ROADS OF DISCOVERY

Having already given you a sense of the expansiveness of the Mountain Zebra National Park, I am  going to show you some of the roads of discovery that run through it. This is the road leading from the entrance gate to the reception at the rest camp.

I love dirt roads with the grass and bush growing right to the edges. They spell adventure and immediately encourage a scanning of the environment on either side of it. What lies over that hump? What could be lurking behind that bush? What can we see in hidden in the dry yellow grass?

Usually the car park outside the reception area is filled with vehicles arriving and departing. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic it was empty, allowing a clear view of the Karee trees on the traffic island.

The late afternoon light not only lengthens the shadows of the grass but enriches its colour. The worn tracks indicate the narrow width of the road that winds through the patches of trees, allowing a view of the mountains stretching far into the distance.

See how this steep road winds down from the plateau to the valley below – and how the view stretches to forever and beyond!

THE OPEN SPACE OF MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK

Having been ‘pandemically confined’ for months and only recently being allowed to venture forth – almost inch by inch – or so it felt, it was a treat to spend a day in the Addo Elephant National Park. As soon as overnight accommodation was allowed, we opted to spend two nights at the Mountain Zebra National Park, near Cradock.

As you can see in the photograph below, the sky was heavily overcast when we arrived – that in itself has been a rare sight in our part of the Eastern Cape. Being the end of winter, the grass is dry and golden: look at the beautiful wide open expanse of the grassland with the mountain rising above it. Such space gives one the feeling of freedom!

Here is a closer look at the mountain, with an ostrich in the foreground.

The grassland in the valley seems to go on forever.

When you get close to the mountain, driving up to the plateau, you become entranced by the bulging rocks, loose boulders and the vegetation growing in between. The pale coloured trees are all Cussonia spp., known colloquially as Cabbage Trees.

Once on the plateau, you can almost see to the end of the earth – mountains and valleys that change with the light of the day. It is scenery that one can absorb in great gulps; difficult to take in all at once; the openness, the beauty, and all that space is ‘cleansing’ and healing. There is a feeling of freedom (one can forget about the pandemic there) and ‘wholesomeness’ that made me feel ‘normal’ for those few days.

FARMERS

A typical morning at a local business where farmers and others can buy a variety of items relating to agriculture and the feeding of animals.

Note the dusty vehicle from driving on dirt roads, the goat on the back, and the casual way in which the bakkie is parked exactly where the sign on the left exhorts customers not to! It was a quiet morning and I imagine the farmer might be one of this group solving the world’s problems a little way off:

Even though it is winter, Eastern Cape farmers typically wear shorts and caps – the only nod to the weather being their jackets and hands-in-pockets. Everyone wears masks these days. The numerous water tanks seen in the background have become items of necessity as the drought continues. Not only farmers purchase them anymore – many suburbanites now have them in their gardens to catch and store any rain than happens to fall.

HELMETED GUINEAFOWL

The Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris) is an iconic grassland bird that has endeared itself to residents and tourists alike. Curios abound showing off their clearly identifiable black or grey plumage with vivid white spots: tiny clay figurines, cloths, mugs, brooches and table mats.

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Everyone seems to feel an affinity for these birds with characteristically bald faces and necks covered with blue skin. The wattles are red and they have a triangular horn-shaped casque or ‘helmet’ on their crown.

Flocks of them were present on my father’s farm. He didn’t use insecticide when growing cotton, arguing that the guineafowl did the job for him as they ranged through the cotton lands, picking off the pests as they went. They make for good eating too and have been hunted for sport. My father, however, would only shoot one now and then – strictly for the pot – as he wished to encourage their presence on the farm.

They forage on the ground, although fly up when disturbed. As evening approached I would sometimes see them roosting in the lower branches of trees on the farm. Their chuckling cackle remains one of my favourite sounds in the wild. I was delighted to hear that sound when we moved to the Eastern Cape and loved seeing them out in the open when we walked through the veld on the hill opposite our home. Alas, the area has become pitted with houses and the guineafowl have either been hunted out or chased away by dogs, people or the traffic.

Catching sight of them in the veld still lifts my spirits and transports me back to my growing up years, so far in time and distance from where I am now.

Here a small flock of Helmeted Guineafowl can be seen pecking in the grass in front of the Ngulube Waterhole in the Addo Elephant National Park.

WARTHOGS EATING

Warthogs (Phacochoerus africanus) are ubiquitous in the Eastern Cape. There are sounders of them all over the Addo Elephant National Park that are ignored by many visitors who drive past them, possibly hoping to see ‘more interesting’ or ‘spectacular’ animals further on. Next time you see one close to the road, stop for a moment and watch how the warthog eats. The first thing you might notice is the typical kneeling position they take up when feeding. Callouses on their wrist pads are present from birth and cushion them while the warthogs feed. Their rather strange-looking short neck helps to provide the leverage it requires to dig up tubers or pull up grass.

It is thus worth taking note of the warthog’s rather flat face ending in a rounded snout that encloses the nostrils. This shovel like upper lip is hardened cartilage, which makes it every bit as useful for eating as is the trunk to an elephant.

The prominent warts on the face are a combination of bone and cartilage which helps to protect their faces should they get into a fight. The tusks on their upper and lower jaws are not only used to fight and defend themselves against predators, but for eating. Warthogs can use their tusks and their tough snouts to lift the soil if necessary. This warthog is shovelling the soil with its upper lip.

Eating and breathing go together. Here the warthog is blowing the pile of soil away.

There is more to the common warthog than meets the eye at first glance!