Bilbo Baggins Returns

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

There really seems to be no limit to what can be run these days.  The Otter Trail (a five day hiking trail) can be run in under four hours ….the 50 km Whale Trail (another five day hiking trail) is clobbered by the racing snakes in just under 5 ½ hours.

So why not take on a six day hiking trail, but run it over two days? Why not indeed!

Meet the Merrell Hobbit 90 k Journey – a trail run that can be (and was) run in 13 hours by one particularly speedy chap this year.

They call it a journey, and that it most certainly is. It is one peppered with more twists and turns, ducks, dives, leaps, bum-slides and face plants than your average trail run.

The route is never dull. You cannot, and should not let your guard down for a second. If you do not keep your wits about you, you will trip on a mossy rock or tree stump and find yourself with a mouthful of worm ingested mud. If you lose sight of the faded yellow footprints (on trees or rocks), you will find yourself wondering into never-never land…feeling as though you had gobbled up the magic mushrooms you stumble over.

If a print appears upside down you are going the wrong way. (Hobbit Journey notes)

Day 1 starts with a rather rude 3-30 am alarm clock. A fleeting “why am I doing this?” and a pillow-over-head-moment is swiftly Carpe Diemed into submission.  The 1 ½ hour bus ride is a chance to take stock, eat a little, listen to the nervous chatter around you and consider the day ahead. We hit the early morning bustle of King William’s Town and then wound our way out of town on a pot-holed, roller-coaster dirt road to Maden Dam. The sun was just inching her way onto stage, the fish eagles welcomed us with a resoundingly hopeful cry, and all 33 of us huddled together for a quick pre-race photo.

The first 9.5 km leg is largely forested single track that snakes its way around the dam, into the forest and along the banks of the Buffalo River. The path winds its way precariously over mossy rocks, roots and logs, eventually popping out at Gwili Gwili Hut after crossing two forestry roads. The barbets, orioles, turacos, robins, thrushes and parrots usher us through the forest with an orchestra second to none. I mention to Filippo how much I would like to stop and ID a particularly strident bird call.

No time, I fear, no time. The competition is stiff, with a woman I have never met ahead of me and showing great tenacity and focus.

I have to catch her, the chase is on….

Bilbo’s Aunt – giving chase

We slip and slide our way on giant, slick mud-worm piles, cross rivers, pass freshly used porcupine holes and slice through sunbeams. We pass a gigantic, ancient Yellowood.. I silently wish I could sit and chat and hear her stories (of Redcoat/Xhosa bloodshed, elephants, leopards and early axe-wielding pioneers) ….no time. Only time for one quick embrace. I put my arms around her gnarled trunk and rest my damp cheek fleetingly against her, almost expecting to feel a pulse.

Filippo must think I am mad.

I am.

Barking.

The second 15 km leg is mostly through more damp, beautiful indigenous forests. We occasionally pop out into the hot sunlight and get a view of the surrounding countryside, but for the most part, it’s all just mossy, peaty, ferny, mushroomy, dappled brilliance.

The last 16 km winds up to the foot of a moss-encrusted waterfall. Here I spot my competition up ahead and I turn to F to click my fingers and exclaim “prey up ahead!” F is flagging, he silently indicates for me to carry on, catch her.

A final vicious ascent pops us out of the canopy and onto grassy flat stuff. We can see the sky and better still, I can see my competition up ahead. She is flagging. Walking, bending over.

I take the gap. She stands aside and says “well done”…..

Game on!

With screaming legs, there is yet another climb, this time in the hot, midday sun to the top of Doornkop. I accidentally lose sight of the wretched yellow feet and wonder off down into a vicious bramble forest that attacks my legs from all sides. I emerge with blood pouring, soaking my gaiters and socks…

A final steep relentless, fast descent on rocky, grassy, cambered paths sees you heading down towards another forested gorge. In this forest, I catch up with another running friend who is flagging. I pass him, we mutter and grumble at one another. Enough of the climbing already….enough of the f*&$#ing climbing already….

I am met by Lofty (Tatum’s hubby) – a wonderful, familier friendly face. He has come down to meet runners and warn them of a fat, angry Puffadder on the trail. We run (or rather clamber up) together for a bit and then I see Cata Hut, hear Tatum “whooooping and whoo-hooing” and I run the final stretch to the finish.

Cold beer, hot, meaty soup, a hot shower and soft mattrasses in the sun. Heaven.The evening is all about cosiness, warmth, recuperation, steaming pots of food, laughter, birthday candles, red wine and new friends. And sleep.

Dori: May I tempt you with a cup of chamomile? Gandalf: Oh, no, thank you, Dori. A little red wine for me, I think.

Day two starts with a rude, dark, steep 3 km climb. My torchlight is weak, I have my competition on my heels and I fear the day will be a long, pressurised one. We skirt around Geju Peak and then try and convince our shaky legs to work down a 1 km descent to the plateau, avoiding a massive scree slope.

Gollum: Is he lost? Bilbo Baggins: Yes, yes, and I want to get unlost… as soon as possible!

The forest embraces us once again, we stop to drink and fill bottles from the water that cascades off the black rocks, admire the scenery (briefly) and then charge on. UP, up and more up…..hills so steep it is almost impossible to get purchase.

We wind our way through yet more forested sections, finding the route infinitely more runnable than the previous day. We skip over great whirls of papery lemonwood bark that erodes into strange shapes as it rots on the forest floor, pass towering Streptocarpus that glues itself to tree trunks and competes with the orange, yellow and white fungi for space to grow. The harebells, watsonias and falling stars are in delicate bloom, and I try not tread on any of them as we whizz through.

The very final climb heads across the infamous and much talked about “Hog”. Words cannot really do justice to this not-so-little piggy…photos do that best.

Gandalf: Far to the east, over ranges and rivers lies a single solitary peak. Elrond: So this is your purpose, to enter the mountain? Thorin Oakenshield: What of it? Elrond: There are some who would not deem it wise.

The final 10 kays are a bit of a blur of down, down, down, forest track, conifers and zig-zagging switch backs, until the final slog to the finish line at the Arminal Hotel to run into the wonderfully welcoming arms of Tatum and her team.

Here the great curve of the Amatole Range holds in its embrace a valley of grace and beauty, equaled in few other places and excelled in none in South Africa…. Across the valley was the strange mountain the Xhosa called “Bhukazana”, with its three peaks of serrated ridges; and, between these and the Juanasberg, the Hogsback, but which the Xhosa called “Belekazana”, from its fancied resemblance, when seen from the Mnyameni valley, to a woman with a child on her back. Basil Holt

 

Dwarves: [singing] The pines were roaring on the height / The winds were moaning in the night / The fire was red, it flame spread / The trees like torches blazed with light…

This really was an unforgettable journey into Hobbit country.

The Mountain Runner team of organisers (Tatum, Graham, Sarah, Lofty et al) is quite simply exceptional. Their effortless professionalism – mixed with an array of delightful personal touches – and a degree of nurturing (that one does not get in other races) totally blew me away.

THANK YOU.

Thanks for Andrew King for his excellent images and to he legendary Mr Tolkien too of course for the inspirational Hobbit quotes!

 

 

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Chasing the Red Rock Tokoloshe

(Only a few months late, but had to wait until it was published in SwimBikeRun magazine before posting….)

Whenever I visit the Cederberg, I play with the idea that billions of years ago, the man upstairs had a tantrum of truly epic proportions. Thunder roared, fire cleaved the clouds and as he bellowed and howled, he tossed his toys out of his cot. They tumbled down, broke into a thousand fragments, scattered and thrust themselves firmly into the barren land below, forming the many extraordinary rock gardens that make up this unique World Heritage Site. To run through and between these red rock towers that tease the mind and change chameleon-like from a bad-ass tokoloshe one minute to a mermaid the next has to be one of life’s great privileges.

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Race briefing at Sandrift HQ on the Friday evening was an intimate affair around the cooking fire. Peppered with Energy Event’s Trevor Ball’s unique and irrepressible humour, every runner’s name was called out and they were asked to share something about themselves (or rather dodge abuse from our resident comic). By the end of it, we all had a good sense of who we would be sharing the wilderness with. We ate well, and after getting a pretty good feel for what lay in store the next morning, we shuffled off to our tents and chalets with maps, buffs, race tops, a complimentary bottle of Cederberg Shiraz and bellies full of butterflies.

The next morning, about 50 of us lined up under the Cape Storm arch, adjusted our head torches, clutched our GPS units and posed for photos before Trevor gave us the countdown to our 5am start. The first two kilometres were pretty brutal, with a steep climb up to Wolfberg Cracks – one of the better known and much-loved rock features in these parts. We zigzagged our way in the early morning gloom through the Valley of the Red Gods – so named because of its extraordinary collection of rock pillars and citadels that glow red at sunset.

The Cracks are best enjoyed in broad daylight, but there was still a certain magic in the air as the sun inched its way into the ether, the Robin chats were singing and the mountain seemed to be holding her breath, unsure what the weather would unleash upon her. I switched off my torch as I entered Adderley Street – the widest, easiest section of Cracks and one that can be run through without climbing or squeezing through narrow gaps. At this stage I had hooked in behind Andy Davis, a running mate. It looked as though we were going to pace one another well, so we opted to try stick together for a while. We ran beneath the “Knobless Robot” – one of the many tall rock pillars favoured by climbers – and then found ourselves at the top with a lovely flat, sandy path and the best of the sunrise to come.

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The stretch up to the Arch was exquisite – outrageously peaceful, we were surrounded by wilderness and space and big sky. The gargoyle-like rocks were tinged with the pinky orange of the sunrise and the wide single track was perfectly runnable, with a sprinkling of rock hopping and the odd reassuring cairn to help you on your way.

Once past the Arch, it was a gentle downhill trot where we met up with Gabriëls Pass (Gabriël was reputedly the postman who carried mail from Wupperthal to the various farms a century ago). We then hung a left and headed down towards the first checkpoint at the farm Driehoek, crossing the shale band jeep track, which we would meet up with a little later in the day.

From CP1 at Driehoek it was a short slog on a dirt road to Welbedacht Kloof, followed by a fairly steep climb up past the Pepper Pot and Welbedacht pinnacle to pop out back onto the shale band jeep track. Now with the Langberg to our right, we traipsed along the jeep track for a good few kilometres. Andy was by now well ahead of me, and running with ease. I was battling to get into a rhythm, with more walking than running, dodging muddy patches and ankle-rolling mounds of grass and trying not to think about the various annoying niggles starting to make themselves heard. We were running along the “sleeppad” or sled track – used to haul firewood and other goods on sledges and mules many, many moons ago. Finally, up over a crest and down below, the welcome sight of a quaint, low stone hut with a vehicle and a couple of Cape Nature guys clapping and smiling. I refilled my bottles, grabbed an energy bar and was off and back on the jeep track. After a while, we hung a sharp left down Engelsmanskloof, a steep ravine on the northern side of Sneeukop. Over 100 years ago, a group of Boers allegedly stored a small cannon here, which they used to ambush a party of British soldiers. It is thought that one soldier had his head blown off with said canon. This hapless (or headless) fellow’s ghost now haunts the Crystal Pool, particularly on misty nights, looking for his head. Thankfully it wasn’t especially misty when we passed Crystal Pool, in fact it was getting quite hot and Andy and I were stopping frequently to refill bottles from the various streams we crossed.

With Jurie se Berg to our right, we ran… and ran… and ran through endless clusters of cedar trees, flat grassy sections and some very steep technical sections. CP3 was at Middelberg Hut where we were met by the wildly enthusiastic, much loved and well-known Brundel (Robert le Brun of Red Sock fame). He poured me a Coke, and was just the sliver of sunshine I needed after a minor dark patch earlier. We filled up bottles again and then soldiered on, over the Middelbergvlakte and up, up, up and over and then down a very exposed, hot, scratchy and rather nasty technical zigzag downhill. Here some fancy footwork was required to navigate a gnarly contour path to Algeria. The voices started to bicker and quibble in my head as we skirted the Teekop, Langkop, Gatdeurkop and Steenrugkop. At this stage I had hooked up with my partner Filippo, and we ran into Algeria together. There is a very well-timed (enforced) 30-minute stopover at this 60km mark. It is a chance for the team to check runners out, ensure they rest, eat and hydrate. I had a knee wound cleaned up and dressed by a super attentive medic, was offered a range of drinks and handed a delicious freshly-made burger. We were pampered and made to feel like royalty. Bottles filled, food supplies replenished, we set off again – our sights set on the much maligned “river walk” which takes one up towards Uitkyk Pass. We crossed the beautiful cool, clear rivers and pools a few times to splash faces and immerse aching legs.

Before long we were slogging up Duiwelsgat – a long single track with yet more up, 12 kilometres of pretty hard slog. Joints were starting to ache, nausea was taking hold and my partner, in particular, was taking strain. Duiwelsgatkloof lifted the spirits for a while, with sweeping views down into a deep valley, kloofs crammed with indigenous trees, sparkling waterfalls and black eagles wheeling overhead. We then popped over the saddle at Noordpoort and the route flattened out for the final stretch to CP5 at Sneeuberg Hut, nestling in the shadow of the highest peak in these parts at 2 027m. This peak was first summited in 1843 by none other than Thomas Maclear (of Maclear’s beacon fame!)

After a quick Coke refuel, we headed off again – this time into a chilly wind and rather ominous dark cloud hanging over Sneeuberg. It’s 7km to Maltese Cross, and at this point, Filippo was insisting that I leave him as he could see I was stronger. At the top of the final downhill stretch, I donned my head torch and plugged in my iPod. My night rock-hopping was buoyed up by Dire Straits and Pink Floyd. I found myself singing out loud to keep myself going… “we’re just two dark souls swimming in a fish bowl” and realising that no one could hear me, bar the odd leopard or porcupine!

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I was smiling all the way – getting high on the fresh, sweet smell of buchu, loving the cool, moist air in my face and the little moth flitting along with me for a bit in my light and the immense solitude. I soon hit the sandy road to the Observatory – an easy, flat 5km. At this point I knew I had the chance to break the ladies winning time of last year, so I picked up the pace. I finished in 15hrs37, very happy and completely drunk on mountain air. It was the furthest I have ever run, and the longest time spent on my legs – but if one is going to have a first time, this is definitely the one for it!

Race Stats

 

Mountain trail: 100km

Climbing: 3 800m

Checkpoints: 5

Cut off time: 30 hours

Single track: 85 percent

Jeep track / dirt road: 15 percent

Race fee: R2 950

Next race: 13-15 October 2017

Note: Runners should be completing 50km one-day events

UTMB qualifying points: 3 points

If you wish to be invited, email your running CV of the past year to info@energyevents.co.za

www.cederbergtraverse.co.za/

2016 Results

Men

1 Jock Green : 13:04

2 Andrea Biffi : 13:21

3 Ryan Eichstadt : 13:46

Women

1 Karoline Hanks : 15:37

2 Alana Jane Munnik : 17:31

3 Suzette von Broembsen : 17:31

Photos: Govan Adrian Basson

Christmas Boot Camp

This year’s Christmas will go down as one of the least conventional (and infinitely more adventurous) for me.

Earlier on in the year, we decided we wanted to get as far away as possible from the festive consumerism and madness. We were determined to separate ourselves from the horror that starts to play out long before December – the overly cheery jingle-jangle, sparkly, happy-crappy musak in the malls, the tsunami of gift wrap and plastic landfill, the constipated out-of-towner-traffic, the atmosphere of forced jollity and greed….all of it.

So F and I took flight and headed for the hills. The idea was to flee into the solace and still embrace of one of my favourite wilderness areas, the Cederberg. It’s rugged, it’s unpredictable, it’s spectacular and very, very peaceful.

We were seeking big skies, big mountains and a chance to camp out under the stars one or two nights. I had in mind a few reasonably brisk hikes up the odd hill to get to a flat spot where the new lightweight tent could be pitched and views and books could be savored. I fantasised about long tea breaks perched on sunbaked rocks, mountain stream dips, lazy picnics, star gazing and sunset contemplation.

This, I felt, would be the order of the day.

What I had forgotten was that I had signed up for all this “downtime” with a chap who has this little piece of wisdom stuck to his fridge door…

There’s nothing more satisfying than the primal feeling of being able to move quickly and    proficiently through a rugged, natural landscape.

Anton Krupicka

We shall call him Duracell from here on.

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The first morning the alarm went off at 5am (!) I managed to throw one cup of coffee down my throat before we popped on our trail shoes and charged up the mountain in front of our chalet. Our mission was to explore the extent of the big burn. A nasty fire had ripped through roughly 30 000 ha of the reserve’s east section some days before and since we had run through this two months earlier while racing the Cederberg Traverse we wanted to get an idea of how much damage had been caused.

So charge we did….or Duracell did….at a rate of knots….with me sagging, sighing and whining ever so slightly behind. It was just too much, too early, and I was on holiday!

The burn was pretty devastating, but we did see a pair of Klipspringer bounding across the scorched sand, so we felt a little heartened by that…

Duracell flew back down the mountain – sinking into the mist below – and I followed a little lamely behind, vowing quietly to myself that I would need to be firm and set the boundaries for myself on this holiday of ours.

I laid this out on our return and settled down with some coffee and a book while he charged off to buy matches from the nearest shop about 20 kays away and to charge the battery which was powering our fridge.

Later that morning, run long forgotten, I found myself packing the tea stuff, our gas stove, lunch, drinks, hoisting packs on our backs and setting off up another mountain to have a picnic at “Andy’s Waterfall”. It was a fairly solid mission in the heat of the day. We did (granted) sit and have tea, sip from the stream and peruse the map. This, you understand, was in order to plan Days 3 – 9.

 

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Day 3 dawned bright and early and this time we were all set for a mountain bike mission…we navigated and rock hopped our way through and over some excellent, reasonably gnarly single track. Duracell had a nasty fall, ripped hisimg_0988 T-shirt, but got up laughing and wanting more…as one does.

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We then locked up our bikes and set off on a walk (with lunch). Much later that afternoon after a brief breather we set off on a 10 k run. Then the clouds rolled in and some beautiful soaking rain drenched the mountains, dampening down the soot and fed the thirsty earth.

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Day 4 saw us heaving pretty hefty packs on our backs and setting off on our first overnighter…our route carefully crafted and selected by Duracell. I thought nothing of the route, the distance, the destination, just knew that we planned to be out in the mountains for Xmas eve, and would wake up somewhere beautiful on Xmas Day. I trusted his route, thinking he would have a good sense of distances, heat and water en route, etc.

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We clobbered about 20 kays that day – a beautiful route which takes in the second half of the Cederberg Traverse. Duiwelsgat valley has come to be one of my favourite corners of this wilderness, and I vowed to Duracell that I wished to have my ashes scattered right there…a place where I will most certainly ride thermals with the Black Eagles and be left well alone by people. Pure bliss.

We had lunch and a break at Sneeuberg hut, then set off on the last leg of our journey to get to the top of Sneeuberg Peak. We were rewarded with some superlative views, a glorious sunset and a comfortable, albeit chilly night’s sleep.556a5523

556a5618Day 4 dawned and after tea we packed up and set off back down the mountain, off on our return journey – via Agter Kruis Valley…we knew it was set to be a long day, but we had not really bargained on such intense heat.

Long and short of it, we walked….and walked….and walked….and bitched (well I did)….and bitched some more….and after about eight hours of this (in temperatures that rocketed well over 40 degrees), we found we had to negotiate two very steep gorges…so up we went, blisters screaming, hot sun on our backs, streams starting to run dry.

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Tempers were frayed, sense of humour got lost somewhere deep down a porcupine hole, some harsh words were exchanged, but we eventually got ourselves home. Literally just short of 12 hours after we had started that morning.

The G&T’s (note, plural) were utterly delightful that evening.

We really did rest up the next day. Read books, caught up on some work, and slept.

Day 6 saw another pack hoisting affair – destination Middelberg hut and surrounds….a lovely reasonably gentle haul up to a stunningly peaceful camping spot in a valley.

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We made camp, brewed tea and had lunch. Leaving everything in camp we skipped off down a path looking for cell signal, and came across a beautiful pool – crystal clear, tree fringed and with a waterfall. We swam and drank and soaked it all up… and vowed to keep our discovery a secret…

Day 7 was a horror story…truly.

Slingsby (bless him, and all due respect to the man for a set of exceptional maps) claims that the path linking Middelberg to the next valley on was “old and faint”…we were up for that challenge, and fought our way fairly valiantly down a very steep section of burnt out fynbos, legs covered in soot and scratches by the time we hit the valley floor.

What we hadn’t bargained on was the path in the valley itself being completely non-existent.556a5758

We set off in search of the path through a solid wall of fynbos…and I mean solid. Thorny, scratchy, nasty, whipping, spiky, bastard, f*%&ing fynbos. It just came at us from all sides – in our faces, slapping our battered, bloodied legs and eliciting the foulest language ever heard in those parts – of that I have no doubt. We crossed the river a few times (choked with typhus and some other invasive shite), slipped, cracked skulls, twisted ankles, had some more branches whip and slash our raw legs…we tried scrambling over to the other side of the valley which looked cleared and more walkable. It wasn’t. So back over the river….556a5759

Eventually we met up with a decent path – the one that goes up, up and up to the saddle to take us back home. One final hot ascent, and then a long, dry descent and we were home….battered, bloodied, bruised and looking like something out of Platoon. It really felt as though the mountain didn’t want us on board that day and she was doing everything in her power to chew us up and spit us out.

I have had so many conversations in my head (some out loud) about those two tricky, testing days last week. Long and short of it, I am grateful for the adventure and the pain (retrospectively anyway). I like that I am being pushed – sometimes to my limits, getting far out of my comfort zone, getting angry, then just pushing through and buggering on. And getting stronger through it all.

What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger – and why on earth would one want to whittle away a day sipping cocktails by a pool anyway?!

Run anyone?

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But struggling and suffering, as I now saw it, were the essence of a life worth living. If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not constantly demanding more from yourself—expanding and learning as you go—you’re choosing a numb existence. You’re denying yourself an extraordinary trip.

Dean Karnazes

Last chance to see?

My big rubber boots are slick with sulphurous, black tundra mud. A thousand or so snow geese are cavorting  noisily a few hundred metres away, their feathers and guano all mingling in the sludge beneath.  I am eye to eye with a 600kg male polar bear.  He’s lying on his belly, four limbs splayed out, rug-like.  I am so close I can hear him breathing and I am able to follow the jagged line of a scar that runs from below his left eye down to just above his nostril. Tiny midges are hovering around his nose and eyes.

He is just 20 metres away. There is very little separating us, bar the odd tuft of grass and a few bits of driftwood…. If he were to stand up, he would be a little over 3 metres tall.

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Mimi leans towards my ear and whispers almost imperceptibly in a broad Idaho accent ,“He looks meaner than a junkyard dog”. I nod in agreement. It’s the scar that does it, I think. But right now, he’s completely chilled and apparently unphased by our presence.  And not showing any junkyard dog-like behaviour. He’s more like a giant sleepy pussy cat really.

I am part of a small group – 8 telephoto lens-wielding lodge guests and our two guides Andy and Albert. Andy is a burly, ginger haired Canadian with over thirty years of guiding to his name. Albert is a ‘First Nations’ Cree, ex-hunter. IMG_9190

I feel safe standing close to Albert. He’s built like a tank and clearly knows these animals and their behaviour. Both guides have loaded guns slung over their shoulders. And a few rocks in their pockets. These, we are told, will be used to bang together to make a noise should the bear become unhappy and make a move towards us.

The midges are starting to really piss our big bear off and he puts both paws over his eyes. He now has that Monday morning look. That or (I think to myself), he’s also had enough of our pesky paparazzi vibe and wants us to shove off and let him sleep.

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We are all standing in a seriously remote wilderness area 250 km southeast of Churchill on the Hudson Bay coastline in Manitoba, Canada.  Our big boy is one of about 1 600 bears in the wider Hudson Bay region. They’re all land-based for now and have been since the big July melt – foraging on the plentiful summer berries. That’s all they have to feed on though and it’s a pretty long wait until the November chill sets in and the bay ices over.  It could be a particularly long wait this year….and the next. And the year after that…

We are all painfully aware of this as we admire our bear….and wonder about his very tenuous future as it’s no secret the Arctic is changing.

We had arrived at the lodge on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Only an hour after flying in in our 10-seater single engine plane, a Black bear cruised right up to the lodge fence and we watched her foraging busily, completely unaware of our presence.

556A0131The lodge is surrounded by a sturdy, tall fence, so we’re on the inside looking out. It’s a truly unique wildlife encounter opportunity – to witness bears in a true wilderness context. We are lucky if they happen to pass by.

A few hours later we are indeed blessed with a polar bear female and her cub. It’s absolutely remarkable to see these creatures so close. It really does render one speechless. In the first two days, we see three mothers and cubs, and a handful of males. They are all in very good condition and, according to Andy, the population is thriving in the Hudson Bay region. So what unfolds before us on Day 4 is unsettling to say the least.

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We are cruising along on our morning drive – out to find bears. We are all seated up high atop what they call a Rhino – a purpose built vehicle, specially designed to withstand the thick slick mud, rocky river crossings and difficult terrain of the Tundra.

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The guides are absolutely brilliant spotters. From literally five or more kilometres away, they spot a bear. This spot was different though. Andy had his binoculars peeled on a very small dot – a speck on a shimmery, hazy horizon. He was unusually quiet. Albert – in the other vehicle also appeared stumped.

The dot was a polar bear cub.

What was immediately unsettling for Andy was that the cub was alone. They are never very far away from their mothers. For two to three years, they stick velcro- like to their mothers. So to see this little guy alone was alarming to say the least.556A0939

We bumped our way over some difficult terrain, inching ever closer and then Andy spotted something even more alarming. There was another bear lying down. He was clearly feeding on something. It was – on closer inspection – a very, very big male. The cub was bleating and circling the male, but never going too close.

The harsh reality of the situation dawned on us all, without having to put words to it. The male was eating the cub’s mother.

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Chances are, the mother would have been confronted by the big male., who may well have been after her cub. A mammoth fight would have ensued, and she would have been badly injured. He would have turned on her, killed her, and was now eating her.

This was nature playing out in all her raw, red, bloody, dangerous attire….and it was utterly shocking.

I have spent enough time in the wilds of Africa and seen enough kills to accept the rawness, the lack of dignity or empathy in the wild. But this was just too much to witness. We sat around and watched the train wreck of a situation for a little too long for my comfort levels, and before long, I began sobbing. I was embarrassed by my reaction in front of the other guests, so tried to stifle my sobs into my thick jacket and scarf but not very successfully.

The little cub did not know where to go, or what to do. In the seven months of his short little life, he had only known a warm teat and a constant presence. Just earlier that morning we had watched a mother and cub pass the lodge – heading in the same direction we were now sitting.

Could it be the same pair we wondered?

The bond had been so precious, so intense. Everything she did, he did. She showed him how to forage and he was attached to her like a limpet.  To see him so lost and hopeless now shredded my heart strings. I think the fact that I was so far away from my own son did little to calm the emotions.

556A1047It was terribly hard not to anthropomorphize the situation and as the guides eventually made a decision to drive away, I could not help look back at the little guy as we retreated…..and watch as he circled the male, bleating quietly.

That night back in the lodge was very difficult. The mood was desperately somber. One guest had to leave the dinner table as I could see she couldn’t control her emotions. The guides were equally stunned by it all, and I could tell they were battling to stay professional, and keep a consistent thread through it all for us paying guests.

Because the lodge is in a conservation area, and because we had come across the situation (as lodge guests). they were compelled to inform the conservation authorities. And that they did, immediately.

“Resources” we were told would arrive at first light the next day. I asked them what they thought the authorities could possibly do in this situation and was told that in all likelihood they would take the cub to a zoo in Winnipeg. The thought horrified me. I wept more.

That night I slept little…my heart broke for the little creature out on his own in the cold, dark night, so close to the big boy who was no doubt still feeding on is mother…

Part of me quietly prayed that wolves or indeed the big male would swiftly take him out – for nature to clean it up, finish it off, put him out of his misery….I could not bear the thought of this little creature being airlifted out of there and confined to a city zoo for the rest of his life – having tasted freedom and wilderness? No. No. NO.

The next morning we drove back to the scene, all of us VERY quiet in the back of the vehicle. Hearts sank as we came over the rise and saw both bears still in fairly close proximity….little cub still calling, circling, looking bewildered….big male now covered in blood and fat and still feeding.

556A0906“Resources” (based a two hour chopper flight away) in Churchill – had asked that the guides take us guests far away from the scene as they dealt with things.

We paid our respects to the little chap, gave them both a wide berth and drove off. Only after having a much closer look at what the male was eating with our binoculars. Yes indeed – paws, fur, and half-eaten carcass of an adult polar bear. It was big mamma alright.  I wept more, and felt quite barren emotionally as we drove off and got on with the day, only returning to the lodge quite a lot later that afternoon.

We had heard and seen the chopper come in from many miles away, but there was little talk of what could have/may have/ should have played out. The guides were quite tight-lipped and I soon picked up that perhaps they did not have the greatest respect for the methods adopted by “Resources”.

When we drove past much later in the day, we found her crumpled and bloody remains. No big male, no cub in sight.

On our return to the lodge, the manager informed us that “Resources” had found the cub had mercifully been “taken out by wolves” (after we had seen him that morning – in broad daylight).

That was all we were told.

My partner and I looked at one another and raised our eyebrows as we made our way back to our bedrooms. Likely story, we both agreed. We suspect, the cub would have been euthanized. My suspicion is that they probably also took out the big male. I could well be wrong on the latter, but I found it very odd that he was not back on the carcass after the chopper had vanished.

What was also a little disconcerting is that significant parts of the carcass (head and paws) had been removed. Research perhaps?

I am not entirely clear why the authorities, or the lodge for that matter felt the need to pull the wool over our eyes, but there we are.

It was an emotional experience all round, and none of us felt the need to probe or delve further and potentially compromise the professional integrity of the lodge staff. They had their reasons – perhaps lodge guests had muddied their name in the past with similarly emotional sightings, who knows…

I guess the really burning question for me was WHY was the male driven to cannibalism? How common is cannibalism in the area? The fact that both guides had never seen anything like it in all their years living here made me decidedly uneasy.

A bit of desktop research and reading a book called “On Thin Ice” by Richard Ellis immediately after the trip brought a few things to the surface for me.

It seems the jury is out on whether this phenomenon is climate change related, and judging by the tone of the literature, it is prone to being sensationalized by the media, but whatever the case, I have a sneaking suspicion it has a human element to it.

There is a 50% mortality rate in cubs in the first year or two, and it is unusual to find a mother with more than one cub at the age when they are ready to be completely weaned. Six out of ten cubs die in their first year – as a result of attacks, starvation, accidents or infanticide.

There has, it seems, been a noticeable increase in occurrences of cannibalism amongst polar bears. This seems to play out when polar bears are deprived of food for an extended period, which is particularly acute due to the delay in the build-up of sea ice as a result of climate change.

In 2009, up to eight males were found eating cubs in the Churchill area in one season. Previously these bears were able to travel the iced-over Hudson Bay to find food, but more recently, with it taking longer to ice over, they had resorted to killing and eating cubs.

Our mum-eater certainly didn’t look emaciated or weak – he was a big, healthy looking animal. So could it just be an opportunistic feed? A fight to the death (over the cub) ended in a free, fat and protein-rich meal?

We will never know. But it was a substantial eye-opener, and it definitely piqued my interest in the management of these magnificent animals, their future and our influence in all this…

More of this in my next blog as I explore the rather unique and positively disturbing approach to human-wildlife conflict in the town of Churchill, where they make use of what they proudly call a “polar bear jail”…

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If you go down to the woods today..

We are cruising down the Atnarko River in a Clackacraft drift boat – a rather bulky, tinny affair. It is, we are told, the best in the business. As we set off and clunk and grind our way over the shallower rapids, I wonder about this assertion.

The regal and appropriately named snow-dusted Mount Stupendous casts her gnarly profile down upon us and the reflections of lush and lofty cotton trees and Douglas Fir wriggle and stretch in the calm pools between the busier rapids.

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While negotiating his way with ease around vast cotton tree stumps and through churning rapids, our 70-something river guide Les Koroluk waxes lyrical about the great run of ‘pink’ or ‘kap’ay’ this year. He rolls off names like ‘chum’, ‘coho’, ‘cutthroat’, ‘sock eye’ and ‘bull trout’ – all with a delightful, and slightly quavering Canadian lilt.

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Vast clutches of gravid females swim urgently upstream, males not too far behind them. The crystal clear water darkens with salmon as they move en masse beneath and alongside us. Occasionally one leaps out of the water and belly-flops back. These remarkable fish face an astounding suite of challenges as they turn their backs on the ocean and make their way upstream.

I notice a few rather ropey looking fish, large white fungus-like growths on their flanks and fins. “Signs of decay”, explains Les, “long before their number’s up, many of them show quite erratic behavior and will flop about. They spawn and they die. Their job is done”.

Despite his advanced years, our guide’s burly arms tweak and tug at the two oars with total confidence. He is clearly well attached to his beaten up old boat – and refuses point blank to guide in the souped-up inflatables favored by his younger guiding colleagues.

We are in the company of a real mountain river man….boiling rapids, feisty fish, charging bears, icy mountains…he’s seen it and done it all. A deep understanding and reverence towards the land and its critters – hairy or scaled – oozes from every pore. He’s a story teller of note.

In the 80’s Les owned and ran a successful guiding company in the Bella Coola valley, where salmon and trout fishing was the main focus. This ultimately gave birth to commercial bear viewing ventures in the British Columbia region of Canada. Les, we find out later, was the brain behind the ‘river drift’ approach to viewing wildlife.

And thus we drift.

We are looking for bears. Big grizzly ones. They have been spotted all week on these drift trips, so we are feeling lucky. Sometimes they are within arm’s reach, we are told. Les tells us about all sorts of bear encounters – ones he has had with clients or on his own. Bears sitting on logs dipping paws into the river, bears mock charging, bears with cubs, big male bears swimming alongside the boat….bears all over the place.

Our rookie excitement mounts with each story and we strain our eyes up and downstream – we would give anything for a hint of hair, a flash of a pointy dark muzzle.

We’re here at the right time. When the salmon start migrating, the bears move up and down the river in a collective feeding frenzy, in a bid to fatten up for winter.

Towards the end of September, as fresh salmon numbers dwindle, the bears become less picky and start gnawing on spawned-out, dead and dying salmon. Very often, the putrid smell of rotting fish is what you will smell before you see a bear deep in the forest, explains Les.

We are in deep wilderness – with no signs of human habitation for many, many miles. The Bella Coola valley cuts through the coastal mountains from the Pacific to the interior plateau. The area has the lowest population density of any habitable area on earth and is one of the few places where ‘natives’ or ‘first nations’ folk outnumber the ‘non-natives’. Because of this, many of the bears that are encountered have not had negative experiences with humans. They are, Les explains, fairly tolerant and allow humans to watch them at pretty close quarters. It’s a balancing act though, he goes on. “There is a degree of trust that one needs to garner from the bears…we have to behave in a certain way that they are able to both tolerate and predict. The guides in the area undergo very specific training and we all adhere to the strict regional and provincial standards.”

I ask about client numbers and whether there is ever a sense of crowding the animal. “That’s very much part of it”, he says “the guide to client-ratios must remain small…we have to almost melt into the background for these bears, for these tours to continue to bear fruit”.

We come to the end of our three hour drift empty handed and a little disappointed. There’s always tomorrow…

The next day we set off with Mad Mike – a 30-something gingery bear of a man who has lived and guided in the area for many years. Mike shares Les’s deep passion for the area, but is also fascinated by the cultural history and tells us some rather alarming tales of how first nations people were mistreated by the Canadian government (enough material for another blog entirely!)

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We follow the ‘Tote road’ – a rough gravel road (used by the early settlers in the late 1800s) that winds its way parallel to the Atnarko River for about 11 kays upstream to the confluence of the Hotnarko River.

We are, of course, looking for bears.

We find a pika (a small hamster-like rodent), a garter snake and many frogs. We watch red-tailed hawks ride the thermals and a juvenile bald eagle swoop between the cottonwood tops. We come across Culturally Modified Trees (CTMs) – cedars that have been stripped of a few sheets of bark to make clothing or hats.

But there are no bears in these deep, dark woods. Not today anyway.

We find more than an enough tantalizing evidence to indicate their presence though. Big piles of fresh bear skat peppered with rose-hip pips; fat, dinner plate sized prints pressed into the mud; a broad, winding urine trail along a stretch of tar road (a male bear, we are told – they don’t stop to wee, they swagger and wee); rubbing trees scarred with deep claw scrapes and even hair embedded in the bark. I pluck a hair out and pocket it for my son back home – knowing how much of a treasure a genuine grizzly hair will be!

These trees talk, says Mike. Well, to a bear anyway. The scent left on the tree will tell the next bear who passed before it, their reproductive status and possibly their mood. Marking is usually done by males during the mating season, but some is done by both genders throughout the year. A bear will always stop at a talking tree and read the news, make its own mark.

Mike tells us that marine-derived nitrogen is found in these trees – even though we are about 100 metres from the nearest river. Indeed it is difficult to find a tree that has not been influenced by salmon! In a single spawning season, one bear will carry up to 700 salmon from the river and leave half behind on the forest floor. “The larger tree growth rings correspond directly with the large salmon runs” explains Mike.

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Remarkable stuff.

Every time we approached the river, we would be warned in hushed tones to quiet down, to be aware. Our guide would go ahead, stop, listen then pick his way through the tall reeds and gingerly check the river banks. Adrenalin levels would soar and I would start to imagine bears crashing out from the dark woods or rising up from day beds, all gnashing teeth and claws.

By now our feet were starting to ache a little, we had hiked the whole morning and into the afternoon. We had lunched on the river bank, taken a dip  in the river and now were really starting to think all these Grizzly encounters were pure fallacy…

On our final river bank check, I glance up and spotted a beautiful, massive golden-tinged Grizzly male sploshing about in the rapids. We watched him for less than a minute before he sunk into the water and vanished around the corner. It was enough to get the juices flowing. I had seen my first real live grizzly in the wild!

The next morning our first trip down to the hide revealed a sow and her cub right up close and munching away at a dead fish she had plucked out of the river. We watched through binocular and camera lenses – hardly able to contain our excitement.

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The bond between mum and cub was profound – he stuck to her like Velcro, and she constantly made sure he had his fair share of the rotting flesh.

The little guy became quite playful at one stage, jumping up and down on his hind legs playing what looked like hide and seek behind a bush. Mike had explained to us that bears often show a human-like sense of humour in their behaviour – signs of being aloof, scared, friendly, goofy and inventive. We saw all this and more in the way these two interacted. Eventually mum and cub ambled off to disappear from sight leaving us all, slack jawed and star struck…

On our last day we went on another drift – again with Les. This time we were rewarded with an excellent sighting of the legendary “Bent Ear”. This big chap had a floppy bottom lip and a battered ear from too many bar brawls and encounters with rival males or even females.

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“That’ll be Bent Ear”, says Les, in his lazy drawl….”he’s fat alright – ‘prolly got a belly full of cubs”, he chortles.

“Cubs?”, I ask, horrified….

“Yip….many sows will give birth to three cubs, but only one’ll make it. They either suffer den death because mum doesn’t have enough milk, or they’ve come across the likes of Bent ear and he’s picked out a cub and gobbled it up in front of his siblings”.

Tough stuff this, but it’s nature – red in tooth and claw and all that.

We watch this magnificent creature for a while. His shiny hippo-like bulk swims for about a kilometre downstream and then he emerges, shakes, glances up at us in our boat and swaggers off up a bank to be swallowed up in the gloom of the woods.

Trail runner’s nirvana

[The unedited version of the article that featured in the M&G today….]

I am sitting in a damp camping chair under a canvas roof. The rain is coming down in sheets, the khaki seams above bulge and occasionally issue an icy waterfall down an unsuspecting recipient’s back below. Desert winds nip at our ankles, howling and snapping at tent pegs and guy ropes. The cold front froths and comes at us out of the gloom, gnashing rabidly, threatening to send our whole tented village tumble-weeding across the mountains, over the Orange River, into Namibia and northwards to Timbuktu.

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It feels like we are in the middle of nowhere and, well, I guess we are. We are sitting in a remote corner of the 6 000 km2 /Ai/Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park – a park that encompasses one of the world’s oldest and perhaps most pristine mountain arid regions.

I am with 40 other trail running junkies. We have all completed the 35 kilometre Day 1 of the 4 Day Richtersveld WildrunTM. The sense of shared accomplishment is tangible as we wait eagerly for a hot dinner. The red wine and Arnica oil is flowing as liberally as the tales of extraordinary rock formations, crystal-strewn fields and some rather woeful navigational errors. Shin splints, scratches, sprains, bruises and shiny black toe blisters have been compared and oohed and aaahed over.

No matter how much kneading, pummelling and massaging we apply to both our bodies and the meteorological facts presented to us, the following day’s forecast remains bleak. We are all in for a cold, wet, windy and very long Day 2 in the desert. Yes, the desert.

But for now this seems not to matter as we listen to the mellifluous tones of Pieter van Wyk – a SANParks botanist who has lived in the region all his life. This is a man with enviable and utterly infectious passion. He’s waxing lyrical about the geological history and describing the succulent riches that he has come to know in his 24 years. Pieter has not seen rain this potent for years and is already anticipating the botanical jewels that will emerge from years of oblivion as soon as the sun tickles the grateful rain-drenched soil. Excitement is etched all over his face as he talks about seven-year old kids in the area who have scampered indoors when it rains as they’ve never seen water plummeting from the sky.

What makes the Richtersveld WildrunTM so unique and wild is that the trail is completely unmarked. Runners are given a GPS unit onto which waypoints are loaded and we are told to make our way from one waypoint to the next. Whether we clamber over a granite-clad ridge or shoot down a river valley, it is up to us to figure out the most runnable route.

My running partner’s navigational prowess came to the fore a mere two kays into the race on Day 1. While other runners scrambled up a steep ridgeline, he hung back and nodded quietly to me indicating rather that we cruise up a river valley in the opposite direction. Off we galloped, and about ten minutes later, I was surprised to see the leading male Thabang Madiba (who went on to win the race) bound up behind us.

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This was the first of many such route choices, and it wasn’t long before the leading lady tucked in behind Mr GPS, recognising the advantage. It added a certain degree of pressure to things for me, however, and it soon became clear that if I were to lose sight of his rather speedy GPS-programmed rear end, I would disappear into the wilderness and never be seen again.

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The geology of the area is utterly fascinating. Over 2 000 million years ago, the Richtersveld Earth Dragon awoke from her million year slumber. Her guts rumbled and she issued a colossal burp that buckled the ancient slab of continental rock above her. Red-hot granitic and basaltic magma bubbled out of the vast steaming fissures, and the Richtersveld Suite emerged to the surface. Eons later, the area was blanketed in the ancient Adamastor Ocean. A mere blip in geological time later, large rivers threw down sheets of sandy, calcareous sediment to the shores of the continent from the east. Continental plates butted heads again, the ocean receded and gave way to more buckling and tilting and the sedimentary layers shot up into gnarly mountain ridges. Our restless dragon awoke about    1 500 million years later, exhaled again, her fiery magma breath punching through the sloping sediments and crustal rocks to form the Tatasberg – a 1 000 metre high granite massif. We had the absolute privilege of running through this boulder strewn extravaganza on Day 3.

After a very wet and technical Day 2, we were all very relieved to see the clouds lift to reveal the rainbow drenched glory of our camp at Hakkiesdoring. We charged into and up the Gannakouriep river valley, then faced east to top out onto the vast and spectacular Springbokvlakte, a plateau upon which many thousands of Springbok used to graze. Just after this, we hit the much talked about Tatasberg. We found ourselves clambering and crawling our way through and between giant granite boulders the size of double-decker buses, to emerge at the top where the 360 degree views were utterly magnificent. I was quite literally speechless – and not from the physical exertion!

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As if the mountain vistas are not gargantuan enough, there are all the small things to marvel at. Everywhere you look, all sorts of succulents are squeezing their podgy little pink and purple fingers from underneath rocks or snuggling up to sparkling chunks of quartz.

“You have to be on your hands and knees to really see and understand this place”, explains the ever beaming Pieter. “There is so much to learn, to know. There is something under every rock, every sliver of crystal…I read this place like a book”. On our third night in camp, he addresses us all again. More stories, more wonder.

A self-taught botanist who reels off scientific names with consummate ease, Pieter goes on to tell us about the endemic succulents in these parts. He talks about the Lithops (or living stones) that often grow in close association with the micro-climate created by a sliver of quartz. He tells us about minute plants with a transparent “window”, beneath which lies a small crystal embedded within its flesh to reflect sunlight to less exposed parts of the plant where food is made…all in a bid to reduce surface area and minimise water loss. Pure evolutionary genius.

He reels off exotic and somewhat subversive plant names, translating from the Afrikaans as he does…. “perfume bottle”, “child’s penis”, “old granny’s tits”….

He enthuses about the extremely rare Pachypodium namaquanum, an 800 year old spike-studded succulent with an elephant-like foot and a quaint north-facing tilt to the rosette of leaves at its tip. It looks uncannily like a lone man standing facing north, which is why it is also called Half mens. He tells us we will be coming eye to eye with these very special plants on our last day. And that we did.

Pieter tells us about the creatures found here. We are all riveted. “We have about 30 species of Toktokkie here, and like most other desert beetles they have a waxy covering that controls water retention and body temperature”. Some insects, he tells us, even have the capacity to actually make their own water.

Pieter modestly lets slip how he discovered a new species of spider a few years back. There are, he explains, 18 species of scorpion in the park. One of these endemic whipper-snappers is almost as large as a dinner plate! He tells us about the Namaqua chameleon. Just short of the length of a Shatterproof ruler, this little guy packs some punch and has been known to hold his own against crows and Cape cobras. They breed them tough as nails in these parts!

The WildrunTM team really are the crème de la crème of trail race organisers. Great care is taken to provide just the right measure of luxury for weary trail runners. The tents are robust, yet comfortable, there are canvas toilet cubicles and showers every day with donkey-boiled piping hot water. This is all set up effortlessly in the middle of nowhere. Each day the entire camp is whipped up in a new spot and always in time for the front runners to run into camp and chill.

This was trail running at its wildest, most extreme, most luxurious and insanely enjoyable best.

[Photos taken by the immensely talented Nick Muzik and Ian Corless…]

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Bewitched by the twitch

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To what lengths would you go to, to see a Horned Screamer? Or a Black-eyed Fairy? How much would you pay to catch a fleeting glimpse of the elusive Lesser-spotted, Long-toed Monklet?  For starters, you would have to head into the depths of the Amazon jungle.  It would not be easy though. You may have to play dead for hours under a blanket of rotten leaves – or scale the buttress roots and perch Attenbrough-like in the canopy.

I refer, of course, to ‘twitching’ – a somewhat derogatory, if not highly appropriate name ascribed to seriously committed bird watchers.  Twitchers hunt in thoroughly intense, often humorless packs, and have been known to go to bed with their monopods.  They are defined by the reflex ticking action upon sighting, or hearing a bird.

Having worked for a few months for a safari company specialising in birding trips in Malawi (in the early 90s), I have been exposed to some obsessive twitchers.  They came on these tours with one goal and one goal only – to see, or hear, as many species as possible in the two weeks available.  As chief cook, bottle-washer and assistant bird-spotter, this was, very often two weeks too long.

At the end of a birding trip, some groups would have successfully clocked up 350 species – and leave satisfied with a ‘been there, done that, got the list, lost-the-T-shirt-in-the-process- attitude’.  Satisfied with another list of what they call “Lifers” (first time spotted), they would head off to the next continent – to hunt down a whole new bunch of unsuspecting feathers.

They would very rarely cast a glance at the world outside their circled vision to marvel at the swirling mists of Mt Mulanje, the frenetic markets of Lilongwe, or the rolling plains of Nyanga.  Instead, time would be spent arguing over Latin names with the guide, or in rabid squabbles over who saw it first.  Every evening, before dinner, they would all huddle together and consolidate their tickings – the name of each bird would be read out and claims made to their sighting.  This was often when there was the greatest derision and least humour.  The dedication was astounding.

I remember one particularly keen group from Australia.  In a staunch effort to catch a glimpse of a highly persecuted White-eared Barbet, they lay on their backs under a tree, binoculars skywards, mouths open, postrate for two hours, in anticipation of a mere flutter, a hint of a feather.  They would quite honestly, have donated organs for a sighting – such was the commitment.  Imagine the atmosphere, when Tony, our guide – borderline comatose and high as a kite at the best of times – ambled back to the party and claimed that he had just had an excellent 3 minute sighting of our feathered friend in another tree up the road while he was having a joint.

The group didn’t talk to him for the rest of the day.

We did have one or two non-twitcher groups.  They were invariably more relaxed and dare I say it – on the same planet.  They were more interested in bartering with the local people in the bustling markets, seeing the exquisite countryside and snorkeling in the Lake than ticking off names on a list.

Their ambivalence toward birds was, for me a breath of fresh air.  One group was especially memorable.  At breakfast one morning in one of the bush camps, one of the punters (clients) – a Cambridge History academic, Charles, asked:

‘Karoline, what is that ghastly bloody bird that wakes me up at the crack of dawn and goes “Knyack, Knyack, Knyack”?’  Many hours were spent going through the options with the rest of the group and a guide-book – debating the possibilities and deciphering the unlikely combinations of beak, body size, colour and tail length, based on vague alcoholic sightings the night before.  What really threw me though, was the “knyack knyack” bit.  Charles eventually called his mystery bird the “Double-breasted Knyack Knyack bird” and he had a rather subversive sketch to prove it.

After a few days later he spotted it, while it was “knyacking”, and it turned out to be a relatively harmless Black-eyed bulbul.  For the rest of the trip, all birds, (feathered and unfeathered), were labeled “Double-breasted Knyack Knyacks”.

As a self-confessed traitor to the twitching fraternity, I am far happier listening to calls and watching behaviour, and I would encourage any aspiring birder to rather enter the world of birding through this door.  They do not, however, make call identification easy for beginners if the descriptions in some of the more Field Guides are anything to go by.  If an over-zealous new birder on the block imitates the written version in an effort to flush a bird from the undergrowth, he or she is guaranteed to send any self-respecting bird into premature migration.

These are some of the offerings:

The Burchells Sandgrouse, if alarmed, utters GUG-GUG-GUG but in flight calls CHOK-LIT CHOK-LIT.

The Yellow-throated Sandgrouse, on the other hand, simply emits a hoarse GOLLI-GOLLI-GOLLI.

The Bar-throated Apalis goes PILLY-PILLY-PILLY, and if that’s not bad enough, your average Little Brown Job (or LBJ) is accused of emitting anything from ZWEET-ZWEET-ZWEET to CHIRRIT, CHIRRIT, TZEEP.

I find calls (and the interpretation thereof) one of the more fascinating aspects of bird watching.  There are calls associated with courtship, flight, alarm, bonding, injury and aggression. Once the connection is made, calls can tell you things about the bush and could help save you from coming face to face with a ravenous predator (or a despondent Australian).

My advice to any birder starting out, is don’t get bewitched by the twitch.  Don’t get bogged down with names, numbers, Latin and lists. Rather find a good waterhole or forest and watch, listen and absorb.  You will learn more this way than in a lifetime of ticking.  Try to fathom the meaning from calls and flight pattern, courtship rituals and nesting strategies.  Only then, if you have to, reach for your guide-book and see what name us humans have given it.  After all, what’s in a name?

It is more important that we come to understand the private lives of birds – the mysteries of navigation, their language and repetoire of song if we are to begin to understand what their very survival depends on.  Without birds to delight us with their colour and song, the world would be a very dull place indeed – even if they are all Double-breasted Knyack Knyacks.