In August I took up my first post-graduation job as a Teaching Assistant with the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS). This company runs study-abroad courses for US students in a number of destinations worldwide, including Costa Rica, Australia, and SA. The South African semester is called ‘African Ecology and Conservation’ and over 100 days the course travels widely between various national parks and other protected areas, including Kruger, Mapungubwe, Cape Town and the Cederberg. Along with around 20 20-something American undergraduates (see what I did there?), there are also two South Africans on each course, which was how I first experienced OTS back in 2010 while doing my Honours degree at UCT. My OTS experience was life-changing in a number of ways, including igniting my passion for birds, exposing me to a variety of field-based techniques that I’ve used many times since in my own research, and through meeting new friends from all over ‘Murica. Ever since my course I’ve had an eye of making my way onto the course again as a staff member, so I was chuffed and excited when the OTS SA Director, Laurence Kruger, came asking!
I found my way up to Skukuza for the pre-course planning week with the other staff, most of whom I luckily knew already through other channels. The only member of academic staff that I hadn’t met was Jess, who is the other Teaching Assistant for this semester, but she’s one of those people who it’s near-impossible not to get along with. We immediately got thrown in the deep end with curricular, logistical, administrative planning meetings and tasks that completely overwhelmed us. I was especially sorry for Jess, who hadn’t the faintest at the outset what to expect. Having done the course I had a slight advantage, but even for me it was information overload. It just goes to show how seriously the team takes the job, and what a monster mission it is to organize a 100 day-long live-in academic semester!
And in a flash the planning week had flown by, and we were off to the airport in Johannesburg to pick the students up! Jess and I got creative with some welcome signs, but it was sneaky of her to withhold her penchant for fine art before letting me agree to a competition… Nevertheless, we collected the students without issue and got them back to the overnight accommodation. The next morning we bundled them and their luggage into the cars in -3°C – isn’t Africa supposed to be hot?! We headed north to visit Freedom Park, a kind of museum space exploring the complex and chequered history of South Africa. The exhibit is set up in a revisionist style, including voices and stories from the oppressed peoples rather than adopting the more Eurocentric narrative timeline style. It was very effective and moving, albeit a lot to take in on a first day for the jetlagged students who still lacked a full context for what they were being exposed to.
From here we pushed east to the Pullen Farm Nature Reserve in the vicinity of Barberton. This area is known for having the oldest exposed rocks in the world, and it supports a mesic savanna habitat. This was to be the crucible for the students’ introduction to South African ecosystems. The next few days were intensive, with lectures covering a range of topics on ecology, conservation, the philosophy of science, and South African history and culture. My contributions were a lecture on human disturbance (based on my Master’s), a lecture on South African history and important figures, a bird identification workshop and practical outing, and a fun lecture on braai culture. I also helped to organize the OTS Amazing Race – an activity that pits student teams against each other in a race to complete tasks and navigate using GPS units. It’s designed to be fun and to help break the ice, and included egg-throwing (to each other), cooldrink chugging, riddle-solving, and even an adapted non-alcoholic beer pong setup. At the end it required a talent show to separate the top teams, with highlights being card tricks, an impromptu rap, and a seminar on the art of wood whittling (you had to be there…).
It was also at Pullen that I had something of an oopsie. While running on some pretty poor roads I mis-stepped on a loose rock and tumbled downhill. My ankle immediately swelled up like a tennis ball. Since it was early evening I gave it the night before heading to the doctor, but by that time walking on it was out of the question. X-rays seemed to point at a snapped ligament, and I was ordered to rest which curtailed my involvement for the last few days. A follow up visit to the doctor once the swelling had subsided confirmed serious ligament damage, but it was inconclusive just how bad it was. I was ordered to visit a physio to see what function I could regain, otherwise the possibility of surgery was mentioned. Luckily rehab has been going well and it looks like I'll make a full recovery.
From Pullen we moved on to Skukuza Camp within the Kruger National Park. This is the HQ for OTS SA, and the students were of course all buzzing to see some big game that the park is known for. We set ourselves up at the Skukuza Science Centre - a brand-new, green-built facility born from a joint partnership between OTS, SANParks, and the Nsasani Trust. In fact, the grand opening for the centre took place a matter of days after we arrived. I managed to land the job of event photographer, which was about as useful as I could make myself with limited mobility. The centre includes a library, laboratory and lecture theatre, and it was here that the students got their first taste of real research. First there were the Long Term Research Projects which involved three days of fieldwork on a variety of different subjects. I supervised a project collecting raptor data along road transects. Essentially this was an opportunity to do an extended game drive while birding, which suited me just fine! Then came two visiting faculty to run projects on bats and tree traits. I was less involved with these, but still enjoyed assisting with some fieldwork. After this period of activity the students were rewarded with some consolidation time, and then we were treated to some student seminars on recent conservation research which we designed as a mock conference in the lecture theatre. I had a lot of fun chairing some sessions and getting creative with their introductions. One of the students likened my efforts to a ‘roast’, which probably encapsulated the tongue-in-cheek approach I took.
After a solid few weeks in Skukuza we trekked north through the park to HaMakuya in rural Venda. Here the students were to engage in cultural homestays. This involves becoming part of a homestead, doing chores like firewood collection, eating traditional food (including slaughtering your own chicken), being taught how to dance and sing, visiting traditional healers, and just generally immersing themselves in a completely foreign culture and environments. The students generally learn a few lessons in the process, including some perspective on their own privileges, the sense of community, and the meaning of possessions. Meanwhile the staff stayed at the Tshulu Camp, which is a row of luxury tents set above the Mutale River in the most magnificent surroundings. We birded the area flat, climbed baobabs for sunset (well, all those with healthy ankles), and generally enjoyed some down time. One particularly enjoyable day was spent with local guide Samson Mulaudzi, who took us to see some Soutpansberg specials.
Once the students joined us after homestay we celebrated with a party, including two local musicians playing Venda music on guitar and keyboard. It turned into quite a party, with all the students joining in and showcasing their newly-learnt dance moves. I did my best sokkie moves and taught them Shosholoza, meaning they would never feel out of place at a local rugby game. Needless to say my injured ankle complained the following morning, and I spent the next 24 hours off my feet to recover.
Our next location was Mapungubwe National Park. The students went from sleeping on dung floors in mud huts to air-conditioned, luxury chalets surrounded by the natural amphitheatre of red rock cliffs. Though also a savanna, Mapungubwe is different in that it is much more arid. This point was mostly lost on the students though, as our first three days were interrupted by monster thunderstorms and torrential downpour every afternoon. Here we engaged in biodiversity surveys of a number of taxa, including small mammals, birds, butterflies, and vegetation. Naturally, I gravitated towards the bird surveys, although I did jump in with small mammals and vegetation too. There was also a visit to the World Heritage Site of Mapungubwe Hill, where southern Africa’s first kingdom split by class divisions was established. The royal family dwelled on the 40 m high hill overlooking the commoners below. They had some interesting traditions and rituals, including burials which is where the iconic Mapungubwe golden rhino statuette was found. On one of the last night’s the students designed a prank on me and another staff member who I shared a cabin with, hiding a number of phones in our house set with 2 am alarms. We naturally weren’t impressed, but the students didn’t think it through as we now had their phones. We drew out the standoff until they couldn’t take it any longer, and came to beg for our forgiveness. They have been set the task of performing a play for us when we visit the Cape in return for their phones, with the challenging theme of a monkey circus. I think we came out on top in that situation…
Once biodiversity surveys were concluded we again hit the road, bound for Johannesburg and then by plane to Cape Town. Here the students are having their mid-term break, enjoying the cosmopolitan Mother City and all she has to offer. While I write this I am happily enjoying some home comforts like my pets and my own bed. It has been great to spend a weekend with my girlfriend too, who had been left behind in Cape Town and had to put up with all my stories over the phone.
After the break we will be heading off to the Cape Peninsula near Kommetjie, the Cederberg, and then back to Skukuza for the final leg.
But more of that in another post!
Never before had I seen someone’s breath quite literally taken away from them by a bird. But there was an audible release as months of anticipation, nerves, and excitement came together in a moment as Dr Daniel J. Field laid eyes on his first Knysna Turaco. The brilliant green bird with magenta wings hopped through the tree nonchalantly, not giving two hoots about the academic’s amazement. And to think this all came about from a chance meeting on a beach in Israel!
I recently returned from a two-week birding trip around two distant corners of South Africa, from Kruger to the Cape, with two palaeontologists. I met Daniel Field while I was over in Israel for the Champions of the Flyway event (read my blog post here!). My team had sprinted on to North Beach in Eilat looking for a final boost to our race tally, and while my teammates were looking at a Striated Heron in a scope I got chatting to Daniel, a Canadian palaeontologist who had recently moved to the UK to take up a position at the University of Bath. He mentioned he was planning a bird diversity field course to South Africa later in the year, and asked if he could run some ideas and itineraries past me. I gave him a business card, and over the coming months we mailed back and forth, and I, partially tongue-in-cheek, suggested that taking me along as a local guide would be crucial for the success of the trip. Clearly I was convincing enough, and he agreed. It was a good opportunity for me to act as a guide in some new areas, and they had the benefit of local knowledge of the birds and the areas.
The trip had two objectives. The first was for a possible field course that Daniel was looking to start through his home institution, the University of Bath, focusing on vertebrate diversity and ecology. South Africa has very few rivals in those combined departments. But the trip was primarily a National Environmental Research Council (NERC) training course on avian biodiversity and ecology for Fiann Smithwick, who is doing his PhD at the University of Bristol on colour production in fossil organisms and how this might have affected their ecological strategies, with Dan instructing the field course. Fiann happens to be working on a number of feathered fossils, so was looking for a destination to explore how colours vary in extant (living) birds and how this feeds into behaviour and ecology. Again, South Africa is surpassed by very few countries in terms of its concentration of bird diversity, and even fewer English-speaking countries can compete. Daniel and I designed a route that would yield a good species list in a short space of time, and before we knew it we were meeting up at O R Tambo International!
Broadly, our route covered the southern half of Kruger, a few spots between there and Johannesburg, wider Cape Town and the West Coast, the Garden Route, and the Tankwa Karoo. In addition to the diversity of birds, the route includes vastly different habitats, and we had the chance to view different flora and fauna in each location. Most serious birders are not only interested in the birds, but also the other creatures and their ecology. So, despite the itinerary including a lot of traveling (we did close to 4000 km over the two weeks!), it gave us a good exposure to a number of interesting natural aspects.
I met Dan and Fiann at the airport and we headed to collect our hire car. I’d suggested that a 4x4 was not necessary and that a regular sedan would handle the roads just fine (more on that later). It was with some disbelief as we approached the parkade and the unlock button lit up the headlights on a mean-looking Audi A3. All our accommodation and other bookings were handled through a travel agency as per university protocol, and they clearly thought that we required optimal comfort for our budget training course. We were not complaining though, and the 5 and a half hour drive to Kruger was some of the more comfortable driving I have ever done. We cut our gate entry rather fine, though, arriving in Berg-en-Dal Camp minutes before gate closing. But we had enjoyed a number of good bird and wildlife sightings on the short drive from Malelane Gate, including a large herd of African Elephants and around 100 Cape Buffalo. On the birding front the highlights were two species of raptors – Long-crested Eagle and Pearl-spotted Owlet. Once we were unpacked I opened a bottle of South African whisky to celebrate the beginning of the trip. That evening we did some owling around camp, and had great looks at the unbelievably agile South African Galago (or Lesser Bushbaby) and some resident Bushbuck. We called off the owl search for some much-awaited dinner at the camp restaurant, Tindlovu, and this started something of a slippery slope for Daniel as a string of burgers on consecutive nights ensued. It took a really special meal to kickstart his unhealthy habit, though, with the culprit being the enormous, lavish, and ironically-named Gandhi Burger (Mahatma Gandhi was renowned for his frugal eating habits and hunger strike protests). I went the more patriotic route with a Mandela Burger which was also good, but no match for the vegetarian feast that Fiann and Daniel consumed that evening. Another dangerous introduction that evening was Windhoek Draught beer, which instantly became the firm favourite with the tourists. On our return to our bungalow we were greeted with the popping call of the African Scops Owl in a tree in front of our front porch. We all got good torchlight views before it disappeared again, which meant falling asleep to their staccato calls that night was satisfying rather than frustrating.
Our first morning in the park was spent wandering around the camp getting accustomed to some of the more common birds at close quarters. It was difficult to draw ourselves away from the flowering aloe plants, as they were being feasted on by a number of impressive sunbird species, including Collared, Scarlet-chested and White-bellied Sunbirds. We also got good views of the usually elusive but beautiful Orange-breasted and Grey-headed Bushshrikes, and enjoyed photographing small foraging parties of seedeaters including Red-billed and Jameson’s Firefinches, and Blue Waxbills. Another highlight was watching a small band of Dwarf Mongooses working their way through the campsite. I picked up my first lifer (new bird) of the trip in the form of a Little Sparrowhawk. We exited camp and headed back to Malelane Gate to check the river for waterbirds, which was very rewarding with Goliath Heron, Saddle-billed Stork, Black Crake, Giant and Pied Kingfisher, as well as some reptiles in the form of Nile Crocodile and Marsh Terrapin.
We then drove north to Skukuza Camp, which took the entire day as we were stopping to identify and photograph new birds every few meters! Predictably, the Lilac-breasted Roller with its flashy plumage was a firm favourite. It was another good day for raptors, with White-backed Vulture, Bateleur, Brown Snake Eagle, Dark Chanting Goshawk, and African Fish Eagle all featuring. We saw all of the common hornbill species (Southern Red-billed, Southern Yellow-billed, and African Grey), as well as the long-tailed Magpie Shrike, and the striking Golden-breasted Bunting.
That evening we had organized to meet some friends for a sundowners at Lake Panic near Skukuza rest camp. I know a few lucky people who live at Skukuza from my days on the OTS Course, and one of my American classmates from that course, Zoë Kitchel, happened to be around assisting with some botanical fieldwork. She was assisting Maddy Case from Yale, who happened to know Daniel from his time there. And if the world was not small enough already, when I introduced Zoë to Daniel they recognized each other, and worked out that they had shared a near-death experience on a geological field trip in the Canadian maritimes a few years prior. It also happened that Maddy was collaborating with friends of mine from the University of Cape Town. You just can’t make these things up! The sundown itself reflected stunningly off the altocumulus clouds and the still lake surface. The cherry on top was a flock of Crowned Hornbills nearby, which are rare elsewhere in the park. After dinner with Zoë and Maddie (Daniel enjoyed his Yazoo Burger at the Cattle Baron) we headed out for a night drive, which added Marabou Stork and Common Buttonquail to our bird list, and Large-spotted Genet and Spotted Hyaena to our mammal account.
Our next day was one of our most memorable of the trip. We started the morning by driving along the Sabie River towards Lower Sabie Camp. We had some very productive birding along this stretch, including another lifer for me in the form of Gorgeous Bushshrike. We also had a huge Martial Eagle perched up roadside, which never fails to impress even non-birders. Another highlight was a flock of Ground Hornbills. One über aggressive bird swaggered up to our car and proceeded to give us a substantial peck with its beak, thankfully not scratching the hired A3. But things really kicked off at the bridge near Nkuhlu Picnic Spot. First, we picked up a pair of unexpected Mosque Swallows above the sycamore figs, and then as we were leaving we spotted a night heron of some sort flying into the reeds. As we turned back onto the bridge we were stopped by a reversing car. The passenger leant out and said there was a Leopard crossing the river. We quickly got onto it, and watched the powerful male bounding between rocks. At the last hurdle he amusingly missed his mark, and splashed into a pool, which Daniel managed to catch on camera. The leopard then seemingly dissolved into the riparian vegetation and wasn’t spotted again (no pun intended!). We then stopped in at Nkuhlu picnic spot and happened on a pair of White-crowned Lapwings, another uncommon park bird, and our first Purple-crested Turaco, which was one of the big targets for Daniel and Fiann.
From Nkuhlu we detoured slightly south and then back west along some quieter dirt roads. We encountered a rather grumpy bull elephant that didn’t like us coming past his herd. He proceeded to stomp after us for more than a half a kilometer before abating and begrudgingly letting us pass. We also visited the Stevenson-Hamilton Memorial lookout, and picked up a Greater Honeyguide and a Cordylus lizard. We also had our best sighting of Red-crested Korhaan. A pair of them were very accommodating and we got some great photographs. We spent the night in the leafy Pretoriuskop Camp which I hadn’t visited before. We spent some time walking around camp, trying to avoid being assaulted by aggressive Vervet Monkeys while photographing more Turacos, before settling down for dinner at the local Wimpy. Daniel predictably went for the Champion Burger, adding to his fast-growing list of obscenely put together buns and patties.
The next morning we headed out at first light as we had a long drive to Satara Camp further north. The drive took us through changing habitat, from the dense silver cluster-leaf to the fig-dominated Sabie River, all the way through to the grassier, open plains that characterize Satara. Near the Sabie River we had our first Lions, with a lioness walking along the road unfussed by the many cars attending the sighting. Birding highlights on this stretch included an early morning Lizard Buzzard, our first and only Kori Bustards for the trip, coveys of Swainson’s Francolin, and most impressively a tree with around 20 vultures, of 4 different species. A solitary Lappet-faced Vulture, a pair of White-headed Vultures, 5 or 6 Hooded Vultures and a few White-backed Vultures had collected above an old elephant carcass. The carcass itself was slightly obscured, and the two lions feeding on it were barely visible. A few days later we learned that an Egyptian Vulture, an exceptionally rare bird in southern Africa, had visited that same tree and carcass. Daniel and I had both seen the species in Israel, but it would have been a huge bird for my personal SA list.
We checked into Satara with some daylight to spare, so after refueling on coffee and photographing the local African Mourning Doves, we set out again first east and then north of the camp. We scooped a Purple Roller and Burchell’s Coucal during that time, and encountered our first Black-backed Jackal too, with the sunset as a backdrop. We headed out that evening for another night drive, which was notable for the many Large-spotted Genets, but not too much else. Back in camp we found another species of bushbaby, the Thick-tailed Galago, a.k.a. Greater Bushbaby. We heard many African Scops Owls, but unlike Berg-en-Dal they weren’t obliging.
The next morning we enjoyed our last 50 km of Kruger before exiting at Orpen Gate, and then drove out to the Strydom Tunnel. This is the only spot in South Africa where one can connect with Taita Falcon as there is a resident pair. There are maybe 3 or 4 other spots where this species has been known to breed in southern Africa, so it is quite a prize species. We met up with Michael, a local craftsman who has seized the opportunity of helping birders get onto the birds. He has memorized their roosting and nesting spots on the sheer cliffs, and it is near impossible to locate the birds without his help. Luckily I had called ahead and Michael had located one of the birds on a ledge way up on the cliff. After a few high 5s and some peeks through the scope we moved a little closer and tried some digiscope shots. To thank Michael we bought some of his crafts, including some Helmeted Guineafowl statuettes and an ornate bowl decorated with a painting of a Taita. From the Tunnel we headed through Lydenburg and Ohrigstad to Dullstroom. Along the way we picked up our first Southern Bald Ibis and another Lizard Buzzard. When we arrived in Dullstroom it was lunchtime. This little town is set in a verdant valley beset by high altitude grasslands, and is known as a prime destination for trout fishing. So we settled into a local restaurant called the Mayfly and enjoyed some of the local produce. For me that was the culinary highlight of the trip! Soft, creamy fish with a subtle lemon and pepper sauce, served with hot vegetables – how do you beat that?
After lunch we almost literally rolled out of the restaurant and went birding in the grasslands. Almost immediately we picked up two of our main targets – Buff-streaked Chat and Gurney’s Sugarbird. The two members of the family Promeropidae (the sugarbirds, which are endemic to Southern Africa) were high on Daniel’s list, and it was therefore a fitting milestone with a sugarbird as number 2900 on his world list. Further into the grasslands we picked up Long-billed Pipit, Wailing Cisticola, Cape Longclaw, and Cape Grassbird. But as we ventured further from town the roads quickly deteriorated, way past the point of comfort for an A3. We couldn’t reach Verlorenvlei where the Wattled Cranes are said to reside, and we had to take some alternative routes. We trundled and bumped our way at snail’s pace for what felt like ages before finding the tar road again, with only a Jackal to show for our efforts. None of the birding books or websites mention the terrible condition of the road, and I know now that 4x4 or at least good clearance is an absolute necessity. The area is surely a summer destination too, judging by how quiet the otherwise promising habitat was. We did eventually find our way back to Dullstroom, and made our way onto the N4 back to Johannesburg for the evening. A mix-up in the planning stage had resulted in us booking accommodation right alongside O R Tambo International where we had met up. Now this wouldn’t be a problem, except that we had booked flights to Cape Town out of Lanseria, which is an hour’s drive north. Nevertheless, we didn’t want to forfeit the payment so we stayed anyway.
In the morning we got up early to beat the notorious Johannesburg morning traffic and drove to Lanseria. We miraculously got the A3 past the inspection on its return, despite the previous day’s abuse and dirt. Whilst at the airport we even added two new bird species – Common Myna and Cape Sparrow! We had a painless flight, and arrived in Cape Town in good spirits. Immediately there were new birds to be seen, with House Crow and Capped Wheatear seen from the plane itself! After offloading our baggage at my house we got back in the car and headed to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens. The incredibly beautiful backdrop notwithstanding, the gardens offer exposure to a number of endemic and interesting birds, and the habituation to constant foot traffic means that the birds allow a close approach and easy photography. We enjoyed a productive two hours in the gardens, scooping up Cape Sugarbird (that’s the entire Promeropidae wrapped up in 24 hours!), Forest Canary, Speckled Mousebird, Sombre Greenbul, Olive Woodpecker, African Dusky Flycatcher, Olive Thrush, and a number of other species. We also caught up with the pair of resident Spotted Eagle Owls, with one bird so fast asleep that we could approach to within a few meters.
After Kirstenbosch we headed to Strandfontein Sewage Works. This site is one of the best for birding in Cape Town, with an abundance of waterbirds and local bush birds easily found. It also forms part of South Africa’s youngest Ramsar site designated in 2015, and is the only artificial wetland to be granted that status. Immediately we were confronted with a host of new species, including Cape Shoveler, Cape Teal, Red-billed Teal, Greater Flamingo, Hartlaub’s Gull, African Spoonbill, among many others. We enjoyed the exceptional birding until the light dwindled, and then headed for dinner.
By first light the next morning we were already on a boat, headed out to sea on a pelagic birding trip. Cape Town is one of the best places in the world from which to enjoy pelagic birds. There is a mix of Indian and Atlantic Ocean species, the continental shelf is relatively close and can be reached in a couple of hours, the waters are nutrient rich, and the trawling grounds are nearby. Pelagic trips aim to find a trawler, as these aggregate the birds into throngs of thousands which birders can sift through identifying different species up close and trying to find something rare. The trips also head out past the picturesque Cape Point, which is always worth a stop for photographs. It was at around this point that we came across a Southern Right Whale – one of the early migrants into the area that come to calve off the southern coast. This was Fiann’s first ever whale sighting, and Daniel’s first Southern Right, so a definite trip highlight. Out in the deep we managed to find a single trawler, and arrived just as she was pulling in her nets. It was a disappointingly small catch, but the clouds of birds were not deterred by this. Shy and Black-browed Albatross, Antarctic Prions, White-chinned and Pintado Petrels, Southern and Northern Giant Petrels, Sooty Shearwaters, Subantarctic Skuas, Wilson’s Storm Petrels all flew by in close proximity to the boat, allowing us to examine all their features. Unfortunately the trawler processed the fish rather quickly, and ran south to more productive areas. We stayed with the slick full of birds moving past us, and in this we managed to pick up a pale morph Southern Giant Petrel – a distinctly rare and interesting Dalmatian-patterned bird! We then settled for lunch and had a few skuas attend the boat looking for leftovers, and some morsels did “accidentally” end up overboard. We also found our only Yellow-nosed Albatross for the day in this post-trawler period, this of the Indian species. On our way back in to Cape Point we came upon some Cape Gannets plunge-diving on schools of fish that a number of sport fishing boats were also trying to snag. In among them were three Manx Shearwaters too, which was a good bonus species. Before docking in Simonstown we stopped at Partridge Point for the four marine cormorant species (Cape, Crowned, Bank, and White-breasted) and the Cape Fur Seals. After a coffee we headed back to Strandfontein to pick up some missed targets, and managed to add some other species to our lists, the highlights of which were the evolutionarily distinct White-backed Duck and the cute Hottentot Teal. That evening I attended a friend’s 30th and Fiann and Dan met up with a visiting American palaeontologist for dinner. We ended up at the same venue, and after a seafood dinner Daniel indulged in what he called a “dessert burger”. I guess the appeal of ostrich meat was too much to turn down, and apparently even the pescatarian, Fiann, tucked in. Probably not coincidentally, I think this was the last burger that Dan ate the whole trip as the over-indulgence caught up with him.
The following day we were off before sunrise again up the West Coast. We arrived at the gates a little after opening time, but before the gate staff. After a short wait we entered the park, and almost immediately came across a vocal group of Grey-winged Francolin. While watching them we discovered a dead genet, which we presume had expired from natural causes. We picked up the carcass and took it to the front gate, who said there was no scientific services who could use it so we could throw it in the veld. I did so, and we were about to drive off when a few birds flew in and began alarming at this perceived egg thief. Two birds became four, and then more as the alarms alerted others. After a short while there were double digits of species attending the carcass, including White-throated and Yellow Canaries, a pair of Bokmakierie, Cape Robin-Chat, Karoo Scrub Robins, and Cape Bulbuls. It was certainly an unconventional way to bird!
We then headed for the Geelbek hides to catch the outgoing tide on the mud flats. In summer the Langebaan Lagoon holds 10% of all South Africa’s Palearctic migrant wader population. Despite it being the wrong season for wader watching, we still picked up an impressive number of species, including Curlew, Terek and Marsh Sandpipers, Common Greenshank, Kittlitz’s Plover, White-fronted Plover, Grey Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Bar-tailed Godwit, South African Shelduck, and Lesser Flamingo. After this we headed down to the restaurant area for coffee and picked up Karoo Thrush and African Hoopoe on a short walk. After that we drove north towards Langebaan, and spotted our first Southern Black Korhaan, which was performing vocally in a small grass patch surrounded by thicker strandveld. We picked up Cape Penduline Tit and Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler near the Seeberg Hide before heading through to Langebaan for a chicken and waffles lunch (I was influenced by Daniel who spent some time in the American south…).
From there we headed out to Jacobsbaai where we found wintering Antarctic Terns, another covey of Grey-winged Francolin, and a Cape Long-billed Lark. We shot up to Velddrif salt pans to tick off Chestnut-banded Plovers (arguably the cutest wader around), and fortuitously also added Western Osprey, Acacia Pied Barbet, and Black-necked Grebe. On the drive back to Cape Town we stopped in at Darling Hills and found a Black Harrier in diminishing light as the last bird for the day. Dinner that night was an experience in South African culture as my dad put on a traditional braai. We all had too much meat, drink and pudding, and there was good conversation around the table too. We also gave Daniel an education in the laws and appreciation of the colonial sports, rugby and cricket. He is now an avid fan of both.
We left Cape Town the next morning, heading east along the coast. We drove the breathtaking Clarence Drive through the Kogelberg Biosphere, stopping to take in the views and inadvertently picking up two fynbos endemic birds, Cape Sugarbird and Orange-breasted Sunbird. The sunbird also happened to be our 300th species for the trip! We continued on to Rooi Els to look for Cape Rockjumpers. The area experienced a vicious fire not too long ago, but the birds are still around. The first bird we spotted was a first for me at this site, a male Sentinel Rock Thrush. We walked around 1.5 km down the dirt track without finding Rockjumpers, but we did locate two Ground Woodpeckers by their bright red bellies and Cape Siskins by their call. After turning around I could tell that Daniel and Fiann were getting despondent about our chances, but I knew that the birds often only revealed themselves on the return leg. True to form, Daniel spotted a pair of birds halfway up the slopes and we got the scope on them. Almost simultaneously, Fiann found a pair of Cape Rock Thrush, and our attention for the next 15 minutes was split between the two species. With spirits buoyed by success we headed out to Betty’s Bay to visit the Stoney Point penguin colony. African Penguins are so clumsy on land, and we enjoyed close views of them waddling about. Rock Hyraxes are also resident in the colony and provided extra entertainment. Rumbling stomachs dictated the next stop at the Red Disa restaurant in Harold Porter Botanical Gardens where Daniel’s burger obsession was displaced by a new love affair with bobotie. In the gardens we barely glimpsed a calling Victorin’s Warbler, and had much better views of a number of other species, including the endearing Swee Waxbill. From Harold Porter we drove across the Agulhas Plain to De Hoop Nature Reserve, ticking off the South African national bird, the Blue Crane, and the range-restricted Agulhas Long-billed Lark along the way.
De Hoop Nature Reserve has been a second home for me over the last two years because of my MSc fieldwork, so in the morning we made light work of most of our targets bar Knysna Woodpecker. Southern Tchagra was a highlight in the campsite, as were flocks of hundreds of African Black Swifts flying very low. Malachite Sunbirds feeding on the aloes accounted for a few hundred shutter clicks between us. After returning to our plush accommodation for breakfast we drove out to the coastal dunes of Koppie Alleen, but not before photographing Eland, Bontebok, and Cape Mountain Zebra on the way, and adding a Lanner Falcon to my already well-developed De Hoop birdlist.. Koppie Alleen is perhaps the best spot in the world to watch Southern Right Whales, and no fewer than 10 could be seen from atop the dune. Fiann drank this in while Daniel and I photographed African Black Oystercatchers and ogled the life in the tidal rock pools below. A Long-billed Crombec finally saw us on our way, and we exited De Hoop and entered in the eastern Potberg section. Here we saw many Cape Vulture kettles overhead, and an unexpected vocal Klaas’s Cuckoo and Lesser Honeyguide in the Eucalyptus forest. We then ventured into the Overberg wheatbelt. We spotted our first Karoo Korhaans along here, before pushing through to Grootvadersbosch. We stopped by my friends Keith and Michele Moodie to drop in on their resident Crowned Eagles, which we luckily found. We also found Olive Bushshrike nearby, and heard multiple Knysna Woodpeckers which we couldn’t locate. We finally made it in to Honeydew Farm, and made ourselves a delicious pasta dinner with a bottle of red wine in front of a wood fire. With much difficulty we uprooted again to hunt nightjars, and we had fleeting views of Fiery-necked Nightjars in torchlight as they flew away.
We awoke the next morning to torrential rain. We took the opportunity to get some much-needed admin done (both Fiann and Daniel were working furiously throughout the trip on some drafts for publication in impressive scientific journals), before scrapping the birding and heading to Wilderness. I had been talking up the bird feeder at our accommodation for a week now, and the other two were eager to see what I was harping on about. Not long after arriving at Kingfisher Country House our host, the wonderful and legendary Sue, initiated her bird feeding ritual. Within moments the tree next to the balcony was alive with forest specials like Lemon Dove, Chorister Robin-Chat, Forest Canary, and Terrestrial Brownbul. It was also at this moment that our accompanying academic lost his composure over the arrival of his verdant dreambird, the Knysna Turaco. After tea and biscuits and many photographs at the ever-busy feeder, we hauled Daniel away to do some wetland birding. We tried for Red-chested Flufftails, but they wouldn’t come in. We did manage to spot multiple White-backed Ducks, African Purple Swamphen, Black Crake, Southern Pochard, and a solitary African Snipe as consolation. That evening Daniel resumed his love affair with bobotie at Salina’s Restaurant, this time with springbok instead of the traditional beef, in what he called “perhaps one of his lifetime culinary highlights”.
The morning’s breakfast was spent jumping between a delicious spread of breakfast items and our cameras as the bird feeder entertained us once again. Red-necked Spurfowl joined this time, as well as Amethyst and Grey Sunbirds. We went for a short walk to locate the calling Knysna Woodpeckers, which we achieved with ease, and then the resident White-starred Robin at the compost heaps in the garden. We then ventured out on the Half-collared Kingfisher Trail to try for some other forest birds. I was quietly pessimistic about our chances as it was near midday when we arrived, but I was blown away by how quickly and successfully we picked up our targets. Knysna Warbler fell within the first few meters, a Forest Buzzard flew overhead, Scaly-throated Honeyguide responded quickly to a call, and then, the piece de resistance, a Narina Trogon flew in just where I had indicated that it was last seen. We had abnormally good views of this reclusive species, although the light for photography was far from optimal. From this point we had no reason to carry on with the trail, so turned back and headed for the Big Tree at Hoekwil. It was very unexpectedly quiet here, although a Grey Cuckooshrike made the trip worthwhile. We happened on a Denham’s Bustard on our way back, which took off in dramatic and impressive fashion when we approached to photograph it.
That evening we weren't sure which new restaurant we would like to try, so we went to browse some menus in town. The first spot we looked at, Flava Cafe, had a curry special running, and we fortuitously happened to arrive 5 minutes before the weekly pub quiz! Our decision was therefore made easy, and we waltzed in and joined Wilderness local and producer/director, Adrian, who had booked a table but his 3 teammates had bailed on him. The four of us entered the quiz as the 'Lilac-breasted High Rollers', and had given up after we got 1/5 in the first round which was about Wilderness itself. With all the pressure off we coasted through Flora & Fauna, Geography, History, etc. and ended up winning the quiz by a comfortable 9 points! We won around R300 each which more than paid for dinner, and were congratulated by a host of locals who wanted to know who these damn out-of-towners were that came and dominated their quiz. I'm not sure if Adrian was embarrassed or ecstatic, but he was an instant celebrity by association as the only local representative on our team.
The next morning we enjoyed our last feeder experience, and then began our long trek to the Tankwa Karoo National Park. Along the way we connected with White-fronted Bee-eaters near Calitzdorp which was a new Western Cape species for me. We refueled and stocked up on food in Laingsburg as this was the last human settlement we were to see for three days, so remote is the Tankwa. On a dusty backroad we managed to pick up a Karoo Long-billed Lark. Just as we thought we were completely lost and done for in the arid desert wilderness, a sign to the national park broke the brown monotony and we found our way. We checked in to our accommodation, which resembled something between a miniature castle and Afghan bomb shelter, and was manned by Leslie, who was a young biologist from Limpopo resembling more of a city-slicker hipster than a field botanist. Nevertheless, it was very comfortable lodging with a well equipped kitchen that we put to use making vegetarian pasta.
Our next day was spent exploring the national park, first visiting the large Oudebaaskraal Dam, and then driving the seemingly endless flat plains to the Gannaga Pass where we enjoyed splendid views of this almost lunar landscape. Birding highlights were a number of lark species (Karoo, Large-billed, and Red-capped), Fairy Flycatcher, Sickle-winged and Tractrac Chats, Namaqua Warbler, Orange River White-eye, Karoo Eremomela, Namaqua Dove, and a Secretarybird, which was a species Fiann was convinced didn’t exist after nearly two weeks of its conspicuous absence from our trip list. We also enjoyed the occasional Red Hartebeest and Springbok cavorting through the landscape. Sundown on our last night was a spectacular one with a perfect half-moon and deep burnt orange skies. The bottle of whisky opened on the first evening had somehow survived mostly unscathed until this point, but it didn’t stand a fighting chance that evening.
On our last day we wistfully packed up in the knowledge that it was our last few hours for the trip. We drove south towards Cape Town, picking up yet another gargantuan Martial Eagle flying over the road very soon after leaving. Further south we turned into the Skitterykloof to search for Cinnamon-breasted Warbler. Despite the birds calling distantly and our best searching efforts we couldn’t locate one. Eierkop was a lot more successful, however, with a pair of confiding Karoo Eremomela joining us for second breakfast, and a small flock of Grey Tit on the top of the hill. We pushed on through Ceres, stopping at Die Tolhuis to look for Protea Canary at the railway, but it was too windy. We were just about in Paarl when the rain bucketed down suddenly and scuppered our last birding plans on Paarl Mountain. The rain at least gave the car a much-needed clean before handing it back at the airport, where for some bizarre reason the lady at check-in felt it necessary to ask if Fiann and Dan were twins (Dan was thrilled and Fiann was offended, or at least pretended to be).
Overall, we saw 363 species of birds over our 2 weeks, which is phenomenal considering it was winter and there are plenty of easy migrant species missing from our list. Daniel’s meticulous list-keeping in the freeware program Scythebill revealed that we recorded 91 bird families, and over 70% of all bird orders. There can’t be many places in the world where that can be achieved at the worst time of year for birding.
I also couldn’t have asked for better people to bird with, and Fiann and Dan made me feel more like a birding buddy than a guide, which is a nice environment to work in. The banter ranged from cringeworthily terrible to top class, but it was all hilarious nonetheless. Daniel probably gained 20 kg in burger consumption, and Fiann’s stringent exercise regime and even eating philosophy went completely out the window, but I doubt either of them regret that one bit. Daniel also discovered the joys and application of Instagram, and miraculously found 150 suckers (Fiann and I included) to follow him before he even posted anything. I’m happy to say he has now adopted more regular habits and has posted some quality images in the last few days, including some from our trip. Fiann also deserves a special mention for his application to his training course. It is easy to wonder and marvel at the rainbow birds like Narina Trogon and Lilac-breasted Roller, but it takes a little more application to appreciate the little brown jobs like larks and pipits. But, in an ecological sense, these sand coloured denizens of the desert are perfectly adapted for camouflage and energy conservation in their environments, which is something that was not lost on Fiann. Birders like Daniel and me are a special, competitive breed, and the idiosyncrasies of our hobby and profession can grate on other people. But Fiann did his absolute best to learn from us, and by the end of the trip he was even leading the evening bird tallies, which requires remembering the 100 or so species that we saw each day. That is no mean feat when you consider that Fiann’s personal birdlist probably amounted to 5 species before this trip! He was also responsible for spotting a number of important birds on the trip, not least the Narina Trogon.
After the success of this pilot course I would hope that Daniel returns to lead a dedicated student field course. He knows that if he needs a local coordinator that I’m always game! I would certainly not rule out the possibility of there being further trips together in the future, whether that is a Kalahari to KZN trip in SA, or a fossil-finding expedition down in Dorset next time I’m over there!
The Cape Town storm (or #StormCovfefe, named after Donald Trump’s recent infamous Twitter typo) dominated the attention of the Western Cape the past few days. It took the terrible, terrible fires and property damage in Knysna to finally distract people from the destruction closer to home. While most predictions for the storm probably overestimated the amount of rain and wind that we were to experience, it was nevertheless a notable event. Apart from the ubiquitous large trees blowing over and the associated damage, there were scary scenes along the beachfronts with large waves flooding roads, and a number of people lost their lives in electrical fires. It was a truly miserable day, and I was very aware of the privilege I had of a warm, safe, dry shelter. It would have been an unbearable day for those not so fortunate, of which there are many in Cape Town.
When my birding friend, who moonlights as a meteorological enthusiast, Bryn de Kocks, posted about the massive front approaching from the Atlantic, my first thought was not drought relief, but, selfishly, I thought about birds. The storm had passed some notable South Atlantic islands, which are home to a number of pelagic bird species that would cause quite a stir in South African waters. In large storms such as this it is not uncommon for birds to be blown in quite close to the Cape. Often they are exhausted and spent from the forced journey, and they retire to the nearest shore to recover, which they sadly often don’t manage. So it was with anticipation that I set out to Cape Point the day after the storm. Firstly, it was a good opportunity rescue any stranded birds, and secondly, to find a rare bird that I would otherwise not likely see in the region.
Dominic Rollinson picked me up early and we set off. We arrived at Cape Point just after sunrise in order to do a seawatch from a well-known spot. We were joined by Cliff Dorse, who had taken a half day off work to enjoy the post-storm birding. With the wild conditions offshore, many pelagic birds had pushed closer in to shore or even into False Bay to shelter, and were now heading out again past Cape Point. We set up two scopes and enjoyed the unbelievable scenes otherwise reserved for dedicated pelagic boat trips 30 kms offshore. There were thousands upon thousands of birds, mostly close enough to identify to species. There were three species of albatross, at least one species of Giant Petrel and four other petrels, two shearwater species, and many, many Antarctic Prions. We enjoyed these scenes while trying to find something properly rare, but it was only the more usual species it seemed. We then moved on to Olifantsbos to walk the shoreline looking for tired/dead seabirds. Dom headed north, and I took the south section. Neither of us found anything, which is a good thing for the birds but disappointing for us. However, we both mentioned on the ride back how much we enjoyed our respective walks. Time spent out in nature is never wasted!
I stumbled upon a shipwreck that I was unaware of, which I couldn’t resist photographing. This area was once called the ‘Cape of Storms’ before it was changed to the ‘Cape of Good Hope’ (an attempt to redress what the King of Portugal considered bad advertising for prospective settlers). The recent storm was a reminder of the wild nature of our coast, and this is why our shoreline has the highest concentrations of shipwrecks in the world. I learnt later that this is the Thomas T. Tucker, an American steamer that ran aground because of thick fog and a faulty compass. My encounter with this wreck and the photographs I managed with my cellphone are the main reason for me sharing this experience – it’s just another reminder that this city and country have so many hidden gems and places that I am yet to explore!
Suspended by a high-tech carabiner 110 m above a steep-sided canyon, hurtling along at 60 km/h on a cable only as thick as your thumb, heading straight for a rock face on the other side of the gorge with only a leather glove and friction as your brake system… Sound like fun to you? Hell yeah!
The Cape Canopy Tour zipline in Grabouw is an absolute must-do. Situated in the UNESCO heritage site of the Hottentot’s Holland Nature Reserve, it is an adrenalin-packed experience with the added bonus of raw exposure to nature. The impressive mountain range is beset by a diversity of plants that is unmatched on the rest of the planet. The Cape Floristic Region is the smallest of the recognized biodiversity hotspots, and also happens to be one of the hottest too. The zipline course takes you through one of the prominent gorges, and gives you unbeatable views of this dramatic and gorgeous setting.
I hate gift shopping, and I often go the route of paying for an experience or meal wherever possible as an alternative. So when Rebecca’s birthday came around this year and I was stumped, a suggestion from her friend Isabelle that we do the zipline was an obvious choice! I had a standing agreement with the managers at Cape Canopy Tours that I could complete the course for free, since I was part of their nature guide assessment team and we weren’t able to finish the course that day because of weather complications. I was worried that I was cursed, when on my second attempt we encountered dense fog over Sir Lowry’s Pass, but my fears were allayed as we burst through the clouds and were greeted by beautiful blue skies in Grabouw.
The experience starts at basecamp, where you are shown a safety briefing and kitted out with your (not-so) stylish helmet and harness gear. From there it’s a 30 minute 4x4 drive up to the top of the course. Don’t be surprised if you end up in someone else’s lap during the transit – the road is very bumpy, and you get to know your fellow adventure seekers on a very personal level in that short trip. From there it’s a short hike in to the first platform, and then 11 ziplines of absolute bliss. This course is the highest, longest, and fastest in the country, and I am certain that none rivals its setting either.
The whole experience is very slick. The guides are hilarious, forever cracking jokes along the way and keeping spirits high. Safety is always paramount, and at no stage of the experience are you not clipped on to a safety line of some sort. The base is kitted out with a coffee bar and barista, free wifi, ice creams and other snacks, and when you return from your trip you are served a fresh and delicious pie (there’s a selection of choices, vegetarian too) homemade at the Peregrine Farm Stall nearby. The reception staff are friendly, and check-in is done on one of an army of state-of-the-art tablets mounted on the reception desk. The assistant manager even took the time to advise us on the best local wine farms to do tastings at. We tried Almenkerk and Iona, and couldn’t leave either without buying a bottle.
The only downsides to the experience are the bumpy ride up and down, and the price tag (R695 per person standard rate). While it is on the high end, it is certainly an experience that you will remember and savour for a long time, and you are sent a free video link of your trip as a souvenir. I can highly recommend doing this course at least once. If you have done the course before you can repeat it for free within 3 days of your birthday, which is an offer I will definitely take up in the near future!
The Champions of the Flyway is much more than just a Big Day. At the heart of the event is the conservation of migratory birds moving between Africa and Eurasia, a staggering 30 million of which are killed by illegal hunters and trappers across the Mediterranean each year. Funds raised for COTF 2017 were in aid of Doğa Derneği, BirdLife’s Turkish affiliate. Teams from all over the world gather in Eilat, Israel at the peak of spring migration to compete for the titles of Champions (race-day winners), Guardians (fundraising winners), and Knights of the Flyway (raising the most awareness and embracing the COTF spirit). A total of 19 international teams and 19 Israeli teams competed this year on March 28th, including two teams from South Africa: the Birding Ecotours Youth Africa Birders (Andrew de Blocq, Jessleena Suri, John Kinghorn, and Werner van der Walt) and the Birding Africa Black Harriers (Callan Cohen, Faanise Peacock, Ethan Kistler, and Dominic Rollinson).
Each team is set a goal of raising €3500 (roughly R50 000), and is asked to use their networks to create awareness around the migrant bird slaughter. Due to the generosity of the South African birding community, my team, the BE YABers, managed to reach our fundraising goal with 5 weeks to spare, and ambitiously doubled our target to €7000. We entered the media space to spread awareness and canvas for funds, including articles in the Cape Times, UCT’s home page, as well as an interview with 567 Cape Talk host and birder, John Maytham. We even took to begging at street lights in dignity-destroying outfits – something which really flourished over social media!
We arrived in Israel just over a week before race day, using this time to familiarize ourselves with the species and lay of the land. Luckily, the spirit of the race is cooperative and friendly, with teams helping each other to find birds rather than hiding information. A Whatsapp group was set up including at least one member of each team, and this constant stream of gen kept our phones buzzing for a full 10 days. Using this info and a list of important sites we explored and planned our race day route, driving 4000 km in the process. Come midnight at the start of race day, we were first team off the line!
Each team is required to begin in Eilat, but for the daylight hours teams generally choose between a north-south or south-north route. We decided on a north-south route, which involved more driving but included some spots in the extreme north that host species unique to that area of the designated playing field.
At sunrise we were in Nizzana, getting off to a good start with MacQueen’s Bustard, Cream-coloured Courser, and Little Owl (of the subspecies lilith which is being proposed as a full species), which are all near-impossible birds elsewhere. We then wasted little time in getting to Yeroham Lake where we ticked some water and forest birds, the highlights being Syrian Woodpecker and Purple Swamphen. Further south near Sde Boker there is a memorial to Israel’s first Prime Minister, Ben Gurion. The beautiful forested garden here is a huge attractant for birds migrating over the desert. We ran into the COTF media team here, who interviewed us and followed us into the valley below to get some race footage. We spent around 40 minutes with them - more than we’d budgeted - but it was important that we contributed to the race’s public output. Highlights here were Long-legged Buzzard, Eurasian Griffon, Egyptian Vulture, and Steppe Eagle.
We sped south again and began our trek through the desert. While most of the Negev is sandy hills and plains, old watercourses sometimes blossom into vegetated ‘wadis’. Birds on passage often stop at these oases to rest and feed, and it’s essential on race day to visit a few. Sylvia warblers in particular are drawn to these spots, and at Wadi Niqarot we picked up Blackcap, Lesser and Common Whitethroat, and Rueppell’s, Subalpine, and Sardinian Warblers. We also added the locally rare Trumpeter Finch and Sinai Rosefinch. Yet further south, after 125 kms of non-stop desert, we visited Neot Samader for the local rarity, Hume’s Leaf Warbler, and some other tough birds at the sewage works (Eastern Stonechat, Ortolan Bunting, Desert and Black-eared Wheatear). The Uvda Plains, which in the days leading up had been very productive, were empty. After an hour’s walking we added Spotted Sandgrouse and Northern Wheatear, and then turned back towards Yotvata fields. This was when disaster struck.
You can blame it on youthful exuberance or time pressure, but the crux is that we took a shortcut along a sandy track and got stuck. We were not able to push it out alone, but one of the other teams, the Art Birders, answered our SOS and came riding to our rescue after losing an hour of precious daylight. This required us to rethink our remaining route, as we couldn’t visit every site we had planned to. We raced through K19 and K20 sewage pans, the IBRCE (International Birdwatching and Research Center in Eilat) and the adjacent salt pans, and reached Eilat’s North Beach for sunset.
We found ourselves at 144 species as dark fell. We reckoned we were at least 15-20 species short, mostly because of the delay. We were physically and emotionally exhausted, and the temptation to head north again for owls and nightjars was not enough to overturn the need for sleep. We handed in our checklist and hit the hay, very happy with our day’s birding but even happier to be counting sheep than birds. Here is a selection of the species we saw on the day and throughout our trip, all captured by John Kinghorn.
At the awards ceremony the next morning our immense efforts in fundraising and creating awareness around the cause were rewarded with both the Guardians and Knights of the Flyway titles. We raised €8700 - 250% of our original goal. The Champions of the Flyway were the Artic Redpolls team from Finland with a course record 181 species, following the same route as us but without delays! The Black Harriers, did well to place tied 6th overall with 163 species, and we came in a commendable 11th.
Sharing the stage with all the winners and the representatives of Doğa Derneği was an emotional experience, and we all got the feeling that our efforts would make a real difference to the conservation of migratory birds. Jonathan Meyrav, Dan Alon, Itai Shanni, Noam Weiss, et al. - we take our hats off to you for such a well-run, exhilarating and impactful event. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank all of you who supported the South African teams, and can only encourage you to open your hearts and wallets to the teams competing again next year.
On our way back John, Werner, and I had an 11 hour layover in Cairo. We decided to brave the chaos and make our way to the pyramids to tick that off our bucket lists. Needless to say, none of us will ever complain about South African traffic ever again. In Egypt every single car has scrapes and dents, and for good reason. The lines delineating the traffic lanes are not rules, not even guidelines - they're treated as decoration. At one point on a four-lane highway there were seven cars abreast. One each in a lane and three more on each of the lines, all around a foot from each other, and traveling at 60 kph. Absolutely ridiculous. But the pyramids themselves were awesome to see, even though the whole site is now just a swindling and money-making scam, with one vendor taking you on to the next, and so forth. No historical tours to explain this wonder of the world's significance. But we did indulge in horse and camel rides - and they are a fine platform from which to enjoy the spectacle...