ABANDONED FARM HOUSE

This is one of several abandoned dwellings in the rural areas of this country: built during a time of hope from materials that were available locally. Each suggests a story of hardship as a family set out to tame a wild area enough to earn a living. Tales of hardship abound in the early diaries and letters of the people who settled in this area as they contended with unfamiliar landscapes, unfamiliar plants, diseases, the drought, wars, pestilence, loneliness, rustling, and the ever-present need for water.

This fairly substantial building consists of a combination of local sandstone and sun-baked clay bricks. Whether the depression in the foreground was a dam once or has been made since, it is hard to tell. Every time we pass this building, I think of the people who once inhabited those rooms; who set about their daily tasks with the grim determination of those who have to be self-sufficient because there is no other way. Why did they leave? Did the burden become too great? Did the youngsters turn their back on this kind of lifestyle to seek their fortunes in the developing towns? For whatever reason, time has taken its toll as the buildings are taken over by grass, trees and prickly pears.

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BLACK WILDEBEEST

Whichever way you look at them Black Wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou) do not look like well-proportioned creatures. For a start, their heads seem to be too heavy and are covered with a shaggy fringe – see the tuft of stiff black hair on the top of the muzzle, the black beard and long fringe running underneath the neck all the way to the forelegs; their curving horns are close together at the base then curve outward, inward and slightly backward; their legs look delicate in relation to the rest of their bodies; most look as though the bones on their rumps are sticking out – unlike the sleekness of zebras or the well filled-out look of buffalo – and so, to my mind they look rather sad as if they were put together out of left overs.

It is when they raise their heads that one can appreciate their erect mane and long whitish tail – the latter has caused them to be known as White-tailed Gnu in some quarters.

Black Wildebeest are endemic to this country and prefer open grassland, where the vision is good. Herds of them roam these plains, with dominant bulls remaining in an area to defend their territory even once the others have moved on.

Regular readers will know that I derive a lot of satisfaction from finding out the derivation of the scientific names of plants, animals and birds. In the case of the Black Wildebeest, Connochaetes comes from the Greek word kónnos, which means ‘beard’, and gnou is an onomatopoeic Khoi-khoi word to describe the honking call these animals make, which is described as ge-nu.

It is amusing to watch the behaviour of Black Wildebeest when they feel threatened for they tend to gallop around in a circle or stand with their forelegs on the ground whilst kicking with their hind legs. They quickly run forward for a distance then stop to turn and look back to where they came from. To our eyes, this behaviour appears to be rather clown-like!

NOTE: Click on the photographs should you wish to see a larger image.

THREE VISITORS

On each of the three days we camped at Mountain Zebra National Park we were entertained by a special visitor, other than the delightful presence of a number of birds of course. The first was what is commonly known in South Africa as a Shongololo. This popular name for a millipede is derived from the Xhosa and Zulu word ‘ukushonga’ which means ‘to roll up’ – which is what the shongololo does when disturbed in order to protect its vulnerable underside. They are fascinating to watch for as they walk, their legs move in a synchronised, wave-like motion. There were actually a whole lot of them, in various shades and sizes, all over the rest camp area and crossing the roads through the park. One had to watch out to avoid stepping on them at times!

Apart from the many ordinary looking ants that were around, there were particularly large ones, such as this one, that seemed to be on their own. I was struck both by its size and its colouring, but am stumped about its identification.

While being careful not to touch it or feed it, we were enchanted by the Striped Mouse that often appeared from behind a rock near our tent to scamper across to see what it could find to eat. It was easily scared off by birds and, on more than one occasion, was deliberately chased away by a White-browed Sparrow Weaver.

stripedmouse1

EVEN MORE MONKEYING AROUND

This Vervet Monkey was an unwelcome visitor while we were setting up camp. It leapt down from the trees overhead and made straight for the trailer as I opened its lid. Fortunately all the food was still safely enclosed in covered plastic crates. This action demonstrates how clever these creatures are. I chased it away and kept an eye on it until it moved off to find a more interesting campsite to investigate.

Monkeys are everywhere, so one has to be very careful to keep food out of sight and stored in secure containers. Here one is waiting right next to the tent, ready to pounce on anything that has been left unattended.

It is so much more fulfilling to see them in their natural habitat.

This is when you can watch the interactions between family members and truly appreciate the open affection and care shown by mothers towards their babies; the fun of youngsters playing together; and the curiosity they have for us matched by ours for them.

NOTE: Click on the photographs if you want to view a larger image.

ROCKY LANDSCAPE

There are no soft, rolling green hills here, instead this part of the Karoo is noted for its rocky landscape.

A White-browed Sparrow Weaver blends into the stony environment as it looks for seeds to eat.

These tiny grains of sand have been used to build an entrance to an ant nest.

Enormous smooth boulders swell out from some of the hills.

As barren as this might seem, a Cussonia has found a foothold between the cracks of the rock.

Survival is everything here. On the valley floor a tree has a tenuous hold.

For, as you can see, the rocky substrata is friable.

PELOMEDUSA SUBRUFA

A quite unexpected find along a dirt road far from the nearest water source: a Pelomedusa subrufa. I am not being highfalutin here, but sticking to the name that is common to the variation of common names I have come across, such as: Helmeted Turtle, Marsh Terrapin, Side-necked Terrapin, and Waterskilpad. We nearly didn’t see it as it blended so well with the gravel on the road and the shadows as it sought shelter under a bush.

Seven hours later another one crossed a different road in front of us.

According to the reference below, although these freshwater turtles/terrapins live in water they make terrestrial excursions during the rainy season. The rainy season? Perhaps these two were out and about because this particular area of the Karoo had experienced a heavy downfall of rain the day before our arrival. There were still a few muddy puddles here and there in the veld – none that would remain for more than a day or two.

What is particular noticeable about this terrapin is that its flattened shell is oval to circular and that the head and neck withdraw side-ways into the shell. The carapace and plastron are brown to black in colour – both of these terrapins are also covered in dust and what could be the remains of mud. They are occur through most of South Africa except in the western regions.

This is a useful identification guide:

http://www.rsgplus.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/tortoise_identification_guide.pdf

IT IS DRY

… and very hot! The sun sucks the moisture from the ground and desiccates the grass. It beats down on the rocks, creating shimmers of heat waves above them. The bees and flies seek whatever water they can find.

Bees and flies seeking water.

There have been recent newspaper reports on the plight of vultures in South Africa suffering from dehydration in this drought – everything needs water to survive. A tiny leak in a pipe becomes a welcome source of hydration for Pied Starlings.

Pied Starling

Even though we are at the height of summer, there is little in the way of green grass to be seen.

Black Wildebeest

In places one can only wonder how the animals find enough food to sustain them.

Springbuck

Beautiful vistas of the Karoo show how yellow the grass is – what will be left for winter grazing if the rains do not come?

Mountain Zebra National Park

We have spent a few glorious days camping in the Mountain Zebra National Park. It is a peaceful wonderland with an abundance of interesting birds, animals and insects to see.

Cape Mountain Zebra

The swimming pool at the rest camp is a ‘life-saver’ though after a game drive during which the temperature has soared to 38°C.

NOTE: Click on the photographs for a larger view.