A birthday weekend in the bush

The birthday boy

Our family is pretty keen to celebrate milestone birthdays and my father’s 75th was no exception.  My mother decided a surprise birthday would be a good idea and she would attempt the impossible – arrange my brother, and his family, and our clan, to join them for a weekend in the Waterberg.  The surprise was a great idea in principle, but several payments coming off my mother’s credit card beep-beeping on my father’s phone gave quite a bit away and, as the time got closer, there was not much my father didn’t know.

It didn’t matter much, though.  The most important thing was that we had actually managed to find a weekend that suited all of us. Our destination would be the Bushwa Private Game Lodge (www.bushwa.co.za) situated about 18kms north of the one-street-town of Vaalwater in the North West Province.

The Waterberg is an area that I don’t know at all well.  Ranging somewhere west of the N1 north of Modimolle (Nylstroom for the old-timers), towards the Botswana border to the west and as far north as somewhere south of the Soutpansberg, it is an area that hasn’t really been on my list of destinations over the 35 years I have been birding.  It is not that there aren’t good birds, but there are very few endemics and so I didn’t really know what we would be looking for on the weekend.  Before my mother tut-tuts when reading this, the weekend was not for expanding our bird lists but rather for the family to spend some time together.  If there were a few birds and reptiles that we found along the way then that would be a bonus.  Inadvertently it turned out that there were three Waterberg reptile endemics – a Girdled Lizard, a Flat Lizard and a Dwarf Gecko – and although I did spend a little time looking for herps we unfortunately never found any of them.

We left Cape Town at around midday on Friday and flew to Lanseria where we were picked up very efficiently by my parents, and then we headed north past Pretoria until reaching Bushwa.  I don’t know for certain, but I suspect it was my first time driving through the little north-west town of Vaalwater.  Industry in this part of the world is seemingly focused around game farms.  Signs for taxidermists, vets and biltong are the most common, and private game and hunting concessions are a dime a dozen in an area where farms have converted over the years from predominantly cattle to slightly wilder beasts.

On arrival we were greeted by my brother David, his wife Natalie, and their two little ones, Cheara and Joe.  Our hosts also welcomed us with a cold refreshment which we enjoyed on the deck overlooking the surrounding plains.

The area we were spending the weekend held little “water” and even less “berg”, but our camp was situated on top of a small koppie and we were accommodated in luxury tents kitted out with a timber balcony, chandelier in the bathroom and a wonderful outdoor shower exposed to the elements.  There was nothing rustic about these tents at all.

The plains below were grey and dusty with the summer rains still pending and the air was dry and hot with a warm wind rustling the crackling leaves that lay amongst the tents.  There were few clouds in the sky and we were set for a warm weekend in the bush.

After a day mostly filled with travelling we spent a relatively quiet evening in the restaurant catching up with David and Natalie.  The kids were in the pool, followed shortly thereafter by some chaotic running around, with some of the other guests certainly regretting choosing this weekend for their quiet getaway.

Not before long we were all in bed looking forward to a good night’s sleep.   It was hopeful to expect an undisturbed night.  At about 2am a pre-storm wind started buffeting the tent and shortly thereafter the lightning started to light up the sky around us and the cracks of thunder had the kids out of bed in a state of sheer panic.  Jack was in our bed within seconds and it took some time for his shaking little body to settle before we all fell asleep again.

One of the real highlights of the weekend was taking a drive to a game auction near Bushwa.  We had been told that the auction would be worth having a look at, especially for the kids.  It was also something we had not really ever thought about going to, so it was something different.

We set out on the road heading north and, although the directions we were given were not the most accurate, it wasn’t that hard to find the place.  Set in the middle of, more or less, nowhere, from a distance we could see the reflections glinting off hundreds of cars parked in a dusty field across the road from a Game Park.

Not only was the field full of cars but a corner of the field had been reserved for a number of helicopters which reflected the fact that a large wallet was necessary at auctions of this nature.

Doing it in style

The game park was, in fact, a rather elaborate zoo with hundreds of large cages for all sorts of animals ranging from Bengal Tigers through to Coati’s (a South American Aardvark-type creature) and a range of indigenous and far-flung mammal and bird species.  These were not the animals on auction though.  Alongside the “zoo” was a network of large and medium sized enclosures holding a variety of herbivorous game animals.

The holding pens

The species included Impala, Wildebeest, Eland, Sable Antelope, Nyala, Buffalo, Kudu, Springbok and Giraffe.  Each animal was locked up in a dark enclosure with a network of tunneled boardwalks channeled above and between each enclosure, with small nylon curtains which, when parted, allowed bidders the opportunity to view the animals they were wanting to buy.

The viewing tunnels

Alongside the curtain a piece of laminated paper was nailed to the wall, headed by a lot number, with information reflecting the species of animal, whether male or female, and age and lineage, if important.  In the Game Auction world those bits of information are obviously critical.

For a number of the huge, impressively horned, male buffalos the name of the animal was scripted on the sheet of paper, but in bold underneath were the words “this specimen is not for sale”.  We wondered why the animals were displayed if they were not available at the auction.  We were soon enlightened by one of the locals who told us that the sperm of those large beasts was what was on offer in the bidding process.  In fact, we were told about a bull buffalo that was sold a week before for R12 million and, at the same auction, the buyer was able to sell vials of sperm for R250,000 each.  It really was a bizarre world that we were let into for a few hours on that Saturday morning.

Another aspect that was quite clear was that we must have stuck out like sore thumbs.  Our attire was completely off.  It seemed as if the only acceptable clothing was khaki in some form or another.  Plain khaki was as acceptable as camouflage khaki, but it really had to be khaki.  For the most part, the men wore short shorts, a leather belt with a leather holster for a leatherman or some other sharp object, a pocket-ridden shirt with different shaded khaki panels, and velskoene or Hi-Tec hiking boots.  The average girth stretched those leather belts to the limit, which was surely a result of years of red meat and beer.  The ladies were slightly more variable but khaki remained as the dominant theme.

Lots of khaki

I spent a few minutes in the auction hall, which was filled with hundreds of prospective buyers, but it really was not my scene.  Instead, Tommy, Adam and I spent a while chasing a new lizard we had seen running across the parking lot.  It was a beautifully colourful lizard that I immediately assumed was a bright form of a Spotted Sand Lizard, but I was delighted to discover that it was, in fact, a lifer reptile for us in a Cape Rough-scaled Lizard.  It was a lightning fast little creature and Tommy and Adam had some fun trying to catch it as it darted across the sandy earth.  At one stage Adam decided it may be best to throw his shirt on top of it to capture it and so there he was, shirtless, darting amongst the cars trying to catch our new species. Despite our failure to catch it we still managed one or two pics.

Adam chasing lizards
Cape Rough-scaled Lizard
Cape Rough-scaled Lizard
Cape Rough-scaled Lizard

The enclosures also revealed another reptile for us in a Montane Speckled Skink which we had seen before on our KZN trip.

Montane Speckled Skink

After mingling with the north-west glitterati for a few hours we decided that the growing heat and the advancing tiredness of the kids (and the adults) was a sign to head back to Bushwa for a midday siesta.

The pub at Bushwa came to life at around 5pm as the Currie Cup Final kick-off drew nearer.  We had opted for a game drive instead of watching the final that, I think, was quite inconceivable for our game ranger, PJ.  I was in two minds, but when considering that we could watch rugby just about any weekend of the year yet we were not able to access the bushveld that often, the decision was a pretty easy one.

Adam birding with his dad
Tommy taking it easy

It turned out to be a good one with VeePee succumbing to a better Sharks outfit on the day and a productive drive for the boys with a special lifer of a White-faced Owl to add to their lists.  Unfortunately we were ill prepared for the owl so there were no photos, but at least the boys were able to get good views before it disappeared into the darkness.  We did not see too many nocturnal animals but it was still amazing to be out in the bushveld under the stars.  In fact, the only decent photo I managed was of a diurnal species which we found roosting at the top of a tree.

Black-chested Snake-eagle

We had an excellent dinner at the lodge followed by a birthday cake big enough to feed to the entire clientele before hitting the sack for what, we hoped, would be a more successful night’s sleep than the night before.

As it turned out the first night was a small warm-up for Saturday night’s storm.  That night the storm arrived on cue but the second time around it was far more severe than the night before.  We had a bolt of lightning followed far too closely by thunder, and Emma, Tommy and Jack all sat upright in their beds and started yelling with fear.  It sounded like the eye of the storm was right on top of us and we all curled into our beds together placating each other until the storm rolled away leaving us in relative tatters.  Adam was sharing a tent with his grandparents and a desperate SMS was sent in the middle of the storm to make sure he was well looked after.  We had nothing to worry about – he was already in my parent’s bed by the time the SMS was sent.

As much as the storms were frightening for the kids they were amazing experiences considering that we all see so little of it in Cape Town.

Over the short time we were at Bushwa we took a few game drives on the property and, although we saw few spectacular things, it was good to be in the bush.  Photographic opportunities were a little scarce but I managed to get one or two birds and mammals on the memory card.

Jeanie on a game drive
Game drive
Crimson-breasted Shrike
Groundscraper Thrush

We also managed to capture a few pics of some of the common reptiles in the area with a Turner’s Thick-toed Gecko being a lifer for all of us.  It found its home underneath the fridge in the bar of the restaurant and so I spent some time spread-eagled on the floor waiting for it to dart out and catch one or two beetles.

We also managed to find a few Variable Skinks and Cape Dwarf Geckos around the tents.

Turner’s Thick-toed Gecko
Cape Dwarf Gecko
Variable Skink

The last bit of excitement for the weekend came in the middle of the big final pack.  Whilst Jeanie and I were lugging our suitcases backwards and forwards Adam suddenly shouted that there was a snake on the wooden deck.  We all ran outside and a combination of the noise and vibrating deck sent the poor creature straight into a nearby tree.  It wasn’t hard to see that this was a Spotted Bush-snake but by the time I got my camera onto it it was disappearing fast in amongst the branches and leaves of the tree.  All I managed was a photograph of the back of the snake but at least it was a new reptile for all of us.

Spotted Bush Snake

The weekend was over all too soon and despite it being a very short one, bookended by quite a bit of travel, it was great for the whole family to be together and especially for Emma to spend some time with her cousin Cheara.  The two of them were definitely up to no good for the entire weekend and it was quite a few relieved guests and staff that bade us farewell as we left.

Double Trouble

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