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!

LURE OF LIONS

LURE OF LIONS

What is it about the anticipation of sighting a lion in the wild that excites visitors to game reserves? We spent ten days in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park several years ago without coming across a lion, in spite of regularly following trails of clear pug marks along the dusty roads.

Almost every vehicle we passed in any direction halted us with the question “Lions?” on the lips of their drivers. The overseas visitors with us were also desperate to see a ‘King of the Beasts’ and, practically on the final day of our stay, had to make do with a glimpse of an ear or a shoulder – all that was visible through the thick scrub some distance from the road.

Even this tiny bit of a lion in the African scenery served to satisfy the cravings of many of the visitors, some of whom had travelled thousands of kilometres, who now craned their necks and strained their eyes while passing on excited messages about any movement sighted.

Don’t get me wrong: having kept a close watch out for lions while driving through the Mountain Zebra National Park in August, we too were pleased to come across a single paw print in the soft sand – at least this was tangible evidence of their presence in the Park.

lionprint

The introduction of lions into the Addo Elephant National Park brought some of that ‘wilderness magic’ within easier reach of the thousands of local and foreign visitors who flock to this Park every year.

At first they were very elusive – one can still count oneself fortunate to see them. They appear to be more widely dispersed now though, so the chances of spotting a lion appears to be ‘fairer’ as visitors explore the different roads that wind through the Park.

Driving a high clearance vehicle helps – as does a sharp eye. We drove right past a lion once while driving our car and would have missed it altogether had not a fellow visitor, almost looking down at us from his large 4 x 4, alerted us to it.

The rising cost of fuel notwithstanding, we realised there is no point in visiting game areas without the height advantage of our 4 x 4. This was especially valuable during last year’s trip to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. During that visit we were fortunate enough to see lions every day throughout our two-week visit: sleeping off a meal on a sandy river bank; striding across the dry river bed in front of us; roaring fiercely next to the perimeter fence of our camp site; or bringing down a wildebeest in clouds of dust. These lions were all active and very interesting to observe.

   lionkill

Does one ever become sated with seeing lions? Probably not, but when we came across lions in the Addo Elephant National Park some weeks after our return, we enjoyed seeing them and moved on with the feeling we ought to let others have a turn as we had already been so privileged.

We have since come across lions in this Park and continue to enjoy their presence. They tend to become a highlight of a visit without meaning to! Possibly the most exciting view was when we saw two lions walking towards Rooidam early one morning. We followed them slowly as they changed direction ahead of us: one continued down a track and out of sight while the other headed for the dam, affording us a wonderful view of him lapping up the water before he too disappeared over the dam wall.

lionwalking  lionrooidam

That the lure of the lion is strong was clearly illustrated this weekend when we sighted a lion sitting with his back to the road in the pouring rain.

wetlion

It didn’t move; there wasn’t much to see of it either and yet vehicles waited in long queues, parked at various angles, jostled for space, inched forward or waited stationary for hours as their occupants feasted their eyes on and pointed their cameras towards this ‘mighty’ beast.

The heavy concentration of vehicles at that spot was evident throughout the day, suggesting that the lion had not strayed much.

Seeing lions brings smiles to the faces of tourists. This was the opinion expressed by the security guard when we left the Park at the end of the day. “Everybody is smiling today”, he observed cheerfully as he checked our day pass. “When there are lions the people are happy”. He flashed a broad smile as if that made him happy too.

THE SPRINGBOK

THE SPRINGBOK

Think of the South African national rugby team and the Springbok / Springbuck (Antidorca marsupialis) literally springs to mind. The emblem of that leaping antelope is synonymous with the green and gold and is proudly displayed on the shirts, jackets, blankets or beanies worn by loyal supporters of the team.

The Springbok also happens to be the national animal of South Africa. Its name is derived from the early Dutch, and later Afrikaans, description of this antelope’s ability to jump in a most magnificent fashion. While this is not commonly seen behaviour, and one would need to observe the animals for some time, the Springbok have the ability to walk stiff-legged for a few paces and then jump into the air with an arched back. Significantly, they lift a skin flap on their rump which reveals long white hairs underneath the tail.

This activity, known as pronking, is wonderful to behold. Pronking is an Afrikaans term for showing off and the aforementioned skin flap is responsible for the marsupialis in the scientific name of the Springbok. The animals do this both to ward off predators and when trying to attract a mate – truly showing off their prowess in that respect!

It is also wonderful to watch several of these animals leaping over low bushes and other obstacles in their path as they run from perceived danger. Apparently, they have been listed among the top ten fastest land animals in the world – over what distance, I cannot tell.

Springbok are easily recognised by their cinnamon upper bodies separated from their white underparts by a broad dark brown stripe running along their flanks. A thinner brown stripe colours their white heads and starts just above their eyes and ends at the upper lip. Their colouring and glossy coats make them a joy to see in the open veld – especially when the animals have gathered in a herd.

SONY DSC

We saw large herds of Springbok in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, where they frequented the dry river beds especially. They are well adapted to such harsh, dry conditions for they can get by without ready access to drinking water, getting enough moisture from the grass and various leaves that they eat. It is nonetheless magnificent seeing herds of them edging an open pan and being reflected in the water as they drink their fill.

springbok4

More recently, we enjoyed seeing them in the Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock.

springbuckmzp

As a footnote, I am pleased to report that the Lesser Striped Swallows have resumed the laborious process of rebuilding their nest in the same spot as the other one that fell down (See THE HOUSE THE SWALLOWS BUILT).

MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK

MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK

Visit the Mountain Zebra National Park if you want peace, spectacular view and wide open spaces. Granted there is the attraction of cheetah, lions and perhaps seeing a black rhinoceros, but you will not find wild animals around every corner. When you do come across them though, you are bound to marvel at their ability to survive in this arid environment.

It was heavenly waking up there to the beautiful calls of the fiery-necked nightjars before dawn, the cheerful chirping of the white browed sparrow weavers and the reassuring cooing of Cape turtle doves. The flocks of pied starlings also make their presence known from early in the morning.pied starling

Vervet monkeys made their appearance in the camping area as soon as it was light, moving effortlessly through the tangle of long-thorned acacias. They clambered over the caravan parked next to this thicket, inspected it from every angle and made off with whatever they could find before the inhabitants had even woken up!

vervet monkey

Nothing can be left out unattended – this is a situation one simply has to accept when camping here. It also explains the heavy wooden doors to the kitchen, laundry and ablution block as well as the lids to the rubbish bins provided. At least one monkey slipped into our closed tent while we were on a game drive in the afternoon and ate bits of the avocado pear I had been looking forward to consuming for supper. Ground squirrels did the same to me in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park!

While on the subject of gnawing, I noticed that several trees in the camping area are surrounded by low fences. These are clearly to protect the trunks from being ring-barked by porcupines.

porcupine damage

Our game drives were punctuated by stops at various viewpoints to stretch our legs, appreciate the panoramic views, and identify animal droppings. At one place we poured over illustrations in our bird books to identify a raptor perched on the top of a bush on a low hill above us. It turned out to be a black harrier – an identification finally confirmed when it flew off to reveal its distinctive wing and tail patterns.

Although the weather was too cold to swim at this time of the year, the rock pool fed by a mountain stream in the picnic area was a relaxing place for a light snack and to feel the warmth emanating from the large, smooth outcrop of granite. I walked around the perimeter of the area, looking out for birds, smelling the different vegetation, and enjoying the gentle roar of the strong breeze soughing through the valley. The clucking of a large flock of helmeted guineafowl added to the languid atmosphere: if our stay in the Park had been longer, I might have been tempted to spend the rest of the day there.

It was while we were watching a mixed herd of Gemsbuck and red hartebeest on the Ubejane Loop later that I spotted the handsome looking double-banded courser, well camouflaged in the tussocks of grass – proof that it is worth scanning the veld all around regardless of what might have captured one’s attention at first.

Double banded courser

At a micro level, back at the camp, it was fascinating to watch teeming harvester ants hard at work on the patch of lawn near our tent. They worked tirelessly, carrying tiny sticks and blades of grass to the entrance of their nest.

harvester ants

This reminded me of when we first moved to Mmabatho and tried to encourage a patch of grass to grow into a lawn. We saw these busy ants at work late one afternoon and thought nothing of their antics. By the following morning our carefully nurtured ‘lawn’ had disappeared!