06 February 2014 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve

It wasn’t the birding that took our breath away; it was the sheer beauty of this mountain reserve.

The road home from Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve

Many of South Africa’s birds obligingly occur in some of the country’s most scenic regions. I was reminded of this again on a recent visit to the Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve in the Wolkberg mountains in Limpopo province.

'The Downs' at an altitude of 1 289m

We were there to check out the reserve’s potential as part of a route for Birding Big Day, an annual competition that sees birders all over South Africa spending 24 hours identifying as many birds as they can within a 50km radius. The 'recce' was all about birding the back roads in anticipation of the big day, assessing the potential of available habitats and measuring transit times relative to hot spots of birding activity.

Traversing the Orrie Baragwanath Pass turned out to be one of the most amazing 4x4 routes we’ve ever taken.

The name Lekgalameetse flows off the tongue and it was no surprise to learn that it means 'place of water'. The reserve is home to many rivers, streams, waterfalls and rock pools, and conserves about 18 000ha of indigenous forest, as well as high Afromontane grassland habitats.

We could hear chorister robin-chats, sombre greenbuls, blue-mantled crested flycatchers and olive bush-shrikes calling from among the Outeniqua, yellowwood, wild peach and other indigenous trees. There were butterflies everywhere, flitting to the gurgles of the stream, and we heard the croaking cry of a Knysna turaco calling from the valley. There are also some abandoned avocado and mango plantations in the reserve, which are apparently among the oldest in the country – much to the delight of the resident samango monkeys, who we heard, but didn't see.

The views from the top of the pass are spectacular

Although there are several hiking trails in the reserve, as it was our first visit we opted for the 4x4 route, which we were warned was 'badly damaged by the rain'. Traversing the Orrie Baragwanath Pass turned out to be one of the most amazing 4x4 routes we’ve ever taken (the pass is named after Orlando Baragwanath, who owned the farm that is now part of the reserve).

The pass has a steep paved ascent from the east to a height of 1 370m above sea level. We spent some time in the flat grassland area known as 'The Downs' at an altitude of 1 289m (where we saw Cape grassbird, yellow bishops and several cisticolas and pipits, along with baboons and zebra roaming the beautiful mountainside). From the west there is an equally steep but unpaved ascent with a fairly flat unpaved section of approximately 10km along the summit between the two approaches.

Towards the end of our descent, rain clouds gathered. We were glad to have missed the storm

The only way to take it was slowly – it took us several hours to complete. The descent down the Western side is narrow and extremely rocky. It turns back on itself more times than we could count, and is extremely steep in places. Don’t try it in wet weather.

While we’ve decided against the route as part of Birding Big Day 2014 (simply because the state of the road will lose us too much time), we’ll be back for a long weekend soon to check out some of the hikes too. To find out about available accommodation, contact the reserve (tel: +27 (0)15 290 7341).

The reserve is situated between Tzaneen and Hoedspruit. Follow the R36 from Tzaneen to Hoedspruit for approximately 40km, then turn right, following the signboards to 'The Downs'.

Each of these pictures was taken on the same day, somewhere along our proposed Birding Big Day route

Category: Routes & Trails, Wildlife

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