We arrived at Durban airport in a light drizzle and picked up our rental car, a Volkswagen Sharan. It took us a while to get underway because the car, which had less than 1000 km on the clock, had a faulty light on the dashboard. After agreeing with the rental company that theyâ€™d record the fault, we set off south west down the motorway for Creighton in what had become torrential rain. We missed our turn off, got stuck behind several large vehicles and arrived at Creighton well after dark. Anybody intending to visit Button Birding (and we have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending that all birders in the area do so) will probably realise that there are two obvious ways to get there from Durban. The route via Pietermaritzburg is probably better than the route along the coast.
On arrival at Button Birding, which is signposted for the final few kilometres of the route and easy to find, we received a warm welcome from Gail and Malcolm Gemmell and were shown to our room and given a chance to freshen up before dinner. Dinner at the Gemmells is a wonderful experience. Gail is an exceptional chef with a wide repertoire. Meals are served in the farmhouse dining room and there is a good choice of South African wines and beers to go with the food.
We were introduced to Button Birdingâ€™s other client, a Costa Rican bird guide who originated from France, and made plans for the next few days. Jean-Claude had a number of target birds, we had none because we simply wanted to see whatever was available, so we agreed to an early start the following morning, aiming to be near the Sani Pass shortly after dawn.
It was well before dawn when we left Button Birding in Malcolmâ€™s Land Rover and we made good time towards Lesotho, stopping occasionally for any roadside birds we saw along the way. It was noticeably chilly as we climbed into the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains New species were being seen frequently and by the time we reached a large dam beyond Underburg we weâ€™d seen over 110 species in South Africa. The dam was excellent and with Malcolm directing, we stood in the sub-zero temperature and light (fortunately!) breeze and worked right to left across the lake and surrounding grasslands. There were about 25 species visible, ranging from the (for us) very familiar, such as Ruff, Greenshank and Common Sandpiper, through the interesting (Marsh Sandpiper, Hammerkop) to the downright exotic (Grey Crowned Crane and Pied Starling).
The drive up the Sani Pass is well-known to all local travellers for the condition of the road (only 4WD drive vehicles are allowed through the border post) and to birdwatchers because several interesting or uncommon species can be seen there. We started off pretty well with African Yellow Warbler, Gurneyâ€™s Sugarbird and superb views of Ground Woodpecker before the border post but Bush Blackcap refused to put in an appearance. After the post, but still in South Africa, Malcolm was delighted to get exceptional and prolonged views of Barrattâ€™s Warbler, a species that many of his clients want to see and which is a notorious skulker. We climbed the pass, stopping from time to time for birds in chilly conditions with mist, fog and occasional snow flurries and we were delighted to see our first Orange-breasted Rockjumpers at about 2700m asl.
After passing through the Lesotho customs post at the top of the Sani Pass, we drove the short distance to the Sani Top Chalet to book in and claim our rooms. The chalet is the highest pub in Africa at nearly 2900 m asl. Rooms are cosy, with shared facilities and food is served in the bar.
After checking in, we set off into Lesotho in search of Lammergeiers. Unsurprisingly, at this altitude many of the birds found are different to those lower down and were therefore new to us. Sentinel Rock Thrush are common around the chalet and as we moved away from the escarpment we left the clouds and fog behind and found ourselves in bright sunlight, ticking Sickle-winged Chat, Bald Ibis and Thick-billed and Red-capped Larks in quick succession. We then stopped for lunch underneath a sun-kissed cliff that contained a Lammergeierâ€™s nest and before very long one of these magnificent birds drifted past. Ignoring the nestling that kept giving partial views, this was the first of seven Lammergeier sightings over the next two days.
Whilst we were sitting (Malcolm provides deck chairs and cool beer for the lunch break as well as more of Gailâ€™s marvellous creations) we were joined by a couple of Basuto shepherds who stood for a while silently watching us. Malcolm offered them some of our lunch and we asked them for permission to take a few photographs. Weâ€™re normally a bit wary of taking photos of this sort for a bit of â€˜local colourâ€™ but Malcolm explained that they would be hoping that we would ask, in exchange for a gift of currency. These shepherds are some of the poorest people in Africa and hence in the whole world, so any extra cash they can get comes in very handy.
It is perhaps in Lesotho and especially in the person of these shepherds that the reality of Africa is truly embodied. In the 30 or so miles we had driven from the border we had passed two small settlements, no other vehicles and very few people. The people here have no access to electricity or other power sources and exist on what little their livestock can provide. Night time temperatures often drop to below freezing and pastures are poor. Living up here is tougher than most westerners can imagine and those that visit can quickly return to the safer, warmer, healthier environments over the border.
Having finished lunch, we headed back to Sani Top, stopping wherever we saw birds and to take photographs of the stunning, empty upland scenery. More Lammergeier were seen, along with Southern Grey Tit, Lanner and Layardâ€™s Titbabbler.
Back at the chalet we spent some time watching the Sloggettâ€™s Ice Rats that are quite abundant in the area. These are cuddly-toy cute with apparently very short limbs that spend much of their time sitting up for a better view. As the sun set we heard several calls from a Cape Eagle Owl from the cliffs opposite but we were unable to locate it with Jean-Jacquesâ€™ spotlight. A hearty meal and a couple of bottles of cider were followed by an early night.
We awoke to find several millimetres of frost on the inside of the bedroom window, got dressed as quickly as possible and staggered outside for a look around before breakfast. With the temperature well below freezing we got a close look at some of the birds living around the chalet, the most interesting being the Sentinel Rock Thrushes that are common in the area. One bird we saw had a drop of condensation on the end of its bill that looked like a just-melted icicle.
A drive after breakfast allowed us to confirm that the birds we had been calling Familiar Chats during the previous day were, in fact Sickle-winged Chats and we finally found the elusive Mountain Pipit and Fairy Flycatcher before starting back down the Sani Pass.
The descent produced much the same selection of birds as the ascent, albeit frequently easier to find and identify in the bright sunlight. Malcolm stopped several times to search in vain for Eland but was able to locate a pair of Grey Rhebok, our first ever antelopes, high on an upland pasture.
We passed through the border controls on the South African side and a little further along the road halted to admire a Long-crested Eagle on a telegraph pole, when we heard a call that Malcolm immediately identified as a Red-chested Cuckoo. The call came from the grounds of Sani Backpackers, and whilst Malcolm went to check that we were ok to enter the property, we found the bird and added Bokmakerie and Southern Boubou to the list.
On our return to Button Birding in the late morning we took some time to freshen up and then investigated the great birdlife in the gardens. There is a large nesting colony of weavers and a pair of Hadeda Ibis was resident in the tree adjacent to the guest rooms. Small birds are numerous in the trees and bushes and around the many bird-feeders and we were able to obtain close views of Amethyst Sunbirds and Cape Glossy Starlings.
Button Birding takes its name from the Black-rumped Buttonquail and Malcolm was keen to find this species for us so he took us to one of his favoured sites. Unfortunately the field had recently been burned and no buttonquails were present, although we did find Denhamâ€™s Bustard and Black-winged Plover amongst other species.
We then moved on to the rather nice Ntsikeni Reserve where we found an excellent range of species including Olive Bush Shrike, Grey Cuckooshrike, Orange-throated Longclaw and Wattled Crane. We came across a vehicle that had run off the road and was stuck in a dry ditch. There was no room to get by so Malcolm stopped to help with the Land Rover and sent us on ahead with instructions to find Yellow-breasted Pipit. We did as instructed and by the time Malcolm arrived had also had distant views of a harrier-like raptor. It was either Pallid or Montaguâ€™s but we didnâ€™t get enough on it to be certain.
After a long drive over very rough and trackless ground, Malcolm stopped the car, set up the deck chairs and produced the cold drinks and we used the last hour of daylight relaxing with a view of a Cape Vulture nest site. Although there were a couple of large nestlings in residence, no adult birds appeared and we had to be content with yet another Lammergeier as the sun slowly sank behind the hills.
We returned to Creighton for another wonderful evening meal and the promise of yet another early start and some exciting birds in the morning.
Malcolmâ€™s main target in the Xumeni Forest was the rare Orange Thrush and we made good time on the empty roads, stopping only to identify a Spotted Eagle Owl on a telegraph pole.
The forest is one of those magical birding spots in the early morning. Birdsong was everywhere and we quickly added new species to our list, including some pretty good ones. Knysna Louries were high in the trees and hard to see, as was a Narina Trogon. More obliging was another Grey Cuckooshrike and we picked up the Bush Blackcap that had eluded us two day earlier. Cape Parrots arrived in numbers from their roost sites and various warblers, bulbuls, finches and sunbirds were seen. Malcolm finally picked up the song of Orange Thrush and after some intense concentration we eventually got several glimpses of a single bird flitting between shadows inside the forest.
Breakfast was in the garden back at Creighton, surrounded by birds and afterwards we set off for another Buttonquail site, this being Jean-Jacques last day in the area. Yet again, this site had been burned and despite considerable effort, we failed again, although there was some compensation in the form of a pair of Oribi. There was plenty to compensate us, though and before the day was out we had easily passed 200 species for the trip.
When weâ€™d said farewell to Jean-Jacques we took an afternoon walk from the house with Malcolm and collected Martial Eagle, Greater Honeyguide (something of a target bird, as weâ€™d missed these in The Gambia), African Hoopoe and Red-billed Woodhoopoe along with a good supporting cast.
The day was rounded off with yet another failed attempt to find the Buttonquail and an equally unsuccessful try for Grass Owl that included a rather physical tramp through a marshy meadow, where the grass was frequently shoulder height. We were not particularly concerned about our failures, though, because we kept finding excellent birds to keep us interested. A final stop, with the now obligatory deckchairs and cider, was made to look for owls. We finally got excellent, prolonged close-up views of a Cape Eagle Owl but the wait was made worthwhile by sightings of Red-throated Wryneck, Red-winged Francolin and Black Saw-wing, whilst a pair of Grey Duikers were flushed from the bushes and a Black-backed Jackal called in the distance.
We had another early start on our last morning at Creighton to do some more forest birding. New species were getting harder to come by, but the forest was alive with birds and we soon started hearing the call of Orange Thrush. After about 20 minutes of waiting quietly, and getting brief glimpses of the bird it finally started showing well and then flew down and along the trail, passing within a few feet of us. We returned to Creighton for a final breakfast and on the way Malcolmâ€™s sharp eyes picked out a Brimstone Canary in a field.
Our stop at Button Birding was one of the highlights of the holiday. Malcolm is an exceptional guide and we added 122 new species to our trip list in our 3 and a bit days there â€“ and that despite missing out on some of the areas (and Malcolmâ€™s) specialities.
We would recommend a visit to Button Birding without hesitation.
Chris Cameron & Julie Dawson