The Blue Crane Restaurant & Austin Roberts Bird Sanctuary

It’s not every day you find yourself searching ‘wheelchair friendly places in Pretoria’. But if you do you may well find yourself at the Blue Crane Restaurant. 

After my Dad had lost a rather one sided negotiation with a truck and found himself essentially broken on his Eastern border (a heady mix of ankle, collarbone and ribs) I skipped continents to come and join him. After a few days relaxing in front of the test match and enough protein to make a leopard turn vegan we decided it was time to venture out. Small steps meant day 1 was a little coffee shop just up the road, day 2 a meeting at his office and day 3 a chance to get out properly and enjoy the sunshine.

Austin Roberts Bird Sanctuary

Who Is Austin Roberts?

As with all my writing I like to get to know the background of a place and this Austin Roberts fella seems like a pretty big deal given he’s got a nature reserve in the capital city of South Africa named after him. Well he is.

Dad moved to Africa about 20 years ago which meant we were lucky enough to come and visit regularly as kids. These trips including visits to incredible national parks such as Kruger, Pilanesberg and Hluhluwe-Imfolozi. Spending days in these places you get to know a bit about the animals, birds and plants around you. And when it comes to the birds of Southern Africa you won’t get far into learning about them without hearing the name Roberts.

He published the amazing ‘Birds of Southern Africa’ in 1940 and has been in print ever since. He gave every bird in South Africa a unique number starting at 1 with the Ostrich and cataloguing nearly 1,000 species. It has now been revised 7 times, sold over 300,000 copies and remains the standard for bird books in Africa.

When it was decided to flood a former clay quarry in the Nieuw Muckleneuk suburb of Pretoria – turning it into a nature reserve – the local government in Pretoria honoured Roberts by naming it after him.

Austin Roberts Bird Sanctuary

Most of the sanctuary has been fenced off since 1970 to protect the species inside but you get a good view with a walk round the outside. I did all the walking, dad did alot of sitting, turns out a shattered ankle is an excuse for a rest day. We navigated the loosely put together concrete slabs and made our way round to the hide.

The hide is the centre point to the sanctuary. This is the bit that allows you in. African hides are always a thing of beauty, thick wooden struts topped with reeds long discoloured by the sun. They hold great memories for me and wandering in transported me back in time to long sunset evenings waiting for animals to pop out for an evening pint at the waterholes so I could get a snap.

Not that you need prior experiences to appreciate the hide at Austin Roberts Bird Sanctuary. Step inside and you can forget you’re in a big city. You are surrounded by water, autumnal coloured trees and reeds tall enough to hide most two story houses. The chatter of the weavers fighting over nest material like two builders at a Travis Perkins outlet masks any sound of the of the urban noise.

We sat and took it all in. This was barely a few miles from where he lived but it is normal behaviour for most of us to not visit the places that are right under our nose. The sun was bright, the kind of weather than would force everyone in the U.K. ot for BBQ coals was just another still winter’s day in Africa. In places like this the pace of life slows. You look out for everything around you.

Our highlight was seeing a pied kingfisher. It clung to a reed like a small child on a seesaw buffeted every time a neighbouring weaver bird decided to use the same perch. It how much the reeds seem to defy scientific law, taking the weight of multiple birds; flexing, bending and then shooting right back to where they were before. The kingfisher was not put off by the commotion keeping its gaze firmly fixed on the water below. The stillness was in stark contrast to the explosive speed with which it shot down into the water on sight of its oblivious prey. It came up empty beaked. There are no easy meals for the wildlife in Africa, well unless you have the number for Roman’s pizza.

There has apparently been sightings of over 170 species at the bird sanctuary. In 20 minutes we manged 15, not a bad haul really for two guys sat in a wooden hut in the middle of a city.

Cranes

The Hide

The Blue Crane Restaurant

The blue crane is the national bird of South Africa. It is worshipped by both the Zulu and amaXhosa tribes, who call it indwe. When a man distinguished himself by deeds of valour, or any form of meritorious conduct, he was often decorated by a chief by being presented with the feathers of this bird. After a battle, the chief would organise a ceremony called ukundzabela – a ceremony for the heroes, at which feathers would be presented. 

Of the 25 species of crane the blue crane has the most restricted distribution, with nearly the entire world’s population in South Africa. Their numbers have plummeted since the mid-1980s and are now considered critically endangered with only 10,000-20,000 left in the wild. As with so many species it is contact with man which has brought the numbers down; collisions with power lines, dogs taking eggs and poisoning by farmers to keep them out of crops (including this massacre of 200 in Northern Cape).

The Blue Crane Restaurant is far less endangered, and in fact appears to be thriving. It sits adjacent to the bird sanctuary and is less than a two minutes walk from the hide. With an incredible aspect over the dam there are far worse places to enjoy lunch. It has a fine reputation but to be honest I’d enjoy it whether the food was good or not! We sat on the enclosed terrace over the water watching the waterfowl dig weeds out of the depths ready for spring, the sunshine made it easy to forget this was an African winter.

We tucked into a big platter of cheese, the highlight being some amazing preserved figs. A new one for me certainly the perfect accompaniment. I also gave into the temptation of a large vanilla milkshake. People tell you alot of things about South Africa; game reserves, Nelson Mandela, Table Mountain, braais, sunsets. Forget it all. South Africa should be famous for one thing and one thing only, the quality of its milkshakes. I don’t know how they do it but I’m yet to find a bad one. Creamy, packed with sugar and with the consistency of plaster they are a joy to behold.

Needless to see we left happy, a perfect way to venture out. If you are in Pretoria with a few hours to spare why not pop over to the Austin Roberts Bird Sanctuary and Blue Crane Restaurant for a small glimpse of Africa in the heart of the city.