Friday, 23 March 2012

Storks Stalk Tractor

My refuge for the 18th and 19th of March was Wildcliff Private Nature Reserve. Jeannine McManus, who manages the establishment, kindly lent me use of all facilities – including a much needed refreshing of my clothes and towel in a real washing machine. Since George the best I’d been able to do to clean my clothes was rinse the sweat out in the shower.

My survey day took me through a Fynbos Forest – with Proteas and Leucadendrons growing over 5 meters high, a clear indication I’ve reached the higher rainfall regions of the Western Cape. Several counts were conducted in alleyways of thick vegetation, with Sugarbirds and Sunbirds flying above me. The survey line took me over the little used Gysmanshoek Pass, and into drier north facing slopes with low vegetation, which are generally bird scarce compared to the southern slopes.

The afternoon I was able to make use of a good internet connection to reconnect with friends across the globe – I have to admit I am a fan of Facebook. And while most days I talk to Anja, it never seems to be for quite long enough – trying to stay updated with all the mischief daughter gets up to and the general sagas that involve day to day life on the remote reserve. As such a nice long telephone chat was very welcome.

The next morning I conducted two points on my way to my next stop – Grootvadersbosch and Boosmansbos Nature Reserve. While only 35 km away, one road on the map is marked on the Slingsby Map of the Garden Route as Very Steep. And it was a bit of an endless grind in some hot weather over the seemingly innocent and gentle foothills of the Langeberg. Generally, these now have very little Fynbos, either burnt or ploughed up to create grazing conditions for cattle – which are plentiful.

The highlight of the cycle, besides my peppermint chocolate bar, was a flock of around 26 White Storks which were actively following a tractor with a shallow plough. I’ve never seen this behaviour by storks before – but I have not spent that much time in the Overberg, which has now become a stronghold for this species that of course spends our winters in Europe. The scene did remind me of flocks of seagulls which regularly follow tractors in the rural parts of Great Britain.

Tractor with Stork escourt

I arrived at GVB early enough to set up camp, rest, and then conduct an afternoon survey of the foothills in the shadow of Boosmansbos. Victorin’s Warbler are unaccountably abundant here, while flowering Erica versicolor explained several close encounters with Southern Double Collared Sunbirds.

During the evening, temperatures dropped. I had set my alarm for 6am in order to pack camp and start the big hike into the Wilderness Area. However, heavy mist rolled around the campsite and it did not look like a good day for tackling a big hike. The circular route is 27km long. So I snuggled up back into my sleeping bag and waited for conditions to clear, which they did around midday. Since it takes around 7 hours for the 14km hike to the Helderfontein overnight hut, I knew I was cutting it fine time-wise and set a fast pace, interrupted only on a few occasions to record birds.

White-eyes and Southern Double Collared Sunbirds gave way to Orange-breasted Sunbirds and the occasional flock of Yellow Bishops foraging on Restio seeds. White-necked Ravens and Red-winged Starlings called from distant cliffs as I navigated the old jeep track ever upwards. The sight of the hut was very welcome when finally I did crest the first of the mountain ridges. Having camped here previously (see post on Old Man’s Bush and Grumpy Man’s Forest), I knew roughly what to expect. However, now the slopes were covered with prolifically flowering Protea aurea or punctata, and the nectarivores were feasting.

Conditions in the hut had not improved, and I delicately cleared a space between rat droppings and cockroaches for my sleeping mat and camp stove. Then, as per most nights, exhaustion overtook me and I was soon fast asleep. Eventually the scampering of the nocturnal inhabitants of the hut awoke me, and a return to dream worlds slipped ever further from my active imagination.

‘Surely it must be 5am?’ I thought to myself as I fumbled amongst my possessions for my phone aka watch and alarm clock. Nope. 2am.

I decided to have a slow Milo and breakfast. Then, quite awake, I packed up and by the light of my headlamp decided to move on. The early start meant I could make an attempt on the highest peak in this section of the Langeberg – Hoogberg (High Mountain) at 1638m.

 I dawdled in the dark past the pink platters of sweet nectar on offer from the Proteas. This is quite drinkable in flowers that have just opened and where the Sugarbirds have not gotten there first. Two and a half hours later I was on top of the mountain, enjoying one of those views that used to be the preserve of the mountaineers of old, but are which are now accessible to anyone on an overnight flight – the dawn breaking above the clouds. I endured biting winds for an hour, while clouds moved in an endless tide around my mountain island, like silent waves crashing across candy floss shores.

Cricket Love: if you're gonna do it, do it on a Strawberry Everlasting

Dawn from Hoogberg
Scorpion Love: Lets Dance (male to the left, female to the right)

Then back to work – with Ground Woodpeckers and distant Rockjumpers responding to my early morning wake up call, before I left the rocky high ground and plummeted back into clouds and rejoined the Proteas, where at one stage over ten curious male Orange-breasted Sunbirds fluttered around my head like glittering fairies in the underworld.

Protea Fairies: Two of the ten or so Orange-breasted Sunbirds amongst the gloom of the Protea  forest

It’s amazing how fast time flies when trying to spot Rockjumpers among the rocks, or distinguish a dead Protea flower head from something that might be feathered. I had promised to give a talk to the rangers at the office in the afternoon, and by the time 8km stood on my GPS, it was 11:30 and I still had a way to go as the side trip up the mountain would easily have added 5km to the total journey. So it was 2 hours of hard and solid hiking to get back down to the office by 2pm – where I discovered, to my secret delight, that everyone had gone for a two day training course. I collapsed into my tent – exhausted again.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

the beauties of Sleeping Beauty

16 March. What a day. I’d caught the early morning weather forecast on the 2-channel TV at the BnB and it did not look good: strong southwesters and a cold front, coupled with 60% chance of showers. I hurried to get ready and leave, to beat the wind, which always picks up a bit later in the morning. So the first 40km of the 70km ride to the Old Toll House (OuTol) on Garcia Pass was straight forward enough, but then the wind picked up quickly. It felt like there was far more south in that south-wester as my journey headed almost due south on the road to Riversdale. Eventually I was battling headwinds gusting over 20km/h. Finally I reached Fynbos, and was relieved that I had an excuse to start some survey points, to tackle the journey in one kilometre jumps. Despite the wind, but perhaps because of the passing rain, birdlife was fairly active.
I reached the OuTol just after midday in time for lunch. I was disappointed to see that I would need to continue to RIversdale, an extra 40km round trip in order to get a camp permit. Still, time and weather seemed to be on my side – at least it was not raining despite the dark clouds, and while I would have a headwind to Riversdale, the journey is mostly downhill, and so I would have a tail wind for the journey back. So I set off, to the accompanying racket of motorbikes of all shapes and sizes that had been passing me all day on some club outride to Mosselbay. Dark clouds billowed over the small town of Riversdal, and I hoped it was just a passing squall. No such luck. After asking around, I eventually found the municipal campsite that issues the access permit for the Tol House and access to the surrounding area – notably the path to the summit of Sleeping Beauty. The price is ridiculously cheap – R10 per person per night. Of course, there are no facilities apart from a pit toilet and there is no running water – unless you count the mountain spring that is the source of water.
It was while obtaining my permits that I made my worst decision of the day – I was offered keys to the Old Toll House – but since I did not fancy a second trip into RIversdal to return them (even though my onward journey would take me close to the town) I declined stating I would simply use my tent, as the rain at this stage still seemed light and passing. However, as I slogged back up into the Langeberge, it became heavier and heavier. On getting back to OuTol, having clocked up the most mileage for a single day in the survey so far – 111km, I had to pitch my tent in driving rain and everything was getting wet. At least it saved me a shower.
So here, I sit, surrounded by puddles, while rain sprays my tent and winds test the strength of the old Oak trees around me.
17 March. The rain subsided during the night, while the wind continued to howl up the pass. I was unsure what sort of day it would be. Turned out, it was cold, with the first count of the day scoring 10 degrees on the thermometer. The destination for the day was the top of Sleeping Beauty. The trail wound its way up through thick Fynbos, exploding with Orange-breasted Sunbirds and Cape Sugarbirds feeding on a mixture of protea species.
 I had been here a few months earlier with Di Turner and the Outramps CREW group – and now it’s a different world – most of the profusion of flowers that had turned out to enjoy the spring had by now set to seed or faded into obscurity. The bright yellow hue of the Leucadendrons (conebushes) had subsided into an innocuous green. Towards of the top of Sleeping Beauty (1338m) a variety of Erica species still bloomed and augmented the clear views across the dappled landscapes in all directions. In case you were thinking of taking your Bible up the top of the mountain, don’t bother – there is already one up there in a waterproof box, along with ten stones bearing the ten commandments (perhaps just a reminder in case you wanted to commit adultery or murder anyone while you were up there).
By the time I was back down, it was getting on in the day – I had been suitably distracted by curious Orange-breasted Sunbirds which came to greet me, and frustrated by shy Cape Sugarbirds. After a late lunch or early dinner I headed back onto the road for a few more counts. Just as I had completed the first one, a Honey Badger crossed the road not far from me. That was a treat – something a bit different from the Klipspringers and Dassies, the usual mountain denizens.  But soon my legs could not take anymore, and my body was begging for some rest.

18 March. An almost inconspicuous breeze brought the morning’s temperature to 6 degrees above freezing, so fingers were thankful to be wrapped around a warm up of Nescafe coffee, even if my tastebuds were a bit disappointed in my early morning brew. The early morning took me up a short section of Kristalkloof, so named for the crystal clear water of the valley’s stream. Most other streams in the area are reddish in colour telling of their origins in the peat layers in the hills. For the first time since the Kammanassie Striped Flufftails responded to the calls I played to the hills.
I made Riversdale for lunch. Here I had to choose between the longer but easier riding of the N2, or the back routes via the Korente Dam, to my next destination – Wildcliff Nature Reserve. The distant jackhammer noise of Harley-Davidson’s persuaded me the back route would be the more peaceful option. While pushing my bike up yet another steep hill, I wondered if I’d made the right choice, but I did have the gravel roads all to myself and the occasional confused Cape Francolin. So I pushed on in the shadows of the Sleeping Beauty, which no kiss of mine could awake.

Can you tell why this mountain is called Sleeping Beauty?

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.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Come Rain or Shine - but mostly shine

23 Feb. 12
Today I set off early to get up the Meiringspoort. The ride was a bit scary – a bit too much traffic on a very narrow road with no yellow line, but lined instead with a low rock wall. So I stopped only where it seemed safe to do so. The Acacia thicket that lines the river means there are a large variety of birds. At Herrie’s Klip I was visited by a Cape Rock Thrush with a ring! The end of the ride came fairly quickly - I conducted my last count at the final rest-stop (those rest-stops are quite luxurious!), and the count featured several Karoo species, including Mountain Wheatear, Acacia Pied Barbet, White-backed Mousebird and Karoo Chat.
I stopped for supplies at Klaarstroom, which must be one of South Africa’s prettiest dorpies. Then it was 24 + 10 + 4 kilometers to my launch point for the survey of the northern side of the Swartberg. If you are wondering what the numbers are for – it was 24 kilometers as signposted to my destination, 10 kilometers extra as I missed the turn off (the sign on the gate is not what the previous signpost indicates), plus an extra 4 kilometers on private land to the campsite.
24 February was a good day. I gave my sister a passing thought, as it was her birthday, and started my sweaty climb up to Blesberg. The Fynbos starts at about 1000 meters, and it is clear there were Protea in the past. Most of the vegetation was probably 2-3 years old. As such, it was mostly dominated by grass and restios. However, in between there were wetlands with large numbers of red-hot pockers in flower (Knifophia) and these were attracting all sorts of attention from a variety of birds. Protea seedeaters were at a drinking spot, Rockjumpers on a ridge, and Cape Siskins bounced through the sky. No Cape Sugarbirds though. As I crested the ridge at about 2000m, my first view was that of the Kammanassie – with smoke billowing from Mannetjiesberg! So all that beautiful Fynbos I had been surveying only a few days ago where I took the previous postings photos of Orange-breasted Sunbird and Karoo Prinia will now be ashes. The billowing smoke, together with the white north facing slopes (indications of young vegetation) were a stark reminder that fire is one of the biggest threats to the biome. Too frequent fires means the Proteas do not have time to recover and seed. Ideal burn time has been stated to be about every 15 years, but average burn time across the region is now six. Bad news.
Female Malachite Sunbird

Female Orange-breasted Sunbird

Yellow Bishop

Spike-heeled Lark

 25 February – The previous night I had fallen asleep to the sound of the wind in the poplars. A south-westerly wind was not what I needed for the day’s cycle, heading west to Prince Albert. To beat the wind (which picks up in the afternoon) and the Karoo summer heat, I decided to wake the Hadedas up early and leave in the cool dawn. Generally, it was a pleasant ride back to Klaarstroom (along a beautifully, freshly graded road) and on to Prince Albert through Prince Albert’s valley. I looked hard for a place to stop for a coke and chocolate break, but all that was on offer was wine and olive-oil tasting.
I added a White-throated Canary to my roadkill list, arriving in Prince Albert in time for lunch, but not in time to get to the supermarket, which closes early on Saturdays. Still, it was nice to have warm cooked lunch with fresh salad mmmm. All in all Prince Albert is a thriving Karoo village, very popular with tourists. A very popular drive is from Oudtshoorn over the magnificent Swartberg Pass. This has to rate as one of South Africa’s most beautiful passes.
I decided against putting up the tent, and instead slept under stars - partly because the weather was mild and the stars as bright as they can get, but also to have one less thing to pack in the early morning. No scorpions kept me company, although I did have a very close encounter with a gerbil. So close I could see he was a male.
26 February – Swartberg Pass! Wow was that hard work. Luckily, stopping to survey birds every kilometre made it a little bit easier, so after 10 kilometers I was on top of Teeberg – pretty much in time for tea! A few kilometres later I arrived at the Old Tol House. This is one of the mountain huts of the Swartberg trail, currently administered as a concession by the Hope Foundation (run by Jan Bester). He kindly let me camp there. Later in the afternoon I surveyed the track to Bothashoek Hut along a contour track through the mountains.  Despite the area being a ‘spot’ for Rockjumpers, I did not record one all day, although patches of flowering Protea punctata and Protea repens were well populated with Cape Sugarbirds.  
27 February. Just for ‘The Hell’ of it I decided that after my survey line down the Otto Du Plessis road to Gamkakloof, I’d cycle the rest of the way to see what the hype is about. This must be one of South Africa’s most popular 4x4 destinations and has been featured by every outdoor and travel magazine at least twice. I am sure that most of it is in the name – after all, people like to say they’ve been to Hell and back. I cycled only as far as the steep drop down to the reserve campsite, over 30 kilometers of bumpy, corrugated and windy road. Then I decided to turn back and spend some of the heat of the day at a cool stream, as temperatures were entering the forties. As I did not have access to a shower at the camp, I decided to have a swim in the stream, where I was nibbled by a shoal of friendly Red-finned Minnow. Flocks of Cape White-eye were also gathering in order to drink. And I was surprised to see a Protea Seedeater, as the stream was at 650m, well below the last Fynbos I had seen at over 1000m.
As perhaps with life, it is easier to get to Hell than it is to get out! By 3pm it was still 38 degrees in the shade, but I had a long way to go to get back, including some survey points in between. A few passing vehicles offered encouragement as I slogged up the steep road back to the top of the mountains.
My trip to Hell and back -71 kilometers.
28 February – I decided it was time to take a break from the bicycle, and headed for the high hills where roads can’t go. The 7.5km circular walk from Ou Tol was very rewarding, with several Cape Rockjumper sightings. To the west I could see that the fire on the Kammanassie mountains was still burning.
With the long trip to Oudtshoorn at the back of my mind, the windy afternoon seemed like a good time to start doing some data entry. All was going well until a massive gust of wind scattered data sheets across the hillside. It took a while to gather those up and sort them out!
29 February - One month down, two to go. Kilometers on the clock – over 1000. Revised total distance for the survey – 3000km. Today I headed to Oudtshoorn early when my shivering pen could no longer write on my sodden data sheet due to the cold mist covering the mountains.

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