I am a bird nerd of the highest order, which is how I found myself in the Cederberg this past weekend with a pack of 40 birdwatchers, every one of which was a good two to three decades’ my senior. You were going to ask, weren’t you? Everybody does. Why drive 290 km from Cape Town to attend a weekend away with the Cape Bird Club, which periodically arranges these kinds of camping trips, as well as weekend and weekday morning excursions to birding hot spots around the Cape?
Even the CBC members were surprised to see two young ladies arriving (and young in this context is a relative thing). Truthfully, the answer is slightly more complex than a mere lifelong affliction of birdwatching fever.
I’ll take any excuse to get out into the Cape wilderness and for all its treacherous high mountain passes, the Cederberg in winter is strikingly beautiful. This is a landscape of grand scale in both the horizontal and vertical axes, with its vast plains and boulder-strewn slopes soaring skywards into craggy cliff-faces and rocky pinnacles.
The Cederberg is one of the precious few places where Fynbos is the reigning floral kingdom and so birdwatchers flock here, even from overseas, to observe the bird species that are endemic to this biome, such as Cape sugarbirds and orange-breasted sunbirds. The area is also home to several nesting pairs of Verreaux’s eagles, enormous black raptors with diagnostic white “windows” (patches on the wing) that surf the daytime thermals radiating off the desiccated valleys below.
Cederberg Park at Kromrivier Farm
Our home for the weekend was Cederberg Park at Kromrivier, a working farm that has belonged to the Nieuwoudt family since 1856. The park is located in an important conservancy area that offers thrilling activities for the nature and outdoor enthusiast: camping, hiking, birdwatching, swimming (in the river and dams), bushmen cave paintings, and at night, when the last of the sunlight leaches from the sky: stargazing.
The Cederberg Park reception centre is a remarkably civilized set-up with a pleasant lounge area, restaurant, shop, and outdoor terrace overlooking a clipped lawn and indigenous garden. We soon became fond of the terrace as a birdwatching area for its proximity to both the garden (and its feathered inhabitants) and the shop from where we purchased cold bottles of locally brewed Nieuwoudt craft beer and Kromrivier wine.
Here alone we managed to add ten different species of birds to our list, including Karoo scrub-robin, Karoo prinia, Cape robin-thrush, Cape bunting, and a heavily streaked yellow bishop that had us scratching our heads on its ID for a good half-hour. The garden’s bordering rocks were adorned with colourful sunbathing agama lizards.
Brandy-less braai and stargazing
Our first day of lazy exploration and terrace-side birdwatching culminated in an evening braai in the camping area, where all forty or so CBC members gathered to swap stories, compare bird notes, and dine together. There was an unusual absence of brandy and coke and everyone braaied before seven, a virtually unheard-of anomaly at the kind of braais I’m accustomed to. It was a convivial, happy atmosphere and we were approached several times by warm, welcoming members that were so very happy to see that there are some “youngsters” out there interested in birding.
After eating and upon returning to our chalet (because my “plus one” is a princess who’s allergic to anything that creeps or crawls), we took a good twenty minutes to gape in utter amazement at the star-studded vault that yawned over our heads. With the moon still tucked behind the horizon and there being no light pollution, the Milky Way revealed itself in all its glittering splendour, even treating us to a particularly bright meteor burning up in the atmosphere.
Oh, what a beautiful morning!
Mornings in the Cederberg are frigid. Dressed in multiple layers, we bundled out into the crisp morning air to join the Cape Bird Club for our first, organised bird walk into the farmlands. Within 30 minutes of departing, sun well in the sky, the frosty bite of the morning was completely forgotten and we began shedding our warm layers. Our three-hour meander around Kromrivier Farm was rewarded with sightings of stonechat, African pipit, mountain wheatear, bokmakerie, malachite sunbird, and a dappled grey horse to which I fed my breakfast apple.
We were left to our own devices that afternoon. The day was warm and the sky completely cloudless so some braved the icy river water and went for a dip, while others put their feet up to read and/or nap. One thing about weekending with the Cape Bird Club is that the itinerary includes equal measures of adventure and downtime. And such was the remainder of our trip: alternating between leisurely birdwatching walks through the farmstead, fields, and surrounding Fynbos vegetation and reading, napping, having braais, and socialising with a friendly group of people with wonderful stories to tell and deep knowledge to share.
Our bird list steadily grew over the course of the weekend as we enjoyed sightings of Cape sugarbird, southern double-collared sunbird, Cape canary, common waxbills, southern fiscals, Namaqua dove, white-necked raven, and possibly the highlight of the trip, a fleeting glimpse of an African snipe (a small, stocky wader) that we had flushed out of the reeds.
Why I love being a CBC member
A weekend away with the Cape Bird Club isn’t just about birdwatching, which is reason enough to go. It’s also about steeping yourself in nature, going for long, slow walks through the veldt, and connecting with good people with great knowledge, experience, and a sense of humour. There really is nothing like a new bird sighting, a Cederberg sunset, or a serious dose of big sky country to aid one in recovering from life’s stresses.
Yes, birdwatching is a rewarding and contagious hobby, as it turns out (my plus one is already enquiring about the next CBC excursion). It’s portable too meaning that no matter where in the country and even the world you travel, there’s escape and fascination to be found.
The Cape Bird Club: www.capebirdclub.org.za
For more information on the Cederberg Park at Kromrivier, email firstname.lastname@example.org, call +27 (0) 27 482 2807, check out the Facebook page at www.facebook/Kromrivier or go to www.cederbergtourist.co.za.