Self-drive birding route off the N3 Toll Route, at Van Reenen, birders can spot: Blue Korhaan, White-bellied Bustard, White-winged Flufftail.
Van Reenen to Collins Pass in Search of Wattled Cranes and White-winged Flufftail.
From Harrismith, take the N3 Toll Route towards Durban. Take the first turning, S793, as you are approaching the little hamlet of Van Reenen. The first good birding spot is about 2km down that road at the large Blue Gum trees, there is a small dam and wetland on your left. There is always a good number of waterfowl and waders on and around the dam. At this point, zero your odometer and let the route begin… Although the first 7km are mainly agricultural lands, you can still pick up some good birds. Look out for Cape Longclaws, Red-capped Larks and keep an eye open for White-bellied Bustard.
At 7.7km you get to your first I.B.A. (Important Bird Areas). This wetland is known as Murphy’s Rust and was proclaimed as an I.B.A. because Wattled Cranes and White-winged Flufftail (South Africa’s rarest bird) are present in the area. I have spent many hours “swamping” around in the vlei, but have had no luck on the Flufftail; I do however see the Wattled Cranes there quite regularly. There is a whole host of other great birds to be ‘gripped’ in the swamp, such as; Ballion’s Crake, African Rails, Red-chested Flufftail, Crowned Crane and Lesser Moorhens. Keep an eye out overhead for the Marsh Harriers and in summer there is always a chance for Pallid and Montague Harriers. These latter two species are, however, more often found quartering over grassland areas the wetlands.
The Wilge River, all the while, is flowing in the valley to your left. You will first encounter the river at the 12km mark. A small one-way bridge crosses the river at this point. After crossing the bridge, find a place to park and walk through the field in front of you. You will cut across a bend in the river and rejoin where a tributary comes into the Wilge. This has formed a magnificent undercut waterfall with a spectacular amphitheatre. The best thing about this spot is that it is a breeding site for Bald Ibises. Approach with caution and please do not disturb the birds.
Just before you reach the river crossing there is a turn-off to De Beers Pass. If you have time this is a great diversion. Follow this road for 8km and you will be at the top of the Pass. There are great wetlands all along this section of road. About 2km along this road you will find a steep downhill overlooking a large vlei area. It is a good vantage point at which to scan the valley below. On the slope to your right there is a small patch of indigenous forest. I have had Ground Woodpecker, Buff-streaked and Mountain Chat and Lanner falcons can be spotted overhead.
An ‘Anatomy’ of mountains:
Continue along the S793 until you reach a four-way junction; here turn right along the S992. This section of the route always feels like an anatomy lesson. On your left is Tandjiesberg, meaning Teeth Mountain, so named for obvious reasons, when you see it. Then just past this is a mountain that the locals call Mabhetlane, which is Zulu for ‘breasts’.
Further along this range we find Skeurklip, cleaved rock, the early travellers had one thing on their minds by the time they got to this area. Then on the opposite side of the valley, to your right as you drive ever westwards, like a watchful voyeur, lies Nelson’s Kop. From the right angle there is an immaculate rendition of the famous British Admiral. For once the Americans were not the first, we have our own Mount Rushmore. Along this section you start feeling the solitude, it feels like a forgotten part of our country. With the decrease in farming activity, so the birding gets better. Blue Korhaans, Crowned and Blue Cranes abound and odd birds like Stanley’s Bustard and Mountain Pipit have been spotted along here.
At 57 km we get to the next mega birding area, an I.B.A. known as Bedford, Chatsworth. Again proclaimed for the presence of the Wattled Crane and the White-winged Flufftail. Park anywhere along the road, climb through the fence on the right hand verge of the road and walk over the hill. As you get to the crest of the hill you will see the magnificent wetland stretching out before you. There has been some controversy surrounding this area, as the new pump storage scheme will have a slight impact on this wetland, so get there before the dam does.
Reaching the beginning: At 60 km you reach a T-junction with the S692, which is the Collins Pass road. Turn left along this road and you will cross a wetland, which is as close to the source of the Wilge that you can get. The true source lies on the farm Toronto and flows off an appropriately named peak called Waterkop. This wetland has a high population of Marsh Owls. On one swamping session we flushed 15, for a wetland less than two hectares, this is a high concentration.
Going with the flow: Now that we have done the birding thing I like to retrace my steps and seek out some good fishing spots. In this high stage of the river it is very bony and not large enough to support any large numbers of fish, so we need to go downstream. Retrace your steps, but instead of returning to Van Reenen, continue along the S992. This road will bring you back to the N3 Toll Route at Swinburne. Cross over the N3 and drive down into the hamlet of Swinburne. Cross the railway line and then turn right just before the auction pens. This road will bring you all the way back to Harrismith along the river. There are a number of places along this route where you can access the river and get some quiet time and good fishing. My favourite place is in the canyon, you will find it and you will be blown away by the beauty of the place. You will need a vehicle with good clearance and in the rainy season a four-wheel drive will be a bonus.
A paradise of contrasts: From source to Harrismith you will see a river that goes from a meek stream to a raging river and then eventually becomes a sleepy Puff Adder. So many contrasts in a short space of this river’s life, filled with little pieces of paradise waiting for you to find.
Should you get lost, or are feeling “all shagged out” after a stressful tick, give me a call, David: 083 303 4230. I can put you onto some other high Grassveld specials should you need them, or offer you a comfortable bed for the night.