Birding around Cape Town by public transport is possible, but exceptionally difficult. The majority of the sites listed here are not accessible using public transport and one would have to take general or specialist tours to get there. If you want to "DIY", the best option is car hire: the major agents at the airport are Budget (27-21-9340216), Avis (27-21-934-0808/88) and Hertz (27-21-386-1560), but some smaller operators with cheaper options include Cape Car Hire (27-21-683-2441), Safari rentals (4x4s & minibuses, permitted into neighbouring states 27-21-644-895) and Affordable Car Hire (27-21-439-1899). For more information on guided tours in the western Cape see Sugarbird's Home Page.
Accommodation (and price and quality) options vary dramatically in Cape Town; for a full review check out Sugarbirds' Home Page; in particular, two excellent and very affordable guest houses exist on the peninsula that cater principally for birders. Windy Ridge (Tel/Fax: 27-21-786-1414; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) in Simonstown and Afton Grove (Tel: 785-2992; Fax: 785-3456; E-mail: email@example.com ; in Noordhoek are both superb, run by birders and come highly recommended.
Cape Peninsula (1-2 days) - The Cape of Storms!
Birds: 7/10; Scenery 10/10; General tourism value: 10/10
Forced from the ocean bed by incomprehensible tectonic forces, a spectacular 1 km high and 70 km long mass of sandstone juts out into one of the most hostile oceans in the world, the southern Atlantic-this is the Cape Peninsula. This route should take one day, although it has been broken up into various subsections should one choose to proceed at a more leisurely pace.
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens
The best place to begin is the world-renowned Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens on the hind ridge of Table Mountain. Ideally situated close to town, one will be rewarded by spending as little as one hour in the gardens. To get there from town, take Eastern Boulevard (M3) and proceed along Union Avenue. At the Rhodes Drive intersection, c 2 km beyond the red-roofed university, turn right. The gardens are a further 2 km along Rhodes Drive and are well signposted. Several fynbos specialities can be seen with remarkable ease in the cultivated erica and protea gardens (ask for a map at the entrance point) including the skulking Grassbird Sphenoeacus afer, energetic Orange-breasted Sunbird Nectarinia violacea and flamboyant Cape Sugarbird Promerops cafer. Other specialities include Cape Siskin Serinus totta, Cape Bulbul Pycnonotus capensis and the remarkably tame Cape Francolin Francolinus capensis. Also common in the gardens are other South African endemics such as Lesser Double-collared Sunbird Nectarinia chalybea, Karoo Prinia Prinia maculosa, Southern Boubou Laniarius ferrugineus, Cape White-eye Zosterops pallidus, Cape Sparrow Passer melanurus and Grey-backed Cisticola Cisticola subruficapilla. Keep your eyes peeled skywards for Forest Buzzard Buteo oreophilus, which is regularly seen along with the more common (and potentially confusing) Steppe Buzzard Buteo buteo vulpinus. The tall avenue of oak trees near the garden's entrance, behind the conservatory, has regularly held a breeding pair of Spotted Eagle Owl Bubo africanus.
The Afro-montane forest patches, particularly in Skeleton gorge, support Forest Canary Serinus scotops, Dusky Flycatcher Muscicapa adusta, Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone viridis, Cape Batis Batis capensis, Cinnamon Dove Aplopelia larvata, Rameron Pigeon Columba arquatix and the noisy Sombre Bulbul Andropadus importunus. The main attraction is Knysna Warbler Bradypterus sylvaticus, a species more usually heard than seen. Chances are best in September-November when it is most vociferous and responsive, at the top of the gorge where the vegetation is sparser.
Farther up-slope, the gardens revert to natural fynbos vegetation and rocky outcrops, where Cape Siskin, Ground Woodpecker Geocolaptes olivaceus, Familiar Chat Cercomela familiaris, Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus, Cape Rock Thrush Monticola rupestris and White-necked Raven Corvus albicollis are common, and overhead watch for Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus, Alpine Apus melba, Black A. barbatus and Little Swifts A. affinis. Similar species can be found by taking the cable car to the top of the mountain, which holds more species of flowering plant than the British Isles.
Wildevoëlvlei and Kommetjie
From Kirstenbosch, head south in the direction of Hout Bay along the M63-which turns into the spectacular Chapmans Peak drive after passing through Hout Bay. As this descends into Noordhoek, keep going straight until you reach Sun Valley; turn right at the T-junction; soon you reach an intersection-turn right onto the M65 (Kommetjie Road). After c4 km you reach an industrial park, with a large wetland on your right-this is Wildevoëlvlei. For access to the marsh, turn into the housing development at Imhoff's Gift, and park in Rameron Avenue.
Some excellent and unusual birds are regularly seen here, including White-backed Duck Thalassornis leuconotus, Maccoa Duck Oxyura maccoa, Whiskered Tern Chlidonias hybridus, Black-necked Grebe Podiceps nigricollis, African Marsh Harrier Circus ranivorus and Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax. A host of more common waterfowl also occurs. At the time of writing this wetland was suffering eutrophication problems and it would be wise to obtain more information about its status before planning a visit.
Leaving Wildevoëlvlei, continue south-west along Kommetjie Road. Once in Kommetjie, take the turn to the right immediately beyond the Kommetjie Hotel. This is the last turn before the road ascends to a scenic coastal drive toward Scarborough. This road skirts the hotel parking area and continues past a large tidal pool to the wind-buffeted Kommetjie promontory-park here. Scan the rocks and tidal pool for Benguela-endemics such as Hartlaub's Gull Larus hartlaubii, Bank Phalacrocorax neglectus, Crowned P. coronatus and Cape Cormorants P. capensis, African Black Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini, and other species such as White-fronted Plover Charadrius marginatus and Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus. In winter, the sea should be scanned for pelagic species that occasionally venture inshore. White-chinned Petrel Procellaria aequinoctialis, Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus, Cape Gannet Sula capensis (all year) and South Polar Skua Catharacta maccormicki are regularly seen and it would not be surprising to see a Shy Diomedea cauta or Black-browed Albatross D. melanophris effortlessly dipping below the horizon. Winter also brings Antarctic Tern Sterna vittata to the roost that regularly gathers in the tidal pool. Sift through the Swift S. bergii and Sandwich Terns S. sandvicensis, and in summer Arctic S. paradisaea and Common Terns S. hirundo, in search of something rare. Check the tide tables as more birds roost at low tide; weekends should also be avoided as fishermen and boat launching disturbs the roost. If, at first, you do not see all the species you are seeking, take a walk north along the beach as birds roost there also. An early morning walk here may reward the vigilant observer with a Cape Clawless Otter Aonyx capensis capensis.
Cape Point Nature Reserve
Continue south along the M65, past Misty Cliffs and Scarborough, to the Cape Point Nature Reserve. Forming the southern portion of the peninsula, this reserve can also be reached from Muizenberg and Simon's Town via the M4. You can enjoy the reserve's sensational and idyllic scenery while looking for additional fynbos specialities, including the numerous Orange-breasted Sunbird and Cape Sugarbird, as well as seabirds from the south-westernmost point in Africa. Don't miss the opportunity to scan for albatrosses and the occasional Peregrine Falcon at the Cape Point lighthouse. The viewing sites at the point also hold Cape Siskin. Other species include Cape Bulbul, Speckled Mousebird Colius striatus, Fiscal Flycatcher Sigelus silens, Bokmakierie Malaconotus zeylonus, Southern Boubou, Neddicky Cisticola fulvicapillus and Karoo Prinia. The reserve has attracted many rarities, including a Red-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon rubricauda that established itself on the cliffs. The restio plains toward Sirkelsvlei support Black-rumped Button-Quail Turnix hottentotta and Cloud Cisticola Cisticola textrix. Malachite Sunbird Nectarinia famosa can be found in certain Leonotis patches and the ubiquitous Red-winged Starling Onychognathus morio is ever-present.
The reserve is also home to the strange Bontebok Damalisous dorcas and elegant Eland Taurotragus oryx. Beware of the Chacma Baboons Papio ursinus - they have become decidedly cheeky within the reserve - and please don't feed them. A minimum entry fee of R 20 (or R 10 p/p whichever is more) is charged.
Leaving the reserve, return to Cape Town along the False Bay coastline, via the M4. As you enter suburban Simonstown, look for a golf course on the right (coastal) side. At the northern perimeter of the golf course turn right onto Bellevue Road. Start looking for penguins immediately. The colony is expanding, and birds have been recorded attempting to incubate golf balls! This idyllic spot consists of white beaches, protected by large granite boulders, and permanently inhabited by the little black-and-white suited Jackass Penguin Spheniscus demersus. A must-see venue, the birds can be approached extremely closely. African Black Oystercatcher and Cape and Crowned Cormorants are regularly seen on the rocks. The strandveld vegetation holds White-backed Mousebird Colius colius, Lesser Double-collared Sunbird and occasionally Cape Sugarbird.
Strandfontein Sewage Works
To visit this site one requires a waiver issued by the Cape Bird Club (Tel: 27-21-686-8795) on behalf of the Cape Metropolitan Council. Please ensure you have one before visiting. From Simonstown head north along the coastal road. Beyond Clovelly, do not take Boyes Drive, which heads up the mountainside, but continue along the coastal road to Muizenberg. From there take Baden Powell Drive (R 310) and turn into Strandfontein Road (M17) c 7 km from the circle. After 4 km turn left to Zeekoevlei and the sewage works are on the northern shore of False Bay. One of the best wetland sites in South Africa, it holds up to 94 species of waterbird, 45 breeding species, including the endemic South African Shelduck Tadorna cana and Cape Shoveler Anas smithii and (in summer) many waders and terns.
Pelagic magic-sensational seabird frenzy (1 Day)
Birds: 10/10; Scenery: 6/10; General tourism value: 4/10
Ever grimaced while ticking an albatross from land, when your field guide offers more detail than the speck you saw dipping under the horizon? In South Africa, a series of pelagic options exist so that you may scoff in delight as these majestic oceanic wanderers approach too close for you to focus. Many seabird specialists, unsurprisingly, regard the Western Cape as one of the best pelagic birding spots in the world, regularly supporting hundreds of thousands of seabirds. Seabird abundance is particularly high due to the highly productive, nutrient-rich upwelling Benguela current, derived from Antarctica's icy waters. Very few places provide such world-class harbours and ships, a plethora of exciting species and the spectacle of 1,000s of seabirds squabbling over scraps behind fishing boats.
Sailing from Simonstown or Hout Bay, operating trawlers are targeted specifically. As many as 5,000 seabirds, of 15-20 different species, could be awaiting your arrival. Approaching an operating trawler sets one amidst one of the largest seabird feeding frenzies on the globe. Once the initial adrenaline rush is under control, and you have fought off the crippling views of Black-browed, Shy or Yellow-nosed Albatrosses Diomedea chlororhynchos, White-chinned Petrel, Cape Gannet, Sooty Shearwater and Wilson's Storm-Petrel Oceanites oceanicus, you can begin to sift through the clouds of birds in search of less common species. The composition of the flocks, and your chances of seeing various species, varies according to season.
In winter (May-August), one has the best chance of finding Wandering Albatross Diomedea exulans, Northern Macronectes halli and Southern Giant Petrels M. giganteus, Pintado PetrelDaption capense, Broad-billed Pachyptila vittata, Antarctic P. desolata and Salvin's Prions P. (v.) salvini, South Polar Skua and rarely Southern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialoides. Spring (September-October) brings passage migrants such as Soft-plumaged Petrel Pterodroma mollisand Great Shearwater Puffinus gravis. In summer (November-February), the Benguela attracts Palearctic migrants including Cory's Shearwater Calonectris diomedea, Manx ShearwaterPuffinus puffinus, British Storm-Petrel Hydrobates pelagicus, Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus and Sabine's Gull Larus sabini. Other summer visitors include Flesh-footed Shearwater Puffinus carneipes, Great-winged Petrel Pterodroma macroptera (a winter breeder on the Prince Edward Islands), Great Shearwater (which breeds on the Tristan group) and Leach's Storm-Petrel Oceanodroma leucorhoa (which breeds on South Africa's coastal islands). Autumn (March-April) brings the best chance of seeing Black-bellied Storm-Petrel Fregetta tropicaas it heads for warmer tropical climes.
The Western Cape is known for its variety of vagrant pelagic species. Although unlikely, the following are some of the more spectacular species that are possible: Royal Diomedea epomophora, Grey-headed D. chrysostoma and Dark-mantled Sooty Albatrosses Phoebetria fusca, Little Shearwater Puffinus assimilis, and one of the best chances in the world of seeing the extremely rare and endangered Spectacled Petrel Procellaria (a.) conspicillata (which breeds on the Tristan Group). Check the Sugarbird Home page for latest options on pelagic trips in the Western Cape. It is advisable to bring seasickness medicine as the waters can turn rough suddenly.
Sir Lowry's Pass and Betty's Bay (1 day) - Traversing False Bay
Birds: 9/10; Scenery: 8/10; General tourism value: 6/10
The nearest place to Cape Town holding a full compliment of the fynbos specials, Sir Lowry's Pass in the Hottentots Holland Mountains is not be missed. To get there follow the N2 from Cape Town to Somerset West and begin ascending the pass. At the summit, a parking lot will appear suddenly on the right-hand side of the road. Cross to the side of the road opposite the parking lot. Beyond the ditch, clamber through the broken fence which is a disused entrance. A wide path, formerly an access road, climbs to the left. Walk north-east, along the upper of the two tracks that lead from a cleared area adjacent to the road. After c1 km there is excellent fynbos habitat. If the ericas are flowering, Orange-breasted Sunbird will be active. Look for protea trees with large yellow pincushion flowers-these mixed Leucospermum conocarpodendron and Protea neriifolia stands are regularly visited by the magnificent Cape Sugarbird. A high-pitched monotonous zitting should give away Neddicky and in wetter vegetation the Grassbird's descending warble (easily confused with that of Victorin's Warbler) is usually evident.
After c1.5 km, a sedge-seep filled with long reed-like Elegia capensis and Berzelia is evident where the power cables cross the path. The sedge beds hold several pairs of Victorin's WarblerBradypterus victorini - a secretive bird likely only to be glimpsed, as it keeps low in the undergrowth. It is particularly difficult to see in strong winds. Just beyond the sedge, a small and obscure path leads to the left. After 150 m it leads to a shallow gully, where at least two parties of the effervescent Cape Rockjumper Chaetops frenatus are regularly seen. Clamber onto the rocks on the westside, and if, at first, no success is had, head back to the parking lot along the top of the ridge-a party is bound to be seen or heard - listen for the crescendo of their piping whistles! Other species here include Ground Woodpecker, Cape Rock Thrush, Cape Siskin, Black Eagle Aquila verreauxii, Jackal Buzzard Buteo rufofuscus, Grey-backed Cisticola, Cape BuntingEmberiza capensis, Peregrine Falcon, White-necked Raven, Familiar Chat, and rarely Sentinel Rock Thrush Monticola explorator and Cape Eagle Owl Bubo capensis.
From the ridge-top, looking toward Steenbras Dam, one can see a railway-line; the scarce Striped Flufftail Sarothura affinis has been seen below it. Although this bird can be almost impossible to see, it seems to show itself more frequently to foreign visitors! The pine plantations east of the canons and around Steenbras Dam hold breeding Black Accipiter melanoleucus and Red-breasted Sparrowhawks A. rufiventris and Forest Buzzard.
The West Coast (1-2 days)-a taste of Namaqualand
Birds: 8/10; Scenery: 7/10; General tourism value: 6/10
Located c120 km north of Cape Town, in southern Namaqualand, this area's arid and rather bleak terrain is broken by some of South Africa's most impressive wetlands, particularly Langebaan Lagoon and the Berg River Estuary. In the austral summer, the Berg River holds the greatest densities of shorebird on the entire eastern Atlantic flyway. Head out of Cape Town on the R27 via Milnerton. Approximately 90 km from Cape Town, the left turn to West Coast National Park (within which Langebaan Lagoon is enclosed) will be seen. If choosing to continue to the Berg River mouth, proceed along the R27 to Laaiplek, where you cross the river mouth just before entering town.
At Langebaan Lagoon, Palearctic waders abound in summer, particularly Curlew SandpiperCalidris ferruginea, Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola, Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres, Red Knot Calidris canutus and Sanderling C. alba. Extremely healthy numbers of resident shorebirds including African Black Oystercatcher, White-fronted Plover, Kittlitz's Plover Charadrius pecuariusand the scarce Chestnut-banded Plover C. pallidus supplement these. The marshes and sedge beds hold African Marsh Harrier as well as skulking palustrine specialists, including Red-chested Flufftail Sarothura rufa and Kaffir Rail Rallus caerulescens. The best hides are at Geelbek, where a walking trail to a series of saltpans also exists. Visit at low tide when the mudflats are exposed.
The vegetation and open cultivated fields surrounding the wetlands support an interesting avifauna, including conspicuous species not always easily seen elsewhere. The most absorbing among these are the striking Black Harrier Circus maurus, strident Southern Black KorhaanEupodotis afra afra, Capped Wheatear Oenanthe pileata, Thick-billed Galerida magnirostrisand Red-capped Larks Calandrella cinerea. Other common species include Pied Spreo bicolorand Wattled Starlings Creatophora cinerea, Bokmakierie, Karoo Scrub-Robin Erythropygia coryphaeus, Yellow Canary Serinus flaviventris and White-backed Mousebird.
If additional time is available, head to Bird Island in Lambert's Bay, one of only six islands in the world where Cape Gannets breed. Here you will be able to watch their crazy antics at point blank range. It is an amazing spectacle that enthralls not only birders-particularly now that a new high-tech hide offers face-to-face encounters with the birds. The island also holds Jackass Penguin, Bank, Crowned and Cape Cormorants.
Part II - The Garden Route
Probably the most under-rated birding area in South Africa, the area between Cape Town and Tsitsikamma National Park, and the virtually unbirded Outeniqua and Swartberg ranges inland, offer splendid scenery and a higher concentration of South African endemics than any other area in the country.
Overberg and De Hoop (1-2 days)
Birds: 8/10; Scenery: 7/10; General tourism value: 6/10
If heading to the garden route from Cape Town, an excellent area to explore for a day is the Overberg and De Hoop Nature Reserve. Follow the N2 from Cape Town, via Sir Lowry's Pass (see part I) to Caledon; turn onto the R316 and continue to Bredasdorp (c74 km). The R316 between Caledon and Bredasdorp is prime Overberg country, nestled on the coastal plain, and sheltered by the rugged Langeberg Mountains to the north, the Overberg stretches to Cape Agulhas - the southernmost point in Africa. Once a series of plains of lowland fynbos, the majority of the original vegetation has been replaced by wheat. It is not all bad news however, as many interesting birds, particularly some rare ones, have adapted remarkably well. Parties of stately Blue Crane Anthropoides paradisaea stride through the area. Although once rare here, more than 30% of the global population now congregates in this area annually. The fields are also home to Denham's Bustard Neotis denhami, Thick-billed Lark, Red-capped Lark and the highly range-restricted Agulhas Long-billed Lark Certhilauda (curvirostris) brevirostris. Occasionally Secretary Birds Sagittarius serpentarius can be seen pulverising hapless snakes near the road. These species are possible anywhere along this road, and numerous stops to look and listen are advised. Stop also in the small patches of remaining renosterbos (Rhino-bush) and strandveld to look for the stunning Southern Black Korhaan.
From Bredasdorp, take the Swellendam road (R319). After 7 km turn right to Wydgelee, 29 km further turn right to De Hoop and continue 10 km to the gate. De Hoop, in stark contrast to the wheatbelt, comprises a unique diversity of natural habitats. These include rugged coastline, pristine beaches and sand dunes, a wide coastal plain holding remnant fragments of the highly threatened lowland fynbos and some bizarre and unique limestone hills incised by the 15 km-long De Hoop Vlei. The Ramsar-designated vlei is actually a coastal lake, often excellent for waterbirds; Cape Shoveler is one of 75 species of waterfowl regularly recorded here. The Milkwoods surrounding the vlei support Southern Tchagra Tchagra tchagra. An isolated sandstone inselberg, called Potberg, rises abruptly in the east of the reserve, surrounded by a sea of wind-derived aeolian sand. This small inselberg is the only home for several plant species, including two spectacular Proteas. It also holds the last Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres colony (c30 pairs) in the Western Cape as well as small but significant populations of Striped Flufftail and Black-rumped Button-Quail. Other special species among the list of 260 recorded at the reserve are Pied Starling, Orange-throated Longclaw Macronyx capensis, Bokmakierie, Pearl-breasted Swallow Hirundo dimidiata, Pied Barbet Tricholaema leucomelas, Black Harrier, African Black Oystercatcher and eight species of canary Serinus spp. Cape Francolin is extremely tame, particularly at the campsite where they will forage less than a metre away, while Fiery-necked Nightjar Caprimulgus pectoralis is common around the cottages at night, belting out its crescendo call.
The Garden Route (3-4 days)
Birds: 8/10; Scenery: 10/10; General tourism value: 6/10 Located c450 km east of Cape Town, this picturesque and dainty mosaic of fynbos and forest gardens is scattered among a plethora of lakes, lagoons and seasides. Knysna is the closest area to Cape Town holding large tracts of Cape temperate forest and it makes a wonderful base to explore this striking area. Several accommodation options are available in Knysna, check the Sugarbird Home page for a full listing. The most notable option is the Bush Camp in Phantom Forest Eco-reserve (Tel: 27-44-386-0046; Fax: 27-44-387-1944; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). This luxurious camp is located within the forest on Phantom Pass and its fast-growing reputation as one of South Africa's finest eco-tourism destinations is not unfounded. All the endemic forest specials have been found on the property as has Narina Trogon Apaloderma narina and other 'most wanted' birds. Canopy towers are currently under construction, exclusively for the use of paying lodge-birders. To reach the reserve, take the first turn to the left on entering Knysna (from Cape Town), before you cross the bridge. Do not peel round under the bridge, but head straight along the shore of the lagoon on Phantom Pass Road for c1 km. Follow the signs to Phantom Forest Eco-reserve.
Many other forest patches exist; particularly good are those at Diepwalle and Big Tree. Further along the N2 (c80 km), the small town of Nature's Valley has many cheap B&Bs and is surrounded by excellent forest. A particularly quaint spot here is called Tourist Lodge (Tel: 27-04457-6681).
Spend most time in the tall cathedral-type forests. Sometimes deathly silent, the twittering of a bird party can break the lethargy of the forest. Mixed-species flocks comprising Bar-throated Apalis Apalis thoracica, Blue-mantled Flycatcher Trochocercus cyanomelas, Grey Cuckoo-Shrike Coracina caesia and Yellow-throated Warbler Phylloscopus ruficapilla sally and glean insects from the canopy of buttressed Yellowwood and Ironwood trees. Be on the lookout for Knysna Woodpecker Campethera notata, which frequently utters its characteristic staccato scream. The cool mossy rocks, fungus-flecked ground and fern glades are home to parties of chuckling Terrestrial Bulbul Phyllastrephus terrestris as well as Starred Pogonocichla stellata and Chorister Robins Cossypha dichroa. Track any raucous croaking which may herald a Knysna Turaco Tauraco corythaix. Look for fruiting trees as they may hold flocks of Black-bellied Glossy Starling Lamprotornis corruscus. Low hooting, particularly in spring (September-November), may bring, with luck, a view of the fabled Narina Trogon. Keep scanning overhead for breeding Forest Buzzard which regularly issue a plaintive kleeuw call. The constant churring of the Cape Batis will give this pokey insectivore away, but the cryptic Olive Bush-Shrike Malaconotus olivaceus is more difficult to see, although it does respond to whistled imitations of its call. On the forest floor, several skulkers - the noisy Red-necked Francolin Francolinus afer and Cinnamon and Tambourine Doves Turtur tympanistra - are more frequently heard than seen. In summer, the piercing pretty georgie whistle of arguably Africa's most dazzling cuckoo, the Emerald Cuckoo Chrysococcyx cupreus, is blasted from treetops almost as lush as the bird itself. Also common are African Goshawk Accipiter tachiro, Olive Woodpecker Mesopicos griseocephalus, Black Saw-wing Swallow Psalidoprocne pristoptera, Sombre Bulbul, Fork-tailed Drongo Dicrurus adsimilis, Bleating Bush Warbler Camaroptera brachyura, Southern Boubou, Dusky Flycatcher, Eastern Black-headed Oriole Oriolus larvatus and African Paradise Flycatcher. At night, the bubbling call of the Wood Owl Strix woodfordii is not uncommon and keep an ear open for the phantom-like foghorn hooting of the diminutive Buff-spotted Flufftail Sarothura elegans, one of Africa's hardest forest birds to see.
The forest edge also has its specialists, including the bracken-dependent Knysna Warbler, a very difficult bird to see, even when it is calling in September-October. The Knysna Heads hold a significant population of these. Far easier to find is the seed-eating endemic Forest Canary, Swee Waxbill Estrilda melanotis and Greater Double Collared Nectarinia afra and Black Sunbirds N. amethystina. The rolling hills expose chunks of fynbos on their crests. When in flower, the red ericas are adorned with Orange-breasted Sunbirds. Cape Sugarbird, vociferous Victorin's Warbler and other fynbos specialities are also easily seen here.
Also visit Tsitsikamma National Park where Southern Right Whales Eubalaena australis come inshore to breed and calve. In the park there is excellent forest, holding many of the species listed above. The Groot River is known to hold several river-dependent species more typical of tropical rivers including Half-collared Kingfisher Alcedo semitorquata and the elusive African Finfoot Podica senegalensis and White-backed Night Heron Gorsachius leuconotus. Within the park, the Storms River Mouth restcamp, with its excellent cottages and facilities, is recommended-contact South African National Parks (Tel: 27-12-343-1991; Fax: 27-12-343-0905; e-mail:email@example.com) for details.
Swartberg Pass (1-2 days add-on to 7 or 8)
Birds: 9/10; Scenery: 10/10; General tourism value: 7/10
This route is only possible if combined with a trip to the Garden Route or Karoo National Park, or preferably both, as it links these two dramatically different destinations. Nowhere is the striking variability of South Africa more evident than on the short drive between Knysna and Prince Albert, taking in the Outeniqua and Swartberg mountains. Temperate evergreen forests cloak the shady southern mountain slopes, well-watered by coastal mists and year-round rainfall, while succulent desert plants cling to the blistered northern valley floors, sweltering in the rain-shadow of the mountains. From Knysna, one should head back on the N2 towards George. Leaving the N2 at the George turn-off, head along the N9 over the Outeniqua Pass and then take the N12 to Oudtshoorn. The many lay-byes are worth a stop, scan for fynbos specials and Black and Martial Eagles Polemaetus bellicosus, which are seen here regularly. Once over the pass, the vegetation will begin to look decidedly scrubby-you are now in the Little Karoo. On reaching Oudtshoorn, keep heading straight-the N12 branches to the right-along the R328 to Prince Albert, following signs to Cango Caves. Take the Schoemanspoort pass and follow all signs to Prince Albert/Swartberg Pass-bypassing the turn-off to the Cango Caves. The road turns to dirt shortly thereafter. As one ascends the pass, the scrub turns to fynbos, with the associated gamut of common fynbos birds. Higher up, the bushes become smaller and the proportion of exposed rock increases. Pause at the top, called Die Top: on either side of the road a group of Cape Rockjumpers can be found. The grating keaurghgh of Ground Woodpecker is not uncommon here. Cape and Sentinel Rock Thrushes can also be seen. Two to three kilometers further, the road to Die Hel branches off left. This junction is excellent for Cape Siskin. A little farther, a large stand of Protea trees hosts Cape Sugarbird, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Grassbird and on occasion, the scarce Protea Canary Serinus leucopterus. Descending to Prince Albert, soaring cliffs with spectacular rock formations line the 20-km gravel road. At high altitude, search for soaring Black, Booted Hieraaetus pennatus and Martial Eagles. As you enter the drier gorge the avifauna changes rapidly-keep your eyes peeled for Pale-winged Starling Onychognathus nabouroup and Mountain Chat Oenanthe monticola on the cliffs, and Malachite Sunbird on the aloes. Just before exiting the canyon, the river supports some luxurious Acacia karoo scrub; stop here for Fairy Flycatcher Stenostira scita, White-throated Canary Serinus albogularis, White-backed Mousebird, Layard's Tit-Babbler Sylvia layardi, Long-billed Crombec Sylvietta rufescens and Karoo Scrub-Robin. The canyon ends abruptly, and c4 km beyond, a small picnic/camping spot is located on the left, just before the Klaarstroom road intersection. Pause here, as Namaqua Warbler Phragmacia substriata and Pririt Batis Batis pririt are common in the grove of trees.
Whether heading back to Cape Town, or on to Karoo National Park, it is possible (and advisable) to overnight in Prince Albert, as the karoo vegetation is most productive at dawn. The Hotel Swartberg (top-range), Rozie's (mid-range) and Huis Adriaan or Hooggenoeg Holiday Houses (budget) are recommended. Call the Prince Albert Tourism Bureau for bookings and more information (Tel: 27-23-5411-366). The small series of hills east of town hold a few parties of Karoo Eremomela Eremomela gregalis. The plains north of Prince Albert are best in the early morning. Although the R353 is productive (bird the Gamka riverbed where it crosses the road c8 km before the N1), if you have time available, take the dirt road to Seekoegat (the only road heading right on leaving Prince Albert), 1 km north of town. Stop and bird extensively in the (usually dry) Oukloof riverbed. If any water is lying, look for the nomadic Black-headed Canary Serinus alario. While driving across the plains, keep a lookout for the low-density Ludwig's Bustard Neotis ludwigii and Karoo Korhaan Eupodotis vigorsii. Stop occasionally to look and listen for Rufous-eared Warbler Malcorus pectoralis and a host of larks in this area (many species are similar to those at Karoo National Park described below). Proceed to Karoo National Park, on the N1, South Africa's premier highway; the entrance is 5 km south-west of Beaufort West.
Karoo National Park (2-3 days)
Birds: 8/10; Scenery: 7/10; General tourism value: 6/10
The Khoisan hunter-gatherers, the oldest inhabitants of South Africa, called the central plateau the 'Karuu', or "place of great dryness". Chalets, cottages and camping are available in the National Park-and there is an air-conditioned restaurant (to book tel: 27-201-5-2828/9 or fax: 27-201-5-1671). Underlying its barren appearance, the Karoo biome is home to some 5,000 species of plant-more than are in Canada. It holds one third of all the world's succulent plant species. The park represents one of the more spectacular parts of the Karoo, with the impressive Nuweveld escarpment, which rises to 1,900 m, forming the backdrop for the lower plains. Despite only 170 bird species having been recorded in the park, it is extremely important for Namib-Karoo biome-restricted species, as well as supporting a host of other arid-zone specialities. The lowland plains have Ludwig's Bustard, Karoo Korhaan, Spike-heeled Lark Chersomanes albofasciata, Karoo Lark Certhilauda albescens, Grey-backed Sparrow-Lark Eremopterix verticalis, Tractrac Chat Cercomela tractrac, Karoo Chat C. schlegelii, Karoo Eremomela and Rufous-eared Warbler. Black-headed Canary occurs whenever there is seeding grass and water. The belts of riverine Acacia karoo woodland hold Namaqua Warbler and provide food, shelter and breeding habitat for many other species. The thicket and scrub on the slopes support Layard's Tit-Babbler and Southern Grey Tit Parus afer. In very wet years, nomadic Black-eared Sparrow-Lark Eremopterix australis and Lark-like Bunting Emberiza impetuani arrive to breed in large numbers, and are then absent until the next heavy rains, which may be up to decades apart. In exceptional rain years, Sclater's Lark Spizocorys sclateri has also been recorded. The secretive and localised Cinnamon-breasted Warbler Euryptila subcinnamomea, African Rock Pipit Anthus crenatus, Pale-winged Starling and Ground Woodpecker occur in rocky gorges and kloofs while Sickle-winged Chat Cercomela sinuata is found in plateau scrub. The best area to find these species is Klipspringer Pass. At the top of the plateau, there are several stopping points to peer into a gorge that holds most of these species. African Rock Pipit is often heard calling, and is occasionally seen, from above the Fonteintjies walking trail. The newly described Karoo Long-billed Lark Certhilauda (curvirostris) subcoronata is common throughout the park. Other arid-zone species occurring here are Dusky Sunbird Nectarinia fusca, which is a nomad, not seen elsewhere in the Western Cape and Pale Chanting Goshawk Melierax canorus, Pririt Batis, Fairy Flycatcher, Cape Penduline Tit Anthoscopus minutus and White-throated Canary.
Gamka Dam on the Grootplaat has the only permanent surface water in the park and supports a host of waterbirds, including Cape Shoveler, South African Shelduck and Yellow-billed Duck Anas undulata. The cliffs near the dam have breeding Black and Booted Eagles, and Black Stork Ciconia nigra. Beaufort West has several large Eucalyptus trees which support up to 10,000 roosting Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni in summer; the birds disperse during the day to forage on the plains surrounding the town.
While hunting for birds, you may bump into other karroid beasts such as Cloete's Girdled Lizard Cordylus cloetei, Braack's Dwarf Leaf-toed Gecko Goggia braacki and Thin-skinned thick-toed Gecko Pachydactylus kladeroderma; all of which have minute global ranges, restricted to tiny portions of the Nuweveld escarpment. Other endemics include Grant's Rock Mouse Aethomyis granti, Namaqua Chameleon Chamaeleo namaquensis, Karoo Dwarf Chameleon Brachypodion karroicum, Greater Homopus femoralis and Boulenger's Padlopers H. boulengeri, Tent Tortoise Psammobates tentorius, Spotted House Snake Lamprophis guttatus, Common Long-tailed Seps Tetradactylus tetradactylus and a host of endemic lizards and geckos. The park holds many species that once roamed these plains in greater numbers prior to human intervention. The threatened Black Rhinoceros Diceros bicornis, and the endemic antelope Cape Mountain Zebra Equus zebra zebra (the second largest population in the world), Black Wildebeest Connocahetes gnou and Springbok Antidorcas marsupialis roam here. Threatened species such as Leopard Panthera pardus, Small Spotted Cat Felis nigripes, Aardwolf Proteles cristata, Aardvark Orycteropus afer, Sclater's Golden Mole Chlorotalpa sclateri, Melck's Serotine Bat Eptesicus melckorum, Lesuer's Hairy Bat Myotis lesueuri and Spectacled Dormouse Graphiurus ocularis. also occur in the park. Night drives can be arranged with staff and may prove spectacular, particularly if the mythical Aardvark is seen.
Part III - The arid interior
South Africa's arid interior does not offer the highest bird diversity, but by far the highest proportion of endemics; every second bird seen here is not seen anywhere else in the world! The closest site to Cape Town offering 'real' Karoo birds is Tankwa Karoo. Largely untouched by development and criss-crossed with dirt roads, one has to stay in Ceres or camp if wanting to spend more than a day in this area.
Ceres & Tankwa Karoo (1-2 days)-the thirstlands
Birds: 10/10; Scenery: 9/10; General tourism value: 5/10
From Cape Town the easy route is to follow the National Road (N1) to just short of Worcester, where you turn north onto the R43 toward Wolseley and Ceres. Follow signposts to Ceres. Just before arriving in Ceres you traverse Mitchell's Pass and c5 km before town a small kiosk on the left-hand side, called Die Tolhius, has a small parking lot. Occasionally Forest Canary and Swee Waxbill forage on the grass here. The thicket of pastel green Protea neriifolia on the hillside is exceptionally interesting. A small dirt path behind Die Tolhuis leads to a railway. It is possible to walk beside this but beware, trains still run on this line. Search for Protea Canary as it is frequent here-although some time may be required to locate it and keep in mind that Streaky-headed Canary Serinus gularis is common here. Other fynbos birds abound. The mountains are excellent for raptors and there is a good chance of seeing Jackal Buzzard, Black and Booted Eagles.
Once in Ceres fill up with fuel - there will be no more fuel stations until you return to Ceres. Continue east along the R46 over Theronsberg Pass, shortly after which you traverse a small valley called Karoopoort (45 km east of Ceres). Karoopoort is easily recognised as the area where the road changes to dirt and after a kilometre changes back to tar and then finally reverts to dirt again. The river and reeds here hold Namaqua Warbler. Rocky crags around Karoopoort support Pale-winged Starling. The arid flats are only 20 km beyond Karoopoort. The rainfall gradient drops from 1,200 mm p.a. in the Ceres Mountains to as little as 180 mm p.a. around Katbakkies. As you emerge from Karoopoort onto the plains start looking for Karoo Chat, Yellow Canary, White-throated Canary, Ant-eating Chat Myrmecocichla formicivora, Sickle-winged Chat, Pied Starling, Bokmakierie, and Jackal Buzzard and Pale Chanting Goshawk perching on telephone and electricity poles.
Approximately 5 km beyond the Sutherland turn-off a number of small dams appear on the right-hand side, as well as a larger dam on a farm called Inverdoorn; all are private property, so please respect this. Stop on the road and scope for a host of waterfowl including South African Shelduck, Cape Shoveler and Maccoa Duck; occasionally even flamingos have been seen. In midsummer the dam can be dry.
Just north of Inverdoorn two isolated glacial tillite hills rise (one on each side of the road). A narrow road leads off to the east (right-hand side) hill. Park at the base and look for the main prize here-Karoo Eremomela. Generally scarce in the Karoo, this feisty little warbler is not uncommon here. Rufous-eared Warbler, Sickle-winged Chat, Southern Grey Tit, Cape Penduline Tit, Spike-heeled Lark and Karoo Lark are also common. The surrounding plains are reliable for Karoo Korhaan, and occasionally (in winter) Ludwig's Bustard. North of the hills, Tractrac Chats and Southern Black Korhaan are more regular and the kelkiewyn call of Namaqua Sandgrouse Pterocles namaqua is more evident - although getting good views is hard. It is best to look for the species at c10.00 hrs when they tend to drink. Twenty kilometres north of the tillites, a sign to Op-die-Berg and Kagga Kamma indicates a road leading off to the left. Follow the turn for 2 km to a small gully draped in spiky aloe plants. When the valley opens into a small Acacia-lined rivercourse, a narrow road peels off to the left. It is possible to camp at this small picnic site, but keep in mind that facilities are basic. There is clean running drinkable water and a long-drop toile,t and not much else. This place, known as Katbakkies, is famous as being the most accessible site in South Africa for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler-the hardest karoo bird of all. Dubbed a "mini-rockjumper", it often resembles a mouse more than a bird, hopping about in tiny gaps between stone slabs, it may leap out momentarily, only to bound along a koppie ridge at high speed. There are several pairs in the gorges, and walking the riverbed or over the ridge opposite the canyon entrance offers the best chance of these elusive birds. The Acacia woodland is productive for Fairy Flycatcher, Long-billed Crombec, Pririt Batis, Cape Bunting and Pied Barbet. The cliffs and rocky areas hold Mountain Chat, Southern Grey Tit and Ground Woodpecker. At night, Freckled Nightjar Caprimulgus tristigma has been recorded in this area and Cape Eagle Owl has been found on several occasions 4-5 km from the campsite. In wet years Black-headed Canary and Lark-like Bunting can be common. Thick-billed Lark, Cape Long-billed Lark Certhilauda (curvirostris) curvirostris, Red-capped Lark and Grey-backed Sparrow-Lark occur throughout the area. Cape Penduline Tit and Yellow-bellied Eremomela Eremomela icteropygialis occur along rivers and in scrub throughout. Double-banded Courser Rhinoptilus africanus has been seen on the Calvinia road north of Katbakkies, particularly in areas devoid of cover. Black-eared Sparrow-Lark has also been very occasionally recorded breeding.
Keep your eyes peeled for other wonderful beasts, including the magnificent Red Adder Bitis rubida, globally restricted to the Tankwa Karoo and only described in 1997. McLachlan's Girdled Lizard Cordylus mclachlani and the magnificent Armadillo Girdled Lizard C. cataphractus, rolling up to expose its spiny back when threatened, are globally restricted to this tiny portion of the Karoo. Remember to bring a spotlight as a night drive in the Karoo may not yield Lions Panthera leo and African Elephants Loxodonta africana, but it is no less spectacular. Those enamoured by smaller beasts will not be disappointed; Steenbok Raphicerus campestris is common here and you may bump into other antelopes such as Klipspringer Oreotragus oreotragus and Grey Rhebok Pelea capreolus. Genets and mongooses are frequent and you may be fortunate and see Striped Polecat Mustela putorius. Some extremely rare and seldom seen animals are found here, including African Lynx (Rooikat) Felis caracal, Aardvark and Aardwolf - both bizarre termite specialists - and Cape Mountain Leopard has occasionally been spotted in the gully behind the campsite.
Farther afield-the desert frontier
Orange River, Springbok & Bushmanland
(4-6 days) - the diamond coast lark run
If you are feeling adventurous, an additional bounty of endemics lies in the Northern Cape. From Cape Town take the N7 to Springbok. Several Cape Eagle Owl roadkills have been found at Burke's Pass, c15 km south of Springbok-suggesting that it is reasonably common here. At Springbok, either head east to Pofadder or take a loop to find the recently described Barlow's Lark Certhilauda barlowi. For this species, head north on the N7 to Steinkopf and Port Nolloth on the R382 via Anenous Pass. Once in Port Nolloth, take the coast road north to Alexander Bay. Barlow's Lark occurs north of the Holgat River, but Karoo Lark also occurs here and the two do hybridise in this zone. It is therefore best to head to Alexander Bay, and then east along the road to Khubus. At Pachtvlei Picnic Area on the Orange River, a pair of Barlow's Lark frequents the junction at the main road. If you still have no luck, keep heading east, stop where there are dune-type slacks, which the bird prefers - it is common once you reach the turn-off to Brandkaros. Rocky outcrops here hold Cape Long-billed Lark. With prior organisation, it is possible to visit the Orange River Mouth at Alexander Bay (run by the Diamond Mining Alexkor. See the company's website (http://www.diamondcoast.co.za) to organize a permit to visit the mouth). The estuary of this, South Africa's largest river, is the only permanent wetland on one of the world's driest stretches of coast. The dunes south of the river mouth (no access) hold breeding Damara Terns Sterna balaenarum - which are occasionally seen at the mouth. Return to Springbok via Port Nolloth, as the roads via the Richtersveld are poor.
Accommodation options in Springbok include the Springbok Hotel (Tel: 27-251-21161; fax: 27-2251-22257). For cheaper options check the Sugarbird Home page for a full listing.
Head toward Pofadder on the N14. After c100 km a small dirt road heads toward Aggenys. Take this road and look for the distinctly warm red dunes, home to Red Lark Certhilauda burra; Karoo Lark is absent here so there should be no confusion. Continue on toward Pofadder scanning the enormous Sociable Weaver Philetairus socius colonies for signs of Pygmy Falcon Polihierax semitorquatus which breed in these enormous nests. If you have time for diversions, head north from Pofadder on the R358; Sabota Lark Mirafra sabota is not uncommon and Stark's Lark Eremalauda starki can be found in this area. Onseepkans, on the Orange River, provides other new birds, including small flocks of Rosy-faced Lovebird Agapornis roseicollis.
Your main route should take you south of Pofadder on the R358; after c25 km, turn east on the dirt road to Kenhardt. Thirty km beyond the turn-off look for clumps of small bush interspersed with black pebbly quartz, almost entirely devoid of vegetation-this is the home of Sclater's Lark, a nomadic and opportunistic species. If the fields don't bring luck, check the many small dams where the small larks regularly drink, particularly those on the edges of these fields. Another nomadic Bushmanland speciality usually encountered in large numbers in this area is Black-eared Sparrow-Lark, and when rainfall is significant, so is Grey-backed Sparrow-Lark and Lark-like Bunting. Other, more common, larks you are likely to see are Karoo Long-billed, Thick-billed, Red-capped, Karoo and Spike-heeled Larks. Larks, however, are not the only bounty. The open plains also support Burchell's Cursorius rufus and Double-banded Coursers, Sickle-winged, Karoo and Tractrac Chats, Namaqua Sandgrouse, Ludwig's Bustard, Karoo Korhaan, Chat Flycatcher Bradornis infuscatus, Karoo Eremomela and Black-headed Canary. The wooded rivers hold Pririt Batis and Namaqua Warbler.
Other species more characteristic of the Kalahari that one is unlikely to see farther south include Red-eyed Bulbul Pcynonotus nigricans, Black-chested Prinia Prinia flavicans, Ashy Tit Parus cinerascens and Scaly-feathered Finch Sporopipes squamifrons. This trip is best combined with Ceres and the Tankwa Karoo or Kalahari-Gemsbok National Park.
Kalahari-Gemsbok National Park
Sandwiched between the Nossob and Auob rivers, the Kalahari-Gemsbok-one of Africa's great national parks and South Africa's second largest-covers 960,000 ha. Along with the adjacent Gemsbok National Park in Botswana, it comprises a conservation area of over 3.6 million ha, forming the southern portion of one of the last truly great wilderness areas in Africa - the Kalahari. Cottages and camping options are available. It is worth spending one night at the camp at Twee Rivieren (park entrance), which is excellent for owls, and at least one night at Nossob (several hours drive from the entrance), to spend an early morning birding north of there. Only Twee Rivieren has a restaurant, the other camps have basic shops. Booking is essential and can be made via the parks reservations offices in Pretoria (Tel: 27-21-343-1991; fax: 27-21-343-0905; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) or you can contact the park at (Tel: 27-54-561-0021; fax: 27-54-561-0026).
To reach the park, head to Upington via the N14 or N10, and then north on the R360, which is a dirt road, although perfectly passable by two-wheel-drive vehicles. Remember to get there before 18.00 hrs (or earlier if you are booked at Nossob), the gate closing hours. Due to the abundance of game here, raptors are a major feature of the park and over 30 species have been recorded including Lappet-faced Vulture Torgos tracheliotos, White-headed Vulture Trigonoceps occipitalis, Martial Eagle, Bateleur Terathopius ecaudatus, Brown Snake-Eagle Circaetus cinereus, Black-breasted Snake-Eagle C. (gallicus) pectoralis, Tawny Eagle Aquila rapax and the local and scarce Red-necked Falcon Falco chicquera. Secretary Bird stalks the dunes where Kori Bustard Ardeotis kori is common; Ludwig's Bustard also occurs. Waterholes attract Burchell's Pterocles burchelli and Namaqua Sandgrouse, occasionally in very large numbers. The thornveld holds typical Kalahari Basin birds including parties of Pied Babbler Turdoides bicolor, Kalahari Scrub-Robin Erythropygia paena, Crimson-breasted Shrike Laniarius atrococcineus, Burchell's Glossy Starling Lamprotornis australis, Shaft-tailed Whydah Vidua regia, Southern Barred Warbler Camaroptera fasciolata, Marico Flycatcher Bradornis mariquensis and awesome colonies of Sociable Weaver with the diminutive Pygmy Falcon in attendance.
Following rain, a flash of colour is brought by the finches and waxbills, which occur in abundance, as a profusion of annuals and grasses flower and seed. Black-headed and White-throated Canaries, Red-headed Amadina erythrocephala and Cut-throat Finches A. fasciata, and Black-cheeked Estrilda erythronotos and Violet-eared Waxbills Uraeginthus granatinus are most frequent. The Kalahari is also the haunt of a profusion of nocturnal hunters; dusk signals a chorus change and the campsites, particularly that at Twee Rivieren, resound with the calls of White-faced Scops Owl Otus leucotis, African Scops Owl O. senegalensis, Pearl-spotted Owlet Glaucidium perlatum and Giant Eagle-Owl Bubo lacteus, and the gear-changing churring of Rufous-cheeked Nightjar Caprimulgus rufigena is ever-present. The resonant guttural grunting of Lion adds to the splendid nocturnal clamour. Of course, while birding you are likely to come across other denizens of the desert, including Leopard, Cheetah Acinonyx jubatus, Spotted Crocuta crocuta and Brown Hyaenas Hyaena brunnea, the magnificent Gemsbok (once thought to be the mythical unicorn), Blue Wildebeest Connochaetes taurinus, Black-backed Jackal Canis mesomelas, Red Hartebeest Alcelaphus buselaphus, Springbok, Bat-eared Fox Otocyon megalotis and the fascinatingly social and gregarious Meercat Suricata suricata.