SHEPHERD’S BUSH

While it grows all in many of the more arid areas of South Africa as well as in Botswana and Namibia, I most readily associate the evergreen Shepherd’s Bush (Boscia albitrunca) with the Eastern Cape. The bare whitish-grey trunk and dense rounded crown are both attractive and distinctive, making this tree easily recognisable in the bush. If you look at the picture below, taken in the Great Fish Nature Reserve, you should notice the white trunk standing out from the rest of the trees.

One generally comes across a single Shepherd’s Bush as they tend not occur in groups. Their neat, seemingly ‘clipped’, crowns are the result of herbivores browsing the leaves.

The genus name Boscia is in honour of a French professor of agriculture, Louis A.G. Bosc (1777-1850), while the specific name is a combination of albi (white) and trunca (trunk), and refers to the whitish trunk of the species. Sometimes the trunk appears very white, such as this specimen.

As you can tell, not all Shepherd’s Bush trees have a single stem.

They are often referred to as the ‘tree of life’, as nearly every part of the Shepherd’s Bush can be used by humans and animals. The fruit is consumed by people and animals; the leaves are particularly nutritious for animals; the wood is used to make utensils; and various parts of the tree are used in traditional medicine. The dried roots can be pounded to form a powder that is used to make a drink said to be a suitable substitute for coffee. The Boers commonly called this ‘kommetjie gat’ (cup of coffee) when they were unable to source proper coffee during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). A kommetjie refers to a small basin, bowl or mug. Due to the high regard for its nutrition as well as the many cultural beliefs relating to it, Shepherd’s Bush trees are rarely felled outside of protected areas except to provide feed for domestic livestock during times of drought. This practice may, however, have a detrimental effect on the trees in the long run.

SNEEZEWOOD POST

National tree number 292, Sneezewood (Ptaeroxylon obliquum), has been used as fence posts on farms all over the Eastern Cape for centuries. During that time they have survived the onslaught of sun, wind, decay, fungi and even termites and continue to hold up fences. This is a typical example of a Sneezewood fence post on a local farm.

Sneezewood has also been used for railway sleepers. It is believed that Sneezewood sawdust can be used as an insect repellent. With so many of the original farm fences having been uprooted over the years to make way for larger lands or for game reserves, Sneezewood fence posts have been collected to make benches, for garden steps and to make decorative fences around homes and lodges. The weathered patterns of the wood – and its longevity – suggest a knowledge of the many changes that have taken place where they have stood steadfastly through time.

TSITSIKAMMA NATIONAL PARK

If you are seeking a place in which to relax in a pleasant environment, the Tsitsikamma Section of the Garden Route National Park is a wonderful destination to consider. We recently spent four days camping at the Storms River Mouth and can attest to its natural beauty. The first hint of the spectacular scenery comes from the Paul Sauer Bridge over the Storms River on the N2. There is something magical about those deep, rocky gorges and the fynbos-stained water so far below.

I never tire of the distinctive smell of fynbos and seaweed as one drives down the road winding through the forest to reach the rest camp. Tsitsikamma is a Khoisan word meaning, “place of much water”. There is plenty of it too, from the booming breakers crashing over dark rocks to the little streams one crosses on the forest walk – and the Storms River. The waves and the verdant landscape of trees hugging the steep cliffs are endlessly photogenic – especially at sunrise and in the late afternoon.

There is a lot to do too, from swimming in the pool watched by Kelp Gulls and dassies (rock hyrax), bird watching, exploring the rock pools, and walking through the forest.

On previous visits we have walked the start of the Otter Trail as far as the waterfall (a 6km round trip) but on this visit – in the company of very young children – we confined ourselves to the 1 km Loerie Trail through the forest and a walk to the suspension bridge over the Storms River Mouth. It was from this vantage point that we saw a group of visitors kayaking in the sea.

The latter walk is very pleasant for one follows the boardwalk through coastal forest. Every now and then one gets spectacular views of the sea through the trees.

The suspension bridge crossing the Storms River Mouth leads to a pebble beach, which is a lovely place for a snack.

The Loerie Trail is a very pleasant way of experiencing the indigenous forest. There are steps to help one up the steep slopes.

Steps leading down.

One can appreciate the patterns on tree trunks;

The colours of the forest floor;

Get a feel of the ancient legacy of the trees;

A pair of African Dusky Flycatchers took little notice of us as they perched on the fence nearby to hawk their prey throughout our stay. We were fortunate to see a pair of African oystercatchers near the pool late one afternoon as well as Paradise Flycatchers flitting through the coastal bush next to our campsite.

FORT POST RETIEF

It was overcast and damp when we set off along a narrow dirt road, travelling through a portion of Mpofu Game Reserve, to reach the fort at Post Retief, used during the 8th Frontier War of 1850 both as a base supplying the campaigns of the surrounding areas and as a hospital for the wounded. The road winding through the hills was very rough and muddy in places. It was comforting to be in a 4 x 4 vehicle with a high clearance!

This is no place for a history lesson, yet the remains of the barracks and the loop holed stone walls capped with a double pitch to make it difficult to climb over provide an interesting insight to the building materials and styles of 1836.

Post Retief Barracks was designed by Major Charles Selwyn of the Royal Engineers and constructed from local sandstone – which is notorious for its poor quality – as well as bricks made from the local clay.

The kingpost trusses clearly visible in the Cape Corps stables are typical of the construction by the Royal Engineers.

In one building, the stone lintel is actually bending as it is not thick enough – one needs to bear in mind that these buildings were not meant to last forever – compared with another which remains straight, thanks to the thickness of the stone used.

Next to the officers’ kitchen is the officers’ stables, still containing a fully boarded roof covered with zinc sheeting.

A large tree is now growing in what were the officers’ privies at the end of this row of buildings.

The narrow gate in the wall opposite the officers’ quarters – facing the Katberg Mountain – was used to draw water from the Koonap River below.

MARTELLO TOWER

The purpose of our trip to Fort Beaufort was to see the Martello Tower, which formed part of the extensive British fortifications authorised for the Eastern Cape by the then Governor of the Cape, Sir Benjamin D’Urban. The tower was constructed by the Royal Engineers in about 1844 and was manned until 1869. It is unusual for a Martello Tower to be erected so far inland, as they were more commonly used for coastal defence.

Martello Tower

Dressed stone from local quarries as well as baked clay bricks were used for its construction. The base is 9,6 metres in diameter and the tower is 9,5 metres high. The stone walls are 1,9 metres thick. The garrison’s quarters were situated on the middle floor of the tower, with the magazine situated on the ground floor. There are four firing ports, each with a flue above it to carry away the smoke from the muzzle loaders that were in use at the time.

Martello Tower flue

There is also a fire place for warmth during the winter and all the smoke from this and the weapons comes out from a chimney vent at the top of the tower.

chimney opening

That is where the flat gun-roof is, with a Machicouli gallery for defending the entrance from above.

Machicouli gallery

The tower was originally equipped with a nine-pounder swivel gun that could traverse a 360 degree arc. A reproduction gun carriage is there to give visitors an idea of what the original looked like and a different gun is lying on the floor.

cannon

The Martello Tower was declared a national monument in 1938. It is disturbing to note that figs have got a firm hold on the walls – destruction of these is vital for the safeguarding of the masonry.

fig damage

While in Fort Beaufort, we looked at the historic Victoria Bridge over the Kat River.

It is the oldest triple-arch bridge in the country. The bridge was designed by Andrew Geddes Bain and Major C.J. Selwyn and was built by the Royal Engineers in 1844. Having visited it some years earlier, I was relieved to note that several large trees that had been growing out of the stone walls have been removed in the interim.

Victoria bridge

There is a forest of alien vegetation growing on the banks below it though!

Victoria Bridge

BIRDS IN THE WINTERBERG AREA

It is difficult to do any serious bird watching whilst travelling along rough dirt roads that are very muddy and slippery in places. Thus, during a recent trip to Fort Beaufort and Post Retief, it was the larger birds that caught my attention.

I was thrilled to see a small flock of White Storks in an open grassy field near the road for their numbers seem to be on the decline here and I haven’t seen any for a while. Unfortunately, as soon as I emerged from the vehicle with my camera in hand they took off and this is all I could record of their presence.

white storks

It was a privilege to enjoy a close view of a Steppe Buzzard perched on a fence post right next to the road. Even though it too took off under such close scrutiny, it obligingly stopped on other fence posts along the route we were taking anyway.

steppe buzzard

It was on our way home that I saw this small flock of South Africa’s National Bird, the Blue Crane, sharing a field with a herd of merino sheep. They made my day!

blue cranes

FLOWERS AFTER THE RAIN

It has rained a little in the Eastern Cape – enough to transform the countryside into a verdant green dotted with some magnificent wild flowers. During a recent trip to Fort Beaufort and Post Retief, I couldn’t resist the beauty of these Common Gazanias growing next to the road:

common gazania

The Gazania krebsiana has an attractive centre pattern:

Gazania krebsiana

These pretty white flowers are blooming all over the veld – I haven’t been able to identify them:

white flowers

Purple patches of Wild Verbena (Pentanisia prunelloides) hug the road verges and are scattered throughout the veld.

wild verbena

This Plumbago is growing against the shoulder of Victoria Bridge in Fort Beaufort:

plumbago

Lastly, the lovely Acacia karroo (now known as Vachellia karroo) or sweethorn brightens the countryside with its yellow puffball-like flowers.

Cachellia karroo