Giants Castle - Home of The Bearded Vulture (June 2019)
Giants Castle Nature Reserve is synonymous with the Bearded/Lammergeier Vulture and is viewed both locally and internationally as the prized destination to both view and photograph these majestic birds - I decided to climb on a plane and rent a 4x4 to go and see what all the hype is about!
I am proud to announce that it not only lived up to my extremely high expectations (built up over the 6 months leading up to the trip) but even managed to exceed them without seemingly even blinking an eye!
Giants Castle Nature Reserve is situated in the central region of the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa. The reserve is named after the surrounding peaks and escarpment that resembles a sleeping giant. The mountain range appears endless with the highest peak reaching 3,315m above sea level!
Giants Castle is famous for it's natural beauty and therefore attracts mountain climbers, fishermen, hikers and photographers alike. One of the popular attractions is the well preserved bushman rock art at the Main Caves (easy 40 minute hike from the camp). The sweeping landscapes are difficult to resist for photographers BUT the main attraction is undoubtedly the Bearded (Lammergeier) Vulture Hide!
The self-catering chalets of Giants Castle Main Camp are equipped with fridge/freezer, microwave, kettle, toaster, hot plate and braai/barbeque facilities. A highlight of the chalets must be the built-in fireplace to keep you warm over the cold winter months (snow fall on the mountains is a regular occurrence!)
The shop at the reception area not only stocks curios but also light meals (noodles etc), water and local beers - I would suggest you come prepared as there is a limited variety on offer. For those who prefer not to self-cater The Izimbali restaurant and bar offers guests catered meals with amazing views of the mountains.
My wife and I stayed in the honeymoon suite - check out this amazing view from our deck!
BEARDED/LAMMERGEIER VULTURE HIDE
This famous hide is located on top of one of the peaks of the Drakensberg and takes around 20 minutes from the Main Camp. Access requires you to climb the mountain and therefore recommend at least a 4x2 with high ground clearance - we were thankful we hired a 4x4 as the road leading to the top of the mountain is not to be under-estimated!
At the hide you are greeted with sweeping vistas that literally take your breath away!
6 Vertical frames stitched together creating this panorama at sunrise.
When booking the hide (please remember this is essential prior to arrival to prevent disappointment) you are provided a bucket of bones to "feed" the vultures. This "feeding" program is essential to their survival during the winter months when food is scarce.
Each morning I would head out to the rocky ledges and place the bones - an interesting fact is that the Bearded Vulture's diet consists around 90% of bone marrow! They are capable of swallowing bones up to 20cm in length and it's powerful digestive system quickly dissolves even the largest pieces.
The Bearded Vultures have learnt to drop the larger bones from a height of 50-120m onto the rocks below which cracks them open exposing the marrow - nature is truely amazing!
Here I am taking the bucket of bones for scattering.
And so the wait begins!
In a matter of minutes the crows, starlings and white-necked ravens descend and start feeding on the bones - by the end of your trip you will be frustrated by their antics!
Another regular visitor to the rocky ledges of the hide are Black-backed Jackals, we were fortunate enough to see them every morning searching for breakfast.
This Black-backed Jackal was eagerly watching the crows before venturing further to grab a bone!
This Jackal Buzzard decided to join in on the fun - in order to land a bird tilts backward raising the fronts of the wings which disturbs the flow of air over the wings. This reduces speed and creates turbulence causing a stall (like in an engine) enabling a bird to land “softly”. This complex series of movements appears effortless and is just one example why birds are masters of the air.
The Cape Vulture is also a regular visitor to the hide. Their diet differs to the Bearded Vulture in that they feed on the meat found on the bones/carcass.
This juvenile Cape Vulture had a feast of a time after chasing the crows and starlings away!
It was not long before the star attraction arrived - a Juvenile Bearded Vulture did a flyby looking for a meal before landing on a rock below the hide - this was our first time seeing one of these majestic birds!
It was the Adult Bearded Vulture that we were after and when the first one soared past the hide on the thermals we could hardly contain our excitement.
Here are a few images I managed to capture!
This is truly an amazing experience and highly recommend it - if not for the Bearded Vultures then for the peace & tranquility.
Till next time...