Sandveld Nature Reserve, Free State
The Sandveld Nature Reserve is renowned as a major birding spot, not only in the Free State, but in the country – 295 species of bird have been recorded here. Best of all the reserve, which lies 200 kilometres from Bloemfontein, and roughly three and a half hours' drive from Johannesburg, remains relatively undiscovered.
Interestingly, the Bloemhof Dam lies where the Vaal and Vet Rivers meet, right on the border between the Free State and North West Province. All the surrounding area of the dam is proclaimed nature reserve, confusingly resulting in the Sandveld Nature Reserve on the Free State side, and the Bloemhof Dam Nature Reserve on the North West Province side of the dam.
Aside from an enthusiastic fishing fraternity (the dam is brimming over with common carp and catfish), and weekend powerboats, the dam is seldom inundated with visitors. Birders can spot specials like the great crested grebe, the rare pygmy falcon, desert cisticola and fulvous duck.
The reserve has been described as the closest thing to the Kalahari without having to actually go there. Camelthorn trees, Karoo scrub, sweet-thorn savannah, large colonies of sociable weavers, crimson-breasted shrikes, waxbills, cuckoos and larks are characteristic of the area.
The Sandveld Nature Reserve is roughly 37 000 hectares, named after its mostly sandy soils, although there are areas of thornveld savanna and the camelthorn tree makes its presence felt throughout the reserve. For birders the main attraction is the Kalahari thornveld, which gives rise to a host of sociable weavers and occasional sightings of the pygmy falcon. But the fawn-coloured lark and the tinkling cisticola, fondly known as rooitinktinkie, are also easy to spot in the reserve especially in spring and summer; waxbills, gabar goshawks and tits all put in an appearance, and the pied barbet is fairly common. Even white-backed vultures breed in camelthorn trees in certain parts of Sandveld.
The open waters have their fair share of waterfowl - not quite that of the Barberspan Bird Sanctuary but good nonetheless. A highlight is the regular sightings, and the calls of a number of resident fish eagle pairs.
Sandveld Nature Reserve is not about birds alone and white rhino, giraffe, buffalo, sable and roan antelope, blue wildebeest, zebra and other mammals are all present in the Sandveld Nature Reserve. The reserve supports other game like giraffe, eland, gemsbok, sable and roan antelope, the black and white rhino, black-backed jackal and aardwolf, whilst a move to the waters edge will reveal an abundance of water birds – flamingo, egrets, pelican and spoonbills. Even sightings of the Martial eagle have been recorded.
Facilities are by all accounts not great – don't expect restaurants or luxury accommodation. But there are night drives, organised walks and picnic sites along the shoreline of the dam for day visitors.
Find the reserve on the R34 between Hoopstad and Bloemhof.
Did you know?
The Sandveld Nature Reserve is a favourite spot for fishing and boating.