19 January, 2015

Tankwa Karoo – birds and bees at the cottages

- gardening for biodiversity
in Cape Town, South Africa

On the Gannaga Pass in the Tankwa Karoo National Park, while my camera took me for a walk, I could hear a bird singing its heart out – All This Is Mine! Cape Bunting. (I’d call it a stripe-headed sparrow).

Cape Bunting on Gannaga Pass

We stayed in the new Elandsberg cottages in September 2011, looking across the late spring flowers to the Gannaga Pass.

View from Elandsberg cottages
to Gannaga Pass in the Tankwa Karoo

Old farmhouses or the new purpose built tourist accommodation? Two farmhouses come with a ‘donkey’ – light the wood fire to heat water. There is no electricity, this is WAY off grid. The new houses use traditional mud bricks (= adobe) and eucalyptus beams. There are five cottages spread out, the neighbours far enough away to be undisturbed. Or, you can have a farmhouse all on its own.

Elandsberg cottages
Bottom left 'donkey' at Varschfontein

Gas-fired fridge, geyser and stove. Ceilings covered with Spaanse riet (which grew near our garage where the weavers nest). Candles and a row of paraffin lamps. Felt quite Victorian. For a few days I reset my internal clock to sleep and rise WITH the birds.

Inside Elandsberg cottage

The open plan kitchen has a traditional peach pip floor. Enjoyed walking on that, felt like gentle cobbles.

Traditional peach pip floor

Returning from the Leeuberg 4x4 trail, crossing the plain, we saw a group of springbok. One anxious soul remained behind, gazing back past us. We switched off, and waited with him. In their own good time, the second half of the herd came slowly along the ridge, paused to snack. Then pronked across the road. I have never seen this before, was just a word. Imagine the springbok, like a kangaroo on a pogo-stick, jumping straight up in the air, and high! ‘Is that a lion in the grass?’ His herd reunited, the sentry galloped off.

Springbok in the Tankwa Karoo

Tortoise in the Tankwa Karoo

On the Elandsberg a crab-spider lurked on an Albuca flower. Striped toktokkie (so called because he knocks like a death watch beetle) – the ones I know have smooth backs; in the Karoo they are armour plated. At Varschfontein, once was a farm, I saw this – white lentil running like hell, tiny beetle with his sunscreened overcoat. He is called – a frantic tortoise beetle!

Back in the mud walls of the cottage, solitary bees were nesting. Gathering pollen as it was flower season, then sealing the nest with mud. For which they needed water. To be found in the plunge pool! 

Striped toktokkie, crab spider on Albuca
solitary bees nesting in mud wall, frantic tortoise beetle 

Our first afternoon there was a stiff breeze. Imagine the hot dry Karoo. You are a sparrow sized bird with short legs. There is water. In a pool, with a smooth concrete rim. The filter runs on a solar panel. Couldn’t bear to watch the birds battling to reach the water, so the Ungardener carefully chose and placed two rocks. Those little birds were delighted to be able to bathe. The solitary bees and the mud wasps were also desperate to get water, and hundreds of them lost their grip, to drift drowning on the water. We spent some time fishing them out.

Yellow Canary
Cape Bunting 

While we were staying there, they installed tarpaulin covers over the pools.

Plunge pool at Elandsberg cottages in the Tankwa Karoo

From Letsie Coetzee, Section Ranger Tankwa Karoo National Park in the SANPark Forums on 19th October 2011. 'There are 2 waterholes 2-3 km from the cottages. To protect the vegetation waterholes are 5 km apart. Please keep the pool covered. A floating "island" will be added as an escape route.'

PS We did see bees climbing under the cover...

Pictures by Jurg and Diana Studer  
of  Elephant's Eye on False Bay 

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  1. There are many things of interest to me in this post. First, I notice that your sparrow or Cape Bunting is exhibiting the same qualities of the iconic Song Sparrow in my garden. They find the highest location in the garden and then tend to want to control that area as their own for attracting mates. I remember the SpringBoks so well, skittish and fleeing in a second's notice with fear of a predator. Did you stay in those evocative cabins? They are amazing. I've never heard of a peach pit floor, it would probably be very good for your feet--a gentle massage. I have memories of Africa that are in a particular ancient part of my brain, and then periodically you take me there Diana.

    1. yes, for a few days that cottage was home, sweet home!

  2. What an amazing adventure and utterly wonderful vacation. So quiet and peaceful it sounds. The peach pit floor sounds interesting. At first I thought, how uncomfortable, but then, maybe it's like rollers on the feet - almost a gentle massage? I just love your photos of the landscape, mountains in back with gorgeous dots of colour throughout. wildflowers are so abundant there and so very colourful.

  3. what a perfect place to stay, so close to nature and without mod cons. Like camping, except in a very solid tent. Love the little birds.

  4. Beautiful post, Diana. Peach pit floor! And the little thirsty birds...

  5. When I was a kid, we always vacationed in a cabin where the fireplace heated water for showers and outside stairs led to the upstairs bunks. Funny how the lack of conveniences feels romantic when we are at our leisure. Kudos for your wildlife rescue missions.

  6. I see that Sue mentioned camping. That's what I was thinking, too. Sometimes it's great to get off the grid and reconnect with nature in a more primitive way for a few days. I was impressed by the peach pip floors! I think I would like those. I researched them after reading your post, and they make sense. Using that beautiful, renewable resource for a therapeutic floor. I wonder if that method is available anywhere here in the states. The widlflowers near your cottage were beautiful, too.

    1. Maybe?
      Where there are peach orchards.
      And expat South Africans.

  7. Did you ever return to see the floating “island” in the pool?

    1. not yet - but I did find forum posts about kamikaze bees.
      We are not swimmers, but someone pointed out bee stings could be a problem. SANP said they are working on various solutions.

  8. The traditional peach pit floor was so interesting. It didn't seem like a landscape where there would be peach trees around, looking so flat with the mountains in the background. Are there a lot of orchards there? Love all the wildlife. So great you helped out the critters!

    1. The fruit orchards are nearer to us in the Western Cape - wine, fresh fruit for export. Juice and dried fruit and a mountain of peach or apricot pips. The kernels are used in a marzipan substitute.

  9. Dear Diana,
    thank you for the journey - it's a journey to an unknown part of the world for me, a journey to summer and a yourney to a landscape wich never ends. Beautiful!
    Wish you all my best and happy days

  10. I love this posting, Diana. No electricity, 'donkey' to heat water, peach pip floor, fascinating wildlife. This is a retreat I would relish. P. x

  11. Peach pip floors, now that was something new for me. I've never heard of them before. What an amazing feeling it must be to walk on that in bare feet. This little corner of the world looks to be something special. Loved scrolling through the photos.

  12. Wowza! Such a lush canvas of flora and fauna. Silly United Statesian that I am, I never would have realized what a plethora of beauty and loveliness abounds, Down Under.
    Danke, for enlightening me (and others, surely).
    Write soon!

  13. The view is breathtaking! I will take your word that the peach pip floor was fun to walk on; I am not sure I would want to do that bare-foot. This looks like the perfect place to relax, wake up to the birds and reconnect with one's own soul.

  14. I am in need of a couple of days away from it all in that cottage.

  15. Such an interesting post! The incredible landscape, the wildflowers, the springbok "springing" ... ohhh! just amazing! I love reading your posts :)

  16. Great stuff, I like the scenery, the springboks and tortoise and very much the zebra sparrow, not so sure about the spider though.

    1. 'tis a very LITTLE spiderling ... and quite cute!

  17. The cottages and landscape remind me of our western prairies of long ago...of course without the springbok. Such a peaceful setting.