Bird-watching in Soweto

Posted on 28 November 2012

Bird-watching? In Soweto? Another twist in the tale of my Soweto Weekend courtesy of Fair Trade Tourism, Getaway and SoWeToo. I met up with Raymond Rampolokeng for a bird-watching experience in Thokoza Park close to Moroka Dam in Soweto on a sunny afternoon – seemingly the perfect conditions wherein to spy Black-Headed Herons, Butcher Birds and Red Bishops. And no, I didn’t even know about those birds until I did the tour either!

Raymond Rampolokeng (below), born and raised in Soweto, started the bird-watching aspect of Bay of Grace tours in 2008 after working as a bird sanctuary officer for Birdlife SA where he promoted birding education among young children. His experience there encouraged him to start his own business to create environmentally-conscious youth for the benefit of future conservation. He also saw the opportunity to showcase an altogether different side of Sowetan life to both the local and international visitor, as he realised tours of Soweto were very sterile with tourists experiencing Soweto from behind air-conditioned bus windows.

Raymond Rampolokeng

I was armed with a pair of binoculars as I met Raymond and set off around Thokoza Park, searching for birds among the trees and within the reeds along the dam. The park itself was abuzz with activity – children playing and swinging from Weeping Willow trees, families braaing and picnicking and a newlywed couple taking wedding photos with their entourage. All testament to the sterling efforts made by local government to rejuvenate and revive the area from its former neglected state as part of a mayoral project. Locals have also taken further pride and ownership in the area by getting involved in the park’s maintenance and activities.

I admit – I don’t believe I’m a natural birdwatcher. It’s a rather studied activity that’s unhurried and soaks up the surrounding area at a slower pace – I had just finished an earlier quad-biking activity so I think my body was still in shock! Walking around the park while taking in the various groups of people and scouting for birds, however, was still rewarding.

The birds on this particular day weren’t plentiful – we only managed to see a handful of species as migration season was in full swing. The inner island by the dam, however, had many of the Black-Headed Heron mentioned above and I really had to squint through my binoculars to see them hidden among the leaves. One essential part of bird-watching I discovered is listening – often it’s the only way to determine which birds are around as they’re so well camouflaged. A rather unique birdcall belongs to the Blacksmith Lapwing Plover. It’s pitchy, clanging sound emulates the sound of iron against iron. Another bird, whose name eludes me, imitates various other bird sounds as its call. The sounds of the reeds accompanying the birdsong and children’s laughter in the background really made for a calming, appreciative experience.

Raymond’s work in the tourism and birding industry is paying dividends. The company regularly hosts tour groups and excursions and, further to his cause, the image of Soweto is rapidly changing in various sectors. He mentions a tour group of old ladies from the West Rand that he recently hosted – it was their first time in Soweto and the experience changes their ideas and perceptions of the area. One thing is clear – bird watching is Soweto hasn’t only taken flight, it really is soaring.

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