South Africa in winter


When my wife proposed a trip to Cape Province to see whales and big game in the southern winter, I initially hesitated. Surely, we should go to South Africa in the breeding season? Anyway, the game reserves are not really wild, are they? But when I downloaded Roberts' Birds of Southern Africa and paged through the common resident species, I quickly regretted my churlishness. And, as we discovered, there were also some unexpected benefits from visiting in the colder months.

Cape Province is of course the southernmost point of the African landmass, with no habitable land further south. Therefore, there are few if any land-based winter visitors, but there are Antarctic seabirds and whales that only visit at this time of year, escaping the polar winter. The influence of the Antarctic was quickly evident on our first trip out of Cape Town, to the African Penguins at Boulders Beach. This is one of just two places where Africa's only penguin species nests on the mainland. The adults strutted solemnly up and down the beach past the tourists, who were penned in behind fences like the inhabitants of a reverse zoo. As we watched the penguins coming and going, we kept a nervous eye on the sharp showers being driven through by the north-westerly wind.

African Penguins at Boulders Beach, Cape Peninsula.

Having said goodbye to the penguins, we drove further out along the Cape Pensinsula through the fynbos – the low vegetation of the southern African coast. The light was fading under heavy skies so we followed the road signs straight to the bare, rocky car park at the Cape of Good Hope. Sitting in the vehicle, being buffeted by the gale, I was watching thousands of cormorants streaming past, when a huge, long-winged bird with a front-heavy silhouette arced up from the troughs: a giant petrel, a classic bird of the southern oceans. I would have loved to have spent longer here but, having visited Antarctica before, we had not prioritised sea-birding in our itinerary. It was, though, easy to see why Cape Peninsula is claimed to have some of the best land-based sea-watching in the world.

Looking south at the Cape of Good Hope.

Winter has another advantage – almost no heat haze! Bird and wildlife photography can therefore be conducted at a leisurely pace throughout the daylight hours. The next day I drove round the over-grown settling ponds of the False Bay Coastal Park at Strandfontein, near Cape Town, using the car as a mobile hide. Some birds gave breath-takingly good views, such as this Cape Grassbird, captured in the near-horizontal mid-afternoon light.

Cape Grassbird at False Bay Coastal Park, Cape Town.

The main attraction of the coastal park is of course the water birds, such as Red-knobbed Coot, many of which also allowed close approach. Great White Pelicans, White-faced Whistling Ducks, African Swamphens and many other water birds loafed or swam among the pools. Little Swifts and Brown-throated Martins hawked overhead. A pair of Cape Siskins flew up from some low scrub, too fast to photograph. Standing guard by the dirt roads, however, were several individuals of another very common southern African species: Blacksmith Lapwing. Numerous and widespread, but what a cracking bird!

The best of Strandfontein was saved to last. As I was driving out, I was stunned to meet a Black-headed Heron standing on the track in front of me, pre-occupied with the huge rat it had just caught. The rat was far too big to fly off with, so the heron manoeuvred it into position, flipped it up and swallowed it whole right in front of me. An amazing sight, though I have to admit that I felt sorry for the rat!

Black-headed Heron with Brown Rat at False Bay Coastal Park, Cape Town.

In winter there are also fewer leaves on the trees, which can help when seeking skulking species. After Cape Town we flew 500 miles to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, and then drove another hour further east to Lalibela Game Reserve near Grahamstown. Our lodge was inconspicuously sited on the slope of a wooded valley, and many birds were calling and feeding in the surrounding brush. Of course, immediately on arrival I went out with binoculars and camera around the network of paths between the buildings (walking off the paths is not permitted for good reason). The source of a bizarre series of calls eventually revealed itself to be a family party of Southern Boubous. These engaging shrike-like birds are not shy but like to stay hidden, until they suddenly pop out of the nearest bush.

Other birds around the lodges included many Grey Mousebirds', a colourful pair of Cape Rock Thrushes, a cheeky Bar-throated Apalis, a very confiding Familiar Chat and a Streaky-headed Seedeater.

Southern Boubou and Familiar Chat at Lalibela; the chat is as friendly as its name suggests.

Of course, the main attraction here was the big game, and the lions put on a magnificent display. As we bumped along a track over the rough grassland on our evening game drive, one of the young males strode regally past in the light of the setting sun, perhaps looking for a sleeping place better sheltered from the biting wind.

Young male lion at sunset at Lalibela.

We headed back to the lodge in the gathering darkness, and the headlights revealed the bright eyes of Fiery-necked Nightjars resting on the track in front of us, taking the last remnants of the sun's warmth from the earth before the bitter wind completely chilled the landscape. A rarely-seen Brown Hyena loped away, just visible in the light of the ranger's lamp.

Lalibela is part-way through an ambitious programme of habitat restoration, removing the legacy of farming from the landscape and also several invasive species. At Kwandwe Private Game Reserve, a little further east, this process is complete – 2,000 kilometres of wire fencing were removed, and a very secure double fence erected around the perimeter of the property, which includes nine former farms. Carefully controlled populations of prey and predator species were then re-introduced. The large animals include lions, cheetahs, elephants, wildebeest, buffalo, zebras and many species of antelope. Leopards and hippopotamuses find their way in naturally along the Great Fish River, which bisects the reserve. The increase in biodiversity caused by the 'rewilding' is astounding. Every spring some of the rangers hold a ‘big birding day', from noon one day to noon the next, and usually score 180-190 species, an amazing total for a relatively small area in an inland location.

Pale Chanting Goshawk at Kwandwe.

On our first morning, we accompanied Ryan, our ranger, and Siya, our spotter, in the open-topped Landcruiser that was to be our mobile viewing platform for the next two days. It was a constant amazement to us that when seated in the vehicle, most animals just saw us as part of the machine and ignored us. Fortunately, this included the big cats! After a few kilometres, we stopped to look at some springbok and Ryan noticed a cheetah stalking them. The springbok started to move and in a trice the cheetah broke cover, chased them across the road in front of us and, after an incredible burst of acceleration, caught and suffocated one of them just a few yards away. 

After recovering her breath, the mother cheetah dragged the dead springbok into the shade and called in her five cubs from across the valley with high 'yips'..  Twenty minutes later they arrived, she 'opened' the carcass and the cubs hungrily set upon the fresh kill. I found it very raw and moving – shock and sadness at the death of the antelope in front of my very eyes combined with relief that the mother and cubs could feed.

Female cheetah and cub with freshly killed springbok at Kwandwe.

A positive legacy of the farming era, from a birding perspective, is the dams that were constructed to provide water for livestock. These dams enrich the bird life considerably. The largest of them, the Galpin Dam near the southern edge of Kwandwe, attracts many water birds and irrigates a wooded valley just below the dam itself. We stopped the vehicle amongst the trees and watched Southern Tchagra, Knysna Woodpecker, Cape Batis and even an unexpected Spotted Flycatcher, which had chosen to remain in southern Africa rather than migrating to Europe. Heading back to our accommodation we stopped to admire a pair of Malachite Sunbirds feeding oe aloes by the garden wall, the iridescent green male an eye-popping contrast with the red flowers in the setting sun.

Male Malachite Sunbird feeding on aloes in the setting sun at Kwandwe.

Kwandwe commits huge resources to the protection of their big animals, which include highly endangered species such as Black and White Rhinoceroses. The next day we joined Ryan and Siya on a 'walking safari' through the bush. Using chalk dust in an old sock to ascertain the precise direction of the almost imperceptible breeze (it is essential to be downwind), Ryan guided us silently to within about 60 metres of a party of White Rhinoceros. Our hearts were in our mouths as we stood stock-still in the shade of a bush while the huge (but thankfully short-sighted) animals passed by, their ears swinging independently in all directions, like mobile hearing trumpets, analysing the smallest sounds. Photography was not advised due to the need to avoid any movement or noise. As we carefully (and elatedly) walked back to the Landcruiser, we saw an Aardwolf scuttling away. This is a nocturnal dog-like creature (the name means 'earth-wolf') that lives mostly on the termites it extracts from their earth mounds – and it is unusual to see one.

As well as the rangers constantly patrolling by vehicle, a helicopter was frequently in the air watching for poachers (though the reserve at 54,000 acres is so large that we rarely saw the security measures). The numbers of staff employed by the reserve are approximately double the numbers previously employed by the farms that were here before, so the local people have also benefited. Of course, this level of protection and service is not cheap, so neither is a stay at any game reserve. I would strongly recommend including at least a day or two of safari in a southern African itinerary, more if possible. Needless to stay, tourist rates throughout South Africa are lower in winter than in the spring-summer high season.

Ryan, Siya and my wife scanning for rhinoceros at Kwandwe.

Our final stay was at Morukuru Beach Lodge, in the De Hoop Nature Reserve on the southern coast of the Western Cape, overlooking the Indian Ocean. The sea here is a protected area from which boats are excluded to avoid disturbance of the wintering Southern Right Whales. Over breakfast we watched the huge mammals breaching time and time again offshore, as the mothers and calves idled slowly past waving their fins just beyond the surf. A wonderful way to enjoy coffee and croissants!

Southern Right Whale, with distinctive white callosities, breaching at Morukuru.

Bottle-nosed Dolphins and Black Oystercatchers also went back and forth, and flocks of Greater Crested Terns erupted from the rocks, circled noisily round and settled back on their perches.

Morukuru Beach Lodge at sunrise.

The De Hoop Nature Reserve has abundant wildlife but no dangerous animals. You can wander or cycle at will through the fynbos and across the plains, which was a delight after the necessary restrictions of the game reserves. Each day I went for a dawn walk near the Beach Lodge before breakfast, as the sun filled the eastern sky with colour. In winter, dawn is at the civilised time of 07:45. Orange-breasted and Southern Double-collared Sunbirds chattered as I passed, and red-tailed Cape Robin Chats, stripey-headed Cape Buntings and yellow-fronted Bokmakieries emerged from the foliage to examine the intruder. A Black Harrier glided past and a Common Quail called in the distance.

Cape Robin Chat in the early morning sun at Morukuru.

On our final morning, it was a difficult to leave this magical place and drive back to Cape Town Airport. Our consolation was a scattering of 18 Blue Cranes wintering in the fields just outside the reserve – surely among the world's most elegant birds!

Blue Crane in fields just outside the De Hoop Nature Reserve.

It was an amazing trip and I honestly feel that we not only had a wonderful time but, in a very small way, contributed to a remarkable conservation success story.

Written by: Rod Standing