Just two weeks ago the various listserves that cover South Africa lit up with correspondents raving about a brand new regional guide covering Gauteng (the bird-rich province that contains Johannesburg and Pretoria) written by two of the area’s better-known and well-respected birders: Etienne Marais, who amongst other things runs Indicator Birding, and Faansie Peacock, who already has the excellent “Pipits of Southern Africa” to his writing credit. Top SA birders like Mark Anderson of BirdLife South Africa said that “The bar for birding guides has once against been raised”, and Dewald Swanepoel wrote “huge congrats…for a beautiful book with tons of useful information”.
I was fortunate enough to have been promised a review copy because one of my photos was used in the book – a Bushveld Pipit Anthus caffer I was actually shown by Etienne on a “clean-up” trip I did with himin 2007 – and it duly arrived last week while I was away in India. I couldn’t wait to open it when I got home yesterday, and just 24 hours and a lot of highly enjoyable browsing later I’m going to make an offer I’m confident no-one will be able to take me up on: if any reader can – right now – find me a better regional birding guide than the superb new “Chamberlain Guide to Birding Gauteng” I will personally pay for you to fly out to Johannesburg so that you can explain to the two authors what you think they could have done better. I honestly feel – and this has nothing to do with the world-class photo of the Bushveld Pipit on page 178 – that this is the best “Where to” birding guide on the planet (it’s certainly the best I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen quite a few).
That’s not a crown that can be won easily, but Mark Anderson is right – the “Chamberlain Guide to Birding Gauteng” really does raise the bar (set, incidentally, in my opinion by 2006′s “Southern African Birdfinder” by Callen Cohen et al).
Why? Because this guide is not only beautifully-presented (on high-gloss paper), not only packed with detailed and up-to-date information on a staggering 101 sites (82 in or within a two-hour drive of Jo’burg and Pretoria, and a further 19 “favourite weekend birding destinations”), not only illustrated with more than 300 color photos which include some 250 bird species (most of which are far better technically than the Bushveld Pipit I may have already mentioned once or twice), not only includes 96 original full-colour site maps – but this guide is written with such obvious passion and knowledge that it reads more like an encyclopaedic love-letter to the region and its avifauna than just a book about where to see some great birds.
I’m lucky in that I’ve been to Gauteng many times, and I’m familiar with a small number of the sites the book so lovingly describes (Marievale, Suikerbosrand, a couple of Botanic Gardens, the Zaagkuildrift Gravel Road for example), but reading what the authors have to say makes me realise that while I’ve been to them I’ve not yet got to know them, to feel them, or to understand them. Etienne and Faansie on the other hand have got inside them, learnt what makes each site special, and then crafted a description that will leave any reader with any sort of imagination desperate to get to know them too.
Writing a book this good was perhaps made a little easier by the fact that Etienne and Faansie do have the distinct advantage of living and birding an area of the world that is outstandingly beautiful, has a good infra-structure making most of the sites readily accessible (something a book on a similarly sized area in Africa like, for example, around Nairobi couldn’t match), and is home to an amazing 450 regularly-occurring bird species (including many sought-after specials and endemics). As they point out themselves in the Introduction (which includes invaluable information on seasonal temperatures, conservation initiatives, and ‘birding safety’) some 117 endemics – 60% of all the endemics and near-endemics of the whole of Southern Africa – “can be located using this book”.
Easier, possibly, but it still takes talent and hard-work (lots of hard-work) to get a book of this quality “out of the head and onto the paper”. Etienne and Faansie truly deserve to be showered with praise for – if the end result is anything to go by – working out in great detail what they wanted their book to contain and how it should look, and then not compromising or deviating until they’d succeeded. (Incidentally, I can guess that the publication date for the “Chamberlain Guide to Birding Gauteng” was probably set for the (southern) summer holidays and Christmas, but I’m willing to bet that if it hadn’t been quite ready in time Etienne and Faansie would have delayed the publication until it was just as they wanted it even if it meant missing what is potentially the most lucrative sales-period in the calendar – and if that doesn’t sound to you like a particularly big deal you’re obviously either independently very wealthy or have never tried selling anything!).
It’s really very difficult to see what extra could have been added to the information the 380+ pages in this superb book contains, or how its presentation could be improved to make finding Gauteng’s birds any easier. That comes from a viewpoint of an overseas visitor who devours this sort of stuff with enthusiasm, of course, but as the locals have been raving in the most positive terms too it really does seem that all bases have been covered. Satisfying both residents with the time to explore and time-constrained visitors who want to see everything they can in the shortest possible time is quite a trick to pull off, but it’s pulled off in some style. From the colour-coding of each section to the superb full-colour maps, from the travel tips to the many accommodation options with contact details, from the clean text to the choice of photos (did I mention a certain pipit? I think I did, yes…), from the inset boxes on subjects ranging from “Sub-zero frogs” to “Birders and Snakes” right through to page after page of gloriously-detailed studies of birding sites most of us will never get to but will surely want to, this is a beautiful, deeply-insightful, and pleasurable book that is a joy to own.
Yes, that pleasure and joy may be a little bitter-sweet for many birders without the resources to travel abroad, but if you want to see how a birding guide book should be written, have the slightest interest in South African birds, or just want the experience of ‘being there’ without the inconvenience of leaving home then you should get it – and get it now. And if you’re likely to go birding in Gauteng anytime in the future then this new guide is as essential as binoculars and an identification guide, and almost as good as having Etienne and Faansie sat in the car with you. I tell you, if the Gauteng Tourist Board ever want to promote birding they really need to do little more than buy this book by the crate-load and distribute them to bird clubs world-wide. Visitors will come flocking….(Besides all of which, there’s this cracking photo of a Bushveld Pipit which you really ought to see…)
The Chamberlain Guide to Birding Gauteng. Mirafra Publishing. Written by Etienne Marais and Faansie Peacock. Softback. 384 pages. ISBN 0-62041621-1.
For more information go to http://gautengbirding.co.za/index.htm