Great birding sites on the Escarpment are:
Golden Gate National Park
The Golden Gate Highlands National Park derives its name from the brilliant shades of gold cast by the sun on the park's sandstone cliffs, especially the imposing Brandwag rock, keeping vigil over the main rest camp. This 11 600 hectares of unique environment is true highland habitat, providing home to a variety of mammals – black wildebeest, eland, blesbok, oribi, springbok and Burchell's zebra - and birds, including the rare bearded vulture (lammergeier) and the equally rare bald ibis, which breed on the ledges in the sandstone cliffs. Ribbokkop, the highest point in the park, reveals a breathtaking tapestry of red, yellow and purple hues as its warm shades merge with the cool mountain shadows towards evening. A tarred road spans the park although areas of the park are accessible by foot. Habitats include montane grassland, rocky cliffs and deeply incised valleys with sparse woody vegetation.
While descending the mountain pass from Golden Gate be on the lookout for Bearded and Cape Vulture, Bald Ibis, Black Eagle, Amur Falcon (summer), Alpine Swift, Whitenecked Raven, Buffstreaked Chat, Grassbird, Drakensberg Prinia, and Malachite Sunbird flying between proteas on the mountain slopes. Montane grassland and associated mountain habitats host Bearded & Cape Vulture and White-necked Raven, while a number of Black/Verreaux's Eagle pairs breed in the area.
Areas of protea woodland provide habitat for endemic Gurney's Sugarbird and various sunbird species in summer. Two other key specials in the area include the Drakensberg Rock Jumper and Drakensberg Siskin. Coveys of endemic Grey-winged Francolin are common in the grasslands, and Red-winged Francolin and Wailing Cisticola may also be encountered. Pied & Red-winged Starling, Yellow-rumped Widow and Malachite Sunbird are present in the hotel gardens, and Ground Woodpecker may be seen on large roadside boulders within Golden Gate National Park. Cape Rock Thrush is often present in Glen Reenen camp.
A patch of ouhout (Leucosidea) shrub just across the stream from the main camping site is a good area for Bush Blackcap, Grassbird and Drakensberg Prinia; the shy and elusive Barratt's Warbler may also be found here. Along the R712 in the west of Golden Gate Highlands National Park, a small hide overlooks a dam where various waterfowl, including African Black Duck as well as various egrets may be present, the latter breeding in partially-submerged trees in summer. Further east on the R712 to Harrismith is the Basutho Cultural Village. Apart from the obvious cultural experience this working village offers, this is the only accessible place in the area where Buff-streaked Chat and Mocking Chat may be found. Gurney's Sugarbird also occurs occasionally at this slightly lower altitude. The strikingly-patterned endemic Bokmakierie should be found throughout the park, wherever there is woody vegetation.
Blue Korhaan is present in the lower-lying grasslands adjacent to the road in the Qwa Qwa section of the park, and Grey Crowned Crane and Southern Bald Ibis may also be seen close to and in the moister wetland areas. Cloud and Ayres' Cisticola can be heard displaying over these grasslands in summer while the less common Pale-crowned Cisticola occurs in the moister areas only. Although access to the higher-lying grassland areas is somewhat limited, Mountain Pipit (a rare summer migrant to altitudes above 2000m) and Yellow-breasted Pipit do occur. The endemic Drakensberg Rockjumper, common in the high mountains of neighbouring Lesotho, sometimes moves to lower altitudes in the park, particularly during winter, when snow covers the highest peaks. A stay of a few days should produce a list of over 100 bird species, although this is dependent on the season, with fewer species present in winter.
Golden Gate Highlands National Park is equidistant from Johannesburg, Durban and Bloemfontein (approx: 340km) and is easily accessible via a good tar road. A public road bisects the park and all roads within the park are tarred and suitable for sedan type vehicles. Access is via the tarred R712, either from nearby Clarens (west) or Harrismith (east). The Park is well signposted.
|Golden Gate Highlands National Park||S 28°30'05.07"||E 28°39'.03.55"|
Hotel, self-catering chalet and camping accommodation as well as other facilities are available in Golden Gate Highlands National Park, and a fee is payable when staying in the Park. A number of good, all-weather roads, as well as hiking trails traverse various areas of the two parks. Accommodation is booked through SANParks through either their national office or through the Golden Gate Highlands National Park office:
SANParks Head Office
Tel: +27 012 428 9111
Fax: +27 058 255 1100
Golden Gate Highlands National Park
Tel: +27 058 255 1000
Fax: +27 058 255 1100
Glen Reenen Rest Camp
Glen Reenen Rest Camp has a number of rondavels and guest cottages with either one double and two single beds or two single and one stack bed, bathroom (shower) and kitchen with basic equipment. There are a number of caravan and camping sites in beautiful shaded grounds at Glen Reenen with ablution and braai facilities being available. Power points are available at the ablution blocks and at some of the camp sites. A maximum of 6 persons, one caravan/tent and one vehicle or one auto villa permitted per site.
Basotho Cultural Village Rest Camp
The camp resembles an 18th century Basotho Village. The surroundings take you back from the pathway of previous times to the modern days, here the Basotho lifestyle, architectural and hospitality is the order of the day. The Basotho Cultural Village Rest Camp offers comfortable self-catering accommodation with splendid views where game viewing is practically enjoyed without the trouble of having to embark on a game searching journey. The Camp also has communal braai facilities that are shared amongst families sharing the kraal and also private Weber braai facilities for every chalet.
Highlands Mountain Retreat Rest Camp
The recently built Highlands Mountain Retreat is a luxury camp in Golden Gate. The camp has eight log cabins nestled in the foothills of Golden Gate, that can accommodate 4 families of 4 each (2 bedrooms each en-suite) and 4 that can accommodate 2 persons each (1 bedroom).
Golden Gate Hotel
Formerly known as Brandwag Hotel, this luxury accommodation has always been synonymous with Golden Gate. A wide spectrum of services and facilities has always been offered, which stretched out onto the 34 adjacent fully-equipped chalets. Although the hotel has undergone minor renovations over the years, a point was reached where a major upgrade was necessary.
Golden Gate primarily falls in a summer rainfall area (Sept to April) and the annual rainfall is approximately 760 mm per year. In very wet years this figure can rise to 1250 mm. Mild highveld summers with the possibility of thunderstorms in the afternoon and cold winters with occasional snow transforming the park. The winter temperatures in Golden Gate can plummet to -9 to -15 degrees C and snow is a regular occurrence in the park. The ideal time of the year to visit Golden Gate and Qwa Qwa is in the spring and summer month when many of the species are displaying. In the cooler parts of the year (May-September) the majority of grassland species descend to lower altitudes.
Compiled by Rick Nuttall, Dawie de Swardt and Martin Taylor 2010
Harrismith lies equidistant from Johannesburg and Durban along the N3 highway. One of the larger towns in the region, Harrismith is a great stepping stone from which to explore the highland areas of the Drakensberg escarpment; Sterkfontein Dam NR, Qwa-Qwa NP, Golden Gate Highlands NP and Royal Natal NP. The landscape around Harrismith is dominated by gently undulating grassland, much of which is now under agriculture, interspersed with flat-topped hills showing sandstone cliffs ie. Platberg, the mesa overlooking the town. From Harrismith there are a number of gravel roads radiating out, and a drive along any of these should reveal a good selection of highland birds. Birds to look out for in the surrounding countryside include Blue & Grey-crowned crane, Blue & Barrow's korhaan, Ludwig's bustard (occasionally), Southern bald ibis, Ant-eating chat and Pied starling.
There are a number of accommodation options available in the town – see www.drakensberg-tourism.com/harrismith.html
Harrismith lies just off the N3 halfway between Johannesburg (215km JHB – Harrismith) and Durban (214 km DBN – Harrismith).
|Harrismith||28° 15' 32.19"S||29° 07' 03.94"E|
The main birding habitats in the Memel area are extensive high-altitude plateau grasslands, particularly to the south and south-west of Memel, wetlands, including the extensive Seekoeivlei wetland (immediately to the north of Memel) and others, particularly along the Klip River to the south. Rocky hillsides and cliffs are also present and are host to a number of interesting bird species. Small patches of mistbelt forest are found near Normandien Pass and elsewhere along the Drakensberg escarpment south of Memel. The area offers spectacular scenery and quality birding.
Specials found in the area include Cape Vulture, Black Harrier (mainly in autumn & winter), Southern Bald Ibis, Denham's Bustard, Blue Korhaan, Burchell's & Temminck's Courser, Ground Woodpecker, Eastern Long-billed, Rudd's & Botha's Lark, Yellow-breasted & African Rock Pipit, Buff-streaked Chat, Sentinel Rock Thrush and Bush Blackcap. Wattled, Grey Crowned and Blue Crane also occur and breed in the area. Western Marsh-Harrier has been recorded over the Seekoeivlei wetland in summer.
(Please visit the Bird Hide page for a description on the grading of the accessibility of the different Bird Hides).
The reserve has three beautiful hides built from recycled plastic material. The walkways and hides itself is fully accessible. The hides overlook the wetland and open water where many waterbird species can be observed. During wet season some of the hides might not be accessible as the roads are flooded. The different hides are: Moorhen (27°36'44.73"S 29°35'11.62"E); Coot (27°35'29.89"S 29°35'30.07"E) and Mvubu (Hippo) (27°35'12.30"S 29°35'16.60"E).
Memel is situated in the north-eastern Free State, where it borders Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, close to the Drakensberg Escarpment. Memel is on the tarred R34, between Vrede (Free State) and Newcastle (KwaZulu-Natal), about 250 km from Johannesburg.
|Memel village||S 27°40´49.98"||E 29°33´52.34"|
|Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve (entrance to Waterval)||S 27°38´32.63"||E 29°33´33.61"|
The area boasts approximately 250 bird species. A two to three day stay in the pleasant surroundings is highly recommended, particularly during summer (late October to late February), when many of the "specials" of the area are more conspicuous as they display and vocalize.
A robust, high clearance vehicle is recommended, as a number of the gravel roads are quite bumpy and rocky in places. Caution is also necessary on these roads when wet, when they may become very slippery. For general information on the area, details of access to specific sites (a number of which are on private farmland) and where to find specific bird species, please contact Mahem Country House (tel. +27(0)58 924 0034; cell +27(0)82 565 8939; fax. +27(0)58 924 0536), which also offers excellent B&B and self-catering accommodation.
Compiled by Nikki McCartney & Rick Nuttall; May 2010.
Van Reenen's Pass
Straddling the provinces of the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal, the small village of Van Reenen sits perched on top of the Drakensberg escarpment. The village lies at the top of Van Reenen's Pass, a spectacular pass that is the major thoroughfare along the N3 through the Drakensberg Mountains. Situated roughly half-way between Johannesburg and Durban, Van Reenen provides birders with the perfect opportunity for a rest and some highveld birding! The steep, rocky cliffs of the Drakensberg provide excellent nest sites for cliff nesting birds such as Bald ibis, Cape vulture, Peregrine falcon, Rock kestrel, Jackal buzzard and White-necked raven. A number of swift species also utilise cliffs for breeding, so in summer keep an eye in the sky for African black, Alpine, White-rumped and Little swifts. Pied and Red-winged starlings are regularly seen on the roadside or near human habitation.
There are a number of accommodation options available in the village – see http://www.vanreenentourism.co.za
Van Reenen lies on the N3 between the towns of Harrismith and Ladysmith. The village is 30 km's south of Harrismith.
|Van Reenen||28° 22' 23.91"S||29° 22' 36.20"E|
The small country village of Verkykerskop lies nestled in the foothills of the Drakensberg escarpment between the towns of Memel and Harrismith. The area is typified by numerous sandstone hills rising prominently above gently undulating grassland. These sandstone hills/koppies, together with streams and creeks, harbour trees and shrubs providing an alternative habitat to the high-altitude grasslands that dominate the landscape. Although large parts of the Verkykerskop area is used for agriculture, it is primarily cattle ranching and as such the grasslands still support an impressive suite of bird species. Add to this the perennial pan and the man-made dams, and you have the making for a rewarding days birding.
There are a number of accommodation options available in the village – see www.verkykerskop.com
Take the N3 north towards Warden/Villiers. On the outskirts of Harrismith turn right off the N3 onto the R722 to Verkykerskop. The village is 45 km's from Harrismith.
Travel into Warden and look for signs to Verkykerskop (S789). The village of Verkykerskop lies 45 km's along this gravel road. After approx. 42 km's you'll reach a T-junction of the S789 and the S57, turn right onto the S57 towards Verkykerskop.
*If there have been heavy rains, it is advisable to take the tarred R722 from Harrismith.*
|Verkykerskop||27° 55' 16.25"S||29° 16' 46.45"E|
Witsieshoek is situated high up in the Drakensberg Mountains close to the Lesotho border. The road from Phuthaditjhaba to Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge is mostly through rural townships, but as you climb in elevation you escape human habitation for vast vistas of sandstone hills and montane grassland – keep a look out for Grey-wing francolin on this stretch. A stop at Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge is worthwhile as the lodge maintains a vulture 'restaurant' which regularly attracts Bearded vulture. Other regulars at the 'restaurant' include Cape vulture, White-necked raven and Lanner falcon. The gravel road from Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge to the Sentinel car park offers an excellent opportunity for seeing high altitude Drakensberg specials without having to use a 4X4 vehicle. The spectacular drive up to the viewpoint at the Sentinel often rewards one with White-necked ravens, Wailing cisticola, Drakensberg siskin, Long-billed pipit, Jackal buzzard and Rock kestrel. But by far the highlight of this drive is the chance to see the endemic Drakensberg rock-jumper in the rock-strewn slopes around the car park.
Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge offers B&B accommodation from around R390 pppn – see www.witsieshoek.co.za
Witsieshoek is easily accessible via Harrismith. Take the N5 out of Harrismith to Kestell/Bethlehem. After 4 km's take a left onto the R712 to Phuthaditjhaba and follow the R712 for ±50 km's. Pass through Phuthaditjhaba and look for signs to Fika Patso Dam and Witsieshoek. The road is tar until the last 10-15km before the Sentinel car park.
|Sentinel car park||28° 43' 38.88"S||28° 53' 27.47"E|