Day 1: A Golden Start at Golden Gate
After months of anticipation, the day had finally arrived. I was taking my wife and kid on a weekend trip to the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, one of the most scenic and diverse parks in South Africa. We left our home at 12 noon, right after fetching my kid from school, and hit the road. Along the way, we stopped for a delicious pie at the famous Windmills near Mooi River, a popular spot for travelers and locals alike. The pie was warm and flaky, and filled with tender meat and gravy. We savored every bite and continued our journey.
The Golden Gate Highlands National Park is named after the golden hue of the sandstone cliffs that dominate the landscape. The park was established in 1963 and covers an area of 340 square kilometers. It is home to a variety of fauna and flora, including Blesbok, Zebras, Black Wildebeests, Elands, and over 200 species of birds. The park also has a rich cultural and historical heritage, as it contains many sites of archaeological and paleontological significance, such as caves, rock paintings, and dinosaur fossils.
We arrived at the park around 4 pm and checked into our rondavel at Glen Reenen Rest Camp, a cozy and comfortable accommodation with a stunning view of the mountains. We quickly unpacked our bags and headed to the natural rock pools for a swim. The rock pools are formed by the Little Caledon River, which flows through the park and creates a series of cascades and pools. The water was cool and refreshing, and we enjoyed splashing around and relaxing. We also admired the scenery around us, as the sun cast a golden glow on the sandstone cliffs and the grasslands.
I took my binoculars and camera and searched for birds. I was amazed by the diversity and beauty of the avian life in the park. I also started atlassing bird species using Birdlasser, a mobile app that allows birders to record and share their sightings. I saw some common birds like Bokmakierie, Cape Weavers, Cape Robin Chats, and Red-winged Starlings, but also some uncommon and special ones. I was especially delighted to spot two groups of Ground Woodpeckers, a near-threatened species that is endemic to South Africa. They were perched on some exposed boulders above the rock pools, further up the mountains. I had seen them without even going on a drive yet. I remembered reading a previous article on our blog called "Golden Gate and The Ever Elusive Ground Woodpecker" where Joshua Winter strives to find a Ground Woodpecker, but fails. I felt lucky to have such an easy sighting.
I also saw a majestic Verreaux's Eagle soaring overhead by the mountain cliffs, as well as various swifts including the impressive Alpine Swift. The Verreaux's Eagle is one of the largest and most powerful eagles in the world, and can prey on animals as large as rock hyraxes and small antelopes. The Alpine Swift is one of the fastest and highest-flying birds in the world, and can reach speeds of up to 200 km/h and altitudes of up to 6000 meters. I snapped some photos and made some notes for my bird list. I was very satisfied with my first day at Golden Gate, and looked forward to exploring more of the park the next day.
One thing that struck me was how particularly green the environment looked owing to recent heavy rains. The grasslands were lush and vibrant, and the flowers were blooming. The park was truly a feast for the eyes and the soul. I also learned that the rains had a positive impact on the ecosystem, as they replenished the water sources, reduced the risk of fires, and improved the grazing conditions for the herbivores. The park was alive and thriving, and I felt privileged to witness its beauty and bounty.
Day 2: Birding Bliss and Vulture Disappointment at Golden Gate
We woke up early and were in the car 10 minutes before sunrise, eager to explore the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. We started with the Blesbok Loop, a one-way drive of 6.7 km that offers wonderful views of the sandstone mountains and the grasslands. We stopped at the Generaal’s Kop viewpoint, where we could see the Brandwag Buttress and the Golden Gate Hotel in the distance. We also spotted some Blesbok, Zebra, and Black Wildebeest grazing on the slopes.
We continued along the loop until we reached the turn-off to the Langhoek Dam, a small reservoir built in the park. We parked our car and walked along a short trail to the dam wall, where we enjoyed the sight of the water reflecting the surrounding peaks. We also saw some waterbirds, such as Yellow-billed Ducks, Red-knobbed Coots, and Common Moorhens.
We decided to drive to the Oribi Loop, another one-way drive of 4.2 km that passes through a different habitat of the park. The Oribi Loop is named after the Oribi, a small and shy antelope that lives in the park. We saw some Oribi darting across the road, as well as some Mountain Reedbuck and Grey Rhebok. We also enjoyed the views of the Maluti Mountains and the Lesotho border.
Along the Oribi Loop, we saw a sign for the Vulture Hide, a wooden structure that overlooks a feeding site for vultures and other scavengers. We decided to check it out, hoping to see some of these magnificent birds. We had heard that the park had a healthy population of Cape Vultures, and Bearded Vultures.
We drove up a steep and rocky road to the hide, and parked our car. We walked to the hide, but along the path, we were greeted by a swarm of biting insects, which attacked us mercilessly. We eventually went into the hide, and saw that there were absolutely no vultures or any birds at the hide. We were very disappointed and underwhelmed. We remembered watching a YouTube video by Rick Nuttall, where he talked about the conservation challenges facing the vultures in the park. He explained that the vultures were not regularly fed. He also said that the vultures faced threats from poisoning, electrocution, and habitat loss. We felt sad and frustrated by the situation, and wished that more could be done to protect these endangered birds.
We drove back to the Oribi Loop, and continued our drive. We noticed that the rocky outcrop leading up to the hide was more interesting than the hide itself, as it had many birds perching and flying around. We saw some Rock Martins, Familiar Chats, and Cape Buntings. We also saw a Rock Kestrel, a small falcon that hunts rodents and insects. We took some photos and added them to our bird list.
Later in the day, we went to the Glen Reenen Picnic Site, a shady spot near the Little Caledon River. We parked our car and walked to the picnic tables, where we had some snacks and drinks. As we arrived, we heard a raptor crying from one of the tall trees. We followed the sound, and found it to be a juvenile Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk, a small and agile bird of prey. The adult was also in the area and did a couple of flybys. We got a semi-decent photo of the juvenile, which had brown streaks on its chest and yellow eyes.
In the afternoon, we drove to the Golden Gate Hotel and Chalets, a luxurious and modern hotel located in the heart of the park. The hotel has a classy and elegant décor, inspired by the African seasons. We enjoyed the views of the Brandwag Buttress and the sandstone cliffs from the hotel’s windows. We decided to treat ourselves to a milkshake at the hotel’s restaurant, which serves a variety of dishes and drinks. The milkshakes were creamy and delicious, and we felt refreshed after the hot day.
After our snack, we went for a short hike on the Holkrans Trail, a 3 km loop trail that starts from the hotel’s car park. The trail leads to a stunning sandstone enclave. The trail had some fun walkways, bridges, and caves along the way. We also saw many birds, such as Rock Martins, Familiar Chats, and Cape Buntings.
One of the highlights of the hike was seeing a Jackal Buzzard soaring near the cliffs. It was a magnificent sight, watching the large raptor glide effortlessly in the air. We also saw a Lanner Falcon flying near the cliff tops. It was a smaller but faster falcon, with a blue-grey head and a reddish back.
Another new bird added to the atlas card was a female Cape Rock Thrush, which landed on a boulder nearby and I was able to get some photos of it. Because of the heat and my aversion to getting ticks, we didn’t do much of the trail.
We drove back to the camp in the late afternoon, and relaxed in our rondavel. We watched the sun set behind the mountains, and then had dinner. We enjoyed the night sky, which was full of stars, and listened to the sounds of the nocturnal animals. We went to bed early, looking forward to our next day in the park.
Day 3: Basotho Cultural Village and Surroundings
We woke up before sunrise and drove to the road to the Basotho Cultural Village, a half an hour drive from Glen Reenen. The Basotho Cultural Village is an open-air museum that showcases the history and culture of the Sotho people, who live in the highlands of South Africa and Lesotho.
The road to the village was a gravel road that wound through the hills and valleys of the park. The habitat was mostly open grassland, interspersed with patches of shrubs and rocky outcrops. The grassland was home to many large mammals, such as Springbok, Blesbok, Black Wildebeest, and Red Hartebeest. We saw them grazing peacefully on the green slopes, sometimes running or chasing each other.
The road was also alive with birds. As soon as we entered the road, we added a new species for the park: an Ant-eating Chat. It perched on a low rock and flew down to the ground to catch ants and other insects.
Another bird that caught our attention was the Eastern Clapper Lark. It performed a spectacular display flight, rising up in the air with a steady wing-clapping sound, then giving a single whistled note and parachuting down to the ground. It was like a musical acrobat, showing off its skills and beauty.
Farther up the road, we saw a few Amur Falcons on the telephone lines. They were champion migrants, breeding in eastern Siberia and wintering in southern Africa. They fed mainly on insects that they caught on the wing or picked from the ground. They were also new species for the park, and we were excited to see them.
A rather unusual sighting was a couple of Ground Woodpeckers, also on top of the telephone poles. They were one of only three ground-dwelling woodpeckers in the world, and they usually inhabited rocky slopes and boulder-strewn areas. They fed on ants and their eggs, larvae, and pupae. Seeing them on the poles was a strange sight, as they normally preferred natural perches.
Later in the day, while my wife and child went for another swim in the natural rock pools of Glen Reenen, I decided to undertake one of the trails beginning from the campsite. I chose the Mushroom Rocks Trail, a 4.2 km loop trail that starts from the camp’s car park. But before I started the trail, I saw an elusive pair of the shy African Black Ducks in the stream running along the campsite.
The Mushroom Rocks Trail was a scenic and enjoyable hike that took me through the sandstone formations of the park. The trail followed the Little Caledon River for a while, where I saw some more waterbirds, such as Reed Cormorants, Little Grebes, and Yellow-billed Ducks. I also saw some Rock Hyraxes sunning themselves on the rocks. The trail then climbed up the St Fort Mountain, where I had a panoramic view of the valley and the mountains. The trail had some fun features, such as walkways, bridges, and caves. The highlight of the trail was the Mushroom Rock, a huge sandstone boulder that looked like a mushroom.
Along the trail, I saw a Rock Kestrel soaring above the cliffs. I also saw a pair of Karoo Prinias calling away in the scrub, just meters from me. They were active warblers with a long graduated tail that they sometimes cocked. They were dull brown above and pale below with extensive streaks and blotches on the underparts.
Day 4: The Last Birding Day at Golden Gate: A Mix of Joy and Disappointment
We woke up early on our last day and packed our car with all our gear. We decided to revisit both the Blesbok and Oribi loops, hoping to see more wildlife. We were rewarded with an amazing sight: a whole family of Gray-winged Francolins on the road. They were not shy and let us observe their beautiful plumage and loud calls. We took many photos and videos of them, feeling lucky to witness such a rare encounter.
On the Oribi Loop, we stopped at the rock outcrops before the vulture hide and spotted two Eastern Long-billed Larks and a Mountain Wheatear. They were also very cooperative and posed for our cameras. We were thrilled to add them to our list, which reached 77 species by the end of the day. This was the highest atlassing total anyone had achieved since 2018, and we felt proud of our accomplishment. However, we also felt a pang of disappointment that we had missed some of the more elusive and iconic species of the park, such as the Cape Vulture, the Bearded Vulture, the African Rock Pipit, the Yellow-breasted Pipit, and the Blue Korhaan. We made one last attempt to find the Blue Korhaans by driving to the Basotho Cultural Village, but we had no luck. We guessed that they were hiding somewhere in the grasslands, and we vowed to come back another time to look for them. We drove away from the park with mixed feelings, but mostly with gratitude for the wonderful experiences we had.