Blouberg Vulture Trail… Anyone who’s ever been stared at by a wild animal like a giraffe or a lion knows it’s like having your soul exposed and analysed, like what a magician’s rabbit must feel like after being pulled out of the hat and into the spotlight. Actually, if you’re being stared at by a lion, your jugular probably feels the prickly gooseflesh of exposure rather than your soul. Either way, there’s an instinctive edge to the feeling, a chilling reminder of where you stand in the food chain if you remove all the gimmicks that put us at the top of it. It shouldn’t really be surprising that vultures are up there with the bigshots when it comes to staring you down – but how often do you get to encounter these balding feathered fiends at eye level?
From the bottom of the south-facing cliff face of the Blouberg Mountain they call home, around eight-hundred pairs of Cape vultures are barely visible until they dive into the thermals, spiralling up and out across the skies like leaves in a slow and careful whirlwind. But it’s from the top of the cliff that you get a more accurate perspective of their true beauty. They fly past like fighter jets in formation, whooshing past in a screech and a hiss of feathers on air, heads turned in your direction, inquisitive eyes only leaving you when they’re absolutely sure you’re not a threat or a corpse – and after the 90-minute climb to the top you may feel a lot like the latter.
It’s not hard to understand why Cape vultures have made the endangered species list. Between loss of habitat, power lines, wind farms, and being poached for muti, they can’t seem to catch a break, but there are still a few healthy colonies out there that keep them from going over the edge, and Blouberg Nature Reserve in the Limpopo Province is home to one of the biggest.
The reserve itself hasn’t really been all that popular to visitors in recent years, despite the healthy population of buffalo, myriad of other bird species and rare animals such as sable antelope and brown hyenas wandering throughout the reserve. Perhaps now, with the opening of the Blouberg Wilderness Trail, featuring the Vulture Trail, along with the newly spruced up campsites and chalets, Blouberg Nature Reserve will get the attention it deserves and we’ll soon be queuing to get in.
The Vulture Trail may well be the draw card, especially for photographers. It’s not often one gets to see Cape vultures (or any vultures for that matter) in flight from above, to immerse oneself in their lofty world and experience the grace and piercing glare of nature’s clean-up crew so intimately. It’s a pretty strenuous climb to the top, but that’s not likely to stop any serious wildlife photographer from getting up there, because the photos you’ll get will be almost as good as the experience of sharing the skies with hundreds of staring vultures.
Once you get to the top of the cliff you’ll be much closer to the passing vultures than you could ever have dreamed. Even with a 300 mm lens you’ll be able to get great close-ups of them in flight. Since it’s a strenuous clamber up the side of the mountain, you’ll probably want to keep the weight of your equipment down as much as possible, so we recommend you take something like a 70-300 or 100-400 mm lens in stead of your fixed telephoto lenses. Having said that, porters from the local community are available to carry heavy equipment to the top. Don’t forget a tripod or monopod.
If I want to go:
Where? 18 km north-west of Vivo in the Limpopo Province.
GPS co-ordinates: S19.98367° E26.14167°
When? The vultures breed between May and September, which happens to be a good time for hiking as well.
Cost? The four-night Blouberg Wilderness Trail costs R850/person/night sharing if you stay at Tamboti Bush Camp and R1000/person/night if you stay at Mashatu Camp.
Tamboti Bush Camp, which runs on gas and solar power, consists of four basic safari tents and communal braai-, kitchen and ablution facilities. Mashatu Camp consists of four fully equipped and serviced thatched family cottages with electricity.
The routine is very flexible, but usually the mornings starts with a short game drive after a light, early breakfast, flowed by a walk in a scenic area. Once you’re back at camp, brunch is served, followed with some siesta time. In the afternoons you’ll go on another short drive and walk, usually to a nice sundowner spot. On one of the mornings, those who are fit enough, tackle the mountain to hike up to the vulture colony. Those who stay behind can go on a game drive or sit next to a productive waterhole in the reserve’s hide.
Phone: Jonathan Turner on 082 492 2880 or Rick Hill on 082 874 6132
Website: www.kunemoya.co.za and http://www.accipitertours.co.za/bb.html