South Africa and Botswana - part III
Fisherhaven, Bot River Lagoon
Our first stop along the coast was at the Bot River Lagoon. Chosen because it was only 90 minutes from Cape Town and on a lagoon that looked to have some promising wildlife. I had reserved an airbnb in what turned out to be a gated community. Although the house smelled of wet dog, it had a washer and dryer, which I had a good feeling we could use after being in the desert. Hand washing clothes only went so far. Indeed when we washed our clothes, we could see the red Kalahari sands swirl down the drain (the washer drained into the shower) with each water change. Despite the strong urge to explore the lagoon immediately, especially since there were new birds, including a displaying Pin-tailed Whydah, we were in need of food on the late Sunday evening. There weren’t many options closeby, so we tried a pub that wasn’t far from the house. We were lucky that they were still open and even luckier that they seemed agreeable enough to provide food for us. I had some doubts when we walked upstairs into a cloud of smoke with a few locals drinking beer and playing pool. The bartender was drinking with another local. They did a good job of not looking too put off when we ordered a couple of burgers or when I ordered juice. But the food was good in the sense of having a meal where there could have been nothing. We returned to the house in the dark. A pair of Spotted Thickknees stood in the middle of the road. I was eager to explore the area in the morning.
Wilderness National Park
From Bot River Lagoon, we drove to Hermanus for groceries and breakfast at a place ironically called Seattle Coffee Company. We made a brief stop along the Whale trail to check out the coast. Despite being completely surrounded by the town, the natural flora was amazing. Icicle plants (which were notoriously invasive in California, but native here), calla lilies, protea, strawflowers, and many unfamiliar plants grew in the narrow cracks in the granite. The wind was whipping in the morning, creating large white caps in the water and making it difficult to scan the waters for any whales, which should be present this time of year.
We continued our long drive to Wilderness (Garden Route) National Park, where we had rented a cabin for the night. The long drive on the 2-lane highway was made longer by the monotonous scenery of wheat, grain, and hay fields. However, we did see the occasional Wattled Starlings, Ostrich, and Blue Cranes in the fields.
We arrived at the Ebb & Flow campground by the afternoon. After checking in at the gate, we stopped at the visitor center to pick up our cabin key. The cabin was a cute round hut, which by the nature of being round had an awkward floor plan. The bed was pretty much in the center of the room, with the bathroom and kitchen shoved against the sides. At least we had warmth and running water. The campground with tent sites and cabins was edged by the Touw River and a short rocky cliff. To the north was a lush valley of green. A few private houses could be seen overlooking the valley. To the south was more housing, a water treatment plant, the highway, and the ocean.
The next morning started off cooler than expected. The wind and river really cooled down the night air. While eating breakfast on the front steps of our cabin, I was startled by a Fork-tailed Drongo that tried to assess my food by hovering a foot in front of my face. This particular bird gave new light to the ones I had been seeing in the wilds of Botswana!
After bundling up, we set out for the Half-collared Kingfisher trail. We didn’t make it far before spotting a pair of turacos feeding in the bushes near the campground. Despite the growing light of the morning, the birds seemed to stay perfectly hidden in the shade of the dense brush. Greater Double-collared Sunbirds, African Dusky Flycatcher, and Cape White-eyes also flitted around the flowers and fruit of the scrub. After about 30 minutes of aiming the binoculars and cameras at every angle into the same bush, we crossed the bridge over the Touw River to the trailhead.
We crossed the Touw River by the pontoon that we pulled over the brown calm water. And continued up the trail that followed the river, stopping often to watch Olive Woodpeckers, Speckled Doves, and more Knysna Turacos.
Having to check out of our cabin by 10:00 AM, we turned around on the trail before making it to the waterfall at the end of the trail. But the journey was worth much more than a waterfall. I was happy to have a productive morning birding along the beautiful Touw River in some beautiful forest.
After returning the cabin keys, we drove to other parts of Wilderness National Park. Much of the park was spread out in pockets along a chain of lakes. Most of the neighboring land was private housing and ranches. At the Malachite blind, we didn’t see much other than Red-knobbed Coots. The wind had started to blow pretty hard by mid-morning, and there were white caps on the lake. In the attempt to get to the Mole-rat trailhead via local roads, we spent close to an hour turning in circles before realizing road construction blocked the way and no detour was put into place. We were still learning that signage was lacking in South Africa. There weren’t any signs to the national parks, so GPS and Google Maps were essential for getting around (unless you had a guide). This is also not to say the road infrastructure along the coast was lacking. The roads were perfectly good (paved, lined, clean, and surprisingly no potholes - I’d say better than the roads in my town!), but the lack of signs for tourists was a little frustrating.
After finally reaching the Mole-rat trailhead, we went to the blind that overlooked Ronde Vlei but the wind was still blowing pretty hard. There were large groups of coots along the reeds and a large raft of Eared Grebes in the middle of the lake. Some of the grebes were in breeding plumage.
The Mole-rat trail took us through habitat we hadn’t yet explored - coastal scrub filled with sedges, tall grasses, and soft sand. The trail was pocked with sandy mole hills that were hazards when a tunnel wall collapsed under foot. The heat of the day and the sun made travel slightly more treacherous, but we were rewarded with sights of Rock Martins gliding overhead, Yellow Bishops in the tall reeds, and Swee Waxbills flitting along the trail. A small plague of locus moved in the grass and a large leopard tortoise crawled out of the grass right when we had to turn back to go to our next destination.
Diepwalle Forest, Garden Route National Park
After finding our supplies in town, we missed the road to the forest because, again, there were no signs pointing to the national parks. Also we weren’t expecting the road to be surrounded by hovels on either side. After driving past the makeshift homes of corrugated tin, plywood and shipping containers (interestingly satellite dishes and electricity were common on the small houses), we entered a plantation thick with pine and eucalyptus. Were we on the right road? This wasn’t what I expected. But soon the eucalyptus gave way to yellowwoods and native scrub. The trees grew taller and more diverse.
We finally saw a sign for the Diepwalle Forest and drove up to the office where absolutely no one was around. We circled the parking area for any signs or people, then decided to go to the tent platforms. One other couple was at their site, and we asked if they knew anything about checking in. Turned out they had been in the same boat, but managed to find someone to point them to their site. The camp staff told the couple that another group (us) was coming later in the day, and that if the couple saw us to tell us which was our site and that the keys were inside the door. What luck! We pulled into the site. Instead of a nylon tent on a platform that I was expecting, there was a small cabin made of wood and canvas. The twin beds inside had sheets, comforters, and pillows. There was even electricity inside. I was so dubious that this was our site that we looked at the other sites to see if they had cabins as well, which they did. Within the past couple of years, the park must have upgraded the platform tents to more permanent structures. I wasn’t complaining!
After getting settled, we walked the grounds to check out the elephant trailheads. The bottlebrush trees were hopping with sunbirds - Greater and Southern Double-collared and Amethyst were feeding on the fuzzy red flowers. We hiked down to the King Edwards VII tree - named after him because the local British people held a picnic for him there during a visit. Even in the dimming light, it was an impressive yellowwood. Its knobby flaky tree trunk stood at 6 meters in circumference.
We returned to our cabin as the night continued to cool (even more thankful for the recent accommodation upgrades), and fireflies blinked around our cabin. A group of German students had taken up residence across the grounds on the group platform. The distance between us did little to dampen their whooping and laughter though. Still I managed to drift to sleep with the chirps of crickets and an African Wood-owl calling close by.
At a lilypad-covered pond beside the road, we flushed a Forest Buzzard. Cape River Frogs hid in the dense vegetative cover of the pond. Back at camp, we spent the afternoon watching the sunbird and white-eyes feed in the bottlebrush tree. Gray stream frogs gathered at a water collection basin, ready to hop away upon approaching. The tea house was open, and we treated ourselves to a slice of milk tart and rooibos tea. The German students were still around. Their reason for being there was still unclear. They only seemed to talk loudly and roam from one part of the grounds to another with the chaperones only vaguely keeping an eye on them.
Sunset was a blaze of pink and orange, finally adding color to the heavily overcast day. A single firefly blink around the lawn, and a small bat fluttered overhead. At night, a large guttural toad hopped around the entrance of the bathroom.
Next morning brought a shroud of thick mist that blew in waves. We watched the birds in the bottlebrush tree. Unperturbed by the mist, the sunbirds and white-eyes were busy feeding on the nectar and chasing each other. Once the office opened, we checked out and headed down the mountain and through the shanty town toward our last stay for the trip: De Hoop Nature Reserve.
De Hoop Nature Reserve
We retraced our path and returned west back through the sea of golden farmland. After passing a lot of trucks and farm equipment on the road, we turned onto the dirt road toward the ocean and the reserve. Although the previous two National Park campgrounds and the De Hoop Nature Reserve were all owned by the South African government, the reserve was run separately and differently from the national parks. The reserve seemed more commercial with better advertising - more package deals, tours, a wider range of accommodations - and a separate website system (which was much better than the SANI, National Parks website).
The afternoon was overcast and very drizzly. We picnicked in the campground under the trees with a wet Southern Fiscal who coughed up a pellet, then snatched a piece of fallen bread from my sandwich. The Eurasian Hoopoes looked bedraggled with their rain soaked crests. The Bontebok continued to graze nearby. Looking into the Vlei, cormorants and Cape Teal flew over the water.
We checked into our accommodation, which was a fully furnished cottage with a kitchen, dining area, two bedrooms, and a bathroom. It was more than we needed, but was the least expensive housing available at the time.
At the end of the lake, we found the large group of Greater Flamingos feeding on the far side of the water. Though they were a good distance away, we could see them well enough through the spotting scope. More flamingos flew in and gathered in the shallows. Scoping out the rest of the lake, we spotted Great Crested Grebes in breeding plumage, South African Shelducks, a single Pied Avocet, and many Red-knobbed coots.
We returned to the Collection in the evening for dinner at their Fig Tree Restaurant. Where we had salmon roulade, pork chops, and volcano cake. The food was pretty good, minus the many, many kids that seemed to surround our table. After dinner, we returned to our cabin to pack and prepare for our trip home the following night.
Our last day in South Africa, we awoke to drizzle and a dark gray sky. We packed up and drove out to the coast, stopping to admire the bontebok, eland, Yellow Canary, and Common Ostriches all in various degrees of being rain-soaked. The drizzle turned to rain and back to drizzle without signs of letting up.
At Koppie Allen, we hiked over the wet white sand trying to keep our optics dry while taking the time to absorb the flora of the fynbos and white sand dunes. African giant snails slide along the damp sand. Black Oystercatchers and Cape Cormorants feed among the rocky tide pools. A few bluebottles peppered the sandy beaches. A heavy mist hung over the ocean limiting visibility. We wouldn’t be seeing any whales from here. After a brief walk along the white sand dunes, we returned to the car as the drizzle finally started to let up. Despite the desire to stay longer and enjoy everything, we had a timeline for the day as our flight out of the Cape Town airport was that night
After checking out of our cabin, we drove out of the reserve and stopped along the road for a troop of Chacma baboons and to walk among blooming proteas and other fynbos plants.
As we climbed the steep little hill, we looked up to see a stream of Cape Griffons glide effortlessly overhead. In the distance down over the trail, we could see a kettle of them circling presumably above their roost. Near the top of the hill, we stopped to watch a pair of vultures who had landed on the exposed rocks cross the gully. A White-necked Raven took offense to their presence and chased them off one by one. With the higher elevation, a few of the vultures were now low enough for decent pictures. After a few good opportunities for shots and not getting far on the trail, we turned back down the hill to the car..
After lunch at the Potsberg visitor center, we began to make our way back to Cape Town through the surrounding agricultural land. Occasionally we’d stop to look at the common and beautiful Red Bishops, Blue Cranes, and a pair of Karoo Bustards.
After a final organization of our bags for the flight home and stopping for a decent dinner at an Indian restaurant, we finally returned to Cape Town airport for our long flights home (though thankfully not as long as the ones to South Africa).
I was happy with how our trip went. Reflecting on how long it had taken to happen and all the stress and anticipation behind it, I am thankful we were able to capture so many great memories. We saw so much in a relatively short amount of time. Our time on the safari and on our road trip was spent rushing around to the next and new thing. I’d like to take everything in at a slower pace on a return trip. For many people, safaris are a once in a lifetime trip. In my life, I hope it won’t be my only one.
Here are a few things I would have liked to have known or was glad to have done in preparation for the trip:
My safari tips:
Be mentally and physically ready to sit all day long. This was difficult for me as I’m used to propelling myself forward. My tooshie didn’t appreciate the inactivity, the inability to move around often, or the bumps and bouncing it endured. Long haul truckers have aftermarket cushions that they use. If you have a delicate bottom, consider bringing your own cushion. I tried using a neck pillow, which wasn’t the right shape.
Related to sitting all day, I recommend compression socks especially if you have circulation problems. But it is a good precaution for anyone. Sitting for long periods of time can cause health issues.
Bring your binoculars. While I like taking pictures, I also like studying the animals in real time. There are also times when something is just too far away for a good picture so you might as well enjoy looking at it with both eyes.
If you want to take pictures, get a good camera and know how to use it. If you are fortunate, there might be a place in your hometown where you can rent a camera instead of shelling out the $$$$ to buy one for yourself. This might be an attractive option if you don’t do photography often. But you have to know how to use the camera. So whether you decide to own or rent, know how to use it before you go. Nothing is worse than spending time frustrated at your camera or trying to figure out how to use your camera instead of taking pictures of the lion that’s right in front of you. Also the cameras in phones are great, but they don’t have an optical zoom. While animals can be close to the car, they will still be at a distance where, through an iPhone, a lion or leopard will look like a house cat.
Hire a good guide. Self-drives may seem adventurous and you will see stuff, but not nearly as much when there’s a guide to track animals and know their behavior. Plus you don’t have to worry as much about getting yourself into a bad situation. Also hire a private guide if you can afford one. The cars with 9-12 people in the back who don’t know each other look uncomfortable. And how sucky is it to be stuck in the middle with someone else's head in your shot or in your view?
Mobile tent camping is awesome. You’re literally in the middle of the action and accommodations that the mobile tent camp guides provide are great.
I really liked our guide, Chris. He was very knowledgeable and had great guiding chops. But I would have loved to have a female, native Botswananian guide. I saw a few of the latter guides that we crossed paths with. But a female guide is a rare thing. Why? - it’s not because they are a “lesser” sex that don’t possess the abilities to guide. It’s because like so many other industries in the entire world, it’s male-dominated and very machismo. The only way to break it, is to seek and support female guides. Also supporting the locals is important to show the local community the value of wildlife.
For many people (Americans especially, because it’s a greater distance than from Europe), safaris are once in a lifetime experiences. So don’t skimp. Get a good guide. Get a good mobile tent camping operation. Spend more than a week on safari. Four nights in the bush will seem like nothing.
My tips for driving and traveling in South Africa (at least the coastal area):
For the 2-lane roads, there was an etiquette for allowing cars behind you to pass. (For Americans, I know this is a tough thing because following the road etiquette means we have to pay attention and be courteous to other drivers.) If a car approached from behind (meaning they were traveling faster than you were), keep driving but pull into the shoulder to allow them to pass. Generally the 2-lane roads had shoulders wide enough to easily fit a car (most cars in South Africa were reasonably sized, not gargantuan American). The shoulders and roads were clean in South Africa, so you didn’t have to worry about running over something sharp. If there’s only a small shoulder, you should still pull into the shoulder (again keeping your original speed), to allow the car to pass safely. Conversely, if you approached a car traveling slower than you, if they weren’t a tourist, they would likely pull into the shoulder to allow you to pass. Pass them and as acknowledgement of thanks, hit the hazard button for a couple of blinks. All of this I learned, while traveling the few days on the road. It was an efficient and safe way of traveling the 2-lane roads without causing road rage, which Americans are known for.
It was common for locals to stand at intersections either with their thumbs up or holding out a rand bill. They were looking for a ride in that direction. Just something to keep in mind if you were driving on the shoulder to let someone pass - don’t do it near the town intersections because someone could be standing in it!
Plan on using your phone for directions. I know pretty much everyone nowadays uses their phone to navigate everywhere, even when going to or from familiar places. But we found the signage for the natural areas and national parks were completely absent. We had to rely on Google Maps. We rented a GPS unit from the rental car company, but it was old and out of date (also those units were never as quick and simple compared to the constantly updated phone apps). Conversely Google wasn’t always right, especially in the small communities where the road names weren’t widely recognized.
Don’t be surprised if the car rental place charges you for gas even if you filled it right before you return it. I was charged for a liter of gas even though I filled it at the gas station closest to the airport car rental return. It was a common complaint I saw for all of the car rental companies at the Cape Town airport. So either the gas station wasn’t filling all the tanks to the top (to get a cut of profits from the car rentals?), or the rental companies know how to make a few extra bucks from international tourists. It was a despicable practice either way.
There could be random police checkpoints along the road to check for the driver’s license. I guess it’s a problem there that people drive without a license.
Try the jerky. They were different than the stuff in the States - both in texture, meat type, and flavor. We had kudu/gemsbok/springbok jerky, ostrich jerky and sticks, and fatty beef. All were unique and quite tasty.