Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Blue cranes in the Graaff-Reinet district

This article was written on July 16, 2005. (To see the images larger, please press shift and left click.)

Karoo splendour. The view from our accommodation on the farm, Groenvlei.

The air was perfectly still, the mid-winter sky a cloudless blue. Then we heard it: a clucking, chuckling sound, coming from the heavens.
     Looking up, we saw two large Vs, each comprising about 20 long-necked birds. They flew over in almost perfect formation, like something out of a children’s picture book.
     I consulted the oracle, Luke, now 14 years old, who was engaged in a titanic battle on the tennis court with younger brother Douglas, then a day or two short of his 12th birthday. 
     Luke had read up on the 200-odd bird species that have been spotted at Groenvlei, a guest farm about 60km north-west of Graaff-Reinet. After a cursory glimpse skywards and without a pair of binoculars immediately to hand, he suggested the birds – mere silhouettes at that height – might be crowned cranes. We left it at that, having just arrived at the farm after a rather tricky 40-kilometre trip along gravel backroads from Nieu-Bethesda.

Such is digital photography. My hundreds of shots taken at the Owl House in Nieu Bethesday, have got lost in the ether. Fortunately, I did a few sketches.

     Visiting the Owl House in that quaint hamlet for the first time in 22 years, I was amazed at how much more tourist-friendly, and well-maintained, it was than back in 1983 when I was last there. Was Helen Martins, whose example of “outsider art” is such a remarkable achievement, a bird lover? I wondered. Certainly owls are not the dominant life-form in her amazing concrete-animal-packed garden, but they do have powerful symbolic importance.

My photos of Graaff-Reinet have also disappeared. This drawing of Retief House Museum I did in the 1980s.

     Our trip north from Port Elizabeth had started a day earlier, in early July, 2005. We spent an evening in Graaff-Reinet where we soaked up some of that wonderful town’s history. Established in 1786, it is reputedly the fourth oldest town in the country, and boasts more national monuments than any other. Stand in Parsonage Street, and you get the picture. To the north is the façade of the historic Drostdy Hotel (1806), while at the opposite end of the street stands the equally impressive Reinet House (1812), both fine examples of Cape Dutch architecture.
     On the trip along rutted gravel from the N9 north of Graaff-Reinet to Nieu-Bethesda, few birds of note were seen. Even in the village, we looked in vain for house sparrows, which we’d expected to see. Luke did, however, spot a couple of raptors on poles along the next stretch to Groenvlei, the merino farm of Johann and Lynn Minnaar, including a steppe buzzard, jackal buzzard and pale chanting goshawk.

Our accommodation at Groenvlei.

      Settling into the southern wing of the former manager’s home – several self-catering guest houses cluster around a shared games and dining room – our two boys soon made use of the racquets and balls provided to get up a quick game of tennis. As the afternoon set in, the stillness of the Karoo – a high-pressure system ensured day after day of perfect weather – gradually soothed our city nerves. Our batteries recharged, we availed ourselves of one of the dozen or more planned and signposted hikes, each expertly explained in special pocket-sized booklets, including colour photographs. Since it was fairly late, we opted for a short walk of a couple of kilometers, the Sunset Stroll.

A pied starling (source:

     As usual, Robyn and Douglas set out ahead, while Luke and I, binoculars at the ready, brought up the rear. Before long it became obvious that the Karoo was home at this time of year to a large number of Cape sparrows and pied- and red-winged starlings, and Cape turtle doves galore. Yes, after years of battling to see these iconic-sounding doves, I was suddenly unable to venture anywhere without hearing, and seeing, them, although I still found them far less brazen than the redeye or laughing dove as they stuck to the tops of trees.
     So Luke and I trudged past a prickly pear plantation and a field still wet from a carefully managed water flow from a nearby dam, until we reached another smaller dam, where the others had halted. It was then that a trio of rather large, long-necked birds flew fairly low overhead. Binoculars trained on them, we watched in awe as we came to the realisation that they were blue cranes, our national bird. We watched as they landed gracefully a few hundred metres away. Suddenly I became aware of splashes of blue-grey on a low hill about 300 metres away. I started counting. At least 40 blue cranes were foraging away – clearly the same birds we had seen flying over us a few hours earlier.

I did these quick sketches at the East London zoo in the 1990s. Below are blue cranes, and above kudu.

     Then I recalled reading on the Groenvlei website that the farm was in fact renowned as a veritable blue crane haven. This was confirmed later by Lynn, who said there were in fact about double the number we had seen, but that the group had recently split into two, and that the others frequented another part of the farm. They would be counted by ornithologists at the end of July, during a national blue crane census, she said.
     The first and last time I had seen blue cranes was several years earlier in the Addo National Elephant Park – and then they were so far away it was barely a sighting at all. This time we had seen them in full flight and at fairly close quarters. When the whole flock flew over, clucking away, the next day, we were so blasé about them we barely gave them a second glance.
     While the cranes were clearly the most spectacular sighting during our stay, it was on a 12-kilometre hike the next day, called the Muishoek Trail, that we enjoyed several other outstanding birding experiences.
     This walk, which took us up a river bed to a large dam, started auspiciously when Luke alerted me to a Cape bunting, with those distinctive black and white lines across its head, on a nearby bush. But it was when we reached the dam that the real drama started. 
     The instruction was to walk along the top of the wall. While there was little or no bird life on the dam, we were delighted to see ahead of us a large brown and white raptor which had flown out of a thicket below the dam wall and landed on a bush about 70 metres ahead of us – just as a white-rumped antelope, probably a steenbok, fled bounding across the veld from roughly the same area. 
     As we got closer to the bird, we tried to ascertain what it was. Consulting the Sasol bird book, Luke thought initially that it might be an osprey, but decided its plumage was too brown. As it flew off on our approach, we got a clearer view and came to the conclusion that it was a juvenile fish eagle. 
     It is this sort of sleuth-work that makes birding such exasperating fun.
     On our return journey, along a farm road, we encountered a wide and exciting cross-section of Karoo bushveld birds. First on the list was a red-capped lark, followed soon after by a neddicky. This small (11cm) bird is arguably the pick of the cisticolas, with its blue-grey body and chestnut cap. We watched it as it sat on a barbed wire fence, a scene that would have made a superb photograph if I’d had a powerful telephoto lens to hand. The bird, with its wonderfully soft plumage, contrasted sharply with the rough, dark wire and harsh, koppie-strewn landscape seen in soft focus through the binoculars behind it.

A common stone chat (source

     The next sighting was to prove something of a challenge. Two birds, clearly a pair, were behaving very much like fiscal shrikes as they flitted from bush to bush. But there was just so much more colour involved, especially in the male. About 14cm long, it had a black head and rufous breast offset by pure white areas on the neck, wings and rump. The female was more subtle, but equally beautiful. We toyed with the idea of their being batises, but soon enough, with the help of the bird book, it became obvious these were common stonechats – though not so common to us. In Afrikaans the name is all the more descriptive, a gewone bontrokkie. It certainly does like to display its colourful frock.

Spandou Kop, as seen from the Valley of Desolation. I did this sketch in the 1980s.

     The next day, our visit to Groenvlei all too quickly over, we wended our way back to Graaff-Reinet, but first made an obligatory detour via the Valley of Desolation. En route Douglas spotted a martial eagle (lucky blighter!) on a telephone pole while dad was watching the road too closely. Luke saw what he was sure was a gabar goshawk, also on a telephone pole. The awesome beauty of the Valley of Desolation (Valei van Verlatenheid, in Afrikaans, which with its alliteration conveys an altogether more desolate feeling) was augmented by the presence among those precipitous crags of several rock pigeons, which seemed oblivious of the vertigo I was experiencing just watching them. 
     Then, just to make our day, a handful of pale-winged starlings joined their red-winged companions in joyous celebration of one of South Africa’s great natural wonders. With the plains of the Camdeboo stretching out to the south, the toothlike Tantjieberge to the east and the sentinel Spandau Kop between the Valley and the Sundays River-bordered town below, this is indeed a place where your soul is uplifted.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Finding the roseate tern

This article was written on July 7, 2005.

A bar-throated apalis

NO birder worth his or her salt can happily live in Port Elizabeth without eventually trying to track down the elusive roseate tern.

But in order to see this lovely bird you either have to defy restrictions and make your way to the breeding grounds on Bird Island or the other islands in Algoa Bay, or chance your luck at that most undervalued of geographical locations, Cape Recife.

The winter of 2005 was something of a birding renaissance for Luke and me.

After a brisk, almost obsessive start to our amateur bird-watching careers, our interest gradually waned, as Luke proceeded through the higher primary standards and then into high school. He found he had increasingly less free time and, what with computer games, sport, music and so on, his interest, while still strong, was not readily acted upon. Also, as he said to me so often, what was the point of going to our same old places again, since we had seen most of the birds we were likely to see anyway.

And of course he was right. While we had committed ourselves to try to travel more widely within South Africa in order to expand the bird-watching possibilities in the future, practically speaking this could happen only occasionally. In the interim, we’d have to make the best of what was on offer locally.

So it was that during the winter school holidays of 2005, Luke and I returned, first, to our happy hunting ground in Settlers Park. After an absence of a couple of years, it was like coming home. I felt like a kid exploring an old play area. Every nook and cranny, thicket and stream, seemed familiar. The few changes that had occurred in the interim were also obvious.

Being mid-winter, we did not expect to be too richly rewarded as we set out around 8am down the jeep track. The eastern bank of the valley was still in cool shade as we scanned the bushy central part of the park. Black and greater doubled-collared sunbirds were the first to catch our eye.

We headed up onto the contour path, where ring-barking has left a graveyard of tall, dead bluegums, so often the source of the regular tap-tapping of the olive woodpecker. Growing up between the dead exotics are a new generation of indigenous replacements, including yellowwood and Cape ash.

Our first sighting, little more than an arm’s length away, was of a soft-as-down bar-throated apalis. It seemed to have puffed up its body, probably against the cold.

We passed an area where, several years earlier, we had a remarkable sighting of a wood owl. We had seen the owl, in broad daylight, being harried from its perch in dense forest by a veritable army of anti-raptors, including olive thrushes, forktailed drongos, Cape robins, Cape and sombre bulbuls and even Knysna louries. It was an amazing sight.

This time, though, all was quiet. Back down in the valley, Luke thought he saw a tambourine dove, but it was only a fleeting glimpse as he noted the chestnut colouring under its wings. We meandered among the clumps of thicket which characterise the park, hoping for something special to come our way. The usual customers, Cape white-eyes and speckled mousebirds, were there in abundance, but nothing to make a lasting impression – until we got right down to the river. First the flashes of blue-green of a group of louries, frolicking among the branches of a large, leafless, grey-white tree, gave us something to celebrate. A couple even flew our way, settling in corral tree branches just above us, before flying off again, their scarlet wings disappearing between the tops of tall reeds and overhanging leafy-green boughs.

Running our eyes along the edge of the reeds, we recalled a few years back having seen a mother rednecked francolin leading a group of chicks along the grass before darting back into the safety of the reeds. This time there was nothing on the ground – but on a dry branch on the steep opposite bank of the river, we saw majesty personified – or rather birdified.

The African darter has an unsettling similarity to a snake, which is probably why its Afrikaans name is slanghalsvoel, snake-neck bird. Anyway, this fellow, all 80cm of him, was sleek and shiny black. With a long egret-like neck it cannot be mistaken for a cormorant. I had seen a darter at the reclamation ponds at Cape Recife a few years earlier, swimming along with just its neck and head protruding and looking most disturbingly snakelike.

This time, however, the bird was in repose, sunning itself. We were able to admire that long brown and black neck, with a line of white down its length, together with its strikingly long, pointed bill. Every now and then it would open its wings. The streaking on the neck reminded me of our sighting of a little bittern at Dodds Farm, also several years back, one of our most memorable experiences.

Eventually, this giant of a bird harnessed his energy and swooped off on broad wings to another resting spot further down the river. Shortly afterwards, Luke heard, spotted and identified a half-collared kingfisher. Only once he alerted me to it did the call of the bird even register. Which just shows how on the ball you have to be to all possibilities.

We journeyed on, taking a path running parallel to the river for a couple of hundred metres, and were rewarded with a cluster of small (9cm) bundles of energy. As I battled again to come up with the name, after such a long break, Luke immediately provided the answer: bronze mannikins. A cursory glance at the relevant page in the Sasol Birds of Southern Africa field guide provokes a sobering thought. On the same page as the bronze mannikin I have yet to see the redbacked mannikin, pied mannikin, cut-throat (ouch!) finch, red-headed finch or scaly-feathered finch. And that’s just that page. All these lifers still to get. Phew!

Klaas's cuckoo

Anyway, if you start young enough, chances are you could indeed get to see them all. But I doubt it. Nevertheless, Luke and I reached a little weir on the river under tall, again dead, exotic trees, which had provided us with plentiful birdlife in the past. This time was no different. And for a change I was the one to spot the bird first – but, as usual, Luke was the one to identify it. I had noted the suggestion of a white breast and green upper plumage, but the bird was high up and partly obscured, so I didn’t even want to hazard a guess. However, a Klaas’s cuckoo is was, another of my personal favourites, although on this occasion so far up it was difficult to get a decent view of the fellow. But oh to see a barred or an emerald cuckoo – both on the same page as the Klaas’s and Diederik versions, which we’d encountered fairly often.

We’d seen several of the quite common Cape weavers on our walk, but it was Luke again who spotted a rather plump-looking fellow with a heavily brown-streaked breast, clutching a berry in its outsized bill. As usual, I was at a total loss as to its identity. Not Luke, though. We had seen the thickbilled weaver male, with his distinctive dark brown body and white patch on the forehead, several times before. But this, declared Luke, was the female of the species. A quick look at the picture in the bird book confirmed his suspicions one hundred percent.

I would personally like to increase the “lifer” definition to include all variations on a theme. To me a female should be considered a separate sighting to a male, when they are often so totally different in appearance. Likewise, when it comes to juveniles or sub-adults, or birds that are in breeding or non-breeding plumage, or somewhere in between. There are so many variables, each sent to challenge us dumb humans.

The top Cape Recife reclamation pond

The truth of that observation about bird variations was underlined a few days later when Luke and I set out, again around 8am, for Cape Recife.

Fears that this unique area may be destroyed by over-commercialisation through the Madiba Bay project arose again as we wandered along the path cut through a combination of exotic rooikrans (much of it cut out and lying dead, covered with creepers) and indigenous coastal flora.

The call of the southern boubou has been with me since I could first hear sounds of any sort. Indeed, as Luke’s cousin Dylan first told us, it has many calls, often done in duets between the male and the female. This time, Luke and I watched through our binoculars as, unusually exposed on a branch, a boubou let out its call in the crisp morning air. It was another “lifer” – watching the southern boubou in full cry.

A little further on we saw several other birds sending their songs into the air, including a bar-throated apalis and a Karoo prinia.

Reaching the swampy reed border of the lower reclamation pond, our first sighting of note was of a greenbacked bleating warbler, its call (recognised instantly by Luke) giving it away. Further on, we heard the distinctive Cape robin-like call of the Cape reed warbler and the sound, like a train speeding up, of the African sedge warbler – neither of them seen, but identified through their calls.

The good news which greeted us when we reached the upper pond was that the weevils had done their job. Whereas, the lake was more like a flat, green football field, covered with an invasive hyacinth, when last we visited several years earlier, now it was back to its pristine best – and home to a lovely array of water birds. Perhaps the most pleasant sighting was a group of about two dozen dabchicks, those diminutive (for a grebe) birds which seem permanently to remain small and cute. Though they are 23cm to 29cm long, compared to most water birds this is small, and they are usually only ever seen far out on the water, trailing around like a family of goslings that have lost their mother goose.

As we walked along the bank, a group of about six red-knobbed coots scurried out of the nearby reeds, joining another group of yellow-billed ducks further from the shore. A personal favourite, the grey-headed South African shelduck, was not to be seen this time, however. Neither was the purple heron we had encountered here previously, nor for that matter the purple gallinule. However, we did see a grey heron fly overhead, as well as several little egrets.

Venturing along the track between the upper and lower reclamation ponds, we reached a point where previously we had spotted the spectacularly beautiful whitebacked night heron. We even brought Dylan back months later to show him, and the pair were still there. But the exotic trees on which they were perched that time had subsequently been cut down. Hopefully, something indigenous will replace them.

To our relief, we also did not encounter any snakes, unlike a few years earlier when a puffadder had crossed that road about a dozen metres ahead of us. We had watched it, looking ominously large through the binoculars, as it slithered off into the reeds, where tasty morels no doubt abounded.

Anyway, it was about this time, with my thoughts wandering, that we became aware of a dogfight in the sky above us, as kelp gulls wailed and flailed in anger at the presence of a raptor, which again initially defied description. But we were getting wiser. Or Luke was. This, on close observation through the field glasses, was a sub-adult African fish eagle, he assured me. I didn’t argue.

A view from the bird hide at the lower pond

Retracing our footsteps, we then headed for the bird hide beside the lower pond. Opening the observation flaps, we were disappointed at the paltry pair of Egyptian geese and a couple of red-billed teal on the water. We decided to stick around and see what turned up. We didn’t have long to wait before Luke spotted it, cruising just above the reeds: another raptor. When agonising over the fish eagle earlier, he had already mentioned the harrier possibility. Well, after again consulting the bird book and watching this bird closely, with its creamy head and leading edge on the wings, along with a bar across its breast, not to mention the way it indeed harried its prey in the reeds below, we – or Luke – came to the conclusion it was an African marsh harrier.

The African marsh harrier

Imperious, a lone ranger out on a deadly mission, this was one of the great, ancient dramas of the African wilderness unfolding before our eyes. But it was to be repeated in even more spectacular fashion soon afterwards. After enjoying a short but ever-so-rewarding sighting of a common moorhen, with its matt black back and bright red face-shield before it disappeared back among the reeds, Luke and I closed the flaps (Luke narrowly missing an encounter with a rather large spider) and headed towards the seaside, just a couple of hundred metres away.

Terns and gulls on the shore near the point at Cape Recife

Kelp gulls frequent both the sea and freshwater areas, their calls like no other capturing the mood of the shoreline. On our walk towards the lighthouse, they were joined in the sky by grey-headed gulls, while on the sand we spotted a trio of white-fronted plovers. Half a dozen black oyster catchers, a whimbrel and a pair of ruddy turnstones (in non-breeding plumage) kept us entertained. But it was again a raptor that would enthral us.

A rock kestrel

When I first spotted it, it was like watching an aircraft approaching – but one that somehow seemed never to get closer. How the common (or rock) kestrel manages to stay aloft in a light sea breeze without flapping a wing is amazing. How it manages to keep absolutely still in the air is a miracle of avian aviation. This fellow hovered about five metres above the low dunes, occasionally moving upwind before relaxing and falling back to its original position. We watched it for some 10 minutes, and were about to head on when it suddenly pulled in its wings and plummeted into the vegetation. Seconds later it was up in the air again, a lizard hanging from its talons. Then, still keeping aloft through minute adjustments to the angle of its wings, we watched as it devoured its prey in a few mouthfuls. Awesome! Many have spoken of how thrilling it is to see Africa’s great mammal predators – leopards, lions and so on – in action. Yet, I would contend that the drama of the raptor hunting – and eating – on the wing, is every bit as spectacular. Even if the bird in question is a mere 30 to 33cm in size.

But enough of this musing. It was high tide, and Luke and I were a little disappointed, since the large expanse of rocky shoreline normally found at low tide was covered in water. This meant less likelihood of spotting birds ferreting for food. That was the down-side. We discovered the up-side when we walked past the black-and-white-striped Cape Recife lighthouse, and the rocky outcrops at the very tip of the peninsula came into view.

First, focusing on a ship which was navigating its way around the point, we noticed a flurry of pelagic activity off-shore. The long, black-tipped wings pointed to a Cape gannet feeding frenzy, but they were too far away for us to really appreciate them. Not so the birds sunning themselves at the point.

The benefit of it being high tide was that, unlike on previous occasions when we had visited at low tide and the flocks of terns were located at the very edge of the rocky shoreline, next to the sea, now they were right beside the sand. Indeed, some were right on the sand and, despite the light wind behind our backs, we managed to walk to within about 50 metres of the closest crop of about 50 birds without disturbing them. Another group, a bit further away on the rocks, must have comprised at least 100 birds. We embarked on our own visual feeding frenzy.

Cape Recife lighthouse in a bit of a gale - a shot taken during another visit

With the breeze flapping at the pages of the field guide, Luke indicated to me the tern species we were most likely to encounter. A scanning of the more distant group had already suggested there were some quite massive fellows there, among many somewhat smaller ones, while those on the sand close by were by far the smallest. The terns, at first glance, are all pretty similar, with grey bodies, white necks, a black cap and straight, medium-length red, yellow or black bills. You have to look for size and specific nuances which set each species apart. This we tried to do, and concluded that the big oke with the thick red bill standing alone at the back was a Caspian tern (47-54cm). Almost as large were the yellow-billed majority around it, swift terns (36-41cm), while there were also a smattering of common terns (31-35cm). Which left the group nearer to us. They were much smaller than the others, so the most likely choice was the little tern. All the other specifications seemed to fit, including the fact that their black caps were more like a collar, with a white crown on top – evidently the non-breeding plumage. Black tips to their wings was another key distinguishing feature.

The beautiful roseate tern

Then a new pair of terns landed among the little terns. Luke recently had done a fair amount of research on his Roberts Birds of Southern Africa CD-Rom. And he had become increasingly less conservative as he matured, more willing to accept the evidence before him and not rule out completely the possibility that he might, just might, have spotted something exciting and new, a lifer.

So when this pair of terns turned to face us, it was with almost disbelief that we looked, and looked again, and again, at the evidence before our eyes. The obvious, and beautiful, pinkish tint to their pale breasts was unmistakable. These were roseate terns. And, somehow, for some reason, in mid-winter, they were in breeding plumage. There was also a quality about the birds, an almost regal superiority, which set them apart. Then, much to our astonishment, one hopped on the back of the other, which was still standing. I have not seen how birds mate, I don’t even have the foggiest what their reproductive organs look like, but I can only imagine that was what these two roseate terns were doing.

Of course all good things must come to an end. It is just unfortunate that, despite the much-appreciated ban against vehicles on our beaches, it was two men in a large 4x4 which came trundling past us that chased the entire flock of birds into the sky.

Reading the Sasol Birds of Southern Africa, it seems to me that the roseate tern – probably more than any other species, including the African penguin which for a time was given that status – is the true wildlife symbol of Port Elizabeth and Algoa Bay. They breed on the islands in the bay and nowhere else, and are considered endangered residents.

As we walked back to the car, Luke took out his Southern African birds checklist and seemed quite chuffed with himself as he ticked off the roseate tern, lifer number 261.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Queen's Park Zoo, East London

This recalls a visit to the zoo in East London, back in 2004. To see some drawings I did at the time, please visit

My sons, Doug and Luke, when they were very young in the Queen's Park Zoo, East London. The delightful duckpond can be seen through the indigenous trees behind.

I HAVE been visiting one of East London’s prime attractions, the Queen’s Park Zoo, for nearly 50 years.

But it was only recently that I became fully acquainted with the delights of the nearby Gately House, a beautifully preserved Victorian home administered by the East London Museum.

Growing up in East London in the 1950s and ’60s, a visit to the zoo was a regular occurrence. It has to be one of the most scenic zoos anywhere, thanks to its location. Officially opened as a botanic park in 1896, the first animals were housed there in the 1930s. Today, the zoo section covers 10 of the park’s 45 hectares of coastal forest.

The preservation of all that indigenous forest, including cycads, a stone’s throw from the city centre is achievement enough. But rarely has a more charming zoo been established – or so lovingly maintained.

Virtually every time we visit relatives in East London – several times a year – we make a pilgrimage to the zoo. While things naturally do seem smaller than when one was a child, I’m sure for children today the place remains just as enchanting. And a Smartie train, kiosk and jungle-gym render it particularly child-friendly – although the pony rides of my youth are sadly a thing of the past.

Many would argue that animals should not be kept in captivity. But often those that are have been injured and cannot survive in the wild.

On our most recent visit, in September, we walked the short distance from the car park to the entrance, where R40 paid for two adults and three children. A few bags of raw peanuts were acquired for under R10.

A female paradise flycatcher.

To the left of the entrance, set under palms and tall trees, is a pond which features maribou storks and crowned cranes – among 38 species of birds in various aviaries around the zoo. And, since this indigenous forest acts as a magnet to wild birds as well, it was no surprise to see a pair of yellow-billed kites hovering just above the tree tops. Among other visitors, we also saw a paradise flycatcher and numerous laughing and redeye doves. Crowned hornbills, giant kingfishers and goshawks are also regularly spotted.

Next we encountered the zoo’s rare white lion cub, Remus, before chancing upon a peacock, its fantail extended in a beautiful courting ritual beside the giraffe enclosure. The delightfully tall giraffe is a surefire hit with the kids. I saw it stre-e-e-tch out its neck and – its long black lashes framing big round eyes – virtually kiss a baby in his pram.

In several large camps under shady, indigenous trees we saw a wide variety of antelope, including nyala, bushbuck and blue duiker. Indeed, there are 47 species of mammal and seven reptile species to be found in the zoo.

One of two large pit-enclosures – this one built in the 1970s – is home to two bears. The other was opened in 1959, initially as the lions’ den. I well recall as a child quaking in my boots as the roar of the lions resonated across the park from inside their enclosure.

Now they’ve been moved to a more natural, open (but secure) camp, and replaced by a family of chimps. These strange creatures, with their large, human-like physiques and mannerisms, are a constant source of fascination – and no slouches at catching the odd peanut dropped some four metres into their mouths!

For years, as children, the zoo’s enormous crocodile always seemed to be disappointingly fast asleep. Nothing has changed – except that the croc is now in a new, larger enclosure.

The place is full of pleasant surprises: chattering primates of various description; exotic birds of paradise, their plumage a rich palette of primary and complementary earth colours; a hutch crammed with the black-and-white quills of a horde of dozing porcupines . . .

An old favourite is the tall aviary housing several species of raptor, such as the spotted eagle owl and black eagle. But the resident black crow lacks the character of a much-loved predecessor, Jimmy the Crow, famous in the sixties for shouting “Border!”, the local rugby warcry.

A white-faced duck.

The large, central duckpond remains, as it has always been, an area of tranquility at the heart of a place teeming with big and often dangerous wildlife. The gentle beauty of yellow-billed and white-faced ducks is a far cry from the latent ferocity of the nearby Bengal tigers, lions, hyenas and striped jaguars.

And, while the many nocturnal animals may disappoint daytime visitors as they doze in their cages, they come alive after sunset. The zoo offers regular night tours, two of which I’ve been on in recent years, both of them entertaining and informative. The evenings start and end at a boma, where the organisers provide a post-walk cup of hot chocolate and, for the kids, marshmallows to roast on a roaring bonfire.

A fountain, donated over 100 years ago by Martin Fleischer, is still in good working order, and packed with a collection of koi fish.

But it is that Victorian house, a five-minute walk uphill towards the city centre – though still in the park precincts – which brings a real sense of history.

Directed by a signpost near the bear pit, we passed through imposing but decayed gates before reaching the town house.

We were welcomed by charming Gately House curator Prince Mame, who gave us a memorable guided tour of the place, highlighting interesting features in each of the rooms. The house was built in 1878, some 30 years after the town was established, and was lived in by John Gately and his family until the death of his last surviving child, Margaret, in 1966. She generously donated the contents to the museum. The house was declared a National Monument in 1973.

Born in Roscommon, Ireland, in 1829, John Gately served with the Royal Rifles in the Eighth Frontier War from 1851 to 1853. After his discharge in 1857 he married Mary Ann Davis in King William’s Town, and moved to East London in 1860, setting himself up as a forwarding and general agent at the port.

The couple had 12 children. A devout Roman Catholic family, religious pictures and statuettes can be seen throughout the house.

There is also a wealth of Victoriana to be enjoyed, all for the price of a small donation.

Here you will encounter the whatnot, a three to four-tiered stand for ornaments, and another Victorian favourite, the glass dome, or shade. The one with stuffed birds in the parlour is typical of the time.

Other interesting objects include a coat and hat stand in the hall, as well as a silver salver for visiting cards.

There is a pre-1860 piano in the parlour, where Gately – East London’s second mayor, serving from 1881-83 and again from 1887-88 – entertained important visitors. Among them was Sir Gordon Sprigg, Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, who was the MP for East London in the late eighteen- and early nineteen-hundreds.

The family living room features, among others, a magnificent rosewood cylinder desk, on which resides the old family bible. A typically sentimental Victorian touch is a framed circlet which has locks of hair from each member of the family.

The rest of the tour takes you through the main bedroom, second bedroom, dining room and pantry. How 12 children fitted into this small house is a mystery, since today there is only one iron bedstead in the second bedroom.

The piece de resistance is to be found in the dining room. It is a beautiful large mahogany dining table, reputed to have come from a shipwreck. The first meeting of the municipal councillors is said to have taken place in the dining room around this table.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Nightjars of the Karoo

A fiery-necked nightjar

MOST birders know it by its call, which sounds like the exhortation: Good Lord, deliver us! Good Lord, deliver us!

But, given that the fiery-necked nightjar is nocturnal and a master of concealment, actually spotting one of these mottled creatures is a rare occurrence indeed.

At least it was in my case – until we did an evening drive on the back of a bakkie on a Karoo farm in early 2004. Then, thanks to the sharp eyes of our host, Steynsburg district sheep farmer Bill Elliott, we encountered several of the little fellows, soaking up the warmth of the gravel road but barely visible among the stones.

Teebus and Koffiebus become one in this silhoutte.

Our journey north from Port Elizabeth had been happily uneventful. Just before turning left towards Middelburg we caught sight across the Karoo plains of the magnificent koppie combination known as Teebus and Koffiebus – tea jar and coffee jar.

These are like the pointers to the Southern Cross: and if you take the correct rather bumpy dirt road you’ll eventually negotiate a dry spruit and arrive at the optimistically named Spring Valley farm.

A klipspringer.

Along this track to the farm we spotted our first sample of wild life of the trip – although in this case it was pretty dead: the carcass of a black-backed jackal lay rotting on the side of the road.

Our couple of days on the farm were characterised by a few memorable moments, including sundowners on the koppie behind the farmhouse, as we watched the landscape stretched out around us sink into shadow beneath a sky that transformed rapidly through the spectrum. I was able to do a few pastel drawings, including one of two old grain silos, before the encroaching darkness drove us indoors, with the Red Mountain, visible from the lounge, being the last bit of the landscape to lose its light.

Our first big adventure was reserved for the next day. We were heading for a heart-shaped section of the Big Mountain, a few kilometres behind the farmhouse, which also marks the northern boundary of the farm. I had heard much talk of the Bushman paintings, or in politically correct terminology, San paintings – which somehow just doesn’t sound right, does it? – and hoped finally to get a good look at them.

But first there was the small question of hiking halfway up what, at a distance looked like a rather low, nondescript koppie. How wrong one can be!

The ever-obliging Bill took his bakkie out of a voluminous shearing shed, loaded us aboard and we bumped and thumped our way across the veld, bypassing a handful of derelict mud buildings before reaching a concrete water tank. Bill parked the bakkie and we jumped down onto the hard, stony ground. Ahead of us, the heart shape loomed larger, while behind us Teebus and Koffiebus were just peeping out above Red Mountain.

It was hot and still. Any birds there might have been had seemingly already found sanctuary and respite from the heat, although we did enjoy the sight of a splendid Cape bunting with its distinctive black-and-white striped head.

So, while our feathered friends were by and large maintaining an exhausted and conspicuous silence, our group of seven – ranging in age from Bill’s 60 through my 47 to Douglas’s 10 – were still full of beans. But what I thought would be a cakewalk through the veld ended up being a rather arduous hike, the likes of which I had not encountered since being forced, with heavy pack and rifle, to cover many dry kilometres in the foothills of the Drankensburg during national service with the 5th SA Infantry Battalion near Ladysmith, Natal, in the winter of 1979.

How nice though, I reflected, to be doing this voluntarily. How pleasant not to be at the beck and call of army officers and NCOs. Simply being out in the African veld for its own enjoyment was something I had found difficult to imagine 25 years earlier while enduring those tedious years of military conscription.

But, lost in thought, I was brought back to reality by a call from Bill for us to halt – or “stop”, since this was a civvy hike, after all. He gestured with his walking stick towards a clump of bushes on the edge of a narrow, dry ravine. The outline of some sort of antelope, standing absolutely still, was clearly visible. There was general discussion about what sort of buck it was, until I raised my binoculars to my eyes and made a startling discovery. Our buck was a mirage, or rather a very clever bit of Karoo visual trickery. A dun-coloured rock with a bush’s shadow cast over it looked exactly like a buck. It was a timeless, immobile antelope literally cast in stone – at least until such time as the sun moved sufficiently for the light-shadow show to be over.

Our next animal sightings were more of the flesh-and-blood variety. First we spotted a couple of klipspringers gambolling over the rocky landscape. Later, I also got my first sighting of the fleet-footed Cape hare, as one of them darted across the veld in front of us. But that sudden flurry of activity was soon subsumed in the intensifying heat as we negotiated the rugged, undulating “dead ground” – there I go again, another military term – at the foot of what, as we got closer, looked increasingly like a mountain. We were walking through tall, almost-white grass, but the intervening rock formations, complete with fascinating eroded circular cavities, would clearly be a geologist’s delight.

A Cape hare

The ascent was getting steeper and the younger members of the party forged ahead, leaving the more senior partners to bring up the rear at a respectable rate. Indeed, Bill and I often found it helpful to take regular stops in order to enjoy the view. When we finally hauled our bodies onto the narrow ridge where the Bushman art was to be found, the others were almost bored with the place already, and were all set to continue up the remainder of what was by now very much a mountain.

There before me were my first Bushman paintings, and sadly they told a tale of white occupation, of dispossession, and perhaps even of massacre. The white figures were mostly on horseback. The long white sticks they held were clearly rifles. But there were also lovely animal shapes, including several ostriches.

Bill told us eighteenth century trekboers had evidently come this way. Legend had it that, in the course of that period, a trap had been set. San bushmen had been lured to indulge in a feast on animals slaughtered by the Dutch farmers. They had gorged themselves into a state of defencelessness, and then been massacred. It may be apocryphal, but it is the sort of story that has the ring of truth about it.

We took a few photographs of the slightly recessed rock face on which these images were painted, and I attempted to draw one cluster of figures. I had recently reviewed a book on Bushman art in which an artist had attempted to reproduce the images, complete with the texture of the rocks on which they are painted. While these pictures were competent, it was clear from one example, in which the original was juxtaposed with the copy, that it is virtually impossible to reproduce those images convincingly, no matter how adept the artist is. Mysteriously, Bushman art has an aesthetic quality which is unique. Some would argue that it borders on child art or dismiss it as “primitive”. But I can sense within the proportions, the economy of line, the distortion for effect, and a myriad other arcane devices, that these artists were privy to artistic techniques, technical as well as intellectual, which render their work exceptional.

And it is uncanny how that “style” of painting seems to permeate and inform similar ancient rock art sites around the world. It is as if there was an international rock art movement, with cave painters in Europe achieving uncannily similar effects to those working on stone “canvases” throughout the horseshoe chain of mountain ranges in southern Africa, not to mention elsewhere in the world.

But lest I got too complacent soaking up this piece of history, the call from my climbing companions was one of “let’s head for the top”. Bill and I demurred. Instead, as the younger set set off upwards, Bill led the way horizontally across the berg to another cave, which he said was nicknamed “the cubbyhole”, where, as teenagers, he and his siblings and cousins had whiled away the hours.

It was about this time, as the rest of the party were reaching the summit and Bill and I were trying to cajole his ageing Jack Russell terrier and more sprightly border collie to follow us down and not explore every possible burrow and crevice, that we noticed some rather dark and ominous clouds building up in the west. A steady breeze came up and ushered the storm into the mountain amphitheatre. We were in for a little spectacle, courtesy of mother nature. Indeed, we agreed afterwards that it was, in many ways, a rather terrifying little spectacle.

High above us, on the ridge of the mountain, we saw the other group moving hurriedly away from the clouds, which by now were issuing forth lightning bolts and thunderclaps pretty much all around and above us. It was then that Bill, a veteran of such events I assured myself, suggested we head for a dry, narrow river bed, in order to get below ground level. It made sense. So there we and the two dogs huddled, against an increasingly wet bank of earth, as the rain came pelting down. Not a naturally religious person by nature, I found it nonetheless reassuring when Bill proceeded to recite a prayer for our safekeeping. He was, I was confident, just playing it safe; calling for a little additional assurance from the guy above who, after all, was orchestrating what was, despite our discomfort, an exhilarating and impressive display of firepower.

The water in the river bed turned from a trickle to a stream as we waited out the passing of the storm. Once the worst was over we set out down the remainder of the mountain. Soaked to the skin, we trudged through pools that covered our shoes. Visibility was a few hundred metres, but thankfully Bill knew exactly where the bakkie was. Left alone, I would not have found it. We reached it about the time the rest of the party did. All were drenched and relieved to have survived a potentially lethal roasting at the end of a jagged bolt of lightning. Indeed, I learnt subsequently that one of my brothers-in-law had at one stage even instructed his group in the art of kneeling in the foetal position, the better to survive in the event of a direct hit. It was that close, I tell you.

We bumped and slid back down to the farmhouse, with Bill somehow managing to keep the bakkie on the sludge which the road had become. The temperature had dropped considerably. But, despite our wet clothes and the brisk wind and driving rain, there was a general sense of euphoria at having both climbed the mountain and survived the storm.

Up in the shallow cave, while probably protected from the direct impact of the rain, the storm would have eroded the rock art by a further infinitesimal amount.

A spring hare

In dry clothes and warm again, after a hearty supper we ventured into the garden as the night set in. My America-based brothers-in-law gasped in awe at a sight they would have seen so often when, with my wife and their parents, as children they had visited this farm of their grandparents for regular school holidays. But now, based in New Jersey and Denver respectively, they were reacquainted with the immensity of the Karoo sky at night. Free from detracting terrestrial lights, the heavens above shone down on us in a shower of glory. Layer upon layer of stars, set in a bowl of deepest black, wended their way back in time and space to infinity. There was no moon that night, which added to the stars’ crisp brightness.

But farmers can’t sit around all night watching the stars. It was time for our night drive, again on the back of Bill’s bakkie, with one of us holding a powerful torch, in order to scan the veld for any signs of life. This was to be the night of the longtails. Like kangaroos, the ridiculously long-tailed and ugly spring hares cut a comical sight as they pranced and pronked about the place, often moving at an extraordinary speed. My brothers-in-law confided somewhat embarrassedly that in their youth, before they knew better, these poor blighters had made challenging targets as they honed their shooting skills.

A fiery-necked nightjar in typical pose - soaking up the evening warmth of the earth.

It was as Bill was travelling along the by-now dry gravel road, the sun having come out soon after that midday storm and restored the Karoo to its more normal parched status, that he spotted the spotted birds. A pair of nightjars were lying transfixed on the road, speared by the vehicle’s headlights. We all got a good look at them before Bill moved slowly forward, causing them to fly out from in front of the bakkie and disappear into the darkness. A little later, Bill stopped again. Same story. Only this time Luke got out with the torch and got a really close-up look at the bird, before it too made a rapid departure.

“Good Lord, deliver us!” it must have thought, after being so rudely interrupted.

An antbear or, in the more colourful Afrikaans, an aardvark, which happens to be the first word in most English dictionaries.

The next day saw us walking down another dry river bed – in fact that same rivulet the tributaries of which scarred the face of Big Mountain and in one of which Bill and I had found refuge. On the other side of the farm, the river was again dry. But Bill wanted to show us the antelope which were to be found on the farm, including, he believed, a kudu. As if on cue, a magnificent male kudu appeared on a rocky outcrop a few hundred metres away, amidst a small group of graceful springbok, and a flock of Bill’s sheep.

Next, Bill’s Jack Russell terrier whooped with delight as he disappeared down a three- to four-metre deep tunnel, with two exit points. It was evidently made by an antbear which, thankfully for the Jack Russell, was not at home when he called.

After traversing more acres of veld, we came back to the car via a section of the river bed where time had wrought amazing effects on the rock formations. Working with a triangle as a template, water and heat had fractured the flint-like stone into a multitude of sharp, angular shapes. I found one tall, elegant piece which I stood up vertically on the river bed. Douglas, at 10 ever alert to artistic possibilities, had meanwhile found a perfect isosceles triangle, which he proceeded to balance on my base, creating an arrow.

Bill was happy to let us take the parts back in his bakkie. We transferred them to the boot of our car and, along with our memories of a wonderful Karoo holiday, we returned with them to Port Elizabeth. Which is how we came by an arrow sculpture in our garden.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Yellow-billed kite

This was published on August 30, 2003, in Leisure, under the heading, “Stunning vistas in Settler country”.

IT was literally the high point of a weekend visit to Bathurst last summer.

Friends who put us up at the Drostdy, the oldest residence in the village, had given us no prior warning.

Generously, they had simply packed a hamper of evening snacks and drinks, and off we set.

As the sun sank slowly in the west, we drove through the gates of the Waters Meeting Nature Reserve, a few kilometres outside the historic Settler hamlet.

The terrain at Bathurst is gently undulating, the abundant trees and hedges somehow concealing most of the homesteads which comprise this mysterious retreat, about 12km inland from Port Alfred.

Indeed, when you think Bathurst, you have to think Port Alfred as well.

We arrived in Port Alfred from Port Elizabeth on a blustery day, the wind sandblasting our car as we took in the view at the Kowie River mouth.

After a quick stop at the local tourist information office (characterised by superb and friendly service), we popped in to the Coelacanth Brewery to see how the area’s local brew, Old Four Legs, is made. The brewery is housed in an early building on the riverside – and is clearly a treasured asset in this thirsty part of the country.

Once in Bathurst, it was time to get acquainted with the village’s major attraction – its 1820 Settler heritage.

I’m one of those South Africans who happens to have developed a passion for our colonial history. There is something rather admirable about the stoicism of the approximately 5000 British settlers who arrived by sailing ship in Algoa Bay in 1820 – and were then dispatched to “the frontier”.

A taste of their ordeal can be imagined from the tall standing stone on the west bank of the Kowie in Port Alfred. It was here, a plaque tells you, that the settlers crossed the river. How? one might ask. The river is deep and fairly wide, for many years having been used as a working harbour. Black-and-white 19th century photographs in the tourism office show large sailing ships moored along its banks. Perhaps the settlers’ wagons (hired from the Boers) were ferried across. Whatever the mechanics for crossing the river, this would have been but one part of an arduous 160km-odd journey through rugged bushveld.

Exploring the Toposcope at Bathurst, which was made from the stones of original Settler homes.

Once in Bathurst, they were taken to a high point where the Toposcope memorial has been erected – and shown to their demarcated parts of the Albany district, ironically called “locations”, where they had to start a new life from scratch. A visit to the Toposcope can be an emotional pilgrimage – even if your ancestors weren’t among those on the ships. There is a 360-degree panoramic view of the rolling hills of the area. And on the low circular wall (built with stones from original settler houses) are affixed 57 plaques indicating which party settled where, who their leaders were, which ship they came on, and where they hailed from. (NOTE: Some plaques were subsequently stolen for their bronze and plans were set in motion to replace the remainder with less valuable replicas.)

On another hilltop, beside a long-gone earth fort, we encountered a stone building, erected in 1821, which served as the gunpowder magazine for the garrison. It is uncannily similar in design and construction to the magazine inside the walls of Fort Frederick (1799) in Port Elizabeth.

Another popular place of pilgrimage, particularly among those doing genealogical research, is the 1834 to 1837 St John’s Church, the oldest unaltered Anglican church in South Africa. The building regularly served as a refuge during the Frontier Wars.

Outside is a tall marble cenotaph on which are listed the names of all the settlers who died in those wars.

The weathered surfaces of the 19th century gravestones in the surrounding cemetery contain some interesting stories within their epitaphs. They are also emblematic of the virtual permanent state of hostility at the time. One, from the 1840s, notes that the young man was “treacherously killed by kaffirs during a time of peace”. Which, I suppose, was far worse than being treacherously killed during a time of war. Also bearing testimony to the ongoing security problems the early settlers faced are the many gun slits to be found in the older buildings. The bedroom we stayed in at the Drostdy had two such recesses, which have since been closed off with slivers of glass. These now provide display areas for ceramic pottery, tiles and coloured bottles.

The stone-built pub/restaurant at the Protea Hotel Bathurst at Summerhill (famous for its massive pineapple), besides its wonderful woodwork also features these gun slits, or loopholes.

But the charming Xhosa men working in the pub – once an 1825 barn – on the day we visited are ample proof that those days of inter-racial conflict are thankfully over. All are on the same side, and tourism is the goose that now lays the golden egg.

Tourism, and pineapples. When in Bathurst, buy pineapple juice. Bottled or canned by the local co-op, it is to die for.

But if you really want to get into the laid-back Bathurst way of life, then order a couple of pints of Old Four Legs from the pub inside the legendary Pig and Whistle Hotel, the oldest licensed inn in South Africa, which was built in 1831, with accommodation added in 1852. Then take your drinks out onto the shady stoep, and watch the world go by. You may even spot one of the village’s many reputed eccentrics.

If not, then just visit a couple of its little businesses, from the corner shop, to various book-shops, bric-a-brac stores and nurseries. We also got to meet a few locals when we visited a small farmers’ market, which is a regular feature on Sunday mornings. Items on sale included goats’ cheeses, crafts, home-made marmalades and garden produce.

And so on our last evening we headed through the nature reserve gates and pulled up next to a wooden camp table on the side of the gravel road. We were ushered to a nearby observation deck.

And then we were gobsmacked.

The view of the Kowie River at the Waters Meet Nature Reserve near Bathurst.

Stretched out way below us was a long and magnificent valley sheltering a horseshoe bend of the Kowie River, its surface shining silver amidst the thick indigenous valley forest. More of a hairpin than a horseshoe, this is but one of the many meanders of this amazing river as it snakes its way seaward.

The salt water finally becomes fresh at about this point, hence the name of the reserve.

Jackal buzzard

As we gazed out in wonder, we heard the distinctive call of an African fish eagle, while other raptors seen gliding on the thermals included yellow-billed kites and jackal buzzards.

All in all, it was a perfect way to end a delightful weekend.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Cape Town's two-foot-tall tourist attractions

African penguins are the star attractions at Boulders on the Cape Peninsula.

An abridged version of this was published in Leisure in September 2002.

CAPE Town is undeniably South Africa’s premier tourist destination. And among its many attractions are some which stand just two feet tall.

Last spring, my family and I paid our entry fee (R10 for adults and R5 for children) and headed along a pathway amidst dense indigenous bush. Bending down, we got our first sightings – in deep burrows and under bushes – of our quarry: the African penguin.

African penguin

Then we heard the unmistakable donkey-like braying which led to the birds previously being named jackass penguins – until it was discovered that several other species of South American penguins make the same sound.

There is always a steady flow of visitors, most of them foreign tourists, at Boulders.

Amid a steady flow of foreign tourists, we reached the start of the two boardwalks which have recently been constructed at Boulders, a sheltered series of coves between Simon’s Town and Cape Point.

The expertly produced pamphlet that comes free with your admission notes that from just two breeding pairs in 1982, the penguin colony at Boulders has grown to about 3000 in recent years.

This is thanks largely to the reduction in commercial pelagic trawling in False Bay, which has increased the supply of pilchards and anchovies, a major part of the penguins’ diet.

But the key to this magnificent tourist attraction is the fact that the Cape Peninsula National Park has provided a protected natural environment within which this vulnerable bird species can wander around and breed freely, while at the same time being observed at close quarters by bird lovers.

Cold and wet, maybe, but Luke and Douglas nevertheless enjoyed the passing penguin parade.

However, no amount of pre-publicity adequately prepared me for what was in store when I finally reached the lookout point at Foxy Beach.

It was like chancing upon a Lilliputian world of two-foot-tall, beaked manikins wearing dapper black tuxedos over their little white bodies. Waddling about on the beach must have been well over 100 penguins, with at least as many frolicking in the nearby crystal-clear waves of False Bay as they broke on the white sands of the Boulders beach.

On one of the many enormous 540-million-year-old granite boulders which give the area its name, another 100 or so penguins stood sentinel, while out at sea, on a small flat island of rock, dozens of cormorants sunned themselves

Even the odd drenching squall, so typical of the Cape at that time of year, failed to dampen the penguins’ spirits, and in fact only added to the sense of drama.

We retraced our footsteps then took the second boardwalk, where we got an even better view of this unique penguins-only beach from the other side. Above the high-water mark we could spot hundreds more birds in and around their burrows under the trees, while all the time they kept up a steady braying.

And to think that these wonderful creatures – so much more impressive in the wild than in an oceanarium or zoo – came very close to being decimated.

African penguin 'flying'

Of the 1,5-million population estimated in 1910, only some 10 per cent remained at the end of the 20th century. The uncontrolled harvesting of penguin eggs (as a source of food) and guano scrapings nearly drove the species to extinction.

The only penguins that breed in Africa, they remain on the Red Data Book as a vulnerable species.

Cape Point

Luke, 11, prepares for the climb to the lighthouse at Cape Point.

No visit to Cape Town is complete, however, without a trip to Cape Point.

From Boulders we headed out along the ridge of mountains on the eastern side of the peninsula. We encountered the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve with its fynbos species in full and colourful bloom.

Examples of fynbos

Earlier, we had taken a walk along the contour path above Kirstenbosch Gardens and seen a coach-load of young tourists (they looked Italian) ecstatically photographing and videoing close-up the many varieties of protea to be found there.

This experience was repeated on the high plateau within the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. Having paid our entrance fee (R25 for adults and R10 for children), we encountered several other groups of tourists snapping pictures of the proteas and other plants.

If anyone doubted the importance of keeping places such as the Van Stadens Wild Flower Reserve outside Port Elizabeth pristine and uninhabited, then this sort of experience should quash all such doubts. People travel from around the world to see our unique fauna and flora, especially our fynbos. The Cape floristic kingdom is the smallest but richest of the world’s six floral kingdoms. It comprises a treasure trove of 1100 species of indigenous plants, of which a number are endemic (occurring naturally nowhere else on Earth).

Cape Point

But as much as the fynbos and some 150 species of birds are an attraction, it is the geographical location of Cape Point itself which draws tourists like a magnet to the tip of Africa. Sure some would argue, correctly, that the southern-most point of Africa is actually Cape Agulhas, but it is that delicate finger of land at Cape Point which is popularly perceived as the tip of the continent.

We stopped at the large but unobtrusive parking area and bought a cup of hot coffee at a well-stocked fast-food outlet, as a throng of tourists milled around. I have visited several of the world’s biggest tourist attractions in Britain and Europe, and have rarely observed the same sense of awe and expectation as I witnessed that day among visitors from around the globe.

We decided against taking the funicular railway (the only one in Africa) up to the lighthouse, instead opting for the steep path to the summit of this narrow promontory at the southern tip of a huge and imposing continent, which today is recognised scientifically as having been the cradle of mankind.

There are other sites around the world which have a strong spiritual, or mystical, presence. Many of them are ancient Christian centres of pilgrimage, which are considered “thin places” because you feel so much closer to your creator there.


I have taken a ferry from Oban on the west coast of Scotland to the island of Mull, and driven around the island from Craignure to Fionphort, from where a smaller people-only ferry took me to the little island of Iona, an ancient Christian site dating back to the Irish monk, St Columba, in the sixth century.


Similarly, in Ireland, I have experienced the sixth century monastic site founded by St Kevin at Glendalough with its 1000-year-old, 34m-high round tower, just south of Dublin in the Wicklow Mountains.

Holy Island

Off the north-east coast of Northumbria, in northern England, I have visited the ancient Christian monastery of Lindisfarne on Holy Island, founded in the seventh century by St Aidan, an Irish monk from Iona. The island can only be accessed by car along a narrow road at low tide.

While not a religious site, I sensed a similar sort of pilgrimage was under way as a steady flow of people – young and old, black and white – took the meandering pathway up to the small lighthouse viewing platform 678 metres above the sea at Cape Point. As the Cape of Storms lived up to its reputation, interspersing warm sunshine with sudden showers of rain, we reached the top.

Southern right whale breaching

But initially we could see nothing – except a throng of decidedly excited foreign tourists. They not only took in the magnificent view of two oceans – the warm Indian and cold Atlantic – merging their currents in the great expanse of water beneath those craggy slopes. But – the cherry on the top – at least three southern right whales were cavorting a few hundred metres off-shore. Clearly visible with the naked eye, through binoculars I watched at close quarters as they regularly breached, often leaving their huge tails suspended above the surface for several seconds at a time.

Table Mountain

Back in the warm embrace of Table Mountain we visited the Two Oceans Aquarium, one of the major attractions at the beautifully appointed Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. Packed with numerous interesting features, including the new boarding point for boat trips to Robben Island, the waterfront is yet another reason why Cape Town has become one of the world’s great tourist destinations.

And the aquarium itself is world class, cementing the city’s long and close association with the sea and its creatures.

Here in the Eastern Cape we need to gear our attractions – and there are many – to meeting the expectations of foreign tourists in particular. There are levels of safety and service excellence which overseas visitors expect for the thousands of rands they have paid, and if a city cannot provide these at each site, it will lose out. We can’t hope to compete with Cape Town (I haven’t mentioned the cable car up the mountain, the wine route, the museums and art galleries, the plethora of historic buildings, and so on), but we can offer a uniquely Eastern Cape experience.

And to do that we have to accept and celebrate all the positives that arose with the first meetings in this area of Boer, Khoi, San, Xhosa and, in 1820, the British settlers.

We cannot do so, however, if the white component which brought Western-style towns and cities, business and agriculture, roads and other infrastructure, continues to be dismissed as colonialist and exploitative.

In the new South Africa, in order to boost tourism and our own sense of self worth, we need to accentuate the positive and build on our common history as joint developers and protectors of our environment.

Cape Town is an object lesson in how that can successfully be done.