EARLY EXPERIENCES WITH NATURE

Perhaps if I had grown up in a city I might have been different. I remain, however, a bundu (a largely uninhabited region some distance from towns) girl whose early playground was the veld in what was then known as the Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga) Lowveld. We walked everywhere as children, exploring the narrow paths twisting their way through tall grass and climbed trees with gay abandon.

The different colours, patterns and texture of the bark of trees have always fascinated me, as have the wide variety of seedpods which the bounty of Lowveld trees presented. Stones too, of all shapes, colours and sizes were at one time deemed worthy of collection. I still cannot resist bringing the odd one home now and then. Ants, beetles and songololos (millipedes) became magnificent creatures when scrutinised under a magnifying glass – one of the best gifts a young child can receive.

bark

Snakes used to paralyse me with fear until I reached high school when a boy (that he was closely surrounded by grinning friends should have been taken as a warning sign) gave me a snake to hold. It was only a second later that I realised this was no rubber snake. I held onto it, stroked it with my finger, and assured him it was beautiful before handing it back to the disappointed bevy of boys. He did me a favour though, for I no longer fear snakes and can now fully appreciate their beauty and diversity.

puffadder

Puffadder

We encountered many snakes during my childhood. Ones that remain etched on my memory include a Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) coiled on the farmhouse steps; a large African Rock Python (Python sebae) stretched across the narrow farm road; and a Boomslang – tree snake – (Dispholidus typus) threading its way through the roses that clambered over the veranda. My eldest brother was bitten by a Brown House Snake (Boaedon capensis). I remember our fascination with the puncture marks from the fangs, There were many more.

The natural world was our playground in which we made mud pies, dug in the coarse river sand, and drew pictures in the dust. We tried to catch tiny frogs, discovered fresh water crabs, chased lizards, looked for birds’ eggs, and kept a close watch out for chameleons. Birds were plentiful and somewhat taken for granted.

We watched clouds gather, boil, and dissipate. Sometimes we would shiver in anticipation of the next lightning strike as our home shook in response to the rolling thunder overhead. Occasionally we would see a tall Eucalyptus tree being struck by lightning with a loud crack and watch the tree burst into flames. It was always fun to describe the shapes we saw in the constantly shifting and melting clouds on a hot day or match them with the dark shadows caressing the Makhonjwa Mountains.

It was as a child that my interest in thorns developed; that I grew to love the smell of dry grass; that I was struck by the beauty and variety of aloes; and learned to appreciate the tinkling sound of water flowing over rocks.

acacia thorns

While my brothers fished in the farm dam, I would watch the Red Bishops building their nests in the bulrushes and try to keep count of the colourful dragonflies crossing the water. It is early experiences such as these that have entrenched a life-long interest in the natural world around me. Give me a holiday in a game reserve over a city anytime!

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK – SATARA (2)

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK – SATARA (2)

Birding is an adventure around almost every corner in the Kruger National Park – even though the rain initially put a dampener on this activity. One’s experience starts in the camp on rising: a variety of birds from Redbilled Buffalo Weavers and Crested Barbets to Grey Louries and Great Sparrows – as well as starlings and Arrow-marked Babblers – scratched around in the leaf debris of the trees we were camping next to. From the first morning I was made very aware of the new world of birds that awaited me.

crested barbet

Cape Glossy Starlings abound, attracting one to their presence by their beautiful blue metallic sheen and bright orange eyes. One cheeky bird alighted on the counter of the camp kitchen and stole a slice of sausage from my pan while I was cooking! Burchell’s Starlings are reasonably easy to recognise from their longer tails, while I found the Greater Blue-eared Starlings more difficult to recognise in the field.

capeglossystarling

Spurfowl are abundant too, especially on the road early in the mornings and towards sunset. Swainson’s Spurfowl and Natal Spurfowl seemed to be the most common – several of the latter wandered around Satara Camp too – although we also saw Crested Francolin from time to time.

Natal spurfowl

What a delight to find Brown-headed Parrots feeding on the long pods of the Long-tail Cassia tree right next to our tent!

Brownheaded parrot

It is always interesting to see familiar ‘garden birds’ in a game reserve and there were plenty of Laughing Doves and Cape Turtle Doves around. Although I saw Namaqua Doves once, it is the African Mourning Dove that was dominant in the camp and at the various picnic spots where we stopped. Its melodious call became familiar to us during the week we were in Satara.

African Mourning Dove

Of course the Lilac-breasted Rollers are magnificent looking birds. They are eye-catching, both when sporting their beautiful blue feathers in flight and when perched conspicuously on the top of bushes and old tree stumps. Their presence brightened up any drive.

lilac-breasted roller

The Purple Rollers are beautiful to look at too.

purple roller

What I find interesting is that in our home garden, the Burchell’s Coucals are heard far more often than they are seen, preferring to skulk around in the thick foliage. Here they are commonly seen flying across the short amber grass to perch in low bushes, often right next to the road! These birds have a special place in my heart, for many years ago we raised a fledgling that had fallen out of a nest and broken its leg. In the then Eastern Transvaal, where I grew up, Burchell’s Coucals were commonly referred to as ‘rain birds’ for their calls were a welcome sound during periods of prolonged heat and drought: many people believed this presaged the coming of rain.

Burchell's coucal

A spectacular surprise awaited us in a dip where the S100 road crosses the N’wanetsi River. A mecca of birds were in and near the water: Saddle-billed Storks, Marabou Storks, Spoonbills, Egyptian Geese, Hamerkops, a Pied Kingfisher, Goliath heron, Blacksmith Plovers, a Great Egret, Woolly-necked Storks, Fish Eagles, a Black-headed Heron, Common Ringed Plovers, Common Moorhen, a Little Bittern, Yellow-billed Storks and a Squacco Heron all in one place!

saddlebilled stork

This was a magical place to park for a while in order to watch the mating rituals of the Yellow-billed Storks and the efficiency with which the Pied Kingfisher and the Hamerkops speared their prey.

yellow-billed storks

While this feast for the eyes was going on at water level, another fantastic spectacle was unfolding in the tall riverine trees: a pair of African Hawk Eagles flew about in impressive mating displays while – we presume – a juvenile remained perched in the top of one of the enormous trees lining the river bank.

African Hawk Eagle

It was equally exciting to watch the flight of those magnificent, iconic birds, the African Fish Eagles as they swooped down from their high perches or circled above us. Their call is a distinctive and thrilling one.

African Fish Eagle
The area around Satara afforded us the opportunity to see interesting and beautiful birds such as the Bronze-winged Coursers right next to the road.

Bronzewinged Courser

Another was a Golden-tailed Woodpecker working its way through an old log near a waterhole. Southern White-crowned Shrikes would appear from nowhere – usually in a most difficult spot (such as against the sun) for photographs.

Golden-tailed Woodpecker

 

southern white-crowned shrike

Generally speaking, I have found the photographic field guide, Birds of Southern Africa by Ian Sinclair and Peter Ryan, a useful companion to my trusty and well-thumbed Roberts’ Bird Guide. The Magpie Shrike is a good example of a bird easily identified in flight when the distinctive white patterns in their wings (as illustrated in Roberts’) are clearly visible. Seeing one perched on a branch with the white back showing was puzzling at first – that is where the photographic evidence came up trumps!

Magpie Shrike

There is always something to see in the KNP!

KLIP COOKIES

KLIP COOKIES

Two years ago my brother asked me for the recipe my mother used to bake Rock Cakes – known as Klip Cookies in our family in deference to my father’s limited fluency in Afrikaans.

The request brought with it a rush of memories: the mouth-watering aroma of baking filling every corner of my childhood home; my father’s open appreciation of his favourite teatime treat; and of a particular square tin filled to the brim with these tasty fruit-studded cookies.

I recall the tin had a brown background which made the picture of golden shower blossoms decorating the lid stand out most attractively. My mother would line the tin with waxed paper before adding the cooled cookies. To my childish hands there was gastronomic magic within the tin that felt heavy on its first outing, keeping the cookies fresh until the last crumb was eaten.

When we first moved into our current home, a golden shower creeper clambering up the giant Erythrina trees in the back garden happily reminded me of growing up in the then Eastern Transvaal. Now its tendrils poke through the aloes growing next to the pool and it vies with the canary creeper in forming a dense canopy over the ancient plum tree that gave up fruiting years ago. The first buds are already forming and soon we will be treated to cascades of the orange tubular flowers that will brighten up the winter garden while attracting sunbirds, white-eyes, weavers and canaries as well as bees.

Seeing the buds reminded me of the afore-mentioned tin and the Klip Cookies it so often contained. My mouth watered as I paged through my first collection of recipes hand written in a tattered lined hard covered A4 book. Several of the pages have come adrift over the years and the book is now held together with brown parcel tape. Some pages are spattered with egg or butter splodges and now unidentifiable flecks of ingredients, while others bear scorched circles from hot pots or something of that ilk being placed on them. The best recipes look well-used – no pristine pages for them!

The recipe: Cream 250 grams butter with 1 cup sugar. Add 2 well-beaten eggs. Sift together 2 cups flour, 3 teaspoons baking powder, a pinch of salt and half a teaspoon grated nutmeg then add to egg mixture, stirring well. Add I cup seeded raisins and stir until evenly mixed. Drop teaspoonful’s of dough onto greased baking sheets and bake at 200°C for 10 minutes until golden brown.

I baked a batch and scraped the bowl with a teaspoon before placing it in the sink. Raw dough … yum! Warning: these cookies do not have a long shelf-life unless baked in secret while no-one else is at home. Do not be surprised if they start being eaten before they are ready to leave the cooling rack. Perhaps that is why my mother baked double batches and kept the lid of the tin firmly closed between tea times.

klip cookies

JOCK OF THE BUSHVELD TEA POT

JOCK OF THE BUSHVELD TEA POT

I haven’t mentioned that I collect tea pots. This was never a deliberate intention – the collection ‘just grew’. They live on the windowsills of the windows on the short passage leading from our dining room to the kitchen and look lovely when they’ve been cleaned. It was while dusting off the cobwebs the other day that I was realised each tea pot has a story of its own that makes it special.

Jock of the Bushveld tea potThe tea pot I coveted since childhood and was delighted when my mother gave it to me is a Royal Doulton Jock of the Bushveld Westcott shape tea pot, the design of which is based on E. Caldwell’s illustrations for Sir Percy Fitzpatrick’s Jock of the Bushveld. Such tea pots were manufactured between 1911 and 1942.

I have been familiar with that story since I was very young: it was my school reader in Standard Five! My father was once asked to make a metal gate for the fence surrounding the acacia tree that used to be known as ‘Jock’s Tree’ outside Barberton and relied on me to draw the pictures, which he later cut from metal and affixed to the gate.

We used to have an enormous wooden wagon, complete with wooden spokes, similar to those used by the transport riders of ‘Jock’s day’. This was housed in our farm shed and in season would be piled high with bales of cotton picked from the lands – a very long time ago!

To return to the teapot, however, it first belonged to my Granny. My Mother remembered using it as a young girl to take tea out for the tennis parties hosted at their home in Johannesburg. For years it graced the welsh dresser in our farm house and has probably lasted for as long as it has because the spout is chipped – my Mother told me that she had tripped while carrying the tea tray.

I have used it only once or twice for special occasions and find it still pours well. I love that tea pot most, however, for the memories it unlocks of my Granny, my Mother, my Father, the Eastern Transvaal where I grew up, Dunduff Farm (sadly now barely recognisable) and the many camping trips I have enjoyed in my life.

It is truly a tea pot to treasure!

back of tea pot