Raymond Rampolokeng brings the binoculars into focus as he pans the riverbank. The nearby hubbub of Soweto hums in the distance, but his intense concentration guards the moment in a veil of silence. How he’d love to catch a glimpse of a Cape Sparrow, the indigenous bird to which he feels such a special connection.
Soweto might not boast the exotic, colourful allure of forest birds or the majesty of eagles, but the wetlands that dissect the urban sprawl are still home to a gorgeous array of airborne life. For Rampolokeng, the area’s first ever bird guide, the humble sparrow holds his gaze the longest. Unassuming and often taken for granted, he sees much of himself in its nature. Rampolokeng was unemployed when he came into contact with the Wits Bird Club and Birdlife SA while volunteering at Soweto Mountain of Hope. The former groups gave him the chance to take part in a bird guide course that changed everything.
“Who would have thought that bird watching could take place in Soweto,” muses Rampolokeng, who is now known affectionately as the Birdman of Soweto. After working for Birdlife SA as a Community Biodiversity Conservation Project Coordinator for four years, the Gauteng local made history when he launched Bay of Grace Tours, his hometown’s first birding tourism company. “I’m very much like a bird,” he explains. “I’m colourful and also reserved. However, I just come to life when I get to the outdoors.” Birds have not only given Rampolokeng a source of income, but a means to showcase the wild side of urban tourism.