I woke to a confidential sort of murmuring / chirping outside my window. What birds are those, I wondered and peered through my window, then my bathroom window. Then I went to the scullery and peered through the window. Still nothing, so I opened the top of the stable door and they scattered.
Six Banded Mongooses on the back lawn outside my bedroom window! What a lovely sight! Had I been awake I’d have taken a camera to the door! Last week Jessie had called me to the lounge: ‘Dad! What are those! Come look!’ and showed me three mongooses on our front lawn. Hope they’re here to stay.
A lovely morning so I set off early for Pigeon Valley.
Soon after I got home the rain started – lovely lazy day listening to the rain on the roof; eating TomTom’s macaroni cheese, lots of bacon; its quite dark so maybe the sun is over the yardarm, I’ll have some vino now without looking at the clock.
What luck! friends couldn’t make their timeshare for happy reasons (grandchild due) so we took over! With pleasure. Nibela is in prime Broadbill sand forest territory and I have dipped out on seeing a Broadbill, coming close a number of times, but no sighting. I was keen, so was Jess. Tom considered the fishing options and the food a la carte, but decided in the end that it was just too remote for a city slicker! ‘Enjoy your sticks and trees, Dad!’ he bid us farewell.
Jess liked the place immediately. It had cellphone reception and DSTV. Also there was wifi at the main building. What was not to like?
The food at the lodge was great. The one pork belly dish was the best I’ve had, and all their soups and veges were superbly done. We ate there three nights and I made supper one night.
We searched for the African Broadbill, but no sign was seen or heard, so it remains on the wishlist. This is what its sand forest haunts look like, where it performs its little bird-of-paradise dance to get laid so an egg can get laid:
Lovely local specials we did see were Woodward’s Batis – a pair displaying and calling two metres away in a tree; Rudd’s Apalis; Purple-banded Sunbird; all good sightings and obligingly chirping as we watched. Narina Trogon, calling each day, but not seen; Heard but didn’t see a possible Neergard’s Sunbird. Two lovely bird parties popped up right in front of our chalet: One evening Dark-backed Weaver, Puffback, Golden-tailed Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Greenbul, Terrestrial Brownbul, Yellow White-Eye and Southern Black Tit; The next morning Dark-backed Weaver, Puffback, Pink-throated Twinspot, duetting Southern Boubous, Square-tailed Drongo, Yellow-breasted Apalis and Collared Sunbird.
Jessie’s Best Sighting:
In the grounds of the lodge Jess spotted something beautiful in a tree! Look! Dad! wifi! You didn’t even have go indoors to have wifi!
A drive out to where the Mkhuze river flows into the lake brought back memories of my last trip there – by boat on a bird count with the game warden nearly forty years ago. Greater Flamingos, one Lesser Flamingo, White Pelicans, a Rosy-throated Longclaw, Common Ringed Plovers, Kittlitz’s Plovers, Stilts, Yellow-billed Ducks, Hottentot Teals and many more.
Pelicans fishing in a ‘laager’ – surrounding the fish then dipping in: Heads up – Bums up.
On our trip up Platberg one couldn’t help seeing all the lichens about; especially prominent on rocks, but also on the plants, especially on the ouhout, Leucosidea sericea and on the old oaks where we old okes had lunch.
Lichens are fascinating. Coincidentally a day or two after we got back from Platberg, a post from a wonderful blog I follow Fossils and Other Living Things arrived, which got me reading and searching:
The term “Lichen” applies to a symbiotic relationship, a way of life, that has married algae and fungi. The algae uses its photosynthetic power to manufacture carbohydrates, most of which are absorbed by the fungi with which they reside. The fungi, in turn, provide the algae with essential moisture, shelter from harmful ultraviolet rays, and toxins that ward off predatory animals. There is no typical arrangement of algae and fungi in lichens. There’s huge, wonderful variety – diversity!
OK so far; What then, are “Algae” (singular alga – use a hard ‘g’)? No easy answer; no consensus answer. Ruth Kassinger in her book, Slime: How Algae Created Us, Plague Us, and Just Might Save Us (2019) notes that algae is a catchall term, a name for a group of diverse organisms; They are not plants, though they photosynthesize. Different algal taxa did not evolve from a common ancestor, and Kassinger describes three main groups: single-celled blue-green algae or cyanobacteria; single-celled microalgae; and multicellular macroalgae (the seaweeds).
And what are fungi? “Fungi” (singular fungus) include microorganisms such as yeasts and molds, as well as the more familiar mushrooms in a separate kingdom from the other well-known eukaryotic life kingdoms: plants and animals. Fungi evolved from a single common ancestor. They expand by growth or by emitting spores which float off and start new growth. Fungi are the principal decomposers in ecological systems.
In the past, mycology – the study of fungi – was regarded as a branch of botany, but it is now known fungi are genetically more closely related to us animals than to broccoli. Nice and humbling, innit?
So back to Lichens: Lichens are loosely divided into groups by the way they look: crustose lichens lie very flat against the substrate on which they are affixed; foliose lichens which are much more three-dimensional with lobed growths and some separation from the substrate on which they live ; fruticose lichens which can resemble miniature tumbleweeds and attach to a substrate at a single point.
The relationship in lichens is symbiotic between the alga and the fungus but, Tony Edger points out that it seems to favour the fungus. Quite frequently in this relationship, according to Brodo in Lichens of North America (2001), Irwin M. Brodo et al., the fungi is killing the enveloped algae. That is safely offset by the algae’s rate of reproduction, though.
Lichens engage in a variety of ways of reproducing. One approach is asexual: When a fragment detaches and blows away, if it lands in a similar location, it attaches and starts growing as a new individual. For other lichen species, asexual reproduction is more deliberate and complicated. These species create little balls (called soredia), each consisting of a single algae surrounded by fungi filaments. If these reproductive spheres are detached from the lichen and come to rest in a hospitable environment, a new lichen can grow. The fungi in most of these lichens produce spores which begin as sex cells (gametes) and then, after fusing with other sex cells, are released. But these spores, cast to the winds, will create a new lichen only if they happen to land on an alga of a specific, requisite species. Here the fungi appear to be playing against long odds. Producing huge quantities of spores helps improve their odds of success.
Lichens are found almost everywhere.
They are extremophiles, and are found from the poles to the tropics, from the intertidal zones to the peaks of mountains, and on every kind of surface from soil, rock, and tree bark to the backs of living insects! They are an evolutionary success story with around 14,000 different species covering some six percent of Earth’s surface. Those lichens that employ rock as a substrate make soil – without which plants could not have invaded the land – by engaging in a very slow process of eroding the rock into soil. Their anchoring filaments penetrate cracks in the rocks and, as the weather alternatively moistens the lichens, expanding their anchoring filaments, and then dries them out, the substrate is broken up. A slow process, sure, but rocks without lichens disintegrate even slower – maybe ten times slower!
Three more fun facts I found: 1. Lichens are affected profoundly by air quality. The diversity of species in a location is a gauge of how polluted its atmosphere is. 2. The long life-span and slow and regular growth rate of some lichens can be used to date events. One of its advantages is it can date the last 500 years, which most other dating techniques can’t. 3. Lichens are not related to moss. Moss are plants.
**(Even more fun fact: When searching for ‘dating by lichens’ I was shown lots of sites for ‘mature dating’ and ‘dating for over 60’s! and ‘Meet mature singles near you’!)**
The illustration below of the interior of a simplified foliose lichen, captures some of the essence of the lichen structure. By Tony Edger. So it seems all you see is fungus – the alga is inside the fungus structure.
First we went to Swinburne, to Jenny (Mapp) and Steve Cleverley’s Hound and Hare on the far bank of the Wilge River, across the old 1884 sandstone toll bridge where we had launched a canoe journey many years before; There we watched a bunch of large blokes with odd-shaped balls shove each other around, playing ‘If someone gives you the ball, give it to the other blokes.’ Lovely to see Jenny’s smile again – I hadn’t seen her for ages.
We were almost outnumbered by the Welsh contingent there (that being Steve himself, being noisy), but we managed to see him off and send his team to play for bronze against that tongue-pulling outfit that play a bit of rugby in black outfits.
More importantly – and fittingly for our Hysterically-Minded gang – the result sets up a 2019 re-enactment of the Anglo-Boer War. Let’s hope the Poms play fair this time.
After a lovely lunch of roasted hound or hare we fell in line under Field Marshall Lello RSVP’s orders and listened to our knowledgeable local guide Leon Strachan in the hall kindly made available to us by Steve the Welsh rarebit. Leon told us the true story of the pioneer de Heer family, led by patriarch Pieter de Heer.
Then we drove to the farm Keerom on the edge of the Lost Valley on the Drakensberg escarpment; the border of the Free State and KwaZulu Natal. The story Leon told was of a family that lived a good, self-supported, independent life, sent their kids to school, used local services such as post office, shops and lawyers; sold their goods in the towns of Swinburne and Harrismith; married locally (and NOT incestuously!).
Just like many normal families, some of their children and grandchildren spread all over (one great-grandson becoming a neurosurgeon) and some remained – the farm is still owned by their descendants. People who didn’t understand them, nor know them, nor bother to get to know them, wrote inaccurate stories about them which must have caused the family a lot of heartache over many decades.
What a spectacular valley. It had burnt recently, but already flowers were popping up in the grassland.
Heather and Elize spotted a Solifuge scurrying about. They must have disturbed him, as Sun Spiders often hide by day and hunt by night.
Next we drove off to Nesshurst, Leon’s farm where he grows cattle and msobo, to look at his etchings. Well, his fossils. He has 150 million year old Lystrosaurus fossils on his farm and some in his museum, along with a Cape Cart he bought when he was in matric back in 1971! He has restored it beautifully. A catalogue of his ‘stuff’ would take pages, but I saw farm implements, military paraphenalia, miniature trains, hand-made red combines made by his childhood Zulu playmate; riems and the stones that brei and stretch them; yob-yob-ting cream separators; a Harrismith Mountain Race badge; photos of old British and Boer generals and leaders; a spectacular photo of Platberg and the concentration camp where women and children were sent to die by the invading British forces; a lovely collage made by Biebie de Vos of Harrismith Town Square, old prominent buildings and older prominent citizens, including my great-granpa, ‘Oupa’ Stewart Bain, owner of the Royal Hotel and mayor of the town; Also a Spilsbury and a Putterill. And Harrismith se Hoer School rugby jerseys.
We then repaired to The Green Lantern roadside inn in the village of Van Reenen for drinks and a lovely dinner. I had a delicious mutton curry which actually had some heat; I didn’t have to call for extra chillies – maybe as Van Reenen is in KZN, not in the Vrystaat.
Tomorrow we would head off west to climb Platberg the easy way: 4X4 vehicles driving up Flat Rock Pass (or Donkey Pass).
Leon grows cattle and msobo – and he also writes books! Nine so far. Four on the mense of Harrismith; One on the Harrismith Commando; One on the Anglo-Boer War concentrating on the area around Harrismith; one on his Grandad who was a Son of England; and more.
Why Swinburne? After Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837 – 1909), the English poet? He was alcoholic and wrote about many taboo topics, such as lesbianism, cannibalism, sado-masochism and anti-theism. He liked to be flogged and hated travel. So probably not him.
Some other Swinburne? I must ask Leon Strachan . .
Ah! I knew he’d know . .
Gold was ‘discovered’ in Matabeleland! Bullshitters bullshitted and people got excited! Such was the excitement around the discovery and hope in the new goldfield’s prospects that new companies were floated in London to take advantage of the rush. The most prominent of these companies was the London & Limpopo Mining Company, formed in late 1868. Such was the serious intent of the company that it sent its principal manager, Sir John Swinburne, with a team of experts and miners and a fleet of mining machinery, to Tati to establish the first large-scale gold mining operation in Southern Africa. The party arrived at Tati in April 1869, erected Southern Africa’s first mechanically operated appliance to crush gold-bearing ores and started work at once.
Ah! But BEFORE Swinburne arrived in Matabeleland, he had an adventure on the way. Leon describes it in his book BLAFBOOM:
Sir John Swinburne landed at Port Natal in 1868 and hurried ashore. He bought five wagons and six teams of trained oxen, unloaded his mining equipment off the ship, loaded it onto his wagons and set off post-haste, heading of course, for Harrismith, where everything happens.
Unfortunately for him and his hurry, it was a wet year, making the going difficult. His destination was Tati, on the present Botswana / Zimbabwe border, and as everyone knows, the route is Harrismith – Potchefstroom – Tati. He had concessions from King Lobengula of Matabeleland which would prove worthless, but he didn’t know that as he encouraged his oxen to move their arses. It went fairly well through Natal to the Drakensberg and even up van Reenens Pass, past Moorddraai mountain, but the marshy ground at Bosch Hoek farm trapped him. All his wagons sank to the axles.
After a week of trying – and, I imagine, some foul language – he was still stuck and his oxen were buggered. Disheartened, he swapped the wagons and oxen for a farm! The farm Albertina on a drift across the Wilge River became his property. He then hired a transport rider to take all his goods to Potch for him. He himself couldn’t wait. He hopped onto the post cart and off he went, ahead, things to do! He would never return to Albertina.
Years later the farm was sold by a local agent. In 1892 the Natal railroad reached the drift. A station and a bridge across the river were built. The station was named Albertina. About a decade later a station on the Riversdale to Mossel Bay line down in the Cape Colony was also named Albertina and chaos ensued. Parcels and letters for one Albertina were sent to the other and hearts were broken (I’m guessing here).
Something had to be done. The Railway high-ups rose to the occasion, re-naming the Free State station after a prominent previous owner of the farm it was situated on: Sir John Swinburne (1831-1914), the 7th Baronet of Capheaton; quite an adventurer, he was also Sheriff of Northumberland. He served in the Burmese War of 1852, in China and in the Baltic in 1854. In 1885 he was elected Labour MP for Lichfield, Staffordshire.
At the turn of the century the farm was bought by Abraham Sparks, father of the Texan tie Abe we knew. This started a long association with Swinburne village by the Sparks family which lasts to this day. Watching rugby in the Hound and Hare with us was Christopher Sparks, great-great-great grandson of Abraham.
Charles Darwin wrote The Descent of Man. I’m going to write far more briefly and light-heartedly about The Descent of One Mans Pass. His is 900 pages long and has sex in it. Mine is one page and only has suffering.
It was Barbara’s fault, of course. She was the instigator and in a fair and just world she would have been given a heavy backpack and her kierie would have been confiscated. As it is, she hared down like a springhaas, leaving the other four of us who deserted the platoon for our ‘shortcut,’ gasping in her wake.
‘It’s steep but it’s not far,’ I said confidently, clearly remembering the last time I had descended this pass on Platberg, or Ntabazwe – only about fifty years ago when I was a fit, lightweight klipspringer. Well! The first, rocky, section turned out to be twice as long as I’d remembered; and someone had loosened the rocks:
This part ended at the sandstone cave, which meant we had ‘conquered’ the dolerite cliff section, if we remembered Leon’s geology lesson correctly.
The second section is the grassy-rocky section which I also remembered well – except it was also much longer now. Perhaps there’s been a tectonic upwelling since I last did it?
. . then a section I had completely forgotten about. A bonus section, you could say.
. . a last little bit:
. . and we were on terra firma horizontalis, on the Bloekombos site of many a happy Methodist Sunday School picnic in the ‘sixties. As Tim correctly pointed out: As Methylated Spirits, we were only allowed tea and ginger beer at our picnics.
Now all we had to do was walk on the level to the Akkerbos – or Oak Forest – which I clearly remembered as being at point A:
. . but which is actually, and disconcertingly, at point B.
So we trudged. A reconnaissance patrol was dispatched to find us, but their vehicles turned out to be less capable than we’d have wished for, unable to negotiate a few fallen twigs across their path. Field Marshall Lello RSVP also seemed to have less pull with HQ than we hoped, so no helicopters were dispatched either.
So we trudged. On the way we passed some ladies packing a lovely smelling herb into bundles. We greeted them and trudged on. Luckily Gail had passed them before us and been more engaged. She told us how they had been delighted she could speak isiZulu and knew their herb was Imphepho (Helichrysum, or liquorice plant – that was the smell!). They were bundling it up for sale in eGoli, eThekwini and eKapa (Joburg, Durban and Cape Town). Imphepho is used for ritual purposes by sangomas for summoning the ancestors. According to Pooley ‘to invoke the goodwill of ancestors, to induce trances – and to keep red mites away.’
Soon we arrived at the Akkerbos to tremendous applause and a lavish spread. Well, one of those. A lesson learned: The old ‘Don’t Split The Party’ is a good principle!
kierie – unfair walking aid which well-balanced people don’t need. At first
springhaas – jumping hare; bouncing rabbit
klipspringer – petite antelope which lithely and blithely bounces from rock to rock without causing them to start mini avalanches
bloekombos – gumtree plantation
akkerbos – oak plantation
Weather: Light westerly breeze; gale, actually!
A bit of stopping to smell the flowers en route:
I’m afraid the conservation status of Platberg, this precious mountain, is precarious. Do read about it.
Read about how we were not the only, nor the first, holy folk to descend this mountain: ‘It was the arrival of the Prophet Isaiah Shembe at KwaZulu Natal (Durban) from Ntabazwe (Harrismith) as he was instructed by the Word of God to do so.’
This stroll was Monday. It’s Thursday and I’m still walking like Charlie Chaplin in slow motion. Tom seriously said ‘Dad, maybe you should see a doctor.’
Monday, exactly one week later and I’m tripping the light fantastic as usual – Normal gait restored.
Nephew Robbie must have wondered what the heck could be so interesting that Koos was always peering into that thing.
So he investigated.
Ten or fifteen years later, we re-enacted the scene.
The original was on their farm Umvoti Villa between Greytown and Kranskop on the Mispah road; the re-enactment was at Mangeni Falls where ‘Lord’ Chelmsford was arsing about while his men got killed at Isandlwana. Isandlwana has been the scene of many re-enactments, so this was quite appropriate!
It’s about ten years later again – time for another re-pete.
Top: Introducing daughter Jessie to the wonders of the ‘scope. Now she’s 21 and her response is ‘bo-oring!’