Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Great campsites: Horseshoe Camp on the Fish River Canyon

The view from Horseshoe Camp on the Fish River Canyon

Easily one of the most dramatic places I have ever camped, Horseshoe Camp is actually part of a mule trail along the Fish River Canyon in Namibia, but when there are no mule trails running, then ordinary folk can book it directly with Gondwana (even though you won't find it advertised on their website).

When we visited, we were the only people there for two whole days! It really gave new meaning to being 'off the beaten track' and we spent our time admiring the ever-changing light and soaking in the deepest of silences. It's not the kind of place you go unless you're comfortable in your own skin. It might also be a little terrifying with small children due to the precipitous drop into the canyon.

You turn off onto a farm road to get to the campsite. A 4x4 is required for the last bit.
We drove from Springbok in South Africa, crossing into Namibia over the Orange River at Noordoewer and then turning onto the C12, a good dirt road from Grunau to access the turnoff to the campsite, which is actually located on a farm just to the north of the national park. 

All in all, it was a good 80km from the tar, if my memory serves me correctly, and the dirt road on the farm gradually got rockier and steeper as we proceeded and we were glad to be in the sturdy old Toyota Hilux (nickname Rooikat).

We encountered this train to Luderitz several times on the C12
There were storm clouds all around, which made for this dramatic scene with a little two-coach diesel train heading for the coast. We overtook it a few times, and everyone waved when we did so.

German grave at Holoog
We also stopped to look at some lonely German graves next to a railway bridge at Holoog where we encountered the train again.

It was raining as we approached the campsite and there some temporary waterfalls streaming into the canyon, but that soon stopped and the next days were clear. We were all alone with the big sky, the full moon and the silence.

View from campsite at sunset
The camp is so named because the river forms a natural horseshoe here, making for stupendous views, particularly at sunrise and sunset when the colours mellow beautifully.

There's a kitchen hut (or mesa) where you can store your food and prepare your meals while looking out into the abyss.

View from kitchen hut
The showers and loos also look directly out onto the canyon. Without a doubt, the most dramatic view you are likely to ever have while doing your morning ablutions.

Loo with a view

It was difficult to fit the whole horseshoe into one frame 
Rain-soaked roads on route to the canyon
The mesa from a different angle on the lip of the canyon
Moonrise to the east with storm clouds receding
My kind of heaven

Friday, 25 September 2015

Birding: My search for the Pel's fishing owl

On a philosophical level, when I eventually got to see the mythical Pel's fishing owl, it wasn't the sighting of the bird that moved me the most...

Pel's fishing owls like large trees next to slow-moving rivers
The Pel's is a curious bird: a large ginger owl that makes its living by catching fish in pools on slow-moving rivers in the far north-eastern part of South Africa, parts of Botswana and Zimbabwe. It's one of the Big Six of the Kruger, large charismatic birds that you fancifully can tick off like the Big Five of the mammal world. The other birds on the list are the martial eagle, the ground hornbill, the lappet-faced vulture, kori bustard and saddle-billed stork, all relatively easily spotted, unlike the Pel's. 

Tree magnificence
My first real effort at finding the owl was while on the Nyalaland wilderness trail near Punda Maria in the Kruger. Our guide took us to Crook's Corner (on the border of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique) where he said he'd seen the owl roosting close to the Limpopo River. Notwithstanding the fact that we were in buffalo country, he led us through chest-high grass to a clearing. All we found was a single ginger feather lying on the forest floor.

My next concerted effort was on yet another wilderness trail close to the Olifants River, also in the Kruger. Once again, the guides said they knew where a pair of owls roosted, but due to rather dramatic floods, the large trees in the area had been damaged, and there were hippos to worry about. Nevertheless, my ever-patient travel companions indulged me as we scoured the river bank. Everyone was rather relieved when we gave up that particular search and headed up the hill to more open country.

Then, most curious of all, a Pel's fishing owl turned up in Cape Town and in the garden of a friend where it had been feasting on her goldfish. Along with the rest of the birding fraternity, I duly spent a night on her veranda waiting for the owl to put in a return appearance, but by then it had moved off to the Spanish ambassador's garden in another part of the city, and shortly after was never to be seen again. The mystery of how it got to be so far out of its range was never solved.

The viewing deck at Guma Lagoon Camp in Botswana
Fourth time unlucky was in Botswana on the panhandle. We were staying at Guma Lagoon Camp and went out of an afternoon for the shortest of boat rides to an island the owl was said to inhabit. Nada.

Finally, looking in the right place
And then, finally, my luck changed. The exact location cannot be shared but this was my best chance yet. A first attempt at finding the owl one evening was to no avail, but I returned alone early the next morning. My expectations weren't high, given my record to date, until suddenly I saw a flash of orange as the owl was flushed from its daytime perch. It settled some distance away but I was able to get a good view through my binoculars.

Not the best picture ever but it didn't matter...
It was a bit too far for any decent photographs and I didn't want to spoil the moment fussing with my camera. Instead, I sat down on a fallen log to take it all in. I was surrounded by a kind of Pel's cathedral of riverine forest. All I could hear was the sound of my own breathing as a trail of ants picked their way through the leaf litter at my feet. I realised then that this search had not been so much about the owl, but about the all the places it had brought me to and the deep friendships that went with that. It was about those incredible trees that towered over me and the clean water the owl relied on. It was about the fragility of it all. I felt both uniquely privileged, and more than a little bereft that my hunt was finally over.

Still playing hard to get

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Birding: Ringing at the Paarl Bird Sanctuary

I am the least adept in a family of birders, seriously outclassed by my siblings and my mother. My sister, Kate, is closely involved in vulture conservation and rehabilitation, while my mother, who is well into her 80s, has been organising bird counts at the Paarl Bird Sanctuary at the town's waste water treatment works for over 20 years. 

But that doesn't stop me from enjoying being around birds, and no surprise when I visited recently that my mother suggested we head down to the sanctuary to say hello to some bird ringers who were busy that morning. 

Ringer Robyn checks an African reed warbler's vital statistics. Robyn also writes a blog about her ringing activities.

The ringers were gathering more information about the African reed warbler, a tiny little bird that migrates between the southern tip of Africa to the tropics in central Africa. It's hard to imagine how it achieves a feat like this given its size (not much more than 10g). One such bird was found to have returned to the same little patch of reeds at the Paarl Bird Sanctuary over a period of eight years. Quite remarkable, really, given all the human obstacles it must encounter on its journey!

The capture nets

To capture the birds, the ringers put up special, light-weight nets. It was a bit breezy when we were there so conditions weren't ideal but they managed to capture several African reed warblers and a few other species.

When a bird flies into the net it is removed quickly and gently so that it can be checked all over for weight, size, wing length etc. All of this information is noted down carefully for science and is invaluable for researchers. If the bird has an existing ring, this provides important information about its movements and longevity. If it doesn't have a ring yet, it will be recorded and have a new ring put on it.

Gentle hands are required to untangle the bird quickly

The nets are set up in a shady patch between reed beds

Once we had said goodbye to the ringers, we went for a drive around the bird sanctuary where some 140 species of birds, including many waterfowl, have been recorded.

A Western cattle egret eyes the camera with a great deal of suspicion.
Same egret close-up
African hoopoe (I used to call this a 'concert bird' when I was a child because of its crest that it raises when alarmed)
It's always lovely to see the greater flamingos that are resident at the sanctuary

Visiting the Paarl Bird Sanctuary

The main sanctuary area, which is home to many types of waterfowl, is only open over the weekends when additional security is available. The inner, fenced-off area of the water treatment works is open during the week and is also good for birding. For more information and directions visit the Drakenstein municipality website.

My mother (seated centre) spends time with the ringers, Felicity (left), Robyn and Sharon.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Weekend Away: Boesmanskloof near McGregor

Berg Rosie cottage at Onverwacht near McGregor.
This weekend past we managed to get away from the daily grind to a beautiful spot at the top of Boesmanskloof, courtesy of Robertson Wine Valley tourism. (I won a competition by answering an email question, which just goes to show it's worth answering these things.)

The kloof is a popular 14km hiking trail (described as 'reasonably strenuous') between the little towns of Greyton and McGregor on either side of the Riviersonderend Mountains. We weren't there to hike, but to chill with good friends, good food, good wine and good books.  

We stayed at Onverwacht Cottages which are 16km outside of McGregor up the mountain at the start of the trail. It's about a three-hour drive from Cape Town if you can miss the rush-hour traffic. 

There are seven cottages here, three self-standing and the other four attached. None has electricity (just paraffin lamps and gas for cooking and hot water) but otherwise they have everything you need. The best views are from Berg Rosie (above) and Bergtrein (which consists of the four interlinked cottages, ideal for a group).

We stayed in Waboom cottage (with the green roof) which has two bedrooms. Blushing Bride (left) is a cosy spot for a couple with a view of the McGregor Valley, while Berg Rosie (to the right) also has two bedrooms and a dramatic view of the kloof from its stoep. Next time...
A fynbos special, the orange-breasted sunbird came to chill on the stoep for a bit.

Looked like a pelargonium but I wasn't sure. There were lovely flowers all along our drive to McGregor with spring in full swing.

The cottages are up a steep hill with views on either side - this down towards Robertson

As the song says: “Suikerbossie, ek wil jou hê.” (Sugerbush, I want you.)
On the Saturday morning, the men went for a stiff walk up the mountain, while the women ventured into the deep kloof to swim in a mountain pool called Bobbejaansgat ('baboon's hole'). The water was so cold it knocked the breath out of me. It was wonderful to be back in the mountains, even if we had to climb back out of the kloof again up a precipitous path (and hardly enough exercise to offset all that good food and wine). 

Nevertheless, at the end of the weekend we felt as if we'd won the jackpot!

The swimming hole is at the bottom of the kloof in the bottom right of this picture.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Life List 2: Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana

Halcyon days in Deception Valley in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve
If you look at a map of Botswana, smack in the centre is a green wedge around which every road in the country has to circumnavigate. This is the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR), the size of a small European country. If you plan your trip carefully, it's not quite as daunting as it looks. For the purposes of this trip around Easter 2014, we fixed up an old, red Toyota Hilux bakkie which we called Rooikat (Afrikaans for "red cat" or caracal). Some bits of the bakkie did rattle off during the trip but it got me to a place I had only ever dreamed of going before.

We chose to centre our stay around an area called Deception Valley, made famous by American biologists Mark and Delia Owens who wrote a book called Cry of the Kalahari. When they lived here, there were precious few visitors, but the reality is that you can get to one of these campsites within a comfortable day's drive from Maun. 

The CKGR is not to be confused with the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park that straddles the border with South Africa to the southwest. It's deep Kalahari of a different kind with a distinctly savannah feel in the northeast corner. This is where we based ourselves for the better part of a week. Our entry point was Matswere gate which is a 46km drive from a village called Rakops on dirt. From the gate, it's roughly another 40km to the first of the campsites.

Although there had been some rain when we visited, these muddy stretches (below) were easily negotiated. (Apparently the staff at Matswere gate will come and pull you out of difficulty if you're within a few hours' drive of the gate.) 

For the rest, the roads were sandy but perfectly manageable with deflated tyres. Apparently, deeper into the park you will encounter deep sand and so you should provide for extra fuel should you choose to venture further. (We were never more than around 60km from the gate.)

Beware of muddy roads in the wet because it can get very sticky. This wasn't too bad. 

We stayed at four different campsites: two in the Deception Valley area, one at nearby Kori Pan and another at Sunday Pan around 20km deeper in. There is a lodge somewhere close to Deception Valley which means you may occasionally run into lodge vehicles on a game drive, but your contact with other people is minimal. The fossilised riverbed of Deception Valley makes for sweeping vistas with open grassland and idyllic conditions for antelope like these gemsbok. There are predators too, but we only heard them.

Gemsbok in an evening glow.
The campsites in the CKGR are glorious in that each one is completely private
The only facilities at the campsites are a bucket shower (remember to bring all your own washing and drinking water). The loos are long drops, albeit with proper toilet seats. Take a sturdy tent because there are no fences here and you will feel more secure when the lions start to roar after dark. Because we were visiting over Easter, bookings were in short supply and so we had to move a bit more frequently than we would have liked. 

This jackal was on a dawn patrol at Sunday Pan.

A sandy jeep track was typical of the road to Sunday Pan where we located ourselves for the second half of our stay.
We heard a pair of male lions roaring around our tent all night at Sunday Pan but the closest we got to a lion was the spoor in the road.
Sandgrouse head for water at dawn at Sunday Pan.
Young springbok rams sparring.
You'll find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time doing very little.

Butterflies on unidentified scat: Sometimes you just have to appreciate the full circle of life.

Campsite at CKSUN02

Plan your trip

We stayed at CKDEC06, CKDEC02, CKKOR02 and CKSUN02 (pictured above). The first three sites we booked directly with the Botswana wildlife service, but at Sunday Pan we had to book through a private operator called Big Foot which charged substantially more due to the popularity of the location. The 'services' were identical. CKDEC06 and 02 were in thickish bush while CKKOR02 had a more open aspect where we had a marvelous sighting of tagged vultures flying overhead. CKSUN02 was also surrounded by dense bush but had great birdlife and easily accessible game drives close by. Take a compressor so that you can deflate your tyres for the sand and reinflate them when you rejoin the tar. During the planning stages we got invaluable advice from the SA 4x4 Community Forum.

Sunrise, sunset. Kalahari in all its glory...