Humankind has not woven the web of life.
We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
All things are bound together.
All things connect.
– Chief Seattle, 1854~
Last weekend we drove down to Kamberg in KwaZulu Natal. We stayed at Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse. This wonderful gastronomic stay is central to the Kamberg area. From here you can easily access Giant’s Castle, Highmoor and Kamberg Nature Reserves. You are also within 12 kilometres of the Crane Rehabilitation Centre at Entabeni ( on the way to Giant’s Castle).
We spent three superb days at Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse where the staff were great and the cuisine ‘top draw’. It is an easy five hour drive from Johannesburg to the central Drakensberg. It was great to get out of the ‘big smoke’ and get into the clean mountain air. We arrived early so drove up to the Highmoor Reserve which borders the Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse property. In the reception of the Highmoor reserve was a photograph taken in 2009 of three of the staff standing in a white winter wonderland with thick snow on the ground and covering the leafless branches of the surrounding trees. When we got there it was so warm I did not need a jersey despite being almost mid-winter with not a speck not snow to be seen and warm enough to be summer or at least spring.
After a brief walk on top of the mountain we wandered back down to check in at the Farmhouse. The Farmhouse is the brainchild of Richard Poynton who is a well recognised gourmet chef in South Africa. The relaxed style of gourmet farmhouse dining at Cleopatra provides a memorable dining experience in magnificent mountain surroundings. The last night during dinner a family of Clawless Otters must have come up from the river and were cavorting in the small dam directly in front of the dining room. They seemed to be oblivious of the freezing cold temperature of the water.
The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs more defenders.
– Edward Abbey
The Farmhouse is on a 500 hectare property bordering the Highmoor Nature Reserve. It is centrally positioned for easy access to all the main spots in the central Berg. It’s location enabled us to get an early start at the Vulture Hide at Giant’s Castle on the Friday morning. This hide is very popular so prior booking is essential. I phoned on the Wednesday before we travelled down to KwaZulu Natal and by pure chance got a booking for that Friday. The staff at Giant’s Castle were great. They left the bucket with bones and a key to the hide in the usual place so we did not need to wait until 8h00 to check in. We were on top of the mountain by 7h30 and got ourselves set up immediately as the quality of the light was crystal clear and contrast soft. We knew the ropes after having been there before in November. It was really chilly up in the hide in November so we were fully prepared for a freezing day inside the hide in mid-winter. To our utter surprise it was so warm that I had taken my jersey off by 10h00. No snow was seen anywhere on the Berg. The next image is a panorama taken from the hide looking west – stark but spectacular.
Once happily ensconced in the hide with a hot cup of coffee and a hot cross bun, we settled down to watch and photograph the passing parade, and what a parade. Being winter, we knew this was the breeding season for the Bearded Vultures but were not too sure what else we would see on top of the mountain at this time of the year.
The faithful Buff Streaked Chats were very busy. Once we had put out a portion of bones, the Red-wined Starlings and Buff Streaked Chats were quick to feast on the fat. This female Buff Streaked Chat was puffed up because of the early morning temperatures.
The male Buff Streaked Chat was very protective about his small territory and would chase away any other bird his size or smaller.
One thing bird photographers in the hide will just have to get used to is the White-necked Ravens. I counted 22 and they are large dominant birds. They have voracious appetites and are waiting for your bounty. The Ravens have a much deeper bill than crows and are adept at stripping off meat from the bones. They tend to inhabit the montane regions more than the Pied crows. The Pied Crows are smaller and the white extends from the neck around to its collar and breast.
The White-necked Ravens are superb fliers and seem to just love to play once the wind picks up creating the updraft off the mountainside. Pairs of Ravens relish wild aerial manoeuvres in the updraft in what appears to be sheer exhilaration.
The greedy White-necked Ravens did not get it all their own way as every now and then a hungry Black-backed Jackal would warily peer over the edge of the rocks to see if a bone was within stealing distance. One of the images I really wanted to get was of a Jackal tangling with a Vulture or two over a bone but we did not see any Cape Vultures.
More wary but more sedate are the Speckled Pigeons which had no interest in the bones but were busy eating grass seed. These Pigeons inhabit the cliffs in the Drakensberg and are also excellent fliers. They are also not given enough recognition for their amazing colouring which is cryptic in the rocks of cliffs and that dramatic red eye ring.
Inside the hide there are two walls of images of birds courtesy Albert and Maretjie Froneman which help with identification. Thankfully we got to see many of species displayed as most of them were resident. One example was this beautiful Bokmakerie, with is impressive yellow throat and and black necklace, grey head and breast and olive green back and tail feathers,
Another was the Familiar Chat hunting for grubs in the grass.
While looking down over the edge of the cliff on which the hide is situated we saw a Lanner Falcon flying along the mountain side. It stopped to perch on a coral tree part the way down the cliff. It never came up to have a look at the meat on the bones, even though it frequently looked up to where all the Ravens were feasting. The Raven mob was just to big and intimidating. Although this Lanner Falcon was perched part the way down the mountain from the hide. It was definitely interested in what was happening at the top of the cliff.
We did not get to see a Malachite Sunbird this time but the Greater Double Collared Sunbirds were very busy testing the flowers of two coral trees next to the hide.
Another old faithful was the Cape Rock Thrush, which also seemed to be partial to a little fat. The male has a slaty grey head and a rufous coloured body and wings. This is a strikingly coloured bird.
The female Cape Rock Thrush has a similarly coloured body but a dull brown head, not the slaty grey of the male.
All birds at the hide are attractions but I guess most photographers are looking for the birds of prey, especially Bearded Vultures, Black Eagles and Cape Vultures and would be very happy with Lanner Falcons and Rock Kestrels. The distant look at the Lanner Falcon brought back many fond memories. Many years ago at boarding school at Falcon College in Zimbabwe, we had a thriving ornithological society and a number of the school boys practised falconry. Often in the late afternoons, a number of the falconers could be seen exercising their Tawny Eagles, Sparrowhawks and Lanner Falcons on the playing fields. The Lanner was always spectacular as it stooped from great heights leveling out at great speed across the rugby field to catch a lure which was thrown as high as the falconer could hurl it.
We did not get to see any Cape Vultures or a Black Eagles. Neither did we see a Rock Kestrel but we did get to see the rarest of them all the Bearded Vulture. These are large impressive birds with a massive wingspan of between 2.6 and 2.8 metres. We were privileged to see quite a few fly passes but they never landed.
A fierce unrest seethes at the core,
Of all existing things:,
It was the eager wish to soar,
That gave the gods their wings.
– Don Marquis
The next few images are a small selection of many images of these magnificent birds we were privileged to photograph. The adult has a whitish head and the juvenile a black head. Given the light colouring of the wings and white head I assume the next image was of a young adult.
The Bearded Vultures are only found in the high mountainous regions of Africa, Europe and Asia and only in the Drakensberg in South Africa at altitudes above 1800 metres.
On the many fly passes, the Bearded Vultures would have a good look at the goings on in front of the hide but there were too many Ravens for their liking.
These Vultures feed on carrion and bones which are inedible to other birds. They are known for their accurate ‘bomb dropping’ skills where they drop bones onto a chosen flat rock to shatter it into fragments which they then digest together with the marrow. The flat rocks which they choose to drop their bones onto are called ossuaries.
Reach for the light
You might touch the sky
Stand on the mountaintop and see yourself flying
Reach for the light to capture a star
Come out of the darkness and find out who you are
– Steve Winwood from the movie ‘Balto’
The Bearded Vulture is considered rare and endangered. Its breeding season is from May to July so we were hoping for the adults to land and take some meat back to their chicks but this was not to be.
Not that I have seen many Bearded Vultures, but I thought it was unusual to be an adult and juvenile flying in formation.
The beard is clear to see even in the juveniles. There eyes are a mustard yellow colour with what looks to be a red eye ring.
The Bearded Vulture’s effortless gliding passed the hide was breathtaking. At one stage we saw five Bearded Vultures, three adults and two juveniles soaring at low and high altitudes. They are quite capable of gliding low over the valley floor only to catch the updraft against the cliff to gain altitude.
The scenery from the Vulture’s hide at Giant’s Castle is vast, spectacular and in winter, stark. The veld fires had blackened vast tracts of the mountain which added to the dramatic colouring.
Giant’s Castle is around 32 kilometres from Kamberg. It will take around 45 minutes travelling time to get there as the road is in a very poor state after Entabeni but the trip is worthwhile. You will need a 4×4 to get ontop of the mountain to the Vulture hide.
People who soar are those who refuse to sit back, sigh and wish things would change.
They neither complain of their lot nor passively dream of some distant ship coming in.
Rather, they visualize in their minds that they are not quitters;
they will not allow life’s circumstances to push them down and hold them under.
– Charles R Swindoll
Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its inter-connectedness and then let it be.