Saturday, 28 November 2015

Kammanassie: Buttonquail Jackpot

Like all good 4x4 expeditions, the trip to the Kammanassie Nature Reserve got off to a rocky start. I’d damaged the 4x4 transmission on my Suzuki Jimney the previous week’s expedition which meant that the car was out of action. You’ll not get into the Kammanassie mountains without a 4x4, so we’re very greatful to Chris Lee for the loan of his Toyota Landcruiser for this week’s survey.

The Kammanassie are a rugged, fynbos dominated mountain-island which emerges dramatically from the surrounding seas of the Klein Karoo. The mountains are home to several endemic plant species as well as the Kammanassie Blue Butterfly. But is it also home to our elusive fynbos endemic, the Hottentot Buttonquail?

Two years previously I’d been mist-netting sugarbirds on the western slopes of the Kammanassie when I’d heard Striped Flufftail, which I’d then been lucky enough to see and photograph. During the night when I’d recorded the hoots of the resident flufftail, on one evening I’d heard in the background some deeper hoots. I was not sure if that was another flufftail, or perhaps a buttonquail.  So on Monday the survey started where I’d heard that call two years previously.

On Monday morning I met up with volunteers Chrissie Cloete and Jenny Angoh in the backwater town of Uniondale. Chrissie had helped pioneer the protocol as an assistant on some of the very first buttonquail surveys at Blue Hill earlier in the year. I was very grateful to her for volunteering her time, which she could also easily give to her husband Daniel, a PhD student at the Fitz, or to her artwork. Jenny, our first ever volunteer from Mauritius, is a Conservation Biology masters student at the Fitz doing seed-set experiments on Ericas.

By lunchtime we’d worked our way up out of the succulent karoo plains to the foothills of Kammanassieberg. However, the site normally used for camping no longer had a water supply. Furthermore, it was clear that a large fire had swept through the shrublands of Protea eximia to the west were I was also hoping to collect more blood samples for the Cape Sugarbird database. Feeling a bit lost and homeless, our first mission would be to find somewhere on the near vertical mountain side where we could pitch our tents that also had a reliable water supply. We navigated an ancient, narrow, overgrown, Bosbou-road cut into the mountain side with a sheer drop into a deep gorge on our right hand side, skirting fallen boulders with our hearts in our mouths. I was really wondering what would happen if we came to a slip in the road… there was no way I would be able to turn around and it would be a long and scary reverse to safety.

Luckily we found a wide cutting in the road where a stone bridge had been built over a crystal-cold mountain stream. Deep in a valley, it was sheltered, had water, space for our tents and was also wide enough to turn the unwieldy landcruiser around. More importantly, some Buchu trees provided shade and shelter from the burning mid-day sun.

Later in the afternoon, once the tents were up, we headed higher into the mountains to conduct our first playback experiments to see if we could lure out the elusive buttonquail. At 7pm, with the sun caressing the Outeniqua mountains to our south in a symphony of orange and pastel colours, it was time to head home. As the last sunset photos were being snapped, from the mountain slopes I heard some hooting. Was it a buttonquail? I jumped out of the cruiser and dashed back up the slope, playing the call. But there was no response. Skipping over to the call of Striped Flufftail, I gave that a spin on our playback system, and not too far away on the soggy, grassy slopes, an answering rattle was heard. Well, we’d have to settle for that as second prize for the day, with first prize going to Jenny for an awesome Mauritian stir-fry inspired dinner.

The Victorin’s Warblers were awake before we were out of our tents at 5am on Tuesday morning. The plan was to rendezvous with the Kammanassie rangers Johnny and Jonas at 7am to start flush surveys of some targeted sites on the Platberg plateau. At 7.30 am, after more unsuccessful playback experiments, and a distinct lack of our survey partners arriving, we received the news that more vehicle trouble was afoot, their loyal landcruiser was out of action, but the rangers were still on their way with alternative transport.

To fill in the time, we decided to investigate whether any Protea eximia stands had survived the western fires. Luckily, after heaving our heavy ringing equipment through Psoralea dominated slopes, we located a patch of Protea eximia cackling with Cape Sugarbirds. Protea eximia together with a species of pincushion are the only preferred food source for the sugarbirds over the summer in this part of the world, and birds are present in flocks where stands of these flowers are found.

At 8:30 Johnny, Jonas, together with two Working-on-fire team members Edmond and Nikki, had made it up the mountain. It was already rather hot, promising to be a very steamy day. We got straight to it, and within 200 meters of the start of our first survey Jonas had found the first puffadder of our surveys. With that on everyone’s mind, the survey line stuttered erratically forward over the next two surveys until we had yet again to ascend the narrow, snaking mountain track further up to Platberg, where we’d called up the Striped Flufftail the previous evening.

After a further 2 kilometers of cross-country survey, it was clear our team was struggling, and by the time we’d summited the Platberg cliffs, it was already 12pm, with only some Grey Rhebok and Grey-winged Francolin on the record. The incredibly deep ravines of the southern slopes of the Kammanassie also limited further survey options, and together with the mounting heat, it was clearly time to call timeout and to instead enjoy the unbelievably clear skies that allowed us views of the Indian Ocean beyond the Outeniquas to the south.

The afternoon turned out to be more productive as Chrissie and Jenny ably helped set up a small line of nets through the protea stand. Despite breeze and clear skies, normally a ringer nightmare, the sheer quantity of Cape Sugarbirds squabbling for this prized nectar spot meant that we had 10 Cape Sugarbirds bagged before we were again forced to close up for the day with a sun seeming to be ever in more of a hurry to make way for the cold mountain breezes that come with the mountain nights.
The full moon threatening to shine into our tents and keep us awake was soon eclipsed by a curtain of clouds that was heavy mountain mist come coffee time at 4am. We would have to endure 3 hours of damp netting conditions until, like a stage curtain lifting, the views that had wowed us the day before were revealed. Chrissie proved to be an able ringing assistant, and our sugarbird mission was soon accomplished, leaving us plenty of time to pack and navigate down the mountain to Uniondale.

The weather report for Thursday looked ominous, but I’d already arranged with Phillip Esau, Kammanassie reserve manager, for use of an extended survey crew for the day. In addition, Krista Oswald, masters student at NMMU studying Cape Rockjumpers had been persuaded to join me for the day together with her three research assistants. It was Krista’s birthday, which she’d given up to help us (on condition we’d spot her a buttonquail).

This would be our largest survey team to date, with 14 participants. Part of the reason for the large search party was the site I was targeting for the day was a wide, upland plateau called the Perdevlakte. These high mountain meadows are in the heart of Kammanassie, a two and half hour 4x4 slog from Uniondale that passes under the shadows of the highest peak of Mannetjiesberg, just shy of 2000 masl. The name Perdevlakte either has its origins as a refuge for the Boer horses of the war 100 years ago, or due to the presence of Mountain Zebra, some small groups of which still wonder the mountains.

I’ll never forget summiting Blesberg of the Swartberg mountains to the north of the Kammanassie in 2012, looking south to see thick plumes of smoke arising from the mountains I’d been surveying by bicycle only a few days before. Now, three years later, the veld age and structure had me optimistic for the presence of buttonquails. But the weather had caught us up by the time we’d managed to grind our way to the top. Squalls of dancing clouds were now a thick blanket of driving mist.

But the assembled troops proved to be a crack squad, that would maintain a beautiful line and good spacing for the next 3km through damp and less than pleasant conditions, in a drive line around 60 meters long. After signalling the start, I could not believe it when 200 meters into the drive that from a few meters in front of me a Hottentot Buttonquail erupted! In true buttonquail style, it fluttered down about 40 meter off, but still on the edge of our survey line. Part of the squad marched off to flush it further off so that we would not have any double counting. Clapper Lark and Common Quail would also have their hiding places uncovered, and then another buttonquail! And then another, with the last one coming just before the end of the drive and just outside the line, with all of us soaking wet. The survey had lasted around an hour, and been one of the most productive to date.

But it was also clear that the weather was doing the best to protect this mountain sanctuary, and it would be a damp descent for the volunteers in the open back of the landcruiser down the muddy tracks. The taste of victory kept everyone warm for the long descent to Uniondale and well deserved victory meal. At least Krista had her birthday wish fulfilled!

Friday was a vehicle repair, catching up on emails and family day.

Next week: big hope for De Hoop and the Agulhas plain. Will Dale finally flush a buttonquail after coming up empty handed at a parallel survey at Rooi Els this week !?

Jenny does buttonquail playback in the slopes of Kammanassieberg. Photo by Chrissie Cloete.

Chrissie points out a puffadder.

Hard to see, easy to step on - making for nervous surveying.

Survey team on Platberg. Photo by Chrissie Cloete.

Cooling off in camp in a cattle drinking trough. Photo by Chrissie Cloete.

Jenny with Cape Sugarbird in a Protea eximia stand. Photo by Chrissie Cloete.

Jenny releases a Cape Sugarbird. Photo by Chrissie Cloete. 
Chrissie processing a Cape Robin-Chat. Photo courtesy of Chrissie.

Once the mists had cleared. Processing birds. Photo courtesy of Chrissie. 

The Perdevlakte survey team that flushed 4 buttonquails. The day was not conducive to photography however. 
Survey line. Photo by Krista Oswald

Johnny checks our distance covered by GPS. Photo by Krista Oswald.

Krista Oswald by Krista Oswald

Sunday, 22 November 2015

First Hottentot Buttonquail sighting! Gamkaberg Nature Reserve

Gamkaberg Nature Reserve nestled in the heart of the Klein Karoo is a real gem amongst the treasure trove managed by CapeNature. When Dale and I had presented at the CapeNature staff meeting earlier in the year, Tom Barry (reserve manager) had been very keen that we include Gamkaberg in our Hottentot Buttonquail surveys. So far Buttonquails seems to be rarer than diamonds.

A few years earlier I had been invited to Gamkaberg to survey for Hottentot Buttonquail after Tom had heard hooting while camped at the Oukraal overnight trail huts. I had no success finding any, but Tom was sure buttonquails were to be found on Gamkaberg. About 15 years earlier after a tremendous wind storm he had found a dead buttonquail at the doorstep of his manager's house. Although he sent it into the local museum, they never received it, and so this interesting ornithological encounter went unrecorded. Tom, a qualified bird ringer, had realised it was something interesting on noting there were only 3 toes on the feet – a characteristic feature of the buttonquail family.

I travelled to Gamkaberg on Monday straight from Grootvadersbos, arriving in the mid afternoon. Tom, together with volunteer Shaun Simpson and CapeNature ecological co-ordinator Johan Huisamen were all keen to get cracking and we headed straight into the mountains via the Gamkaberg 4x4 track to Oukraal. We arrived a bit late for surveys, but enjoyed good company under misty skies while an acacia-wood fire kept us warm.

Early the next morning we were joined by Tom's team field rangers: Cornelius Julies and Skhumbuzo Tembe, as well as NMMU students Noluthando Nakani and Leletu Langabi. On lining out through the targeted fynbos patches several encounters with Common Quail had everyone on their toes. Cape Clapper Larks were abundant, as were the usual Grey-backed Cisticolas and occasional Cape Grassbird.

While walking Tom reckoned there were more Hottentot Buttonquail than Cape Mountain Zebra on Gamkaberg. Shortly after we flushed 3 Cape Mountain Zebra, so by the end of the first survey line of 3km we had to conclude that instead there are more Cape Mountain Zebra than buttonquails on Gamkaberg! For reference, Tom reckons there are 42 zebra on Gamkaberg.

The second survey line, which we conducted back up the hill and parallel to the first proved to be quieter, until a shout of “Quail!” from the far end of the survey line. I glanced up from broken ground around my feet just in time to see the bird plop to the ground about 30 meters ahead of us. Something wasn't right for a quail. Tom and I followed up and flushed the bird again. It silently took of from very close by, this time flying a bit further and landing beyond a little rocky outcrop. We'd seen some contrast in the wings, there had been no alarm call, both characteristics of Buttonquail. But I had to be sure.... so we all followed up and managed with a bit of effort to flush it one more time. This time it flew out of sight down the valley, but I'd managed to snap a shot of it in flight... we were as sure as we could be that finally after over 100km of surveys, we had our first Hottentot Buttonquail!

Later that day I would return to the site to do some more playback. While there was no response, imagine my surprise while chatting on the phone with my daughter what should I see next to my vehicle but a male buttonquail! Here are a few photos of the memorable occasion of the bird more beautiful than any diamond.  

We were treated to spectacular sunrises at the Oukraal overnight huts in the heart of Gamkaberg

Tom Barry, reserve manager, carbo loading for the day

Cape Sugarbirds were common on the pincushions around the Oukraal camp

First sighting of the elusive Hottentot Buttonquail. Here a male emerges from the bushes.

The little bird tries to locate the source of the hooting

The buttonquail performed a few leaps, hops and bows hoping to attract the attention of the female that he presumed was hiding nearby

Friday, 20 November 2015

Grootvadersbos buttonquail survey

I won't deny that I was despondent after the mega Anysberg survey where I searched that mountain from start to finish without sign or sound of Hottentot Buttonquail. What were we doing wrong? I headed home to rest and recover. On the Friday I headed into the Kouga mountains of Blue Hill Nature Reserve where I have heard the birds calling before. I needed to know that if buttonquails were around to respond to playback that they would. At 8am I had stopped and played for the 3rd or 4th time the recording of the hooting call that I had obtained from Antoniesberg to the north. To my surprise and delight about 70 to 100m away from me an answering hoot could be heard. Of course I could not leave it there, I headed towards the source of the sound and played the call again. Again a hooting response was heard, now not more than 30 meters from me. However, that was the last time and while I looked around at intensely as I could for a while afterwards, all I found was a large female boomslang, which slithered away harmlessly.

On Saturday morning I was a bit more upbeat as I drove to Grootvadersbos to meet up with Dale Wright. Dale had organised Petra and Sege to help out as volunteers during the flush surveys. First task though would be to ascend the Langeberg mountains to reach the mountain huts of Boosmansbos that would be our base for surveys over the next 2 nights.

Imagine Dale's excitement when starting off on the jeep track just beyond the forests, a quail flushed from in front of us. “Is that a.... “ “Common Quail” I had to finish Dale's sentence. Dale has at this stage yet to see a Hottentot Buttonquail, so expectations were high as Grootvadersbos is traditionally a well know buttonquail haunt.

It would take us 6 buttonquail free hours to tackle the 14km trail via the steep gorge of Saagkuilkloof, with a few chocolate and water breaks along the way. This is normally the descent route of the the 2 day hike, but I was keen to head this way as the area had burnt 3 years previously and I was wanted to see what the vegetation was looking like. It was looking perfect for buttonquails. Meanwhile, the western route had burnt earlier in the year and based on experiences to date it would be unlikely we'd get lucky along that route.

On reaching the mountain huts the mist set in, but we managed to keep warm enough by candle light as Dale prepared a gourmet camp meal of pasta, veggies and lemon and pepper sauce. Mmmm! With the long day behind us, we were soon all soundly tucked up in our sleeping bags.

At 5am at the crack of dawn the weather looked promising, with the overnight drizzle having cleared, but we had only to put our boots on and hit the trail a few hours later when the rain began again. This was not survey weather, so it was back to the mountain huts for a two hour tea-break.

Setting off again, I was looking forward to reaching the upper ridge – the location of my first ever buttonquail encounter in 2011. But 6 kilometers later along perfect restio dominated avenues we'd mostly just recorded Cape Rockjumpers, with no peep from a buttonquail. And the mist had set in again, so it was a nervous and damp survey team navigating by gps that had to find their way back over the ridge to the valley and camp beyond. Another Common Quail caused our hearts to leap with the mountain huts in sight.

Our third day on the survey we started back down the way we came, packs much lighter, but with the off-trail hiking always tougher than the nice contour route that the paths follow. In contrast the cold weather of the previous two days, it was very warm and then hot within only a few hours of setting off. With very little breeze, our moods made light and merry with the breathtaking views over pink and yellow fynbos slopes to distant Overberg agriculture lands were soon being tested to their limits by clouds of annoying flies set to drown themselves in our eyes and ears. Wear and tear from the previous two days was becoming evident, with blisters and sore knees demanding attention. After the second relatively uneventful stretch of survey where the highlight was the distant rattles of Striped Flufftail, Petra and Sege opted for the path for the final descent, while Dale and I had to do just one more. The final slopes towards Saagkuilkloof had looked so promising, but the slopes that looked like smooth meadows from a distance soon proved to be a barrier of spears in the form of the skeletal branches left from tall Berzelias and other plants killed by the fire some years ago. The going was so tough that at one stage I could no longer push my way through. I had to take my 10 to 12kg rucksack off my back and throw it down the slope in front of me to open the way.

A swim in the river in the valley helped revive flagging spirits for the last stretch home, where more Common Quail taunted us again along the way. At the camp, Dale and I waved goodbye to our brave volunteer assistants, while we prepared for a final nights camping for a survey of the lower slopes the following morning.

The route was mostly through blackened and soggy freshly burnt lower slopes, with another 6km under our belts, taking our flush survey tally to over 100km of surveys completed with zero buttonquails on the score card. As Dale and I gazed the slopes of Grootvadersbos that we had literally surveyed from top to bottom, it was hard to believe that we could have done any more to find our elusive little bird. At times we'd stopped to figure out if the distant, low, “oom ooom ooom” was buttonquail, but invariably it was the noise of distant traffic.

Would Gamkaberg Nature Reserve, next on the itinerary, be the one? Stay tuned for more adventures of the Hottentot Buttonquail survey team....

Alan and Dale into the wilderness (again). Photo by our first Mongolian volunteer Selengemurun Dembereldagva

Below Grootberg, team photo courtesy of Petra Sumasgutner

Dale chasing shadows...

Thursday, 12 November 2015

A nice time in Anysberg

Actually, a lovely time in Anysberg.

Anysberg Nature Reserve is a vast showcase of the best of what the Cape Floral Kingdom has to offer; with the variety of habitats from dry, hot, succulent Karoo to moist, cool Fynbos. Anysberg is named after the Anysberg mountains which lie at the heart of the reserve, reaching to around 1700m at their highest, and in some ways these can be considered the last of the Swartberg mountain range. It is however cut off from the Klein Swartberg mountains by a couple of deep poorts and valleys, and so the fynbos of the Anysberg represents one of the several habitat islands of the Klein Karoo.

I had been invited to Anysberg by the manager Marius Brand to search for Hottentot Buttonquails, as Anysberg hosts a variety of restio dominated habitat types, which the bird is meant to prefer. There is also an extreme range of veld ages, ranging from six to over 50 years since the last fire.

A journey into the Anysberg fynbos is a 4x4 expedition. A track extends almost the length of the mountain range, an incredible journey with ample rewards in terms of rolling views and the little gems that are the delightful fynbos flowers, including several rare and endemic species.

I arrived just before lunch time on the Monday morning after a quick resupply stop in Laingsberg on my way out from the Seweweekspoort. I was greeted by Marius's friendly wife Adri, who works at the office, as Marius was off on a rescue mission: a duiker had somehow got its head stuck between the bars of one of the gates. It was not long before Marius and the field rangers returned triumphantly from their rescue; and they were all ready to go. So after a brief introduction to the Hottentot Buttonquail and the survey protocol, we were off.

We were quickly onto the lower slopes of the mountain in restio dominated veld, having past the temptations of gemsbok, kudu, ostrich and a young Crowned Eagle along the way. After a quick lunch the surveys started up the mountain. We quickly had Long-billed Pipit and Grey-winged Francolin on our target species list, while the ever present Cape Buntings cheered us along, and flocks of Lark-like Buntings constantly had us on high alert as they flitted along in front of us. After an eventful 4 kilometers we called it a day to head higher into the mountains to set up camp.

Marius proved to be an expert camp cook, preparing the braai meat supplied by Birdlife South Africa to perfection. With bellies full and with cold mist starting to blow between the gargoyle like rock formations of the Table Mountain sandstone, we were soon all tucked up in our sleeping bags listening to the wind play with the loose flaps of our tents.

Energy and anticipation, together with the early turn in, meant the camp was stirring naturally at the crack of dawn at 5am. We'd driven through some promising restio dominated habitats the day before and hopes were high. Marius drove a support vehicle as he needed to depart to return to administrative duties, and the rangers now spread out in a well organised line despite tricky terrain. Red-tailed Rock-rabbits and Cape Rockjumpers kept us busy and entertained, but after 7 kilometers on the north west facing slopes it was time to turn around and try the south-west facing slopes. More Red-tailed Rock-rabbits, ever beautiful Black Eagles and Klipspringer kept us entertained. We ticked off another tough uphill 3.5km before lunch and then headed back to camp for some rest.

While we rested, Johan Vaughan, the longest serving field ranger with just shy of 30 years experience at Anysberg, entertained us with stories of his experiences under previous managers including Rob Erasmus and Alan Martin, all keen birders who had qualified Johan as a ringer. Johan told us how he had hiked up the mountain to a Bosbou hut on the other side of the mountain together with Oom Willie (second longest serving and oldest of the ranger with us at 49 years). Marius (Johan's son and also a field ranger) had never been to the hut, so we decided to do an afternoon survey on the southern slopes of the mountain in that direction as Oom Willie and Johan reckoned it was only 1 or 2 kilometers away from our camp.

We should have know that we should be circumspect about the estimated distance to the huts as earlier Oom Willie had been in charge of the range finder to measure distances to target species. He had spotted some Klipspringers on some rocks I estimated to be 200m away. His first estimation using the rangefinder was 41 meters. Then 45. This had the other rangers chuckling and Nkosinathi Moyo who was next to him asked him to measure the distance between them: 116 meters!

Meanwhile, in good faith we set off down the mountain in search of the mythical hut, surveying as we went. After 2 kilometers, questions were being asked, as the hut was nowhere in sight. After 3 kilometers we decided to stop the survey simply to reach the hut, which was constantly being described as being “just over this ridge..”. Eventually, 4 kilometers later and down the hill we came across the old hut. The roof was long gone and no-one had used it in years, Oom Willie reckoning his last visit was 15 years previously. They had used the hut to tackle alien vegetation on the slopes, and the pristine fynbos we'd passed through was testament to his hard labours of long ago. Of course we still had to get back up the mountain to the hut, and we were very grateful to see that Johan already had the evenings fire going since we'd clocked up 22km of cross country mountain hiking for the day.

The field rangers were in their tents already just after 7pm, with the exception of Nkosinathi Moyo, who kindly agreed to keep me company despite the chill, damp breeze. Nkosinathi shared that he was was of mixed Zulu-Xhosa descent, but had grown up in Paarl and so was fluent in Afrikaans, being the natural language of banter among the rangers. He already has six years of service at Anysberg and still travels back to Paarl each weekend to visit his mother, wife and one-year old boy. Due to the distance and cost, this means he has to hitch-hike the N1 from Touwsriver to Paarl every week. As the eldest son of the family, his sense of duty and responsibility are clearly evident, and I was impressed during our excursions that he still collected specimens of plants he did not yet know, and with his initiative around the camp. For his sake and that of the other field rangers I hope that the recent acquisition of the enormous property adjacent to Anysberg that has increased the size of the reserve to around 80 thousand hectares will mean opportunities for career advancement. Freezing positions and asking the existing overstretched staff to include the extra 20 thousand hectares in their day to day duties seems very unfair.

Wednesday morning dawned very damp from the mountain mist that had blown through the night. The ever efficient rangers had the camp packed up quickly into the back of the Toyota Landcruiser. The crazy 4x4 track that zig-zagged up to the highest ridge of Anysberg through fields of Protea eximia with flocks of Cape Sugarbird and Orange-breasted Sunbird was expertly navigated by Izak Lombard. Izak was clearly a good, caring, take-no-nonsense man who was always careful to check that a man who'd taken a tumble in the line was okay and good to continue. Luckily, the only first-aid that would need to be administered would be to the Landcruiser in the form of a puncture, as we started our third and final survey across the back of the mountains.

The route we picked followed the restio dominated valleys and seeps below the rocky crags and soon we'd left the high Anysberg behind us and were struggling through 50 year old plus fynbos. The last leg of our 11km survey proved rather barren, with a last gasp Cape Clapper Lark on the final marker. Looking back up the mountain, it was clear we'd given the mountain our best shot. I'd hoped that we'd be able to turn up a new species for the Anysberg list, and we'd played Striped Flufftail calls at the seeps and Protea Seedeater in the old protea stands, but our reward for our efforts instead was to be the sense of camraderie of a hard task completed together with tales to be regailed at other camp fires for future expeditions.

A big thanks to Marius Brand and the men of Anysberg: your energy, enthusiasm and willingness to share your knowledge made this truly a trip to be remembered.

Anysberg survey team: Marius Vaughan, Izak Lombard, Marius Brand, William Fullard, Nkosinathi Moyo and Johan Vaughan

There are several caves and rock shelters around the mountains, many with rock art

but most caves now are just used by wildlife now

Oom Willie puts rock art into perspective

Johan and Marius Vaughan surveying in the mountain mist

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Besemfontein Hiking Trail

The CapeNature Swartberg ranger I gave a lift to Oudtshoorn recently had never been to Besemfontein. In 2012 during my trans-fynbos survey I'd missed it on rumours it was closed and out of bounds, and opted to climb the 7weekspoortberg next door instead, being the highest peak in the Western Cape with no associated trail and hence not closable.

But it is such a clear and inviting trail on Peter Slingsby's map of the Swartberg and Klein Karoo. I would later hear a Mountain Club SA expedition had scaled the 1999 m peak overlooking the Seweweekspoort. So this time on our quest for the Hottentot Buttonquail I obtained permission from the Swartberg Nature Reserve manager to visit this area.

The origins of this trail are lost in the mist of time it would appear. A google search reveals no information for this trail (except a hikers club note that it is closed). But there is a functioning hiking hut at the base, a beautiful CapeNature sign, and clearly a lot of energy was put into preparing the trail as I would later see.

For my survey I had roped in the assistance of my wife, Anja, as the Buttonquail project had not yet had secured any volunteers. On Friday after a morning survey of the Swartberg Pass with CapeNature field rangers, I met Anja and family at the Stone Cottage, a privately run guest house north of the Seweweekspoort. The Saturday morning, leaving our children in the care of my parents, we set off at 6:30 am for the trail head. The previous day I'd spent a bit of time scouting out where the unmarked entrance gate was, as well as running around trying to track down the landowner for permission to cross the strip of private land that separates the dirt road to Gamkapoort dam from the Swartberg Nature Reserve. Thanks to Jaco Hunlun of the Seweweekspoort Guest Farm for the necessary permission.

Although CapeNature maps listed the veld of the area to be between 11-15 years, it was clear a large fire had swept through the area earlier in the year. We were surprised to see the wooden hikers huts still standing, albeit if there had been 3 buildings, now there are only two. Already in fynbos at this stage, we started the surveys.

Our ascent line followed the jeep track that is the Besemfontein Crest Trail and heads straight for the summit, via a few twists and turns. We quickly picked up Long-billed Pipit, a target species for the flush survey as it is a terrestrial bird likely to be flushed from which we will be able to make comparative density estimates. When we heard our first Cape Rockjumpers and Ground Woodpeckers I said to Anja “I bet if you look on the GPS our elevation is around 1400 meters.” Sure enough, 1440m. This looks to be the altitudinal threshold for this species in the Swartberg.

After a long ascent the track ends at a turnaround point with a view of a communications tower that likely marks the Besemsfontein Peak. We gave it some thought, but it was clear that we would not be able to manage the short ascent (probably about 1km) and complete the full hiking trail in the time available. It was clear that with the recent fire we would have a unique opportunity to follow the trail, which ran as a clear scar across the mountains, likely to be quickly overgrown in the years to come. So we flush surveyed down into the valley across old glacial moraine, resprouting restios and watsonias, to a kraal structure (or overnight camp site?) at a stream in the valley below, for a well earned lunch.

We then made rapid time on the eastern leg of the trail (Besemfontein Trail), and soon we had views of Gamkaskloof in the folds of the mountains ahead of us. Mountain streams cascaded in the valleys below us, Jackal Buzzards eyed us suspiciously from above. Small patches of unburnt fynbos kept us captivated with the glorious array of flowers and floral structures that makes the fynbos so special, a nice change from the short sprouting grass in the burnt areas.

Eventually the trail brought us to the intersection of two crystal clear streams, where a pool at the foot of some cascades provided a welcome wash. But time was ticking on, and we abandoned surveys at this stage realising the last leg of our trip could well be by torchlight. The trail conducted some painfull switch backs of the kind that make you feel like you are getting nowhere. These culminated into the view of a deep canyon below us... where the trail clearly continued. Already tired, the elevational changes we would have to endure to get out put a new and aching perspective on things. We still had a long way to go, and gave up taking photos of the pretty flowers, spectacular views of gurgling gorges and the trail itself – built up in a style reminiscent of the Inca trails of Peru.

In the canyon, we startled baboons, which lined the the canyon walls to speculate at this unusual spectacle of human hikers. We also passed very surprised dassies, and an old leopard scat. When finally we'd slogged out of the canyon and joined the old jeep track (Verlorenhoek Trail) that would carry us back westwards and home, legs were very tired and eyes stuck to the ground for the long haul out of the mountains. The final tally on the GPS when we were back at the car just after 7pm was 28 km.

The weather on the route was beautiful, as good as one could hope for a long day in the mountains. Jackets were tucked away early, and there was plentiful water in the mountain streams to slake our thirst. The scenery was breath-taking from start to finish, first with views of the Karoo plains to the north, then glimpses of the Rooiberge of the Klein Karoo to the south, followed by the deep valleys and cliffs of the Swartberge themselves and put into perspective with the view of the road to Die Hel (Gamkaskloof). The path was clear and in good condition, but resprouting plants (especially proteas) mean that in a year or two the trail will be buried until the next fire. A pity, as it really is incredible. On few other trails is one so isolated from any sign of human existence. We are privileged to have had this experience, and grateful to the efforts of the trail makers from a bygone era for creating an enduring path. This really could be South Africa's 'Inca Trail' with very little effort.

Some photo highlights:

The route of the trail is clearly visible after the fire across the mountain

Trail signs are not very useful anymore

A Leucadendron that escaped the fire hosts plentiful insect life

The first of the beautiful geophytes to emerge after the fire

Anja was very pleased to find the Besem that Besemfontein trail may be named after

Breathtaking beauty all around

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