Long Awaited Trip To The Baviaanskloof.

With another public holiday in September I made the most of it and took the day before (Monday) off work so I could have a decent amount of time to get down to do this trip.

Although not ideal my Canon Twin Flash system went on the brink and is still in repair which is scheduled to take 3 weeks to repair – costing R 2 800 which is a fair bit better than R 17 000 for a new flash! So on this trip i just used my Canon Speed lite with a diffuser which seemed to give favourable results although it’s a little impractical in the field.

The plan is to meet up with my good mate Chad Keates who is busy with his PhD at Rhodes University – you can check out his work over on nextgenherpetologist.co.za/

The route plan was:

I left work on Friday 20th September and overnighted in Kokstad which is basically right on the boarder of the Eastern and Western Cape.
Looking for some Dwarf Chameleons which are said to occur near the Weza forest, which appear to be morpgologically different from those North, South and East of Durban.

With some decent intel I managed to turn up a few of those chameleons on tall grass adjust to some small patches of forest and grassland in the middle of the night before heading down to my hotel.

Bradypodion melanocephalum

Kwa-Zulu Dwarf Chameleon (Female). From near Weza Forest, Kwa-Zulu Natal.


Bradypodion melanocephalum

Kwa-Zulu Dwarf Chameleon (Male). From near Weza Forest, Kwa-Zulu Natal.

Leaving Kokstad at 3:45am I begin my 7 hour trip down to Chad in Grahamstown via Umtata. Whenever anyone hears you’re travelling through the Transkei they will warn you how dangerous it is, how bad the roads are and how you should avoid it at all costs – these are the people that have never visited or driven through the Transkei I may add!

The roads weren’t busy, but the constant cattle, donkey and dogs running across the road makes things a little slower than a highway but that’s what you expect and frankly I wouldn’t go any other way.

Just as I approached a few passes into Peddie a decent sized Rock Monitor shot off across the opposite lane right in front of my car. I was fortunate enough to hot the brakes probably too hard and pull over as it crossed under the fence and disappeared. I walked over and heard some scratching in a small bush and was able to pull out the monitor relatively easily. I made a welcomed stop and managed a few photos before setting it back on his way.

Varanus albigularis

Rock Monitor. From Peddie, Eastern Cape.

Arriving in Grahamstown just after 10am, I met up with Chad we exchanged some posters, caught up and transferred all my gear into the bakkie and set off for Wilderness – not before a quick stop at Nanaga Farm Stall for some lunch it was about 11:30am by this time. Chad assured me their chicken was great but of course I declined and landed up with a box of chips! After a 5 hours on the road we finally landed up in Wilderness and set up camp for the night at the SANPARKS Ebb and Flow Camp Site which is beautiful and right on the banks of the  Touwsriver. Highly recommend as a stop over the camping is cheap and the huts are about double the price at around R220 – well worth it!

Previously arranging access to the Garden Route Botanical Gardens with the custodian Colin Ralson who knows the gardens inside out, to search for one of my main target species for the trip the Plain Rain Frog. It started raining soon afetr we arrived but we managed to turn up a number of Knysna Dwarf Chameleons, Cape River Frogs, Clicking Stream Frogs, Raucous Toads and a single Herald Snake which I found actively moving whilst we torched for the chameleons.

Bradypodion damaranum

Knysna Dwarf Chameleon. From George, Western Cape.

Bradypodion damaranum

Knysna Dwarf Chameleon. From George, Western Cape.

Bradypodion damaranum

Knysna Dwarf Chameleon. From George, Western Cape.

Crotaphopeltis hotamboeia.

Herald Snake. From George, Western Cape.

Sclerophrys capensis

Raucous Toad. From George, Western Cape.

After having no luck with the Plain Rain Frog we headed up to Montagu Pass in the rain in attempts to find the Dwarf Chameleon up there but we were unsuccessful. Heading back down to Wilderness for the night in our tent which was given a fair bit of abuse in the wind and rain. Key take out don’t camp in the Gardenroute for a night rather get a chalet.

Sunday morning we woke up to a fair wet and damp tent so less than ideal – we packed up and heading back into George to look for the Plain Rain Frog again, the weather was atrocious and at one point it even began hailing.  We finally managed to find a promising section of habitat in the gardens and after an hour or so with light rain still falling I managed to turn up an adult Plain Rain Frog – success!

Breviceps fuscus

Plain Rain Frog. From George, Western Cape.

Breviceps fuscus

Plain Rain Frog. From George, Western Cape.

Breviceps fuscus

Plain Rain Frog. From George, Western Cape.

Dispholidus typus typus

Cape Boomslang. From George, Western Cape.

Now something I’m relatively well versed in is the Green Snakes having written numerous posts about them before and making countless informative charts/comparisons but this is something I’d never seen. In fact it’s a highly localised  generic mutation which appears to be prevalent along the Garden Route the melanistic version of the harmless Western Natal Green Snake. Normally these snakes are a vibrant green with turquoise undertones and in this case the snake lacks colour all-together and is almost 100% black (expect under flash on the head).

These pitch black snakes or melanistic versions of the Western Natal Green snake aren’t common although they’re certainly by no means rare local snake catcher Justin from the Garden Route Snakes and Removals  mentioned its not the first he’s seen and do pop up on call outs in the Wilderness and Garden Route area every so often.

Philothamnus occidentalis

Western Natal Green Snake – melanistic form. From Wilderness, Western Cape.

Philothamnus occidentalis

Western Natal Green Snake – melanistic form. From Wilderness, Western Cape.

Philothamnus occidentalis

Western Natal Green Snake – melanistic form showing black ventale scales. From Wilderness, Western Cape.

Significantly cold, slightly damp and behind schedule with left George and heading into an area I’ve never spent time in the Baviaanskloof. Here is where I’d hope to connect with the second major target of the trip is the undescribed species of Dwarf Chameleon – Bradypodion sp Baviaanskloof.

We arrived at our accommodation and of course it was raining – windy and cold a great start for a trek up the mountain! We got settled charged our devices, batteries and I made some tea of course.

We waited just before 5 and set off, from the rain the going was TOUGH it wasn’t your average two track up a mountain but some extreme 4×4 action in a 2×4 was bound to end badly…and it did. About 3km from our accommodation we got stuck we couldn’t go forward up a small hill and were right up against a steep drop off – great!

We weighed up our options and we could do was abandon the bakkie and take the 3km walk back down to our accommodation and ask the reserve manager for help – too which he obliged thankfully! We hopped on the back of his cruiser and made the bone shaking trek up the hill again to our bakkie. He wasn’t as unhappy as you’d expect two rookie 2×4’ers on a Sunday evening. He got around the bakkie after we created a small new track and began to tow us up the incline then of course the tow rope snapped!

Not ideal but we made it up at which point we said we’d call it a night and come back down – to which he replied “you’ve come all this way you need to find your chameleon now!” he was right. We drove slowly along another 3-4km to where we stopped as he advised us not to go past a certain point – the rest was on foot in the cold dark and light rain.

After what seemed like an hour or two we reached the end and began to search for the chameleon – I’d not seen any form of life on our way up so wasn’t feeling hopeful at all. Shortly after scrambling up a few rock faces Chad located a nice looking Cape Crag Lizard, Red Sided Skink and a Hewitt’s Pygmy Gecko. Having never seen the Hewitt’s Pygmy Gecko before this was a treat!

Goggia hewitti

Hewitts Pygmy Gecko. From Baviaanskloof, Western Cape.

Pseudocordylus microlepidotus microlepidotus

Cape Crag Lizard. From Baviaanskloof, Western Cape.

Trachylepis homalocephala

Red Sided Skink. From Baviaanskloof, Western Cape.

Chad continued to scourer the rock faces and out crops while I was determined to find this chameleon – we hadn’t come nearly 1500km, got stuck up a mountain, cold and wet for it to be all in vain.

Not long after i finally managed to spot one, a fully grown adult Beardless Dwarf Chameleon – Beardless Dwarf Chameleon – Bradypodion “barbatulum” another major success and now yet another undescribed species I’ve managed to track down and find. After my quest for the chameleons of South Africa another “new” species to add to a growing list fo animals which will hopefully be formally recognised in the coming years – but since these animals where published about their differences in 2007 not much more has come out of it.

So this was huge both of our major targets for the trip in the bag already – then it started to snow lightly which wasn’t ideal and the mist started to roll in on the mountains and we decided it was time to head back down. We made the long slow decent down the mountain without any issues and threw together some dinner and called it a night.

Bradypodion sp “Bavianskloof”

Baviaanskloof Dwarf Chameleon. From Baviaanskloof.

Bradypodion sp “Bavianskloof”

Baviaanskloof Dwarf Chameleon. From Baviaanskloof.

Bradypodion sp “Bavianskloof”

Baviaanskloof Dwarf Chameleon. From Baviaanskloof.

Leaving the Baviaanskloof it was of course warm and sunny a stark contrast to what we arrived the day before in. Not having signal for the last 20 odd hours was great until the notifications and emailed started to flood back in as we hit patches of signal although it was intermittent.

As we left the Western Cape and drove into the Eastern Cape near Willowmore  vehicle came speeding towards up with its lights flashing towards us and we could see the tell tale signs of a massive Rock Monitor slowly making its way across the road. Chad slammed on brakes and I ran out after this monitor which had now reached the fence. Managing to grab it just before it flung back and tried to take a piece of my arm with it. Chad came through and we subdued the monitor and took a short drive down towards an open farm gate to release it away from the road and got some really nice photos.

Varanus albigularis

Rock Monitor. From Willowmore, Eastern Cape.

Varanus albigularis

Rock Monitor and myself for scale. From Willowmore, Eastern Cape.

Varanus albigularis

Rock Monitor. From Willowmore, Eastern Cape.

Heading out of Willowmore towards Grahamstown we spotted a large Leopard Tortoise slowly making itself down to a small dam on private land amongst some goats. We couldn’t get any photos as it was some distance away and well we really needed to get back to Grahamstown to do a bit more herping before I left on Tuesday morning.

Not even 2km down the road I spotted this lovely old Leopard Tortoise sitting on the road verge amongst some tall grass.

Stigmochelys pardalis

Leopard Tortoise. From Willowmore, Eastern Cape.

Stigmochelys pardalis

Leopard Tortoise – with Chad getting a few photos. From Willowmore, Eastern Cape.

Stigmochelys pardalis

Leopard Tortoise – close up showing how weathered it is. From Willowmore, Eastern Cape.

Before heading back into Grahamstown we of course had to make a stop at Nanaga Farm Stall again – Chad and his chicken, I opted for another box of chips.

We headed to a rocky hill top just outside of Grahamstown to search for two targets Essex Pygmy Gecko , Thin Tailed Legless Skink and Breviceps adsperus pentheri before we lost all light completely. Unfortunately, the area had been severely burnt so pickings where slimmer then they should have been Chad assured me.  We turned up a. young Essex Pygmy Gecko and not much else for some time until we flipped a Thin Tailed Legless Skink another new one for me! With light fading we were on a mission sadly we didn’t see Breviceps adsperus pentheri but I managed to flip a great looking Sundeval’s Shovel Snout and a young Cross Marked Grass Snake.

Prosymna sundevalli

Sundeval’s Shovel Snout. From Grahamstown, Eastern Cape.

Goggia essexi

Essex’s Pygmy Gecko. Form Grahamstown Eastern Cape.

Acontias gracilicauda

Thin-tailed Legless Skink. From Grahamstown Eastern Cape.

Psammophis crucifer

Cross-marked Grass Snake. From Grahamstown, Eastern Cape.

After a pretty full on day of photography, herping, and a 6 hours drive we got back unpacked all our gear had a little photography session back at Chad’s place and headed out to the Rat and Parrot a bit of a cultural “icon” in Grahamstown. We  had some pizza and waited way too long and chad had a couple of beers. We headed out to the Botanical Gardens to photograph a few Eastern Cape Dwarf Chameleons.

These chameleons are pretty common although the ones in Grahamstown itself aren’t the prettiest but we made the most of it, it was pretty windy and my improvised flash diffuser set up really tested my patience.

Bradypodion ventrale

Eastern Cape Dwarf Chameleon. From Grahamstown, Eastern Cape.

Bradypodion ventrale

Eastern Cape Dwarf Chameleon. From Grahamstown, Eastern Cape.

Bradypodion ventrale

Eastern Cape Dwarf Chameleon. From Grahamstown, Eastern Cape.

Bradypodion ventrale

Eastern Cape Dwarf Chameleon. From Grahamstown, Eastern Cape.

Complete Species List:

Acontias gracilicauda – Thin tailed Legless Skink
Amietia fuscigula – Cape River Frog
Bradypodion damaranum – Knysna  Dwarf Chameleon 
Bradypodion melanocephalum – KwaZulu Dwarf Chameleon
Bradypodion sp (Baviaanskloof) – An Undescribed Species of Dwarf Chameleon
Bradypodion ventale – Eastern Cape Dwarf Chameleon
Breviceps fuscus – Plain Rain Frog
Crotaphopeltis hotamboeia – Herald Snake
Dispholidus typus typus – Cape Boomslang
Goggia essexi – Essex Pygmy Gecko
Goggia hewitti – Hewitt’s Pygmy Gecko
Lygodactylus capensis – Common Dwarf Gecko
Philothamnus occidentalis – Western Natal Green Snake
Prosymna sundevalli – Sundeval’s Shovel Snout
Psammophis crucifer – Cross Marked Grass Snake
Pseudocordylus microlepidotus microlepidotus – Cape Crag Lizard
Sclerophrys capensis – Raucous Toad
Stigmochelys pardalis – Leopard Tortoise
Strongylopus grayii – Gray’s Clicking Stream Frog
Trachylepis homalocephala – Red Sided Skink
Varanus albigularis – Rock Monitor

Thanks for looking!

by Tyrone Ping

6 thoughts on “Trip Through the Garden Route, Baviaanskloof and Karoo.

  1. Colin Jennings says:

    Dear Tyrone,
    again marvellous photographs of your trip down to the South. It is amazing how you manage to find and see so many varieties of reptiles, that are passed by unseen by many of us everyday. Great pictures, notwithstanding, your less desired equipment on hand. I’ve just received my 450 mm Pentax telephoto from Japan, “mould”, haven’t had a good bird sighting since the Heritage Day Weekend.

    Happy trails and keep the photos coming,

    Colin Jennings

  2. Annemarie Fox says:

    Hello Tyrone
    Having travelled all these routes over the years looking for ANYTHING wild, but somehow missing most of these creatures, I loved reading your posts and adventures! Thank you!

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