Soweto bird watching was fun.  Pictures: Bhekikhaya Mabaso
Soweto bird watching was fun. Pictures: Bhekikhaya Mabaso
Some of the birds spotted during our trip.
Some of the birds spotted during our trip.
The chirping of birds in the distance early in the morning is always something that fills the air with serenity, even in winter.

Considered a hobby by some, bird watching is the perfect opportunity to interact with nature - see its beauty and learn more about bird life.

I recently had the opportunity to go bird watching in Soweto. Our meeting point for the beginning of the tour was at the bottom of the cooling towers that have become one of the most recognisable parts of Soweto.

My host for the day, Raymond Rampolokeng, eased the nervous energy I had about the experience. Rampolokeng is one of Soweto’s first trained birding guides, and is an award-winning guide at that.

The ease and confidence he exudes tell you a story of a man who feels at one with the birds. He seems to have come to understand them, as he does himself.

His soft-spoken nature forces you to tone down and become immersed in the experience.

Our main birding site was a few metres away from the towers, where a small body of water stood.

The area itself seemed swampy, but without any of the smells associated with a swamp.

The overgrown grass is dried-out and sun-burnt, making it slightly difficult to navigate the area.

The weak winter sun was out in full force, providing an unusual amount of heat in Soweto at this time of the year.

While we walked to position ourselves in the centre of nature’s activity, Rampolokeng explained that his journey with birding began in 2002.

“I grew up in Soweto, hunting birds. I got the opportunity to train formally as a bird guide in 2002 and qualified to take visitors around.

“I had this burning desire to start my own business and I thought, why not branch into tourism?”

He realised there was no one in Soweto trained in tourism when it came to birding. He started his own business in 2004.

By the time the Soccer World Cup rolled around in South Africa in 2010, he was providing fully fledged tours.

“My training included the biology of the birds, their habitat, their characteristics, the climate, trees, plants and scoping areas with conservation value,” he explains.

Rampolokeng says he identified the area near the lake because it had conservation value.

Here, he says, we can find an assortment of bird species, from waders in the water such as grey-headed gulls to herons, swallows, swifts, hadeda ibis and different kinds of pigeons.

Birds such as warblers, which often hide behind long reeds, are easily spotted at this location, well relatively easily. We were lucky to spot and hear most of these.

During the winter months in Soweto, he advises, bird enthusiasts will be able to see 60 bird species. In summer, the number rises to between 80 and 90 due to the influx of visiting species.

Rampolokeng does his bird tours at two other locations, the Enoch Sontonga koppie behind the UJ Soweto Campus and the Moroka Dam in Rockville, Soweto.

The story goes that Sontonga, composer of the South African national anthem, used to spend time relaxing on top of the koppie and that’s how it came to be named after him.

The Moroka Dam is part of a precinct with three parks - Thokoza Park, Moroka Dam Park and the Regina Mundi Park of Remembrance.

The dam was named after Dr James Moroka, a former president of the ANC who spearheaded the move towards militancy in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

During the apartheid era, the Regina Mundi Church opened its doors to anti-apartheid groups and provided shelter to anti-apartheid activists. It is the largest Roman Catholic church in South Africa.

Rampolokeng says one of the ways to promote conversations about conservation in the community is to encourage primary school pupils to do part of their learning outside of the classroom in these areas, which fits in with their Natural Sciences curriculum.

The aim is to introduce a new kind of Soweto to the public, Rampolokeng explains.

As we stood listening and watching the various birds, I could see, but not hear, in the distance the cars on Chris Hani Road.

It felt as though nature had come alive, and we were the ones lucky enough to see it.