For the identification of insects and other fauna and flora of South Africa.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Courier - A short story

Africa!!! The name conjures up vivid pictures of dark mystery, desolate landscapes and blazing sunsets. A world of colour and excitement, where those of us who are privileged to live there, find peace and tranquillity.

The sun creeps over the low hills like a ball of orange fire. To the courier, it is a day of new beginnings, new experiences. No two days are the same, each one a full exciting twenty four hours. The excitement is contagious and instead of a groan at being woken up at 4:30am, everyone is bright eyed and hastily consumes the coffee and biscuits laid out for them, for who knows what today will bring.

Even when starting out, one is reminded of the peaceful surroundings. Birds twitter in the trees, Impala's jump around in sheer delight at the cool morning air which will turn to hot humidity before the sun rises much further.
In a hushed voice I say "Look over there at the bottom of that thorn tree." All eyes swivel in the direction I am pointing. The same eyes open wide in wonder as they notice a pair of young lions lying in the shade of a tree. Everyone is quiet, all hands automatically reach for cameras and binoculars.

"Notice" I say "how the mane of the male protects his neck so that if he gets into a fight, he will not be harmed so easily. These two lions are probably a mating pair and will stay together, mating approximately every twenty minutes, for the next two or three days."

The lions lay watching us lazily, the black-tipped tail shooing away flies. Not even the clicking of the camera shutters disturb them. After a while, the female gets up and slowly walks towards the male. Gently she begins to nibble his ear. Playfully she puts her paw on his front leg and then lays down next to him with her paws waving around in the air. She rolls half on top of him and he growls at her without taking much further notice. He looks away and she lightly scratches his side in order to attract his attention. He stands up and while they mate, he gently bites the thick skin at the back of her neck. So enthralled are the passengers on the bus, that they forget to take the all important picture. Only when the male lies down again, do they remember, but by then the action has passed and all sigh with pent-up breath at the sight of seeing their first lions which are not in the zoo, but in their natural habitat.

The sun is climbing steadily to it's zenith and already the heat is quite intense. A couple more photographs, then it is time to move on.

Because of the moisture which collects on the road at night and runs off to the side, the grass next to the road is usually higher than elsewhere, and rounding a corner, we stop at the sight of an old male elephant grazing. He is twice the size of our little bus, and only a close encounter like this allows one to see how gigantic the elephant really is. He takes very little notice of all the elbows and heads emerging from the windows to enable us to get that extra special photograph. Jokingly I whisper to the passengers "This elephant is named Sweetie Pie and if you call him by his name, he will stop eating and look up."

They are not sure whether to believe me or not, but after some coaxing, one brave gentleman decides to try out the name, he leans out the window and calls "Sweetie Pie." Sure enough, the elephant picks up his head at the sound and everyone laughs for they did not believe my story.
Someone asks if that really is his name, if he always responds to it and how did I teach it to him. I have to confess that Sweetie Pie is just the name I have given him because he is so gentle and allows one to get fairly close to him. I also explain that he is actually responding to the sound of the voice, not the name. Sweetie Pie can eat as much as three hundred kilograms of green food a day and spends much of his time eating. He cannot lie down, as the weight of his body will crush his ribs and in turn, puncture his lungs, so he spends short periods standing against a tree having catnaps.
The veld is alive with the sight of thousands of birds. During the summer months, one is liable to see most of the species recorded in that area. The vultures and Marabou Stork sit together high up in the trees and as soon as it gets light, they will start to circle high in the sky. They have fantastic eye-sight and as soon as a "kill" is spotted, it seems as if all the carrion eaters for miles around drop out of the sky and land as close as they can to the carcass. If and when the predators move away from their meal, they swoop down from the branches and a dozen fights break out in order for them to get close enough to get a bit to eat.

The smaller seed eating birds fly close to the ground in large swarms. They settle on a patch of grass to consume the seeds and then fly on to the next patch. The magnificent colour of the Woodland Kingfisher catches the eye and we watch it perch on a nearby branch waiting for an insect to come within reach. Then it dances in the sky and nimbly catches it in it's beak and flies back to a perch to have it's meal.

By this time our stomachs start to growl for food as well, so we head in the direction of the camp. The fresh air and early start makes us ravenously hungry. We pile our plates high with eggs, bacon, sausage and toast. To top it off, large cups of tea or coffee. The conversation is largely about what we had seen up to then and which route we will take after breakfast. Maps are taken out and certain roads suggested. After more coffee (and for some, a second helping of food) we are ready to climb into the bus and head into the veld again.
When the early settlers arrived in Cape Town, they saw many Springbuck in that area and hence, the Springbuck became our national animal. Personally, I think the Impala is a much more beautiful buck, and as they are found all over our game parks, I often hear the words "Oh no, not another Impala." But wait, what is that male Impala trying to do? It looks as if he is fighting with that bush! Whatever can he be up to?? Actually, he is using the gland on his head which to us looks like a patch of dark brown air between his horns to mark his territory. Has anyone ever wondered how the young new-born Impala calf finds his mother during the breeding season in-between hundreds of others all the same shape and colour?? The truth is that the female Impala also has a gland near the bottom of her legs and as she walks, leaves her own personal smell on the grass as she walks through, thus the baby is able to follow the scent until it finds her.

One of the questions I find most foreign tourists to this country ask is what is the difference between a buck and a deer. When a deer looses it's horn's or antler's at the end of winter, it will start to grow again, whereas if a buck looses or breaks a horn, it does not grow back. The most impressive of our buck has to be the male kudu. He has a most beautiful set of horns, and every time one is seen, many 'Oohs' and 'Aahs' can be heard by the gentlemen in the bus as they visualise them as a trophy on their walls.

One incident concerning a buffalo comes to mind and I share it with the passengers: We were driving along when all of a sudden we found ourselves almost on top of a herd that was crossing the road to drink water at the river. One gentleman cried out 'Go! Go! They are going to chase us as the bus is red!!' Poor man!! It took quite a long time to convince him that buffalo cannot see colours and that they are very short sighted as well.

Zebra, Blue Wildebeest and giraffe are everywhere. It is fascinating to watch how a giraffe will stand and look down it's nose at one from it's superior height. They have the longest eyelashes which I am sure are were the envy of all women during the years when false eyelashes were popular. Zebra roll in the dust in order to make their white stripes look darker, and Blue Wildebeest stand dead still in a tiny anthill looking around for any signs of danger.
One of the gentlemen on this trip was here lecturing at universities. He told us that before he came here he asked his daughters what they would like him to bring back from Africa. The five year old said "Daddy, please bring me a giraffe to pick the coconuts off the trees." The three year old thought about it and said "Daddy, please bring me a hippopotamus to keep the dog out of the pool." And we could all just imagine him turning up at the international airport with a giraffe on one leash and a hippo on the other.
We stopped for lunch at a camp, after which we spent an hour watching game on the other side of the fence. In certain areas, the game is used to people moving about and some of the smaller animals, come begging for food. At one camp there is a whole flock of Masked Weavers, Buffalo Weavers, sparrows and doves that come to pick up the crumbs when one leaves from a table. One Masked Weaver had the strangest habit I have ever seen, instead of picking up the spilled crumbs, it would make it's way unhesitatingly to the milk jug. It is very unusual and I show this habit to the people with me who shake their heads in amazement.

The baboons sitting high up in the trees act as look-out for the animals feeding below. The baby baboon travels hanging under the belly of their mothers belly just after birth, and when they are older (about two to three months), they sit on her back propped against her tail. Baboons eat almost anything from insects to bird's eggs to berries. The full grown baboon has teeth which are longer than that of a cheetah.

Warthog wallow in the mud. When one looks at them and remembers that a mud baths are used as a beauty-aid, it is difficult to see the use of mud packs, as it certainly does nothing for THEIR appearance.!! They will forage for food during the early morning and late afternoon resting up in the heat of the day. When alarmed, their tails go straight up in the air, and when the grass is tall, this enables those behind to see where the rest of the family are going, and so stay together.

One of my favourite things is to find a place where there are no noticeable animals, switch the cars engine off, and let people listen to the sounds of the veld. It is amazing what one can hear when it is apparently silent. During the night drive, I do the same thing and let people out of the bus so that they can see the stars and hear the frogs and crickets with usually a lion in the distance. The night birds and creatures are fascinating.
Once we have reached camp, had a shower, supper and a drink or two, it is time to relax and discover how everyone relates to what he or she has seen during the day, The wood fire is the only light we have, and stories can now be told of previous happenings in the bush. A lot of visitors to our country have questions about our different tribes. For example, our camp attendant has two wives both living with him. The customs of our country are always of interest. Slowly the camp fire dies away and one by one the guests slip off to bed. Another day has ended, but tomorrow will be the beginning of new adventures.

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