It is official! If you go looking for birds, you will get plenty of exercise, but sometimes more than you bargained for. Today we joined a group of experienced birders at the top of Sir Lowry’s Pass (Western Cape, South Africa) before dawn to search for a number of birds required for this year’s bird challenge – see as many different birds in the Cape Town metropolitan area as possible. Getting up early is no problem, as living in Kommetjie prepares you for an extra 45 minutes on the journey no matter where you go (Cape Point being the only exception), and what could be more beautiful than a sunrise over the mountains as you are heading out into the country! It has been a lifelong ambition to walk in these mountains, which are usually just a blur as you speed along the N2 in search of adventure further along the way. Although you can park just off the road at the start of an old jeep track, we chose the opposite side where the security personnel at the entrance of the Steenbras Dam were on duty. This meant a sprint across the 4-lane highway – something that got the adrenalin pumping in preparation for the walk!
No sooner had we started along the track than our leader veered off to the left up a very rough footpath that basically went straight up the mountain. At this stage, I was just behind him and thinking that my hiking had prepared me well for this, even though I have shunned the uphills for a long time due to various leg and foot pains. It wasn’t long before I respectfully stood aside to let the remainder of the group – all young men with long strides and boundless energy – so that I could admire the flowers and the sunrise over the distant mountains. There can be no finer place to be on a calm autumn morning than high up on a Cape mountain facing the rising sun surrounded by birdsong in the fynbos and slopes of spectacular rock formations left by the massive upheavals that buckled the seabed aeons ago.
Stopping briefly to catch my breath, I had to jog along a thankfully flat piece of old tar road to catch up, as I would most certainly miss any bird sightings if I fell behind. Soon we were ticking off the list as more and more birds popped out of the undergrowth to enjoy the first sunlight – Cape Siskins, Orange-breasted sunbirds, an African Stonechat, Cape Grassbirds, Cape Weavers, Yellow Bishops and the very elusive Fynbos Buttonquail. Some sharp ears heard the Victorin’s Warbler, but my years of listening to Led Zeppelin have taken their toll and my hearing is not what it should be.
We crossed the railway line (sadly only used on some weekends for a steam train adventure from Cape Town to Elgin) and then it was upwards again until we entered the Hottentots Holland Nature Reserve (Gantouw), relentlessly upwards. The fynbos is only just recovering after devastating fires a few years (?) ago, and less than knee height, which was fortunate in the absence of a path. If you have ever done some serious birding, with definite targets, you will be able to appreciate the humour in the scene of a dozen people scrambling up a rocky mountainside, one suddenly pointing and everyone rushing as fast as possible to find out what they have seen and where! This happened many times and added to the mileage of the morning. The Cape Rockjumper male and female were the stars of the show, and were found high up, affording the opportunity to look over the ridge into the Helderberg valley, an awe-inspiring view in the early light.
I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed that hike. The place is spectacular and we were there in the most perfect conditions. I added seven birds to my list. I had 2 hours of intensive cardio exercise (more than the last year, and effectively killing two birds with one stone – what a peculiar idiom) and didn’t suffer any discomfort at all apart from needing to catch my breath occasionally. And the absolute highlight was a bucket list event for me – seeing the grooves made by the wagon wheels as they were dragged laboriously over the pass by teams of oxen as the Trekboers headed for the unknown hinterland so many years ago. One can only be in awe of their pioneering spirit and endurance.