Paddling the Bitou River

December 12th, 2016

The canoe bobs lightly as you reach for the paddle.

In seconds you’re hidden from the Lodge.

You could almost be in Botswana – the paddle leaves sparkling swirls behind you and the canoe slides softly between banks of reeds. It’s just you, the water and the sky. No other human trace in sight. A pair of African Fish Eagles call overhead, on the hunt. Moorhens run across lily pads in front of you. Dragonflies flit lazily from blue lily to green reed. Mmmmm…. Botswana….

No wait. This is better than Botswana! No guide with a gun for a start. You can do this canoe trip totally alone. There are no hippos. No crocodiles. No elephants. This is a huge bonus. You can relax. Nothing wants to chase you, or even worse, eat you. All is peaceful. So quiet.

Paddling the Bitou River

Until suddenly a pair of Egyptian Geese spots you and shouts at you to keep away from their fluffy little goslings. You glide, fascinated. They huff off, disappearing round the bend.

Usually, though, birds don’t mind the canoes. The Little Bittern, the Squacco Heron and the White-backed Night Heron have all been spotted here, unconcerned. Less rare but more beautiful, Knysna Touracos float overhead from tree to tree. Cape Weavers build their nests in the reeds and Yellow and Red Bishop Birds perch brightly amongst them. Shy Black Crakes hide in those reeds, their chicks tiny black balls of down – a perfect Plettenberg Bay birding experience.

Beautiful photo of a Black Crake taken by one of our guests, Frank Bos.

Beautiful photo of a Black Crake taken by one of our guests, Frank Bos.

How far can you go? Well, all the way to the sea, but that’s a long trip. It’s fun to paddle to Emily Moon, have a drink or even lunch and paddle back again. It’s fun to paddle just as far as you feel like and paddle back again, seeing if you can spot the Malachite Kingfishers. It’s fun just to paddle. To enjoy the river.

If you need more of an adrenaline rush, well, there’s always Botswana….

Important information:

  • Unfortunately Bitou River Lodge’s canoes are only for the use of the guests staying there.
  • Canoes can be hired from Emily Moon depending on availability. It’s best to phone first.
  • Do you have your own canoe? You can put it in the water at the start of the R340  to Wittedrif, but be considerate of the fishermen.


Birding conundrum at Bitou River Lodge

January 29th, 2016

‘How can you tell for sure what kind of a bird is what?’ my nine-year-old self asked my taciturn Scottish uncle, a well-known ornithologist & author. ‘You kill it’, he said with a fierce look at me.

Which was pretty much the end of my interest in birding – and in ornithologists.

I thought of my Uncle Leslie when I received the photo from Plettenberg Bay birder Bruce Ward-Smith, proof finally that we’d identified the birds correctly. I wished that I hadn’t wanted a photo so badly when we first saw them.

It was while I was walking the dogs at Bitou River Lodge eighteen months ago that I first saw them. It was almost dark & they came out of the sky over my head, clearly alarmed, shreeee-ing at us to go away. Three owls. Barn Owls, I thought. Our first Barn Owls!

Off I went to share the exciting news with our guests.  But no.

We had the Radue family staying with us at the time and 13-year-old Joel told me at breakfast – to my consternation – that he’d seen the owls & that they weren’t Barn Owls. My jaw dropped. No? No. Better than that. They were African Grass Owls. Much rarer. But only slightly different.

So how could Joel be so sure? He couldn’t see that the upper parts were darker brown than a Barn Owl’s would be, because it was too dark. The difference in size between the two owls is a mere two centimetres. Their call was similar to a Barn Owl’s. So how? He could tell because the African Grass Owl flies with its legs dangling below its body, unlike the Barn Owl.

Impressive, Joel. And he was right, of course.

African Grass Owl by William Radue

African Grass Owl by William Radue

Ray Goodwin came out to have a look & confirmed the sighting. Mike Graham tried to get a photo, but the light was never going to be good enough. William Radue took the only photo we had of the owls. Until Bruce Ward-Smith phoned to say that he’d found an African Grass Owl on the road outside our farm. It was dead, hit by a car. He’d taken photos. Did I know anything about African Grass Owls in the area?  It was a horrible moment.

That was our African Grass Owl, almost a member of the family. We’d protected their nesting area. We’d stood silently in the dusk, waiting (mostly unsuccessfully) for a glimpse of them. We’d learned to identify them by their chirping call when they weren’t alarmed, by their  ‘skreeee!’ when they were. We’d hoped they would stay, hatch out more owlets, enjoy living next to the Bitou River as much as we do.

But they’ve gone.

Bruce’s photo finally allows us to admire in detail the beautiful feathers, the vibrant colours, the life that once was of this magnificent and rare bird. How fortunate we were to have had them here for a few months and – who knows? –  perhaps they’ll return.  Maybe in 2016 we’ll see African Grass Owls at Bitou River Lodge once again. Here’s hoping.

African Grass Owl by Bruce Ward Smith

African Grass Owl by Bruce Ward Smith

More on Birding in Plettenberg Bay