birding-aus (Fwd) African impressions (summing up) 1

Subject: birding-aus (Fwd) African impressions (summing up) 1
Date: Sun, 12 Dec 1999 11:20:10 -0200
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From:          Self <MUSEUM/WVADER>
Subject:       African impressions (summing up) 1
Date:          Sat, 11 Dec 1999 11:10:07 -0200


        Next week I'll return to the snow and dark of Tromsoe, N.Norway, 
after three months sabbatical leave at the South African Museum in 
Cape Town (in order to study amphipods, not birds!). But of course 
I've used most weekends and some weeks of holidays to familiarize 
myself with nature and especially birdlife in South Africa. I always 
find it utterly fascinating to come to a completely new area, and 
watch new players play the familiar roles (seed-eater, 
insect-gleaner, shore-scavenger, predator, etc.). I do keep lists and 
try to see many different bird species, but I do not consider myself 
a twitcher.  I am more fascinated by what birds do and how they 
interact, as those who who have read the series of African 
Impressions via email lists will have noticed.


        Birding in South Africa has a number of logistic and practical 
problems. You never notice much of this, when you are on a 
well-organized tour, as I was e.g. during my Zululand week---the tour 
leaders solve all the problems, and all you note yourself is the 
amazingly comfortable infrastructure in the country, esp. in national 
parks and other wildlife areas.

        But when you are on your own, things become different, and e.g. the 
lack of a safe and reliable public transport system most places 
quickly becomes a problem. I solved this by buying an old and dented 
car, and selling it again towards the end of my stay. Even though 
this particular car turned out to be much more temperamental and 
problematical than I had bargained for, I still think the decision 
was a wise one: it would have been much more expensive to rent a car 
for three months, even if only for the weekends most of the time.
        Owning your own car, even a dented one, presupposes that you have a 
safe place to park it (which I had) : "informal redistribution of 
wealth" is quite prevalent in today's South Africa, and cars are 
never quite safe on the streets, particularly at night. (When I 
birded with Adam Riley in Natal, he absolutely refused to go and eat 
somewhere where he could not keep an eye on his car from his 
        Petrol prices have gone up several times during this last year, and 
people are grumbling a lot, but even so petrol costs only about a 
third of what I pay in Norway, so by our standards it is cheap, as so 
many commodities here. The roads are mainly excellent, although one 
should always keep an eye open for potholes in tarred roads. Good 
road maps are also readily available.


        There have been many discussions about whether the high crime rate 
in South Africa makes it dangerous, or even inadvisable, to go 
birding there. I am unable to say much about the subject. I have 
personally not had any problems at all, even though for much of the 
time I was birding on my own. But there IS a high crime rate and much 
random violence, and it does make for an often somewhat jittery 
feeling when one is driving, especially in an unreliable car. I have 
avoided as much as possible to drive at night, and I also refrained 
from repairing the dents in my car, hoping this would make it less 
attractive for would-be thieves.

        To be quite honest, the problem may well largely be not the risk of 
becoming a victim of crime one-self, but  living in constant fear of 
that risk. That has marred some of the pleasure in the driving and 
walking through lonely areas; I am not a particularly courageous 
person. I have, however, tried not to let that stop me, and have most 
weekends driven out from 30-100 km outside Cape Town in order to go 
on walks. I usually chose areas that were described in either one of 
the many walks-booklets that are on the market here or/and in the 
excellent "where to find birds" booklets (One for W.Cape, one for the 
entire country) that someone kindly lent to me, and usually have 
found the descriptions to the point and easy to follow.


        Before coming to South Africa, I had subscribed to the SABirdnet, 
and written a short self-introduction. Many people reacted to this, 
a.o. a surprising number of professional bird guides that offered 
various most enticing tours---unfortunately, the prices, while no 
doubt quite reasonable , were still too high for me. So I decided to 
take part in the one-week Zululand tour, of all things a 
post-conference tour for a "microbiology of poultry' conference, and 
afterwards to accept Adam Riley's very generous offer to show me a 
lot of birds in a very short time (4 days) in Natal.
        After arriving in Cape Town, I neglected, probably stupidly, to 
contact the Cape Bird Club, and did most of my birding on my own. 
Also, the SABirdnet was not interested in my African Impressions, so 
I did not send them to that list anymore, and that too deprived me 
from no doubt most useful contacts. Entirely my own fault, but I 
suppose I've grown into the habit of going birding on my own after 
all the years in Tromsoe. 
         Judy New, who farms near Paarl and who had 
seen my pieces on some of the other lists, very kindly did invite me 
to come and take part in the BBD a few Sundays ago: I had a wonderful 
day there, and first then realized what I missed out on through not 
contacting local birders earlier. (By the way, and harking back to 
the always present dangers here, the neighbouring farmer couple who 
also took part that day, have since been hold-up, severely beaten 
and robbed in their own farm!).


        As I said earlier, the infrastructure in South Africa, at least in 
the Western Cape, is generally excellent. The roads are good, the 
reserves usually have facilities (generally you note yourself down in 
an open list as walking some trail), and the trails are well-marked 
and excellently laid out. The country also has several first rate 
field guides (Which one is the best, is hotly debated, and different 
people I met had different opinions).
        The wonderful thing, for somebody who grew up in Holland, where each 
rare bird is surrounded by hundreds of birders, and where you more 
often than not walk or bicycle in a long file, is that many times I  
did not meet a single person all day, even though I mainly kept to 
reserves and official trails! Nobody, who is not daily surrounded by 
too many people, will realize what an unmitigated blessing such 
solitude can be!.
        During our holidays through the National Parks along the Garden 
Route Riet and I usually met maybe 5-10 people during a longish hike 
(longish for us, that is; we are at an age to avoid the most 
strenuous and really long trails). But this last month in the Western 
Cape I met no one at Sir Lowry's Pass, no one in Vrolijkheid, no one 
on the Grijsbok Trail in Koeberg, and no one in the Tienie Versveld 
flower reserve; and all these places  I visited either on a Saturday 
or on a Sunday (And after the Rugby World Cup had finished!). On 
these trails I  also never had any sense of danger, even though they 
were so lonely.

        In the second part of these summing up musings I'll try to say 
something about the birds themselves, but do not expect a list of the 
ca 420 species of birds that now grace my S African birdlist.

                                        Wim Vader, c.o. S African Museum
                                        Cape Town, 
                                        after 14 Dec. 
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