Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Surveying the Cederberg

Surviving the Easter Hellidays was fun. On getting to Ceres, exhausted from that 120km cycle and Michells Pass, I followed the signs to the campsite. On arrival I could hardly move my legs and had to rest outside the reception area, attracting the amiable attention of the Eastern Cape security lady. However, the reception was a bit colder – R166 a night with space only for that night (I wished to stay for two), but on top of that I would have to pay a R350 ‘vandalism’ deposit, which would only be returned to my account after departure. I decided I could not stay on those conditions – no way could I follow up should that deposit not arrive and since I would have to seek somewhere else to stay anyway I may as well do that straight away. Petervale Campsite had a more friendly R60 per person policy and was a further 10km out of town, so I cycled through the early evening to get there in the dark.  It would be home for 3 nights.

I rested my legs the next day and caught up on internet before surveying a few points on the Michell’s Pass in the afternoon, as well as making the most of the chance to do some shopping before everything closed for the weekend.

On Easter Friday I ventured north to the start of the Gydo Pass and the Christie Prins hiking trail, the only one the information bureau could give me information on. It seems a pity that the surrounding mountains are all CapeNature owned, but that there is no tourism infrastructure in them. Anyway. Seems like a while since the Christie Prins has been hiked – the trail is quite overgrown and I had to spend a fair amount of time looking for the rock beacons.

The trail off the mountain follows the old Gydo Pass. At one section the old wooden bridge has burnt down, leaving a very intimidating gorge to be navigated. That may have been the highlight of the walk – apart from the odd stray Cape Sugarbird, birdlife was scarce.

In the afternoon I meandered through pine infested hills behind the campsite to a lovely waterfall. Despite passing through boulder strewn landscapes that I thought must hold a Cape Rockjumper or Ground Woodpecker, only Cape Siskin made it onto the list as anything out of the ordinary.

The nice thing about being close to civilisation and having internet coverage was that I could access internet and check weather. Yr.no showed a big, dark blue blob moving in across the ocean. It was clearly going to rain the following day. My options were to sit it out all day in my tent, or move north. I decided I’d had enough of the company of the happy families around me and packed camp to head north.

Gydo Pass was the least of my challenges. On reaching the Koue Bokkeveld (translated as ‘Cold buck fields’), the light rain became more and more heavy. Eventually I had to take cover in a bus shelter to wait for the worst of it to pass. Sitting there, cold and wet, I eventually had to dig out all my warm clothes in order to stop shivering.
Where there's a rainbow, there's rain

Then onwards it was to the village of Op-die-Berg (‘on the mountain’). I followed signs to a restaurant, as I’d been fantasizing about a nice big hot cup of coffee for a while. Turns out the restaurant also had rooms at an affordable rate and with more cold rain sweeping in over the hills, I needed little persuasion that I deserved a bit of luxury. So it was that Oppiberg was my sanctuary for the next two nights as the cold front worked its way through the mountains and Easter Sunday was an enforced day of rest spent watching far too many movies on television.

Easter Monday dawned cold but clear- time to get back on the bike and catch up on some point counts. The northern reaches of the Skurweberge finally revealed Ground Woodpecker and Cape Rockjumper, and even more special, a pair of Protea Seedeaters. For the first time I actually watched Seedeaters eating Protea seeds – I’ve only seen them eat Psoralea and Kiggeleria seeds before.

My afternoon was spent navigating the labyrinth of fanstastic rock formations that lead to the Heiveld Arch, one of the Cederberg’s big attractions. This is accessed from Houdenbek farm, who charge a R35 entrance fee.

Alien rock formations at Houdenbek

Heiveld Arch - much more affordable than the Wolfberg Arch

Then onwards and northwards the road continued. I had planned to head to Kleinveld campsite, but nights arrive quicker now as winter approaches, so I ended up camping amongst the proteas on the side of the road.
Just as well – on arriving at the farm at the entrance road to Kleinveld, I was greated by a Great Dane and two sheepdogs, one of which bit my ankle. Not deterred I entered the farmhouse, only to learn that this campsite is in fact managed by Mount Ceder Lodge – a fancy establishment 15km further north. The farmer kindly phoned them on my behalf, where I learnt that the asking price for the sites was now R300, although they were not actually being serviced. This was R150 more than the price I had been quoted the day before – my plan being to arrive and negotiate a ‘normal’ one person price. Too often, prices are ‘per site’ which is fine if you are 4 people, but ridiculous if travelling alone.

Sneeukop at Sunrise. There are 2 Sneeukops in the greater Cederberg, this is the southern one in the Skurweberge.

The scenery along the road to Mount Ceder is stunning, as one navigates the Blinkberg Pass back down from the Koue Bokkeveld and into Karoo vegetation at about 500m. I decided to stop in at Mount Ceder to see if I could explain what I was doing to a human, but only the receptionist I had previously spoken to was around. So I thought I’d have lunch; enquired as to what was suitable for someone very hungy; was indicated the lasagna (most expensive item on the menu); which ended up being a 10x10cm inadequate square. By the way, don't expect to see the Clanwilliam Cedar trees here, as the lodge is situated in Karoo veld and while the trees are found at altitudes over 1000m.

Unable to negotiate a reduced price, I had to press on – pushing bike and trailer up the Grootrivier Pass and then freewheeling down to Cederberg Oasis, which thankfully, did live up to its name.  Gerrit was a very amenable host, and at R45 a night it was a pleasure to share a campsite with only a small flock of sheep, some guineafowl and a Springbok.

My first excursion from Cederberg Oasis was south and back up the Grootrivier Pass. Here the ‘Rooicederberg’ lies to the east and ‘proper’ Cederberg lies to the West. The Rooicederberg, consisting of layers of shale and Table Mountain Sandstone rock formations, was covered in spiny and succulent plants typical of the Karoo, while the Cederberg slopes consisted of dry Fynbos characterised by lots of hardy Restios and Phylica. Most of the survey consisted of recording Karoo Scrub-Robins and Cape Buntings, with the odd White-backed Mousebird. Highlight of the survey was stumbling across a rock with the clearest impressions of shells – fossils from a bygone era when all this area was underwater.

Honey bee collecting sap from a Karooid plant
Heading back down to the road I came across bees chewing the stems of a plant. It drove home that there is almost nothing in flower in this winter rainfall region at the end of summer, so the bees must be very desperate.

My second excursion was north and then west, to Kromrivier and Truitjieskraal. Gerrie from Oasis gave me some good tips on the Truitjieskraal archaeological site in the neighbouring Matjiesrivier Nature Reserve. Permits, at R30, can be obtained from most of the tourist camps in the area. The day started well, with a sighting of an African Wildcat at the first point count. The survey took me mostly through dry Fynbos towards Kromrivier, which is another Stewardship Nature Reserve, with a large campsite and affordable café where I brunched on a toasted sandwich and coffee. Then it was on to Truitjieskraal.

Truitjieskraal is another of these incredible collections of unbelievable rock formations. Some of the caves contain rock art from the San or Bushmen who used to inhabit these mountains from as much as 8000 years ago up until fairly recently. But for me it is the caves, hollows, twisted shapes, arches and other bizarre rock shapes that have all been scoured out by the wind that really captured the imagination.
Not a rock, although it might be a rock lizard

Troll face rock

Rock art

View from one of the caves

Excursion number 3 on Friday the13th was north again, testing a small section of the road to Wuppertaal and then up to the very famous Stadsaal section of the Matjiesrivier Nature Reserve. There are some very famous San paintings of a herd of elephant in a circle, adjacent to a group of human figures – which could be interpreted as either an audience or hunters – except that none appear to hold any weapons. These paintings are amongst the clearest I have ever seen of any rock art – so clear that my first impression was that they must be fake or replicas. Apparently not!

Next stop:  the Stadsaal caves – translated from Afrikaans this means City Hall caves. These are wind scoured caves and the process of erosion can be seen from cavelets, to pillars, to caves, and then collapsed piles of rock. Rock art of a different kind catches the attention in the main cave – graffiti that goes back to 1881. The names record the visits by two apartheid era state presidents too.

The famous Stadsaal Elephant frieze

At least olden day graffitti is neat and legible.
I decided to lunch overlooking the southern slopes towards Truitjieskraal. There seemed to be a bit of bird activity around so I played Rockjumper and Ground Woodpecker calls – two species I would expect to find in such rocky terrain. I let the recording overplay, and the next call in the sequence was Protea Seedeater. Imagine my surprise when next thing I noticed was a solitary Protea Seedeater sitting on a rock 16 meters from me! It flew into a bush even closer, allowing me to record its jumbled mixture of notes and take a few photographs. What a nice surprise.
Fairy Flycatcher

Familiar Chat

Protea Seedeater

In the meantime, Chris had arrived at the Oasis, so it was a very rapid dismantling of the camp as for my next survey I had my eye on the Wolfberg Cracks and Arch. These are most accessible from Sandrif Campsite, managed by the Dwarsrivier Estate. I had presumed that if we stayed there, then access to the hiking trails would be included in the price, but I was mistaken. It is R50 extra to go to the Cracks, and R100 to go to the arch. While my first impression was ‘This is extortion’ I was unaware that these have become ‘must do’ hikes. The campsite was nearly full by that Friday evening, and the following day perhaps 20 learners and at least 20 adults made their way up the mountain to the cracks, and some onwards to the Arch (an 8 hour round trip). So, very lucky for the Nieuwoldt family that owns the land there, and perhaps the entrance charge is a way to reduce pressure on one of the main attractions in the Cederberg.

One benefit for me is that with all this tourist traffic up and down the mountain, a local family of Cape Rockjumpers has become very habituated to the presence of people. On my way back down the hill after the survey I stopped to chat with some rock-climbers heading up. I explained what I was doing and that I had seen a Rockjumper not far off, when suddenly noticed that a Rockjumper was only meters behind the people I was talking to!

When the rock-climbers moved off, that left me free to pursue the rock-jumper! Never before have I been so close to this iconic bird, which I was able to observe and photograph at leisure as he foraged his way across the boulder strewn hillside.
A splendid male Cape Rockjumper - uncropped image!
having a stretch

Proud master of the mountains

Rockjumper with Rockclimber
Normally the star of the show, this Orange-breasted Sunbird had to settle for second place -  here seen feeding on a Protea nitida (Waboom)

While I had hoped to survey some more of the area in the afternoon along the camp’s mountain bike trail network, a strong wind and threatening weather made bird-spotting a challenge. As such, I simply explored the area a bit more, making sure I wasn’t missing any Ground Woodpeckers, and just getting a feeling for a bit more of the Cederberg Fynbos. On the way back to the camp, I stopped off at another famous rock formation – Lot’s wife.
I can't believe it's not a statue! The Lot's wife rock formation at Sanddrif.

The reason Chris had joined me was that I had requested help to survey the 4x4 section of the road north to Wuppertaal. The plan was I cycle and Chris takes equipment and trailer, but with the weather looking iffy we loaded up the bike and headed north all together by vehicle. However, it soon cleared up leaving only a stiff, cold breeze to deal with. Surveying 10 kilometers by vehicle was a relative doddle compared to most of the survey to date!

While we had been planning to restock supplies at Wuppertaal, expecting anything to be open in a Mission town on a Sunday is asking for a miracle. Not even the local restaurant was open. As such, we had to leave this pretty little town with thatched cottages and white-washed walls and head on to the next destination for the survey –Heuningvlei. This is a hamlet on the Cederberg Heritage Trail that borders the Krakadouw Peaks and Pass, the northernmost section of the Cederbery. We checked into a great value for money self-catering unit run by a local couple – who were very helpful and accommodating. I used the rest of the day to survey south along a valley from Heuningvlei, very productively, recording a flock of 20 Cape Siskins as well as Protea Seedeater. This means that this northeastern section of the Cederberg has resulted in as many Protea Seedeater sightings as the rest of the survey combined!

And they didn’t stop on the Krakadouw Pass the next day either, which saw only the second clean sweep of all endemics in one survey for a day, with one count recording five out of six endemics – only Victorin’s Warbler escaping my equivalent of a Royal Flush. The 10km Krakadouw hike took me from moist Fynbos at 1100m with flowering Protea nitida, through a slither of Afromontane forest with gnarly Yellowwood trees, in the footsteps of a leopard to dry Fynbos at just 200m above sea level. Here I met up with Chris again, who had driven around to the western edge of the Cederberg via the Pakhuis Pass and the small town of Clanwilliam. Although the windscreen had been frosted in the morning, that evening we sat around in shorts and t-shirts slapping the occasional mosquito as we watched Venus setting into an ember sky.    

Blog updated from Algeria - the CapeNature campsite, not the country.  


  1. Love your blog Alan, and what an adventure you are having on your quest. Looking forward to reading the rest. Good Luck.

  2. I read your blog in Google Reader, as I find the white on black heavy going. VERY glad you have a full feed and I can read with delight. We had resident protea seedeaters on our yellow pincushions in the old Camps Bay garden. And just once, walking on the Pipe Track, we saw a rockjumper. Beautiful birds, all of them!


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