Our September holidays are strictly reserved for our family road trip. This was our third year in a row and we can now comfortably call it a family tradition.
In previous years I have been quite reticent to hand over the organizational responsibilities but, this year, I felt as if it was time to give Jeanie a go at picking our route. It turned out to be a good decision as this year, I think, was our best by far.
2 years ago we “tripped” the Northern Cape and last year we opted for the Drakensberg and Zululand. You probably get the sense that the main motivating factor in previous years was the best place to see some good birds so, with Jeanie at the helm, I was a little at the mercy of her selection bias. However, I needn’t have worried as, when she suggested that we road trip the Eastern Cape to take the boys past St Andrews in Grahamstown, for a school tour, I was pretty happy as it was an area I didn’t know that well and it would certainly yield plenty of birding opportunities for the boys and I.
We spent 9 nights away from home and travelled 2,960 kilometers. We visited 7 different locations which included Beaufort West, Mountain Zebra National Park, Hillston Farm (somewhere between Hofmeyr and Middelburg), Ganora Farm (Nieu Bethesda), Hogsback, Kirkwood (in the Sundays River Valley) and Prince Albert. There were 7 of us in the car for the trip (the 6 of us plus Jean’s mom, Annetjie or “Goggs” as she is far more affectionately known) and we all piled successfully into the Prado with the trailer attached.
Jeanie had picked our accommodation to be as far away from the madding crowd as possible and she achieved that pretty well.
After being at Beaufort West we spent two nights at the very enjoyable Mountain Zebra National Park. It is 15 minutes out of Cradock and it has an amazing camp with a number of relatively short and beautiful drives around the park.
The park was also a great place to add a few mammals to our trip lists. We even had a sighting of two of the male lions in the park but, aesthetically, the park’s title animal was probably the most pleasing.
Hillston Farm was the most remote, being out of any cellphone or wifi signal that seems less and less possible these days, whilst our favourite was voted as Ganora Farm just south of Nieu Bethesda (more about Hillston a little later).
The Ganora farmhouse is nestled in a rocky kloof that opens into a fertile valley that was well stocked with healthy sheep, many of which had just lambed. Asking Emma what her highlight of the trip was, we got a resounding answer that it was feeding the orphaned lambs bottles of milk with the farmer. It was a very nostalgic time for Jeanie and her mom as the farm owner, JP, reminded them (and me) so much of her dad and husband respectively. Just like Jean’s father, Tom, JP was most likely the last in a long line of sheep farmers and, in fact, he spoke about the rams that he had purchased from Tom about 20 years previously.
It was very sad chatting to him for two reasons. He saw himself as the last of the lineage that would farm at Ganora with both his sons pursuing alternate careers, and he also lamented the huge challenge of farming in the Eastern Cape with the proliferation of game farms. Most productive sheep farms have been sold off to “lifestyle” farmers which has not only reduced the potential yield of the area for agricultural contribution to the GDP, but it has also increased the enormous problem that farmers face with respect to stock killing by predators. JP told us that he will not be able to continue running a productive farm due to the number of lambs he loses on a regular basis to Caracal and Black-backed Jackal. The “lifestyle” farms that border his property have no incentive to manage the population of the jackals and caracal and his lambs are sitting ducks (excuse the mixed metaphor).
He emphasized that it is not only the farming stock that is taking a pounding but the small antelope as well, such as Common Duiker and Steenbok, and there seems to be no stopping the problem.
It was, however, wonderful to chat to JP about the fossil remains that he had found on his farm over the many years he has farmed there. He has a wonderfully kept museum next door to the dining room that displays hundreds of rocks with all sorts of fossils embedded in them. All of the rocks had been found on Ganora. He showed us a paleontological chart which indicated that the fossils on the farm (and, in fact, in the Eastern Cape, as a whole) are far older than the dinosaur fossils found in other parts of the world. The fossilized remains are all remnants of mammal-like reptiles from the Permian period that date about 250 million years old which are, more or less, 50 million years older than the dinosaurs we are mostly familiar with.
Another highlight of the farm was the cave painting tour that we were taken on and it was amazing to see rock paintings that are as old as 7,000 years. There are also amazing pieces of graffiti that date back from the Anglo Boer War, from a Boer soldier that was holed up in a cave for several months. The comparison between the graffiti and the Khoi-San paintings was stark. I am not sure if Emma appreciated the history lesson as much as the rest of us did.
Throughout the trip we worked our way through 9 dinners, 9 lunches and 9 breakfasts (ranging from the Spur in Beaufort West to farm meals and pub grub). We decided that our best meal of the trip was a braai we had at Hillston Farm. I did have to braai the lamb chops and lamb wors myself (I wouldn’t have had it any other way), but our hostess prepared salads and roosterbrood to accompany the meat and it was all finished off with chocolate fridge tart.
Sitting on a stoep on a warm Karoo evening, drinking a cold beer and watching the moon rise over Hillston whilst eating the most amazing meal will be something we will never forget. Hillston was also the site of our conquer of the small koppie behind the farmhouse. We bushwhacked our way to the top and had the most spectacular views of the nothingness that seems to be stock-standard in this part of the world.
Any Buckham road trip is naturally focused around the birding. I am so fortunate to have a very understanding wife who puts up with my 5am alarm clock that sounds every morning on one of these trips, but with my boys always keen to join me she is becoming the minority. A real highlight of the trip was having my youngest son, Jack, deciding that he wanted to join his older brothers and I on our birding excursions. It was so amazing to see the enthusiasm coming from him whereas on previous trips he had showed so little interest. Now Jeanie and Emma are firmly in the minority but what I always say to them is that “if you can’t beat them, join them”!
We had some phenomenal birding on this trip. It is not everyone’s cup of tea to focus as much as we did on the LBJs (little brown jobs) but it really is what I enjoy the most. There is nothing better than being challenged by the birds one sees and being able to sort through so many of the larks, pipits, cisticolas, chats and wheatears was extremely rewarding. We spent a lot of time at Mountain Zebra puzzling over the pipits and managed to get through African Rock, African and Buffy Pipit whilst we had Long-billed at a few other places. African Rock Pipit was my personal favourite. It is a bird I have seen before but nowhere is it as abundant as it was in Mountain Zebra. The trilling whistle seemed to come from just about every hillside and we had one evening sundowner session behind the campsite where we were surrounded by them.
We also had some fun with the larks with Eastern Clapper being the most ubiquitous bird of the grassland areas around Mountain Zebra, Hillston and Ganora. Initially we really battled to get photos of Eastern Clapper but our persistence paid off with one or two obliging birds providing a few interesting angles for a photo.
In terms of numbers it was not a trip that was going to produce huge species diversity but we managed 227 species with Tommy seeing 9 lifers and Adam adding 23. Literally every bird Jack saw (or in some cases, didn’t see) was a lifer and his total got to around 140 species.
Aside from the larks, chats and pipits I had a few other birding highlights. I was extremely fortunate to bump into David Nkosi in Hogsback on our first morning there. He had guided me about 5 or 6 years ago in Wakkerstroom and it was a while before we worked that all out, but, a few minutes of chatting was enough for him to offer us an opportunity to try get a photograph of Barrat’s Warbler and he had also mentioned a reliable spot to see the Cape Parrots. We got to the spot for the warbler and after some serious bundu bashing we were in the midst of the warbler’s habitat and I managed one extremely dodgy picture in terrible light.
The parrots were not around that evening but Adam and I returned early the next morning and were treated to one of the most magical birding moments I can remember in a long time. We had already had many sightings of this extremely endangered bird at various roosts and around the town but we were treated to a half hour performance from three birds that were investigating a potential nest hole. They are noisy birds at the best of times but this threesome was particularly vocal with lots of typical parrot antics being performed right in front of our eyes. David had warned that the birds may be quite shy at this spot but we sat quietly and were rewarded with an amazing spectacle. I must have taken well over 200 photos of them and although the light was not particularly good these are photos that I will always cherish.
The plight of the Cape Parrot is pretty bleak. They have a three-pronged attack on them that is sending them into a greater and greater level of scarcity. The beak and claw disease accounts for a large number of deaths, particularly in such a small gene pool, whilst the caged bird trade takes its fair share as well. As is the case with so many endangered birds, habitat destruction is another huge threat with natural forest, and particularly Yellowwood Trees, being harvested, which is a critical part of the life cycle of the Cape Parrot. There is actually a fourth, slightly bizarre, threat to them. I heard a rumour or two that there is a strong chance that the Cape Parrot will be taxonomically lumped with the Grey-headed Parrot, which is a bird that occurs in the north-eastern woodlands of Southern Africa and further north into Africa. Quite disturbingly this strangely academic threat could eliminate this species from our planet long before the other three threats do. One has to believe that the conservation efforts on a sub-species is likely to be far less focused than it is currently.
David was a wealth of information as he is currently based in Hogsback spending his time collecting valuable data on the parrots so as to enhance their possibility at a future. Hopefully some of his work will strengthen the populations of these birds as well as provide strong motivation that they remain one of the iconic species of South Africa.
We had some other amazing birding and experiences in the quaint little town of Hogsback. The lunch we had at the Butterfly Bistro was unexpectedly a highlight meal of the trip and we also had several good walks through the forest where diligence in the quiet forest was eventually rewarded with additional species on the list.
As I have already mentioned above it was a rewarding experience to have Jacky Jack joining us on our bird outings. He had shown very little interest in birds in the past but now that he is in Grade 1 and is able to read, as well as the fact that he sees his dad going out with his two brothers seemed to have lit the fire in his belly to get out with us. It was a tough place to start, though, with all the LBJs flying around. One would have thought that a visit to Strandfontein with flamingos, pelicans, ducks and geese would have been an appropriate entry for him but his list is already filled with a rather high proportion of pipits, larks and cisticolas.
On our night at Hillston I was dutifully dousing the burning coals at the braai pit as requested by our hostess due to the windy nights and tinder dry veld being a huge risk for a serious veld fire. While standing outside with Tommy and Adam I heard a very distant but unmistakable “churring” sound that I knew immediately was a Rufous-cheeked Nightjar. I also knew that Tommy and Adam did not have this bird on their respective life lists and I certainly needed a pic of it, so I ran inside, grabbed my camera, binoculars and car keys and dashed out of the house with Tommy and Adam. I had momentarily peeked into the room where Jack was and noticed him in bed and I assumed he was sleeping. We headed out onto the dirt road and within 5 minutes we had found our target sitting obligingly on the middle of the road. To avoid any uncertainty we heard it call as well to clinch the ID (anyone who tells you that they can ID nightjars from their visual features is just lying to you) and I managed to add it to my photographic list.
We returned to Hillston rather triumphantly and I walked into our bedroom beaming with excitement at my new photographic lifer and I was met by a rather cold reception from Jeanie. Apparently Jack had not been sleeping but had heard us leave and was in floods of tears as he had been left behind on this latest birding adventure. So, despite the late hour, I walked over to his bed and asked him if he would like to see the nightjar. 10 minutes later we were at the same spot and the bird didn’t disappoint. Jack would certainly not be behind his brothers on this species!
I also managed to submit 5 atlas cards for the trip, most of which were for some pretty poorly atlassed areas.
One of the main motivating forces for this year’s trip was to take the boys on a school tour of St Andrews in Grahamstown. There is a possibility that they may decide they would like to go to boarding school (Tommy is besotted over the Spud books) and we felt it would be hard for them to make such a big decision without seeing the school. Jeanie is an ex-DSG scholar so it was quite a nostalgic experience for her to take a tour through the two schools with the boys and I. It is an amazing campus and it makes me think that school is not quite what it was like in my day. There is much thinking to be done before the decision is made but I cannot help but think that the boys would benefit from an education in a place like Grahamstown.
Of course there is always a birding angle to any destination of ours and I figured I would take the opportunity to look for the resident Cape Eagle Owl that Justin Nicolau had found in the quarry behind the Rhodes campus. We ordered lunch at the St Andrew’s restaurant, I unhitched the trailer and the three boys and I shot off to the quarry to see if we could find it. Justin had described in his text to me that the fun really begins once in the quarry. I had a sense that meant that it was not going to be easy to find the bird. Well, my sense was right. We arrived at the quarry and we were faced with a far more daunting prospect than I had anticipated. There were just way too many ledges, nooks and crannies to check in such a short time. Technology is an amazing thing and whilst standing in the quarry I was messaging Justin for detailed gen whilst he was leading a birding tour in Madagascar.
His responses were extremely detailed and I was birding by numbers, checking each of the spots that he would describe so well, but there was still a lot of uncertainty. To make matters even more difficult, the rain started to come down and my three scanning companions were less vigorous in their search, rather trying to keep themselves dry under an umbrella out of the rain. Despite Justin’s assistance we just could not find the roosting birds and eventually had to call it a day. We were compensated in a small way by the addition of Cape Rock Thrush and Mocking Cliff-chat as new birds for the trip.
To add insult to injury (well, in this case “injury to inability to find an owl”) on our return to our heavily loaded trailer I tried to hitch it myself and as I rolled it toward the toe bar the wheel of the trailer rolled into a pothole (a not too uncommon feature of Grahamstown roads) and as the trailer lurched forward one of my fingers was jammed between the socket of the trailer hitch and the spare wheel at the back of the vehicle. I was physically unable to release it myself and so I beckoned over the car guard (replace “beckoned over” with “screamed at”, if you will) who earned his R20 tip by pulling the trailer to the side so my finger could be released. There was fortunately no long-term damage but for a moment I thought we’d be trawling the streets of Grahamstown on a Friday afternoon looking for an x-ray department.
Being a holiday it was important for me to take my bike with me. Not only is it great to keep my fitness levels up but mountain biking is a great way to get to some of the less accessible places for some great birds. It also helped with covering more ground for the atlas cards that I submitted. My first ride was a midday slog in 36 degree heat from the town voted as the worst of our trip, Hofmeyr, to our accommodation at Hillston.
Subsequent rides, however, were a little more pleasant with a big loop around Nieu Bethesda accounting for a 90km training ride, but the real reason I had wanted to take my bike was to do an all-time bucket list tick which was a ride up the northern side of Swartberg Pass from Prince Albert. It is almost exactly 20kms from the centre of Prince Albert to the top of the pass and, whilst the first 7 or 8 kms are relatively flat, the next 13kms ascend from an altitude of about 650m to “Die Top” which sits at 1,583m – all in all a climb of about 950m. That is equivalent to about 5 Suikerbossies for those that have ridden the Argus. There was plenty of physical exertion to get up the winding pass but it is hard to describe how spectacularly beautiful it was. It ascends through a dramatic kloof and then rises very quickly via the most amazingly built series of switchbacks taking you to a false top before a shallow descent before the final climb along the fynbos covered slopes to “Die Top”.
The last section has recently been burnt so the resident Cape Rockjumpers were fairly tough to find but birdlife is still relatively prolific and I managed to add a few final species to the trip in the form of some of the fynbos specials such as Cape Siskin, Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sundbird and Victorin’s Warbler. I also had some mountain loving species such as Ground Woodpecker and Long-billed Pipit right at the top.
It really was a wonderful trip from beginning to end. We spent a lot of time together in the car but we managed to find ways to pass the time. As the kids get older they manage the distances so much better and we even started a new birding game that helped all of us with our knowledge. The person that started the game would announce a colour and then, one by one, we would be required to name species that included that colour in the name of the bird. So, Tommy would start with “black” and name Black-shouldered Kite and Adam would follow with Black Crake and I would name Black Cuckooshrike. We would continue until such time as we couldn’t name any more and then grab the ipod and search on the Roberts app for all the birds with Black in their name. You’d be amazed, but it kept us going for hours. Once we had exhausted colours we resorted to bird names with the points of the compass (north, south, east and west) as in Southern White-crowned Shrike. I am not sure it was as much fun for the non-birders in the car but, as the driver, I was very happy to keep it going as long as possible.
I have been told on previous road trips that it is not about the destination but, rather, that the journey IS the destination. It has taken me a while to appreciate that but I can now proudly say that I have a better ability to smell the roses than I ever used to. We had some wonderful “rose-smelling” moments this trip, including a stop at the most forlorn farmstall in the middle of the bleakest Karoo between Beaufort West and Aberdeen where we bought our first batch of Karoo lamb chops;
several stops for windmill replicas in Cradock and Middelburg;
plenty of view stops including a stop at the top of the very impressive Lootsberg Pass between Middelburg and Nieu Bethesda;
a stop at the Sneeuberg Brewery in Nieu Bethesda to taste their Karoo and Honey Ale;
Some amazing remote roads and places;
But, the stop that won the award for the best moment of the trip (yes, it wasn’t a bird) was a roadside stop at one of the “drifs” in Meiringspoort for a swim in the Groot Rivier. It was such an appealing prospect that the three boys and I stripped down to our underpants and jumped into the crystal clear water.
There are just so many benefits to these road trips that we do. We see some amazing places that most South Africans don’t even know exist. We expose the kids to the fact that we have such beauty in our backyard and we also build such a strong family bond with no escape from one another. And, of course, there is the added benefit that our country has the most amazing diversity of birdlife no matter where you go.
Hopefully this tradition will continue for many more years to come.