As has happened to many writers, from Hemingway to Theroux, an unusual magnetism arises from the continent of Africa as one reaches life’s last quartile. Except for a three-week scuba diving trip to Egypt in the 90s, sub-Saharan Africa had been off our travel radar. And then we watched a slide show of South Africa’s incredible bird and mammal population, and suddenly our interest flared insatiably. Birding guide and close friend Rick Bowers had shared the photos from a trip he led four years ago, and suddenly we were planning an adventure to South Africa. As is often the case for a do-it-yourself trip, our plan kept expanding until it had grown from three weeks to nearly three months, and beyond South Africa to include Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Rick was largely given free reign to design the trip, and Prudy took responsibility for securing our accommodations. So here we are on September 11, four weeks into our eleven, with time for an update.
South Africa is the southernmost country on the African continent, and of particular interest to us as a biodiversity hot spot with a unique biome. The country is home to 60 million people living in more than 471,000 square miles of varied topography, cultural diversity and incredible natural beauty. It’s the most populous country south of the Equator with climatic zones that range from extreme desert to 11,000-foot mountains, and its 1,739 miles of coastline border two oceans (the south Atlantic and the Indian), with nothing between it and Antarctica to the south. It has more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any of the other 53 countries in Africa including some of the oldest human fossil sites in the world, suggesting that hominid species existed in South Africa 3 million years ago.
Its flora and fauna are amazingly varied, with 299 mammals and 846 birds. The fynbos biome in the western cape area contains 9% of all known plant species on Earth (three times more than those found in the Amazon rainforest). The republic’s national flower is the protea, an especially lovely blossom that in fact is a genus of 130 separate species. This is of special interest to birders because of the protea’s attraction to beautiful sunbirds and sugarbirds.
Our trip to date has been limited to the western cape, the area around the country’s oldest city, Cape Town, which was founded in 1652 to supply ships bound around the treacherous Cape of Good Hope. Rick and his wife Nora joined us in late August, and our itinerary since then has been birding hot spots within a day’s drive of Cape Town. Our rental house is on a rocky bluff a hundred feet above the Atlantic where the Steenbras River meets the ocean, and where we’ve found 40 of the 140 bird species we’ve documented to date.
We’re staying in a group of solar-powered homes within a nature preserve, and are visited daily by Speckled Pigeons, Cape Rock Thrush, Fiscal Flycatchers and Amethyst Sunbirds, in addition to rock hyrax (furry rabbit-sized mammals related to elephants), gray mongoose and chacma baboon, one of the largest members of the monkey family. The latter is the one you avoid, since they like to steal your food, weigh up to 99 pounds and can bite a sheep in half with their two-inch incisors. Now we’re looking forward to seeing the big five mammals.
(This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of The Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)