South Africa On The Adventure Of Our Life Time Back In 2008

Keith and Chritian Eth

Not many people we can honestly say we owe our life to, here is one Keith Barnes - in red hat.

Back in 2008 we took a "gap-year for oldies" and traveled the world to see more birds in a single year than anyone had ever seen before, we called the adventure "The Biggest Twitch". In August 2008 we arrived in South Africa...

We fought our way out of the baggage claim area at Jo’burg Airport, and scanned the crowd for a familiar face. Keith was there smiling broadly and immediately quizzed us on our total and declared, “We can really boost your score on this leg if we go hard and fast.” We liked his style. We have known Keith Barnes, from Tropical Birding, for many years and have shared some great birds and great fun, so we were really looking forward to this African adventure. You may remember he joined us in Ethiopia?

Before we could set off birding we had some important admin to do. We needed visas for our trip to India in November and had to present our passports at the British Embassy in Jo’burg. As we did not want to lose any birding time, Keith had arranged for a man to sort the visas for us. We felt more than a little uneasy handing over our precious passports and a wad of cash to Claude. Keith was very confident.

“No problem, Claude will sort it all out and will have your visas back before you are due to leave.” Easy for him to say, it was not his passport or cash that was now disappearing into the crowded streets of one of the meanest cities in the world with a man we had only met minutes earlier. What if we never saw him again? How much time would we lose then? With the world record so close, we could not afford any setbacks.

Keith had already moved on and was striding on his very long legs towards the hire car collection point. We hurried after him. To lose passports would be bad; to lose passports and bird guide would be a disaster!

We were soon out of the city and heading for the rolling grasslands of Wakkerstroom with the promise of lots of new birds. Our progress was slowed by these very birds; Keith slammed on the brakes and leapt out of the car, frantically pointing out an addition to our list at regular intervals. A bizarre and wonderful Long-tailed Widowbird flapped over a field of tall grass, with jerky wing beats and its ludicrously long tail flowing behind. South African Cliff Swallows hawked over an area of bare ground, a good bird to pick up as it is never easy to find.

After a fast but long drive we reached Wakkerstroom and met local bird guide Lucky. We hoped he would live up to his name! Lucky was a local man, rather tubby with a ready smile and he spoke good English. We headed off into the open grasslands in search of larks. Keith quickly briefed Lucky about our quest to set a new world record and that we must move fast. Lucky got it straight away and was soon hurrying us along if we lingered on a bird. Great! Red-capped and Pink-billed Larks were on our list and we were on our way again. We were after a tough lark next: Rudd’s Lark. Lucky called a halt and declared this was the place. It looked identical to the miles of grassland we had just driven through, but the man knew his patch. We spread out and began to walk slowly forward scanning for movement ahead. We soon found Rufous-naped and Eastern Clapper Lark, both new for us. But the Rudd’s was nowhere to be seen. Then Keith heard the call. What Keith does not know about larks is not worth knowing. The man is a walking lark encyclopaedia! But where was the bird? We retraced our steps across the grassland we had just crossed, and amazingly found a Rudd’s Lark! How had we missed it? No time to dwell on the question, we were off again.

The National Bird of South Africa - Blue Cranes just gorgeous!

Larks are fine, and of course these were new for our list, but it has to be said we did not really share Keith’s love of these generally subtle brown, little birds. We perked up when Lucky announced our next target bird was a little larger and more charismatic: Blue Crane. Some distant shapes two fields away were transformed in the scopes into elegant Blue Cranes, striding across the stubble, so graceful with their trailing elongated wing feathers looking like a Victorian lady’s bustle! It had been a nice afternoon out on the grasslands, mild and calm, but suddenly a really cold wind sprang up from nowhere. It was amazing how quickly the temperature plummeted. This wind was coming from Antarctica and we could well believe it. We hurried to don extra layers, hats and gloves. The wind just got stronger and stronger, and we got colder and colder. We were not prepared for such cold conditions. Birds vanished from the open plains as they sought shelter from the icy blast from the south.

Out of the wind thankfully, we explored our self-catering house at Wakkerstroom. It was a nice little cottage and we were all wandering around bagging bedrooms and seeing what facilities we had. Then suddenly the air was filled with an ear-splitting high pitched scream! It went on and on! What on earth was happening? We all met in the kitchen covering our ears against the appalling noise. Ruth was looking guilty and pointed to a button on the wall. She had pressed it to see if it was a light switch.

“Light switch?” bellowed Keith. “That’s not a light switch, it’s a panic alarm!” Oh no! How could we stop it? We frantically searched for an instruction book thinking any second now a crack police swat team would burst in and shoot the intruders! Luckily we found the information and peace was restored. No police arrived, so just as well it was a false alarm.

Mind you, the noise was enough to drive out any would-be burglar, it was painful.

Dawn found us overlooking the wetland just outside Wakkerstrom watching great birds. The shallow pools and marshes were teaming with life and we were adding new birds fast, but Jesus it was cold. The birds had a similar theme: African Rail, African Snipe and African Marsh Harrier, all new.

We collected Lucky again and headed out into the sea of grass around the town, this time taking the Utrecht road but the bitter wind was making it tough to find any birds at all. We eventually picked up two new birds, a lovely Buff-streaked Chat. From the way it looked, surely this bird should be called a wheatear not a chat? And a handsome male Sentinel Rock Thrush.

We said good-bye and thank you to Lucky and set for a very long drive south-east to Mkuze Game Reserve, but sadly we took the bad weather with us. We arrived too late to enter the reserve so had to be content with birding around the periphery of this huge wildlife park. We found Brown-headed Kingfisher, Burnt-necked Eremomola and White-throated Robin-chat before a spectacular thunderstorm hit, complete with frightening lightening bolts crashing to earth! This was particularly cruel timing as we were right on the verge of a major milestone for The Biggest Twitch. We were now on 2,999 birds for 2008, just one more to reach 3,000! But it was not going to be today in this downpour. With Keith promising a pre-dawn start it would not be long, hopefully, before we reached that magic number. Then we could really start the countdown to the world record! Bring it on!

Keith was hammering on our bedroom door at the Ghost Mountain Inn near the gate to Mkuze Game Reserve. Damn! The alarm had not gone off. We shot out of bed and scrambled to get ready, bird number 3,000 awaited!

Into the park and we drove the dirt roads through the open thorn scrub, real safari stuff this. “Look out for Rhinos,” Keith instructed us, but none were to be seen, perhaps they had faulty alarm clocks too?

Keith drew up in a parking area and we hopped out and set off on foot towards a nearby hide. We had been looking for Rhinos before but now we were out on foot that looking took on a new importance, life-saving importance, in fact! Adrenalin was pumping as we crept through the bush half-expecting to bump into a huge beast at any moment.

The wonderful Purple-crested Turaco that was bird number 3,000 for 2008!

We reached the hide and settled down to watch the almost-dry waterhole. In swooped a chicken-sized bird dressed in a riot of colour! Purple-crested Turaco, what a bird for number 3,000 for The Biggest Twitch! High fives all round and we fired off a few record shots, despite the bird being on the far side of the muddy pools. It was a very special bird.

A huge white rhino how can an animal this size hide in bushes, but they do!

Then, something very large appeared moving towards us, the massive bulk of a White Rhino! This ancient-looking creature, like something evolution had overlooked, came lumbering down the slope and into the mud just a few yards from the hide. It was amazing to be this close to such a huge wild animal. We could see its eye-lashes and hear it breathing, it was that close! When the Rhino finally moved away, we thought it safe to return to the car, but on very high alert.

As we reached the vehicle Keith came to a sudden stop. Had he seen another Rhino? No, a bird this time. Something small was moving about in the bushes on the edge of the parking area. At first we could not get a clear view. Then it moved up and a good look was had: a female Pink-spotted Twinspot. This delightful little finch was high on our wanted list here. Typically of birders we were still not satisfied, we wanted a male, but we didn’t have to wait long! A stunning spotty male jumped up and joined the female, that was more like it, excellent.

One of the many star birds of South Africa - Lilac-breasted Roller.

Deeper into the park, Keith heard a call and leapt from the car and we followed him into the bush. We walked several hundred yards from the track but the call had stopped. We stood quietly waiting for the sound to come again.

“Shit! Rhinos! Run!” bellowed Keith.

Ruth and I high-tailed it out of there at full pelt towards the car. We had gone about fifty yards before we realised, no Keith! We looked back half expecting to see him being trampled by a huge white rhino. But no, he was doubled over with laughter. No Rhinos, just Keith’s rather sick sense of humour! “Gee you guys can run fast eh?” he managed to say through his laughter. Hmmn, revenge will be sweet and served cold!

Birding was just brilliant and we kept picking up new birds. A few of the highlights were Neergaard’s Sunbird, African Penduline Tit, Senegal Lapwing and Black-backed Puffback. A stop by a lake gave us views of Pink-backed Pelican, Water Thick-knee, both Open-billed and Yellow-billed Storks next to loafing hippos and Nile crocodiles. Only in Africa would you get a combo like this. We were loving it!

A long drive that evening took us east to the coast and St. Lucia wetlands, our next birding destination. It was very late when we found a bed and breakfast for the night and the owners were less than pleased to have guests arrive at that hour, but we charmed them into letting us stay. Down at Richard’s Bay we eventually found a wetland reserve surrounded by industrial complexes, a grim place. The hide here was littered with fast food junk and graffiti, reminding us of the UK. But as is so often the case, the grottier the place, the better the birds. We scored with Lesser Jacana and then two good warblers, African Yellow and Brown-throated.

As we left here on a very rutted and bumpy track, the boot of the car suddenly popped open. The catch had sheared and now it would not shut. This wasn’t good as we had all our kit inside and wanted to bird away from the car. Oh well, nothing for it, we tied it down as best we could and would have to keep the car in sight at all times.

Stopping to scan a roadside lake paid off with better views of Lesser Jacana and three White-backed Ducks, new for the year. Woodland just behind the beach at St Lucia was very productive and we tracked down a gang of very impressive Trumpeter Hornbills along with Crested Flycatcher and Woodward’s Batis. But our luck ran out that evening when we drew a blank on owls and nightjars but did enjoy the beautiful stars in the crystal clear sky, millions and millions of stars set against the blackest velvet sky. Nonetheless, when we totted up the list before we collapsed into bed, we had reached 3,040 species for the year; we were getting there!

The last day of August 2008 will always live in on our memories and nightmares. The day started in fine form as we added Wattled Crane to our list. This was a huge relief for me as it was a bogey bird. I love cranes and back in 2000 we had looked hard for this species but failed to find it. I was gutted, especially as we met other birders who had seen them only two days before we arrived, how cruel was that. Then in Ethiopia we had been told by a local guide he could show us Wattled Cranes, but he’d lied! So now here was another chance. We asked one of the reserve staff if there were any about, but the answer was negative, the cranes had moved on. But he told us where they had been, pointing to some distant fields. I set up the scope and scanned the fields more in hope than anticipation, and couldn’t believe my eyes. There were two magnificent Wattled Cranes. We invited the warden to take a look at the birds that had gone! The views were distant but there was no mistaking them. We drove closer and enjoyed a much closer look at these stately birds. In fact, the morning went very well indeed. We picked up the scarce Red-winged Francolin and went on to see Cape Rock Thrush and Cape Robin-Chat before screeching to a stop to watch Cape Vulture soar overhead.

It had been a 4am departure from St Lucia so by early afternoon we were flagging a little and needed an energy boost, so it was time to look for a lunch stop. The wind had been picking up all morning and was now blowing hard, but it was still very hot, what weird conditions. In the distance, we could see several huge fires blazing out of control, eating up the grasslands apace.

Eventually we found a roadside café and thankfully pulled in for a break. On the ridge in the distance was another fire.

“We can watch the fire while we eat” I joked.

The car boot was still giving trouble, the ropes holding it down working loose on long drives, so Ruth and I tried to retie them yet again while Keith walked up the long flight of stone steps to order lunch. I am not sure how long we fiddled about with the ropes, but not many minutes that’s for sure. We turned to follow Keith and had the shock of our lives! The fire was now advancing down the hill towards us at an alarming rate. We couldn’t comprehend how it had covered the ground so quickly. The huge flames, many times higher than a house were coming at us like a steam train! Shit! We ran towards the café shouting for Keith to get out and run for the car. Keith appeared in the door and screamed back.

“Too late! Get in the building now!”

There was no time to argue the point. We could feel the intense heat of the fire on our skin already. We dived inside and slammed the door. Several other people were inside and all looked petrified as they saw the fire-wall advancing on us. Keith grabbed the owner and fired a question.

“What is this roof made of?”

The answer came back that it was corrugated iron.

“Then we stay put.” It was a statement, not an invitation for debate! Ruth clung to me and everyone just stood and stared wide eyed as the roar of the blaze swept towards us. Time stood still.

“We are going to die, aren’t we?” whispered Ruth.

“No, shouldn’t think so,” I said, though thinking yes, very likely!

The room quickly filled with acrid, choking smoke, stinging our eyes and burning our lungs. We pulled our T-shirts up over our noses and mouths to try and filter out the worst of the smoke. Then the flames came, licking the windows rampantly on all four sides of the tiny building. All we could see all around us were flames and smoke. We were surrounded by fire. The temperature rocketed and I looked around for any water supply to douse ourselves in when the flames burst through.

Then it was gone. Silence. A woman began to cry, and we realised the flames had passed us by. We stood in silence taking in the scene of a smoke-filled room, the tables and floor covered in ash and soot. We open the door and gulped in fresher air. Then we remembered the car, with all our gear inside. We ran down to the car park and were astonished to see the car standing as we had left it. Luckily we had abandoned it well away from the edges of the large parking area, so the fire had swept around it rather than through it. The force of the wind had pushed the fire so fast that it didn’t really take hold for long in any one spot. We were incredibly lucky! As we reached the car we saw that we did have a small problem; with the boot still being slightly open the ash and smoke had been sucked inside! What a mess. The car was full of soot and ash and of course it stank and would do for days to come, but we still felt very fortunate!

If it had not been for Keith’s quick thinking to stay put rather than to try and outrun the fire, it may have been a very different story, or even perhaps the end of this particular story. The local paper the next morning reported the tragic deaths of fourteen people in the fire that had engulfed our lunch spot, and it sent a shiver down our spines to read the awful story. There but for the grace of God…

Contact us

* * *



Our Tweets

This site uses cookies to store information on your computer. See our Cookie Policy for further details on how to block cookies.
I am happy with this


What is a Cookie

A cookie, also known as an HTTP cookie, web cookie, or browser cookie, is a piece of data stored by a website within a browser, and then subsequently sent back to the same website by the browser. Cookies were designed to be a reliable mechanism for websites to remember things that a browser had done there in the past, which can include having clicked particular buttons, logging in, or having read pages on that site months or years ago.

NOTE : It does not know who you are or look at any of your personal files on your computer.

Why we use them

When we provide services, we want to make them easy, useful and reliable. Where services are delivered on the internet, this sometimes involves placing small amounts of information on your device, for example, your computer or mobile phone. These include small files known as cookies. They cannot be used to identify you personally.

These pieces of information are used to improve services for you through, for example:

  • recognising that you may already have given a username and password so you don’t need to do it for every web page requested
  • measuring how many people are using services, so they can be made easier to use and there’s enough capacity to ensure they are fast
  • analysing anonymised data to help us understand how people interact with our website so we can make them better

You can manage these small files and learn more about them from the article, Internet Browser cookies- what they are and how to manage them

Learn how to remove cookies set on your device

There are two types of cookie you may encounter when using our site :

First party cookies

These are our own cookies, controlled by us and used to provide information about usage of our site.

We use cookies in several places – we’ve listed each of them below with more details about why we use them and how long they will last.

Third party cookies

These are cookies found in other companies’ internet tools which we are using to enhance our site, for example Facebook or Twitter have their own cookies, which are controlled by them.

We do not control the dissemination of these cookies. You should check the third party websites for more information about these.

Log files

Log files allow us to record visitors’ use of the site. The CMS puts together log file information from all our visitors, which we use to make improvements to the layout of the site and to the information in it, based on the way that visitors move around it. Log files do not contain any personal information about you. If you receive the HTML-formatted version of a newsletter, your opening of the newsletter email is notified to us and saved. Your clicks on links in the newsletter are also saved. These and the open statistics are used in aggregate form to give us an indication of the popularity of the content and to help us make decisions about future content and formatting.