Greater Karoo – Swartberg Pass & Gamkaskloof

About the Birding

The Swartberg Pass / Gamkaskloof road turns 5 km south of Prince Albert from the Prince Albert / Klaarstroom road (R407). It is a gravel road and follows the eastern side of the Dorps River. Thorn thickets are right next to the road and host a variety of birds like Greater and Lesser Honeyguide, Cardinal Woodpecker, Acacia Pied Barbet, Fiscal Flycatcher, Pririt Batis, Southern Boubou, Southern Tchagra, Cape Sparrow, Southern Masked-Weaver, Red-faced, Speckled and White-backed Mousebird, Karoo Scrub-Robin, Red-billed Firefinch and in summer Jacobin, Klaas’s and Diederick Cuckoo. There is a resident pair of Southern Pale Chanting Goshawk breeding in the thorn trees and are regular sights on the telephone poles. In summer Steppe Buzzard is often seen, while Booted Eagle may be seen soaring overhead.

Nearer the pass look for Cape Rock Thrush on the telephone and power poles. Just before the entrance of the pass is a good place to look for Cape Robin-Chat, Cape White –Eye and Cape Bulbul.

About 2 km from the turnoff you enter the Swartberg Pass. The Pass is a national monument and was built from 1886 to 1889 by Thomas Bain with the help of prisoners. This pass will always be recognised as a masterpiece of his work and after more than 100 years; Bain’s work still stands strong. Several ruins of the buildings are still visible. DRIVE CAREFULLY ON THIS NARROW ROAD AND ENJOY THE BEAUTIFUL SCENERY.

Approximately 200 metres from the entrance there is parking on the left under some gum trees. Stop and enjoy the majestic cliffs and look for Alpine and African Black Swift who breed in the vertical cliffs. There is also a Verreaux’s Eagle’s nest on the cliff. Pale-winged and Red-winged Starling are common.

A few hundred metres further the road crosses the river at Eerste Water (First Water), which is normally good for Cape Rock Thrush, Cape Robin-Chat, Southern Boubou, Cape Siskin, Malachite Sunbird and Common Waxbill.

The road continues passed places called Tweede Water (Second Water), Malvadraai (Geranium Bend) and Droëwaterval (Dry Waterfall). Bird wise it is a quiet piece of road with Rock Martin, Speckled Pigeon, Grey-backed Cisticola, Rock Kestrel and Bokmakierie. After the Droëwaterval you will reach the switch backs (Zigzags), the steepest part of the pass. From here you have a magnificent view of the road below. Above you will find Proteas and when flowering Orange-breasted, Southern Double-banded and Malachite Sunbirds feed on the nectar. Jackal Buzzard and Verreauxs’ Eagle are often soaring overhead. Listen for Grey-winged Francolin in the early morning or late afternoon. The last 200 metres before you reach the parking place called Teeberg (Tea Mountain) is very good for Cape Rockjumper. Grey-backed Cisticola and Cape Bunting are other regulars. This place is called after the honeybush tea (Cyclopia burtonii), which you find here.

Continuing, the road descends to a flatter area where you can look for African Stonechat, Cape Canary and Long-billed Pipit. About 14 km from the turnoff you reach the turn off to Gamkaskloof (The Hell). Here are magnificent clumps of Proteas and when flowering you will find lots of Cape Sugarbirds and Orange-breasted Sunbirds. Karoo Prinia, Cape Grassbird and Grey-backed Cisticola live in the undergrowth.

Continuing on the Swartberg Pass the road passes stony outcrops where you can look for African Rock Pipit. The last section to the “Top of the Pass” is good for Jackal Buzzard, Cape Sugarbird, White-necked Raven, Orange-breasted Sunbird, Cape Rockjumper, Ground Woodpecker and near the top Sentinel Rock Thrush.

Nineteen kilometres from the turn-off, you reach the “Top” of Swartberg Pass at a height of 1585 metres. From here you can enjoy the beautiful view of the Karoo to the north and Matjiesrivier, Oudtshoorn and the Outeniqua Mountains to the south. It is worth walking around amongst the rocks where there are a possible Ground Woodpecker, Cape Rockjumper, Cape and Sentinel Rock Thrush.

The road now descends towards Oudtshoorn. Look out for Sentinel Rock Thrush and Mountain Wheatear. Just over 1 km from the top you reach Die Grootklip (The Big Stone) which is a good place to look for Cape Rockjumper, Yellow Bishop and African Rock Pipit. A few hundred metres further down you will find Boegoekloof (Buchu Kloof) which is the favourite spot in the pass for Victorin’s Warbler. Cape Grassbirds and Cape Robin-Chats occur in the dense kloofs. The last mountain stream before you reach the tar road is an excellent site for Protea Seed-eater which love the stands of Waboom (Protea nitida). Other birds here are Cape Sugarbird, Neddicky and Orange-breasted Sunbird.

The road winds down the mountain until it reaches the tar road 26 km from the turnoff on the Prince Albert – Meiringspoort road.
4 km from the top of the mountain is the turn off to Gamkaskloof. The trip to Gamkaskloof will last almost a full day and the time of 2 hours mentioned on the road sign is calculated with no stops. You have to put at least 6 hours aside if you drive down into the kloof and back. It is 94 km return and there is no petrol available in the kloof.

Continuing along the road you may find Yellow Bishop, Neddicky, Long-billed Pipit, Cape Canary and Cape Siskin, African Stonechat and in the dense kloofs, Victorin’s Warbler, Cape Grassbird and Common Waxbill. Jackal Buzzards pose on the telephone poles while further down the road where the climate is much drier you will find Karoo Scrub-Robin, Fiscal Flycatcher and Bokmakierie. In summer there are a lot of swallows like Greater Striped and Barn Swallow, while Rock Martin is common year-round.

The road curves up and down and each time one spots the road snaking up the next mountain! After 40km you reach the top of THE HELL or GAMKASKLOOF. The road descends very steeply for a bit more than a kilometre and one must drive very carefully.

Stop at the top and enjoy a beautiful Karoo scene. Along the edge grows Aloe ferox and when they are flowering they attract a lot of Southern Double-banded, Malachite and Orange-beasted Sunbirds. Often Greater Double-banded Sunbirds and even Cape Sugarbirds visit the flowers. On top here the veld consists of dry renosterbos veld and species like Bokmakierie, Cape Bunting, Red-winged and Pale-winged Starling, Grey-backed Cisticola and Grey-winged Francolin occur. Watch out for Rock Kestrel, Booted Eagle (summer) and Verreaux’s Eagle soaring overhead.

Descending the pass, it’s not advisable to “bird watching”, but at the bottom, a whole new world will show itself.

Cape Nature’s camping site with good facilities, is right at the entrance of the kloof. Viewing here will produce birds like Fork-tailed Drongo, Cardinal Woodpecker, Chestnut-vented Warbler, Familiar Chat and even White-throated Canary. Cape Spurfowl is very tame here.

The road winds through the kloof with quite dense bush and trees like sweet thorn (A. karoo), bloubos (Diospyros lycioides), karee (Rhus lancae) and lots of annuals. In this area, you will find Cape Sparrow, Cape and Southern Masked-Weaver, Speckled and White-backed Mousebird, Cape Bulbul, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, Fairy Flycatcher while Common Waxbill, Red-billed Firefinch and Swee Waxbill feed in the undergrowth.

About 5 km from the camping site, is the Gamkaskloof Kiosk where you can buy cold drinks, sweets, curios, sundried fruit and even beer. It is situated amongst beautiful sweet thorn trees and it is a good place to look for all the common species as well as Mountain Wheatear, Cape Rock Thrush, Cape Canary and Cape Siskin. In the trees, Red-eyed, Cape Turtle- and Laughing Dove are common, while you will definitely hear the call of the Acacia Pied Barbet. Watch out for African Olive-Pigeon which often occur in the area after rains.

The road continues through the kloof and passes beautifully restored houses of the previous dwellers, which are now available for overnight accommodation.

After about 10 km from the entrance, the road crosses the Gamka River, which divides the kloof. This is a good birding place for SA Shelduck, Egyptian Goose, Reed Cormorant, Blacksmith Lapwing, Hamerkop, Grey Heron and Little Egret all roaming the water edge. In summer waders like Ruff, Common Greenshank, Common, Wood and Marsh Sandpiper can be found, while Three-banded Plover and Cape Wagtails can be seen year-round. Scan the sky for Brown-throated Martin, Alpine Swift, Rock Martin, African Black Swift and raptors like Black Eagle and Booted Eagle (summer). Pied, Giant and Malachite Kingfisher are often spotted fishing over the pools. Black Stork is a resident, nesting in the huge cliffs. The patches of reeds will produce Lesser Swamp-Warbler, African Reed-Warbler (summer), Levaillant’s Cisticola, Little Bittern, while Black-crowned Night Heron often hide amongst the reeds.

On the other side of the river the road continues through more open, arid country where you can spot typical Karoo species like Karoo Chat, Yellow-bellied Eremomela, Lark-like Bunting (after rain) and Long-billed Pipit.

The night sounds are also rewarding, depending on where you overnight. Spotted Eagle Owl is the most common, while Cape Eagle Owl occurs near the rocky outcrops and cliffs but their call can often be heard. Barn Owl is common, while the Wood Owl was also recorded in the kloof. Rufous-cheeked and Fiery-necked Nightjars occur here.

About the Birding Site

The dramatic Swartberg Pass links the Klein and Greater Karoos. The rugged scenery offers a wide array of Karoo, Fynbos and dryland specials.

Other Related Information

Text prepared by:

Japie Claassen

Key species:

Verreaux’s Eagle, Cape Eagle Owl, Ground Woodpecker, Cape Siskin, Cape Sugarbird, Victorin’s Warbler, Sentinel Rock Thrush, Cape Rockjumper, Protea Seed-eater, Orange-breasted Sunbird