BLACK-BACKED JACKAL

The Black-backed Jackal (Canus mesomelus) counts among my favourite animals to see in the wild. I have spent hours watching their social behaviour in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park and enjoy spotting them in the Addo Elephant and other National Parks. These omnivores have a special character about them: they look bright, alert and trot in the veld with a rather jaunty air, like this one in the Kgalagadi.

One of my favourite things when camping in the wild is to listen to the high wailing calls and yelps of the Black-backed Jackals from early in the evening through to the dawn. Sometimes you can make out the calls of one being answered by another and then another until there is a chorus of them. This, along with the call of the African Fish Eagle, is one of the iconic sounds of the South African bush. The one below was photographed in the Addo Elephant National Park.

Black-backed Jackals are often regarded as cunning, intelligent scavengers which are quick to arrive at the scene of a lion kill, for example. One can see them darting in and out to get whatever they can of the feast – all the while keeping a wary eye on the lions and hyenas! The kill featured below – in the Kruger National Park – was already a day old and the main feeders had already left it. Only an old and sickly lion was there to ineffectually defend it, with vultures, spotted hyenas and Black-backed Jackals ready to pick the carcass clean.

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NO ORDINARY CAT

At first these photographs may strike you as being of an ordinary tabby cat.

Not so. The African Wild Cat, (Felis Silvestris lybica) is an indigenous species which is larger and has longer legs than domestic cats. Their legs are banded, with darker markings being more distinct on the lower limbs. As you can see in this photograph, the relatively long tail is dark-ringed with black tip.

Said to be the ancestors of domestic cats, these animals are widespread throughout Africa. They primarily eat mice, rats, and other small mammals, although have been recorded eating birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. I find it exciting to come across one of these solitary, elusive creatures that inhabit wooded grassland and savanna.

These photographs were taken in both the Kruger National Park and in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier National Park.

NO MAN IS AN ISLAND

It was the poet John Donne who first told us that no man is an island, implying that we cannot live entirely without contact with other people i.e. we do not thrive in isolation. Simon & Garfunkel sing the refrain, I am a rock / I am an island, claiming to be self-sufficient – for the time being anyway. To isolate ourselves is neither possible nor a good idea claims the philosopher, Karl Popper (1902-1994). According to him, we are social creatures to the inmost of our being.

True: so are many other animals in their own way, which is possibly why we enjoy scenes such as the ones below as they reflect the empathy we have for others and connect with our desire to be regarded as being ‘special’ to someone.

Elephants in Addo Elephant National Park

 

Zebra in Addo Elephant National Park

 

Yellow-billed Storks in Kruger National Park

 

Giraffe in Kruger National Park

 

Springbuck in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park

KGALAGADI TRANSFRONTIER PARK

The yearning is swelling within to make another long trek to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park: to experience the space, the silence, the starlit skies you can almost touch, and the complete lack of connectivity with cell phones and the internet.

It can be hot and dry; the wind can whip up clouds of desert sand; it can also be icy cold. It is a remote place that has crept into my heart and tugs at me every so often. Here are some examples of why this is one of the places I love to visit:

Gemsbok are endemic to this arid region – they are such regal animals.

Springbuck appear in large herds, reminiscent of what it must have been like before senseless European hunters bagged as many as they could in the name of fun.

Spotted hyenas help clean the veld of bones and so help prevent the spread of diseases.

Blue wildebeest gather around the small, concrete-lined waterholes and seek the shade of scrawny trees during the hottest part of the day.

What a privilege it is to see a ratel / honey badger out in the open like this.

Then, of course, everyone keeps a sharp eye out for lions!

EARL GREY TEA

In April last year I mentioned that I had been introduced to Earl Grey tea whilst on a visit to England (see THE TEN VIRTUES OF TEA) and in January this year that it has since become a staple offering in my home (see TIME FOR TEA).

It was my English aunt who introduced me to Earl Grey. On my first visit to her lovely cottage tucked away in the then small village of Bradford Peverell, she brought a silver teapot, fine china cups and slices of fruit cake to her pretty garden. The aroma was arresting. The look of the pale milky fare was not enticing at first. The taste with its Bergamot flavouring, however, had me hooked for life – even more so when I was able to make a slightly stronger brew, which brought out a bolder flavour.

At first, Twinings was the only variety of Earl Grey tea I could lay my hands on. Eyebrows would rise when I would put six or more boxes into my trolley when shopping in Johannesburg (it has always been more expensive than other teas). I had to. We were living in Mmabatho at a time when it was still a city-in-the-making. Purchasing anything but basic foodstuffs there was but a dream then.

Whenever I brew a pot of Twinings Earl Grey – more especially when I can use loose leaves – I think of my English aunt, her pretty English garden where a robin would regularly perch on the edge of the plate on the tea tray to peck at the crumbs, and of her tiny doll-like house. She will turn 90 next year.

With the Rand in a dizzying downward spiral, we have to look to local products if we want our ‘fix’. Liptons Earl Grey is firmly associated with camping in the Kruger National Park and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, for my dear sisters-in-law make sure to bring some along. They know me well.

At home I mostly use Five Roses Earl Grey tea for it is readily available at our local supermarket. Earl Grey is traditionally served black as an after lunch tea. I still enjoy it with a splash of milk at any time of the day as it is always refreshing and is a real pick-me-up, soothing variety of tea.

As a point of interest, this tea blend is named after Earl Charles Grey, who was the English prime minister from 1830-1834. He was also known as Viscount Howick from the Northumbrian seat of Howick Hall – I wonder if the town of Howick (and the waterfall of the same name) in KwaZulu-Natal is also named after that family?

TEN THINGS I LOVE ABOUT SOUTH AFRICA

How can one reduce the wonders of South Africa to a mere ten? I thought I would choose five, then it stretched to eight and then I knew I would have to stop at ten – even then I have had to be ruthless. So here they are in alphabetical order to save me from ranking them.

Aloes: These beautiful flowers stand out in the veld during the otherwise dry winter months and attract myriads of insects and birds at a time when food is not as plentiful as in other seasons. There are over 500 species of them – enough to warrant whole books to themselves.

Aloes

Black-backed Jackal: I am well aware that small stock farmers curse these beautiful, wily creatures at times, but having watched them closely in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, the Kruger National Park and in the Addo Elephant National Park I regard them as one of the ‘must see’ animals on any visit.

black-backed jackal

Dirt roads: Venture onto a dirt road in this country and you know you are headed for an adventure. Kilometres of them criss-cross the land away from the main highways.

dirtroad

Elephants: We are so fortunate to live within easy visiting distance of the Addo Elephant National Park for we never tire of seeing these wondrous animals either on their own or in family groups. One can spend hours observing them at a water hole – meeting, greeting, drinking, mock charging, wallowing in the mud, blowing bubbles … they are endlessly fascinating.

elephants

Erythrinas: The scarlet blossoms of these trees, also known as coral trees, are also a feature of late winter and attract a wide variety of birds and insects. The red ‘lucky beans’ that fall to the ground are also beautiful.

erythrinas

Grass: It may sound odd to some, but I love the tawny coloured grass growing tall in the veld.

grass

Giraffe: Not only are giraffe very photogenic, they are elegant and peaceful as they move between trees or bend down to drink.

giraffe

Thorns: The long spines of the thorns of the Acacia trees have always fascinated me.

thorns

Windmills: Sadly these hardy icons of rural South Africa are becoming rarer with the more widespread use of solar-powered pumps. The clanking sound of the windmill as it turns in the wind is unforgettable.

windmill

Zebra: I cannot leave the zebra off my list – always sleek, beautiful, photogenic and very watchable creatures they are.

zebra

I wonder what your favourite things are.

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!