The bearded vulture is a very rare bird in South Africa. So rare in fact, that they have to be artificially fed by conservationists in order to survive.
Just a few hundred of these attractive scavengers drift the high thermals in South Africa’s mountainous zones in search of food, but food is not so plentiful as once it was.
Great herds of game no longer roam the foothills of the Drakensbergs, Lesotho or the Maluti mountains and as such, the birds are no longer guaranteed a daily dose of naturally occurring corpse on which to feast.
‘But never fear, fast food is here’ and every week, teams of National Park employees visit the restaurants and keep them well stocked with rotten carcasses donated from surrounding farms or else scraped off the local roadside verges.
Like fast food outlets the world over, South Africa’s vulture restaurants are not the most aesthetically pleasing of places, nor are they particularly healthy (what with all the decay and botulism and whatnot) but they do serve an important role.
They keep a beautiful and valuable species from going over the edge (and yes, bearded vultures are beautiful- they have feathers on their head for one thing and they also lack the ‘grotesque and wrinkly mother-in-law’ neck that other vulture species have)
The smell at the vulture restaurant I was hiding in was appalling; far, far worse than anything my hiking socks have ever come up with (and that’s saying something) but I held back my gag reflex and hunkered down behind a desiccated cow’s ribcage, camera in hand and hopes as high as the vultures who were circling up above me.
It was a idyllic summer’s evening in the Free State’s gorgeous Golden GateHighlandsNational Park and the blue sky above was peppered with little fluffy clouds between which two vultures soared. They were pin pricks though, and despite their distance, I think they had detected the failing of my deodorant (after all, it had been quite an arduous hike to get there) and this had resulted in their reluctance to come closer.
The late afternoon light was perfect for photographing vultures; the sandstone cliffs which characterize this scenically stunning park were alive with twilight hues as were the gently swaying grasses amongst which the restaurant was situated. But the birds were just too darn far away for a shot. They were probably hungry too, so not wanting to disturb them further, I retreated back towards the Glen Reenen campsite and instead watched the cliffs put on their radiant sunset lightshow.
I had been in the Golden Gate for a week exploring its many mountain trails, rolling plains and beautiful valleys, sometimes on foot, other times in a 4×4 vehicle and on occasions courtesy of a set of four sturdy hooves.
I had swam in idyllic rivers where blood red mountains cast their reflections between the bows of drooping willow trees and I had discovered secret caves upon whose walls I found a myriad ancient bushman paintings.
Hadn’t seen many vultures though.
The bushmen, like the great herds of game that once ruled this region, are sadly long gone; victims of discrimination by black tribes from the north and white settlers from the west. But their legacy remains in the form of intricate stories that have been painted onto their former dwellings with ochre and clay.
The Maluti mountains of the Golden Gate National Park with their sculpted cliffs and many overhangs must have been a Mecca for bushmen in their day and it is certain that the hunting was very, very good.
Between the steep cliffs and mountain peaks, gently rolling grasslands and lush highland plateaus once supported vast herds of scrumptious zebra, eland, blesbok, hartebeest and wildebeest.
It is poignant that bushman will never again walk amongst the majesty of these mountains and bearded vultures will never again scavenge from their leftovers but the Park’s authorities are doing everything in their power to bring back those stately herds.
Originally, Golden Gate was quite a small reserve with very little biological importance. Its proximity to the metropolises of Durban, Johannesburg and Bloemfontein and its stunning scenery (especially in winter when snow is common) made it a draw card for nothing more than its aesthetic qualities.
However, in 2008 the adjacent Qwa Qwa region was incorporated into Golden Gate, expanding the park from a mere 11 thousand hectares to more than 34 thousand hectares thereby creating a reserve large enough to maintain healthy populations of wildlife.
There are even plans to link it into the much much bigger cross border initiative known as the Maloti Drakensberg Transfrontier park.
Consequently, the herds are now growing steadily and large aggregations are nonce again a fairly common sight.
Large predators are still absent though, but a fence which is currently being erected around the entire perimeter of the reserve may one day facilitate the return of the region’s extinct hyena and lion.
Whereas once tourism was the primary focus for the park, conservation and local poverty alleviation schemes have now taken precedence, but that’s not to say that a visitor to the park will find himself at a loose end.
Far from it.
There are numerous lodging options ranging from basic camp sites where you must bring your own tent to four star hotels and self catering cabins which have the most splendid of views.
The early mornings in Golden Gate (especially during summer) are typically misty with clouds rolling across the scenery like dust storms. In winter it is not uncommon to see herds of zebra walking through fields of deep crisp white snow; all of which you can witness from the comfort of your patio.
Possibly the most interesting and certainly the most interactive of lodging options at Golden Gate would be the Basotho cultural village, a mock ethnic set up where guests get to stay in modernized thatched rondavels and meet up with traditionally attired mountain folk.
I got to hobnob with the chief who was a stately man with a portly belly (as is the custom) and I also met a witch doctor in a hat made from a cat who told my fortune courtesy of some rattling bones.
The most enjoyment I had though was when I learned how to make gritty bread from some lovely ladies whose lot in life was to grind away at grain for 8 hours a day.
They convinced me to dress up in traditional costumes (cat hat included) and then informed me that, as convention dictates, I was now eligible to take on an additional three wives.
They smiled at me in an alluring way.
Its was all good natured fun and an interesting eye opener to the cultures and traditions of the people who live in the region.
At night, I slept to the sound of goats bleating, cow bells ringing and blesbok rattling horns with each other on the plateau upon which the village is situated. Baboons barked at something unseen hunting in the rocky ridges above.
Although Golden Gate is a hiker’s paradise (there are many kilometers of trails) one doesn’t necessarily need to be a hiker to enjoy it.
A series of smooth top roads loop through some of the most spectacular scenery on offer whilst a rugged 4×4 trail will let you explore some of the parks little known secrets.
There are dinosaur footprints embossed into rocks and there are endless vistas of the most brilliant greens.
Every day, there are scheduled horse back forays (on dopey easy horses) up into the mountains where sightings of white Eland (Africa’s largest antelope species) are pretty much assured.
And then of course, there are the vulture restaurants…
With less than 30 individuals frequenting the entire Maluti Drakensberg region, the Golden GatePark is one of the last places that these birds can come to feed in safety.
Poisoned carcasses left out by farmers to kill jackals also kill vultures, but the meat at the vulture restaurant is guaranteed free from toxins (or additives and artificial flavorings and is fat free and is recommended by the international council of heart surgeons)
Ok, I jest, but in all seriousness, Golden Gate’s putrid handouts may well be the
bearded vultures last best chance for survival.
And so, on my very last day in the park, I yet again concealed myself amongst the piles of rib cages, skulls and femurs that littered the ground, and there I waited patiently with peppermint infused pieces of cotton wool stuffed up my nose.
The aromatic remnants of a rhebok lay ahead of me in the grass upon which a jackal was patiently chewing. He hadn’t seen or, perhaps more importantly, smelled me and I took this as a good sign that perhaps vultures wouldn’t smell me either.
And then out from behind the mountain mist two giant birds sailed like kites overhead right in front of my camera. I heard the sound of the wind ruffling over their feathers as they drifted elegantly by.
They truly were beautiful.
Click, click, click went the shutter on my camera, and then they were gone; vanished into the long grasses next to their shared lunch..
The sighting had been marvelous although the birds did not give me further opportunity to take more photographs. But I was happy. It had been a satisfying conclusion to a holiday full of wonderful walks, beautiful weather and the gorgeous glowing mountains that typify South Africa’s Golden GateHighlandsNational Park.
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