This is the old wagon we found lying some distance from the ruined homestead in the Hell’s Poort valley:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
What a joy to start this month with the sound of cackling laughter in the garden as a small group of Red-billed Wood-hoopoes (now called Green Wood-hoopoes) picked their way through the trees looking for insects and grubs. Their cheerful sounds and fleeting visits are always welcome.
The arrival of an African Goshawk had the other birds scurrying for cover. They have had to do the same whenever a Black Harrier skimmed the top of the trees for several days in a row. It is incredible how quickly the sense of danger is communicated from one bird to another.
I am used to flocks of doves and weavers rising with a ‘whoosh’ of feathers at an unusually loud noise from passing vehicles, the arrival of the neighbouring hound, or the footsteps of an unexpected visitor. One or two braver laughing Doves often remain on the lawn and look around as if wondering what all the fuss is about before they resume pecking at the seed scattered between the blades of grass. Not when an obvious predator is about though. Then all the birds disappear in a flash and even the youngsters, which moments before had been quivering their feathers and cheeping loudly for food, are silent until some sort of all clear is given.
The other day we were amused to watch a pair of Fork-tailed Drongos chasing away a Black Crow, which cawed loudly in protest. They didn’t give up until the crow had flown some distance away. I wonder if it had got to close to their nest. I haven’t located one, but regularly see the pair of them in the fig tree.
The Sacred Ibises and Cattle Egrets have been sighted more regularly this month, usually late in the afternoon when the sun highlights their wings as they fly over.
The Lesser-striped Swallows now flit in and out of their recently completed replacement nest. I keep my fingers crossed that the overcast weather we have been experiencing since Christmas is helping the clay globules to dry slowly and firmly so that these birds can successfully raise their young this time around.
Olive Thrushes and Cape Robins have been successful in this department: their respective speckled offspring are evident all over the garden. Cape Weavers and Village Weavers continue to devote a lot of energy to feeding their youngsters. I have also noticed Black-eyed Bulbuls stuffing their beaks before flying off, but have not yet located their nesting site.
Both the Black Sunbirds and the Greater Double-collared Sunbirds visit the ‘pub’ regularly, as do the Fork-tailed Drongos, Cape White-eyes, Black-headed Orioles, Black-eyed Bulbuls and the weavers.
It is lovely hearing the liquid calls of the Burchell’s Coucals again. These ‘rain birds’ transport me back to the farm of my childhood: whenever their calls could be heard during a particularly long dry spell, farmers and their labourers alike would hopefully remark that the rain would surely be coming at last.
This blog started very tentatively a year ago. Thank you to those who read it from time to time, for the encouraging ‘likes’, comments and especially to those who have become ‘followers’. It is gratifying to know that there really is an audience out there!
My December list is:
African Green Pigeon
Black Crow (Cape)
Black Sunbird (Amethyst)
Cape Turtle Dove
Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Rock Pigeon (Speckled)
Southern Black Tit
Day Six of us having no water in our town. That, combined with the first cheerfully sunny day for a while, encouraged us to take a drive out to some sites of historical interest in the area.
The first stop along the road towards Fort Beaufort was the Governor’s Kop signal tower (see 21 March 2014). Given our lack of water at home, it was pleasing to see evidence of ground water in several small farm dams en route, spray irrigation and even a working windmill or two.
The wild pomegranate (Burchellia bubalina) are coming into bloom, as are the coral trees – both Erythrina caffra and Erythrina lysistemon, providing bright splashes of colour in the veld that is slowly shaking off its winter mantle.
We turned off the tar onto a dirt road leading into the Coombs Valley in search of the well-known Clay Pits, where Xhosas traditionally used to collect yellow and red ochre with which to decorate themselves. The directions we had been given proved to be inaccurate. While I was photographing an old sneeze wood fence post, a passing farmer stopped to offer assistance. The Clay Pits happened to be on his farm another 4km away! How serendipitous that was.
They were not far from the farm house and so we walked through the veld to see them. I am not sure what I had expected, but it was not a heap of yellow and reddish stones next to a deep hollow, now overgrown with trees and shrubs as no-one seeks ochre here anymore.
Next, we drove through the beautiful Coombs Valley along a rough dirt road cutting through game farms before turning into the equally beautiful Trappes Valley leading towards Bathurst. Apart from the ubiquitous Vervet Monkeys, we saw herds of Black Wildebeest, Blesbuck and Impala.
Large swathes of indigenous bush hug the hillsides with flocks of Cape Glossy Starlings, Speckled Mousebirds and Crowned Hornbills flitting in between.
The dense cover of vegetation rouses admiration for the 1820 Settlers and others who were dumped in this (what to them must have been) inhospitable terrain with no amenities and expected to make a living for themselves.
It is disturbing, however, to note the infiltration of exotics such as wattle, eucalyptus, conifers and even palm trees – some possibly planted by those early inhabitants – along the road and water courses.
The Kowie museum in Port Alfred is housed in a beautiful dressed stone building that once was the station for the railway between Port Alfred and Grahamstown. This was officially opened on 1st October 1884 and remained in private hands until the government took it over in 1913.
All that remains of the original fort in Port Alfred is a low stone wall, now incorporated as the boundary wall of a private home in Hards Street.
We stopped at the historical Pig and Whistle Inn in Bathurst for a late lunch. This is said to be the oldest pub in South Africa, having been in operation since 1832.
There is a leisurely aspect to life in the countryside. The warm hospitality we’d received from the farmers in the morning had given us a taste of it. Instead of ‘popping into’ the historic St. John’s Anglican Church in Bathurst, known for sheltering women and children during the Sixth and Seventh Frontier Wars, we met the assistant verger who gave us a detailed tour of the church along with background stories of local interest and who pointed out the grave of the man who originally built the Pig and Whistle.
Leaving much later than intended, we wound our way further up the road to Battery Hill, where only the Powder Magazine remains of the original fort. This commands a superb view across the valley to the ocean at Port Alfred on the one side and across the Coombs Valley to Governor’s Kop on the other.
On our way back, we stopped briefly at the Bathurst Methodist Church, which also sheltered women and children during the Seventh Frontier War.
Our last stop was the Toposcope, sadly so vandalised now that few of the direction plaques are of any use. By now we were being blown about by the blast of the cold front that had been edging closer for most of the day. The strong wind brought with it curtains of haze and mizzle that blotted out the landscape in its wake and flattened the grass around the Toposcope. The sky clouded over completely and the temperature dropped to 8°C.
It was clearly time to drive through the rain and to head for home – where not a drop of water came out of the taps!
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.
The 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!