TRAVELLING LOCAL

The COVID-19 pandemic has clipped our wings in ways we would never have imagined a year ago. Initially there was the anxiety of repatriating South Africans abroad who needed to come home as well as the hundreds of people trapped here who had to return to their homes and places of work abroad. Then we were stuck: at first confined to our homes; gradually being allowed out to exercise; being restricted within provincial borders; and now we can – still with caution – enjoy what South Africa has to offer.

With so many overseas trips cancelled – and still not possible – ‘travelling local’ has taken on a new lease of life. There is a lot of ground to cover in this beautiful country! Friends and neighbours are taking advantage of setting off to explore hitherto unvisited areas or hiving off to the familiar delights of iconic places such as the Kruger National Park.

While confined to home during the initial lockdown phase, I got to know my garden very well indeed – as well as the creatures that share it with us. Nonetheless, I would gaze through our front gate with a degree of longing, yet only ventured as far as our local supermarket on my weekly grocery shopping expeditions.

Expeditions they have been too: rising in the pitch dark to enter the shop when it opened at half past six in order to avoid the lengthy queues that gathered outside after sunrise. I still go early even though the queues have somehow dissipated, and now can enjoy the fresh air and the birdsong at the start of the day. I am home by seven in the morning and the rest of the day stretches ahead, with the worst task already behind me.

‘Freedom’ first came in the form of being allowed to exercise close to home. We have got to know our local streets very well. How’s that for ‘travelling local’?

I clearly recall our first day visit to the Addo Elephant National Park. What a rigmarole it was to get in as we had to book the visit beforehand and show proof of our residence in the Eastern Cape. Then, as now, one had to fill in various forms and have one’s temperature taken – and of course wear a mask. Even though the shop, restaurant and the picnic area were closed, this didn’t detract from the sheer joy of leaving the confines of our town and being in the wild once more.

I have visited the area a few times since then, but the Mountain Zebra National Park was ‘calling’ too – especially once overnight accommodation was allowed. For the first time ever, we eschewed camping to stay in a chalet.

Another favourite place that has simply had to be savoured once more is the Tsitsikamma section of the Garden Route National Park. Spending four days there was restorative for my soul.

We have not yet left our home province, but the rest of South Africa is beckoning …

BAT-EARED FOX II

An advantage of staying overnight in a national park – as opposed to a day visit – is that one can spend a longer time out instead of rushing to get to the gates before closing time.  We rounded a corner late one afternoon in the Mountain Zebra National Park and came across this Bat-eared Fox in the golden grass.

It was catching ants to eat.

This was a rather scruffy individual, yet a joy to come across so unexpectedly.

The Bat-eared Fox pounced on ants here and there, circled a few times, ran off a little distance, and then snuffled around again. Even though we were staying over, our time was running out and we reluctantly left it to return to the rest camp before dark.

MOUNTAIN ZEBRAS IN THE MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK

They are not always easy to see, yet a visit to the Mountain Zebra National Park would not be complete unless one saw the eponymous Mountain Zebras that the park was originally set aside to protect. Close-up photographs of them abound, so I thought I would begin by showing the steep terrain they feel quite at home in:

Life for these animals is not necessarily idyllic. This one has obviously emerged from a skirmish of sorts – perhaps even with another zebra – as its hide bears scars; there is an open wound on its neck; and it has a floppy ear:

Compare this ear with the erect ears of this mother with her fuzzy-looking foal:

The mother is eating grass – she too has scratch marks on her hindquarters:

A more typical scene in which you can see the pinkish nose of the Mountain Zebra:

As we bid this herd of Mountain Zebras farewell, you can see the broad stripes on their behinds:

SPRINGBUCK: MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK

The first herd of animals we encountered upon entering the Mountain Zebra National Park consisted of Springbuck grazing on the yellow grass under a scowling sky. Note the youngster, almost encircled by adults, on the far right of the photograph.

The wind was already blowing strongly across the plains, plucking at the hair on the hides of the springbuck and fanning around their tails. The animals mostly stood with their backs to the wind.

As the wind whistled past us and picked up carpets of dust from the road, the youngster seemed to eye it curiously. Its ears still look a little large for its head and it wasn’t all that steady on its feet – although that could be blamed on the wind, the force of which was probably strongest at its height.

On a different day another youngster – this time with tiny horns – sought shelter from the strong wind on the plateau by lying down in the dry grass.

Yet another youngster nuzzled its mother for a drink.

At the end of the day, the softening light from the setting sun cast a golden hue over these springbuck nibbling the grass before dark.

WHITE-BROWED SPARROW-WEAVER II

Visitors to the Mountain Zebra National Park are unlikely to come away without having become familiar with the White-browed Sparrow-Weavers (Plocepasser mahali) that are the iconic birds of the rest camp. The combination of blackish, brown, and white on their plumage is distinctive – as are their cheerful calls variously described as cheeoop-preoo-chop or the harsher call of chik-chik. The morning chorus of these birds is well worth waking up to! Note the clear white stripe above its eye. Although males and females look very similar, the black bill of this one tells us it is a male.

The bill of the female is horn-coloured.

Their intricate, yet seemingly untidy, nests – which look like bundles of grass tucked into the edge of the trees – abound in the park and are easy to recognise. Both the male and female build their nest, which has two entrances – one of which is closed off during the breeding season. These nests are used throughout the year.