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3rd Oct 2010 Cape Town to Gansbaai


Trip Participants: Jo Dale and Helen Dale


Today didn't quite go according to plan. We arrived into Cape Town in glorious sunshine, just about on time despite an hour's delay leaving London Heathrow. Whilst admiring the view of Table Mountain without its "table cloth" we picked up our hire car, an Opal Corsa and quickly realised that any plans to stop off en route to Gansbaai would be hindered by the fact that a lot of our luggage was on display. Consequently we put plans to stop at Rooi Els (to look for rockjumpers) on hold. We stopped briefly at a quaint little art cafe in Betty's Bay for a coffee on our drive along the scenic coastal route of the R44 and R43.


We arrived and checked into our comfortable self catering accommodation at Gansbaai, which Helen had arranged over the internet. An interesting observation, coming from the UK, is that we were a bit stumped by the lack of facilities. We stayed at Air del Mar, in a twin bed self catering studio room on the ground floor with a sea view. The rate quoted on the website was R490 per unit. The studio was equipped with a fridge/freezer, microwave oven and utensils sufficient to prepare a light meal. I think we wrongly assumed that self catering here would be the same as in the UK, where we'd expect to get a hob and an oven, but to be fair we probably just didn't pay enough attention to what the facilities would be like. The owner was very friendly and even supplied us with some fresh milk for tea. There's supposedly a communal braai but we did not make use of this owing to the weather.

We had hoped to arrive in time to arrange a whale-watching excursion, but this plan was scuppered by a rather inclement storm front that quickly closed in, whipping up the sea in the process. This, coupled with the scenery, made us wonder if we'd got on the wrong plane and found ourselves in Scotland!


Cape Agulhas

Not wishing to waste the day, we quickly decided that the best course of action would be to head down to Cape Agulhas, since that excursion wasn't weather-dependent. This was not ideal as we'd done the coast road down to Gansbaai and so it was a long drive for Helen on the first day. The most direct route turned out to be along a series of easily navigable gravel roads. This actually seemed to be a nice area to do some birding, but given it was now late in the day and we had a lot of ground to cover, we didn't stop very often.

We did, however, make time to watch a slender mongoose attack a rather dead and smelly Puff Adder, dropping his prize as he crossed the road in front of us. We also observed a Blue Crane, Denham's Bustard and Cape Long-claw. Several raptors were also seen, including Yellow-billed Kite, Steppe Buzzard, African Marsh Harrier as well as Ostrich.

We arrived at Cape Agulhas and walked to the southern-most tip of Africa, admiring the view out onto a fairly rough sea. It was quite chilly with the wind and drizzle so we didn't linger long. We took a different route back along the tar road, which was much longer, but also quicker. We stopped off in Sandford for a delicious meal of BBQ ribs and chips before heading back to Gansbaai.

It was with a sense of foreboding that we retired to bed. Looking at the weather we didn't expect that our dive with the sharks would be going ahead, despite assurances from Marine Dynamics that they were expecting us bright and early the next morning.

Bird list:

Cape Wagtail

White-necked Raven

Pied Crow

Cape Crow

African Pied Starling

Blue Crane

Denham's Bustard


Helmented Guineafowl

White-breasted Cormorant

Brimstone Canary

African Marsh Harrier

Egyptian Goose

Steppe Buzzard

Cape Long-claw



Chacma Baboon

Slender mongoose




S AFRICA JO 005 dev Blue Crane by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



S AFRICA JO 015 Brimsone (Bully) Canary by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



S AFRICA JO 021 African Pied Starling by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



S AFRICA JO 024 Cape Wagtail by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



shark dive 028 To the Southernmost tip of Africa by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



shark dive 012 Cape Aghulus by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

Edited by kittykat23uk
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4th October Gansbaai Shark Cage diving


We needn’t have been concerned. First we were greeted with the sight of our first Southern Right Whale off the coast right outside our window. The sea state seemed quite a bit calmer than the previous evening, yet still there was a bit of a swell. We met up with the other Shark Bait... er I mean divers for our breakfast and briefing at a local restaurant. A marine biologist from Marine Dynamics gave us a safety talk and spiel about how this company has a better ethical record than some others because they supposedly do not pull the bait towards the cages (where sharks might injure themselves), and they don’t deliberately feed the sharks (which some other companies allegedly do). The marine biologist giving the talk also told us about the migratory behaviour and conservation issues facing the Great White Sharks (from finning and bycatch), and how tagging them is helping to monitor their movements so that marine protection areas can be set up.

We were expected to then sign an indemnity form for the excursion. This really bugged us! We did not get why you have to sign, particularly when you even have to waive any claim over negligence. This wouldn’t be acceptable in UK law and was frankly quite worrying when the shark dive operators are required by law to have high levels of indemnity insurance which you hope to rely on if something goes wrong. Particularly when most travel insurance policies won’t cover that activity.


We then got kitted out with trendy fluorescent red waterproofs and headed down to the boat. With Marine Dynamic’s own boat out of commission, we were placed on Apex Predator, an apt name for a Great white shark dive boat if ever there was one! We were told there were two sites where the boats operate at this time of year, one a shallow bay and the second, the infamous Dyer Island and Shark Alley. It was to the latter site that we were headed. We were joined en route by a Subantarctic Skua who kept pace with the boat, picking up scraps of food that were being offered by a member of the crew.


As we arrived on site, one of half a dozen or so boats, the crew started to chum the water in order to lay the scent trail that would surely lure in any sharks in the area. Soon enough the first dark shapes of great white sharks started to circle the boat. I’m not sure if anyone said it out loud but I know I was thinking that we were going to need a bigger boat! The crew kept the sharks interested by tossing both a float in the shape of a small seal and a tuna head tied to a line off the side of the boat as the cage was lowered into the water. Shark diving is a bit of a misnomer, since you don’t actually get any diving equipment other than a face mask and wetsuit. This means you have to hold your breath and duck your head under whenever a shark swims past.


As the first couple of groups of brave (or foolish) souls entered the cage, we watched from the top of the boat as sharks repeatedly struck both the float and the tuna, sometimes getting away with their prize. Funnily enough we didn’t really see much difference between what the crew were doing, and what we had been told was bad practice! One particularly large shark, generated some excitement from the biologist who exclaimed “I tagged this shark, I know this shark!” One woman had a hard time ducking her head under water and chickened out of the dive altogether.


We were the third group in the water and I took up a position on the far right hand side of the cage. This was right at the end where the bait and float were being tossed out and dragged back in. As such, I was treated to many close-up encounters with hungry white sharks striking and tasting the float and tuna in front of me. It was totally exhilarating, especially when on several occasions the sharks would grab the bait, turn and power straight towards me, only turning to avoid the cage at the last possible moment, passing so closely that it felt like I could have reached out and stroked it..(not advisable of course!) One particularly special moment was when the shark went for the bait which was close to the cage at the time, and I could see right down its throat. Another time, the shark dived deep and then reappeared, powering head first up out of the depths like a torpedo.


The water was freezing cold though and it was a struggle to hold my underwater camera steady enough to record the action. But I did manage to record at least some of the dive which gave a real sense of being under water and the closeness and sheer awesomeness of the sharks. After ten minutes we needed to make room for any other people, but as most people had had their turns there was space for those who wanted to go in again to do so. Helen decided to sit that one out, but I jumped at the chance of going back in. This time I was right in the middle of the cage and once again I was treated to an exhilarating experience. Eventually, shivering in the cold and with my fingers getting numb it was finally time to call it a day.


A number of other seabirds were also seen on this trip including a distant albatross, but I didn’t see which one it was. These included, Sooty Shearwater, White-chinned Petrel and Great Winged Petrel.

We returned to a nice hot buffet lunch whilst DVDs were burned for those of us who wanted them. We shopped for souvenirs, Helen plumbing for the obligatory “I survived” and “dare to dive” t-shirts, whilst I opted for a 3 million year old fossilised Great White Shark tooth necklace as a nice reminder of the trip.



S AFRICA JO 060 Great White Shark by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



S AFRICA JO 039 Great White Shark by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



GWS 2 copy Great White Shark by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



GWS 5 copy Great White Shark by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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Hermanus shore-based Whale Watching


After lunch we drove up to Hermanus to spend the afternoon whale watching from the shore. Sadly, we were not able to get out on a boat that afternoon, as the trips had been cancelled because the sea was still too rough. The whales were being quite acrobatic off shore, readily breaching and tail slapping and we were still able to photograph their spectacular antics, if somewhat more distantly than we would have liked.


Birds seen on the day:


Subantarctic Skua

Sooty Shearwater

Great Winged Petrel

White Chinned Petrel

Cape Cormorant

Black Harrier

Cape Francolin

African Black Oystercatcher

Cape Gull

Sabine’s Gull

Speckled Pigeon

Laughing Dove

African Black Swift

White-rumped Swift

Pied Kingfisher

Greater-striped Swallow

Common Fiscal

European Starling

Red-winged Starling

Pale-winged Starling

House Sparrow

Southern Red Bishop



Southern Right Whale



Great White Shark

5th October Boat-based Whale-watching Hermanus


This morning was a beautiful day, so having arranged to get on a whale-watching trip at 0900 we left Gansbaai for Hermanus. We booked with Hermanus Whale Cruises. Once on board we headed west to the next bay over, whereupon we found ourselves two Southern Right Whales, possibly a mother and calf. Unfortunately we were advised that because the sea was so calm, the whales would probably be lazy today. This turned out to be the case, and they spent a lot of time just lying at the surface ignoring us. We got close enough to see the calluses on their heads, and it was just incredible to hear them so close to us when they were breathing out, like the puffing of some great locomotive. Occasionally the whales would lift their massive tails out of the water, creating waterfalls as they dived down into the deep blue sea.


We were told that the boat had to stay 60ft away from the whales, but at one point the boat actually went over the top of a submerged whale as we motored slowly towards a visible one at the surface further away. This was rather concerning, but thankfully we believe the whale was unharmed. I’m guessing that the captain was just not aware of the other whale’s presence, but we felt he should have seen it. New birds seen during and just before the whale-watching trip included:


Cape Gannet

Cape Canary

Cape Cormorant

Lesser Kestrel

African Goshawk

Jackal Buzzard


We stopped for a lunch of waffles whilst doing a bit of souvenir shopping and spent a bit more time watching the whales from the shore. I also saw my first Rock Hyrax or Dassie running over the cliff-top.



S AFRICA JO 09802 Southern Right Whale by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



jo sharks & whales 014adj Southern Right Whale by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



jo sharks & whales 018 Southern Right Whale by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



jo sharks & whales 031 Southern Right Whale by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



jo sharks & whales 036 Southern Right Whale by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



jo sharks & whales 040 buzz sim Southern Right Whale by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



jo sharks & whales 059 Familiar Chat by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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Penguins of Betty’s Bay


After lunch we drove on to Betty’s Bay to see African Penguins. Given this was supposed to be the smaller of the two colonies I expected to see only a handful, so I was really surprised by how many there were. We spent an hour or so photographing these charismatic birds. They offered so many photo opportunities; it was difficult to know where to look. I tried to get a sense of the challenges that they faced getting back to their nest sites, capturing them being tossed around in the surf and clinging precariously to rocks.

Unfortunately, what Helen hadn’t prepared for was that someone should try the door of the toilet at Betty’s Bay when she’d hung her camera on the back of the handle. So unfortunately, her camera fell to the ground and damaged the lens!




jo penguins 006 African Penguins by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



jo penguins 010 African Penguins by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



jo penguins 019 African Penguins by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



jo penguins 028 African Penguins by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



jo penguins 042 African Penguins by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



jo penguins 045 African Penguins by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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In search of Cape Rockjumper


We then drove to Rooi Els and stopped in at a local shop-come-environmental centre to pick up a few snacks and check the latest gen on the Cape Rockjumper. Following the instructions given we parked at the gate and headed up along the gravel track in search of this special cape endemic. Sadly the bird proved elusive, but we did see Cape Rock Thrush. We met a group coming the other way after walking about a kilometre who warned us that a rather large Puff Adder lay up ahead on the path. Given that we were only wearing sandals, we decided to turn back.


Birds seen around Betty’s Bay:

African Penguins

Kittlitz Plover

Little Egret

Black Headed Heron

Bank Cormorant

African Black Oystercatcher

Hartlaub’s Gull

Swift Tern


Rooi Els:


Cape Rock Thrush

Cape Bunting

Cape Bulbul

Karoo Prinia



jo penguins 072 Crowned Cormorant by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



missing cape rock jumper 001 Cape Rock Thrush by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



missing cape rock jumper 007 by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



missing cape rock jumper 009 Cape Bunting by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



missing cape rock jumper 013 by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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Arriving in Simons Town, I was delighted to find two of my target birds, right outside our apartment, Orange Breasted Sunbird and Cape Sugarbird!

Our accommodation, the “Port of Call” in Simons Town was set right up into the Cliffside with a view out to sea, accessed by a rather steep and winding road. We finished the day with a delightful fish supper at a local chippie.



missing cape rock jumper 014 Brimstone (Bully) Canary by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 001 Cape Bulbul by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



kirstenboch 027 Cape Sugarbird by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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6th October Albatrosses Ahoy!


Today was surely one of the highlights of the whole trip for me, a pelagic seabird trip. There are a number of pre-arranged tours that one can book, but these tend to be at the weekend, which is unfortunately when we were travelling, so the dates didn’t work for us. So we decided to take the risk and charter a boat through Anne Albatross. This was on the understanding that she would do her best to advertise the extra spaces for us and try to fill the boat, but if she couldn’t manage it, we would need to make up the shortfall. In the end, Rene, a local, and her travelling companion Jeanne from California. This meant that Helen and myself had to make up the remainder of the cost at a surcharge equating to about £50 each.


It was, in my opinion, well worth the money. Our skipper on the trip was Alan Blacklaws and our guide was the enthusiastic and very knowledgeable Alvin Cope. As we headed out, just past the harbour we encountered a southern right whale, which was a great start to a wonderful trip. We started to get a little concerned when we had trouble finding any trawlers. We did finally manage to locate a lone long-liner, which seemed to be loosing most of it’s catch of Kingclip fish to a large mixed flock of seabirds and Cape Fur Seals. We were 15 nautical miles out at co-ordinates s 34,27,18 and E 18,11,61. Rene eagerly goaded Alan into collecting some of the lost catch for dinner later, much to the chagrin of Alvin.



albatross jo 002 cape point by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 006 White-chinned Petrel & Pintado Petrel by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 027 by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 077 White-chinned Petrels by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross 2 036 by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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Alvin enthusiastically pointed out the different birds we were seeing. The most common birds were White-chinned Petrels, elegant black birds daubed with varying amounts of white on their chins. There were also quite a few sooty shearwaters. Of course the stars of the show were the albatrosses. Of these, the majority that we saw seemed to be Shy, these were beautiful birds, subtly coloured in shades of grey. He also pointed out both Atlantic Yellow-nosed and Indian Yellow-nosed two very similar species, which I found to be quite difficult to separate in the field. He also pointed out the occasional Black-browed Albatross.



albatross jo 038 Shy Albatross by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 009 Shy Albatross by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 015 Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross with Shy and White-chinned Petrels by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 023 Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 047 Black-browed Albatross by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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Alvin then got very excited when he saw a much larger albatross and shouted out to us that it was none other than a Wandering Albatross! But then after getting a better view he quickly realised that it was a Northern Royal Albatross, a massive bird, with a snow-white back and long black wings that dwarfed all the other albatrosses we had seen. In fact, we believe we saw two different Northern Royals through the trip.



albatross jo 043 Shy Albatross fights seal over scraps of Kingclip by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 055 Northern Royal Albatross by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 053 Shy Albatrosses eating kingclip by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross 2 017 Northern Royal Albatross by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross 2 020 Northern Royal Albatross by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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Other rarer finds that excited Alvin were Northern Giant Petrel, the little checkerboard-patterned Pinatdo Petrel (Pintado meaning “painted” in Portugese), a Great Shearwater and one that caused Alvin a few ID problems, a Flesh-footed Shearwater (which is near identical to Sooty Shearwater).



albatross jo 075 Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 063 Shy Albatross by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross 2 026 Cape Fur Seals by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross 2 027 Flesh-footed Shearwater by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross 2 039 White-breasted and Cape Cormorants by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross 2 046 Cape Fur Seal by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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The seals were also a joy to watch as they squabbled over the fish and then, in little rafts fell asleep at the surface. On the way back we stopped to look at a rock on which four species of cormorant could be seen, and then we went on to see another colony of seals.

Back in the harbour there was a line of terns on the jetty, this included Arctic, Common, Swift and Sandwich.

List of birds seen:

Northern Royal Albatross

Shy Albatross

Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross

Atlantic yellow-nosed Albatross

Northern Giant Petrel

Pintado petrel

White-chinned petrel

Great Shearwater

Flesh-footed Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater

Subantarctic Skua

Cape Gannet

Arctic Tern

Common Tern

Swift Tern

Sandwich Tern

Kelp Gull

White breasted Cormorant

Cape Cormorant

Bank Cormorant

Crowned Cormorant


We took a trip into Cape Town (after Helen went back to the boat to collect my camera that she’d borrowed, and my monopod that I’d forgotten) to look for a new lens for Helen’s camera. We managed to locate two camera shops, which were able to supply a sigma version of her 70-300 but we’d have to come back for it a few days later. This wouldn’t prove to be a problem, as we had time before our train journey to Johannesburg. We returned to Simon’s Town and had a relaxing evening.




albatross 2 042 Cape Fur Seal by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross 2 044 Cape Fur Seal by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross 2 047 Swift Tern and Sandwich Terns by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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7th October Sugarbirds and Sunbirds


Today we spent some time at Kirstenbosch botanical gardens. Having already seen both target birds outside our window in the morning, the pressure was off, but I was still hoping to get a few nicer shots. Despite the inclement weather we managed to find both the Cape Sugarbird and Orange-breasted Sunbirds in the Protea garden as described in my Southern Africa Bird Finder. Helen isn’t much of a birder, but I was really hoping that she would be interested in the botanical aspect of the place and want to explore the full extent of the garden, but she wasn’t keen.


Between Helen’s general lack of enthusiasm and the drizzly weather, offering poor lighting and the fact we’d found the two key birds, I wasn’t too bothered about cutting the visit short. As such, we probably didn’t see as many birds as we might have on a specialist birding holiday. We stopped in the café for a coffee and a pastry before driving the scenic route back via Chapman’s Peak, stopping to admire the view and discovering another Southern Right Whale in the process.




kirstenbosh h 001 by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



kirstenbosh h 004 Egyptian Goose by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 081 Orange-breasted Sunbird by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 092 Cape Sugarbird by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 103 Orange-breasted Sunbird by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 120 Dusky Sunbird by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 122 Giant Protea by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 126 Helmeted Guineafowl by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



albatross jo 129 Karoo Prinia by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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We’ve done Penguins


Our final stop was at Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town. This was with hesitation from Helen who felt that we’d “done penguins”. However, it turned out to be worthwhile when we found a Rock Hyrax foraging in a small clearing, just off the boardwalk. So we spent a bit of time photographing this unlikely cousin of the elephant. Dassies are primitive ungulates, which look a lot like marmots or wombats. We decided not to pay to view the penguins, feeling that we wouldn’t gain anything much from the experience, but there were a few red-winged starlings and cape white eyes that I could focus on instead.



kirstenboch 005 Rock Hyrax (Dassie) by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



kirstenboch 008 Rock Hyrax (Dassie) by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



kirstenboch 013 Rock Hyrax (Dassie) by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



kirstenboch 019 Cape White-eye by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



kirstenboch 022 African Penguins (Boulders Beach) by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



kirstenboch 023 Red-winged Starling by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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Later on we went shopping in Simon’s Town for a bag for Helen and a few Savannah’s for me. When we got back to our apartment I spent the remainder of the afternoon photographing two pairs of sugarbirds fighting over a protea bush.


Whilst sea-watching from the balcony I spotted a blow from a whale and a small hooked dorsal fin. This led me to believe that it was a different whale to the Southern Right, most likely a Bryde’s Whale (but I can’t be 100% sure).

Birds seen at Kirstenbosch:

Egyptian Goose

Helmeted Guineafowl

Hadeda Ibis

Cape Robin-chat

Cape White-eye

Orange-breasted Sunbird

Cape Sugarbird

Birds seen elsewhere:


Familiar Chat

Olive Thrush

Karoo Eremomela

Karoo Prinia

Lemon Dove

Cape Spurfowl

Red-winged starling

African Penguin



Southern Right Whale

Bryde’s Whale (prob)

Rock Hyrax



kirstenboch 031 Cape Sugarbird by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



P1450179 Cape Robin-chat by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



P1450186 Speckled (Rock) Pigeon (his name is Jim) by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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We then took a trip into Cape Town to pick up Helen’s new lens and check into the Cape Diamond Hotel. Unfortunately, they had somehow forgotten to note our change of date which I had informed them of by phone when we arrived into Simon’s Town, so there was a bit of a kafuffle as they were quite full. They then gave us the key to a room on the 9th floor, not ideal since the lift stopped at the 8th. We then discovered, after lugging our cases up the two flights of stairs that the room only had a double bed. So whilst Helen went to collect the rest of her stuff from the car, I went to explain to the reception that we might be close, but a double bed was perhaps pushing things a little too far. As we were heading out again, they assured us it would be sorted out by the time we got back.


Our next stop was to drop off the hire car and then to the tourist information to organise our Wild Card that we would need for the Kruger National Park fees. We could have got a discount at Table Mountain, but unfortunately the office that stocked the Wild Cards there didn’t accept credit cards.

After that, we caught a taxi to the waterfront and had a wander around for a bit. I stopped in at a local craft market while Helen put her feet up.


On the dock, a large bull cape Fur Seal was rudely awaken from his nap by some deck hands, trying to get access to the boats. After a bit of posturing, they finally got him to slip into the water. This was just as well since we had decided to take a sunset “booze cruise” on a 40ft catamaran, Peroni. This was delightful! As with the previous boat trip we spotted a Southern Right Whale as we cruised the bay. The champagne flowed freely and we had a lovely time chatting to the other passengers and watching the sun set over Table Mountain. We ended our day with fillet steak at one of the waterfront restaurants, it was so succulent and delicious!


On arriving back at our hotel we were told we’d been moved to a second floor twin room, which was much more acceptable.




blyde river Helen 059 A brave soul faces down the beachmaster by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



blyde river Helen 098 Sunset by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



P1450276 V&A waterfront by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



P1450286 Beachmaster Cape Fur Seal by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



P1450301 copy1 me on the Catamaran with Table mountain in the background by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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9th October Premier Classe Train to Johannesburg



We left our hotel and got a taxi to the train station. We were booked on the Premier Classe train to Johannesburg. The service prior to departure was first rate, our bags were transported to our cabin, we were provided with tea, coffee and light snack in the lounge until we were then led to the platform and onto our awaiting train.


The Premier Classe train is described as, “a journey unlike any other; from the moment you step aboard Premier Classe you’re transported back into a more gracious, elegant age of travel”.


The train was certainly comfortable, with a lounge/bar and dining cars. The twin share cabins were well equipped with dressing gowns and slippers provided. It was certainly steps above first class rail travel in India. A schedule provided details of where and when meals would be served, starting with a welcome drink of champagne (at 9am!) in the lounge. The publicity information goes on to say,


“Fine dining is what we’re famous for. Premier Classe’s gourmet chefs are skilled in preparing the most fabulous food from fresh ingredients acquired throughout the journey.


“Savour true African cuisine with an international twist accompanied by award-winning South African wines in our luxurious, air-conditioned Dining Car. Our five-course dinners and delicious High Teas, coupled with the breathtaking scenery that’s omnipresent onboard Premier Classe, provide an unforgettable sensory experience.”.


I am afraid to say that the dining experience fell some way short of this hype. Yes five courses were served, but to give you an idea of the sort of food that was offered, we were presented with a dry, overcooked piece of veal that was as tough as old boot leather, a singular dessert spoon of mashed potato and a handful of wilted vegetables that probably came out of the frozen section of the local Spar.


The scenery was at times, breathtaking, certainly as we were leaving Cape Town and travelling through the mountains and gorges, but once we reached the Karoo, it became pretty monotonous. Birding from the train was a challenge and the places that we stopped at were not exactly teeming with bird-life. However, I did clock up a few new species, including a pair of Pale Chanting Goshawks that were seen flying over the Karoo:

Pale Chanting Goshawks

Booted Eagle

Little Swift

Mousebird Sp (too dark to tell)

Laughing dove

Sacred Ibis

Yellow Canary

Crowned Lapwing

Black-shouldered Kite

Common Swift



P1450330 Views from the train by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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10th October Johannesburg to Mac Mac Forest Retreat


Unfortunately, the train got in about an hour late to Jo’burg and we were really disappointed by the lack of support at the other end. Basically as soon as we got off the train it was if we were forgotten about. No porters were available to take our bags and the exit for the taxi rank was not at all clearly signed. Eventually, we managed to find the Premier Classe desk and asked for assistance. After stepping away to close the door we came through, presumably so she didn’t have to help any other of the passengers who got off the train, she finally got someone to help with our bags and show us to a taxi.


Still the tardiness of the train made no difference since our car also wasn’t ready. We had a Nissan X-trail, which proved to be ideals for the job. But by the time we’d done some shopping we didn’t get to Graskop until very late and driving those roads in the dark is not something I would recommend. Nevertheless we arrived at Mac Mac Forest Retreat after only missing one turning. Needless to say we didn’t get to see the spectacular scenery on the way over. We saw a handful of new birds before it got dark:


Common Mynah

Red Knobbed Coot

African Harrier Hawk

Yellow-billed Hornbill


We arrived to a warm welcome; although I think the owners had actually forgotten we were due to arrive, given how late it was. Thankfully the bar was still open so we spent a little time chewing the fat with the barman.

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To be continued...

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Great report. Nice to see an occaisional trip report with a bird and marine emphasis.

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Cracking bird photos and reportage kittykat23uk, look forward to the continuation...

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Thank you Game Warden and Pangolin. Glad you are enjoying the read! So, onwards we go.. :D


11th October Sightseeing around Blyde River Canyon


After the early starts of the first part of the trip we had hoped to take things a bit easier for the next few days and planned to have a lie in. Unfortunately a noisy cockerel awaked me before dawn. A cacophony of bird song welcomed the approaching dawn, including a peacock. By the time we got up the birds seemed to have disappeared. I did see a couple of male Greater Double-collared Sunbirds duking it out over a flowering tree, while waiting for the cook to arrive to prepare our breakfast, which were a challenge to photograph. After a hearty full English breakfast we packed up and said our goodbyes.


Mac Mac Falls

We stopped first at Mac Mac Falls. This 65 m high twin waterfall in the Mac Mac River is a declared National Monument. This waterfall was originally a single stream, but gold miners blasted it with dynamite to divert the river in an attempt to work the rich gold-bearing reef over which it plunges. There are a number of curio stands and WC facilities in the car park. Unfortunately, photo opportunities of the falls were somewhat hindered by the green safety railings at the viewpoint.


God’s Window

Then we went on to God’s Window. God's Window is known for its amazing views from the top of the Drakensberg escarpment over the Lowveld, however, we both felt that the views offered at other points along the trails here were more spectacular than the one touted as being the best. We did get a good view over to the Kruger National Park as it was a beautifully clear day.


This is one of the sites recommended in the Greater Panorama Birding Route, so I was looking forward to picking up a few new birds here. I had read that there is a small patch of afro-montane mist belt forest, which receives a very high precipitation and as such, the forest has a high diversity of flowering plants that in turn attract a variety of different bird species. Of the nectar-feeders you can supposedly find Gurney's Sugarbird, Greater Double-collared, Southern Double-collared, Collared- and Malachite Sunbirds. You can also find Spectacled Weaver, Cape Canary and Sombre Greenbul.


Sadly, perhaps because of the time of year, or the time of day (it was mid morning by the time we got there and the temperature was in the high 20’s) I only managed to find a Cape Batis and Greater Double-collared Sunbird which, having read about the site, was quite disappointing. The lookout point is also supposed to be a fantastic spot to watch for raptors, especially in the mid-morning as they start to make use of thermals. But I didn’t see a single bird!


The guide to the route suggests that this spot is well worthwhile visiting for an hour or two but can get quite busy during the weekends. It is advisable to come on a weekday or to visit early in the morning. There are some stepped paths laid out that lead through the forest and past the various viewpoints. Perhaps if we had arrived earlier, we would have seen more, we also didn’t spend more than an hour at the site in total, so perhaps if I had spent more time watching out for raptors I might have had more luck. But once again I should reiterate that birds were not really the focus of this trip.



blyde river canyon 006 Greater Double-collared Sunbird by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



blyde river canyon 007adj Greater Double-collared Sunbird by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



blyde river canyon 021Mac Mac Falls by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



blyde river canyon 031 Cape Batis by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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Bourke’s Luck Potholes

We then travelled on to Bourke’s Luck Potholes at the beginning of the Blyde River Canyon. We briefly took a look around the informative visitor centre, which detailed some of the interesting natural and socio-historic features and then took the short walk to the potholes. Over the millennia the swirling whirlpools generated as the Treur River plunges into the Blyde River have carried sand and rock, which has gouged out cylindrical potholes into the bedrock of the river. The Potholes were named after a gold digger, Tom Bourke, who staked a claim nearby. Unfortunately for him, his claim did not produce a single ounce of gold, but he did correctly predict that large gold deposits would be found in the area. I enjoyed the views of the potholes and waterfalls more than the previous two sites, as I felt the way the water twisted its way through the potholes was more interesting than the straight drop of Mac Mac Falls.


The site is another recommendation in the Kruger to Canyons birding route and is situated on afromontane grasslands. The area is best visited during summer when bird activity is at its highest especially in the grasslands surrounding the site. It is possible that we were too early and given it was now lunchtime, we didn’t see any of the typical birds that should be encountered such as Wing-snapping Cisticola, Wailing Cisticola, Zitting Cisticola, Yellow- throated Longclaw Buff-streaked and Familiar Chat, Stonechat, Drakensberg Prinia, Southern Red and Yellow Bishops. We did see African Wagtail, but that was about it (for new birds). We stopped here for lunch, avoiding a rather scruffy looking Vervet Monkey.


In search of Taita Falcon


We then carried on up towards the Strydorm tunnel in the hope of finding some of the raptors, and in particular, Taita Falcon. We followed the instructions in my South African Bird Finder and located the spot where the curio stands were supposed to be, but there were none to be seen. We parked up in the lay-by in any case and I spent a short time scanning the cliffs. But without a guide it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. In fact, I didn’t see any raptors at all so I decided to call it a day and headed back to the car.


On we went to our accommodation, Trackers at Kampersrus. The track from their gate up to their property is deeply rutted and probably would be impossible to get up with a standard sedan. It’s just as well we decided to get the X-trail! The owners, Dave and Julienne Rushworth were kind enough to give us their Mountain View Chalet for a very good price, since their backpackers lodge was closed for refurbishment. We also found the chalet to be well equipped with utensils (which was a welcome surprise given we were not expecting any).


We chose Trackers because it was listed in my Kruger to Canyons bird route as a “birder friendly establishment and game farm”, boasting an impressive list of over three hundred bird species. There was a suggestion in the guide book that even leopard occur on their property. However, I think the description gave unrealistic expectations of the place, as there really wasn’t any game to be seen, other than a single tame Bush Duiker. I should note that the guidebook I had was several years old and I understand that Trackers is no longer listed as a birder-friendly property. The time of year was also not conducive to achieving an extensive bird list, given that it was the end of the dry winter season and the summer migrants had not yet arrived.


By the time we’d got settled in, we saw that a weather front was approaching and I then realised to my horror that I’d left my bird guide back at the Taita Falcon viewpoint. We decided to rush back and thankfully it was still there and the heavens hadn’t opened so, with relief, I was able to retrieve it. We made use of this little sojourn to collect a few bits for dinners over the next couple days and returned to Trackers just in time to watch an incredible electrical storm break over the mountains. As we watched the storm, we were delighted to see a pair of Lesser Bushbabies who were obviously roosting in our chalet’s roof, as they leapt to the balcony and then off into the night. During the night we were inundated with insects in our room. It would have been an entomologist’s dream, but I personally didn’t appreciate having beetles landing in my hair. Some mosquito nets would be a welcome addition to the room, but thankfully we came prepared with some bug spray.



Birds seen on 11th, excl Trackers:

Greater Double-collared Sunbird

Indian Peafowl

Cape Batis

African Wagtail



Vervet Monkey



blyde river canyon 035 Bourke's Luck Potholes by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



blyde river canyon 038 Bourke's Luck Potholes by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



blyde river canyon 044 Bourke's Luck Potholes by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



blyde river canyon 048 Kurrichane Thrush by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



blyde river canyon 054 Bush Duiker by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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12th October Sightseeing around Blyde River Canyon


I was awoken early by Helen, so I decided to get up and do a spot of early morning birding. The weather was somewhat overcast so the light wasn’t ideal for photography. Dave and Julienne were already up and Julienne kindly offered to do some of our laundry in return for a small donation to help the aged charity.



blyde river canyon 065 Yellow-billed Hornbill by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



P1450378 Red-headed Weaver by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



P1450380 Blue Waxbill by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



P1450383 Black-collared Barbet by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



P1450406 White-bellied Sunbird by kittykat23uk, on Flickr

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Swadini Dan and Three Rondavells


After having discussed what to do today we decided to check out the Swadini Dam where we were advised that we might be able to get ourselves on a boat trip. We found the Aventura resort, which looked a bit more promising for birds and other game (we saw some Greater Kudu at least) and made enquiries of the boat trip. However, since we also wanted to go into Hoedspruit to get some writeable DVDs (as I was running out of space on my memory cards) the timing of the trips wasn’t really compatible with our plans for the day.


So we decided instead to take a drive to the dam. Around the car park I saw White-bellied Sunbird and Chin-spot Batis. From the visitor centre we took a walk along a trail down to the shore of the lake, but not knowing where the trail would take us, or how long it was, we decided to head back. On our way past the Three Rondavells we saw a Lanner Falcon and Rock Kestrel and then headed into Hoedspruit to pick up some DVDs. We also stopped in at a craft centre for a look around and a Collared Sunbird was flitting around the trees.



P1450435 Chinspot Batis by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



P1450439 Chinspot Batis by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



P1450454 Waterfall by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



P1450460 Tadpole by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



P1450474 Butterfly by kittykat23uk, on Flickr



P1450487 Frog by kittykat23uk, on Flickr


If anyone knows the name of the frog and butterfly I'd be very grateful! :D

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