Public holidays are wonderful. Especially when they turn a two day weekend into a four day one.
We are seldom accused of not making the most of our weekends and this one would be no different. It was a Woman’s Day public holiday that allowed us to get a group of four families together at a spot about 20kms south west of Robertson called Amathunzi Private Reserve.
We had been to Amathunzi on a previous occasion for a friend’s fortieth and it was a whirlwind one–night visit so it made it difficult to get to know the place and see what was on offer from a birding, frogging and relaxation perspective. Well, those that know me will know that the last option was unlikely to form part of the weekend’s agenda. We would make the most of it.
Amathunzi is a small reserve set in the Little Karoo scrub about 20kms south west of Robertson. The rolling plains are surrounded by some imposing peaks and the occasional drainage streams and rivers give a little variety to the monotonous knee-height bushes.
Our previous visit to the reserve was in the days before I had any interest in frogs, so this visit, at seemingly the best time of year, would give me something additional to look for aside from the typical birds of the little Karoo. I was also hoping for a few reptiles but over the course of the weekend the only reptile we saw was something that moved so fast from one bush to the other that it made it impossible to tell if it was a skink, lizard or agama.
Nonetheless, I was hopeful of adding a frog or two to the list with my main targets being Karoo Toad and Karoo Caco. It must be said that I had absolutely no idea where to even look for either of these species and I had not even availed myself of an opportunity to call Cliff Dorse to ask what I should be looking for. I would be going solo and I was sure hoping that they would be easy to find. I gave myself a good chance at the toad but I certainly had very low expectations of seeing a caco given my recent experiences with this enormously frustrating group of amphibians.
We spent the weekend with good friends, although it must be said that there were a few of our friends that had not quite come to terms with a grown adult running around in wellies, wading through the mud and lifting as many rocks as possible, looking for frogs and reptiles. In fact, my one good friend had specifically and directly suggested that the birds were sort of okay but looking for frogs put me on a scale where I was lingering just a little close to weirdo status.
We arrived late on the Thursday afternoon and it wasn’t long before I was combing the surrounds of our accommodation for any form of life. There were plenty of rocks lying around and I turned over just about every one I could find. I suppose it was inevitable that I was going to find something but unfortunately there was nothing quite like I was expecting. The one creature of interest was a large, scary-looking spider that resembled what I have always known to be referred to as a baboon spider. I still have no idea what it is but those of you that have some idea are welcome to send me your thoughts.
It is only natural that lifting rocks and wading in the mud is likely to appeal to the younger weekend participants and before long I had at least 7 kids between the ages of 4 and 8 following me around waiting for me to find something squishy and squirmy. The spider was quite a hit but my eager followers were looking for something a little more exciting. It comes as no surprise, then, that one of the kids found my first frog lifer of the weekend. It was an unexpected find in the gutter that runs alongside the house and it was a species that I had not really expected to find in the middle of the Karoo. It was a Common Platanna and it provided me with my first opportunity to photograph a new type of animal. This one was a little more complicated than normal as I know, despite my short time as a “frogger”, that the platannas are the only truly aquatic frogs that we have in South Africa. I was very careful to make sure that this specimen did not spend any time outside the water than was completely necessary so we found a cereal bowl inside the house and set about taking a few pictures in the bowl with it half-filled with water.
The platannas are not the greatest looking creatures. They have these weird, unblinking eyes positioned at the tops of their heads, they are pretty slimy and they have powerful hind legs for swimming with webbed feet that have claws on three of the inner toes. They are therefore also referred to as the “clawed frogs”. All these features make them pretty unappealing and I have to acknowledge that this frog lifer did not compare to the experience of finding some of the amazing species we had found in previous weeks.
The platannas are seriously interesting creatures, mind you. Two South African scientists produced the world’s first commercially viable pregnancy test by discovering that the female platannas would spawn if they were injected with urine from a pregnant woman. This is an interesting fact, but the books never tell you exactly what these scientists were thinking when they thought it would be a good idea to inject the skin of a frog with female urine. As bizarre as this sounds it became a huge success worldwide and it resulted in Common Platannas being exported from South Africa around the world. I believe the existence of platannas in foreign countries rates pretty much in the same category as the disaster we have felt from the existence of eucalypts that were brought to us from Australia.
The platanna was moderately exciting but it was not going to be enough. There had been a lot of rain in the area at the beginning of the week and I was certain there would be something exciting to be seen at some of the dams. I sat with everyone at dinner on the first night and then excused myself, clutching my torch and camera and headed out into the freezing cold of a Karoo night. This rather anti-social behaviour was frowned upon by most of the group as they all settled down to watch the Olympics. My weirdo status had just been enhanced by a few solid points. I didn’t even have my boys at my side as they were tucked into bed after a long day. Nonetheless, I was happy to risk my reputation for the benefit of a new frog.
As I headed into the veld I ignored the chorus of Clicking Stream Frogs and headed into the distance in the direction of a short one-syllable croak which I was pretty certain was a Karoo Toad. I was not really that sure as to what else it could be. After bumbling around in the dark for about 20 minutes I finally reached a temporary pool where the croaking was winding up to quite an impressive chorus. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as I knew that Karoo Toad was not a particularly rare animal but I had heard that it could be tricky to find. It was a big surprise, then, that I walked down to the edge of the pool and saw about 5 pairs of eyes staring up at me. The first few pairs submerged below the surface before I could identify my quarry but soon enough there was a subject sitting on the edge of the pool just waiting to be photographed. No sooner was it in my hands that I knew that I had found my first Karoo Toad. And it wasn’t even difficult. Compared to the heartache of looking for cacos and moss frogs this was an absolute pleasure.
The next day the boys woke bright and early and wanted to know what I had seen. They would not be letting me get away with a frog lifer without taking them to see it so we huddled up again just before it got light and found a mating frenzy of Karoo Toads at the same puddle. It was hard to keep Adam out of the mud as he waded in and found a Karoo Toad himself.
I have a reputation of not being able to sit still for more than ten minutes. The weather on Friday was not too bad but there was a pre-frontal wind picking up and the birding was pretty ordinary as most species were keeping low and out of the wind. Whilst most of the clan were happy to mooch around the house and read their books whilst the kids rode their bikes, I decided to climb the Gannaberg which is the mountain that overlooks the Amathunzi property. At an altitude of 867m it was not the highest mountain we could find but it was close by and it seemed as if it was the done thing to get to the top of it.
However, the main purpose of the hike for me was not really to get to the top but rather to see if I could find an African Rock Pipit. The habitat looked perfect with rocky escarpments encircling the mountain, and also knowing that the nearby Vrojlikheid Nature Reserve houses a small population led me to believe that it was worth a try. It would be a very good find if we were to set our eyes on such a special bird in a previously unrecorded area.
My only companion for the hike was Tommy. The appeal was mainly the prospect of the Pipit but I think he also wanted to spend some time with his dad and also to challenge himself. To be fair to some of the younger kids I had discouraged them from joining me as it seemed as if it would be a bit of a slog given that there is no path to the top, rather just a bash through the scrub from bottom to top.
In hindsight it was a huge blessing that it was only Tommy and I, and, at times, I wondered whether it was a good idea for us to be out there in the first place. We first had to walk for half an hour through the unforgiving bush and then it was the direct ascent up the section of the mountain that looked least ominous.
Well, it turned into an absolute nightmare.
As is the case for most mountains, the foothills are relatively mild but as one gets higher the gradient gets steeper until it becomes a bit of a rock climb towards the top. Not only were we faced with a steepening mountain side but the vegetation got thicker as we approached the summit. We had both also erred spectacularly by wearing shorts and by the time we were seemingly within a stone’s throw of the top of the mountain our legs were shredded from the prickly bushes and with each step we would get another agonising scratch added to the hundreds we already had. At one stage, quite near the top, I actually picked Tommy up and carried him through some of the bush to try and save his legs a little.
Not only was I worried we would never get to the top but I was starting to worry about going down. Since there was no path to speak of we would get scratched just as much on the way down as we had been on the way up.
I know my mother will read this and wonder what I was thinking taking my 8 year old son on such an inhospitable hike but a bit of dramatization is necessary to keep the interest levels high. It was not too hot nor was it too cold, we were never more than 2 hours away from the house, I was carrying plenty of water and food and we had cellphone reception the whole way up. Despite these things being in our favour, I decided about 40 metres from the ascent of the final ridge that it was time to call it quits. We were completely stuck as the fynbos was now above head height and Tommy did not have the strength to break through the vegetation, particularly on such a steep slope. I was also pretty fed up with our lack of progress and what was supposed to be our crowning glory turned into a sheepish retreat.
We were within a stone’s throw from the top but we were still unable to achieve the final hurdle in order to add our names to the cherished book that apparently waits at the summit marking the names of all those that had conquered the Gannaberg.
What was even worse was the fact that we had reached some of the rocky ridges and there was not a peep from an African Rock Pipit. The only birds I could hear in the rather birdless environment were Orange-breasted Sunbirds and a warbling Cape Rock Thrush.
As I had expected the scramble down was as painful as the walk up and by the time I got to the bottom my legs were a complete mess. I actually think I was whining more than Tommy at that point.
I have to say that I was immensely proud of my little boy. He stuck the whole thing out and did not ask to turn around once. He saw the hike as an adventure and even in the car on the way back home he told Jeanie and I that the hike up the mountain was the highlight of the weekend for him.
The expected cold front hit early on Saturday morning and it hit hard. The overnight wind had whistled through every little gap in the house and we woke up to drenching rain which blotted out most of the landscape around us. It was quite strange to see so much rain in the Karoo and even though it was a novelty, it wore off within an hour or two, especially with ten kids in the house running a very high dose of cabin fever.
We got out of the house for a lunch at a nearby micro-brewery but we spent very little time expending any energy at all. When the clouds parted just a fraction I took the opportunity to get out the house with the kids.
The one gap allowed us to traipse up and down suitable Karoo Caco habitat, but the fast flowing rocky stream was more of a torrent and we could barely hear anything above the rushing noise of the water hurtling through the gaps in the rocks. We would certainly fail on our quest for that special species.
The birding definitely took a back seat. The strong winds and cold and wet weather had most birds diving for cover. The highlight of the weekend from a birding perspective was a Karoo Chat which allowed for reasonable close up views.
Maybe the other highlight was taking little Emma on her first birding outing. Whilst Jeanie was out running Tommy and I were left in charge of Emma and what else could we do but take her for a drive to see some birds. Not much was ticked as she fell asleep before we had even left the driveway.
As is always the case, the time to pack up arrives way too quickly and whilst we were loading the car to leave on Sunday the sun finally broke through the clouds and revealed snow-capped mountains all around us. Jeanie and the kids urged me to take them to the Matroosberg to build a snowman but the prospect of another 5 hours in the car stuck that idea well behind settling on the couch to watch the final day of the Olympic Games.