Black-headed Heron

Birding in Magaliesberg - Van Gaalen Trails and Remhoogte

Hidden in the lush, green foothills of the Magaliesberg mountains, the Skeerpoort valley remains a pristine undeveloped area not far from the bustling and popular Hartbeespoort dam.

The ripple of the Magalies river flows through the valley, slowly carving its way through the landscape while the ancient cliffs stand watch over the rolling hills. Just an hour’s drive from the thronging cities Johannesburg and Pretoria, this region provides a welcome respite for the weary traveler to escape the daily commotion and chaos.

Skeerpoort Valley

Skeerpoort Valley

As for the birds, this area offers a unique experience - the Magaliesberg mountains serve as the separation between highveld grassland and savannah bushveld, while the base of the Magaliesberg cliffs are filled with endangered indigenous forests - species from all of these habitats are crammed into this same region.

The Magaliesberg cliffs are an ancient wonder

The Magaliesberg cliffs are an ancient wonder

We traveled to this area during the peak of summer, while the trees were green, rivers flowing and migrant bird species around in full numbers. During this time we stayed at Remhoogte Mountain Lodge and spent our days winding through the undulating Van Gaalen hiking trails.

The well-shaded Van Gaalen trails invoke a mystical setting

The well-shaded Van Gaalen trails invoke a mystical setting

Birding in Skeerpoort Valley

We arrived at Remhoogte Mountain Lodge during some torrential rains. The dirt roads had turned to rivers and we were thankful to have a 4-wheel drive. Not many birds were brave enough to go out in this weather, but we dropped off our bags and shortly after, it started clearing up.

Sitting on our covered patio, the deafening din of thunder and rain were slowly replaced by the sounds of nature we missed so much. A Grey Go-Away-Bird (Grey Lourie) started to call from a distance, while a pair of Black-Collared Barbets sang their duet.

Grey Go Away Birds

Grey Go Away Birds

A group of European Bee-Eaters called for each other while they flew overhead - it was time to put on our hiking boots and trudge out into the mud before sunset.

European Bee-eater

European Bee-eater

Remhoogte is situated conveniently along the Van Gaalen hiking trail where a short walk from your doorstep puts you directly onto the path. As the late afternoon sun had just come out after the rains, the birds were grabbing their last opportunity to hunt for an evening snack - not least were large groups of Lapwings. Blacksmith Lapwings, Crowned Lapwings and African Wattled Lapwings all populate the area in high numbers and when walking the Van Gaalen paths, you are bound to flush many of them out.

The Cape Vulture

Any mention of birding in the Skeerpoort would be remiss without mentioning the famous Skeerpoort cliffs which play host to the endangered Cape Vulture, and serve as the third largest breeding site for this raptor worldwide.

Cape Vulture

Cape Vulture - Photo Credit: Heather Paul

The Cape Vulture breeds only on cliffs, making the Magaliesberg a perfect location for them. However, the transformation of the surrounding wilderness into farmland and human development puts them at risk. Lack of predators means a lack of carrion, which they need to feed. Fortunately, there are a number of “Vulture Restaurants” in the area, where farmers leave old bodies of dead animals for the Vultures to feed on.

The cliffs above Skeerpoort are painted white with Vulture droppings. If you look closely at this photo you can see multiple vultures roosting on the rocks in the early morning.

The cliffs above Skeerpoort are painted white with Vulture droppings. If you look closely at this photo you can see multiple vultures roosting on the rocks in the early morning.

All this means that while hiking through the Van Gaalen trails, any time you look to the skies you are bound to see between one and one-hundred vultures circling in the skies. Truly a sight to behold.

Literally hundreds of Cape Vultures breed and circle around the Skeerpoort cliffs

Literally hundreds of Cape Vultures breed and circle around the Skeerpoort cliffs

The Locals

Over 100 species of bird calls this area home year-round. The most abundant are found around every corner and include the Dark-Capped Bulbul, Southern Fiscal, Southern Grey-Headed Sparrow and African Stone-Chat.

While walking along the paths, the sounds of the birdlife are unavoidable. Some common calls are the trilling of the Crested Barbet and the popping of the Yellow-fronted Tinkerbird. The aptly named Arrow-marked Babblers babble in their groups, and the familiar Rufous-Naped Lark seemingly calls from every perch.


During the summer months, the birdlife is doubly insane. Many birds that are quiet and brown in Winter start showing their full colours and singing incessantly, looking for mates. The normally plain and indistinct White-Winged Widowbirds were giving us a show in their elegant black plumage, while massive flocks of Red-Billed Queleas (aptly nicknamed "feathered locusts") swarmed the grasslands.

The Migrants

Also in summer, the migrant birds are all back in the region. The skies are filled with swallows of all varieties. White-throated Swallow, Lesser Striped Swallow, Greater Striped Swallow and Pearl-breasted Swallow can be seen aerially hunting for insects, perched on fences, or sitting in the paths drinking water. We were also fortunate enough to run into a migratory Common House Martin... Not a common sight.

Also in summer, the cries of the Cuckoos are omnipresent. From first light to sunset, the Diederick Cuckoo and Red-Chested Cuckoo (piet-my-vrou) sing from perches. While not always easy to see, their songs are consistent and learning them is key to identifying them. The third Cuckoo we heard was only found near the base of the Skeerpoort cliffs, in the sections of indigenous forest - the Black Cuckoo.

The Cuckoo Calls

The family of Cuckoos are famous for their calls, and even the name "Cuckoo" is named onomatopoeically for the sound "Cu-koo, Cu-koo, Cu-koo" (think of a cuckoo clock). Cuckoos are not easy to see and typically hide secretively in the top branches of trees. Fortunately their calls are repetitve and easy enough to remember, so your best bet to see them would be to learn their calls.

The River/Waterbirds

A large number of waterbirds can be found in the area. The massive Hartbeespoort dam would seem to be the main attraction, but the large scale human development and pollution can make it unattractive.

Fortunately, Van Gaalen has a clean dam on their property, and many farmers have formed irrigation dams - a few of which are viewable from the adjacent road. On these dams you can find the Adbim’s Stork, Black Stork, White Stork, Spur-winged Goose, Black-headed Heron and Grey Heron - or, just catch them flying overhead!

The trails also feature 12km of trails along the Magalies river - possibly the best part of the hike. These trails are in the shade of river front forests which are teeming with activity. Along these trails we ran into the Yellow-Billed Duck, African Black Duck, Common Moorhen, Southern White-faced Whistling-Duck and Red-knobbed Coot.

Van Gaalen Trails

The Van Gaalen trails are situated in the Skeerpoort Valley and cover over 80 km in total. These trails can be hiked, ran, or mountain-biked and span over private farmland, indigenous forest, mountain passes and shady ravines. We hiked 30 km in total, and all the paths had clear signs and were well kept. During summer it was extremely green and fresh, the rivers running and the birds everywhere.

The start of the Van Gaalen Trails

The start of the Van Gaalen Trails

The Van Gaalen trails operate from the Van Gaalen cheese farm, which serves as a hub for mountain-bikers, holiday-goers and hikers. The location is idyllic, offering riverfront picnics (book in advance!), green lawns, and a terrace restaurant overlooking a small dam abundant with birds. The farm is operational which offers tours, and locally made cheese can be bought from the gift shop.

Remhoogte Mountain Lodge

Remhoogte Mountain Lodge is a hidden gem. The lodge is situated on a small working farm along the Van Gaalen trail - making it a convenient start-and-stop point for hikers. The farm has some cropland, but most is open and teeming with birdlife. You can freely walk around safely with your binoculars and camera from your front door.

The road up to the Skeerpoort cliffs within Remhoogte Mountain Lodge is backed with birdlife

The road up to the Skeerpoort cliffs within Remhoogte Mountain Lodge is backed with birdlife

We stayed in a room in the Crafter’s Lodge at Remhoogte. The facilities here were impeccable, with a full private kitchen and access to a pool and hot-tub. Importantly for us, you can bird-watch from the patio! An Amethyst Sunbird regularly came to eat from the Bottlebrush tree outside, and a pair of Groundscraper Thrushes came to dig for termites in the grass each evening.

Vergenoeg Trails

For the more adventurous hikers, overnight hiking is also a possibility via the Vergenoeg nature reserve. These hikes are not for the faint-hearted and span 44 km over 2 nights. They trails are part of the Van Gaalen network and can be done while carrying your tent on your back or "slackpacking", where your bags will be transported to your next stop, so you can focus on the beauty of the trails and the area

Bird List

The Skeerpoort area is a must for birdwatchers who can find a huge variety of species, especially over the summer months. The mix of grassveld and bushveld, with indigenous forests, mountains and inland water mean a diligent birder can catch well over 100 species in a single day. The area is weaved with hiking trails, allowing for freedom of movement and an overwhelmingly good time. Take along our bird list and see how many you can tick off.

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