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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