A SIGN TO PONDER

Why would the South African National Parks name an ablution block next to the coast Oordeelsdag?

This is an Afrikaans word meaning: Judgement Day or Doomsday.

At first it was an ‘ordeal’ to visit this particular ablution block which, although very clean, stank to high heaven. The odour was so dreadful that most campers avoided it by walking to the block at the far end of the camp site. A day or two later the source of the smell was revealed: the rotting carcass of a seal that had become wedged between the rocks! Once that was removed, the whole camping area was cleansed of the discernible sewage smell and this particular ablution block became well used by those camping close by.

It still doesn’t explain the peculiar name.

Do you have any ideas to share?

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FREEDOM IN THE BUSH

No ‘luxury’ experience comes free – not this kind anyway. I had to save for a long time before I could afford the five-day hike through the bush led by our guides, James and Cameron. Apart from them, there were six of us in the group: four women and two men. Isn’t it funny how even total strangers slot into a pattern based on some unconscious decision? Amy, in her designer jeans covered with sequinned daisies, pushed herself to the front as soon as we set off along the narrow path on our first day. Geoffrey, the keen photographer among us, slotted in behind her. Apart from his height, his bright orange T-shirt stood out like a beacon – in sharp contrast to his battered khaki hat. Geoffrey photographed anything from beetles to baboons – and especially Amy, who happily posed for him in between doing her best to attract the attention of our guides whenever we stopped for a rest or to look at something interesting.

Having been friends since primary school, Karen and Angela had come on this trip to celebrate their respective engagements. I enjoyed listening to their banter, their shared memories that elicited much laughter, and quietly empathised with their joint regret at having to leave this beautiful country after their respective weddings. “It’s where the work is,” they both explained almost apologetically. They were making the most of this experience – almost as if they could absorb and store the sights and smells to comfort them later in their new abodes. Keith walked behind me. He wore shabby jeans and carried a scruffy notebook and a pair of binoculars slung around his neck. He spoke little, although he occasionally shared his passion about birds in a rather terse manner with James.

I watched Geoffrey set up his tripod when we reached our stop at the end of the first day. “I am in awe of beautiful landscapes,” he told Amy, who gave the majestic peak highlighted by the late afternoon sun a cursory look before asking James when we would be having sundowners. Geoffrey ignored her, appearing to be completely absorbed in what he was doing, photographing the peak several times before turning his attention to the light playing on the nearby trees. I felt in tune with nature too and admired the reflections of the peak in the waterhole while experiencing a heightened consciousness of an array of bird calls as the edge of darkness crept closer.

“Look at that Saddle-billed Stork.” Cameron spoke softly behind me. He handed me a mug of tea then chatted easily about the call of the African Fish Eagles we could hear in the distance. “They sometimes perch in the top branches of that dead tree over there.” He pointed away from the setting sun before moving off to help James prepare the evening meal.

“I saw a Martial Eagle from the top of the ridge.” Keith sat next to me on a rustic wooden bench while looking down at his well-thumbed notebook. “James agrees that they sometimes prey on Monitor Lizards. “I thought I may have seen one doing so the last time I visited the Kruger National Park. The light wasn’t good enough though, so I can’t be sure.” We looked towards the darkening water until he closed his book with apparent reluctance and said, “I’d love to see something like that on this walk.”

We were breakfasting early the following morning when Karen and Angela drew our attention to a pair of bushbuck grazing nearby. “Oh cute!” Amy called loudly over her mug of coffee.

“Be quiet!” Geoffrey growled from behind his camera.

“Excuse me!” Amy plonked her metal mug on the table with a loud bang that startled the antelope and set off a pair of Hadeda Ibises that had been walking along the edge of the waterhole. “It’s a free world you know!” Sensing the tension in the air, I moved across to the sink and helped Cameron wash the dishes. We were soon joined by Keith, who dried them.

“That woman needs her head read,” he said to no-one in particular. Cameron winked at me and made his way towards the now sulking Amy. I looked up a few minutes later to see her and the other two women laughing at something he had said. Keith was watching a bird through his binoculars.

We stopped at our next destination a little earlier in the afternoon. Keith disappeared almost immediately, binoculars at the ready. Karen and Angela settled in the shade to read, while everyone else helped themselves to drinks.

I found myself walking in the rear the following morning. Cameron was in front, as usual, Amy was close behind James with Geoffrey behind her, but Keith had moved in behind him. We cautiously approached a waterhole and watched in awe as two buffalo lumbered off, a family of warthogs moved in … and then an elephant appeared as if from nowhere!

We watched spellbound as the elephant blew bubbles, drank thirstily, and then sprayed a thick coating of dark mud all over its body. Amy was holding James by the arm; Geoffrey and Keith were photographing the scene; Karen and Angela had their cell phones at the ready. I wished then that I owned a camera – my cell phone was in my car. My attention was drawn to the whitened skull of an antelope protruding from the mud near the far edge of the waterhole.

“A kudu got stuck in the mud here about six months ago.” When had Cameron moved next to me? “It had been chased by lions,” he answered my question before I had even formulated the words. “This is all that’s left of the magnificent creature.” His tone was matter-of-fact, yet I felt moved by his acceptance of how nature works.

Cameron motioned for us to leave, stopping later to show us the spoor of a hyena. “It always has nail marks in the front,” he explained once we had gathered around it. We halted again to admire a giant Jackal-berry tree. That evening Geoffrey showed me the artistic photograph he had taken of the distinctive seeds of the Kierieklapper or Russet Bush-willow tree we had passed during the afternoon. He had obviously noted my interest in trees.

A small herd of buffalo were cooling down in the waterhole near our third night stop when I found myself looking over Cameron’s shoulder, noting his curly brown hair and the curve of his cheek. The moment passed in a flash for Amy demanded the first use of the bucket shower and was determined that James would stand guard outside “With your rifle at the ready in case one of those beasts wants to come barging in!”

Our group chatted amiably around the bright fire after supper. In spite of his relaxed demeanour, it was Cameron’s turn to be the watchful one, which is why he sat a little apart from the others with his rifle nearby. I found myself enjoying watching him from the other side of the flames: to be seen and yet unseen, I thought.

We crossed a shallow river, walked through tall grass, and kicked up puffs of dust while wending our way across the dry veld. By then the group had settled into a steady rhythm, stopping at the first sign from our guides, and whispering to one another about the interesting animals, insects or plants we saw along the way. It began to feel as if we had all – even Amy – sloughed off our city skins. Given the number of birds Keith and Geoffrey caused us to halt for, it is not surprising that we all developed an eye for the avian beauties that enriched our bush hiking experience!

“Built to conquer,” Karen murmured when we halted to watch a group of five white rhino grazing in the near distance.

“A miracle,” Angela responded, echoing what we all felt.

The river had widened from where we had crossed it on the first day, yet we were easily able to negotiate our way around the shallow pools. It was with a degree of sadness that I watched the sun already silhouetting the tall reeds as it neared the horizon. This was our last night camping out under the enormous trees seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I felt a lump within: I had enjoyed the freedom of hiking in the bush in more ways than I could count – tomorrow would mark the end of that.

It was some time after supper that I moved away from the group to marvel at the star-studded sky and the way the two tall trees were lit up by the camp fire: these would be memories to treasure.

“The stars seem so much closer to earth out here, don’t they?” Cameron’s soft voice reached me from behind.

“They’re so bright,” I answered quietly, acutely aware that he was standing close to me, “that they actually seem to light up the night.”

“So do you,” he added, taking my hand in his.

No-one seemed surprised the next morning when we set off for the last leg of the hike, each in their allotted place – except that Cameron brought up the rear behind me.

‘TIS THE SEASON…

… when advertisements and magazines and shops encourage an image of glittering decorations, tables groaning with food, the imbibing of lots of drinks … and the notion of families and friends having a great time together. Yes, they say, ’tis the season to be merry tra-la-la-la-la. The pressure is on for the ‘perfect Christmas’. Forget the tinsel and the shiny paper, I say; forget the lashings of food that no-one can finish, I say; focus on what is good and true in your life.

Focus on family connections and the affection that threads real friends together. Focus on what makes you happy. Focus on showing that love and affection by being with your nearest and dearest instead of fretting about the perfection of presentation and the cost of gifts. The real gift is you.

What William Shakespeare is reputed to have said about friends is equally true of family:

A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.

Take time to just ‘be’ during this run-up to Christmas; listen; love; and let the spirit of the times enfold you.

STONE THE CROWS

No, I do not mean that literally – that is the last kind of behaviour I would encourage! Rather, stone the crows is a phrase generally understood to be an exclamation of incredulity or annoyance. Although this is not a term widely used in South Africa, it occasionally springs to mind when crows squawk and gurgle as they fly over my garden or settle in one of the tall trees before being mobbed by some of the smaller denizens of the area.

Until about five years ago, crows of any kind were more often seen in the area known as Burnt Kraal and around the municipal dump, both on the outskirts of our town. Now I see both Cape Crows and Pied Crows daily in the suburbs – occasionally even a White-necked Raven.

The Pied Crow (Corvus albus) is the most common and widespread all over the country.

It is easily recognised by its white breast and neck, both while flying or when it is on the ground. They have been recorded as being on the increase in South Africa, partly because of the availability of nesting sites on electrical poles coupled with roadkill as an available source of food. Any traveller along our network of roads will attest to this. The Pied Crow is highly adaptable in terms of the food it eats, which includes an omnivorous diet of fruit, seeds, small mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects. They are known to raid the nests of birds for either eggs or nestlings, so it is no surprise that the Fork-tailed Drongos nesting the fig tree regularly chase one off the property. I wonder if they say stone the crows, wishing they could do this literally!

Pied Crows also remind me of a song we used to sing in primary school. It began:

Aai, aai, die Witborskraai!

Hiervandaan na Mosselbaai

–Oompie wil na Tannie vry,

maar Tannie trek haar neus opsy.

You might find this an interesting site to visit:

http://www.fitzpatrick.uct.ac.za/fitz/research/programmes/maintaining_global/pied_crows

The Cape Crow (Corvus capensis) used to be called (and is still widely known as) the Black Crow – perfectly understandable as it is a glossy black all over.

It is a common resident in grasslands as well as in the drier regions of the country. They are ubiquitous in the Addo Elephant National Park, where we saw flocks of close to fifty scattered across the veld in the vicinity of Carol’s Rest and elsewhere. They too are omnivorous birds, feeding on insects, small reptiles, birds, frogs, seeds, fruit and carrion.