The very name ‘Oribi Gorge’ invokes an image of an exotic destination, an opportunity of exploration and a journey into a pristine relic of nature.
Recently time presented a weekend between two fisheries workshops in southern KwaZulu Natal for me to visit Oribi Gorge, a high birding priority on my bucket list.
Driving from Margate Airport, my GPS led me on an extremely rural route through rolling hills and valleys before I changed the setting to fastest route, did a U turn and connected with the N2.
Having not made any reservations for the weekend, I was desperqtely hoping that there would be accommodation available at the KZN Wildlife venue on the cliff top befoe the road drops into the gorge. Luck was on my side and and i managed to secure the last chalet, albeit without a functional door lock, for the weekend. A humble abode nestle beneath towering wild Natal Banana’s, the unit looked out over a patch of grass into the dense forest a mere 30m away. Perfect. Especially with all the birds darting about. I even had a Yellow-rumped Tinkerbird land on the floor outside my unit, though I do suspect the little critter had flown into th window and was instead stunned. Happily, it recovered and flew off.
Threre is something reminiscent of our collective development that makes settling down at dusk with a book while surrounded by a cacophony of natures chorus the ultimate relaxation. Devoid of a TV I was entertained by the stealth antics of giant geko’s stalking monstrous preying mantis’ while swarms of moths piroetted around the external light.
Very few sounds emulate the dawn chorus of nature, an alarm that draws you from slumber gently and wide awake. I love it. Bounding out of bed, sluicing through the shower and grabbing my optical equipment, I set out with two goals in mind. Firstly, to explore the gorge and record as many new species of birds for my big year as possible and secondly to have a lunch at Leopard Rock on the northern rim. Unfortunately a light drizzle had set in which cut vizibility and seemingly forced a mass retreat of birds into the forest undergrowth.
Descending into the gorge every bird call through the party open windows was reason to stop and scan the foliage for anything feathered. an unmistakeable call has to be the Purple Crested Turaco. Distinctive on two accounts, one that it is a loud racuous call, but more so because it is my ring tone on my phone. in the misty, rain shrouded forest, it was magical. There, one of my first ticks for the weekend was this magnifiscent bird perched on an exposed branch. Even more amazing was the fact that it was perch right next to a Knysna Turaco which was at the northern extent of it’s southern range. In the undergrowth a Spotted Ground Thrush called. Unfortunately after a frustrating 20 minutes I stilll could not see it and was unable to tick it off.
Continuing to the valley floor and meagre collection of Green Backed Camenoptera’s, Cape Batis and Bar Throated Apalis darted across the road.Reaching the Mzimkwulwana River there were the ever present Egyptian Geese with very little else. Even the prospect of walking was dampened by the weather.
At the picnic site next the the river there was a small change in luck. A trio of Collared Sunbird’s dived into a shrub and actively foraged for insects while continuly twittering. Followed closely, a trio of Thick-billed Weavers bulleted through the air and plunged into the canopy of a towering tree.
I reluctantly returned to my car and proceeded up the other side of the gorge, disconcerted that breakfast seemed to be the only option in the rain. The meandering climb to the sugar plantation coated plateau was spectacular. Emerging from the forest, a flurry of feathers took off from the road and darted for a cluster of small rocks. Finally, something to identify. as luck would have it, this was to be another tick and a lifer, a Stripped Pipit. not an easy sighting, but while waiting for it to hop out on a rock, out of the corner of my eye, a Yellow-throated Longclaw caught my attention. along the plateau the Croaking Warbler added to my lifer list.
Breakfast at Leopard Rock was tasty and provided some compensation for the rain, though I felt fortunate that it was not full to capacity. from the deck the view was superb and the owner has placed a feeder which attracts birds. Vultures are dependent on thermals and will rarely venture from their cliff side nests unless conditions are favourable. As if on cue, a 50 plus Cape vultures took to the air down the valley and started searching out thermals, a slow lumbering spiral birds searching along the slopes and cliff edges for the lift that would carry them to a meal. It was not meant to be and within 15 minutes, they all glided down to their roosts, feet extended and wings flared, each of them alighting on the cliffs with the delicacy of a falling feather.
On my return journey the clouds had lifted, though not cleared and I got to see more of the gorge. Halfway down, a bird party moved through and I had the fortune to record 16 more species in rapid succession. once back at the rest camp, I headed out for a walk and was fortunate enough to see Green Pigeon and discover some Clivia’s along one of the paths. Sadly it was not flowering season and I will have to return to view these magnificent flowers sometime in the future.
On Sunday, I packed up and decided to drive through the gorge again and return to the N2 via the long route. Descending down the southern section of the gorge on a sunny slope a diverse bird party captivated me for half an hour, taking my total for my Big Year list to 232 species and my count of new species for Oribi Gorge to 30 ticks. In all, I saw no less than 70 species of birds, which considering the weather conditions was a respectable count for the weekend.
Looking forward, my next outing would first be to Kruger National Park for some bushveld species and then onto Hermanus where I hope to tick the African Penguin and the Great White Pelican and Crowned Cormorant.