By Nick Dail
I arrive at the Orlando Towers a little early (Google Maps has done this Capetonian proud) and sit and wait for Raymond to arrive. The Towers are a popular destination for bungee jumping and go-karting, but at this time of the morning, the staff are still doing quality checks. When I tell them I’m here for a birding tour they look confused, to say the least.
Every time someone new arrives, I wonder if it’s my man. I shouldn’t have worried. The binoculars hung around Raymond’s neck are a dead giveaway, but that’s where the birding stereotypes end. He’s younger than I expected, and cooler too: He’s wearing a faded denim waistcoat, a square watch and a camo Flexfit cap. While we drive to our first stop, Raymond tells me a bit of his story.
‘When I was a lighty, I used to mission all over Soweto on my BMX with my mates. It’s not all built up, you know,’ he laughs. ‘There are koppies and dams and wetlands, just like anywhere else.’ Raymond and his crew swam in the rivers and hunted birds for fun. They shot them with catapults and caught them in traps they constructed from old bicycle wheels and onion sacks. Boys will be boys.
Things have come full circle and Raymond is now Soweto’s only birding guide, and an internationally certified cycling instructor to boot. Talk about doing what you love. We park next to the Orlando Wetland and amble down towards the water’s edge. The guys from the local canoeing club are getting ready for a training session. Kwaito music is blaring from tinny smartphone speakers while teenagers tighten life jackets and practise paddling strokes.
I’m still trying to take in the scene when a mustard-coloured shape whizzes across the water. ‘Squacco heron,’ says Raymond, ‘That’s one of our specials.’ We walk in the general direction of the Towers, skirting a reed bed and the near-stagnant stream that feeds the wetland. Not that the birds mind…
The Orlando Wetland is a peaceful spot, away from the hustle and bustle of Soweto.
While we walk and talk, Raymond points out species. Grey-headed gull,whiskered tern, common stonechat,red bishop, southern masked weaver, common moorhen, dabchick… All this in 10 minutes or so. And then we stop for a tiny, nondescript number in a puddle. ‘That’s a little stint, a summer migrant from the Arctic,’ he whispers urgently. ‘Another one of our specials.’ I have never even heard of a little stint, but seeing one in this setting does make me feel pretty special.
From the wetland, it’s a short drive to Enoch Sontonga Hill, the koppie named after the man who wrote ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ way back in 1897. Originally a country boy, Sontonga was employed as a choirmaster at a nearby school for eight years. The hill was his escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and now, more than a hundred years later, it serves the same purpose for Raymond.
Raymond Rampolokeng loves sharing his vast knowledge of birds.
It’s a sacred place for others too: We see a few traditional healers performing cleansing rituals. Here, Raymond points out a hole where someone had been collecting roots for muti; there, some burnt-out candles and an empty snuff tin. There are no fences here, or at the Orlando wetland, and this is just how Raymond wants it to be. ‘We can’t save green spaces without the community; people must be encouraged to use them.’ It’s so still up here that I feel like I’m in the Kruger Park, not Soweto. We see two kinds of mousebird (red-faced and speckled); two kinds of sparrow (Cape and house); something called a neddicky (another ‘special’) and a hovering black-shouldered kite, hunting for a meal of mice or lizards.
We sit on a big rock near the top. Directly below us are the university, where Raymond studied (UJ’s Soweto Campus), and the wetland where we’ve just come from. Behind them, a minedump looms (Raymond says it’s great for mountain-biking) and to the right, the grey high-rises of Joburg’s CBD. ‘I can sit here for hours.’ Raymond rests his elbows on his knees. ‘Soweto is noisy. This is my therapy.’
And then it’s back to the madding crowd for the final stop on our tour. Moroka Dam is about as suburban as Soweto gets. Surrounded by a pleasant, verdant park, it’s a place of jungle gyms and jogging paths; picnic spots and braai areas.
Despite all of this human activity, it’s also home to healthy populations of common waders such as red-knobbed coots, moorhens and cormorants. Even more impressive is the fact that every night, between 500 and 600 grey- and black-headed herons roost in a stand of willow trees on an island in the middle of the lake.
‘When I was a kid, there weren’t nearly as many birds here,’ says Raymond. ‘Soweto has come a long way.’
Good to Know
What to bring
Wear walking shoes and comfy, neutral clothing. Take some water, a snack and binoculars. And your camera!
When and where
The trip takes between three and four hours and it starts and ends at the secure parking lot next to the Orlando Towers. Most tours end with lunch at Sakhumzi Restaurant in Vilakazi Street (at your own expense), but Raymond can also arrange a picnic next to Moroka Dam. He can also add a more conventional Soweto tour on to your itinerary to create a full-day outing.
It costs R650 pp if you drive your own car between the various sites. Raymond can provide a vehicle for an extra R200 pp. Discounts are available for groups larger than six. The all-new Birding on Bicycles tour follows the same itinerary … but on mountain bikes! It’s currently going for the special price of R450 pp, plus R100 if you need to rent a bike.
Make a booking
Advance booking is essential. Contact Raymond Rampolokeng. 072 947 3311, [email protected]
Raymond contacted us to say that he’s started to see some yellow-billed storks near Enoch Sontonga Hill. An exciting new addition to the menagerie!
Source: AA Traveller