The hobby of stamp collecting – I would not hear of philately for many years to come – fascinated me from an early age, not least because of my father’s stamp album that nestled among the books in a glass-fronted bookshelf. I began my own modest collection by tearing off the stamps that arrived on letters in the mail – these stamps turned out to be a treasure trove for me.
I learned how to soak them, dry them and affix them to the pages of my first stamp album with special little hinges. What a fascinating world opened up for me as a result! Naturally enough, I suppose, stamps from countries other than South Africa seemed exotic and so much more interesting at first. I loved finding these countries in our atlas and – one of the unexpected benefits of this hobby – began to enjoy scouring the newspapers for news emanating from some of them. Reading newspapers from wherever we happen to be is an interest that has long outlived my ability to continue with philately as a hobby.
My father’s album contained stamps from countries I could not hope to find on the envelopes that came into our home – he must have begun his collection in his youth, although he added to it from time to time in a haphazard way. It was through studying the images on these and talking to my parents about them that I became interested in knowledge for its own sake.
An early example would be one such as this stamp from Italy:
The original looks as smudged and indistinct as this scan indicates, yet it fascinated me to be told of the story of Romulus and his twin brother Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. What a story! Their trough floating down the River Tiber is reminiscent of Moses being found in the bulrushes. That they would be rescued and suckled by a wolf until the herdsman Faustulus found them fired my imagination, which became quite ready to accept the story of Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. What a feast of reading these links led to – another source of joy that has remained with me, including reading about the adventures of these twins many, many years later in Virgil’s The Aeneid.
South Africa has a wealth of birds and these are featured on our postage stamps from time to time. Today’s pick from my box of unsorted stamps are these:
Starting from the top left is a Wattled Crane (Bugeranus carunculatus). The largest crane in Africa, the Wattled Crane is classified as being critically endangered in this country with only just over 200 hundred individuals left. Other populations of Wattled Crane survive in neighbouring Botswana and nearby Zambia. They are wetland-dependent birds and suffer from the loss of their preferred habitat as a result of activities such as mining, forestry, agriculture, draining/damming of wetlands, and the expansion of industry. Wattled Cranes have also been killed or injured when flying into overhead powerlines.
This stamp was issued in 1998 – from the redrawn 6th definitive series.
Centre in the top row is a Jackass Penguin (Spheniscus demersus), likewise from the redrawn 6th definitive series. These days it is known as the African Penguin – the former common name referred to the braying sound it makes, which is very similar to that of a donkey. These birds are endemic to the coastline of South Africa.
According to https://www.sanbi.org/creature/african-penguin these birds have “experienced rapid population declines over the past century as a result of overexploitation for food, habitat modification of nesting sites, oil spillages, and competition for food resources with commercial fishing. As a result it is classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List and it is listed under Appendix II of the CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species). In South Africa, it is further listed as a protected species under the National Environment Management: Biodiversity Act (No. 10 of 2004).”
The stamp on the top right depicts a Lilac-breasted Roller (Coracias caudatus). These are commonly seen in the Kruger National Park where they are frequently seen perched on a branch while on the lookout for grasshoppers or beetles. They also sometimes eat lizards or even crabs. These birds prefer open woodland or grassland with scattered trees. This stamp, designed by Chris van Rooyen was printed in 2000.
The bottom row of stamps show the White-fronted Bee-eater (Merops bullockoides) from the same series of stamps printed in 2000.
These are sociable birds that nest in small colonies of 40 – 80 birds, usually in sandy banks where they make holes for their nest. As the name implies, they mainly eat bees although other flying insects do not go amiss.
Before you ask “Where is that?”, Bophuthatswana was one of the so-called ‘homelands’ within South Africa that was declared a self-governing state in June 1972. Five years later, on 6th December 1977, it was granted independence by the South African government, although this was only recognised by South Africa and the other independent state known as the Transkei. We lived in the capital city, Mmabatho, for eight years – from the time it was a motley collection of houses plonked on the open veld with no streets to speak of until it had grown into a recognisable city with all the amenities one might expect. The country was reincorporated into South Africa on 27th April 1994 and is now part of what is known as the North West Province.
Politics aside, there were a number of interesting birds commonly found in that part of the country, of which this commemorative cover shows five. The stamps were designed by the artist Dick Findlay, who was well-known for his ornithological paintings. He also designed South African postage stamps and coins.
The birds depicted here are, from left to right, the Pied Babbler – small flocks of these dove-sized birds make a harsh babbling sound while they hunt for insects.
Carmine Bee-eaters are beautiful summer migrants that gather in large flocks at their roosting places at dusk. They too feed on insects.
The Shaft-tailed Whydah is a seed-eater that does not build its own nest. The female lays her eggs in the nests of other birds, such as the Violet-eared Waxbill (which is shown on the left-hand side of the commemorative cover).
Meyer’s Parrots are commonly found in small groups in the dry thornveld near a water source. Their diet consists of fruit, berries and seeds.
The Black-eyed Susan (Thunbergia alata) is a vine that occurs naturally from tropical East Africa to eastern South Africa. It grows on forest margins and is attractive to both bees and butterflies. I have a self-sown one growing next to our swimming pool.
These flowers have also featured on South African postage stamps, which are illustrated below:
I have only now noticed – 17 years later – that the Black-eyed Susan is referred to on the stamps as Black eyed Susy (a name I am not familiar with)! These stamps were first issued in 2000 and reissued in 2003 as part of the standard postage series, which continued for a long time afterwards. In the image you can see them featured alongside a giant girdle-tailed lizard (a 5c stamp issued in 2000) and a much older stamp in a series that featured wild animals of South Africa, this one being a blue wildebeest, issued in 1998.