At over two thousand metres above sea level, you can see the dictating membrane of a Cape Griffon slide over its eyes as it glides past you. The bonus is, you have both feet planted firmly on the ground, so you can get a great shot of it too. Cape Griffons, or Cape vultures, are one of South Africa’s most endangered species. They succumb to poisoning (farmers poison carcasses of livestock to kill the predators that killed their stock, and the vultures get killed in this cycle) collisions with power lines, electrocution on power lines, poaching for muthi, and shrinking habitat and range.
Fortunately, conservationists such as Kerr Wolter at Vulpro are educating farmers, and some forward thinking farmers have changed their methods. Also, Eskom is looking at ways to mitigate vulture deaths on their powerlines. The muthi trade and shrinking range (for carcasses and kills) are still of concern. Now a lot of people still have reservations about vultures and the stigma attached to them, and I must admit, I had some negatives too. That is ,until I saw them spread out those giant two metre wingspans, and make the sky their own. As my interest grew, I discovered that they are fastidiously clean birds. They have to be, after what they eat. They simply can’t afford to spread disease or parasites in and around their home. They preen and clean until they are creamy white and squeaky again.
This is how I met them at their largest colony, in the Kranzberg section of the Waterberg, in Limpopo province, South Africa. Watching them closely over the years, I have never seen one of the six hundred or so breeding pairs here, ever looking dirty, or even ruffled. What also drew me to them is the way they care for their young. Both parents share this task. The male or the female will fly off, often hundreds of kilometres, searching for food, while the other one incubates the egg, or broods the chick. The returning parent regurgitates for the chick (see our video clip) and the two parents grow the chick until it can one day fly off the ledge.
See the video of a young bird trying to land on the ledge near its family – with hilarious consequences.
Anyway, back to the title of this article. If you want to soar with Griffons, get over to Marakele National Park, in Limpopo Province. There are a number of places to stay, including the National Park accommodation, Griffons Bush Camp, which nestles on the plateau below the cliffs and the colony, or for real luxury, Marataba Lodge, a private lodge. Prices range from R 205 for camping at Bontle campsite in the Park, or R 489 per person sharing, self catering in the stone and thatch cottages of Griffons, inside an exclusive private area of the Park, or from about R 3,500 per person per night at the five star Marataba Safari Company Lodge. Also in the Park. In full disclosure, I am the founder of Griffons Bush Camp, so I do promote them. However, I have listed a variety of accommodation to suit varying needs and budgets. The important thing is, to get to see the vultures at eye level. To do this, you can self-drive up the winding scenic tar road through the Park, to the very top of the Kranzberg. You are now on the lip of the cliffs above the Griffon colony itself. From the tourist area, you can often see the vultures fly over and past, and some days this will be splendid viewing in itself. However, if you want to get a closer view, and have a great scenic walk and experience, I recommend you book a game drive with the SANParks guide, Sidney Mikosi. Sidney will meet you at the entrance to the Park, and you then hop into the nicely kitted game viewer, and he will take you up the mountain. Once there, he will lead a walk along the cliffs for the best view of the colony, and the vultures. The view is absolutely spectacular, and so are the vultures. Definitely must be on your do list when visiting this beautiful mountainous and wild Park.
Take a look at the clip with me and Sidney ‘ On top of the World’
All the Big Five – lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard, are present in the Park, so Sidney is armed. He is also an abundant and enthusiastic source of information about the fauna and flora. I recommend going early in the morning ( around half past five in summer, and half past six am in winter) as the vultures seem to enjoy soaring with the first rays of sun. The vultures often soar really close, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see their golden eyes shining in the early morning sun, and even a slight twist of the neck as they wonder what you’re doing up there. It’s one of the finest things you can do with a morning of your life. © Robert Charles Waldron 2015 All rights reserved If you’d like to help Cape Griffons, or donate some funds to helping to save them, Kerri Wolter, who runs Vulpro (South Africa’s largest vulture rehabilitation centre, in Magaliesberg, visit the Vulpro site.)