BABOON

Many visitors to our national parks are generally more interested in seeing the larger animals – especially lions – while others are focused on seeing as many different bird species as they can. The main attraction in the Addo Elephant National Park is naturally elephants, although one may be fortunate to spot a lion. Often dismissed by those intent on finding ‘more interesting’ animals are the smaller creatures. We have visited the park many times over decades and it is really only the last few years that baboons have become more prominent.

It is worth stopping for a moment to watch them in action. This one is picking thin twigs from a small plant and eating the leaves or seeds from it. These baboons have not (yet – hopefully never) been spoiled by visitors trying to feed them and so one can watch them going about their normal routine of finding food.

Here the baboon is reaching out for more of whatever this plant is that is proving to be worth eating. Its companions were further back from the road – if you see one baboon, there are bound to be others in the close vicinity so it is worth looking out for them.

Even whilst chewing, the baboon was on the lookout for the next tasty bite.

This part of the meal over, it was time to find something else. We left it at this point, having enjoyed observing the delicacy with which it picked out the food to eat, and the fine dexterity it employed to strip the leaves or seeds. These intelligent creatures are rewarding to watch in their natural state.

TIMBER

We all recognised the old man with shaggy silver hair who walked his dog around the block every day. Over the past five years I had become accustomed to seeing them plodding along ever more slowly, usually setting out as I was returning from my early morning run. Whatever the weather, the old man was always dressed the same: stout shoes, baggy long trousers, an open-necked collared shirt and a shapeless tweedy-looking jacket with leather elbow patches. He never wore a hat.

At first we were on nodding terms. Later I used to wave as I ran past and he would lift his fleshy left hand to wave in return. I could see the gold band on his ring finger glinting in the morning sun. We gradually discovered his name was Professor Barnes, that he had long retired from the English Department at the university, that he was a widower, and that he seldom received visitors.

Knowing this, I began stopping to chat to him. We mostly wondered when it would rain, deplored the fact that the street lights weren’t working, or enthused over the beauty of the jacaranda blossoms if it was that time of the year.

My sons were fascinated to learn that his dog was called Timber. “Good morning Timber!” They would shout their greeting whenever they saw the Golden Labrador shuffling past the front gate. “Good morning Professor Barnes!”

“Morning lads,” he would respond. “Timber is a bit slow this morning.” He would lift the lead with a gesture to show how loose it was.

“He must be so lonely.” Emma is a tender-hearted soul who stopped him in the street one morning to invite him to join us for tea on a Sunday afternoon. Timber came too, settling down as soon as they arrived, promptly at four o’clock.

It wasn’t long before Emma began taking him home-baked biscuits. Jonathon sometimes slipped tins of dogfood into our grocery trolley. “Timber is old and he can’t chew bones anymore,” he would explain. The first time it took both him and Simon to muster up the courage to open the gate and walk along the cement path to deliver their offerings to Professor Barnes. He would ruffle their hair and sometimes gave them a chocolate bar from the drawer of a small table in his hallway.

“Timber was really my wife’s dog,” he told us over dinner one evening. “She and our son … well … Susan and Allan were killed in a head-on collision. Timber was a youngster then.” He dabbed at his eyes with a large handkerchief and lifted his wine glass with a hand so shaky that we all wondered if the wine would make it to his lips.

“I was meant to fetch Allan from the airport that day, but there was a seminar I needed to attend.” His voice choked and he bent down to stroke Timber lying, as always, at his feet. “Allan had just completed his doctorate at Oxford. We were so, so proud of him.”

How can you break the silence following such a revelation? I could see tears glistening in Emma’s eyes. We had all stopped eating, not knowing where to look or what to say. It was Jonathon who rose from his seat to stroke the old dog. “Poor Timber,” he said softly. “What a good dog you are. It’s been a long time.”

“Yes, indeed it has.” Professor Barnes picked up his cutlery. “It has been a long time. Timber and I look after each other, don’t we?” He patted the top of Timber’s head between his ears. “You are a very good dog, old boy.”

Three months ago I began noticing that Professor Barnes and Timber were often missing when I returned from my morning run. They had always been as regular as clockwork, so I even ran around the block to see if I could find them before turning into our gate. On those days I could see no sign of them.

“Is everything alright?” I thundered to a halt when I saw Professor Barnes and Timber barely moving along the road last week.

“We’re getting old, but we’re getting along,” he told me cheerfully. The lead dragged on the ground between them even though Professor Barnes held the free end wrapped around his right hand.

Our doorbell rang on Monday afternoon, shortly after I had returned from work. I was taken aback to see Professor Barnes standing on the front step for he had never come to our house uninvited. We had also never seen him without Timber at his side.

“David,” his lips trembled. “Are your sons strong enough to dig a hole? A big hole?”

I swallowed hard. “For Timber? Is Timber okay?”

He nodded, tears welling in his eyes. “Timber is getting old. I must be prepared.”

My sons and I dug a deep hole in Professor Barnes’ garden on Tuesday afternoon while he and Emma sat on a bench nearby and drank tea. They both stroked Timber lying at their feet. Simon looked up from his labours. “Is Timber going to die, Professor Barnes?”

“Only when it is time, my boy. Only when it is time.”

“Do you want us to bury him when he does?”

“If you will. Yes, if you will.” The old man blew his nose on his large handkerchief. “That will please me.”

The telephone rang on Wednesday afternoon. Emma answered it cheerfully and then burst into tears. “Timber has gone,” she whispered. She made tea and sat on the bench with Professor Barnes while the boys and I wrapped Timber in a blanket and laid him gently in the hole. Simon collected the framed photograph of Susan and Allan from the old man’s trembling hands and tucked it under the blanket. I could see Emma linking hands with Professor Barnes as Jonathon placed a plastic sheet over the blanket and we filled in the hole.

Professor Barnes declined our offer of a meal. “I need to spend time with my thoughts,“ he explained, patting Emma’s hand. We watched as the boys collected small stones to make a pattern on the earth mound. Emma picked some flowers. We all hugged the old man before walking home.

An ambulance took Professor Barnes away on Friday morning. There was no need for a siren.

ZEBRAS EATING

My first thought was to show you a few different zebras grazing on what looks like very dry grass to greener grass. Putting these photographs together, however, provides a marvellous opportunity to showcase just how different the facial markings between zebras can be.

This zebra has bold facial markings – and a dusty nose!

Note the very fine lines on this one – which also has a dusty nose.

The facial markings on this one are very bold – more stereotypical of the way zebras are depicted in children’s books.

This zebra has firm, clear lines – and much greener grass to eat!

THE COY WATER BUCK

This water buck jumped over a fence from the road into a game farm. It stood still for several minutes observing us watching it. As you can tell, it was rather coy about showing itself in full until the end.

The morning was overcast and still fairly misty. Some of the blurring is because of the fence that is in the way.

Look at his beautiful horns.

He steadfastly remained a little hidden by the bush in front.

He moved away at last, although now the fence blurs in the foreground. Nonetheless, what a wonderful sighting!

BROUHAHA ABOUT DONKEYS

I often refer to what I call the Urban Herd, a term loosely used to cover the numerous head of cattle that wander through the suburbs of our town to graze in open parks, on unmown grass verges as well as browsing the street trees. Woe betide you if they manage to get into your garden, for not much will be left after their visit!

Not all that many years ago it was unusual to see donkeys roaming around town. There are now, however, an increasing number of donkeys seen either on their own or in groups of between three and eight. As with the cattle, these all have owners and are collected now and then to pull a cart.

Mostly though they are left to fend for themselves. They manage for their natural diet is a varied one, consisting of grass, shrubs and leaves. Sadly, a number of donkeys have also learned to raid rubbish bins in the street and gather in large numbers on the set rubbish collection days when residents place their black bags on the pavements in the suburbs.

Recently there were several donkeys grazing in an open park.

It is natural that during this prolonged drought period, many residents have become concerned about the plight of these donkeys that are largely left to their own devices. All over town are people who place buckets or large basins of water outside their gates so that the donkeys can have access to water. A lot of people feed them carrots or apples and have taken to stroking or patting them if they can. Most donkeys are docile and respond well to this kind treatment.

According to our local Ratepayers Association, these resourceful animals are quick to identify where they are likely to find food and are prepared to walk a long distance to such locations. I met a woman battling to close her garden gate early one morning as two donkeys were doing their best to get into her garden. “I give them bunches of carrots every morning,” she told me. “They come here every morning to get carrots from me.” It is not surprising then that these particular donkeys make their way to where she lives.

This Association informs us that the owners of the donkeys – mostly from the poorer area of town – prefer their donkeys to graze on the commonage, an open grassland close to where they live. That is the official line anyway. It is difficult to believe that so many donkeys would willingly leave the natural pasture on the other side of town to wander through the suburbs where they congregate in the shade of trees. This seems like a pleasant pastoral scene you might think.

Even though most residents have learned to tolerate the periodic invasions from the Urban Herd – probably because there is no way of getting rid of the cattle – there are some who loathe the presence of donkeys. Some set their dogs on them, while others shout at them or go after them with garden rakes or brooms, sending the donkeys clip-clopping along the tarred streets until their pursuer gives up the chase. A local resident complained that donkeys had ‘devoured’ all his vegetables (did he leave his gate open?), while another complained that “donkeys also pee prodigiously”. To emphasise his point he commented that he was about to lodge a complaint about a blocked sewage pipe near his home “when I realised I was looking at, and smelling, a fresh donkey download streaming across the street.” At this another responded, “They seem ‘cute’ until they behave as if they were in the veld!” Excuse me, are donkeys meant to use discreet toilets in the suburbs?

The old grey donkey, Eeyore stood by himself in a thistly corner of the Forest, his front feet well apart, his head on one side, and thought about things. Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, “Why?” and sometimes he thought, “Wherefore?” and sometimes he thought, “Inasmuch as which?” and sometimes he didn’t quite know what he was thinking about. A. A. Milne.