After a stressful series of months, having to move houses and the subsequent drama thereof; I was more than ready to escape away from everyday life and spend a weekend away from home. My girlfriend Milli and I had been discussing places where we could go visit, enjoy the nature and the photography, along with the time together away from our typical daily routines. In an uncharacteristic move that would typically make my skin crawl from anxiety, I booked us a camping site at Bontebok National Park with just 2 weeks notice. Usually, such a “spontaneous” (it’s a rather relative term that) move wouldn’t be something that I do. None the less, we were booked for a riverside campsite along the Breede River. The Bontebok National Park in the end however, would not be where we spent our weekend, but more about that later…
I had taken a half day so that we could leave Somerset around midday and make it to the park, which was about 200km away, by mid-afternoon. With the car packed tight, filled with our camping equipment and a couple of anticipatory smiles, we began our journey eastward. We drove through Grabouw and Caledon, taking the quickest route to the park. Well, at least that is usually the case. The road was now littered with stop-go roadworks, for a stretch of about 70 kilometers. Our first stop was just outside Caledon, where we took the opportunity to dig into the road trip snack-box and grab some pretzels and fruit rolls, while also scanning the fences for any birdlife. We had one visitor pop up alongside us, a single Capped Wheatear. Also of interest here, was a thick contrail which extended through the sky. Conditions aloft were favourable for the development of condensation trails, and already played host to wispy white cirrus, atop a brilliant blue canvas.
On route, we got a few good views of some Steppe Buzzards, a species that will now be filtering back up north to return to their home countries after their summer visit. Our next stop would near to Swellendam, as we approached and noticed some small raptors flying around the farmlands. A group of around 10 Lesser Kestrels were moving around the barren fields, hovering in the slight breeze. The orange landscapes were complimented with partially cloudy skies, lenticular clouds now forming above the mountainous terrain around us.
The Arrival & Second Departure
After some time spent in roadwork blocks, we found ourselves entering the park and making our way to the reception desk. Upon arrival, a single female behind the desk, immediately after receiving my booking form, made the query
“Did someone call you yesterday?”
“No?”, I responded with concern
“There’s a growth that has overtaken the river at the moment and in turn the riverside campsites are inaccessible. A little annoyed, I accepted it and was given instructions to find a camping site in the regular section of the campsite. This area had obviously now become busy, with the number of campsites reduced and the number of people now being siphoned into the single camping area. We got about as far as parking our car before we were bombarded with the sounds of people’s kids screaming and the removal of all sense of privacy. The campsites were on top of each other and not at all what we were looking for. We both knew that this wasn’t going to be the enjoyable, remote camping trip we were looking for if this was going to be our experience.
I immediately started thinking about alternatives. Grootvadersbosch was only 50 kilometers east of us, and was another site I was hoping to take Milli to in the future. So at 4:15pm on Friday afternoon I gave John from Honeywood Farm a call asking if they had any last minute availability. He was happy to assist us, even at the last minute and told us to come through and we can sort out the accommodation. So it was onward to the east, and this time slightly north into the mountainous areas, where the landscapes were unbelievably different from those of Bontebok.
On route, we stopped off and Milli got a milkshake. I’m still trying to convince her to become a milkshake reviewer, as she’s surely tried almost every available option in the Cape at this point. From there we continued to make heed towards Honeywood. I’ve stayed at Honeywood a few times before and it remains my favourite accommodation in the province, with excellent pricing, privacy and unbelievable views. While passing through the tiny town of Suurbraak, we had some excellent views of a Pale Morph Booted Eagle, as the now late afternoon sunlight lit up the bird with each time it banked.
It was Milli’s first time in this part of the province, so I was also enjoying showing her the amazing farmland landscapes that we were passing through. Small town living in these remote areas is very much a dream of mine and would love nothing more than to own a piece of land in the area, so long as internet was also an option.
A Familiar View
We arrived at Honeywood at around 17:15, and made way to the reception, where we met with John and sorted out our accommodation. The Clover Cottage was available for the weekend, so we were quick to snap that up. Within 5 minutes we were at the rustic cottage and getting settled. The cottage is comprised of two bedrooms, bathroom, lounge and kitchen. There is also a lovely patio with a fireplace, which looks over the farmlands and into the valley of thick forest on the mountainside.
Both Milli and I were very happy with our decision to opt out of Bontebok (who stated they would be providing me with a refund), and instead, take up the cottage for the weekend.
Shortly after unpacking our things, we decided to take a drive just around the corner from the farm to a lookout area where we could watch the sunset and take some photographs with the last light of the day. A two-minute walk down a small hill, wading through stretched grass, we found ourselves standing on a small opening in the field, the ground comprised of small rocks and burnt plant matter, from a fire in the past. In front of us, we had views of the surrounding farmlands with clouds moving in and creating some atmospheric potential for our photographs.
After we were done photographing the sunset, it was back to the cottage where we would spend the rest of the evening just hanging out and chatting. Milli had made us some chicken and potato salad prior to our departure, so food was already set for the evening.
Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve
We woke up the next morning at a reasonable time, considering we didn’t set any alarms the night before. It was about 6:30am when we got out of bed, and the sun was now beginning to break through some of the scattered clouds that sprawled out above the farmlands. We decided to go for a walk in the Grootvadersbosch Nature Reserve forests. The trails are typically quite long, with the full Bushbuck trail clocking in at around 10km. We opted for the shortened route of this trail and made our way into the dense thicket of trees. On route down the path, I turned around and saw that we had a curious individual walking behind us.
Just minutes into the walk we found ourselves distracted by the various fungi that we found growing on the old tree trunks next to the path. Some really cool looking varieties of mushrooms. The walk was beautifully quiet, with almost no other individuals seen during the duration of our walk.
Birding in thickly forested areas is no easy task, both just because of the difficulty in finding the birds, but also because of the photographic challenges that come with the decreased light under the canopy. With 3200 ISO often not being enough for a decent shutter speed, many birds would have to be left unphotographed. Our first species in the forest was a couple of noisy Terrestrial Brownbuls, followed shortly after by some Fork-Tailed Drongos and a few Blue-Mantled Crested Flycatchers, moving quickly between the branches but never missing an opportunity to fan their tail feathers in the process. I was hoping to get Narina Trogon, as I’d dipped on it twice previously in the area and remains a bogie bird for my list, but unfortunately we had no luck this time either.
Birdlife within the forest was fairly quiet, with only a few other species seen during our walk.
At our halfway point, we spent some more time chasing after butterflies, dragonflies and other insects. Milli had brought a 100mm 2.8 macro lens with, which I stole a couple times in an attempt to experience some authentic macro photography. Having only ever used tube extenders for macro features, the ability to autofocus was certainly something that changed the whole experience.
After around 3 hours in the forest, we had managed to traverse the fairly rough final segment of the walk (at least for our out-of-shape selves) and returned to the sunlight which had been hidden from us for most of the time.
Immediately once we had left the reserve, we were on route to Heidelberg, the nearest town. Heidelberg is about 15 kilometers from Honeywood farm, with about 7 kilometers of the trip being on dirt roads, through the farmlands. The weather was beautiful outside, with now only high-level cloud present, and temperatures into the upper 20s. The landscapes complimented the weather, with some really spectacular farmlands with small farmhouses build remotely on the rolling hills and fields. Throughout our drive, we discussed the many alures to small town living, and our desires to have a remote house, away from the busy city life that many seem to enjoy.
Driving into Heidelberg, I was immediately drawn to a picturesque church on the main road. Despite not being a fan of what goes on inside of them, I have always appreciated the architecture of many religious buildings, and often seek to photograph those that I pass during my travels.
We made a stop into the local Spar, which was seemingly the largest shopping store in the town. Here we picked up some food for the rest of the day. I decided that I’d cook that evening, so picked up the required items to make some crumbed chicken schnitzels, which we could have with the remainder of our potato salad.
It was then a slow drive back to the farm, as we birded the roadside and took an easy cruise through the farmlands once again. As we approached Honeywood Farm’s turn off, we came across a number of raptors taking advantage of a recently burnt field. We encountered Black Sparrowhawk, Jackal Buzzard, Yellow-Billed Kite, Forest Buzzard and Steppe Buzzard, all actively hunting between the elevated hills. We also stopped off at a very small pond, where I noticed a small black and white bird in the reeds, not sure what it could be I made my way closer and was able to see that the bird was a male African Stonechat. While I’ve seen many of these birds on fence wires around the province, I hadn’t seen one moving in the thick of reeds before, giving me false hope for something out of the ordinary.
Once home, we spent some time around the cottage. We entertained the local cats, who had taken quite a shine to us (though I have no doubt this is what every visitor to the cottage thinks). The clouds were starting to come in now, and despite the heat remaining, the blue skies turned into shades of grey. We had originally planned to fry the schnitzels, but the gas stove was out of gas and so we had to come up with an alternative plan. I had never tried braaing crumbed schnitzels before, but since I had already bought the eggs and the crumbs a plan had to be made.
Milli sat on the patio and entertained herself with the cats and local horses, while I set up the fire. It had been years since my last braai, so I was quite stoked just to have been able to get the wood going. Once the flames had turned into embers, it was time to see just how well I could do with the meat and I’m happy to say that I felt it turned out great. Lowering the grid for just a couple minutes to cook the crumbs sufficiently to allow for a crispy exterior, without toughening the meat worked just as I had hoped.
By the time we were done eating, we had some rainfall begin. The temperatures were still warm outside and slightly humid, one of my favourite conditions personally. It just added even more to the atmosphere of an already amazing weekend. We sat in the lounge and chatted while listening to the rainfall outside.
It was another early night for us, and we had planned to begin our trip home in the morning. We decided to opt for a better route, one not filled with road-works. So I decided to take us through Tradouw Pass and into the southern Karoo, where we’d move west towards Montague and then to Worcester, and south through Villiersdorp.
The Return To Chaos
Departing Honeywood on Sunday morning, we decided to take a slow meander back home, especially between Honeywood and Barrydale. We came across a few Buzzards along the road, and a few Bar-Throated Apalis before exiting onto the tar road. By far the biggest birding surprise of the weekend took place just before Suurbraak when we spotted a small raptor on one of the lines running parallel to the road. A view through the bins showed an Amur Falcon! A lifer for me, and in turn bringing my Western Cape list in closing distance to 350, a milestone I hope to reach before the end of the year. The female bird wasn’t very obliging, remaining at a distance, however, I did manage to get some record shots at least. A couple of Barn Swallows sitting along the roadside wire offered us some photographic opportunities, with the morning light hitting the birds quite lovely.
It was then through Tradouw Pass, a route I hadn’t driven before. The views along the pass were great and we stopped several times along the way to look at the towering surrounding mountains and the trickling streams in the valley below us.
Once out of the pass we were in the Klein Karoo and it was easy to see too. The green fields of farmlands we had been surrounded by just on the other side of the mountain range had been replaced with the dry, arid landscapes so familiar in the Karoo. Our drive along the route remained fairly slow, as we kept our eyes open for any additional birds. Unfortunately, things were quiet, with just a couple Pale Chanting Goshawks found on the roadside poles. We stopped for one individual, but he seemed shy and less than willing to cater to my selfish photographic hobby.
Half way between Montague and Barrydale, we encountered a dust devil passing over the road and driving right through it I got to realize that the winds associated with small dust devils is stronger than I was actually expecting. This wasn’t the only one we found though, and we found ourselves stopped off on the side of the road as we watched a number of these dust devils forming along the roadside and kicking up dust.
It was then through Montague, and towards Worcester. On route, we stopped in Robertson to grab some lunch at the local Wimpy, for which I’m a bit of a sucker. We put in a double order of granadilla Freezos, while Milli got flapjacks and chips for lunch and I opted for the double cheeseburger. Before we were done, however, I had ended up eating my food and then half of hers, with no regrets.
There were no further birds seen during the rest of our travels home, despite our slow meander taking us nearly 6 hours to complete a 300 kilometer trip.
In conclussion, we had an amazing trip. We got to spend some quality time together away from the stresses of normal life, in a beautiful and serene setting, while also getting some birding and photography done in the process. I also definitely can’t complain about returning home with a new bird for my lists.