A salt pan story

The trouble with wanting to chase after birds in out-of-the-way places is that, once you reach the end of the tar road, the gravel starts, then the corrugations, then the dongas caused by heavy vehicles going through mud, then the softer sand, but most alarming of all, the infamous middelmannetjie! My car is possibly the least suitable for off-roading after a black Golf with lowered suspension, spoilers and mag wheels. The clearance between the bottom of the front bumper and the tar doesn’t allow one to negotiate those annoying drainage channels that cross suburban roads and woe betide taking a speed bump at more than 30km/h!

Having combined a trip to Geelbek with an extended drive to Velddrif to find the Red-necked Phalarope currently featuring in the bird groups, we found ourselves at the saltpans along the Berg River, in the company of the landowner who assured us he would take us to the places it has been seen. He was in his robust 4×4 and made no reference to the state of the road (and I say that in a loose sense) we would travel. Arriving at the salt pans, which are criss-crossed by narrow berms separating the pans, our guide swung into the veld along an uneven sloped, sandy track at quite a rate, with a middelmannetjie so high that I had to place my wheels on it and one edge of the track. Proceeding at speed so as not to become bogged down was like being in a rally, and I was grateful for all the tips I had picked up watching Sebastian Loeb win the World Rally Championships ten times in the past. As we careered through the softer bits (our guide never letting up the pace in his robust vehicle), the sounds emanating from the undercarriage were quite alarming, although I was aware that it was simply thick vegetation.

We eventually found ourselves on the berms – flat, lowish middelmannetjie, the odd chunk missing where the roadway has subsided, and some sharp turns provided more opportunity for adventurous driving. The idea of salt coating the underneath of the car was not at all appealing, and I voiced my displeasure at being there more than once, to no effect. We simply followed on until there was an intersection with place for three cars to park, but with a thick layer of cracking salt making it a little too slimy for my liking. We had passed a lady in a Landrover with tent and other equipment on the roof, who had also had misgivings about our guide’s rough route due to her loaded roof, but she had seen the bird a few hours before and was happy.

Of course, the bird had flown. Doubtless hiding behind a rock (it’s only 18cm from beak to tail) or on the leeward side of a berm. Landrover Lady expressed surprise that we had dipped when we passed her, dutifully following our guide back along the monstrous middelmannetjie to be taken to the other side of the farm where two other birds are currently on view. That track at least only had corrugations. Again, no sign of the birds. Our guide said the best way to spot them is when they are bobbing on the water, as they are the only waders that swim when foraging rather than walking along the edge of the water. When we asked what we owed him for his trouble (unsolicited guiding), there was a big pause – “You didn’t get the bird.” No. So no find, no pay. Excellent.

We went back to the salt pan on our own before heading back to Cape Town. One last look. As we drove towards the pans, I saw a building in front of us on a short strip of road that we had not gone on before. It was abundantly clear that this was the central point of the salt pan, and a smooth drive and two berms later took us back to the place we had parked earlier. A real head-scratcher. Why the cross-country, nightmare route? Still no bird, but I looked under the car and found a large piece of the undercarriage hanging down, ripped from its rivets by the middelmannetjie. No bird, no bottom.

That’s birding for you!

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