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  • Writer's pictureGabby Sykora

The Valley of Desolation - A Passage Through Time on our Homeward Journey

Updated: Mar 13

The details of our homeward journey were somewhat sketchy, with much of our conversation dedicated to numerous 'What if we did this?' or 'What if we went here?' scenarios.

 

We efficiently packed up early, ensuring everything was loaded into the car. Just before leaving Luca called out for me to come and see a Klaas’s Cuckoo that was super chilled, then Luca, affectionately dubbed Stanley for his role as the chief gate opener during this leg of the trip, went to open the gate. It was then that he heard another distinctive sound, prompting us to rush down the street in eager anticipation. Perched in a tree above, we were delighted to discover an African Emerald Cuckoo, yet another lifer.


The African Emerald Cuckoo

 

Leaving Storms River Village after an incredible four-night stay, we turned right, making our way toward Cape St. Francis—an area Luca had extensively researched. Since arriving on the Garden Route eight days prior, our quest for the Black-winged Lapwing had been consistently unrewarding. However, when we least anticipated it, along a dead-end road, our luck took a turn. There, among the cows, sat not just one but many Black-winged Lapwings. Ecstatic at the unexpected sighting, we happily added another lifer to our list.

 


Cape St Francis


Our next goal was to reach the Kromrivier Estuary.  After some intensive searching for access, we eventually spotted a narrow two-track road running alongside the bridge. As we descended to the water's edge, the anticipation to explore on foot grew, and we were eager to walk the short distance to where a multitude of water birds gathered. Excitement filled the air as we engaged in chat about the fascinating birds around us. We were rewarded with seeing some special birds for both of us: Sandwich Turn, Common-ringed Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Ruddy Turnstone, Sandeling, Little Tern and a beautiful Western Osprey.


From left to right: Grey Plover; Western Osprey; Bar-tailed Godwit


Following the successes of our brief time at the Kromrivier water's edge, it came as no surprise that hunger struck again. Venturing into St. Francis Bay, we treated ourselves to a delightful and hearty breakfast at the Rambling Rose. Our coastal journey continued to Jeffrey's Bay, a town I hadn't visited before and mom had visited last some 40 years ago and with no plans to linger extensively, we proceeded to the beachfront, capturing a few obligatory photos to mark our visit.


Breakfast at the Rambling Rose - St Francis Bay


Embarking on our inland journey, we travelled through Port Elizabeth, rightfully dubbed the windy city. The brisk winds were carrying sand from the beach directly across the road, subjecting us to a brief but intense experience resembling that of a sandblasting booth. Fortunately, as we moved on, the wind subsided, but the temperature gauge continued its rise. By 11am, the temperature had already reached around 38 degrees Celsius, creating a scorching heat.


Scenic views in Jeffrey's Bay


By midday, we reached Addo Elephant National Park, and the prospect of being in another wildlife reserve sparked excitement in us. After spending most of our December holidays in the bush, being away from it only intensified our craving for it. Armed with binoculars and cameras, we reveled in the abundance of wildlife within a short timeframe. Sitting by a waterhole surrounded by elephants felt like a return to our natural habitat. Don't get me wrong; our trip has been incredible and filled with fun.


Addo Elephant National Park

 

In the tranquil confines of the car, as we all absorbed the beauty of this remarkable park (distinctly different from places like Kruger), Luca suddenly shouted, "Please stop and go back!" Realizing Luca had spotted something special, Dad swiftly reversed. Just in time, Luca captured an award-winning image (to me at least) of a Black-headed Heron catching a mole rat. Within seconds, the prey vanished down the heron's gullet, leaving us in amazement at the spectacle we had just witnessed.

 

From left to right: Black-headed Heron with it's mole rat prey; Red-necked Spurfowl


Taking a snack break at Jack's picnic site halfway up, we were pleasantly surprised by the diverse birdlife around us. Greater Double-collared Sunbirds were busy feeding off nectar in the trees above. The distinctive call of a francolin prompted Luca to dash off in search of it, exclaiming, "That sounds like a Red-necked Spurfowl! Wait! It is a Red-necked Spurfowl. Yess! Another lifer."


Putting on our best smiles despite the 45 degree heat

 

As time was ticking, we headed toward the main gate of Addo to leave before dark. Despite having spent only a few hours in the lovely reserve, I felt a twinge of sadness to be leaving it so soon. Nevertheless, we had experienced another national park and were certain that we would return one day. Heading north, we made our way to Graaff-Reinet, a delightful town steeped in history. Graaff-Reinet, South Africa's fourth oldest town, founded in 1786, is a cultural and historical gem in the Eastern Cape. Nestled in the Karoo, it boasts well-preserved Cape Dutch architecture and is surrounded by the Camdeboo National Park. The town's rich heritage includes the Valley of Desolation, a geological wonder, and the Reinet House Museum, offering insights into its colonial past, all places we hoped to visit on our final full day of the trip.


The infamous 130-year-old Dutch Reformed Church

 

Upon arriving in Graaff-Reinet, we were transported back in time. Discovering the Coldstream Restaurant, housed within the historic Graaff-Reinet Men's Club founded in 1875, with its nostalgic ambiance, set the stage for a gastronomic delight. We enjoyed our meal while overlooking the magnificent 130-year-old Dutch Reformed Church at the town's center.


Morendat House - Graaf Reinet


Arriving later than anticipated at our accommodation, we were pleasantly surprised by the beautifully restored classic Graaff-Reinet building, exuding charm at every turn. I wished we had more time to fully savor our stay, but alas, we were down to our final days with much yet to experience. We settled in for the night, planning to rise early to explore the Valley of Desolation and Camdeboo National Park.


Scenic views of the Camdeboo area and Nqweba Dam


Setting off the following morning, we made a stop at Nqweba Dam, where the water gleamed in the gorgeous morning light. I was particularly excited when I spotted what seemed to be a grebe, and it turned out to be a Great-crested Grebe. Luca also spotted a few Pearl-breasted Swallows on the dam wall. Leaving the dam, we made our way to the game viewing area of Camdeboo. The term "Camdeboo" is derived from the Khoi-San language and translates to "green hollow," aptly capturing the essence of the area. This park showcases the unique Karoo landscape, featuring towering dolerite pillars and stunning panoramic views. Visitors can explore diverse wildlife, ancient fossils, and appreciate the tranquility of this semi-arid region.


Game Viewing Area of Camdeboo National Park

 

A noticeable miscommunication unfolded between the permit issuer and Dad. After obtaining permits for both Camdeboo and The Valley of Desolation, Dad returned to the car, excitedly informing us that we could roam freely in the game viewing area. The shock ensued when we discovered later that this freedom applied only to designated zones. Our on-foot exploration had unknowingly extended to areas near one of the small dams. Lesson learned: thoroughly read the permit oneself before relying on Dad's interpretation—haha! We were able to add another special bird to our trip list here though in the Red-capped Lark and had a good visual of some Glossy Ibis here too.


Temminck's Courser

 

While driving through an open area toward the wetland, Mom spotted a ground bird not far away. We sat in awe, observing an exceptionally confiding Temminck's Courser casually standing in the open. Although not a lifer for either of us, it turned out to be a regional rarity, leaving us thrilled with the discovery. Suddenly, a couple of Secretary Birds soared overhead, vanishing into the blue sky. We also had the pleasure of recording other notable birds in the Camdeboo area, including the Rufous-eared Warbler, Blue Crane, Dark Morph Jacobin Cuckoo, and Willow Warblers.

 


As we drove back into town, we made a stop to gather ingredients for a hearty, home-cooked meal, taking the opportunity to explore some quaint, time-honored shops. Returning to Morendat House, we took a few hours to relax in the comfort of air-conditioned rooms, especially given the sweltering heat reaching 45 degrees. Before long, it was time to hit the road again, this time heading to the Valley of Desolation. Opting for the 4x4 route, our joy peaked when we spotted and identified the Spike-heeled Lark as we exited the route.


Left to right: Shops from yesteryear; 4x4 route in Camdeboo

 

Beginning our ascent to the top, we took time to take in the stunning vistas, as the sunlight was creating dramatic shadows on the rock formations. It was from here that we saw numerous Rock Kestrels. They are known for their agility in flight and their distinctive hovering behavior while hunting., and we were fascinated watching them soar through the skies above.


Valley of Desolation - Camdeboo National Park


This final part of holiday was truly a peaceful and awe-inspiring experience, and the Valley of Desolation is sure to leave a lasting impression. The journey along the trail to the viewpoints proved to be relatively easy, especially when compared to some of the other trails we had tackled during our time on the Garden Route. The majestic beauty of the towering dolerite columns in the Valley of Desolation left us utterly breathless. One could easily find themselves lost in contemplation, captivated by the sheer magnificence of the landscape, losing track of time.


Upon our return to the base, we decided to make a stop at The Montego Deck. Here, we unwound with a bottle of bubbly in hand, perched in a perfect spot to witness the sun gracefully bidding adieu to the day. As the sky transformed with hues of orange and pink, we took a moment to reflect on the incredible holiday we had just experienced. The Valley of Desolation had been a highlight, a spectacle that etched itself into our memories.


Champagne and incredible views as we watch the sunset on an incredible holiday

 

Though it wasn't quite the end of our journey, we still had one final night awaiting us at Morendat House, nestled in the charmingly located Graaf-Reinet. It was the perfect culmination to our adventure, allowing us to savour the lingering magic of our travels and embrace the tranquility of the moment.


Juvenile African Harrier Hawk


The journey back to the Vaal was uneventful, yet it left me exceptionally chilled and relaxed, infused with a new zest for the upcoming year. It was during this homeward trek that my mind brimmed with fresh ideas on how to enhance the Young Wildlife Photographers for each of our amazing members. This holiday will remain etched in my memory, a special experience made even more profound by the company of those I cherish the most. Thank you all for a trip of a lifetime. I can’t wait to make so many more memories with you all, Mom, Dad & Luca.


Finally, my heartfelt appreciation goes out to the love of my life and personal bird guide, Luca, whose patience in teaching and guiding me has been instrumental in expanding my birding knowledge. His expertise has truly enriched my journey, and I look forward to further exploration and learning in the days to come, as always, with Luca by my side.


Ronnie loving the shade in the scorching heat

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