Blue Cranes
A Karoo Christmas...

After years of dreaming, and yearning for wide open spaces in unexplored (by us) parts of South Africa, we took an extensive journey through the Eastern Cape and Karoo to investigate some of these areas over the 2015 festive season. Some 4000km and over 2000 photos later we returned home having had the best road trip adventure - enjoying the stunning scenery, adding new bird and mammal species to our list, consuming (a lot of!) delicious food, meeting many wonderful, interesting and eccentric people! It really is a wonderful part of the country and well worth a return visit.

Golden Gate
Golden Gate National Park

Our first destination was the beautiful Golden Gate Highlands National Park located in the foothills of the Maluti Mountains in the eastern Free State, near the Lesotho border. The park is particularly spectacular with its rich golden, ochre, and orange-hued sandstone cliffs and outcrops and the rolling hillsides are covered with green grasses and tiny flowering plants.

This 11 600-hectare highland reserve is made for hikers with many walking trails of varying lengths and fitness levels. It is home to a variety of interesting mammals such as black wildebeest, eland and springbok and the highlight for us was a fabulous sighting of two groups of Grey Rhebok calling between each other at different levels of the mountainside – a new species for us with both photos and sound recordings in the bag. Black-backed Jackals were very common in the open grasslands hunting for rodents and other interesting delicacies.


Grey Rhebok Jackal

Birdwise the park is renowned for the rare Bearded Vulture that breeds in the mountains as well as another endangered species, the Cape Vulture. There is a great bird hide overlooking an open area that is sometimes supplied with carcasses for both species of vultures to feed on. Unfortunately our luck was out, but a photo opportunity of a Mountain Pipit made up for this – an uncommon migrant restricted to the mountains in the area and another new bird for both of us. A Ground Woodpecker right in front of the park offices was another good find.

Woodpecker Pipit
Ground Woodpecker
Mountain Pipit

Despite the very dry conditions the park was full of fabulous flowers as well as a variety of different insects feeding on the flowers - with many still to be identified. A Golden Gate Brown butterfly was another exciting find for us.

flower butterfly flower

During our Golden Gate expedition we stayed in a quaint little self-catering stone farm cottage in the nearby town of Fouriesburg and also visited Clarens which is well-known for its many, many art galleries, street cafes and coffee shops. Sarah browsed through EVERY art gallery and many of the gift, craft, chocolate shops, whilst Derek got to know the various coffee shops and local craft beer brewery. Two excellent discoveries were The Purple Onion Deli which is an amazing emporium filled all things foodie - jams, fudges, coffee, cherry products (the surrounding farming areas are major producers of cherries), pasta, sauces & chutneys, wines - you name it and they had it! And the charming Blanket Shop on the outskirts of town which is stocked floor to ceiling with blankets for every occasion - mostly Basotho blankets for the people of Lesotho - and is run by the original owners - 2 delightful sisters now in their 80's. Be warned that the sisters are so delightful, have a wonderful sales narrative and are full of stories of the origins, designs and uses for their blankets that you will feel compelled (entirely of your own free will) to own one or two for yourself!

cottage blanket shop
Fouriesburg Cottage
Clarens Blanket Shop

Then off to the Great Karoo and a stunning working sheep 50km east of the town of Middleburg in the Eastern Cape. Built in the late 1800’s, accommodation is in a quaint, fully equipped ironstone farm cottage. We chose the self-catering option for breakfast and lunch, but the most delicious dinners were prepared for us by one of the owner’s daughters who is a cordon bleu chef - we could wax lyrical for pages about our meals here - but suffice it to say they were a gastronomic delight, the karoo lamb was undoubtedly the best we have ever tasted and the desserts were exquisite and worth every pound we gained!

The wide open vistas are what makes the Karoo so special; whilst some may find this a desolate landscape for us the brooding solitude and stillness and bare beauty with its array of rich brown tones is very appealing. And once you look a little closer the ground is alive with plants, colourful rocks and little creatures. There were brilliant sunsets most evenings and the vast skies offered stunning star gazing late at night.

hilston farm
Hillston Farm

For Derek, Hillston was an LBJ (Little Brown Job) paradise offering a wide range of new and exciting species, though identifying some of the larks wasn't quite so exciting! Before daybreak each morning we could hear a large flock of Blue Cranes, South Africa’s national bird, calling loudly from the edge of the nearby farm dam and providing some great sound recording opportunities. Photographing them wasn't so easy, it requires a very early start and creeping silently up to the dam wall - it turns out we are not as quiet as we think! We did however get lovely in-flight shots. Many hours were spent trying to get photos of the Blue Korhaan (a lifer for us) while it was on the ground, but once again birds in flight were the only result. The trees around the dam also attracted a host of other species including the delightful little Fairy Flycatcher (another lifer).

clapper lark Koraan
Eastern Clapper Lark
Blue Korhaan

Mammals included many Yellow Mongoose, some even coming into the farm garden, and a Cape Hare that sat really still on one of our drives hoping that we wouldn’t see it. Merino sheep for wool production are the mainstay of the farm and at one stage they also farmed Angora goats for mohair, but now there are only a few goats remaining. A visit to the sheep shearing shed, which was originally a Boer War blockhouse and barracks, was really interesting particularly as all of this work is still done entirely by hand with no technological advancements of the modern day.

Cape Hare Angora Goat

sunset

With Christmas on our doorstep we moved on to what is the fourth oldest town in South Africa – Graaf Reinet. This wonderful very picturesque Karoo gem is well-known for its old Cape Dutch architecture and is home to more national monuments than any other town in South Africa. One of these is the Dutch Reformed Church in the centre of town, which is the only known church in South Africa and possibly the world to have a kitchen and chimney! The Drostdy Hotel, erected in 1806 as a government building, was our venue for Christmas lunch as our guest house was closed that day.

church

We stayed in the fabulous Andries Stockenstrom Guest House; the old manor house, built in 1819 on land owned by the pioneer is a national monument and is steeped in the history of the region. It is renowned for its cuisine and host and chef Gordon Wright is a real character, meeting guests before dinner each evening and discussing the various dinner options in enthusiastic detail describing how each course would be prepared and how the ingredients are sourced - he is passionate about supporting local organic farmers in the area. Needless-to-say the dinners were excellent and the recommended merlot - 'The Dog's Bollocks' was not sent back!

Two of the attractions on the edge of town were the 14 000ha Camdeboo National Park and the Valley of Desolation. The reserve is home to a variety of Karoo mammals including Cape Mountain Zebra (only one very poor photograph of this one, which was another lifer for us, due to distance and haze), Black Wildebeest and Springbok. The highlight in the open Karoo scrub section of the park was a pair of Karoo Korhaan’s displaying and calling with a great opportunity to video them and record their rather frog-like call.

wildebeest korhaan

The Valley of Desolation, which lies within the Camdeboo Park, is an amazing geological formation with sheer cliffs and dolerite pillars rising 120 m from the valley floor created over 100 million years ago. It is another national monument within the Graaf Reinet area with one viewpoint overlooking the town itself.

valley of desolation

One of our excursions from Graaf Reinet was to Nieu Bethesda some 50km away - a wonderfully bizarre little village with wide dusty streets and no fuel stations or ATMs or credit card facilities. The village was founded some 130 years ago and it seems life continues much as it did then. The economic mainstay was agriculture with the region’s Angora goats and Karoo lamb being very well know; nowadays much of the industry is based around art, there many street cafes and small eateries, galleries and gift shops, potteries and sculpture gardens – most famously, the late Helen Martins’ extraordinary 'Owl House'.

sign village
shop brewary

owl house owl house owl house owl house owl house

With Christmas behind us we started our long journey to the city of Kimberley, the capital of the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. Historically it is well-known for its significance in the diamond mining industry and personalities such as Cecil Rhodes and Barney Barnato made their fortunes here. In the 1870s thousands of miners arrived digging the area with picks and shovels in the frantic search for diamonds. The original hill disappeared completely and eventually ended up as a hole 240 m deep that yielded 2,772 kg diamonds between July 1871 to 1914. This is now known as the Big Hole.

big hole big hole

Adjacent to the Big Hole is the Kimberley Mine Museum, which brings to life the way the city was during the frenetic days of the diamond rush. Many of the buildings here are originals that have been moved over the years to this spot - it is really well done as is the timeline museum which showcases the events, history and people of the area.

kimberley
kimberley kimberley kimberley

In addition to the really interesting Kimberley history (which included visits to an excellent museum and art gallery) one of our aims was see the massive flamingo breeding colony a short drive north of the town. Sadly there is no access to the public as the site is on private farm land so we had to settle for a long distance view from the main highway. Even from a distance the hundreds of thousands of flamingos is an incredibly impressive site so we were very disappointed to not be able to get a bit closer.

flamingos

All too soon it was time for the long trip home - with a restful overnight stop on an Arabian horse stud farm in Klerksdorp and our final night in the lovely trout fishing village of Dullstroom. Our guest cottage was set in the most beautiful lush gardens - a very welcome sight after the dry conditions on most of our journey, and our New Year's dinner was one to remember at the excellent 'Mrs Simpson's'!

cottage dullstroom

map
a rough route map of our journey