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Birding South Africa: “Soft” Adventure Travel & Safaris in South Africa

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Travel that's less dangerous than a shark cageWhile traveling through South Africa, veteran traveler Lynn Langway had no desire to bounce up and down Victoria Falls at the end of a bungee cord, or dangle like a snack for sharks inside an Indian Ocean cage.

Nor is she a “coach potato,” content to see the wonders of the world through a tour bus window.

Fortunately, soft adventures abound in South Africa, which travelers can happily experience between the two extremes.

My husband and I, moderately fit journalists in our 60s, have relished thrilling-but-not-terrifying tastes of the great outdoors that ranged from kayaking in the Everglades National Park to snorkeling Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. These excursions were not only fantastic fun, but excellent exercise—allowing us to indulge in local foods and wines without too much remorse.

Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife & Photography Tours - photo by Leon Marais Last fall, we enjoyed some of our best soft adventures in South Africa. Though it’s more celebrated for big-game viewing and extreme sports, this beautiful country abounds with safer pursuits such as hiking, biking, or birding. (Note that today’s active “birders” often distinguish their hobby from traditional, backyard “bird-watching.”)

If you don’t want to go on solo excursions, it’s easy to arrange informative private or small-group trips with an experienced local operator like Lawson’s Birding and Wildlife Tours. Or stay in a full-service eco-resort such as the acclaimed Phinda Private Game Reserve where you can take specialty safaris to go birding, scuba diving, or deep sea fishing.

Here are three of our favorite excursions that will blast you out of the bus and off the beaten track—just bring your hiking boots, binoculars and paperback birding guide like Newman’s Birds of Southern Africa.

Another great birding spot in South Africa is Langebaan, in the Western Cape province–get Lynn’s take on birding in Langebaan here.

HIKE WITH THE OSTRICHES AT CAPE POINT

OstrichWe were quickly overtaken by an ostrich on our 4-mile hike in the Cape of Good Hope Nature Preserve, about 25 miles south of Cape Town, but we didn’t mind at all. We were too fascinated by the tiny alpine wildflowers at our feet, the dazzling sunbirds—iridescent green and neon orange—sipping nectar from the flowering bushes beside us, and the stupendous seascapes on all sides.

Our lively Lawson’s guide, Kim Wright, pointed out every delightful detail of flora and fauna along the Kanonkop trail, which leads to an old cannon picturesquely perched on a crag overlooking the wild waters of Africa’s most Southwestern Point.

After we picnicked on scrumptious ham and cheese sandwiches from the hip Olympia Café in nearby Kalk Bay, we noticed a troupe of baboons lunching on their own natural delicacy, the giant pincushion protea blossoms—a much healthier choice than the ice creams they sometimes snatch from unwary tourists.

At trail’s end, we watched our trail buddy rejoin his ostrich mate and three chicks on the beach—which may explain why he’d been in such a hurry to beat us there.

South Africa is much more than just safaris. Don’t miss Cape Escapes: Whale-Watching in Hermanus, South Africa.

GO ON A BIRDING SAFARI IN KWAZULU-NATAL

Cape gannets in Langebaan, South AfricaLong before the sun reached its zenith, the rare birds of Phinda Private Game Reserve were staging a show worthy of Cirque du Soleil: A tiny African broadbill turned somersaults to impress his lady love, two crowned hornbills performed an aerial ballet while snapping up flying termites in their comical triple beaks, and 100 Pink-backed Pelicans swooped overhead in an awesome formation.

Located about 220 miles north of Durban in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, this 57,000-acre eco-resort offers the rare opportunity to combine game drives (the cheetah, white and black rhinos, and lions are especially fine here) with guided nature hikes plus diving or fishing expeditions to the nearby Indian Ocean coast.

Specialist ranger Daryl Dell and tracker Bernard Ngumi led us on an unforgettable trek through wetlands, sand forests, savanna and thornveld. We spotted 67 different species of birds—there are more than 400 in Phinda’s seven distinct habitats—with our enthusiastic, expert guides, including five varieties of eagle, an immense goliath heron, and a brilliant red-and blue malachite kingfisher that appeared in the rushes just as the sun was setting. We applauded, of course.

Find more African safaris & adventures in our Africa Travel section.

WALK ON THE WILD SIDE OF THE GARDEN ROUTE

Featherbed Nature Reserve in KnysnaYou won’t work up much of a sweat getting to the top of the spectacular cliffs at the Featherbed Nature Reserve in Knysna, at the heart of South Africa’s fabled Garden Route. The tour operators obligingly haul you by boat and then by 4×4 vehicles to the summit of this magnificent headland overlooking the Knysna Lagoon.

The 1.25-mile escorted walk down, however, is a totally different story. Take all the optional side trails, and you’ll find yourself scrambling out on the rocks above Indian Ocean waves for panoramic views, picking your way carefully down to caves where the surf hisses and booms, twisting along paths where wildflowers glow fuchsia and gold.

And if you’re as lucky as we were, you’ll stumble upon the exotic, elusive knysna lourie (aka the turaco) hiding in the trees, an improbable green creature with turquoise-and-red wings and a crested head with elaborate eye markings that looks like something straight out of the movie Avatar. Finish up with the excellent buffet lunch under the milk wood trees at the café; try the crayfish, the fabled Knysna oysters, and an icy Featherbed draft.

By Lynn Langway for PeterGreenberg.com. Lynn Langway is an award-winning editor, writer and journalism teacher. Her articles about travel, business and lifestyle topics have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, Money, The Nation and other publications. Visit Lynn on the Web at www.lynnlangway.com.

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