Saturday, 10 August 1991

SOUTH AFRICA August 1991: Cape & Karoo

Paul Noakes, Nick Preston and I were set to visit Madagascar in summer 1991 but civil unrest and the resulting petrol shortages there the preceding month caused a hasty change of plan.  August is not the best time to visit South Africa as very few Palaearctic or Afrotropical migrants are present (e.g. cuckoos, nightjars, swallows and some wetland species) but it was the best alternative that we could come up with at short notice.  August is a good time to see seabirds, but it was too rough to charter a boats (and very expensive) so we had to settle for seawatching.  Day length is also a consideration in winter, in Cape Province it was getting light at c07:30hrs and was dark by c18:30hrs.

We hired a car from Imperial Car Rental at Cape Town airport.  An almost new 1.6 Toyota Corella cost £750 in total for 4 weeks hire with unlimited kms (weended up doing about 9,500) an no additional drop off charge (we left from at Johannesburg).  We camped everywhere apart from at Weza where we stayed one night in the Ingeli Forest Motel (expensive at £36 for a room for three).  We used camp sites where available, they averaged about £2 per head, otherwise we made use of picnic sites.  Nearly all our food was bought in general stores or supermarkets, our diet consisting mainly of bread, cheese, tuna, fruit & chocolate bars.  All water in South African towns was drinkable.

The weather was generally very good with no rain to speak of, although it was cold at night in Cape Province and Mooi River and below freezing at Naudesnek Pass.  The cold was exacerbated by our being totally unprepared for it with light clothing and thin sleeping bags.  Ceres, near Karoopoort experienced heavy snowfalls shortly after we'd passed through and Naudesnek Pass can be closed by snow for long periods in mid winter.  In contrast it was very hot at Langjang. 

Even in 1991 South Africa was a very modern country, impressively so by any standards, with very good infrastructure (much better than in Britain) and road signs.  Scenically very varied, from spectacular mountains (Naudesnek Pass) to industrial wastelands (Richard's Bay), but little indigenous forest remained.  The people were generally surprisingly friendly and we encountered no problems whatsoever.  I saw just over 475 species of which about 140 were new although recent taxonomic changes will have increased those totals.  The trip cost me roughly £550 for flights, £250 for car hire and £200 for petrol, food, accommodation & park entrance fees.  Not bad for 4 weeks birding.

The following is based on limited diary entries, unreliable memories and scanned slides of varying quality.  Nick and Paul were excellent companions to travel with and we had a great time.

3 August 1991.  We arrived in Cape Town at 12:00hrs on a British Airways flight from London (via Johannesburg).  We hired an almost new 1.6 Toyota Corella from Imperial Car Rental at Cape Town airport for about c£750 for 4 weeks with unlimited kms (we did c9,500) and no drop-off charge when we left from Johanesburg.  We drove through Cape Town to Green Point (poor) and south along coast to Kommetjie.  Here we birded in scrub along coast to south-east of Kommetjie seeing several of the commoner Fynbos species.  We finish at the tern roost on Kommetjie beach by a rocky promentry in the centre of town where 15 Antarctic and 10 Crested Terns were seen shortly before dusk (c18.00hrs)..  Camped at Noordhoek campsite near Chapman's Peak.  48 species seen, the highlight of the day being a Spotted Eagle Owl spotlighted in a tree in the campsite.

Cape Francolin
Spotted Eagle Owl (original photo by Paul Noakes)
4 August 1991.  It was too rough for a pelagic so we drove to Cape of Good Hope.  We found a suitable vantage point from the trail above the car park for a morning seawatch, seeing 2 Black-browed Albatrosses, 2 Antarctic Fulmars, 6 Broad-billed Prions, 8 White-chinned Petrels and 500+ Sooty Shearwaters.  We then drove to Sir Lowry's Pass for afternoon and stayed until dark.  Situated on the N2 highway c40 kms E of Cape Town, we parked in the car park at the summit (a view point back to the Cape) and took the track heading north for 2kms.  Cape Rockjumpers frequent the edges of the rocky outcrops dotted along the ridge and the best place we found was by the canons at Gantouw Pass.  Continuing north for another 1km along the original track Victorin's Warbler and Cape Siskin were seen in scrub adjacent to the near corner of the large conifer plantation.  We returned to Noordhoek campsite.  55 species seen, the highlight of the day being 3 Cape Rockjumpers at Sir Lowry's Pass.
Cape of Good Hope
view west from the Cape
me at the Cape
Cape Rockjumper at Sir Lowry's Pass (original photo by Paul Noakes

5 August 1991.  It was still rough so again we drove to Cape of Good Hope for morning seawatch although less was moving.  Midday we visited the Kirstenboch Botanical Gardens in the southern suburbs of Cape Town.  The braile trail was reputed to be good for Knysna Warbler but we failed to find any.  We then drove up N1 to Paarl where spent remaining daylight at the monument (poor, no luck with hoped for Protea Canary) and in Paarl Mountain Reserve (better, especially as entrance was free on weekdays although the gates are locked before dusk).  We then drove on R303 & R43 to Ceres in darkness but found no campsite there so continued on R46 to a picnic site at the top of Karoopoort, a gorge leading down into the Karoo desert, and camped there (very cold).  52 species seen, the highlight of the day being a female Cape Batis at Kirstenboch.
fynbos vegetation on Cape of Good Hope
Paarl Mountain reserve
view to monument from Paarl
view to Sir Lowry's Pass from Paarl
Table Mountain from Paarl
Cape Batis
6 August 1991.  We birded around Karoopoort from dawn then north on R355 (dirt) into the southern Karoo making many stops.  There were regular picnic sites beside the R355 and those south of the Katbakkies turn off all had taps.  Those leaking were particularly good.  The flat sandy desert opposite the first concrete picnic site north of Karoopoort was good for Karoo Lark.  About 35km N of Karoopoort we turned off the R355 onto a dirt track which, after a few kms, came to Katbakkies, a picnic area at the entrance to a gorge leading into the hills.  We had time to find Pririt Batis & Fairy Flycatcher in scrub around picnic area, 25 Cape Weavers in an adjacent reedbed and and a Cinnamon-breasted Warbler on the rocky outcrop by the gorge.  An eagle owl flushed nearby just before dusk was unfortunately only a Spotted.  We camped at the picnic area which, like all others, had its own tap.  67 species seen, the highlight of the day being a male Black Harrier hunting over the southern Karoo.

Karoo Port view towards Calvina
the bottom of Karoo Port
Karoo south of Calvina
Karoo south of Calvina
African Stonechat
Fairy Flycatcher
White-backed Mousebirds enjoying the sun
Spotted Prinia
Pale Chanting Goshawk
Karoo Korhaan
fortunately the fence stopped it running off before we could get pictures, unfortunately the fence rather detracts from the pictures we got
7 August 1991.  After a quick look around Katbakkies, seeing similar species to the previous evening, we returned to R355 and slowly drove 170 kms north to Calvinia, stopping regularly.  We found this to be the best section of the Karoo and it was worth doing it very slowly with plenty of stops.  The waterhole by the wind pump t halfway to Tweefontein had Black-headed Canary, Namaqua Sandgrouse & Burchell's Courser.  The scrub opposite the picnic site at Tweefontein had Pririt Batis and the cultivated fields south of Bloukranspas (c30kms south of Calvinia) had Grey-backed Finch Lark & Ludwig's Bustard.  We then made faster time on metalled R27 north to Brandvlei and Kenhardt (last part in darkness).  We camped beside dirt road (R361) to Van Wyksvlei about 15kms south of Kenhardt.  53 species seen, the highlight of the day being a party of 4 Burchell's Coursers by waterhole c140 kms south of Calvinia.

Yellow-crowned and Black-headed Canarys
over-exposed as they took flight
female Black-headed Canary
male Black-headed Canary
Southern Antchat

female Grey-backed Finch Lark

Bloukrans Pass, south of Calvina
Karoo near Bloukrans Pass

8 August 1991.  We drove slowly south-east down R361 to Van Wyksvlei then west across to Brandvlei on R357, stopping regularly but found it rather disappointing and considered the more southern part of the Karoo thay we’d been in the previous day to be better.  There are supposed to be some Red Lark sites along the R361 and we found two areas of favoured red dunes (c30kms south of Kenhardt & c30kms north of Van Wyksvlei) but were unable to find any larks. The R361 seemed the best section and produced 5 Black Korhaan's, 35 Namaqua Sandgrouse & Ludwig's Bustard.  Kori Bustard & Black-eared Finch Lark were seen between Van Wyksvlei & Brandvlei and another Ludwig's Bustard just north of Brandvlei after we decided to visit Augrabies Falls and drove back north to Kenhardt.  Sociable Weaver colonies on telegraph poles were obvious beside the R27 just south of Kenhardt.  The R27 then crosses the Orange River just south of Keimoes (c50kms west of Uppington) and we saw good numbers of egrets were seen flying east along the river at dusk.  We arrived at Augrabies at 19:30hrs, an hour after the park had closed but were allowed in to camp.  66 species seen, the highlight of the day being a total of 35 Namaqua Sandgrouse mostly between Kenhardt and Van Wyksvlei.

Kori Bustard
Namaqua Sandgrouse
Namaqua Sandgrouse, female and male
Karoo Long-billed Lark, part of a five-way split after we'd visited.  Changing taxonomy is always hard to keep up with.
Lark-like Bunting
White-throated Seedeater

9 August 1991.  We spent the morning at Augrabies.  The falls were moderately impressive and we saw Verreaux's & Booted Eagles and Black Stork from viewpoints overlooking the Orange River Gorge and a selection of passerines around the camp site including Dusky Sunbird & Orange River White-eye (both common) but I’m not sure that it was really worth visiting.  We returned to Kenhardt and drove the first 30kms of the Van Wyksvlei road, returned to Kenhardt then drove south to Calvinia and, in darkness, across to Lambert's Bay on R27, N7 & R364 arriving at 22.15hrs.  We camped in Lambert's Bay campsite, c250kms north of Cape Town.  59 species seen, the highlight of the day being a close Black Korhaan on the ground.

Rock Hyrax
Augrabies Falls
Orange River canyon
a rather colourful Cape Flat-rock Lizard
Orange River White-eye
common around the campsite
Red-tailed Chat
bulbul and weaver
Pririt Batis
Karoo Scrub Robin, or a dark female Siberian Rubythroat
Cape Robinchat
a superb bird
distant Baobab near Augrabies
near Aubrabies
roadside Sociable Weaver colony
one of the occupants of the above
10 August 1991.  The first few hours of the day were spent at the seabird colony on the small island opposite the harbour at Lambert's Bay.  It was excellent with an observation tower overlooking the main gannetry and penguins breeding in the fenced off area by the observation tower (although looking rather zoo like).  We had better (less plastic) views under the concrete caissons further down the pier and in the water behind them (on the landward side).  Paul followed a small group into a deserted house on the pier where they cowered under an old table but he was soon overcome by the smell!  We then drove to Kransvlei Poort (to west of N7) where the upper end of the gorge was most productive with Protea Canary c100m back down the road.  We then drove south down N7, the marshy area at the southern end of Clanwilliam Dam held a selection of commoner species while stopping numerous times in the high grassland between Piekenaarskloof Pass (Citrusdal) and Piketberg eventually found us Sickle-winged Chat and also held Grey-backed Finch Lark.  We drove steadily to and through Cape Town and on to Breadasdorp on N7 & R316, arriving at dusk.  As no obvious campsite in town left on R319 turning off south after 8kms on the dirt road to De Hoop and camped on verge after about 10kms.  Another long day, as was becoming the norm.  72 species seen, the highlight of the day being Jackass Penguins in the sea and among concrete blocks at Lambert's Bay.
Lambert's Bay Gannetry

Cape Cormorant
on nest
Hartlaub's Gull

African Penguin enjoying the morning sun
African Penguin with chick
in their element
Grey-winged Francolin

male Grey-backed Finch Lark
Sickle-winged Chat

approaching Cape Town from the NW

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