Western Cape 2018

Autumn 2018 (in the Southern Hemisphere) saw us in Southern Africa again, beginning our trip in the Western Cape to celebrate my Dad’s 80th birthday with family. We did spend a couple of days in Cape Town, visiting the African Penguin colony at Boulders Beach near Simonstown and walking around Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden on a very windy day (not very good for bird photography) in between catching up with family and friends.

Most of our time in the Western Cape was spent with my parents in Montagu, a small town in the Little Karoo region. I had fun stalking birds in their garden when the weather wasn’t too miserable. The Pepper Tree (Schinus molle – not a native tree) had lots of little red berries so was very popular, as was the Liquidamber in the front garden. I got to practice my identifications, with both Common Fiscal (aka Fiscal Shrike) and Fiscal Flyatcher making an appearance, and a cute but elusive Fairy Flycatcher playing hide and seek in a large tree.

I did do a bit of exploring around town – the lei-water dam and the Nature Garden were good spots, and I found a Gymnogene (African Harrier-Hawk) in a palm tree in the primary school grounds (not easy to get a good angle though). There were lots of Red-winged Starlings around and I was happy to get one in flight, showing where their name comes from.

Birds and buffalo

A very pretty Mourning dove in camp at Satara
A very pretty Mourning dove in camp at Satara

Satara is a lovely camp – we all wished for more nights there. What should have been a post-lunch siesta time was spent stalking birds, like this lovely Mourning dove, in front of the rondavels (the round thatched huts typical of Kruger). I wish I managed a better shot of the Green Wood-hoopoes; they were very busy foraging for bugs in gaps in the bark of a tree. The Red-billed buffalo weaver was much more relaxed.

During our late afternoon drive heading north from camp, we came across a huge herd of Cape buffalo. I changed to my wide-angle lens to try and capture a sense of the size of the herd. It probably would have worked better if I could have got out of the car and low down, with one buffalo in the immediate foreground – but I wasn’t going to try that. Buffalo may look a bit like cattle but they aren’t one of the Big Five for nothing! Even this one trying to scratch his head looks a bit dangerous, especially when you look at those horns closely.

We stayed out as late as we could – as ordinary tourists in Kruger you have to be back in camp when the gates close at sunset. Some vultures hanging about in a tree were intriguing but too far away to see if there was something exciting on the ground attracting their attention. I am glad I managed an African sunset shot – not bad for handheld at 250mm.

Vultures settling in a tree at sunset
Vultures settling in a tree at sunset

Misty morning in Kruger

Sleepy spotted hyena on a misty morning
Sleepy spotted hyena on a misty morning

We were all up bright and early on our first morning in the park – except it wasn’t really very bright at all, rather it was misty and quite gloomy for the first couple of hours. Undeterred we set off along a dirt road toward the N’wanetsi picnic site, and were rewarded with a few interesting sightings,such as a small group of sleepy Spotted hyena. Photography was a bit challenging in the light conditions, so I missed getting anything decent of the Ground hornbill group we came across. The spider webs in the mist were fun to capture, and by the time we saw the zebra it was a bit lighter.

A pair of Bateleur eagles made great subjects – such majestic birds (and so easy to identify, unlike many other raptors!). At N’wanetsi, we could get out and stretch our legs, and enjoy the view over a river and towards the Lebombo Mountains. I took the opportunity to stalk a few birds – I’m really happy with the bulbul on the aloe stalk as I could get a lovely soft background by virtue of being high up. Clean backgrounds were not always easy in the park as you are constrained by having to stay in your car most of the time. Of course, getting clean backgrounds behind a giraffe’s head is not so difficult as it is way above most of the vegetation.

The trip back to camp was not too fruitful – the lone wildebeest pretty much sums it up. I did capture one of the ubiquitous Lilac-breasted rollers, illustrating my struggles with busy backgrounds in the process.

Golden first day in Kruger National Park

Backlit kudu doe in Kruger
Backlit kudu doe in Kruger

Our main reason for visiting South Africa last year was to celebrate my parents’ golden wedding with a family trip to the Kruger National Park, one of the oldest and largest game reserves in Africa. For my sister and I, it was a chance to share one of our more treasured childhood experiences with our own children. We used to visit the park almost every second winter, but only the eldest of the four grandchildren had been there before this trip.
We stayed in the town of Malelane for one night before heading into the park nice and early in the morning. One of our first good sightings was a small group of Greater Kudu – I love the way the back-lighting emphasises the huge ears of the doe. The young male with her didn’t have the massive horns some of the older males possess, but was still impressively stately. First stop was at the Afsaal picnic site, where we could get up close and personal with Southern Yellow-billed Hornbills and Cape Glossy Starlings while cooking bacon and eggs for breakfast.


As we headed north towards Skukuza, it began to warm up and the sightings slowed. We did get some good views of Klipspringer on a rocky outcrop, as well as seeing a couple of groups of elephants and a Red-crested Korhaan. After stopping in Skukuza for lunch and tyre repairs (one vehicle had a flat on the drive from Johannesburg), we headed towards Tshokwane, another picnic site where you can get out of your vehicle. A very tame female Bushbuck wandered around and we were entertained by one of the staff chasing a baboon out of the kiosk with the aid of a till roll and good aim. Once back in the car, the light began to improve from a photographic standpoint, allowing a lovely portrait of a female Waterbuck.

Mountains and mountain passes

Tradouw Pass with aloes
Tradouw Pass with aloes

There are plenty of mountains and mountain passes in the Western Cape. One of the more interesting passes is the Tradouw Pass, which crosses the Langeberg between Swellendam and Barrydale. Completed in 1873, it was built by convict labour under the direction of road engineer Thomas Bain. During rebuilding in the seventies, several lay-byes were built, making it safer to stop and take photographs. Dramatic red aloes were flowering when we visited. The pass cuts through a section of the Cape Fold Mountains, and the folds and twists in the sandstone are clearly visible. These folds and twists are even more obvious when driving our usual route to Montagu through the Kogmanskloof. Great for impromptu geology lessons!

Du Toitskloof is another awesome pass – it used to be part of the major route into Cape Town from the north but these days there is an impressive tunnel through the mountain that takes most of the traffic. We drove over the top using the old pass very early one misty morning on our way to Franschhoek and stopped a couple of times, resulting in these stitched panoramas.

Looking back towards the Hex River mountains from Du Toitskloof
Looking from Du Toitskloof towards the Hex River mountains

Looking south towards Paarl and Wellington from the top of Du Toitskloof
Looking south towards Paarl and Wellington from the top of Du Toitskloof

And then we get to the Western Cape’s most iconic mountain – Table Mountain in all her glory, seen from the V&A Waterfront, a combined tourist attraction and working harbour.
Table Mountain and Devil's Peak on the left, from the waterfront.
Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak on the left, from the waterfront.

More Montagu at sunrise

Montagu reed sunrise
Montagu reed sunrise

I think I broke a photography rule or two with this Montagu image – I was facing pretty much due north, looking straight toward the sun. But I love the way the reeds are backlit with the golden morning light shining through and how the mist has made the mountains and factories in the background all hazy. This was on the edge of town, standing on the bridge where Route 62 crosses the Kingna River on the way to Barrydale. From here I headed up the hill towards the nature garden and made another image looking in more or less the same direction, just from a different elevation.

Montagu valley view

Montagu vineyards

Langeberg at sunrise
Langeberg at sunrise

Visiting family in South Africa in July gave me a great opportunity for capturing landscapes, sunrise in particular. As the country only has one time zone, sunrise in the Western Cape in winter is not too early, and I cheated a bit by still being on Perth time. Getting up early wasn’t too much of an effort, even though it was freezing cold (definitely needed gloves for working with a camera and tripod). Montagu, the town my parents now live in, is very scenic and surrounded by some of my favourite things – mountains! The mountain range highlighted by the morning sun in the image above is known as the Langeberg, part of the Cape Fold mountains. Montagu is also well provided with vineyards (great for leading lines) and heritage buildings.

Montagu vineyard at sunrise
Montagu vineyard at sunrise