A tale of two wetlands

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Jim Freeman

JIM FREEMAN twitches the days away in Elands Bay and Wilderness

As the crow flies, the distance between Elands Bay and Wilderness is less than 550kms. Both are in the Western Cape and on the sea: Elands Bay on the semi-arid west coast and Wilderness on the lush Garden Route. Both are home to Ramsar sites – ecologically sensitive wetland areas that teem with an abundance of bird species.

Vensterklip

There are 20 Ramsar sites in South Africa, with six in the Western Cape. Two of these – Verlorenvlei at Elandsbaai (pictured above) and the Wilderness Lakes – cover about 2800 hectares and attract bird-lovers.

Vensterklip, virtually on the banks of Verlorenvlei, is as rough-and-ready yet welcoming as the people of the West Coast. Wilderness Manor is lavish and refined – offering a high level of sophistication.

Albert Robertson of Vensterklip is as gnarly as Weskus driftwood while his Wilderness counterparts, retired senior aircrew Gerald Hoch and “JD” Janse van Rensburg, are polished yellow-wood.

Gerald and JD have a sharp eye for marketing: the most photographed aspect of the manor is the bird-table adjacent to the breakfast room.

A Loerie and thrush breakfast at Wilderness Manor. Picture: Jim Freeman

They put a fresh half-apple on it every morning and down comes one of the resident Knysna turacoes loeries and some olive thrushes to squabble over the fruit. Cameras click away and, knowing their guests will share these pictures, the couple have affixed a Wilderness Manor sign to the structure.

Wilderness Manor.

Wilderness and the four-star manor is just four rooms, three of which overlook the Wilderness Lagoon.

Across the road a boardwalk follows the shoreline of the lagoon through reeds and milkwood into the “town” of Wilderness, about 1km away. Hop into your car if you want to experience Salinas with its gorgeous views over Wilderness’ blue-flag beach. You can also drive to the Malachite Bird Hide on the northern shore of the upper Langvlei on the back road to Sedgefield. It’s about seven minutes’ drive from the manor and is situated in the Wilderness section of the Garden Route National Park.

Malachite-kingfisher. Picture: Jim Freeman

The Touw River connects Langvlei, Eiland and Rondevlei. Collectively known as the Wilderness Lakes, it was proclaimed a Ramsar site in June 1991 and encompasses 1300 hectares.

There is no charge for entering the hide and, because it’s off the beaten track, it’s only known to birders.

Get there at the right time and you can see pied and malachite kingfishers, two types of swallow (in season), dabchicks, geese, crakes, darters and cormorants, herons, moorhens and any number of LBJs – little brown jobs – in the reeds. You’ll hear fish eagles but it’s unlikely that they’ll come close.

The hide at Verlorenvlei – a coastal fresh water lake that supports over 189 bird species, including 75 water birds such as pelicans, flamingoes and spurwing geese – is more convivial.

Vensterklip International Bar

Take a bottle of wine and watch the sun sink over the water and reedlands before ambling back to the “International” pub for some not-too-subtle West Coast banter or straight into the Tin Kitchen restaurant, a converted barn (built in 1788) for hearty fare.

The property takes its name from a rocky arch that serves as a window westwards to Elands Bay and the Atlantic Ocean and east over potato plantations to Redelinghuys. It’s on a different section of Robertson’s farm to the guesthouse and pub-restaurant and you can only visit the site by arrangement.

Look carefully and you might spot the southern speckled padloper Homopus signatus the world’s smallest tortoise which grows to between six and 10 cm.

An Egret. PIcture: Jim Freeman

Vensterklip’s accommodation comprises lakeside camping sites, cottages and the restored 220-year-old three-bedroomed Scott House farmhouse, which has a large verandah overlooking Verlorenvlei.

A large, well-stocked kitchen and self-catering accommodation option is available.