Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve, set on the leading edge of the Free State’s high escarpment, is a delicious place for birding – specifically for elusive grassland and wetland species. For good measure, there are also antelope, zebras and oxbow lakes full of hippos. Nearby is the pretty town of Memel.

Did you know?

'Memel' means 'surrounded by water' in the old Prussian language.

A cloud of white egrets fly over a sprawling wetland. A marsh harrier rises above the reeds and hawks for hidden rodents. Wattled lapwings pace the water’s edge. A pair of pied kingfishers perch on a stump, looking for little tilapia fish. Coots leave spreading v-trails in the water.

Not surprisingly the Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve outside the Free State town of Memel is very popular for birding. The drawcard is the massive wetland and the high-altitude grasslands which are full of rare larks, cisticolas, flufftails, long-tailed widowbirds, and wattled, crowned and blue cranes.

It is named for the hippopotami that used to wade about this high altitude grassy wetland ('seekoei' means 'hippo' in Afrikaans, and 'vlei' means wetland. Seekoeivlei is pronounced See-coy-flay). The hippo were shot out decades ago, roughly at the same time that the wetland was drained and underwent many years of degradation.

Thankfully, things have changed. The hippos have been re-introduced. The wetland has been largely restored and rehabilitated by local non-governmental organisations funded by Rand Water, the bulk supplier of water to Johannesburg. The company found that it was cheaper to restore the wetland than to artificially treat water with chemicals for purification.

The restoration process employed dozens of unskilled workers planting gabions to slow the erosion and to restore the marsh.

And it is a particularly handsome wetland, with curving oxbow lakes. It was declared a Ramsar site (a wetland of international importance) in 1999.

Now the reserve, increasingly popular for birding, has become a powerful tourism drawcard for the scenic little town.

The area boasts a birdlist of around 250, with specials like whiskered tern (which breeds there), the endangered wattled crane, little bittern and white-winged flufftail. You could even see bearded vultures flying overhead.

It’s not all about birds, though. Apart from the hippo, you should also look out for zebras and antelope like Vaal rhebuck, blesbok and mountain reedbuck, which thrive in this park.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Memel Hotel
Tel: +27 (0)58 924 0740
Email: cjmartin@mweb.co.za

Mahem Country Guesthouse
Tel: +27 (0) 58 924 0034
Email: mahem@xsinet.co.za

How to get here

Memel is about 300km, or about three hours' drive from Johannesburg. Take the N3 highway to Durban, and turn off at the Vrede/Frankfort exit. Turn left and follow the R34. You'll go past Vrede and then head into Memel.

Best time to visit

Early spring and summer (September to January) are peak birding times. This is also when you'll find glorious little wildflowers amongst the grasses.

Around the area

Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve is an Important Bird Area, but the entire district is full of rare and endangered birds. Enquire at Memel Getaways for more information.

Get around

Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve is mostly fine for sedan cars, but ask advice. Sometimes after rains the muddy roads are impassable and you'd need a 4x4. In the reserve, you're also free to walk around.

What will it cost

Entrance into the wetland costs R50 per vehicle and you have to pick up the key at Memel Getaways' office or the Memel Hotel.

Length of stay

Depending on how keen a birder you are, this is a great half-day (or more) visit.

Where to stay

The town of Memel has a number of excellent guesthouses, some of which are especially geared for birders.