Wild creations

Happy 2013 to you all!

We have just returned from a wonderful time away exploring a few hidden (and relatively untouched) corners of this amazingly beautiful, diverse and surprising country.

I am going to kick-start this blogging year with some reflections on how some of these forays into these wild and woolly places brought on a remarkable change in our nine-year-old. His creative juices seemed to flow uncensored; he relaxed, seemed happier and made the most beautiful things.

We spent time swimming and canoeing in rivers, hiking on beaches, splashing in the warm Indian Ocean, sloshing about in thick river mud, watching clicking crabs and slurping prawns out of their murky depths, exploring the leafy, damp depths of thick coastal and riverine forests and swinging high within and between the vast creaking arms of ancient trees.

We rode horses (without conventional bridles and bits). We also rode and walked alongside African elephants. We met some amazing people who have a deep love and respect for these animals and who work with them in a way that uses the power of intention and a deep understanding of their instinctive/natural ways as opposed to cruel force and domination.

We stayed in some remote and rustic places – one or two of them fairly basic and without electricity. Our nights were lit by paraffin lamps, our showers either cold or heated up only by first lighting a fire and revving up a donkey boiler._1WD0147

The first of Tim’s creations emerged after one of our forest walks in the Wilderness area. Before we knew it, he had fashioned a little forest elf hat out of ferns, stems and twine. This he wore for the rest of the day – much to the gentle amusement of those we passed.

The second came out of a walk along one of those endless windswept Transkei beaches. This time, Tim quietly gathered up a random selection of driftwood sticks. He refused to tell us what he wanted to do with them. A surprise, he said.

That afternoon he sat with his knife and some fishing twine and within about half an hour had created a beautiful bow and arrow – the arrow perfectly whittled at the tip, with a neatly crafted slit at the end to fit the bow.

This was used on our first forest walk in Hogsback…when we were out searching for Hobbits!_1WD0406

At our next destination, and after another long drive, he hauled out his knife and fishing twine and started whittling away at the various bits of the bow and arrow and again – with zero intervention from us, he had fashioned a fascinating musical instrument. A kind of African guitar, which emits two tuneful notes when plucked along its two taut strings.

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Our final evening was spent in a glorious Karoo farm, the ancient farm house overlooking the Gamka River with its craggy steep echoing sides. While we sipped our wine and marveled at the warmth of the stoep soaking into our bare feet, the fading sunlight touching the aloes, and the vastness of the sky, Tim vanished into the scrubby Karoo veld.

He returned armed with scraps of iron, rusty wire, a bone, a stone and various other gnarled fingers of farm detritus. He then proceeded to create the most beautiful mobile/wind chime – his bare hands twisting and bending, cheeks puffed out with concentration._1WD0879

The end result is completely beautiful. It hung on the stoep, the warm Karoo wind making music with it throughout the night. It now hangs on ours at home – a wonderful momento of a beautiful evening.

Later that evening, Tim and I went around the house lighting the paraffin lamps before the darkness seeped under the doors. He then went off to help his father light the fire under the donkey boiler.  No electric switches, no television, no ipad, no cell phone. None of these hideous modern imagination slayers. These sensory thieves.

That night we all sat together and soaked it all in….the crackle of twigs, the smell of wood smoke, the fading distant chirrup of the kingfishers in the valley below, the hadedas cackling as they winged their way to bed, the crickets humming and the jackals calling to one another.

All of them telling stories – the subplots of which we humans could never fathom.

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This degree of creativity, independence and contentment is a fairly rare commodity at home with this little boy. I am not sure what it points to. But I imagine it has a lot to do with a “tuning out” – a shutting out the noise that is “civilised”, modern fast-paced and pressurised life.

There really is much to be said for spending more time in remote places. Especially for children. To be in places where one is forced to really fine tune all five senses; to become aware of what it takes to generate light and warmth; to invent, create and to really look and be in awe of the natural world.

In blogs to follow, I will share more on the extraordinary rivers and indigenous forests and the creatures we heard and saw. I also want to share the mind blowing interaction with three truly magnificent elephants…

A floral jewel


Just back from yet another wonderful weekend spent out of town discovering a new corner of this incredibly diverse, magnificent province of ours. We headed up to a spot just north of the rather pretty little town of Tulbagh, which is situated in a bowl surrounded by three imposing mountain ranges – the Obiqua to the west, the Winterhoek to the north and the Witzenberg to the east. We stayed on a farm on the slopes of the Winterhoek, its imposing, craggy peaks right behind our cottage.

We were determined to get ourselves up into the mountains and into a patch of indigenous forest tucked away in a kloof, so we set off early in the morning.

We hiked up a very steep firebreak which went right up the mountain until we reached the point where the fire-fighting vehicles would literally topple over it was so steep! It was hellishly hot – at 8am already. The combination of the heat and the fairly manic gradient was a bit too much for our usually fairly stoic little 8 year old…but the sight of the forest and its little waterfall was enough of a carrot!



It is always magical to be surrounded by 300-year-old trees, their creaking trunks and glorious twisted limbs with many a secret to tell. It is also a deep privilege to be able to scoop crystal clear water into your hands and drink straight off the mountain.

We clambered over rocks blanketed with dripping ferns and moss and headed a little further up into the mountain until it just became too steep. The place was full of raptors – from elusive African Goshawks flitting in and out of the canopy, to Jackal Buzzards and Peregrine Falcons outdoing themselves with aerobatics above…

We spent a little bit of time just sitting in the forest, sipping in all that energy and thinking how quickly all this brilliance can be wiped out… by us lot…!

The farm is stuffed with aliens, unfortunately, but in between all of that, we came across the most incredible floral jewel! The farm manager pointed it out to us as he showed us the way to the swimming dam. Rather alarmingly, he felt the need to pluck it out the ground to show us. At the time, it felt a bit wrong, and now, as I read up about this particular species and its fairly tenuous status, it was definitely not the best strategy!

This striking little turquoise-green flower (Ixia viridiflora) is one of the most unusual geophytes – and is confined to a very small pocket of the Tulbagh District. It is sadly listed as Vulnerable in the Red Data Book, and is likely to be upgraded to Endangered in the near future, if the decline in numbers continues.

These tissue-paper thin flowers have an incredible purple-black circular stain or ‘eye’ in the middle. This little gem of a flower is pollinated by scarab beetles – commonly known as monkey beetles!

After our mountain adventure, we hit the dam…a spectacular setting, with deliciously cool water and big fish nibbling our toes…what a great spot.

(With thanks to Warren for the pics, as always!)

To find a vlei…

Today we set out early to explore a new part of the reserve. We left home as yet another cloud burst moved in….and with bucket-loads of optimism and determination, we drove on to Cape Point, windscreen wipers slashing away at the massive dollops of unseasonal November rain.

We left our car on the Olifantsbos road, donned our raingear and followed a little rocky track into the hills. As we set out, the big grey clouds sucked in their cheeks and gave way to wonderful warming sunshine.

We were off! A new path and a new adventure!

After about 45 minutes of gentle rambling, we reached Sirkelsvlei – a large freshwater body situated (oddly for a vlei) on a plateau which is higher than the surrounding landscape. What is rather odd about this beautiful inland ‘lake’ is that there is no obvious inflow, apart from surface trickle in winter. Apparently Sirkelsvlei rarely dries out. The secret lies underground. Springs bubble up from below….and water also feeds into it from nearby marshes.

It is also apparently home to loads of Cape terrapins. These endearing mud-loving creatures are seldom seen. I don’t need many excuses to rush back to this treasure of a spot…but to see some of these little guys popping up would be one of them!

The trail then leads you through awesome rock formations, chilled out bontebok (some with fresh-out-the-box babbas), ostrich and glorious Fynbos (jam packed with everlastings and pelargoniums and pincushions) until you pop out into the Olifantsbos car park ….and in our case, not a soul in sight!

After a hearty picnic and a chat about The Long Walk Home….we decided it would be best if Mamma ran back to fetch the car. What a joy to trot quietly along the road back to the bakkie…a peaceful 8 kays or so with bold tortoises crossing the road ahead and a warm salty breeze pushing me along…bliss!

Another heavenly day out in a place right on our doorstep.

Glamping

I have spent the weekend ‘glamping’. That’s camping in style. No pitching tents in the dark, losing tent pegs, tripping over guy ropes or fumbling around with a dodgy head torch.

And definitely NO threat of noisy fellow campers this time round!

We spent two nights at Kolkol – a lovely spot just outside Botriver about 6 kays on the Van der Stel pass road. The farm has two ‘luxury’ tents – beautifully done with wonderful features (such as a ball and claw bath & a travelling hot tub). Real necessities when camping, you understand!

The tents are both tucked away in different corners of the farm. Ours was the ‘upper’ tent – the most private of the two, with its own little stream that bubbled below constantly and with lush restios and riverine fynbos providing welcome shelter from the sun and a little haven for birds and dragonflies.

It was our second visit – this time without small person (and to celebrate our 10 year anniversary), so an opportunity to really just enjoy the peace and quiet and catch up with some great reading!

Other than the occasional sunbird, a few robins and some pretty little grassbirds and prinias, we did not see much in the way of wildlife…

So it was quite funny that once back in Noordhoek (bustling metropolis that it is), I went on to have three pretty awesome wild sightings! The first was within minutes of getting home. I heard the birds going ballistic in the tree just outside near our front stoep. Thinking snake or something we went out to investigate and a massive Black Sparrowhawk bombed out of the tree …obviously had his eye on some of our juicy docile rock pigeons!

I then headed out for a 2 hour run in the hills behind, and about 45 minutes into the run (on the Old Wagon trail), very nearly stepped on the tail of a rather long black snake. I did not manage to see his head, so could not ID him. But he was fast and very big! As if that was not enough, I then came within inches of stepping on a very plump, very beautiful Puffie….also moving remarkably fast (for a Puffadder anyway) into the fynbos on the side of a path on the Silvermine East side.

There is something very invigorating about being SO close to something so deadly and powerful! But it did make me feel just a little jittery in the last hour of my run and I found myself picking my way ever so gingerly over the rocks of the last narrow, rocky path I had to negotiate to get home.

Three wonderful sightings in one afternoon – and all on home turf.

A perfect end to a great weekend.

Kgalagadi – Act III: Red in tooth and claw

As mentioned in my first post about the Kgalagadi, nature is red in tooth and claw…you see life and death within seconds of each other. This rawness can be disturbing to some. When we excitedly mentioned our cheetah kill sighting to a chap in one of the camps, he said he no longer hangs around to watch them, saying that for him it is a bit like watching a car accident. Each to his own, I guess!

The scene below was wonderful to watch. It also had its moments…when we thought the poor little thing was stuck and wasn’t going to make it! Then what could we do? Absolutely nothing, of course. Yet again, we were just casual bystanders – powerless to intervene, but privileged to watch something so extraordinary and to share an incredible hour with this Sringbok mum.

As we drove by, we spotted her lying down and I noticed the birth sac protruding from her. She stood up and moved about and slowly two little feet emerged. She did not seem to be actively pushing – she would graze a little then maybe nose her behind a bit…but was not overly concerned about things.

At one point something spooked the small gathering of females and babies and they all bolted across the road -birthing mum included. As she ran, the sack burst and this seemed to speed things along. We then watched the little creature inch its way into the world – ears, nose, eyes.

The whole shiny bundle plopped out after a good 45 minutes. The mum spent a long time licking and eating the placenta and then this incredible little creature made its first attempt at getting up.

It struggled for ages, but could never quite make it. We had to leave the scene before we saw it totter up successfully, but were told by people who had seen this before that it can take quite a while. Our concern was that because her birth had seemed so prolonged, perhaps something had happened to the calf?

Again, like the cheetah and her kill – we will never know! And whatever happened, there would be no waste, if the little thing was damaged in some way. Someone would have benefited from this gift of life – hyena, jackal or vulture.




Kgalagadi – Act II: Killer instinct

About that cheetah kill I mentioned…

Sometime after midday on the Nossob River side of the park, we spotted a lone cheetah under a tree – well over a kilometre away from us. She was in the shade of a large acacia doing what these big cats do best – lounging about, full of feline disdain and attitude.

I scanned up and down the river bed with my bins (to check for hapless prey material, just in case) and lo and behold spotted three mature ostriches trotting south directly towards her (a male with two females in tow).

I made some comment about ostriches approaching the line of fire and how they were ‘lambs to the slaughter’ and all that…

My son – avid watcher of ‘Life’, ‘Nature’s Great Events’ and all programmes with the vaguest whiff of the genius of Attenborough piped up “She won’t go for them Mom, not on her own….noooo way!….Cheetah’s just don’t risk attacking ostriches without backup….too dangerous. Waaaaay too dangerous.”

The 7 ½ yr old had spoken! And given his astonishingly accurate assessment of so many other behavioural issues in the preceding days, we took his word for it and accepted that she would be wise and just watch them trot by.

She suddenly adopted that classic feline crouch, her head and ears flattened, shoulder blades up. The tension and electricity in our car was incredible as we realised it was all going to happen – and fast.

The large male ostrich trotted past and then VOOMP –she leapt. She was incredible…with precision and control and the most phenomenal speed, she bolted towards the middle bird from the side. The birds all panicked and it was knees up as they attempted to flee – tail feathers splayed and aloft.

We watched and tried to makes sense of the blur of her supremely athletic body, her stealth and missile-like focus. She veered right, then left, and then leapt up, grabbed one of the ostrich’s massive thighs with her paws and the neck with her jaws and after about 15 seconds the bird was down. There was an explosion of dust and a 30 second long struggle on the ground with dangerous thrashing legs, a flurry of wings and flaying neck.
We worried about those legs – one blow to the cat’s stomach or head could prove fatal

And then it was all over.

The dust settled and the dead ostrich was revealed – Titanic that she was. I would estimate a healthy 120 kg of flesh, bone, sinew and feathers. This bird had thighs that would make Usain Bolt whimper…

We then watched the cheetah drag the bird by the head for about a metre and then drop it. She walked back to the shade of the tree (no hint of injury or damage) and flopped down.

It was probably about 35 degrees at that point. She had just brought down (and dragged) an animal well over twice her weight and well over four times her height, and was no doubt shattered.

We waited for just under an hour – watching to see if she would start feeding, but she didn’t.

A day later we drove to the same spot and the only hint of the previous day’s carnage was a small pile of damp feathers and a few bones….whether she had eventually feasted on her prize (or possibly other scavengers in the night had enjoyed her winnings), we will never know!

When it was all over we all sat and looked at one another. I was shaking, Tim drained a 2 litre bottle of water and Warren just kept saying F#%ck.
A lot.
It was quite the most incredible thing to watch.

Here is the sequence. I apologise for the number of pictures, but I couldn’t resist.

(With big thanks to photographic maestro Warren for capturing it all between the expletives…bear in mind that this was well over a kay away and with a shimmery heat haze wobble going on so you have to really search for the cat, particularly in the first pic…)