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MMarievale Bird Sanctuary, not far from Johannesburg, is one of those places where you can quietly exhale, settle down in a bird hide, and be at peace with water birds wading through the shallows before you. As a bonus, this Ramsar Convention-designated wetland sometimes yields wildly exotic vagrant bird species. 

So, if you are in Johannesburg and crave a spot of birding, your first impulse should be an hour’s drive to the south-east of Gauteng province, where you can find the Marievale Bird Sanctuary in the town of Nigel, near Heidelberg. 

Set on a floodplain to the north-east of the town, this interesting provincial nature reserve has Gauteng’s highest bird count: 280 species. The wetland forms part of the Blesbokspruit – a perennial river – and has been declared a wetland of international importance’ by UNESCO’s Ramsar Convention. 

Marievale has also been declared an Important Bird Area, so every effort is being made to conserve its permanent and migratory bird populations. 

Go there in early spring (September and October) when the migrants arrive, before the rains, and you will be greeted with sights that make your jaw drop. Here, not far from gold mines, you will see thousands upon thousands of water birds wading in the shallows. Up to 4 000 ruffs, for example, have been seen at one time. 

Here you can often see specials like little bittern and slaty egrets, black and squacco herons and handsome red-knobbed coots along with the usual aquatic suspects – African rails, crakes, moorhens, cormorants and snipes. 

It’s probably the only place in Gauteng where it is relatively easy to see the Goliath heron, fulvous whistling duck and African shelduck in the same day. 

But what gets birders excited is that Marievale sometimes attracts extremely rare vagrants. In the past, there have been good sightings of buff-spotted flufftails, buff-breasted sandpiper, a Pacific golden plover and a black-tailed godwit. 

Marievale has been shaped by mining – much of the water that fills its open areas is pumped up from underground. Yet this has created an extraordinary body of water attractive to birds. This is usually a quiet place, but you will immediately know if something extraordinary has been spotted, because birders from all over the country will have descended here. 

The sanctuary is very oriented towards things winged, but you can also look out for reedbuck, blesbok, cape clawless otters, black-backed jackal, yellow mongoose and the odd Cape hare. 

And if that doesn’t convince you to go, the entrance fee is irresistible. It’s free. 

Did You Know?

TTravel tips & Planning  info 

Who to contact 

Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve (for Marievale enquiries and chalet bookings at Suikerbosrand)  
Tel: +27 (0)11 439 6300 

How to get here  

Marievale Bird Sanctuary is about an hour’s drive from Johannesburg or its northern suburbs (add 30 minutes in rush hour) 

Take the N3 towards Durban, then the left branch as the freeway splits to get on the N17 toll road to Springs. Follow the N17 until you can take the Endicott turn-off onto the R42. Turn right and follow the R42 towards Nigel until you get to the Marievale Bird Sanctuary sign. Youll see the gate after a few kilometres. 

Alternatively, stay on the N3 toll road as far as Heidelberg, then take the R42 through Nigel to Marievale; this may be the quicker route when rush-hour traffic on the East Rand is clogging the N17. 

Best time to visit  

Spring (September to November) is best, because thats when the migrant birds arrive and before theres a lot of water from the summer rains to lure them to other birding sites. The sanctuary is open from 5.30am to 7.30pm in summer (September to February) and 6am to 6pm in winter (March to August). 

Around the area  

Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve, another haven of bird and animal life in a variety of habitats, is 30 minutes’ drive away on the other side of Heidelberg and across the N3. There are several hiking trails to explore there and around Heidelberg, and Nigel is also home to several smaller nature reserves, all of which are worth a visit along with Marievale Bird Sanctuary. 

Get around 

Within the sanctuary, hiking or by car. The hides are quite far apart, so a car is the best bet. The roads are stony and quite rough, so drive carefully. Self-drive is the most convenient way to explore Gauteng and get to Marievale. 

What will it cost? 

Entrance to Marievale Bird Sanctuary is free. 

Length of stay 

Half a day will satisfy the average visitor, but serious birders will want to get here early and stay all day. If you spend a week in the area, you can explore all the nature reserves around Nigel and Heidelberg, with repeat visits to your favourites. 

What to pack  

A picnic lunch, if you’re spending the day here. Take along your own provisions, including a water bottle, because theres nowhere nearby to buy food and drink, unless you drive into Nigel. If you’re planning to hike from hide to hide, be sure to pack sturdy comfortable shoes or boots, a hat and sunscreen. 

Where to stay  

Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve has self-catering chalets that sleep 4. There are also several lodges, guest houses and budget hotels in Nigel, Heidelberg and the surrounding area; shop around online according to your needs. 

Related links 

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