EARTH DAY 2020

Does one say ‘Happy Earth Day?’ Can it be a happy Earth Day when the planet is mantled by an unseen enemy that has brought the world’s population to its knees, caused hunger, uncertainty, fear, suspicion and concern to the fore on a scale that no climate change warnings, earthquakes, tsunamis or volcanoes have managed to do? The spread of the COVID-19 virus has isolated us, caused us to look inwards, to contemplate where we are, what we do and to question our future.

There is much to celebrate and Earth Day is an opportunity to focus on those good things: biodiversity, water, clean(er) air … life, living, loving, and caring for and about others – these are aspects that the down time the virus has brought to us. Time to think about the food we eat, where it comes from, what we eat, how much food we really need, how to be innovative about making meals from food we already have at home instead making a needless trip to the local supermarket.

The internet abounds with ideas on how to cook / bake with ever fewer ingredients; how versatile other ingredients can be as substitutes for those we have run out of. Are we eating less / more healthy food / snacking less? Those with gardens appear to be appreciating them more – I certainly do – and have greater empathy for those who do not.

Earth Day this year is one of contemplation and appreciation. As we have been housebound for 27 days now I look back with a sense of nostalgia to various trips we have undertaken to game reserves in South Africa – at the time, never doubting that we could return whenever we had both the time and the resources to get there. The virus had other ideas.

We do not have to travel very far to observe Cattle Egrets as flocks of them follow the Urban Herd around all day and many fly over our garden at the end of each day on their way to perch in one of the tall trees near the centre of town.

Ostriches are always a delight to see in the various game reserves we have visited in the country. We used to see a lot more being farmed around here – South Africa provides 60% of the ostrich-meat supply market despite farmers having to battle with problems such as drought and avian influenza – which has made these birds very familiar over time. They are still wondrous to see in the wild.

Now we can only imagine and remember the joy of driving round the corner of a dirt road to meet an Elephant and her calf walking towards us.

When will I see a Waterbuck again?

Or Impala grazing in the rain?

Or a Lioness looking at me contemplatively?

These and all the other birds and animals will still be there when we are ‘free’ again. I remain thankful for that.

Enjoy Earth Day in your own way.

TRAVEL BY ANY MEANS

We can all walk – travelling by Shanks’s Pony it is called – which is a wonderful way of exploring an area, watching birds, looking out for plants, and – if you are fortunate – animals. I was walking alone in the bushveld when I happened upon this waterbuck – truly a special moment.

The desire to move faster and be more mobile is strong. So it is that one of the first modes of transport children get to master is riding a bicycle.

I used to long for a bicycle and was delighted when I was allowed to use the ‘farm bike’ when we stayed on the family farm for extended periods while I was in primary school. This was a heavy, men’s bicycle (with a cross bar) which was far too large for me to ride whilst sitting on the saddle so I rode standing up, with one leg through the cross bar – not the most comfortable position, yet it gave me the freedom to cycle around the farm and later to explore the dirt road that led to the farm. The wind in my hair, the dust on my face, the sheer wonder of being able to cover distances faster than I could walk made up for any awkwardness of posture. Speaking of dirt roads, they conjure up images of ‘the road less travelled’ and exciting expectations of out-of-the-way places. I think this picture sums up the anticipation that dirt roads bring.

Looking up at a vapour trail in the sky can create a yearning for travelling ever further and faster.

Whether one is flying between cities in South Africa or to continents far away, the sight of aeroplanes parked on runways takes the desire to travel up a level – the possibilities are endless.

 

REDUCING THE LUCK FACTOR

It is not all about the camera you have. Whenever I see beautiful photographs other people have taken of animals, birds, frogs, and insects, I cannot help thinking how fortunate those photographers are to have seen those creatures – let alone photograph them. Yet, when recounting what we have observed in a game reserve, for example, the response is often along the lines of “you’re so lucky!”

Luck does play a role in what we come across in any environment. I often declare that what we see on a game drive is a lucky draw. Is it only that? Of course not: one can reduce the ‘luck factor’ in several ways.

Developing an awareness of one’s environment is one. If you do, then any colour, shape or movement out of the ordinary is bound to attract your attention. This applies to anything from animals to beetles.

There were a number of Vervet Monkeys about. Careful observation drew attention to this one with an incomplete tail.

Patience is a necessary part of observation. One must be prepared to walk or drive slowly enough to pay attention to the environment one is passing through. Likewise, one needs to be willing to watch and wait.

The sun was near setting when this small herd of Zebra approached the waterhole with caution. We waited twenty minutes or more before they finally bent down to drink.

Consider the time of the day. The temperature rises considerably in the middle of the day in South Africa. Wild animals tend to seek the shade during the hottest part of the day, when only “Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” (Noel Coward). There is likely to be more activity during the early mornings and late afternoons, so these are good times to move through the veld and when the light tends to be better for photography anyway.

I photographed this White-crowned Lapwing while walking through a camp very early one morning.

Engage other visitors in conversation to find out what they have seen and where. While one cannot expect an animal to remain in a particular area for long, you can at least develop an understanding of what might be there.

Waterbuck

A collection of vehicles along a road in a game reserve is a sure sign of something unusual and interesting to see – very often a predator. Be patient instead of trying to muscle in and possibly blocking the view of a visitor who has been waiting there for a long time. Your turn will come. Sometimes it is better to assess the situation, note the spot and to return later.

We would never have spotted this Cheetah had our attention not been drawn to it.

A very simple way of reducing the ‘luck factor’ is by lowering your line of sight. It is surprising how many visitors miss seeing animals close by because they are looking too high! This may be fine for bird watchers, but for animal watchers ground level is best.