One night in my first own home, Whittington Court in Marriott Road on Durban’s Berea, I heard a strange sound. It was like a small dog barking, but not quite that and I remembered from all my reading and re-reading of Roberts and Newmans bird books: Nightjar!
Aitch! I shouted, a nightjar! Luckily she knew I was weird so she joined me and we peered out from our first floor window and a nightjar flitted past. I was over the moon with excitement and discovery. A Freckled Nightjar right outside my flat!
Investigation revealed it to be a well-known one, roosting on the roof of the residential hotel nearby. Eden Gardens, now a retirement home. It had been discovered by Philip Clancey, famous birder and splitter and Durban Natural Science Museum ornithologist and author and artist, who lived in the hotel.They usually roost on rocks and the roof was a good substitute. Their camouflage is impressive:
Durban museum ornithologist Philip Clancey took numerous expeditions into Zululand and Mozambique, discovering several new subspecies as well as one new species to science, the Lemon-breasted Canary in 1961. Clancey was a prodigious publisher of papers and books including “Birds of Natal and Zululand”, all lavishly illustrated with his excellent and distinctive bird paintings.
I must tell you about a wonderful trip we went on recently (well, back in 2015 actually) to Deepest Darkest Zoolooland.
It was actually a rugged and challenging course in which we were required to survive under tricky conditions, with carefully thought-out obstacles and challenges put in our way by the amazing outfit called:
who led us astray boldly into the back roads of wild Zooloo territory where we watched and learned as he reached out to locals to see if they knew where they were.
This capable and entertaining master tour guide dropped us off at the beautiful Ngoye Forest for the next phase, handing us over to our next capable leader:
Fully equipped, this part of the course led us carefully through:
– Correct equipment
– Packing for an expedition
– The use of snatch ropes and tow ropes
– Handy stuff to always have in your 4X4 (axes, bowsaws, forest vines & lianas);
You had to be really young and superbly fit to survive, and we WERE and we DID! Covered in the mud and the blood and the beer, we emerged smiling from the forest, much the wiser.
Both tours were excellently victualled, lots of sweet and fortified coffee, sarmies, fruit, biscuits, biltong and more. Those who brought deckchairs thinking they would sit back and gaze serenely at the tree tops were optimists in the mist.
Someone came up with an idea as we were leaving to go on a completely different kind of trip next time with this sort of outfit:
But NAH! – we enjoyed the first two so much that we’d book with them again. Unforgettable (and NOT, as Don muttered “unforgiveable”)!!
It was amazing and a whole lot of fun with great people.
(Slightly) more boring version:
We did go to Zoolooland on a birding trip ably guided by Don Leitch. He did get us a wee bit off-course, and he did stop to speak to some local people, for which he got some leg-pulling.
We did get blocked by fallen trees in Ngoye forest and here’s the thing: Among all the rugged pilots, 4X4 experts and farmers among us, NOT ONE had brought along a tow rope or any decent rescue equipment! It took an accountant with a pocket knife to fashion a tow rope out of a liana that eventually saved our bacon. ‘Strue.
I will stand by my story and I will protect my sources, even if they were in their cups. Here Sheila shows the total rescue equipment we manged to rustle up; and there’s the tow rope fashioned from a forest liana that saved the day.
Lydia from London is what we called Jessie’s room-mate on her field guide course. It’s a year later now and Lydia is back in SA doing her Masters thesis on vultures and people (including sangomas and the muti trade).
So the girls decided to get together before Lydia heads off back to London. We spent a lovely day in the reserve, not uneventful! In fact we saw eight stand-offs: Three avian, where pairs of red-capped robin-chats, cameroptera and bulbuls chased and challenged each other; three mammalian, where two bull rhinos, two bull buffalo and two bull giraffes sorted each other out; and one inter-species where a chameleon huffed at Lydia as she rescued it from becoming road-kill.
The eighth was a Fraught Rhino vs a Ford Ranger:
This old bull had been pummelled and bullied and gored by a bigger younger bull who marched him backwards for a couple hundred metres then took him into the bush where we couldn’t see them but could hear the grunting change to squealing, ending in this guy emerging bleeding. We then got between him and the aggressive one and I decided I’d better get past. Upon which this poor fella tucked his horn down and feinted at the vehicle, missing us by inches.
On a more peaceful note, Jess made us a lovely lunch, we saw a finfoot in the river, and we organised a dozen vultures to do a special flypast for Lydia from London!
We also saw a rhino named Frank:
(Couldn’t resist! Got a pic of an ele with egrets with that caption on whatsapp and thought of this picture).
Sy Montgomery sounds like a wonderful person. You think she has to be interesting, anyway, when you learn she wrote a book called The Soul Of An Octopus. Then you learn she kept a pet pig and you think, Hmm, maybe dodgy like some other people you know who will remain nameless, right Bruce and Heather Soutar? She wrote a book on the pig called The Good Good Pig, so you think, OK, maybe unlike Bruce and Heather she turned it into tasty bacon, but no, she loved the pig live. Then you see her petting a tiger and again you think Hmmm . .
But then you find out she wrote “birdology”:
People know that birds are descendants of dinosaurs, but actually the truth is that Birds Are Dinosaurs. That may be difficult to see when you’re watching a flycatcher, but it is more apparent when you are watching an ostrich or a cassowary, as tall as a man, crowned with a helmet of bone on its head and a killer claw on each foot.
Most of the dinosaurs that became today’s birds took up flying. And in doing so, they utterly reshaped their bodies inside and out. Their bones are hollow and their bodies are full of air sacs; their feathers weigh more than the skeleton and are hollow shafted and shaped to capture and move air. Birds are essentially feather-fringed air bubbles.
Birds can see polarized and ultraviolet light, experience colors we can never know, sense the earth’s magnetic field, and navigate using subtle changes in odor and barometric pressure.
In Birdology Sy Montgomerycommunicates a heartfelt fascination and awe for birds and hopefully kindles in more of us humans a connection to these complex, mysterious fellow creatures that I personally find so fascinating.
Birds are the only wild animals most people see every day. No matter where we live, birds live with us. Yet many of us don’t appreciate how very strange they are, how different to us. Their hearts look like those of crocodiles. They have no hands. They give birth to eggs. And they’re covered with modified scales called feathers. We shared a common ancestor with even the most distant of our fellow placental mammals as recently as 100 million years ago; The last ancestor we shared with the birds, however, traces back 325 to 350 million years ago.
Sy says her life with animals has taught her “how to be a good creature. How to be compassionate. How to get yourself inside the mind and heart of someone else. Seeing someone’s soul, looking for their truth. Animals teach you all of that and that’s how you get compassion and heart.”
After a slow drive from Mombasa we spent a night at a plush hotel in the metropolis of Voi. There it is in the left background. Don’t let Aitch tell you we didn’t spoil ourselves at times. The dining room had a linoleum floor, plastic chairs and metal tables, no table cloth. It was clean and the chicken and rice was delicious. I had a Tusker beer and that too, was delicious.
Then on to a destination I had looked forward to all my life: Tsavo National Park!
All my life? Just about. We got the quarterly African Wildlife magazines and I eagerly read about Africa’s great parks. I also knew of Bernhard Grzimek’s work in the Serengeti and his book Serengeti Shall Not Die. The great parks I knew and fantasised about included Kruger, Etosha, Luangwa, Masai Mara, Amboseli, Wankie, Ngorongoro, Gorongosa – and Tsavo. I remember seeing an aerial picture of the drought in Kenya and how the vegetation IN Tsavo was worse than that outside the park. The story was it was due to Kenya (Leakey?) refusing to cull elephants and other game. Of course it may have been a story by the pro-culling people in SA’s parks. Who knows? Lots of jealousy and rivalry among the ‘good people in conservation’!
. * Tsavo East * .
Chris and Tilde Stuart, great Africa-philes, chose Tsavo as one of ‘Africa’s Great Wild Places’ in their book of that name, mainly for the huge wild expanse of Tsavo East where you can drive for hours without seeing another vehicle.
Driving around Tsavo East was amazing. We hardly saw any other vehicles.
Firsts for us were Vulturine Guineafowl, Gerenuks and Lesser Kudus:
We saw Kilimanjaro! We weren’t expecting to, but as we drove around we suddenly saw a snow-topped mountain top WAY higher than one would expect through the low clouds; way higher than the hills around us. We realised that it must be Kili, the world’s highest free-standing mountain!
. . driving around on a cloudy day we were astonished to see Kilimanjaro over in Tanzania. WAY higher than the ‘mountains’ we were watching (it was overcast). We just weren’t expecting it!
Of course we should have realised we’d be close to Kili, but we didn’t give it a thought. We were in Kenya, Kilimanjaro is in Tanzania, and it just didn’t occur to us! That’s our pic of the low clouds on the left and an internet pic of Kili from Tsavo West. Our view was a glimpse through a break in thick clouds, though.
Tsavo National Park was created in 1948. At approximately 21,000km², it is the largest protected area in Kenya. In the late 1960s, there were approximately 35,000 elephants in the Tsavo region. This population has suffered two population crashes, firstly there was the drought in the early 1970s when many died, especially pregnant females, females nursing a calf or young calves. Independent bulls mortality was lower as they were able to travel greater distances in search of vegetation and water.
The second crash was due to the illegal killing of elephants for their tusks. The bulls who survived the drought were now the victims. Kenya had banned legal trophy hunting in 1977. By the late 1980s, at the height of the ivory poaching era, about 6,200 elephants remained in the entire Tsavo region.
I know it may seem boring and Tom definitely voices that opinion strongly but we went to Hluhluwe again – and he came along, a rare event nowadays. What swung him was the restaurant food. We debated as a family and decided to stay in the cheaper rondawels, but to eat at the buffet. Tom also slept in both mornings as we went on our 6am game drives, so all-in-all he quite enjoyed the chilled vibe and the grub.
Leaving home was interesting. We left at 5am . .
. . and then again at 8am with a changed tyre plus a repaired spare. It’s a tedious story.
Saw the usual stuff – plus these:
As I spotted the first one crossing the road I thought Bibron’s Blind Snake! Not for any good reason, but it was the first thing that came to mind. I’ve always wanted to see a Blind Snake. Then I thought beaked snake, snouted snake, some underground snake! What were they? I’ve asked Nick Evans, maybe he’ll enlighten me. Length: About from my wrist to my elbow. Say 300-350mm.
Back at the camp the buffet was a big hit. The only gripe Tom had was “Dad, they’re playing Tobias’ music in the dining room!” Yeah, Tom, I’m relieved they’re not playing gangsta rap! After breakfast one morning we went outside where a huge round auntie and a huger rounder uncle filled a couple of deckchairs. As we gazed over the hills we heard them: She: Are you hungry? He: Not really; maybe peckish; She: Yeah, let’s get breakfast; and they heaved their huge bodies out of the deckchairs and waddled in. Hey, the breakfast was good! Full cooked brekker chased with muffins, scones, jam, toast and loads of good coffee.
Nick has replied at last: They’re not snakes at all! They are Giant Legless Skinks, Acontias plumbeus – family Scincidae. So we had a SkinkyDay, not a snaky day. Up to 450mm long, they eat worms, crickets and sometimes frogs. They bear live young and can have up to fourteen at a time. Skinks, of course are completely harmless to humans. The lighter one looks like it did the lizard trick of dropping its tail and regrowing a new one.
Big creatures we saw elephant, buffalo, five white rhino, one croc, one lion, and kept looking for more as the kids were keen. Suited me, as there are always birds to see.
We also saw about eight slender mongoose, one little band of banded mongoose, two leguaans (water monitor lizards), a number of mice at the sides of the road (after grass seed?), samango and vervet monkeys, red duiker, bushbuck, nyala, impala, kudu, zebra, including one that had lots of brown who would have been wanted by the Quagga Project.
My best bird sighting was a falcon skimming low in front of us heading towards a line of trees along a stream, then shooting up and over some bushes to ambush a dove. It pursued it helter-skelter but then another falcon seemed to interfere and the dove managed to get away. Just then Jess piped up: “Gee! You certainly get excited about birds!” I hadn’t realised I’d been shouting. Hmph! I said, That was better than any attempted lion kill!
Here’s Nick Evans‘ pic of a Bibron’s Blind Snake – quite different:
I wrote about Aitch’s eye for and taste in art here when she spotted a Willie Bester in Cape Town in 1993 and bought it over my “are you sure?” ignorance.
Around about the same time we met Ingrid Weiersbye on Barry & Lyn Porter’s game farm at Hella Hella and Aitch loved her work and quietly bought two of her paintings, later presenting them to me for my birthday. Ingrid is married to Barry’s brother Roger, ecologist with KZN Wildlife.
Well, sure as anything, Ingrid just got more and more famous and I’m sure whatever Aitch paid, the paintings are worth way more now. This one is on offer for over R20 000:
And I think ours are better!
More about Ingrid Weiersbye:
Born in England, raised in Zimbabwe, Weiersbye has held eight solo exhibitions. Beside these she has printed five limited edition print releases, has participated in numerous art and environmental projects and her work has been published in several books. She has been well supported by corporate and private collectors, particularly in the UK, Germany and South Africa.
• She has exhibited work for seven consecutive years at the Society of Wildlife Artists’ annual exhibition in London.
• She has exhibited at the British Birdwatching Show for three years at which she won the ‘best stand’ award in 1995 in the art category for her bird paintings.
• She was invited by the Tron and Swann Gallery in London to participate in several major art exhibition from 1992 to 1996 including ‘Parrots of the World’, ‘Wildfowl and Waterfowl’ as well as the British Game Fair.
Additionally she exhibits on most major South African wildlife exhibitions of international wildlife art held regularly at the Everard Reade Gallery in Johannesburg.
Robert’s 7th edition. Handbook of Birds of Southern Africa. 2005…main contributing artist
Roberts Bird Guide – Kruger National Park. 2006…main contributing artist
Roberts Bird Field-guide. 2007
Roberts Geographic Variation of Southern African Birds. 2012…co-author and sole illustrator
Birds of Botswana Field-guide, Princeton University Press. 2016…co-author and sole illustrator
Roberts Comprehensive Field-guide to Southern African Birds. 2016…co-author and main illustrator