Game Hunters

IMG_6435

There is something faintly absurd about rattling around the largely unspoiled African bush in a rickety, open land rover in search of wild life, when it would be much more convenient and reliable to see the animals at the zoo.

A game drive is an exercise in patience.  For 90% of the time all there is to be seen is the grey scrub-like bush and surprisingly lush Mopane trees desperately clinging to life in the red dust.  Although no doubt there are plenty of animals magnificently camouflaged just beyond our sight, the odds of seeing something is slight.  The area the animals wander in is huge, their number limited and to be in the same place at the same time as something more remarkable than an Impala is unlikely.

IMG_6400

And yet somehow, almost always, there is something marvellous to see.  And when you do, when you come across a leopard or an elephant, it is an adrenaline fuelled thrill.  It occurs to me that this is perhaps what hunters feel, and that perhaps we are modern day hunters, armed only with a Canon and an iPhone, and without the flawed ego that requires the kill.  The big five – named that way for being the hardest animals to hunt – remain in our sights because they are elusive and majestic to see.  When we find one of these marvellous African animals moving freely we are breathless with excitement and nerves, awed by their beauty and power.

We are spoilt here, in this beautiful parcel of land grand-hearted people strive with difficulty to maintain against the tide of human self-interest.  Here where the efforts of the passionate have carved out a little piece of Africa that is, almost, as it once was.  Here on the border of the Kruger, where they do battle with poachers, we rattle about in our dusty land-rover desperate for a glimpse of a rhino before they are wiped out completely.

IMG_6925

And that is what game drives are about, for me.  Appreciating the importance of these creatures in their natural surroundings.  Looking into an elephant’s eyes, or being pinned to your seat by the steely glint of a lioness and knowing that they have as much a right to this land as human beings do.

 

 

 

 

A Scatterling from Africa

IMG_1096

Ever since our trip to South Africa last year I have been feeling vaguely homesick.  Is it homesickness, this wistful longing I have for South Africa?   After all, South Africa is not my home nor has it been so for nearly two decades. Give it a couple of years and I’ll have lived in Sydney longer than any other town, including the one I spent most of my formative years in.  And despite the requests from my children, we are not about to pack up the house and move back to Johannesburg.  No, my home is right here in this beautiful land girded by sea.  A place I love.

Yet something in me still pines strongly for the land of my childhood, for the place where I come from.  I would say I was “root” sick, but in Australia that has all sorts of nasty connotations.

And that is the thing.  The idiosyncrasies of your adopted culture trip you up and make you constantly aware that you don’t quite fit in.  Culture codes, that you absorb like language when you are immersed in it from birth, have to be learned from scratch.  And, like a second language, you are never as fluent in it as your first.  Regardless of how well you adapt, there are little things that always mark you out to be a stranger.

When you are plucked, or in my case, when you pluck yourself, out of your beginnings and plop yourself somewhere else you stand out like guinea fowl amongst the cockatoos. Literally a foreigner in a foreign land.

Australia might look largely the same as South Africa, and we might share a lot of similar values, at least at a surface level, but below the surface the currents that tug and pull on the cultural landscape are different, and they leave a different shape.  A shape you don’t quite fit into.

Not only do you have to navigate the linguistic quirks of your new abode, when you come into a new country as an adult, you have no natural, inbuilt cultural reference points, no shared formation memories with your contemporaries.  You don’t understand what it means to hear Jimmy Barnes belt out Khe Sahn Road at a charity benefit.  You weren’t there the first time.  And you don’t know what Australia was like in the middle of the Vietnam war.  And while you might have enjoyed a similarly defining moment at your first Johnny Clegg  concert, when you grew up and realised life is not all rock and roll, it’s not the same experience.   Your reference points are entirely different.

Watching Searching for Sugarman reminded me of that.  Reminded me of my youth and my South Africaness, those two things being intractably intertwined.  Of crazy university days and of growing up, properly, in the shadow of a mountain shaped like a table, whilst my country wrestled with its changing shape.  It reminded me of beach-side bike rides and first kisses and watching Mandela lift up the Rugby World Cup.  But more than anything, it reminded me that there was once a time where I did feel like a fitted in, naturally, without effort.

I think this visceral connection to our origins, our roots, to the place where we were formed, is a harkening back to a time where we knew we belonged.   Despite having lived nearly half my life outside of South Africa, it seems I am still South African.

I suspect that is why people stick together in their little enclaves in Australia, land of the immigrant.  It is something we deliberately tried not to do.  No St Ives or Double Bay for us.  We wanted to be absorbed, wanted to feel Australian.  But perhaps that was a mistake?   Good coffee and great deli’s aside, the unsuspected Italianness in our suburb is yet another reminder that we are have cut ourselves adrift from our roots.

Perhaps we are just programmed to feel most comfortable with our tribe of origin?

Does it matter?  It didn’t use to, but as I get older I wonder about the ease at which I abandoned my country, my culture?  I feel I underestimated the damage that can do to your sense of place in the world.  No wonder people hold fast onto their traditions when they are in a foreign country.  They are holding on to their sense of themselves.

Maybe that’s why we get such a sense of pleasure from watching the Springboks trounce the Wallabies or hearing Trevor Noah on QI or visiting The Lucky Tsotsi or making a trip to the South African shop to buy biltong.  It reminds us of where we come from.  And that makes us feel whole.

 

 

 

Moholoholo

Moholoholo Logo

Moholoholo Rehabilitation Centre nestles beneath the towering crags of the Drakensberg, in the dry bushland of Mpumalanga Province, South Africa. It is a place where passion for the welfare of Africa’s incredible wildlife is palpable. You get the strong sense of a small team of committed individuals striving to make a difference in the face of both poaching and the threat of human progress (land clearing, power lines, mining, farming etc).

Moholoholo

When we arrive, they are overwhelmed by visitors. While waiting for our guide, Oscar, to finish seeing to busloads of tourists, founder Bryan Jones gave us an impassioned speech about the importance of efforts like Moholoholo and the fierce battle they face to protect the animals of Africa.

He is spitting mad, having just returned from Namibia, where “they” have killed hundreds of vultures, by virtue of poisoning the carcass of a poached elephant.  Clever birds that they are, vultures have learned to follow poachers, knowing there will be a kill at the end of the line. Hoards of circling vultures alert the scouts, who are then able, with a bit of luck to capture these cowardly criminals red handed. It seems an edict has gone out from the criminal enterprises that make money off the wanton death and desecration of Africa’s animals, “Kill them all, kill everyone of those vultures.” And so, in act of moral depravity so starkly vicious, these bastards poison the carcasses of the animals they slay, leading to an onward spiral of death to all the scavengers that serve to keep the bush clear of disease.

The poor vulture also faces a more local threat, where witch doctors steeped in out-dated tradition peddle vulture heads as a way to see the future. After all, an animal which can soar with the gods can surely see all that was, and all that is to come.

You can see why education is such a passion for the Moholoholo team.  When it comes to helping animals, Moholoholo‘s main aim is rehabilitation, but animals who are unable to be re-released into the wild are housed at the centre, and used to educate the public.

IMG_1383

A visit to Moholoholo is a wonderful opportunity to get up close and personal with a range of wildlife. We got into cages with massive eagles who had lost a wing flying into power lines, vultures who could no longer fly, a lonely ground hornbill who thought it was a human being.  

A highlight was being able to stroke a cheetah. A breathtakingly wonderful experience, but when she turned and looked at my little boy like she was sizing him as a mid morning snack, the hairs on my arms lifted and I was reminded that, despite the collar, this was a wild animal and the instinct to hunt never goes away.

Cheetah

Moholoholo is also home to a family of lions (rescued from a circus), who had grown too big and wild to handle. They could not be rehabilitated because they are no longer afraid of humans, making them deeply dangerous (as one volunteer recently discovered). Oscar, overflowing with knowledge and highly entertaining anecdotes, hand fed the male of this pride through a wire fence, reinforced with chicken wire. It was quite something to see a lion devouring meat, its mouth with pointed teeth dripping with blood soaked saliva just centimetres away from our faces. There are very clear sign posted warnings not to stick your fingers through the wires. Oscar remarks, “We had to put the chicken wire up as well. Despite the signs, people still try and touch the lion. They’ll lose a hand.” I can well believe it.

Lion at Moholoholo

The tour ends with a visit to a baby rhino. They mewl, baby rhino, did you know that? This little fella had lost his mom (I think to natural causes) and one of the wildlife parks had asked Moholoholo to raise him. When he is old enough, he will be returned to the wild to experience the joy of Africa’s bush for himself, and face the dangers that come with that. Let’s hope that some progress has been made in the war against rhino poaching before then, otherwise he may well end up being one of the few surviving rhinos in the world.

Baby Rhino

More photos here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/101901043@N02/sets/72157635579771284/

The Rhythm of the Bush

IMG_1142 IMG_1147 IMG_1161 IMG_1233

Breeding heard of elephant
Breeding heard of elephant

Life here in the African bush has a regular cadence. A rhythm of peaceful relaxation and calm introspection, driven by the light of the day and the distance from everything. There is no urgency, no plan of action. We climb into the Land Rover, all open to the wild and trek around the park, peering through the grey and yellow and brown landscape in search of animals so well suited to hiding. It is strange how the animals, all so different – with grey elephants and black and white zebra and tall speckled giraffes – all blend in so well to the bush. It makes the task to spotting them that much more difficult. I image we hurtle past lion and rhino without seeing them, rocks and stones in the distant grass.

Today we saw zebra though, gorgeous, hanging out with the impala. In the distance we watched a large herd of elephants carefully shepherd their babies into the Kruger. We caught sight of giraffe, although not as close as yesterday where we saw them in the riverbed, up close and personal. There is rhino about and leopard, apparently, although we are still to sight them. I am holding onto hope! A leopard in a tree, that is the holy grail of spotting at Ingwe.

Another joyful aspect to being out here, away from electricity and light and noise is the stars. Last night the moon was late to rise and the sky was clear and we drove into the middle of the bush and turned off the lights and lay on the top of the landy and stared and stared at the stars. The milky way spilling across the deep black night. We could point out the Southern Cross and Orion’s Belt and that very, very bright star (is it Alpha Centuria, perhaps?) to our children, but after that our limited knowledge of astronomy ran out. There were a million more stars to see, if only we knew their names, bright and clear in the dead quiet dark of the bush. Sometimes people say staring at the stars makes them feel insignificant. I don’t feel like that. It feels to me like we are part of some magnificent wonder, some incredible creation of indescribable beauty. A tiny part of some tremendous whole and I find it deeply refreshing right in the heart of me.

The African Elephant

An African Elephant
An African Elephant

I wish I wrote well enough to describe the majesty of the African Elephant. I wish I had enough persuasion in my pen to make those who seek to destroy this magnificent animal for the sake of ivory chopsticks, a symbol of recently acquired wealth (but a devastating lack of wisdom), sit back of realise the destructive stupidity of their demands.

There is a war going on in Africa. A war bought on by the rise of China and the efficiency of criminal enterprise to fulfil any demand. Elephants are being slaughtered for their tusks, rhinos are being driven to the edge of extinction for their horns (ground up and made into medicine so men who lack a conscience can feed their sense of sexual inadequacy) and now lions are being hunted for their bones. More magic muti for the ignorant and callous. Would it help if I told them the bone marrow of lions quite often house tuberculosis? That if they grind up the bones and put it in their tea, with a bit of karma, maybe they’ll get sick.

We came across three elephants yesterday, standing like dark giant rocks in the grey sea of winter trees. Close enough to see their eyelashes, thick and long, protecting brown pools of intelligence – eyes that stare at you soulfully. As tall as the Landrover and nearly as wide, they move with a silence that seems unbelievable. Turning off the engine, the only thing you can hear are the swish of their trunks as they pull the grass out of the ground and shake it about to dislodge the earth before eating it. My heart is always pounding to see elephant that close up. But what a treat it is. They are the real king of the bush, regal and serene, but when disturbed or upset, they can react with deadly intent. Not fast enough to escape a bullet though. Not fast enough to protect themselves from man’s never-ending self-obsessed talent for destroying beauty and life and wonder for the sake of ego.

In love with Africa

Africa Bushveldt Sunset
Arriving into Johannesburg feels unexpectantly like a home coming. The city is instantly familiar. I had forgotten how beautiful the light is here in the early evening. Diffused as it is through the haze of veldt fires, the air has a golden glow. The sun is setting when we finally get out of the airport, and head our hire car in the direction of Sandton. I point out suddenly remembered flashes of the past as we hurtle along Gauteng’s amazing highway system (still the best in the world). Coming back to South Africa has stirred within me roots I thought long buried.

The beauty of South Africa’s vast and varied landscape is quite spectacular. Even the high-veldt, which is dry and, in many places, charred, has it’s own charm. A mustard yellow environment, dry and crackling in the winter air, speckled with mines and empty fields lying fallow for winter. Power stations and the tall cylinders of granaries break the straight, flat line of the horizon, miles in the distance. And everywhere, the sky, a washed out blue, dominates the eye.

Around Dullstroom we move towards the edge of the escarpment. This is South Africa’s little Scotland, all highland heather the colour of weak coffee. Round headed koppies rise out of the rolling landscape and in the dips and valleys dams of water team with trout.

The beauty of Mpumalanga’s mountain ranges is jaw-achingly breathtaking. We make our way towards Burkes-Luck-Potholes, through lumber country where the mountains are dressed with pine and purple heather and waterfalls galore. Hiking would normally be the order of the day in this part of the world, but with the rain and mist we keep on going. Passing through yet another landscape, the clouds lift and we get to see the magical vistas on either side of our high road. Sweeping scenery in shades of brown and khaki fall away on either side as we head towards yet another range of mountains silhouetted in the distance.

We visit Burkes-Luck Pot-Holes, where Australia’s OH&S lawmakers would be falling over themselves in dismay, and clamber over the rocks to peer down into the ravines and holes made by a million years of flowing water and churning rocks. The kids are fascinated by the geology and love bounding over the rocks (away from the edge!) and trying to collect tadpoles further upstream.

And after that, the scenery changes yet again, as we move over Blyde River Canyon, suddenly we are in safari country. Bush country, with its dry khaki grass and grey trees, and beige sand. And it feels good to be in the bush once more.

Ingwelala is a very special place, located next door to the Kruger and unfenced and open to all the animals. We sit around the fire, watching the steak and boerewors cook, and are visited by a rangy hyena, all sloped shoulders and cowardly demeanor. He skirts the camp furtively, tail between his legs, looking for an opportunity to nick the meat from the braai. In the morning a family of warthogs visit. They kneel down to eat, as though they are praying. They are also skittish, reacting to any sound with a quick lift of their heads, their bushy whiskers startling against the light. They run off, in a line, tails in the air. Later, the kids play at the playground, the warthogs and Nyala in the background.

It is all sitting around, eating and drinking and driving around in the search for animals. It is a bit like trying to locate a needle in a haystack. After all, there are 17000 hectares for them to hide in. Still, we have managed to see giraffe, sable, zebra, impala, steenbok, Kudu and this morning a special male elephant. Not bad for day two, hey?