Posted on the 6th January 2012

As a child my father regularly took our family to remote places in the Transkei and I thought I generally knew the area quite well. Alas, 50 years on – and with the aid of a 4x4 – I discovered gems our family never set eyes upon.

One is The Collywobbles, south of Elliotdale. The highest plateau of this magnificent landscape through which the Mbashe River meanders like a constricting snake is the vantage point from which one can observe a colony of Cape Vultures. Apparently the site has been known since the mid-19th century, but unfortunately a well-structured look-out post has been neglected to such an extent that only ruins are left today. From still existing, albeit dilapidated, signs leading unlikely visitors via narrow dirt tracks to the look-out one must deduce there was a time in the not too distant past when the place was on the map of some bird club or tourist company. It would probably be worth everybody’s while to restore the structure and adjacent long-drops – even if you are not interested in vultures or all the other birds in the nearby forests or grasslands, the high cliffs, valleys and ever-present river far down below already make a visit well worthwhile.

Check the dragonfly







The N2 highway through Transkei is only about 20 km away (as the crow flies, unluckily), but a new bridge presently under construction will make reaching the site, en route to Nelson Mandela’s birthplace much easier. In fact, it was directly above the present bridge on the N2 over the Mbashe  that I first spotted a pair of vultures, flying so low that I nearly lost control of the vehicle in slamming on the brakes in utter astonishment of the sight. Once stationary, and only after I had carefully examined the meticulously detailed new map of Peter Slingsby of the Wild Coast, I “discovered” The Collywobbles colony.

About 100 vultures breed on ledges on the vertical kranzes which are well-nigh inaccessible from either the top or bottom. I slept one night in the proximity of the ruins of the look-out, my only companions during the rather eerie, moonless night the odd stray donkey laboriously treading up the steep incline. The following morning I made my way via a treacherous 5 km route to try and reach the colony from a steep grassy slope beyond, but even so one could only get to within a couple of hundred metres from the nearest birds without risking to topple over the precipice and become their next meal.







The few Xhosas who eke out an existence in the vicinity seem unperturbed by the vultures. A headman I spoke to was surprised to hear that vulture skulls are used for muti, and neither was he aware of the fact that vulture feathers are superb tools to scrape mucous from deep down in the throat when you suffer from a cold.

But then, he was more neatly dressed than I, and owned a better cellphone – so as long as his ilk’s cattle and goat herds thrive, the colony should be assured of a sumptuous future.

MC Botha
















BETH HUNT (posted: 2012-01-25)
I travel a regular route on a country road in the Overberg and am always on the look-out to spot the bird life, a pair of Secretary birds being my favourite. It was a treat and a great intro to your magazine to be transported by M C Botha's article to the Collywobbles and to read this informative and evocative piece on the Cape Vultures with its magnificent photographs.
NICOLAS THERON (posted: 2012-01-09)
Dear Anton,
I read your wonderful article with interest because I completely understand the awe one feels when first visiting Collywobbles! Your interactions with the local Xhosa headman was especially interesting and encouraging. I recently moved to the Eastern Cape managing a tourism development project in the community of Cata which is in the Amatola Mountains. During the year concerns were raised about the colony due to the construction of a road above the cliffs as well as what seemed to be the beginning of some housing developments. A team visited the site in August and September last year (see e newsletter attached) to assess the possible impacts on the colony. The final number of nests was estimated at between 130 – 140 breeding pairs. David Allan who was part of the team who visited Collywobbles is also currently reviewing the conservation status of vultures throughout the Afrotropics for BirdLife SA funded by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Visits made to vulture colonies in the Transkei by him have revealed an increase in the numbers of vulture pairs at colonies and most notably according to David Allan “One small colony near Mount Ayliff, recently estimated at some 11-20 pairs, contained about 30 pairs. The well-known Msikaba colony near Mkambati, the largest in Transkei, boasted at least 170-180 active nests, while a stopover at a site near Port St John’s, which recently had been reported as having declined to merely a roost, revealed 120-130 active nests in full swing” The Collywobbles colony has increased in number from 79 breeding pairs in 2003 to the current number of 130 – 140 in 2011. This is good news but is still way below the 300 – 350 breeding pairs recorded by Carl Vernon during the early 1980’s but this may only be due to vultures moving between colonies in the Transkei, or further afield, depending on food supplies. In any event it shows the continued importance of the Transkei colonies for vultures in South Africa. We all eagerly await the review by David Allan which will be an important contribution to our understanding of the status of Cape Vultures in South Africa.

I hope you have many more opportunities to visit the colony and if you do please continue to report your findings so that we can continue to monitor this very important breeding site for Cape Vultures.

Kindest Regards,

Nicholas Theron

CARIN MALAN (posted: 2012-01-06)
Dear MC, Thank you for sharing this facinating trip with us all ! I looked on Google Maps and it looks beautifull. Your photos are stunning.
One for the to do list.
Warm Regards, CARIN