BELMONT VALLEY

The fertile Belmont Valley lies on the eastern side of Grahamstown and is dissected by a stream that forms part of the upper catchment of the Blaaukrantz River, a tributary of the Kowie River that enters the coast at Port Alfred. Apart from the narrowness of the dirt road that is used extensively by farmers in the area, one is struck by the fertility of the soil. Garlic grows in abundance.

Rows of cabbages peep through the trees.

Other crops include cherry peppers.

Such irrigated abundance is made possible because the valley has ready access to water. The treated sewerage effluent that flows into the valley also contributes to the land’s fertility. The road crosses the stream in several places.

The water isn’t always as clean as it looks and below one of the low bridges there is clear evidence of the long-lasting foamy residues from the sewage treatment works upstream.

LAMP LIGHT

It was some time before my father was able to get a generator to provide electricity to our farmhouse when we were very young. Even then, the power was used strictly from when it was too dark to see indoors and switched off when my parents retired for the night – far too early for me, especially during my university holidays when I read late into the night by candle light!

My memories of the warm atmosphere created by oil lamps, and the Tilley lamps – sometimes even hurricane lamps – were brought to the fore by the sight of this oil lamp perched on the edge of a desk in the tiny museum at Calitzdorp.

How wonderful it would have been to have some of these during the many months of Eskom power outages! The lovely glow of lamplight in the farmhouse all those years ago seems like yesterday: no cell phones, televisions or iPads, only the soft light that brought the family together to read, play cards, or to write … conversations were quieter, communication was interesting and we grew to be unafraid of the dark.

I remember having to purchase new wicks, the task of keeping them neatly trimmed for a steady light … such warmth emanated from these lamps compared to the ice cold efficiency – and convenience – of LED lamps!

REMNANTS OF HOMES FROM THE PAST: HELL’S POORT

Consider this: nearly two centuries ago, after having travelled for several weeks by ox wagon, you arrive in an inhospitable, uninhabited place. There are no roads to speak of; no neighbours to welcome you and ease you into your new environment; the nearest town – if there is one – requires a journey of several days to reach; there are no shops or fresh produce markets – only the dry veld, the intense heat, and a river some distance away. This is where you are going to create a home for your wife and where you plan to bring up your family.

Everything has to be done by hand: hewing the local rocks into usable shapes; hoisting them into position to build walls; and making a weather-proof roof – not to mention having to provide food and water sans any of the conveniences we are used to.

South Africa is dotted about with the remnants of the labour of early inhabitants. This ruined homestead in the Hell’s Poort valley in the Eastern Cape is an example of where a variety of local rocks were shaped and fitted together to make the walls. On the left-hand side is what is left of a layer of plaster.

In this case patterns were made in the plaster to represent a more even appearance of stone work.

The rocks were, however, of different sizes.

The thick walls were held together with mud.

Sun-baked clay bricks lined what would have been an afdak or veranda.

We can still see remnants of how the people here lived and worked once they had settled in:

They had horses.

Used glassware.

Crockery.

They built a cooler for keeping their meat and other food as fresh as possible.

They used an ox wagon.

They even made a garden.

EARLY BIRDING

EARLY BIRDING

I grew up with an abundance of birds around me; they were simply a happily accepted part of the environment I lived in. Strangely enough though, I didn’t really know much about birds then.

Of course I knew what a Red Bishop was: I loved watching them weaving their nests among the thick stands of bulrushes partly choking the small dam near the bottom of our farm – watching the gregarious nature of these lively birds was preferable to threading earthworms on hooks when my brothers were fishing!

Black-eyed Bulbuls regularly visited the mulberry tree during the fruiting season and pecked at the Catawba grapes as they ripened.

blackeyedbulbuls

There were Cape Turtle Doves aplenty. Even now their calls remind me of our farm. I learned from an early age how to emulate their calls by cupping my hands and blowing gently between my thumbs pressed close together.

In those days most raptors fell into the broad category of ‘eagle’ and weavers of any kind were known simply as … weavers. My main interest as far as the latter was concerned was watching the magic of them weaving their nests at the end of spindly branches overhanging the dams.

Funnily enough, it was the raptors that captured my imagination in the beginning. I found it ever more exciting to be able to identify birds such as a Black-shouldered Kite, a Yellow-billed Kite, and to tell a Steppe Buzzard from a Whalberg Eagle from a Jackal Buzzard. During years of hiking in the Drakensberg, I never lost that sense of wonder whenever a Lammergeier (Bearded Vulture) came into view.

jackalbuzzard

Once I had a bird book of my own, I poured over the illustrations, often to be surprised at how many species of birds, hitherto taken for granted, I recognised. I could now name a Pintailed Whydah and the Longtailed Widow, and I could tell the difference between a House Sparrow and a Cape Sparrow. So many bird books line my shelves now!

It was years after having heard its distinctive calls in the garden of my childhood that I was able to match them with the Boubou Shrike. While I had always recognised the beautiful liquid calls of the Burchell’s Coucal (known locally as the ‘rain bird’), I didn’t actually see one until we were given a wounded fledgling to rear many years later.

bouboushrike

As children we referred to Bronze Manikins as ‘little men with beards’ when they fluttered down to eat mealie meal spilt outside the stone rondavel used to store all sorts of things essential to farm life. Now they give me tremendous joy whenever they appear in my own suburban garden.

Trips to the Kruger national Park, Hluhluwe, Umgeni Nature Reserve, the Okavango Swamps and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park with people more knowledgeable about birds than me have broadened my understanding and deepened my appreciation of these fascinating creatures.

Now I garden with birds in mind. We have changed our present garden from one covered with gravel and cacti to a forest so dense in places that pruning remains on the priority list.

The more I watch these residents and regular visitors to this little patch, and the more I learn about them, the more fascinating I find them. I feel satisfied upon identifying nesting sites after close observation; by watching the fledglings becoming independent feeders; I enjoy being able to identify an increasing variety of birds from their calls; and I get very excited by every complete newcomer to my list!