Friday, 8 March 2013

Camdeboo National Park

Camdeboo National Park (formerly the Karoo Nature Reserve) is all about the scenery and the birds. Most of the mammals on the parks checklist can be seen elsewhere, and only the Buffalo represents the big 5. The park is wrapped around the Karoo town of Graaf Reinet.

We arrived in Graaf Reinet after visiting the charming town of Nieu Bethesda, which is undergoing an artistic revival and has transformed from a back-end-of nowhere ghost-town to to a cultural and paleo-historical centre, most of this thanks to the amazing backyard of Miss Helen's Owl House. Best described as a heart-broken eccentric, this dame gave meaning to her life by creating a fantasy world of stone figures from cement and broken glass, before finally ending her life when her eye-sight started to fail. As the centre is not really for childen (due to large carpets of broken glass in some sections), I was put on guard duty outside with Elena, while Anja documented the figurines in the backyard.

I very much enjoyed the subsequent visit to the Kitching Dinosaur Museum, which included the usual educational panels accompanied by unpronounceable dinosaur names, but also a walk into the nearby river bed which is made of rock over 250 millions years old – in which can be seen fossils of the creatures that inhabited the earth back then.

We then turned our backs to Compassberg (the highest free standing mountain in the Eastern Cape) and headed to Graaf Reinet, where we arrived in a bit of a wind-storm that was showering the town, well, with litter. Not too nice. While the town is described in SANParks literature as “..a jewel within the bend of the Sunday's River” there has obviously been a burglary lately and someone's made off with the treasure. The truth is that the town is simply becoming swamped by a growing population, with few employment opportunities.

While there are many accommodation options in the town, including a Municipal campsite, we headed for the 'rustic' Nqweba campsite of the park itself. The facilities are modern, and include a kitchen and new bathrooms, and the sites are private, but better suited to caravans than tents. However, the sounds of nature have a bit of a job competing with the sounds of the nearby N9 and the very busy local airstrip. One may well sleep more peacefully in the town itself, and since the park is wrapped around the town, one would be centrally based too.

After setting up our tent on arrival we headed out for a late afternoon explore of the 'game-viewing section'. Our first stop was the bird hide, which to our disappointment we found offered almost no view as the record high levels of the Nqweba dam combined with the eutrophic waters of they Sunday's River which feeds it have created ideal growing conditions for Phragmites reeds. These now form a wall around the hide, although about a 25m section has been cleared by the parks to create a bit of a view. Several other viewpoints around the dam suffer the same condition. However, the one that does offer a reed-free view of the dam was an avian bonanza, which included varous ducks, Black-winged Stilts, Greenshank, Ruff, Avocet, Fish Eagle, Spoonbill and Kittlitz's Plover but to name a few.

Our first full day was a busy one. We started with a game drive that resulted in fantastic sightings of Karoo Korhaan, Ludwig's Bustard, Amur Falcon and Lanner Falcon. Then it was up the mountain to the Crag Lizard Hiking Trail and the Valley of Desolation. The Valley of Desolation is one of those sexy names that doesn't really describe the vibrant scenery one traverses to the dolomite ridges that are home to Verreaux's Eagle and Pale-winged Starlings. The views are truly magnificent, and thirsty for more the Jimney easily ascended the nearby grade-3 Koedoeskloof 4x4 trail to reward us with more. By the time we were down there was still enough time for some campsite birding and a braai.

On day 2 we had a relaxed start before navigating the 'eek! has that man got a gun' streets of Graaf Reinett to the seldom explored Driekoppe 4x4 trail. Game here was not quite as relaxed as those sections of the park that see a lot of game-drive traffic, but the scenery was rewarding, as was the peace and quiet.

We navigated the maze of back streets of the town to find the entrance gate to the Eerstefontein day walk. But by this time temperatures were high, and Elena was looking a bit heavy for a 5km stroll (the shortest walk option), so we returned to the empty picnic site in the game viewing area for a relaxed lunch instead.

Each South African National Park provides the visitor upon arrival with a colourful map which includes a checklist of the main mammals and the odd bird or reptile. By the afternoon we had checked off most of the mammals, including Buffalo, and found ourselves in the odd position of driving around searching for Steenbok, Dassie and Klipspringer. There is something frustrating about having unticked check-boxes! These ridiculously common species eluded us on this visit.

But, having explored most of the park to our satisfaction, it was time to move on to our next destination – Karoo National Park next to the town of Beaufort West.

The following are a selection of choice bird shots – scenery will follow in a subsequent post.

Black-shouldered Kite

Black-shouldered Kite on a windmill

Amur Falcon

Jackal Buzzard landing on an Acacia karoo thorn tree

Blacksmith Lapwing

Karoo Korhaan

Female Lesser Kestrel

If in doubt, its probably a Steppe Buzzard

Rock Monitor Lizard

White-bellied Korhaan (actually from the last day at Mountain Zebra National Park)

Jackal Buzzard

Black-headed Heron

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