The Buckhams go north

A self timed holiday highlight

With our Frog Mountain weekend coming to a close on Monday morning it was time for the Buckham family to hit the road on our first ever family road trip.  To be accurate, it wasn’t the complete family.  We bade an emotional farewell to little Emma who was happily strapped up in her car seat on her way back to Cape Town with her Goggo and, without even a cursory wave at her parents and brothers, she turned her head and promptly fell asleep in the car before the wheels even turned.  It made us realise that our decision to leave her behind was a good one.

So, the trailer was packed, farewells meted out and we were in the car heading north.  The trip would take us to Sutherland for the first night, Brandvlei, Augrabies Falls and then back down the West Coast road with stops in Springbok and Citrusdal.

I am not 100% sure what made us decide on that route but I figured the weather was likely to be nice and warm after a long cold and wet winter and the wide open spaces could not be beaten for a bit of family time.  The well-known Touareg advert with the Arno Carstens soundtrack takes a father and his wayward son on a journey through similar areas and I suppose the romanticism of that journey appealed to me.  Not that our family really needed any patching up but after breaking my back packing the trailer maybe there was some healing needed.

The fact that the trip was also likely to yield some birds, frogs and reptiles didn’t hurt although I would have to tread carefully not to overwhelm Jeanie and Jacky Jack with too much biodiversity else it may be the last road trip we ever take.  I promised to smell the roses a little and take in a few other sights as well.

I keyed Sutherland into my GPS and it told me to take the road north through Ashton, Montagu, Touws River before turning left at Matjiesfontein for 110kms before reaching Sutherland.

Bright blue sunshine bathed the Karoo and with the exception of a bit of wind it looked like the start of our summer was upon us.  We counted bird species as we drove but as we hit the middle of the day and the depths of the Karoo the numbers dwindled and a game of “guessing the distance” kept the kids entertained for much of the drive.

The idea behind the distance guessing game is for each family member to guess the distance from the top of a rise in the road to where the road disappears from view.  Throughout the duration of the trip we played this game at every opportunity and distances varied from a few kilometres to a whopping 19kms on a stretch between Kakamas and Pofadder.  In fact, there is no better place to play this game than on those long straight Northern Cape roads and it was a throwback to my younger days when we used to drive through the Karoo between Jo’burg and Cape Town.

Funnily enough, Sutherland was a bit of a throwback as well.  When we arrived we were shown to our self catering house on the edge of town and it was something straight out of my childhood.  The ‘70’s decade was well represented with fluffy toilet seats, the jaccuzi bath in the bedroom, lots of garishly coloured carpets and a tape player in the kitchen.  Jean shrieked with delight as she pressed the play button and the wheels clicked into gear and sent the tape through the system producing some reasonable “Lighthouse Family” music.  For the kids that had never seen a tape before it was a bit of a novelty.

The jaccuzi bath

Sutherland is known for two things – it is the coldest town in the country and it is the home to the SAAO (the South African Astronomical Observatory).  It was a little chilly when we arrived but with the depths of winter behind us it wasn’t too bad, however, it was the Observatory which piqued our interest.  The town takes unashamed advantage of its astronomical status and most guest houses, restaurants and info centres are adorned with pictures of telescopes, planets and stars.  We were told by a lady at the hotel that the best place to eat was the “you-Peter” restaurant.  She gave us some handy directions and on arrival we noted that she had really meant the “Jupiter” restaurant.  Despite her dodgy conversion of the name to Afrikaans she was spot on with her recommendation – the food was perfect.  In fact, it was the scene of Jack’s first ever hamburger.  For a child who limits his menu selection to boiled eggs, custard and the occasional carrot this was somewhat of a momentous occasion.

The “you-Pieter” restaurant

Jacky’s first burger

After a meal and a short bit of downtime we headed to the observatory just to have a look.  It was a pretty weird experience wandering amongst the most advanced optical equipment ever built.  There was not a soul in sight (aside from a few Springbok), the wind whistled along the hillside and we genuinely felt we were right in the middle of “The Andromeda Strain” or some equally bizarre Michael Crichton science fiction novel.  Jeanie got the serious heebie jeebies and it wasn’t long before we were back in the car looking for a slightly more appropriate sundowner spot.

The aliens have landed

Springbok

In the morning, Tommy, Adam and I did a 2 hour atlassing stint north of Sutherland, after which we packed our considerable luggage and stopped at the fantastically named “Halley se kom eet” restaurant for a quick bite before hitting the road north.

Anteating Chat

Anteating Chat

Greywing Francolin

Karoo Prinia

Whitethroated Canary

Whitethroated Canary

I discovered that the best approach when traveling from one small Karoo town to the next is to ask the local garage for the most effective routing to the destination town. My GPS insisted we travel through Fraserburg, then north through Williston and ultimately north west to Brandvlei. I was certain there would be a more direct route and who better to ask than the local mechanic.  He gave me a wonderful route that seemed direct and far more interesting than the GPS-recommended route.  It just so happened that the foreman of the road maintenance crew was filling up at the same time as me and he provided confirmation of our chosen route.  My Afrikaans was tested to the absolute limit but I left the workshop with comprehensive directions and an annotated map.  Over the next four hours this map would be the source of much consternation for the dear lady narrating on the GPS as we ignored just about every turning she recommended.  Jeanie also felt we had placed far too much reliance on the mechanic but ultimately it was by far the best route.

The first 10 kilometers were quite dodgy with potholes and corrugations littering the gravel road but soon enough we were on a road that allowed for a reasonable 70 or 80 kilometers per hour.  We had the obligatory stops for the occasional field full of flowers and just to prove that I was “smelling the roses” I allowed a few minutes for a few pictures.  It gave me more latitude when I had to do a full u-turn on the road to try chase a lizard that had crossed the road.

Smelling the roses

Smelling the roses

I had really wanted this to be a trip of the lesser known roads and nothing could have been better than this.  We drove for over 100kms without sighting another person or car and when we stopped for a pic of the smallest town in South Africa (Middelpos) we weren’t that surprised that we still did not see any human life.

Middelpos

Middelpos

The vegetation slowly morphed from succulent Karoo on the Sutherland plateau to a more monotonous and considerably drier Bushmanland.  We were now in summer rainfall area and it was quite clear that summer had not yet arrived.  The vegetation was grey and “verlep” and the closer we got to Brandvlei the worse it got.

Jeanie had a romantic notion that we stop on the side of the road for a picnic at some point in the trip.  We had packed the full array of cutlery, a picnic blanket and plenty of picnicky kind of food and we weren’t going to go through the entire trip without putting it to good use.  When we eventually rumbled off the gravel roads onto the tar of the R27 I suggested that the next tree we see we park under and make the most of. I was pretty confident we would drive the full 100kms of the trip remaining without seeing a single tree.  A meal in Brandvlei was good enough for me.

Blow me down when we crested a rise and down the stretch there were 5 eucalyptus trees alongside the road.  This would be it. Our quaint picnic would see the light of day.  We laid down the picnic blanket, weighted down by nearby rocks to avoid it blowing into the road from the 50 km/h westerly wind, hauled out the cutlery and cooler box and proceeded to tick off another item on our list of things to do on the road trip.  It won’t go down in history as the greatest location but the kids were fed and I was earning further credit for smelling a few more roses.

The family picnic

We eventually arrived at Oom Benna’s self-catering farmstay just north of Brandvlei and I suspect Jeanie took a double take when she saw where we would be overnighting.  The pinkish farm buildings were a short distance from the R27 in the middle of a barren plain amongst a few windmills and a reservoir or two – it did not look like the oasis she had been expecting.  We met with the hostess, Heila, who handed over the keys and we never saw her again.

Oom Bennas – hard to miss

I was not at all perturbed by the accommodation. Tommy and I had done our stint in the Knersvlakte a year previously and we were fully accustomed to the barrenness of these kinds of areas.  The temperature had soared to a dry and dusty 38 degrees but we had a reservoir to cool our spirits and the spacious house was more than adequately appointed and it was as clean as a whistle.  What was even better was that we were in the heart of Red Lark country and who cared what the accommodation was like.  It was also 1 million times better than the Brandvlei Hotel which, by all accounts, had fallen on dodgy times and was not a place to be tested when the plight of future road trips was on the line.  I knew that 5 minutes in a place like the Brandvlei hotel would cast a depressing shadow on our trip.

Cooling down at Oom Bennas

An afternoon drive on the farm was as desperate as I can ever remember.  Bushmanland has been in the grip of one of the driest spells that can be recalled with decent rain last falling in 2001 and it seems as if it hasn’t rained since.  The ground was as dry as a bone and the bushes were grey from the dust.  The birds knew it as well. Based on the drive we did they appeared to have headed for the hills.  We eked out less than 15 species in a period of an hour with the most rewarding sighting being a pair of Spike-heeled Lark.  The wind whistling over the plains from the west didn’t help matters and I was not particularly surprised that we did not see hide nor hair of a Red Lark.  Any hope that they may be displaying was dashed when looking at the conditions around us.

Spike-heeled Lark

Desperate birding

The only real success of the afternoon was sighting a skink right next to the house.  It was very obliging as far as skinks go and allowed for some close up pics. I had very little idea what it was and kind of settled on a weird reddish form of Variegated Skink but the experts seem to suspect that it may be a Striped Skink.  With the dearth of general birdlife, Tommy and I also entertained ourselves with a large family group of Little Swifts that were nesting in one of the farm buildings and spent much of the late afternoon swooping in and out of their nests, twittering as they flew around our heads.

Striped Skink

Striped Skink

Little Swift

Little Swift

I tried not to feel depressed about the surroundings and this was assisted by my memory of previous visits to Brandvlei and the wonderful meals we had had at the Windpomp Restaurant situated alongside the only petrol station in town.  I knew I could rely on a solid meal and I had regaled of the quality several times to the family over the last few days.  The fact that we had to sit in a stop/go to get back into town was not going to be a deterrent and we all donned our “road trip” best and headed in.

Sunset in Bushmanland

We arrived all chipper and were met by a very quiet and dark entrance to the Windpomp.  The takeaways next door was a hive of activity but nothing was stirring at the Windpomp. This was a total disaster – a hungry Buckham family is a dangerous animal and we were all starved.  The takeaway joint did not look at all appealing so we headed for the hotel – something I swore we would never do.

I sent Jeanie into the hotel to make the assessment.  Bearing in mind that I had heard rumours that it had degraded to brothel status and the fact that I had a 5,7 and 9 year old in the car with me meant that it needed to be checked out.  Jeanie was back in the car within 30 seconds giving me the thumbs down.  This was not going to do.  Apparently the bar lady had told her that “everyone knows that the Windpomp is closed on a Tuesday” but went no further than that in reassuring her that the hotel was an able replacement.  The dining room was a dive and other clientele had confirmed that a meal was not likely to be edible.

So, it was back to the petrol station takeaway joint.

We ordered 5 burgers which one can only describe as being barely edible and we sat at the table in the corner whilst streams of roadworkers came through the shop to fuel up.  The kids took it in the right spirit and were delighted that they were allowed a cool drink and a dessert but at this point I was prepared to throw sugar and money at the problem just to get through.  I know it sounds a little snobby but I knew that the Brandvlei experience was not registering very high on the scale I needed to reach to ensure ongoing latitude for my future holiday plans.  In fairness to Jeanie, she also took it in the best spirit possible and after a few indigestible bites we were back in the car on our way back to Oom Benna’s.

Takeaways

We ended a long and eventful day with 10 minutes of star gazing where I described a long and convoluted method of finding south to the kids.  None of them had a clue what I was talking about.  I also tried my hand at an artistic shot of the stars and a passing truck on the R27 before we retired for the day.  It didn’t really work but for sure I will keep on trying.

Stars

The next day dawned a lot cooler than the previous one and the wind had dropped overnight. I was hopeful that these conditions would be far more suitable for displaying Red Larks but, if at all possible, our morning drive around the farm was more disappointing than the evening before.  There were as few birds despite the far better conditions.  Not only were there very few birds but they were extremely skittish.  There were virtually no decent photo opportunities and despite several calling Karoo Long-billed Larks I never got a chance to photograph one.  The highlight was a pale phase Booted Eagle in aerial combat with a pair of menacing Pied Crows but once again I reckon our species count was less than 20 for the 2 hours driving around.

On the plus side, Jeanie got out for a run on the farm roads and her batteries were fully charged by the time we got back.  We were treated to a full English breakfast which went down very well before the next stage of the journey.

Today we would travel north to Augrabies Falls and unfortunately I didn’t have a mechanic at hand to give me the best route possible.  The GPS was once again not being that helpful as she wanted me to take the tar roads through Kenhardt, Keimoes and Kakamas.  There appeared to be a perfectly suitable gravel road between Kenhardt and Kakamas that would shave off plenty of kilometres (weirdly enough all these alliterations were unintended).

The first leg however was a real drag.  Along the 140 kilometers between Oom Benna’s and Kenhardt were at least 8 stop/go’s with delays varying between 1 minute and 15.   It was very strange to me that a road that is seemingly travelled as infrequently as this one and appeared to be in good condition required a complete overhaul as extensive as this.  It was hard not to be a little suspicious of underhand construction contracts.  Or maybe that is my latent conspiracy theory brought to the surface as a result of the frustration of sitting and waiting at so many big stop signs.  The stops could not even be put to good use as the birding was so depauperate.

Another stop/go

Nonetheless, we arrived in Kenhardt and found a remarkably quaint little farm stall with a lady running the shop that was my equivalent of the Sutherland mechanic.  She gave me the go ahead for the gravel short cut after peering out the window to take a look at the car and so we bore left and gave Keimoes a big miss.

Farmstall in Kenhardt

The GPS was very upset about the road we were taking and we were repetitively told to do the earliest possible u-turn and head back to tar.  Jeanie was disappointed that the voice of the GPS was a woman as it brought less credibility to a female sense of direction.  Adam actually remarked that if it were a man it would have had no problem allowing us to drive on the gravel roads…

It was amazing how quickly the habitat had changed from the flat, scrubby plains of Bushmanland to something that looked so much more like the Kalahari.  Our gravel road was flanked on one side by rich red colored dunes with large mature trees along some of the dry watercourses.  These were the first trees we had seen since our lunch time eucalypts.

As we got closer to Kakamas the red dunes were replaced by huge granite domes and inselbergs.  We were definitely getting close to the Orange River.

Our accommodation for the next 2 nights was definitely more to Jeanie’s liking – Dundi Lodge was a real oasis in the desert – a smartly adorned family room with a wooden deck alongside a lovely crisp and clear pool.  The boys were into the water far quicker than their entry into the Brandvlei reservoir.  The toasted sandwiches were also a far side better than the fare from the takeaways in Brandvlei.  The lodge was also a stone’s throw from the Augrabies Falls National Park so after a quick bit of refreshing and battery recharging we were off to the park.

Augrabies Falls National Park

The main attraction is obviously the falls but between Tommy, Adam and I we were almost certainly more interested in the very localized Broadley’s (Augrabies) Flat Lizard which I had discovered was supposed to be relatively abundant on the smooth granite rocks overlooking the falls.  Jeanie warned me not to be too one-dimensional and made sure I kept my focus on one of SA’s wonders as we walked down the pathway.  We had discovered earlier, however, that the Augrabies Falls does not even register in the top 20 of the largest falls in the world.  We found this little titbit on www.worldwaterfalldatabase.com and who would argue with such an authoritative source.  It didn’t detract, though, from the experience of showing the falls to the boys and despite the low volume coming down at this time of the year it was still an impressive sight.

The Buckhams at Augrabies

We needn’t have worried about the flat lizard anyway.  Jeanie beckoned me over to one of the railings and remarked that it looked like Jurassic Park.  Leaning over the railing we noted literally hundreds of them running around on the rocks.  There was a fair mix of males and females but it was the male that really stole the show.  The bright blue head and orange and yellow wash on the legs, flanks and tail were pretty spectacular.  I can almost certainly say that I have seen these lizards before but it seems so much more rewarding that I now know what they are.

Broadley’s Flat Lizard

Broadley’s Flat Lizard

Broadley’s Flat Lizard

Broadley’s Flat Lizard

Adam chasing flat lizards

After taking a few pics of our new reptile and swatting away thousands of miggies we headed back to the car to head for our sundowner spot.  Bird and animal activity was relatively low so we would focus on making sure Jeanie filled her cup with a G and T at the most appropriate vantage point.  We headed for Ararat which was a little downstream from the falls and would give us a nice spot to take in a view of the last rays of sunshine over the park.

The view was predictably spectacular but the best part was the fact that we were all alone at the viewpoint.  We had the entire place to ourselves.  Jeanie was in seventh heaven as she sat and sipped her sundowner and I was also fully entertained as I watched the hundreds of swifts wheeling in the sky around us, occasionally interrupted by a pair of Lanner Falcons that were using the last light of the day to do what it is they do just before the sun goes down.

The view from Ararat

Lanner Falcon

Alpine Swift

It wouldn’t surprise that we found a new reptile but it would surprise that Jack was the one that found it.  After seeing hundreds of Augrabies Flat Lizards we weren’t expecting to see much different but Jack managed to find this Western Rock Skink behind a rock next to the viewpoint.

Western Rock Skink

Adam photographing skinks

The hour spent at Ararat was certainly one of the real highlights of the trip.

Sunset at Augrabies

Wednesday was our only day of the road trip where we would not be moving on.  We had already settled into our routine of two hours of birding and herping, a quick breakfast and the military efficient pack up and loading of the car.  This morning was strangely un-rushed so I was hopeful of some excellent birds and plenty of time to add new stuff to the memory card.  Well, it couldn’t have been any more different.  Tommy, Adam and I took a drive to Echo Corner in the park and we saw virtually nothing. It was a slightly overcast morning but within an hour or two the sun was up and I expected plenty of activity but it was simply dead quiet.  We returned for a late breakfast empty-handed.

A quiet morning to Echo Corner

Kokerboom

The rest of the day was relatively slow and quiet with 2 more visits into the park with a continuing low rate of return.  We repeated the sundowner exercise which somehow did not live up to the previous day’s pinnacle event.

Tommy Tucks

Adampie

Jacky Jack

We managed a few goodies with the highlight being an extremely obliging Pygmy Falcon on the way back to the lodge.

Pygmy Falcon

The slow day was not improved at all when Dave Winter sent me a text reading “Black Skimmer at Rietvlei.  just seen it!”

Huh?

A few quick downloads of mails confirmed that a new record for South Africa had just been found about 10kms from where we live but I would not be taking advantage of that close proximity as we were almost 800kms away.  I know these things should not be painful but somehow they just are.  The last massive twitch was for the Little Crake and the Buckham family was in the real thick of things that time around.  Aside from the new bird on a list these twitches are special times in a birder’s life – the huge excitement in the crowd, catching up with some of the out of town birders that we only seem to see at events like these and the endless contemplations about how a bird like this ends up in Cape Town.

This bird, from what I could gather, is a North American resident that may undergo movement from the northern part of the continent to the American tropics but quite how it ends up in Cape Town is a birding mystery of the most substantial kind.  There is no doubt that this is possibly a once in a lifetime birding event and without sounding too bitter it was quite possible that I was going to miss it.  The best I could do would be to put in some strong negotiations for a stop at Rietvlei on the way back home.

I put the skimmer in the back of my mind and took the boys out after dinner for some frogging in a pond alongside where we were staying.  We found 2 new frogs very easily which was a nice way to end the day.

Hot air balloon

Guttural Toad

Common River Frog

Today we would be moving on again.  Jeanie headed off for a run and I strolled around Dundi Lodge taking advantage of some early morning light for a few pics.  I saw far more within 100 meters of the lodge than we saw in a 2 hour drive in the park the previous morning.

African Reed-warbler

Chestnut-vented Titbabbler

Orange River White-eye

Orange River White-eye

Southern Masked-weaver

White-backed Mousebird

Yellow Canary

The car was packed and aside from a brief interruption from a small group of very lovable Rosy-faced Lovebirds we were ready to go.  Tommy proclaimed that the lovebird was his favourite bird and even Jeanie and Jack came to have a quick look.

Rosy-faced Lovebird

Then we hit the road west towards Springbok.

The direct route takes one about 300 kms due west on the N14 through the flattest country you have ever seen, but I decided we should take the scenic route and detour along some quieter roads.  I made no bones about the fact that I wanted to take the detour in order to make a stop at the Koa Dunes.  The Koa Dunes is a must-see spot for any SA birder worth his salt.  In fact, it is a spot that is frequented by many world birders as well, despite the fact that it is literally in the middle of nowhere.  It is the classic spot for Red Lark and, specifically, the stunning red form.  The dunes themselves are a remnant of the Koa River that cuts from north to south through Bushmanland.  I doubt the river has flowed in hundreds of years but it has left behind a swathe of the most gorgeous red dunes.  The dunes are pockmarked with tough grass and low shrubs and it is on this sand, between the short vegetation, that the Red Lark makes its home.

We had missed the lark in Brandvlei and I was determined we would not return without seeing one.  Who knows when we would be back in this part of the world?  Jeanie was also surprisingly chilled and she traded me a pedicure in Springbok (dinkum) for a Red Lark detour.

We barreled along the N14 as far as Pofadder and then hit the back roads south west of the town.  The weather was absolutely perfect with no wind and the temperature hovering around 18 degrees which must be unheard of at this time of the year.  We made the obligatory stop at a water trough for a Sclater’s Lark but spending too much time sitting in the car staring at a few thirsty sheep was not going to help my cause later on for the Red Lark so we pressed on.

It didn’t matter that we moved on as I spotted a lark sitting on the fence about 30 kms later and it just looked right for Sclater’s. We screeched to a dust blown stop and there it was – sitting uncharacteristically on a fence.  We fired off a few shots but it did not oblige for too long and so the photos are pretty poor.

Screeching to a halt for Sclater’s Lark

Sclater’s Lark

I also finally got my first pic of a Sociable Weaver and simultaneously a Black-chested Snake Eagle flew over our heads.

Sociable Weaver

Black-chested Snake-eagle

Chat Flycatcher

It was finally time for the lark search.  I parked the car at the cattle pens and we all climbed out of the car to start our search.  When I say “all” I actually mean all, except for Jack.  He was engrossed in a movie on the iPad and he was not going to budge.  To be honest I was absolutely amazed that Jeanie was going to join us but I suspect that she thought that the sooner we find the lark the sooner she can get to Springbok for her pedicure.

The cattle pens at Koa Dunes

We walked into the scrub and it was not 2 minutes later that Tommy had found our target.  He has eyes like a hawk these days and despite the possibility of other species in the area his brief glimpse of a flushed bird was enough for him to know that we had our bird.  I was delighted as we would now have some time for that perfect photo but we spent the next 45 minutes chasing that single bird around the dunes just trying to get one decent clear view.

Lark hunting at Koa Dunes

It never materialized.

It was one of the shyest birds I have tried to photograph in ages.  It never perched on a bush and it always seemed to be behind something when it was on the ground.  Eventually my patience ran thin and decided that the rubbish pic I had would have to do.

Red Lark

We returned to the car and on the way stopped to photograph another new reptile.  This time a beautiful Spotted Sand Lizard.

Spotted Sand Lizard

With the Red Lark in the bag we hit the N14 and made good time to Springbok. We checked into the Daisy Country Lodge, ticked a few new reptiles on the rocky outcrops above the guest house and headed into town to drop Jeanie off at the beauty salon.

Southern Rock Agama

Western Rock Skink

Western Rock Skink

Ground Squirrel

When we drove out of Cape Town a week previously Jeanie had asked for one specific favour and that was to go for a pedicure in one of the small dorpies.  I was shocked at this request but I acquiesced happily.  I did express a degree of scepticism that she would find a salon in a small Northern Cape town but it turns out that you are more likely to find a beauty salon in a small dorp than a bottle store.  So, Jeanie settled in while the three boys and I drove around town looking for something to do.

Her return from her session had her beaming with delight.  It seems as if the point of a pedicure is not to come out of there with perfectly painted toenails but rather to get the low-down on all the town gossip.  Talita, the beauty technician, a divorcee in her mid 30’s, who has half the eligible farmers from within 200kms wanting to escort her to the town party that follows the Saturday afternoon drag race.  She claims that small town living is not nearly as bad as we think it is and her social life couldn’t be better.  For the next 30 minutes I heard stories about the wealthy farmer in Bitterfontein that had been chasing Talita for months but cannot convince her to leave the hustle and bustle of Springbok.  I also heard about the one-night-only performance of Mama Mia that the entire town had been preparing for with the mayor of the town in a lead role.  If anything was to drag me away from an evening of frogging it would have been for that one performance.  Unfortunately our timing was off and the show was still two weeks off.

So, I had a wife whose primary objective of the trip had been fulfilled and it made me feel a lot better about the excessive stops we had made in our search for a few good animals.

As they say, a marriage is all about compromise.

Our early start in Springbok was relatively low key with Tommy, Adam and I scouring the rocky slopes above the guest house for any reptile we could find.  We had done a small amount of frogging in the grounds of the guest house and had found an extraordinary number of Karoo Toads the nights before but the frogging, in general, was going to be slow-going and the birding was unlikely to be particularly exciting so I opted for some reptiles.

Karoo Toad

I am learning quite fast that looking for lizards is tough.  During the heat of the day one can expect to find a few good reptiles on the warm rocks sunning themselves but one would only expect agamas, skinks and potentially a sand lizard or two.  But, my demands were becoming much greater and I was very keen to find one or two of my favourite group of reptiles – geckos.

My previous success with geckos entailed pulling them off the walls of houses but a search of the guest house after dinner revealed only a bunch of toads so I was hopeful that some early morning rock turning would pay dividends.  Fortunately a water pipe covered in exfoliated rocks from the outcrop that ran across the farm provided ample shelter for some potential reptiles.  The second or third rock that I turned over revealed a beautiful Bibron’s Thick-toed Gecko.  We had seen one of these a few weeks previously in Touwsberg but the colouring on this one was quite different.  I had hoped we had found a Namaqua Thick-toed Gecko but we were happy enough with Bibron’s.

It was typically quite feisty and bit us a few times but in general it was an amazing creature to handle and after a few minutes it was very obliging and allowed for some nice pics.

Bibron’s Thick-toed Gecko

Bibron’s Thick-toed Gecko

Unfortunately the rock turning never got that much better and all that we found was one more gecko and two young rock agamas.

Juvenile Southern Rock Agama

Non reptiles included lots of spiders and a pretty cool scorpion which never looked that intimidating but we made sure we avoided a sting.

Spider

Scorpion

I have told the boys that they should not be turning rocks at their young age in case something a little scarier than a gecko lies beneath one, so after lifting and turning over well over one hundred rocks I was starting to feel it in my back and decided it was enough.

It was back for breakfast and another pack and we were hitting the road south for Citrusdal.  Our last stop of the trip was at Hebron at the top of the Piekenierskloof Pass.  Sadly, I could feel that the trip was coming to an end.  We were back in familiar fynbos territory and the prospects of weird and wonderful creatures was diminishing.  We took a half-hearted walk around the property but the pickings were very slim.

Cape Bunting

Variegated Skink

A few very common species appeared but in the end I decided the Springboks needed my support and I found a fantastic little pub at the base of the pass to watch the game.  The pub was nice and spacious, the beer tasted great and there was plenty of support for the Boks but it did not prevent a rather one-sided game with the All Blacks running away easy victors.

I decided a ride on my bike on my last day of holiday was a better idea than looking for reptiles and it was a particularly good decision.  I rode all the way to the top of the Middelberg Pass which lies between Citrusdal and Ceres and aside from it being one of the most beautiful rides I have ever done the weather was miserable with the rain coming down.  Certainly not good weather for reptiles and birds.

It was one final pack and we headed the last 180kms to Newlands.

It was very easy getting home with Emma and Goggo there to welcome us.  We had done a big anti-clockwise loop around the Western and Northern Cape of over 2,800kms, seen lots of birds, frogs and reptiles but it was a trip that was so much more meaningful than the animals we saw.  We really had an amazing time together as a family and although Emma was not there with us, in years to come she will come along and keep Jeanie company when she visits the beauty salons of the small dorps of our vast country.

Home at last

 

3 Responses to The Buckhams go north

  1. Pam says:

    An amazing trip for you all and I really enjoyed reading all about it – I am very pleased that Jeanie will have Emma to keep her company in years to come while you crazy males in the family are off birding, frogging or watching rugby – at least the two girls in the family can have some kugeling time together. Such happy memories of a wonderful family time together.

  2. Andrew says:

    A great read, thanks and well done! Nic will be well pissed that he will be leaving SA without seeing a rosy-face lovebird, also his favorite – not too sure why…
    “Buckhams go everywhere” might have been a more appropriate title.

  3. Paul Lewis says:

    Excellent stuff. I see you didn’t slum it at Augranies, staying in the park like the Lewis’.

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