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Saturday, April 4, 2020

Champion Trees of Stellenbosch

Our passion is that we love trees

As tree lovers, we were most excited when we got a copy of the latest Champion trees of South Africa book - "We are the Champions" by Enrico & Erna Liebenberg.

Our inspiration comes from the beauty of these giants, and the book that gave us some great tips of what is installed for us on our journey to explore and document each tree.  Luckily for most, if you look close enough, you will notice that there is a champion tree nearby you.

What will it take for Stellenbosch to list these champions on their Tourist Route Map?

We started our search for the seven champion trees of Stellenboch by visiting the local Tourist Information Center hoping to obtain a map of where the trees are located, instead, we only left with a map of the town. 

To our surprise, this Information Center had absolutely no idea what we were referring to when we enquired about visiting the famous champions of Stellenbosch. However, after showing them my reference notes we soon managed to get sufficient information to make a start. It was rather surprising that the information center had no clue about these National Monuments right under their noses, hopefully, this will change. 

Searching for the seven champion trees in Stellenbosch

With the town map in hand and some vague directions, we made our way to the closest champion, not more than one kilometer away. It was an enjoyable walk through the town with its quaint streets, tourists enjoying the many coffee shops, and restaurants. 

Ryneveld Street Oaks ( Fagaceae: Quercus robur ) English Oak
Most of the streets in Stellenbosch are lined with oak trees but these Champion Oaks that were planted in 1812 on Ryneveld street have been declared a national monument (known as South African Heritage Resource).



It is not just the English Oaks in Stellenbosch that have Champion Tree status.

Theological Seminary Tree (Araucaria heterophylla) Norfolk Island Pine
Knowing that there are other champion trees in the area, we went exploring for our next tree - a Norfolk Island Pine - on the list.  Still, within walking distance, we could see another giant from a distance, tall, majestic and undoubtedly the biggest tree around. Standing under the giant was a sight to behold and definitely worthy of its status as a champion. 

Back in 1826, the wife of the Magistrate of Stellenbosch graced their garden with the presence of this towering icon.  The name emanates from these old Drostdy buildings in Stellenbosch which became the seat of the Theological Seminary buildings (now the property of the University of Stellenbosch). 




Daunting Task Ahead

The Wilgenhof Grandfather ( Myrtaceae: Eucalyptus camaldulensis ) Red River Gum
According to our town map, this Red River Gum was a short drive away.  All that we had was the name of a building and a map, now we have to find this one lone tree, in tree heaven.   If you are unfamiliar with the town - like we were - with only a street map in hand, one never knows if you are actually going to find the next tree on the list.



Luck was on our side as this champion is located at the entrance of the Wilgenhof men's residence at the University of Stellenbosch. It is estimated that this glorious specimen was planted in 1883, and it is easily accessible to photograph. 


With our third champion tree ticked off, it was time for breakfast with the boys, before we headed to our next treasure.

Three Trees Documented, Four To Go

Ruth Steer Tree ( Myrtaceae: Eucalyptus camaldulensis ) Red River Gum
You will find this tree in Jonkershoek Avenue, named after the original owner of the property (Ruth Steer) where the tree was planted. Based on the size of this Red River Gum ( similar to that of the Bergzicht market tree ) it is estimated that the tree was planted in 1880. 


Planted on private property you will need permission from the owner to gain access to the property if wanted.   We were fortunate to have been given access by the current property owners to take photographs from a different angle.

Visiting an old Friend

Paul Roos Gymnasium Trees ( Myrtaceae: Eucalyptus citriodora ) Lemon - Scented Gum
Having had the pleasure to visit this champion tree a few years earlier, it was important that our boys also got to enjoy this grove of Lemon Scented Gums.  They may be Champions but they are still tricky to find with no proper guidance.  This grove of trees is located on the school grounds of the Paul Roos Gymnasium


It is interesting to note that the bark of these trees must be the smoothest surface of any tree that we have witnessed to date.




Just Outside of Town

The Infruitec Gum Tree ( Myrtaceae: Eucalyptus camaldulensis ) Red River Gum
The largest of the Red River Gums in Stellenbosch standing at 38,2 m tall and 37,05 wide its colossal.

This tree known as the Infruitec Tree, is located on the road to the Helshoogte Pass, within one kilometer as you approach from the Stellenbosch side. (Named after the institute that conducts research on deciduous fruit and vines.)



The Van Gogh of Stellenbosch

Bergziicht Market Trees ( Myrtaceae: Eucalyptus camaldulensis) Red River Gum
Everyone has seen this tree, spends hours under its cool shade, or knows about it.  One wonders how many people truly appreciate its true value?  It has no plaque or any form of recognition that provides the status that this 'National Monument' deserves.



This Red River Gum is a landmark champion tree of Stellenbosch and was our sixth tree of the day.  It must be the most famous of all the trees in the center of town. Situated on the busy Bergzicht Precinct ( now a taxi rank and the Bergzicht market) does not help for the perfect setting for a great image. We would suggest that you choose an appropriate time so that the area is free of traffic, thus allowing you to get the best angle. Its a behemoth, so finding the right angle - depending on the time of day -  requires space for you to move around.   It was not easy to photograph when we visited, so choose your day for this one.


A Great Reason to Return

As for our seventh Champion Tree (Ida's Valley Giant ( Myrtaceae: Eucalyptus ficifolia ) Red Flowering Gum), well we could not find any reliable information on this one and besides, we were all treed out.  We decided to give it a miss and leave it for another day...

So much emphasis is put on 'heritage' in Stellenbosch, but they have forgotten about these national treasures.  We can only hope that they will correct this by giving them the status and recognition that they deserve.  

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Why we love Langebaan: West Coast National Park

Why would one want to stay at the West Coast National park?


Some history: The West Coast National Park was initially proclaimed in 1985 as the Langebaan National Park, with the name later being changed to the West Coast National Park. Situated approximately 100km northwest of Cape Town on the Atlantic seaboard. West Coast Tourism.

The current park totals 47 457 ha and covers terrestrial land, Lagoon, Islands (Marcus Island, Malgas Island, Jutten Island and Schaarpen Island )  and marine protected areas.
Heading off to our location

Like most families, every year we go on holiday somewhere, ideally to a location where we have not yet been.  This year we decided that during December we will make a holiday out of our own surrounding locations.

Having decided that our December holidays in 2019 will consist of short day trips, we were quick to add this very close national park to our growing list of locations to visit. We have been to this park many times, but we have never spent the night.

What is on our things-to-do list?

On the agenda, besides the general exploring of our immediate surroundings, we chose kite surfing at Shark bay, birding and mountain biking to be listed as our target activities for the trip.
Upon Arrival at Geelbek

The Van Breda self-catering cottage is near the famous Geelbek Information Centre and Restaurant (as seen above).  The cottage is a comfortable six sleeper (with electricity) that was perfect for our family and proved to be an awesome choice due to its central location for all our lined-up activities.
With the van packed full of our toys of choice, (camera gear, binoculars, kites, and bikes) we headed off to Langebaan to explore. We had some time to spare, as we arrived too early to have access to our accommodation. We unloaded the mountain bikes and made our way to the Geelbek visitors center for a well deserved West Coat breakfast. It was interesting to learn that The Geelbek restaurant name comes from the yellow-billed ducks from this area (Afrikaans: Geelbek).

Langebaan Lagoon West Coast National Park

Getting our timing right is critical to maximising the fun

Waiting for the perfect tide and wind, our next stop was Shark bay.  Having learned how to kite at this location many years ago, it was wonderful to now bring Keanin back here to practice his jumping. Flat warm water and a strong southeaster was the order of the day. Even our youngest son Andreya got into the action and made a few tacks with me on this very shallow and safe lagoon section.



Explorig the bird hides at Geelbek

Tired and hungry we made our way back to our accommodation for a well-deserved rest and some chill-out time. After unpacking, we decided to do some birding at one of the many bird hides in the national park. Bright sunny skies with amazing cloud formations helped to create a wonderful setting as we took a stroll to the bird hide. With more than 250 bird species recorded in the park, I had my work cut out to get some serious ticks knocked off. First, we tried for the Blue-cheeked bee-eater at Duinebos, but I dipped on that one, bummer.  
Visiting the bird hides on the lagoon requires perfect timing with regards to the tides.  You want to be at the hide at mid-tide during the outgoing tide is best to see wonderful waders.  A first for me was the Bar-tailed godwit (This bird is known to be the longest flying bird.  They can fly for over a week without stopping at all). With the family insisting that I spend time with them I also made sure that I had sufficient time to enjoy the birds on offer and made time for some family fun.
The Van Breda Cottage

The recently renovated Van Breda cottage sleeping six was one of the original homesteads on the Geelbek farm. What a great choice this proved to be, as we managed to get nightjars on the road not far away. The same morning, two barn owls and a third one calling just meters away. Well, this was the highlight of the trip for me as both sightings were very special.  The birds were not fleeting and we got to spend some time enjoying the presence of these nocturnal birds.
Cycling in the West Coast National Park

Having promised to complete a cycle around the lagoon some years back, we finally had the morning to ourselves to finalise our promised last section from Churchhaven to Kraalbaai. Not realising that it was New Year's day we were unprepared for the number of day-visitors to these shores and some re-planning was in order. In the end, we decided to leave the crowds and head off for a lovely cycle to Tsaarsbank instead.
The weather played its part and with blue sunny skies and a cool sea breeze blowing, we were treated to some of the best views in the WCNP.  It was lovely to record a Black Harrier hunting in this area which made for more special memories.
Hartlaub's and Kelp Gulls are always on the lookout for scraps, with wide-open beaches, and warm water is the way of life on the beautiful Langebaan lagoon.
Kraalbaai, located on the western seaside of the lagoon (to your left in image above) must be the most popular of all the beaches, with crystal clear warm water, brilliant views, and wonderful picnic locations. Well done to Sanparks for recently having upgraded all the facilities in this area.

The Abrahamskraal cottage is located near a water hole and bird hide with the same name.  This was our first choice for accommodation in the WCNP, however, due to the fact that the family insisted on a spot with electricity, we sourced another venue.
If you are looking for 360-degree views of the WCNP, then the Seeberg lookout is the spot.  Here one can see as far as the horison and when its flower season you can enjoy some of the best carpets of daisies from this location.

map of west coast national park


We managed to spot our first Thick Billed Lark scurrying around in the fynbos, my tally for the two days in the park was 82 birds.  This was not too bad considering it was a family outing and that birding was on the side.

Wheelchair friendly boardwalks take you to both the bird hides at Geelbek and are a must for any visitor.  We were rewarded with excellent bird sightings and the most beautiful skies to complement the scene.

 The hides are well maintained and very informative, and is the perfect getaway for any birder.
Another discovery, this beautiful locust (Neobarrettia Spinosa?) was crossing the road, a first for us and proof that there is a surprise around every corner.


Looking back over the tail end of the lagoon is Geelbek to your left and the two bird hides stretching over and into the water.
Super early time - is my time, I'm up at 4am to tick off some owls and nightjars, then we head on to Seeberg lookout point to watch the sunrise. We popped into the Seeberg bird hide near the Langebaan park gate, for some more quiet time. This is the boardwalk on the way back from the hide.
The Preekstoel is a well-known rock formation weathered and sculpted by time, and some of the houseboats moored in Kraalbaai, it's scenes like this that make this section of the park so popular. In the distance, Postberg and the main lookout point in Postberg can be seen.
Arriving back home during sunset offers opportunities to find owls and nightjars, we were super lucky to locate the Spotted Eagle-owl as we turned into the main road from the Abrahamskraal bird hide, and a few Fiery necked nightjars on the way back to Geelbek.
Table Mountain can be seen 100km away

Table mountain shrouded in a wonderful white coat, clearly visible from 100km away (image was taken in the WCNP ).
We cycled to Tsaarsbank on the western side of the lagoon is the furthest point from the entrance to the park.  The famous Postberg Private nature reserve is on this route within the park, but has its own private gate and is fenced in - their gates open to the public during Spring flower-viewing season between July and September every year. Undoubtedly the best location for spring flowers. 
We visited the private road from Churchhaven to Kraalbaai a few years back and this was again part of our cycle route today. Exploring the park on a mountain bike offers a whole new perspective to the standard means of transport. The park offers several Trails, Walks, and mountain biking routes. One can get a detailed map from the Geelbek visitors center and choose your activities from there.
Looking back towards the car park and the starting point of the boardwalk for the main Geelbek bird hide are these lovely flooded salt pans which provide the perfect color and tone for images like this.
Our accommodation was located right in the eastern corner of the lagoon and perfectly situated to explore all the corners of this unique National Park
Don't forget about some of the other activities available, flower viewing, kayaking, you also watch for whales in August and September. Wild animals can also be viewed from the comfort of your vehicle.

Our best sighting to date in the West Coast National Park has been a mother Caracal with a young cub on the road.
Click on the link above to view these wonderful images

How will we rate this venue for a family getaway?

Our decision to spend one night in the reserve proved to be one of the nicest experiences of our December holiday, will we be back, for sure and I can tell you we can't wait, we loved this venue.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Bird island nature reserve in Lamberts bay

We have known about Bird Island for years but have never been to witness this spectacle of viewing the breeding colony of Cape gannets (Morus capensis ) and other local resident birds on this island.




One of just six breeding colonies of cape gannets on earth and we have the luxury of it on our doorstep, this is an important nesting and roosting site for other sea birds too. 
A unique bird hide has been strategically built for us to view these beautiful birds and the close proximity to this colony allows for excellent photographic opportunities.  


Courtship and breeding are the order of the day, and with thousands of pairs in one confined space, it all seems like organised chaos. 


Returning birds from a days feeding out at sea, wave after wave constantly flying in to feed their hungry chicks and roost for the night.


Swift terns (Thalasseus bergii) also roost on this island along with some sandwich and common terns. This swift turn had a bunch of fish in its bill and was eagerly followed by others hoping to steal a scrap or two.


Connected to the mainland of Lamberts bay by a breakwater and roughly three hectares in size, this site is managed by Cape Nature. All information about this breeding colony is recorded by monitoring staff and the important data is forwarded on to Cape natures scientific services department in Jonkershoek in Stellenbosch.  


A Common tern finding a place to land amongst the swift terns.  The elegance is admirable.


Video and Sounds of the Cape Gannets on Bird Island Nature Reserve in Lamberts Bay


Turn up the volume and enjoy.


Birds of a feather flock together, one of the swift tern roosts in the area.
Large viewing windows allow for an uninterrupted 180-degree view of the colony. As you can see the Cape Gannets are approximately thirty meters away, which was amazing, the noise of the thousands of birds was deafening, yet a pleasant experience for our whole family. 





With some of the best views in and around the island royal blue water of a calm sea makes for a perfect setting, add a few thousand birds going about their daily routine.  It is a spectacle that is hard to forget. Well done to Cape nature for the initiative and vision that makes this bird island a special tourist location.


The white fluffy chicks wait patiently for their parents to return with a fresh catch of the day. 


Cape gannets are listed as vulnerable and they are confined to the continental shelf, often feeding behind fishing trawlers. Large numbers follow the annual sardine run up the east coast to KZN in winter, with others migrating up the west coast to the gulf of guinea.
The interpretive center and well-maintained pathways, lined with information boards made for an interesting and informative experience.


Evolved over the years and genetically designed to perfection, it was a pleasure to witness the constant flow of birds returning to their young.




The main harbour at Lamberts bay just on the other side of the breakwater is a great place to grab a bite after a few hours of birding pleasure.