Although a formal report has been written on the atlassing bash at the small Karoo town of Hofmeyr, I have decided to also recall a few memories of the events here on my blog, partly because that weekend was also a weekend away for me and my children, Elena and Charlie.
The working week had been an eventful one. BirdLife South Africa had hosted an in-person staff meeting at the De Hoop nature reserve, in the Western Cape. The meeting had been called on short notice and I had already agreed to join my fellow birding enthusiasts in the Eastern Cape for the birding bash. That bash had been a dream of legendary Alan Collet for several years, however between pandemic lockdowns and increasing frailty, Alan had decided not to organise it. Another Karoo birding legend, Tino Herselman, decided to pick up the reins and the invite was sent to a select few atlassing stalwarts with Karoo birds experience. The staff meeting would mean that my journey to join the expedition would involve a much longer road trip than originally planned.
On the Friday I exited the gates of De Hoop at roughly 6:00 AM, arriving at Blue Hill Escape just after 11:00 AM. A few hours were required to pack the Suzuki Jimny with provisions and children’s entertainment for the weekend. My wife, who had been on babysitting duties all week, would not be joining us. Our adventure to Hofmeyr began shortly after lunch: after stopping for fuel in Willowmore, we encountered our first swarms of locusts. This past summer the Karoo has been plagued by immense swarms, partly the price of the good rains over the past year. Normally the N9 between Willowmore and Aberdeen can be driven at 120 plus, but this is not possible with locusts as the windscreen soon becomes smeared with yellow, sticky, stinky invertebrates’ entrails. A safe driving speed is 80 or below. Still, we had to stop and clear the mat of macabre heads, wings and spikey legs from the vehicle’s front grates. In both Aberdeen and Willowmore piles of locusts were associated with the petrol stations. The Engen at Willowmore had recruited extra hands for window washing duties.
Beyond Graaf Reinett the locust swarms diminished, and we were able to resume normal driving speed. However, we had to navigate the road from Cradock to Hofmeyr in the dark, an interesting stretch of road involving the dodging of trucks, potholes, and scrub-hares. Just past Hofmeyr, and our expected arrival time, Tino give us a call to check that we were alright. He had kindly left the remote guest house, without cell phone reception, to escort us through the maze of bumpy farm tracks. The group’s accommodation was a lovely old-style farmhouse guarded by turkeys and Great Danes. With Eli and Charlie soon in bed, it was time to review the poster size battle maps end booklets of pentads that Tino had prepared.
Eli and Charlie did not complain about their 4:30 AM wake up call, we would need the time to navigate the hellish road between Hofmeyr and Tarkastad. Although this is marked as a main road on all maps, it is a dirt road that has not seen maintenance for many years. Littered with potholes and trenches, it was hazardous driving. Nonetheless we reached our target pentad on time at the crack of dawn. Charlie and Eli would take turns assisting me spot birds and enter what we had seen into BirdLasser. On paper our four pentads formed a neat square with a loop through them that conveniently passed Tarkastad at the time required for a refuelling stop for humans and vehicle. Our journey until then had rewarded us with many interesting birds, many of which I knew would require photographic evidence to be believed. These included Dusky Indigobird, White-faced Whistling Ducks, Scimitarbill, House Martin and Willow Warbler.
Our afternoon took us along the back road to Commando Drift dam. This beautiful route winds through rocky mountains and savanna. However, our through route back home was blocked by locked gates, and so we would retrace our steps. This was not all bad, a landowner had given us permission to survey on his land, which included rivers and dams and owls. Despite rain and sticky roads, we would get back to the farmhouse well in time for our braai and observe Salome and Tino’s anxiety at the absence of Stefan Theron. Stefan’s day has been epic, including an ascent of some of the highest peaks to record Drakensberg Rockjumper and forest birds of the mountain slopes. He would get back only past 8 pm. His day would be rivalled by Henk Nel and Rudi Minnie, who had recorded two rarities: Icterine Warbler and Common Whitethroat. Round the fire, chit chat and gossip alert one to birds in the area not on one’s mental radar to keep an eye out for the following day.
On paper, the pentads I had chosen for Sunday looked easy to do. The first one was immediately adjacent to the home pentad, and I selected this so that certain members of my birding party could have just a little more sleep. This pentad had been abandoned by Chris and Felicity the day before as access was more difficult then indicated. It would be even more difficult on the day of the survey as the rains had turned normally hard red dirt into a mix of glue and quicksand. Charlie and I abandoned the Jimny to walk through the tiny section of pentad this side of a formidable game fence. Eli chose to stay in the car and read Harry Potter.
It would be leaving the pentad that would result in the day's biggest adventure: getting stuck in the mud. Our journey past a windmill had churned up mud which trapped us as we attempted to exit. It would be half an hour of wheel spinning, digging, stick and rock packing before we became unstuck. After coffee and wash at the farmhouse we attempted to enter the pentad via a farm track from the western side, again, a locked gate blocked our way. As we pondered hiking in, a beat him up bakkie approached. Despite our attempts to explain what we wanted to do, this was a landowner who would not grant us access. We would later discover the property was owned by an infamous right-wing group known as the Zuidelanders. The rest of our day was less eventful, thankfully. Our afternoon pentad was associated with grassy plains dotted with Blue Cranes and a Secretarybird. With only 3 pentads under the belt for the day, we would arrive back early enough to start the evening fire. Pearls of wisdom included Rudi’s explanation that you’ll only remember a bird after you’ve had a spiritual moment with it.
Monday was a public holiday, but there was no rest for any of us. Everyone was up early to wrap up the expedition and start the long, long journeys home: Chris, Felicity and Salome especially. Stefan and I selected a more leisurely start by building the home pentad. We got to enjoy the site of Scimitarbill pair feeding their chicks in a cavity of a Willow tree, and I was rewarded with an out-of-range Green winged Pytilia. Eventually though, our routes would have to take us through the locust swarms back home.
When Charlie was asked if he enjoyed it and what the highlight was: He did, and the highlight was the Rock Monitor on the road.