Thursday, 15 March 2012

So far and yet so near

Begining of March...

Three days of sanctuary with Anja and Elena were very welcome with George as my base. As revenge for having to take a day out of my survey to spend time in the Garden Route Mall and other shopping establishments, I took Anja up George Peak the following day. The 1000 meter ascent left her legs feeling like jelly (even though I was the one who had to lug Elena all the way up in her backpack!). Sunday meant Anja could rest, while I tried to beat the weather and surveyed up the Montagu Pass until the rain set in. I managed to get down the pass before getting too wet.
On Monday Anja drove me across George to the Robinson’s Pass, where I was left alone once again. The Robinson Pass connects Oudtshoorn to Mossel Bay, and carries a fair amount of truck traffic for such a narrow road. A memorial at the side of the road to a bus disaster is a stark reminder of how dangerous these roads can be.

Just as I had finished my first count of the afternoon right on top of the 860m high pass, I received a telephone call from Cape Argus newspaper journalist John Yeld who had been alerted to my endeavours by Dale Wright of Birdlife Western Cape. I guess there could not have been a better place for an interview – on top of the Outeniqua Mountains with views of Fynbos stretching towards the coastal city of Mosselbay. The article appeared as the cover for the newspaper’s Life section entitled ‘Hitting road is for the birds… really!’ a few days later.
Tuesday I cycled back up the pass to the top where I then hiked a 5 kilometer section along the 12km Kouma Trail. This is a circular hike through Ruitersbos, an area administered by Cape Nature, who have an office just outside Ruitersbos. I had stopped here the previous day, where there was an unmanned information post with a collection of maps and instructions to obtain a self-issue permit from the 8-bells Hotel down the road. However, the helpful hotel clerk informed me that this arrangement had long ceased to exist!

The hike was peaceful with great views from Skurweberg north towards my next destination – Gamkaberg. I spent the rest of the afternoon heading that way on the bicycle, stopping only at a farmstall for some icecream, and was very glad to arrive at Gamkaberg Nature Reserve in the late afternoon. Super helpful Tom Barry, reserve manager, let me use their backpacker style ‘Stables’ accommodation as a base for the next few nights;  and also offered advice on the best transect route to take over the Gamkaberg itself.  
While Gamkaberg would literally be translated as ‘Lion Mountain’, there are no more lion in these mountains. Instead, the reserve was set up to protect a tiny herd of Cape Mountain Zebra, and this has now grown from 5 to around 50. I was lucky enough to spot two of them with my transect that took me over the highest spot in the reserve (only a little over 1000m).

Cape Siskin

Due to the relatively low altitude and general dry nature of the Fynbos which is managed for zebra (i.e. burnt regularly for grass), I guess it should have been no real surprise that my survey for the day revealed only Orange-breasted Sunbird and Cape Siskin. Despite searching through a several kilometre long strip of flowering Protea repens, I was unable to locate a single Cape Sugarbird, much to my surprise.
Although all six endemics are listed for the reserve, just that I did not find them does not mean they are not there, rather that they are rare across the landscape. On the day of departure the next day, I did have a possible Protea Seedeater sighting at the campsite, but the call and gizz of this bird is very similar to Streaky-headed Seedeater and I was unable to tick the bird as present with confidence. The bird perched close to a bird bath that was attracting a plethora of ‘bushveld’ birds, which in turn kept me very distracted from preparations for one of the toughest surveys so far – the Rooiberg transect.
In order to access the Rooiberge, which lie to the west of Gamkaberg and form part of the greater Gamkaberg Conservation Area, one has to cross two areas of private land as well as land administered by Cape Nature. Luckily for me, the owner of the eastern most section was on a yacht in the Pacific and let Tom deal with my application to cross the land. While Tom was not confident I would obtain permission from the third landowner, luckily for me, Pierre de Clerk is also a cyclist and as such was interested in my undertaking. Pierre also runs horse safaris across his extensive property, based out of ‘The Fountain’ lodge (, just off the route 62. He was however concerned that I would be unable to make the c60km track as there is no water on route. Tom was also worried as he described the route as ‘very rugged’.
These concerns, coupled with my experience across the Rust en Vrede 4x4 trail alerted me to the fact I would not be able to make the route if I was to attempt it with the trailer. Luckily, my father (Chris) had some free time and a Toyota Landcruiser, and offered to take the trailer to Ladismith for me. So it was on the 8th of March that Chris dropped me off on the Rooiberg Pass, not far from Gamkaberg, at the Khoi San Prayer Stones. These stones were placed on the pass as an offering to deities as thanks for safe passage over the mountains. It seemed only fitting I place a similar offering. Then, armed only with my daypack with 5 litres of water and supplies for 2 days, I set off.
Placing a stone with the prayer stones for safe passage

Soon I was encountering valleys with Sugarbirds, Malachite Sunbirds and Orange-breasted Sunbirds. As the day wore on and the track climbed ever higher, it started to skirt the edge of impressive ravines to the south, with red lichen covered rocks – that give the mountain their name – the Red Mountains. The heat of the Klein Karoo gradually gave way to the cool mountain air, making pushing the bike up sections of steep and rocky track bearable. Just around 5pm I arrived at my destination for the evening – an overnight hut. Although nothing more than a cement floor, stone walls and a tin roof, that bit of shelter is reassuring when one sits with the knowledge that the Rooiberge have a healthy population of Cape Mountain Leopards!
With two hours of light remaining, I decided to cover a little more ground, only to discover a stick had pierced my front tyre. With only one spare tube and enough glue to fix that one puncture there was suddenly doubt as to whether I would be able to complete the transit not due to the physical nature of the route, but due to mechanical failure. I scrambled up a couple of hundred meters of rocky slope to the top of Rooiberg, the second highest peak in the Rooiberge, to call Chris to tell him to be on standby for the next day in case an evacuation was needed. Luckily for me, and perhaps thanks to that rock I’d placed with the prayer stones, none was needed and I would complete the route without further punctures.
That evening, over a meal of sardines on bread, I watched the full moon rise in the red skies to the east. Slowly the glimmer of distant lights began to twinkle close to the horizon – from the doorstep of the mountain hut I could see the street lights of Oudtshoorn, through which I had passed over 10 days earlier. It was strange to think that nearly 6 weeks and over 1200km into my journey I was still within sight of a town that in my normal day to day life I occasionally visit from home as a peaceful alternative to George in order to go shopping, a mere 2 hour drive from Blue Hill Escape.
 After a chilly start, I completed my first counts of the next day with mountain mist blowing across the hills. The track became all the more rugged, in places so terrifyingly so that on one section I was basically sliding down the hill with brakes on full and my rear wheel locked. After that one or two sections of downhill were walked.
By mid-morning I had reached the track to the cell-phone tower on Bailey’s Peak, the highest peak in the Rooiberg range. As this mast has to be accessed by technicians, the road back down in the Klein Karoo is in better condition – with cemented sections over the steepest sections of trail. So – in a way it was plain sailing back down to civilization. However, it was through recently burnt Fynbos of maybe a year or two in age, so apart from trying to spot Cape Siskins foraging amongst the stubble, birdlife was not terribly exciting.   
Cape Bunting - regularly encountered in all types of Fynbos so far

Common Fiscal

The next day should really have been a rest day. But I had other plans. I wanted to get out of Ladismith and the complacent BnB where I spent the night, and get to the other side of the Swartberg. But first I thought I would do a section along the southern section on ‘Oom Stan se Liggie’ Trail. Turned out it was very steep! However, it was productive, with nice views of Rockjumper and many Cape Siskins.
By the time I had repaired a puncture, had lunched and rested, I was still miles from Seweweekspoort. Still – I couldn’t stay on the outskirts of Ladismith, and those distances on the map never look very far. I soldiered on, uphill, into headwinds and past roadworks of the R62 before finally reaching the relative peace and quiet of the Seweweekspoort. I had a camp-site/guest house in mind on the other side of the Swartberg, but by the time I was 10km up the poort road it was clear there was no way I was going to make it through. With the last light disappearing on the red cliffs around me, I pulled into a well-used but not well cleaned picnic spot. A dip in the stream helped me freshen up before another hasty meal and into the tent.
The following morning I had a far more relaxed journey up the poort, stopping to survey every kilometre. The wind was fierce, but that didn’t stop me spotting a Protea Seedeater during one survey. Strangely enough it was in the company of a pair of Streaky-headed Seedeaters, so I had to double check I’d correctly identified my bird. Black chin, white wingbars: tick!
I got to the top of the poort midday, and had still not decided what to do next. Should I take the marked Besemfontein trail to the east, or should I make an attempt on the highest peak in the Western Cape – Seweweekspoortberg at 2318m. Well, I had to do something special on my birthday, plus I like the idea of being able to say that this survey has been conducted from sea level to the highest point in the Western Cape. I enquired of a farmer as to the location of a guest house marked on the map, and he offered to call them for me, but there was no answer. On explaining what I was wanting to do, the farmer (George) offered to look after my bike while I headed into the mountains. I knew at this late stage that I would have to overnight on the mountain, as an attempt on the summit can only be done in a day if you are very fit and leave very early in the morning.

Seweweekspoortberg - or Bloupunt as the locals call it. Highest point in the Western Cape at 2318m.

Gamkapoort Dam

The north face of Seweweekspoortberg is the traditional ascent route, as the vegetation is thinner, and the route needs no mountaineering, if you stay on course. It was a clear day – perfect for the attempt, and after several hours I had crested the first steep ridge. I located a flattish area to pitch my tent, with a mountain stream nearby. By this time it was 3:30 in the afternoon, and I was in two minds as to whether I should continue – the pace would have to be fast to get up and back to the tent before nightfall. I decided to go for it, and slogged determinedly up the north-east ridge, through hakea, over scree, around cliff faces and up into the thin air with its beautiful views. I saw Gamkapoort Dam for the first time, and enjoyed splendid views of the Witteberge. As I was approaching the summit, I gained cellphone signal for the first time in the day, long enough for Anja to call me to with me Happy Birthday. Then the signal went, and I was all alone again on top of the world.
I conducted my last point count for the day on the summit, which included Rock Kestrel, White-necked Raven and Greater-striped Swallow. On the way down I was almost harassed by a flock of Cape Siskins, which seemed to be everywhere. Even a Rockjumper showed up to see what all the fuss was about!
I made it back to the tent without having to dig out my torch, whipped up some soup and instant noodles, and was soon asleep to the flapping of my unpegged tent.
The next morning was another bright and sunny one, so I conducted a couple of counts that scored Victorin’s Warbler and Rockjumpers, before packing up camp and heading down the mountain. I chose a different route, down a kloof that had not seen fire for a while, and the going was tough through thick vegetation. But I was down to George’s farm by lunch time, and able to wonder a bit further down the road to set up camp at the base of the Witteberge (White Mountains). 
After a much needed nap, it was back on the bicycle and up the Witteberge. The intervening Renosterveld that dominates the shale valleys between the mountains was very quiet. The vegetation was refreshingly different in a way, and I saw my first mouse-pollinated Proteas. Needless to say, I did not record any Cape Sugarbirds, and although the habitat looked promising for Rockjumpers, I was not willing to ascend another mountain just yet to find out.
13 March was always going to be a transit day – the long journey through desolate dry landscapes of the Karoo to Anysberg. I clocked up 92km on dusty roads that took me has felt like some of the most remote countryside so far. Vehicles and farmsteads were few and far between. One friendly farmer rewarded my efforts with some fresh and juicy peaches, while another refilled my rapidly depleted water bottles with iced water. I lunched in the shade of some Acacias close to a windmill, where the resulting water attracted an endless stream of birds, mostly White-throated Canary, but Namaqua Dove, Bar-throated Apalis and Cape Bulbul and Cape Robin-Chat all came down to drink too.
After a slightly unexpected 17km from the east gate (which I had been expected to be staffed) to the Anysberg office, I was able to take a much needed swim in their converted reservoir, before catching up on the diary. Apparently the road through the reserve from east to west is a public road – so you can drive through the nature reserve and look at Gemsbok without actually having to pay an entrance fee!
The manager, Marius, offered advice on the route. I had to deal with the usual concerns about the route being very rough, very steep, very long etc. However, this time the rocky road did do some damage when a loose rock broke my derailleur hanger. Thankfully I had a spare, but repairs ate into survey time. Well, an excuse to head back down the rocky hill to the camp early and explore some of the other attractions that the reserve has to offer, which includes horse riding and canoeing.
Now – déjà vu – back in Ladismith (at a more affordable and spacious BnB – Le Roux’s). Back into the world of internet and cell-phones and a lot of catching up to do with the world. Next stops - Langeberge.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...