Cobham Nature Reserve lies an easy one and a half hours away from Pietermaritzburg and is to my mind one of the best gateways in to the Drakensberg mountains with excellent birding to boot.
The campsite is still rustic and makes the perfect base camp from which to explore the valleys and ridges. Added to this, the Pholela River bisects the reserve and is a perfect refresher for when the hiking gets too tiring. A quick dip in the crystal clear waters is invigorating enough to make one wish to explore further and the pollution free waters quench even the hardest thirst.
1 of 8: Dark-Capped Yellow Warbler.
On my most recent visit, thunder rumbled heavily down the valleys and stark silhoettes of the mountains and ridges were outlined as lightening flashed its jagged bolts across the sky. Shortly afterwards the rain drops started to fall – small and slow at first and then heavy and hard and eventually hail stones the size of small golf balls started pelting down. In minutes though, the storm was over and as I peered out of my tent flap, I looked out on a white carpet of hail stones and up into a stary sky. I had fortunately placed my samll hiking tent well under the protective branches of the tightly packed bushes. Others in the campsite had not been so lucky and many where now scurrying around in the darkness trying to re-tie the guide ropes anf flaps of their tents. This was definitely the Drakensberg that I remembered, where weather changed rapidly from one extreme to the other. I had arrived at Cobham Nature Reserve earlier that afternoon after a gap of ten years from when I managed the reserve and also as I remembered it, the birdlife was still excellent.
2 of 8: The beautiful Pholela River.
Birding starts immediately when you turn off the tar road running through Himeville onto the D7 gravel road that winds for 15 or so kilometres to the entrance of the reserve. I timed my visit with mid-summer so that the area was at its greenest and all the migrant bird species would be present. As I drove, flocks of Amur Falcons lined the farm fence lines and flew off after insects that were that were deftly snatched by razor sharp talons before being transferred for swallowing. Yellow-Billed Kites patrolled above the road in the hope of finding a roadkill from which they could scavenge and Steppe and Jackal Buzzards looked down at me with glaring eyes from atop the telegraph poles as I drove past. At one of the numerous plantations a Long-Crested Eagle, which is a firm favourite of mine, allowed me a quick few photographs before it flew off to quieter patches.
3 of 8: Long-Billed Pipit.
In the farmlands White Storks wandered amongst fat healthy dairy cattle that kicked up grasshoppers as they walked through the lush grasses. Numerous small farm dams dotted the landscape and at one of these, a pair of Grey-Crowned Cranes walked in the marshy ground with two chicks in tow. Black Duck,Yellow-Billed Duck, Red-Billed Teal, Cape Shoveller and Egyptian Geese swam on the open water and Little Egret and Hammerkop waited motionlessly on the edges in the hope of catching passing prey.
4 of 8: Hadedah on the campsite lawns.
Southern Red Bishop males in their resplendent red and black plumage displayed to rather board looking females and this only spurred the males into further frenzy until eventually the females could take it no more and flew off into the distance. Red-Collared Widowbirds were also plentiful and much like the bishop birds seemed unsuccessful in all of their amorous endeavours.
5 of 8: The Drakensberg Mountains are home to a wide diversity of floral beauty. (Monopsis decipiens)
As I arrived at Cobham, a low misty grey cloud and light drizzle closed in over the mountains but the air was still fresh and invigorating. The feeling of peace was immediate after the intensity of driving along winding roads between Pietermaritzburg and the reserve and having to share the roads with vehicles that seemed to ignore common road sense and kept your reflexes on overdrive. In the campsite, I was welcomed by Cape Weavers, Cape Robin-Chats, Common Fiscal, Red-Winged Starlings, a pair of Bokmakieries, Cape White-Eyes and Dark-Capped Bulbuls that all saw me as a possible supplier of food scraps. Hadedah’s and Cape Crows wandered the lawns and somewhere in the tree tops Didericks Cuckoo and Red-Throated Wryneck constantly reminded me of their presence with their repetitive calling.
6 of 8: Ground Woodpecker.
With darkness rapidly approaching, I quickly set out to wander the short “Ou Hout Trail” and was rewarded with a Giant Kingfisher that shot past at great speed. Karoo Prinia, Swee Waxbills, Fork-Tailed Drongo, Cape Turtle Doves, Red-Eyed Doves and Pied Starlings quickly added themselves to my growing list. Just as I returned to my tent, my final reward for the day was a Black Sparrowhawk that was hot on the heels of a Laughing Dove.
7 of 8: Hodgekins Peaks stand overwatch to the Cobham Nature Reserve section of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park.
Falling asleep after the heavy storm that passed through in the middle of the night, it seemed like seconds had passed before the cold of the pre-dawn woke me and forced me out of my tent long before my alarm had any chance of awakening me. Striding out along the path in the pre-dawn darkness, my boots were soon waterlogged and my cloths clung to my body from being soaked from the wet long grass. The effort was worth it as pairs of Black-Backed Jackals and Red-Winged Francolins called across the valleys. Low mist hung over the water and as I walked I flushed small flocks of Quail Finch, African Quail and Cape Longclaw. Out in the open grasslands Ayre’s Cisticola, Banded Martin, Brown-Throated Martin and Greater-Striped Swallows were common while high in the skies, Black, European, Alpine and Little Swifts shot past at great speed. Reaching Whale Rock, I had good sightings of Broad-Tailed Warbler, Le Valliants Cisticola, Neddicky, Cape Widowbird and Cape Grassbird amongst the dense Bracken stands. Plodding up the steep incline to Shipongwene, I realised that my fitness was not as it used to be and I was soon puffing and huffing and having to take repeated rests. These forced rest periods brought their own rewards as I was able to watch a Rock Kestrel hunting along the ridges and at one clump of boulders, a pair of Buff-Streaked Chat were fussing around a recently fledged youngster as Cape Rock Thrush, Mountain Pipit and Ground Woodpecker also fed nearby. At another point, I found a Puff Adder that was trying to warm itself and nearby a Cinnamon-Breasted Bunting had its nest with three pale eggs secreted into a deep rock fissure.
8 of 8. Male Fan-Tailed Widowbird.
Reaching the top of the Little Berg, I looked down on distant herds of feeding Eland and Baboon, while above me loomed the prominent points of Hodgekins Peaks. Flowers of numerous types and colours were plentiful and these attracted a myriad of insects which in turn had Drakensberg Crag Lizards darting around after the six-legged meals. Resting, with my legs dangling over a cliff, the peacefulness of the grassland plateau, waterlogged tarns, distant river and deeply incised valleys and ridges certainly made my early morning rise and hard slog up the steep slopes well worth the effort.
Season and weather: Summer months are warm with afternoon thunderstorms while winters are cold and heavy snows can fall. Be aware that weather changes rapidly in the Drakensberg and all four seasons can occur in a single day. Heavy snow has been recorded to fall in the middle of summer.
Habitats: The weather plays an extremely important role in the shaping of the basalt and sandstone formations that stand out proud in the landscape. In summer, dramatic thunder and lightening operas play along the escarpment, while during the winter month’s snow and fire can ravage across the landscape. These weather patterns also play a huge part in the structure of the two main vegetation zones each with their own unique plant communities – these are namely the Alti-montain Biome, which ranges from 2500m – 3480m above sea level and the Afro-montane Grassland Biome, which ranges from 1700m – 2500m above sea level. Within each of these zones different bird species occur.
Specials: Bearded Vulture, Cape Vulture, Drakensberg Rock-jumper, Gurney’s Sugarbird, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Short-tailed Pipit, Botha’s Lark.
Getting There: From the N3 take the R617 to Underberg and Himeville. On entering Himeville, follow the signage to Cobham and Sani Pass.
Accommodation & Activities: A variety of accommodation is available from camping in the wilderness and campsites to self-catering chalets, through to luxury units. Accommodation can be booked for Cobham Nature Reserve through Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and through Underberg Tourism to book for Bed and Breakfast accommodation and Hotels, which fall outside of the official boundaries of the Maloti Drakensberg Park.
Underberg Tourism: +27 (0) 33 7011471. www.drakensberg.org
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife – Central reservations: +27 (0) 33 8451000. www.kznwildlife.com