A young couple walk purposefully down the brick path toward a bench overlooking the water hole at the rest camp and sit down. He sports dark, closely-cropped hair and is wearing a baggy green top over tight jeans. The glistening white of his sports shoes strongly suggests they are new arrivals for he has clearly not walked far along the dirt roads and dusty paths that vein through the camp. He doesn’t notice the Cape Sparrow perched to the left of him on the Spekboom hedge.
She is wearing khaki cargo pants still stiff and showing factory creases. A blue hooded top covers her hair as she sits staring straight ahead, ignoring the cheerful calls of the Cape Weaver on her right, even though it flutters down now and then to search the brick paving around her feet.
He unfolds the coloured map they were given at reception and tries to hold it firm against the gentle tugging from an impish breeze. He turns the map this way and that before stabbing his finger on the water hole they are seated at. “We’re here,” he says with a degree of authority. He runs his finger along the patterns of roads radiating through the park. So absorbed is he in this task that he doesn’t notice the back of a lone buffalo disappearing among the Spekboom and other shrubs a little to the left of the water hole.
She picks up a pair of powerful binoculars and scans the area around the water hole. Neither the presence of a flock of Guineafowl nor the pair of Hadeda Ibises appear to hold her interest, for she quickly lowers the binoculars to rest on her lap. She leans towards her companion. “There’s nothing of interest to see here.” Her voice is flat. He is still studying the map but obligingly leaves off to raise the binoculars to his eyes. He sweeps across the landscape too quickly to pick up either the heron keeping watch over some ducks …
… or the Black-backed jackal that had come for a quick, furtive drink.
“I hope the rest of the park doesn’t look like this desert. All the pictures showed green grass and trees.” There is a whine in her voice as she strokes the binoculars on her lap with her index finger. He grunts and returns to perusing the map before looking up with an endearing smile.
“I overheard in the gents that this area has been denuded of vegetation because so many animals rely on this water for drinking.” He looks at her sulky face and pats her shoulder. “It’s early days though.” He folds the map and rises from the bench. “You hold the map,” he says, giving her a hug.
She shivers in the now icy wind. “Yes, we’ll be warmer in the car.” They walk away holding hands and so do not see the Kudu bulls emerging from the thorny scrub to quench their thirst.
The Woodlands Waterhole is very close to the Main Camp in the Addo Elephant National Park. While it is not very big, it is always worth slowing down when approaching it for more often than not there is something interesting to see. We watched an encounter between a buffalo that had been wallowing in the muddy pool and an elephant arriving for a drink.
A warthog took advantage of a quiet moment to slake its thirst.
An elephant family took over the waterhole for a while.
Once they had ambled off, a herd of zebra that had been waiting patiently in the wings arrived for their share of the water.
This and other waterholes are artificial watering points within the park – all greatly sought after during this long drought.
The Buffalo Thorn (Ziziphus mucronata) is more commonly known in South Africa as the Blinkblaar-wag-‘n-bietjie (shiny leaf wait-a-bit). A strange name for a tree, you might think, yet it is a very apt one. I find Afrikaans names tend to be so in their descriptiveness. The etymology of the scientific name for this tree is interesting, coming as it does from the ancient Greek zizyphon, which they got from the Arabic zizouf, which – of all things – was a name for the mythical lotus! It became known as zizyphum in Latin. The species name mucronata is also Latin, the meaning ‘pointed’ doubtless referring to the thorns.
Speaking of thorns: these trees are not to be tangled with as the two thorns at the nodes make extricating yourself from it rather tricky – you can easily become entangled in passing if you are not looking where you are going – as one thorn faces backward and the other faces forward. Look at this photograph and you will have a clearer understanding of why you will probably have to wag-‘n-bietjie (wait-a-bit) before getting free. One thorn is straight, while the other is slightly hooked and, although they are fairly small, I assure you that these thorns can be vicious enough to tear into your flesh if you are not careful!
The blinkblaar (shiny leaf) part of the name is easy. You can tell from the photographs above and below how shiny the leaves are. Both photographs are of young trees that have self-seeded themselves in my garden.
The minute golden-green flower clusters are borne in tight clusters above each leaf and are rich in nectar that attract birds and bees. I can only imagine the buffalo part of the English common name is derived from a thought that only a buffalo could walk through a thicket of these trees unscathed.
So sings the hippopotamus to his fair hippopotamus maid in The Hippopotamus Song by Flanders and Swann:
Mud, mud, glorious mud
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood
So follow me, follow
Down to the hollow
And there let us wallow in glorious mud.
Hippos spend up to sixteen hours a day wallowing in rivers or waterholes –– submerging themselves to keep their bodies cool during the day.
Elephants also cover themselves with mud not only to keep cool, but to protect their skin from parasites. It is enjoyable watching elephants in the Addo Elephant National Park either rolling in mud or squirting it over themselves.
Rhinos also use mud to cool their bodies as they have no sweat glands. As with elephants, a thick layer of mud both helps to protect the rhinos from biting insects and traps parasites that might otherwise burrow into their hide.
Buffalos like a mud bath too. They also use mud as a protection from parasites.
Closer to home, every summer we witness the trials and tribulations of the Lesser-striped Swallows that build their nest from globules of mud.
Mud or dust can be important for humans too: geophagy is the habit of eating mud or dust to augment a mineral deficient diet. Some people feel the need to eat a fingertip of dust every now and then for this reason. This craving to eat earth is also known as pica, and may be an indication that young children have an iron deficiency.
Symbiosis is an interesting word meaning ‘living together’ which derives from the Greek syn = together and biono = living. It is frequently used in the form of symbiotic relationships between plants / animals / birds. A very common example of a symbiotic relationship between birds and animals is the presence of Cattle Egrets that follow close in the wake of grazing cattle.
They are also often seen in the company of buffalo or zebra.
What these birds are doing is catching insects that are disturbed by the movements of the grazing animals. This is a type of commensalism whereby the birds benefit enormously from the animals, although what the latter get out of the relationship is uncertain – unless the birds act as a warning system perhaps.
I suspect this Red-winged Starling was using the bull as a convenient perch for the same reason – there were several other cattle grazing nearby.
A symbiotic relationship with more mutual benefit would be this one between the Red-billed Oxpeckers and the Nyala bull: the oxpeckers probe the skin and ears of animals in order to feed on the parasites harboured there. This benefits both them and the animal concerned.
In the case of these oxpeckers on a Cape buffalo, only one appears to be ‘working’, while the others are enjoying a free ride!