side and CK Reid from Pretoria on the Boer side.

One of the British memorials at Spioenkop
One of the British memorials at Spioenkop
Another memorial at Spioenkop
Another memorial at Spioenkop

Spioenkop Battlefield (24 January 1900) Spioenkop Battlefield (24 January 1900)

Monument to the Boers at Spioenkop
Monument to the Boers at Spioenkop
CK Reid from Pretoria commemorated on the Boer memorial
CK Reid from Pretoria commemorated on the Boer memorial

The Battle

This was the climax of a week’s fighting on the north bank of the Tugela river, with the British attempting to break through the Boer line. The battle began after midnight with the British taking the hill early morning, but they were subjected to heavy artillery fire from the Boers below, followed by a day long battle that ended with neither side claiming a decisive victory. There were massive casualties on the British side, less so on the Boer side.

Where is it?

Take the Bergville / Exit 230 offramp from the N3 National road between Jo’burg and Durban and head towards Bergville. After 4 km turn off at the signposted gravel road and follow this road to the entrance. The GPS position at the entrance is 28º 38′ 19.83″ S , 29º 30′ 52.57″ E

Train Incident – Winston Churchill capture (15 November 1899)

The next stop entailed a lengthy search for the site of the train derailment and capture of Winston Churchill, at the time a journalist for a London newspaper. Poor signage caused us to miss a turnoff and we drove for an hour in the wrong direction before some local people took us to the site with its not very prominent plaque on a small stone base. This was a good opportunity to take a tea break and have a look around – we discovered the train line still passes nearby when a long goods train came rumbling past.

Churchill capture site - found after a few wrong turns
Churchill capture site – found after a few wrong turns
Churchill capture site
Churchill capture site

The Capture

Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. With Ladysmith under siege and Boers occupying Colenso, the British needed to know where the Boers were heading and part of their reconnaissance was done by sending an armoured train part way  up the line from Estcourt to Colenso. On one of these recces Winston Churchill accompanied the soldiers on the train, being a young reporter for a London newspaper and out for adventure. That morning the train got as far as Chievely before starting the return journey in reverse – however the Boers had spotted the train and placed rocks on the track at the bottom of a slope, then opened fire on the train as it approached, causing it to speed up to escape the fire. This resulted in the train derailing massively at the point where the rocks had been placed and fighting ensued. A number of British withdrew after getting the engine going again but Churchill was captured and taken to Pretoria, where he later planned and executed a dramatic escape to Mozambique.

Where is it?

Take exit no 194 / Bergville/Colenso from the N3, travel on the R 74  then turn onto the R 103 towards Colenso – almost immediately turn left at a gravel road and drive a short distance to the memorial

Bloukrans (16/17 February 1838)

Finally, for the day, we stopped at this moving site, where a number of Boer families, men women and children, were camping and were attacked by Zulu Impis, leaving most of them dead

Monument to Burgers attacked by Zulus at Bloukrans (17 February 1838)
Monument to Burgers attacked by Zulus at Bloukrans (17 February 1838)
Monument to Burgers attacked by Zulus at Bloukrans
Monument to Burgers attacked by Zulus at Bloukrans

The Plaque reads :

“When the Trekkers entered Natal in November 1837 a large number of family groups camped in this valley. Only a few laagers were formed. During the night of 16 / 17 February 1838, Zulu Impis which had left Dingane’s kraal shortly after the murder of Retief attacked these groups killing 41 men 56 women 185 children and about 200 retainers besides destroying wagons and encampments and driving cattle away”

Where is it?

From the train incident site take the R 74 and turn off a short distance further, then follow the gravel road for about 8 kms to the monument

A Bit of Birding

Birding was a side issue on this trip, limited to some snatched sightings while travelling and when investigating the battlefield sites.

The Farm

In between travelling to the sites we continued to enjoy the hospitality of Pieter and Anlia and much lively discussion happened at mealtimes The next day was set aside for a visit to two of the best-known sites, Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift – the subject of the next Post

Western Cape Quickie – Coast to Karoo

Background to our January 2014 Trip

We love Cape Town and the surrounds and take every opportunity to visit – so it was an easy decision when Gerda suggested we “pop down” from Mossel Bay, where we spend the December/January holidays, to say ‘hello’ to the fairest Cape and visit family at the same time. It’s just less than 400 kms with lots of pleasant scenery on the way along good roads and we tend to stop often so 4 hours turns into a comfortable and non-taxing 6 hours for us. Always on the lookout for birding and bird atlasing opportunities, I was eager to start the new year with a Western Cape outing or two……. or even three as it turned out.

We didn’t have too many fixed plans for the 4 days but Gerda wanted to visit her ex-Pretoria hairdresser, now resident in Kommetjie, which would give me a couple of hours to atlas the area. Kirstenbosch is always part of our itinerary and we would surely spend at least 2 hours there, enough to complete a “full Protocol” atlas card. Our last stop was to be Worcester for a couple of days with the family and I was sure I could fit in a pentad or two in the early mornings, knowing how hot it can get in that part of SA in January – not conducive to middle of the day birding.

It almost worked out that way …..

Kommetjie (Pentad 3405_1815)

Having dropped Gerda off at the hairdresser, I set off to explore the pentad covering Kommetjie (a pentad being 5 x 5 minutes in degrees latitude/longitude or about 8 x 8 kms in extent) – about 90% of this pentad is in fact in the sea, so atlasing is limited to a part of Kommetjie jutting into the pentad in the south-east corner. I stopped at the first beach area I came across and was immediately struck by the numbers of seabirds flying past and, looking for their source, noticed huge colonies of them further out on the exposed rocks. Swift Terns and Hartlaub’s Gulls were especially abundant, numbering in the hundreds if not a thousand or more and making quite a sight.

Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie
Kommetjie

Walking along the sandy paths towards the next-door bay, I noticed other seabirds in between the massed Terns and Gulls, including African Black Oystercatchers and Little Egrets – the latter not strictly a seabird but I have often found them in this type of habitat. A number of Cormorants were in attendance, mostly  Cape and White-breasted Cormorants but also a few Bank Cormorants with their all black faces – I looked for the white in their rumps but it was not showing, so checked my Roberts bird book (on my Ipad) which confirmed that it only shows when Bank Cormorants are breeding.

Swift Tern
Swift Tern
Swift Tern
Swift Tern
Hartlaub's Gull
Hartlaub’s Gull

Both African Sacred and Hadeda Ibises were foraging amongst the seaweed-littered rocks, while Barn Swallows swooped low overhead probably catching flying insects attracted to the seaweed litter – never an opportunity missed!

A few White-fronted Plovers were exploring the rocks and seaweed as well, running to the white sandy areas when I approached – I was struck by how amazingly well camouflaged they are against the bright sand when they stand still – I had to look twice to find them even though they were just 5 to 10 metres away.

White-fronted Plover
White-fronted Plover

A short distance down the road I stopped at a vlei which the board informed me was called Skilpadsvlei (Tortoise Vlei) but found it was undergoing rehabilitation and had no water. It’s apparently home to the Western Leopard Toad (Amietophrynus pantherinus) which occurs in restricted parts of the Western Cape. However a short walk around the vlei did produce Red-winged Starlings and Rock Martins doing fly-bys plus a Cape Canary in the long grass.

Skilpadsvlei - home to the Western Leopard Frog
Skilpadsvlei – home to the Western Leopard Toad

By this time Gerda was done and I joined her for coffee and a light lunch at a very pleasant outdoor restaurant. From there I closed out the 2 hours minimum time required for a “full protocol” atlas session with a drive to the nearby Slangkop lighthouse and through the suburbia of Kommetjie, adding a few of the regulation western Cape birds in the process and stopping to admire the great views. I ended with a list of 30 species for the pentad – not a large number compared to other pentads, but a stunning area to go atlasing.

Slangkop lighthouse, Kommetjie
Slangkop lighthouse, Kommetjie
A street name in Kommetjie - named for the flower and not the users
A street name in Kommetjie – named for the flower and not the users

Kirstenbosch (Pentad 3355_1825) ….. well almost

The next day we had planned an excursion to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, one of our favourite places to visit, with a walk and lunch in mind. That morning I woke up to a very upset stomach and flu-like aches and pains and wasn’t up to doing much at all. We did go to Kirstenbosch hoping to catch a “golf cart” guided tour, but our timing was out so we just sat in the restaurant and had tea – no scones for me this time!

Saturday was spent getting to Worcester via Tokai (to visit my brother and sister-in-law) and along the coastal road past Strandfontein, where there were Kelp Gulls by the hundred along the beach and kite surfers enjoying the windy conditions that pulled them at high speed across the breaking waves – what a spectacular sport! Then we proceeded through Stellenbosch to Helshoogte on the way to Franschoek for a lunchtime stop at our other favourite venue – Hillcrest Berry farm. There we enjoyed a light lunch and tea with magnificent views of the mountains across the valley and the vineyards spread like patchwork over the lower slopes.

Worcester / Karoo Desert National Botanical Gardens (Pentad 3335_1925)

In complete contrast to Kommetjie, the area around Worcester, just 110 kms from Cape Town, presents typical Karoo habitats, although not as stark and barren as further inland in the “real” Karoo, as well as suburbia and farms with extensive vineyards.

I started out at 6h30, still too early for the Botanical Gardens which I discovered only open at 7h00, so I drove around suburbia and up a lonely road which dead-ended at a quarry. Once I gained entry to the Gardens, I drove to the upper parking area and took a walk through the various desert-like biomes represented there, with displays of desert and semi-desert plants – fortunately there is enough signage to inform you on what you are seeing – a good thing when your knowledge of trees and plants is as limited as mine. I do know Quiver trees from our trip to Namaqualand last year and there were a number of magnificent specimens to admire.

Karoo Desert Botanical Gardens, Worcester
Karoo Desert Botanical Gardens, Worcester
The bugs are big here - actually the work of a local artist
The bugs are big here – actually the work of a local artist
Quiver trees in the botanical Gardens
Quiver trees in the botanical Gardens

The Gardens have an interesting history, having been established at a site near Matjiesfontein in 1921 but due to serious water supply problems it was moved to its current site in Worcester in 1945, along with many of the unique plants, some of which are still present in the gardens, including the Quiver trees mentioned above.

Birds are plentiful throughout the Gardens but restricetd in the number of species, with the feature birds being Bokmakierie calling vociferously in the early morning, White-backed Mousebirds and Red-faced Mousebirds flying about in groups between the larger bushes and trees, Southern Double-collared and Malachite Sunbirds enjoying the flowering aloes. Common Fiscals and Acacia Pied Barbets added to the mix with their distinctive calls, the Barbets outdoing all the others with their piercing, nasal call heard at a distance.

Southern Double-collared Sunbird
Southern Double-collared Sunbird

Overhead White-rumped Swifts and Greater-striped Swallows competed for flying insects. Exiting the gardens, a winding road took me up the hill to Brandwacht which is mainly vineyards with large farm dams, the latter quite productive around the fringes with the likes of Yellow bishop, Common Waxbill, Stonechat and Familiar Chat helping to boost the pentad list to 43 for the 2-3 hours spent atlasing.

Paths meander through the various biomes
Paths meander through the various biomes
Quiver trees are a special sight
Quiver trees are a special sight

Worcester / Hex River Valley (Pentad 3330_1930)

Just north of Worcester lies the Hex River valley and the pentad I had targeted for my third and last atlasing outing of the trip, comprising mostly mountains with the N1 national road bisecting them through the valley, with the flat sections along the river taken up by vineyards and the lower slopes of the mountains covered in fynbos. This is a very attractive part and some of the last vineyards before getting into the flatter and drier  Karoo further down the N1.

Hex River
Hex River
Hex River
Hex River
Aloe
Aloe

My first stop was at the Seekoeigat Padstal (Farm stall) where I kicked off with some regulation birds such as Red-winged Starling, Steppe (Common) Buzzard and White-rumped Swift amongst others. At the first opportunity I turned off, glad to get off the busy N1 with large trucks thundering past each time I slowed and pulled over to check out a bird seen fleetingly. This was a far more peaceful birding environment and quickly produced Pied Barbet, African Stonechat, Bar-throated Apalis, African Hoopoe and several Southern Double-collared Sunbirds.

Returning reluctantly to the N1 and continuing cautiously through the cutting that makes its way through the mountains, I spied a pair of White-necked Ravens. Further on a broader verge allowed a safe roadside stop with a view down the slopes to the river below, where I spotted Cape Rock-Thrush, Cape Spurfowl, Cape Robin-Chat and Cape … sorry Karoo Prinia. A bit further on I was able to get closer to the river where an unexpected Giant Kingfisher was watching over one of the deeper pools in the river and not far from him a Cape Bunting was hopping about on the railway tracks.

Hex River
Hex River
Cape Bunting
Cape Bunting

The next turnoff took me into prime farming area with vineyards on both sides of the road – nice to look at with bunches of grapes just about ready for harvesting but quite a sterile environment for birding so I didn’t dawdle too long and returned to the N1 for the last stretch before reaching the northern boundary of the pentad. There I found a large dam some way off the road but close enough to make out a few cormorants and coots plus a good old “gyppo” or Egyptian Goose. Turning back, I spotted a raptor soaring high above and was able to ID it as a Booted Eagle, which seems to have a fondness for the Western Cape as I have seen several in my trips around this province.

All in all a nice variety of birding and habitats about as far removed from each other as you can get, each one with its own beauty and attraction.

Mostly Battlefields – Kwazulu-Natal (Part 1)

The background

My previous Post on “Paardeberg (Finding the Canadians)” covers our trip with Sheila (Sam) and John Denner to Kimberley and the Paardeberg Battlefield. This is the follow-on to that trip.

There was just a day to recover and prepare for the next leg of the trip, which was to cover a number of battlefield sites identified by John over the northern and central parts of Kwazulu-Natal province, which lies in the north-west quadrant of South Africa. When we had discussed the visit with Pieter and Anlia Genis , family of my wife Gerda, who farm near Vryheid, they immediately offered their farm as a base for us to visit the various battlefield sites and went far beyond normal hospitality in driving us around and providing meals and a place to sleep for four days – they surely deserve a medal!

Majuba Battlefield (27 February 1881)

Saturday 9th February 2013 : We left Pretoria by about 10h00 and drove the “back roads” via Delmas,  Leandra, Standerton (where we introduced the Canadians to Spur Burgers) through to our first stop at the Majuba Battlefield site, which lies between Volksrust and Newcastle just off the N 11, with the Majuba Hill being visible from some distance away. We drove in to the Commemorative Farm, wondering if it would be open for visitors and came across the caretaker, one Hendrik de Beer, who took a break from tractor-mowing the vast lawns to show us the small museum – not particularly impressive but he was quite informative and willing to tell us what he knew, in the absence of a guide.

Majuba Hill
The imposing Majuba Hill
Memorial to the Boers at Majuba
Memorial to the Boers at Majuba

Unfortunately we did not have time to walk up the Majuba Hill, which requires 2 to 3 hours, which would no doubt have given us a better feel for the battle.

The Battle

First War of Independence 1880 – 1881. This was the major deciding battle of the war. This was the second attempt by General George Colley and his troops to break through the Boer defences and enter the Transvaal. They climbed the imposing hill overnight intending to shell the Boer positions from above. The Boers scaled the summit and eventually forced the British to flee, killing Colley in the process. 280 British men were killed, wounded or captured while the Boers lost 2 men. This led to the signing of a peace treaty at the nearby O’Neill’s Cottage.

Where is it?

Signposted off the N 11 between Volksrust and Newcastle.

Laing’s Nek Battlefield (28 January 1881)

From Majuba it was a short drive to the roadside Laing’s Nek Battlefield site where we found that there was nothing at all to indicate it or the events that took place but nevertheless stopped and scouted around for a while. It seems best to arrange with local farm owners to access the site which is on private land.

The Battle

First War of Independence 1880 – 1881. This was the first attempt by British forces under General George Colley to break through the Boer defences to the Transvaal. The Boers were entrenched on both sides of the road through the nek and successfully defended their position.

O’Neill’s Cottage

A further short drive took us to O’Neill’s Cottage which served as a hospital and was where the peace talks were held and the treaty was signed after the Battle of Majuba. It originally belonged to Eugene O’Neill.

O'Neill's Cottage, near Majuba
O’Neill’s Cottage, near Majuba
O'Neill's Cottage
O’Neill’s Cottage
O'Neill's Cottage
O’Neill’s Cottage

From a distance the old house looks attractive but on closer inspection was clearly run down and had nothing at all inside – definitely an opportunity waiting, to turn it into something special which will persuade passing traffic to drive the short distance from the main road to view it.

Where is it?

Signposted off the N11 between Volksrust and Newcastle, not long after the Majuba and Laing’s Nek sites.

Battle of Schuinshoogte (Ingogo) 8 February 1881

The rest of the day’s drive to the farm went quite slowly once we turned off the National road, due to the condition of the road  and occasional “stop and go’s”; unexpectedly we saw a sign to Schuinshoogte, which was not on our agenda but, curious to see it, we took the turn-off and followed the country road for a few Km’s until we came to the cemeteries and memorials a distance from the road on both sides and spent some time exploring them in the tranquil setting of rolling hills.

Schuinshoogte battlefield

Schuinshoogte battlefield
Schuinshoogte battlefield
Schuinshoogte Cemetery
Schuinshoogte Cemetery
Schuinshoogte battlefield
John at Schuinshoogte
Schuinshoogte battlefield
Schuinshoogte battlefield
Schuinshoogte battlefield
Schuinshoogte battlefield
Schuinshoogte battlefield
Schuinshoogte battlefield

The Battle

General George Colley and troops were escorting a convoy from Mount Prospect to Newcastle when they were attacked by Boer forces near the Ingogo River, on the Schuinshoogte plateau. Under siege the whole day, Colley withdrew his forces overnight. British casualties were high.

Where is it?

From Newcastle take the R 34 and after about 11 Km turn right onto a gravel road, continuing for 2 to 3 Km until you find the cemeteries on both sides of the road

We eventually reached the farm after dark and were warmly welcomed by the Genis family – Pieter and Anlia

Talana Battlefield, Dundee (20 October 1899)

Sunday 10th February 2013 : We enjoyed a bit of a lie-in and a leisurely breakfast (my favourite – krummelpap!!) before setting off for a visit to Talana Battlefield and the many-faceted museum on the site.  Anlia had booked us for lunch which was traditional “boerekos” (farm style food) and we spent some time afterwards checking out the exhibits, spread over the large site in various old and new buildings, as well as the gravestones marking the burial of those who died in the battle.

Talana Museum and Battlefield, Dundee
Talana Museum and Battlefield, Dundee
Lunch at Talana - Sam (Sheila), Gerda and Anlia
Lunch at Talana – Sam (Sheila), Gerda and Anlia
Talana Museum and Battlefield, Dundee
Talana Museum and Battlefield, Dundee
Talana
Talana
Talana
Talana
Talana Museum and Battlefield, Dundee
Talana Museum and Battlefield, Dundee

We were fascinated to see that a group of people were dressed up in the uniforms of the participants and were practising for a re-enactment of the battle – “British” in their redcoats with white strapping and the “Boers” in khaki shirts and pants.

"Redcoats" and "Boers" practising for a re-enactment
“Redcoats” and “Boers” practising for a re-enactment

The Battle

Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. This was the scene of the first battle of the war, following the expiry of the Boer ultimatum to the British on 12 October 1899, also the first time the British forces wore khaki uniforms. The Boers attacked the garrison at Dundee and succeeded in occupying the town while the British garrison withdrew to join the troops in Ladysmith, which shortly thereafter came under siege by the Boers for 118 days.

Battle of Talana
Battle of Talana
Battle of Talana
Battle of Talana

Where is it?

On the outskirts of Dundee on the R 33 road to Vryheid

Blood River Battlefield (16 December 1838)

Then we moved on to the Blood River Battlefield for a look at the famous site of the battle between Boer and Zulu, which has such significance for the Afrikaners – the friendly caretaker showed us around and had us watch the short film of the background to and events of 16 December 1838, which was quite moving. We walked down to the laager of bronze wagons a short distance away and enjoyed a picnic tea while imagining the traumatic events of that day.

Blood River Battlefield (16 December 1838)
Blood River Battlefield (16 December 1838)
Bronze wagons form a "laager" at the battlefield site
Bronze wagons form a “laager” at the battlefield site
Blood River Battlefield
Blood River Battlefield
The bronze wagon laager
The bronze wagon laager
A wagon re-created in bronze
A wagon re-created in bronze
Blood River Battlefield
Blood River Battlefield
Picnic tea at Blood River
Picnic tea at Blood River

Later, on the way out, we took the road to the “other side” of the river where a new Zulu commemorative complex has been built. Interesting to see a somewhat different take on the battle.

The Battle

At this battle a party of Voortrekkers, intent on avenging the killing of Piet Retief and his 70 companions earlier in the year, were on their way towards Dingane’s headquarters and, when they heard the Zulu army was close by, formed a laager of wagons on the banks of the river. Waves of attacks by the 15000 strong Zulu army were repulsed by Boer rifle and cannon fire and up to 3000 Zulus were killed while 4 Boers were wounded. The battle marked the end of Dingane’s power in Natal. The Ncome river ran red from the blood and became known as the Blood River

Where is it?

Signposted about 20 Km from Dundee on the R 33 to Vryheid.

Blood River Poort Battlefield (17 September 1901) 

Next on our itinerary and not far from Blood River, but arising from a completely different era, lies the Blood River Poort Battlefield, with a simple cemetery to commemorate the Boer and Brit soldiers who fell on the day

Blood River Poort Battlefield (17 September 1901)
Blood River Poort Battlefield (17 September 1901)
Cemetery at Blood River Poort Battlefield
Cemetery at Blood River Poort Battlefield
Blood River Poort Battlefield
Blood River Poort Battlefield

The Battle

The British forces based at Dundee engaged a large Boer Commando at Blood River Poort, but were outflanked by the Boers and forced to surrender.

Where is it?

Off the R 34 to Utrecht – 5 Km from the junction with the R 33, turn right onto a secondary gravel road and after another 8 Km turn left at the sign to Goedekloof farm – about 1 Km further lies the cluster of graves.

A Bit of Birding

Birding was a side issue on this trip, limited to some snatched sightings while travelling and when investigating the battlefield sites. At Talana I did some ad hoc atlasing and listed some 20 species including an African Harrier-Hawk and Mocking Cliff-Chat

The Farm

In between travelling to the sites we enjoyed the hospitality of Pieter and Anlia and much lively discussion happened at mealtimes

The next couple of days were to be very busy with visits to some of the better-known sites such as Spioenkop, Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift – the subject of the next Post

Pelagic Birding – A Bombardment of the senses

Lead up

We (Koos Pauw and myself) had planned this trip long in advance as part of our “Birding and Flowers” trip with our wives which, by the time we got to Simon’s Town, was at day 14. The original date of the trip was 31 August 2013 but was postponed to the next day due to the rough seas, following a week of stormy weather around the Cape Peninsula. My only previous trip of this kind had been in 2005 in equally stormy weather and I had memories not only of the incredible experience of seeing thousands of seabirds up close, but also of the nausea that I had to endure that whole day. So it was with somewhat mixed feelings that I anticipated this pelagic birding  trip with “Zest for Birds” out of Simon’s Town.

The Trip

We were up early and at the hotel breakfast table, which overlooks the Zest boarding spot, for a light breakfast at 6h00 with some feelings of anxiety about the day ahead, mainly due to a fear that sea-sickness would spoil the day for us.  As it turned out the medication Koos and I took was effective and made our day (well, mine at least) nausea free which was a great relief – not that the sea wasn’t rough as the Zest II rocked from side to side and back- and forwards as she rode the heavy swells and strong winds. We were soon beyond Cape Point and heading for deeper waters, with long skeins of Cape Cormorants passing the bow and stern of Zest II, making a beautiful picture in the early light, but one that would have to be in the mind as my camera was stowed below for the time being. Cape Gannets joined the Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gulls that appeared at the start of the trip and a few African Penguins eyed us curiously as they swam near the boat. Penguins are so at home swimming in the rough seas that it is sometimes hard to see them as birds.

Cape Gannet
Cape Gannet
Cape Gannet
Cape Gannet

From there on the numbers and variety of seabirds started to grow and we added Subantarctic Skua, known by its dark brown colouring with white flashes under the wings, White-chinned Petrel, Sooty Shearwater and our first Albatross of the day – a Shy Albatross which, despite its name, came in boldly close to the boat. Sudden excitement and grabbing of cameras by our contingent of guides (John Graham, Trevor Hardaker and Peter Ryan) signaled something special and we were fortunate to view a juvenile Wandering Albatross in graceful flight.

Subantarctic Skua
Subantarctic Skua
White-chinned Petrel
White-chinned Petrel
Sooty Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater

One of my favourite seabirds then came into view as a group of Wilson’s Storm Petrels approached the boat – they look so much like White-rumped Swifts that have got lost at sea, but in fact they are clearly at home in the deep waters as they skim deftly above the waves, touching the water occasionally with their lowered legs or beaks – what amazing control they have!

Wilson's Storm-Petrel
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel

Accompanying them was a Great Shearwater and several Black-browed Albatrosses, followed by many Pintado Petrels in their handsome black and white plumage and a single Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross.

Great Shearwater
Great Shearwater
Black-browed Albatross
Black-browed Albatross
Pintado Petrel showing its striking black and white plumage
Pintado Petrel showing its striking black and white plumage
Pintado Petrels
Pintado Petrels
Pintado Petrel
Pintado Petrel

Happily the next bird up was a lifer for me as a Sabine’s Gull put in an appearance and I somehow managed to lock onto it briefly in the growing melee of seabirds for a reasonable photo, followed shortly thereafter by a another special sighting of a Northern Royal Albatross as he sat in the water and then took off across the bow.

Sabine's Gull
Sabine’s Gull
Massed seabirds
Massed seabirds
Northern Royal Albatross
Northern Royal Albatross

All the while we were getting closer to the trawler which was our target for the day and the bird melee gradually grew until we were right behind the trawler and witness to a bird frenzy as all the species fought for a share of the discarded parts of the catch.

The melee behind the trawler
The melee behind the trawler
Close behind the trawler
Close behind the trawler
Even more seabirds
Even more seabirds
A ship on the high seas
A ship on the high seas

We spent some time close to the trawler, adding a few more species as our guides picked them up among the hundreds of other birds – species such as Northern Giant Petrel and Arctic Tern (another lifer for me). Once sated with the numbers and variety of birds, we headed back to Simon’s Town. Prior to docking the captain took us close to a large offshore rock which is used by Bank Cormorants to breed and roost and this was also the cue for a Southern Right Whale to greet us with a blow or two.

Bank Cormorants at their nests
Bank Cormorants at their nests
Bank Cormorants
Bank Cormorants

There is nothing quite comparable in birding to this experience – a bombardment of all your senses that leaves you elated but exhausted at the end of the day. Until next time……..

Punda Mania 2013 – Sizzling Hot Birding

About Punda Mania

Billed as a Team Birding Challenge, this is a special event for birders keen to spend time in one of the top birding spots in South Africa, at a time of year when the majority of migrants are present. Under the direction of Joe Grosel and with the assistance of the SANParks Honorary Rangers (HR’s) from the West Rand Region as well as guides from SANParks, the group of some 40 people is taken through a series of challenges which focus on birding but also include other aspects of nature such as mammals, trees, insects and the odd reptile. This was the 3rd such event and the second that I have attended and “knowing the ropes” helped to make this version even more enjoyable (for me anyway) than the previous one.

Getting There

Our group of 4 (Myself, George Skinner, Pieter Rossouw and Pieter Lombaard) left Pretoria early-ish to make sure we would be in time for the start of activities at 15h00 on Thursday 14 November 2013, with enough time for a hearty brunch at our usual stop near Polokwane, after which we turned off towards Giyani and reached Punda Maria gate by 13h30. In our air-conditioned cocoon we had noticed the temperature rising as we traveled north but only felt the 37º C  heat when we got out to stretch our legs at the gate, much  like the blanket of hot air in your face when you open a hot oven door except it envelops your whole body. From there we drove slowly to Punda Maria camp, arriving just in time for the rendezvous with the rest of our team for the weekend and the vehicle to take us to the Visitor Centre for the briefing. We joined up with 2 other couples  – Brian and Joy Falconer-Smith and Elouise and Christo Kalmer – to make up our team, the Shrewd Shrikes, and were pleased to see that Jobe, our guide from last year, was again allocated to our vehicle. William Dunn, our HR representative completed the team line-up.

The birding from the gate to the camp was slow, being the hottest time of day and we were wilting along with the animals and panting bird life that was to be seen. An African Firefinch in the low bushes, Red-billed Oxpeckers on a group of Impalas and Yellow-fronted Canary in the upper branches of a tree kept us interested.

The Challenge and first Activity

At the initial briefing, Monika O’Leary, organiser of the weekend, introduced the proceedings, then Andy Branfield described what the HR’s do with the funds generated by these events and finally Joe Grosel took us through the various habitats in this northern part of Kruger and the animal and bird species that find these habitats to their liking. The Challenge details were spelt out and, as before, points would be awarded for bird species ID’d, mammal species seen (which our team only discovered at the final dinner!) plus the treasure hunts and quizzes as well as the atlasing  and team spirit.

Visitor Centre, Punda Maria
Visitor Centre, Punda Maria
Joe and Monika at the introduction
Joe and Monika at the introduction
The Challenge
The Challenge

The drive to the Visitor Centre had produced Tawny Eagle as the bird life started to liven up. During the talks the continuous calls of Monotonous Larks and Woodland Kingfishers competed with the speakers, as if beckoning us all to “come have a look”.

Tawny Eagle
Tawny Eagle
Monotonous Lark, Punda Maria
Monotonous Lark, Punda Maria

Then it was time for the first sunset drive with the main destination being the ‘lek’ frequented by Pennant-winged Nightjars in the early summer months – we had enjoyed them on 2 occasions during the previous Punda Mania but this is not the sort of sighting you are likely to tire of. The drive was punctuated by a few good sightings such as European Golden Oriole and Great Spotted Cuckoo, a  pair of African Hawk Eagles in a treetop and a Pale Flycatcher almost hidden amongst the bushy undergrowth and trees. The only negative was the road chosen to get to the lek, supposedly a short-cut but which can best be described as abominable as we bounced over endless rocks, taking so long that we arrived with minutes to spare for the Pennant-winged Nightjar display, which was nevertheless as magical as before. Apart from the main attraction, an African Scops-Owl and Red-chested Cuckoo made themselves heard from nearby trees. A bring-and-braai back at the camp closed out the day.

Waiting for a view of Pennant-winged Nightjar
Waiting for a view of Pennant-winged Nightjar
Pennant-winged Nightjar at the lek
Pennant-winged Nightjar at the lek
Flap-necked Chameleon, Punda Maria
Flap-necked Chameleon, Punda Maria

Friday 15 November 2013

An enthusiastic Red-chested Cuckoo was already calling when our alarm went off at 03h45 and we left the camp at 04h30 as the first light of dawn approached, heading north to Pafuri in the northernmost section of Kruger. We were soon adding birds at a steady pace, but were also working at the cryptic clues for the Treasure Hunt part of the weekend, which involves taking photos of birds, animals and trees, based on solving the clues put together by Joe. At least I now have a reason for doing those cryptic crosswords, apart from keeping the mind active. It didn’t take long to resolve the clues which boiled down to 2 mammals (Nyala, Elephant) 2 Trees (Nyala Tree, Ironwood Tree) and 11 birds (from memory they were White-fronted Bee-eater, Mosque Swallow, Red-crested Korhaan, Water Thick-Knee, Meve’s Starling, Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove, Any Red Data species, Bateleur, Sabota Lark, Crested Francolin, Goliath Heron, but correct me if any are wrong) so from there on it was just a matter of finding the actual species to photograph.

Treasure hunt : Mosque Swallow, Punda Maria
Treasure hunt : Mosque Swallow, Punda Maria
Treasure hunt : Sabota Lark, Punda Maria
Treasure hunt : Sabota Lark, Punda Maria
Crested Francolin, Punda Maria
Crested Francolin, Punda Maria

The drive took us to the far north-east corner known as Crook’s Corner, where we spent some time enjoying the bird life in the Limpopo river and surrounding bush. On the way we spent quality time at Klopperfontein dams where we were able to stretch our legs and enjoy coffee, while watching the myriad Swallows, Martins and Swifts including many House Martins and a few Grey-rumped Swallows. Lark-like Buntings were moving about busily near the water and a Shaft-tailed Whydah made a brief fly-past, while Water Thick-Knees flew across low over the water. In the Pafuri area we saw our first Meve’s Starling moving amongst the low branches and higher up a Burnt-necked Eremomela worked his way through the foliage.

Klopperfontein KNP
Klopperfontein KNP
Treasure hunt : Water Thick-knee, Klopperfontein KNP
Treasure hunt : Water Thick-knee, Klopperfontein KNP

A surprise ‘sighting’ was the 4 ‘illegals’ from Mozambique that we came across near Pafuri, making their way through the Kruger on foot (one was barefoot) – they looked quite weary and despondent at being found and our guide contacted the camp to pick them up but we didn’t find out what happened to them.

'Illegals' near Pafuri
‘Illegals’ near Pafuri

The Limpopo River at Crook’s Corner had enough water to support Green-backed Heron and Pied Kingfisher as they hunted in their particular ways, while White-fronted Bee-eaters hawked insects from an overhanging dead branch. From the surrounding bush the regular calls of Orange-breasted and Grey-headed Bush-Shrikes could be heard, a Tropical Boubou made a brief appearance and Chinspot Batis, Red-billed Firefinch and Purple-crested Turaco were all welcome sightings. Overhead numbers of White-backed Vultures circled lazily and an African Cuckoo-Hawk appeared from nowhere and disappeared just as quickly

Coffe stop
Coffe stop
Crook's Corner KNP
Crook’s Corner KNP
Crook's Corner KNP
Crook’s Corner KNP
Treasure hunt : Nyala, Pafuri KNP
Treasure hunt : Nyala, Pafuri KNP
White-backed Vulture, Pafuri KNP
White-backed Vulture, Pafuri KNP

Our next stop was the Pafuri picnic spot, one of my favourite spots in Kruger, where a brunch had been set up by the busy HR’s. This was also the chance to add more species, with White-crowned Lapwing being an easy sighting in the river, Red-faced Cisticola calling from the riverine bush and an obliging Emerald-spotted Wood-Dove posing for photos meant we could tick off another on the treasure hunt list.

Back on the road we came across a lone Secretary Bird before heading back to Punda Maria – just a pity we didn’t have enough time to visit the bridge over the Luvuvhu which usually delivers a plethora of bird species, but a special sighting on the way back made up for this. Joe led us to a spot along the road, lined by tall Mopane trees, where Arnot’s Chat were known by him to breed and a brief playing of their call brought a male and female to investigate and eye us from a roadside tree, affording magical views of this sought-after bird.

Arnot's Chat (Male), Punda Maria
Arnot’s Chat (Male), Punda Maria
Arnot's Chat (Female), Punda Maria
Arnot’s Chat (Female), Punda Maria
African Buffalo, Punda Maria
African Buffalo, Punda Maria
Levaillant's Cuckoo, Punda Maria
Levaillant’s Cuckoo, Punda Maria

Then it was back to the camp to report back on our photos taken for the treasure hunt, for which we managed to get a full house. A short while later we were at it again, this time following more cryptic clues to items around the camp itself, which we completed successfully except for Passer Domesticus (House Sparrow) which we could not decipher. The Cicada was easy enough to unravel but quite difficult to find, camouflaged as it was against the bark of the Mopane trees in the camping area.

During the pursuit of the items we came across Bearded Scrub-Robin along the Flycatcher trail and spent some time at the hide overlooking a water hole just outside the camp fence, popular with everything from Elephants to Eremomelas. A Broad-billed Roller was showing off his skills as he swooped down from a nearby tree and skimmed the surface, as if showing the Bee-eaters present that he could do it just as well as them.

Burchell's Zebra, Punda Maria
Burchell’s Zebra, Punda Maria
Treasure hunt : Striped Skink, Punda Maria
Treasure hunt : Striped Skink, Punda Maria

After the report back, dinner was served followed by a short night drive, during which we added Fiery-necked Nightjar and Barred Owlet to our list.

Saturday 16 November 2013

An early start again – advisable in the extremely hot conditions. By this time we were getting accustomed to the extreme heat and the prospect of atlasing some remote areas of Kruger was something I was looking forward to – the area we were allocated to atlas turned out to be located in a little visited but beautiful part of Kruger, covering lush bushveld and riverine habitats. This, for me, was the highlight of the weekend – going down those usually forbidden roads with those no-entry signs and knowing there will be no other vehicles is part of what makes these events really special. Bird life was plentiful and the pentad list was rapidly added to in the allotted time.

The pentad list kicked off with an Eastern Nicator which made an exciting change from my usual atlasing, followed by some other specials such as Tawny Eagle, Wahlberg’s Eagle cruising above us, Green Pigeons in the taller trees and both Little and European Bee-Eaters hawking insects at low level.

A magnificent Baobab tree full of greenery was alive with birds, having a number of Red-billed Buffalo-Weavers and Red-headed Weavers using it as a nesting base. Even the arrival of a couple of Common Mynas could not spoil this classic scene.

Baobab with nests, Punda Maria
Baobab with nests, Punda Maria

The area atlased included stretches of the Levuvhu River and we made a few stops at convenient spots for walks along the river, watched by pods of Hippo in the cool waters and disturbing Green-backed Herons and Water Thick-Knees which took off and flew across to the opposite side as we progressed along the bank.

White-crowned Lapwing, Luvuvhu River
White-crowned Lapwing, Luvuvhu River
Hippo, Luvuvhu River
Hippo, Luvuvhu River
Acacia, Luvuvhu River
Sekelbos flowers, Luvuvhu River

One stop was at the temporary Nyalaland Trail camp, located at an ideal spot above the river while the flood-damaged permanent camp is under reconstruction. The river walks added Pale Flycatcher, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Malachite Kingfisher and White-crowned Lapwings amongst others, the latter calling excitedly and flying up and down the river. The bush away from the river was equally rewarding with Bennett’s Woodpecker, Striped Kingfisher and Black Cuckooshrike being some of the more notable sightings.

Allasing along the river
Allasing along the river
Levuvhu River
Levuvhu River
Gabar Goshawk, Pafuri KNP
Gabar Goshawk, Pafuri KNP
Striped Kingfisher, Punda Maria
Striped Kingfisher, Punda Maria
Grey-headed Kingfisher, Luvuvhu River
Grey-headed Kingfisher, Luvuvhu River

On the way back we heard what we thought to be Southern Hyliota calling and excitedly searched for this uncommon bird, only to find a White-browed Scrub-Robin imitating its call!

Back at the camp it was time to recharge with a nap, followed by a repeat of the late afternoon drive to the Pennant-winged Nightjar lek which was a lot more relaxed this time around.

Pennant-winged Nightjar site
Pennant-winged Nightjar site
Shrewd Shrikes
Shrewd Shrikes

Then all that remained was the dreaded Team Quiz (which again proved to be our downfall) and the final dinner and prize-giving. Oh well, there’s always the hope that the HR’s will present this event next year again, in which case the Shrewd Shrikes can have another go at improving our score.

Congrats to the West-Rand Honorary Rangers once again for presenting a really interesting and worthwhile event – long may they continue!

Thanks to Dr PeteZac Zacharias for providing the correct name for the Sekelbos (Dichrostachys cinerea) with its beautiful flowers, which I had wrong in the photo caption

Adventurous Birding, Atlasing and Travel