Sheila worked at Fugitives Drift Lodge with David and Nicky Rattray for a while and met many interesting people and characters from all over the world. She should write about the weird folk she met – the judges and military men and colonial types and rich folk and historians and chief constables and all the other titles the Breetish Empire invented.
While there, she organised for the five of us – her old Swanie family from Harrismith – to have a family weekend there with her as our guide. One afternoon she took us out to the Isandlwana battlefield in a Landrover and got lost. Her sense of direction was imperfect, but she was unfazed and soldiered on like a lost Pom fleeing a battlefield. She had the Buffalo River on her left (or was it right?) and was headed in a direction she thought might get us somewhere sometime. Don’t panic.
So we’re bouncing over the veld, Sheila driving the ponderous old Defender, and our 85yr-old ‘ole man’ sitting in the back getting fidgety.
After a while the bouncing got to his ancient bones and he groaned and – forsaking the old stiff upper lip – moaned about the bumpiness – sort of a geriatric ‘Are we there yet?’
Sheila whipped round and said, “Keep quiet and sit still. Don’t make me come back there and sort you out!” then grinned triumphantly and crowed, “I’ve waited fifty years to say that!”
There are rules to how you name things. Plants and animals and things. The rules are something like this: The first one keeps its name, all others after have to fit in. So if a tree is named ‘acacia’ and another thousand acacias are found after it, it remains the type specimen for acacias and will always be an acacia. If changes happen, tough luck to the others, THEY have to change.
Unless you bend the rules.
And the Aussies bent the rules! Gasp! Who’d have thought that!? Aussies! But – they’re so law-abiding . .
So back in 1753 a tree was discovered in Africa and named Acacia scorpoides. Its name changed to Acacia nilotica, the well-known and beautiful tree we got to know as the Scented-pod Thorn when Trish and I first started identifying trees ca. 1985 using Eugene Moll’s unpretentious-looking but wonderful book with its leaf-identification system, under the guidance of good friend Barry Porter. The Scented-pod Thorn Tree was one of the easier acacias to ‘ID’, with its distinctive-looking and sweet-smelling pod.
So it would forever be an acacia. Unless a dastardly plot was hatched by people (whose continent shall remain temporarily nameless; anyway, they had co-conspirators from other continents) determined to steal yet another of Africa’s assets. Why? ‘Cos Money, Prestige, Laziness, Not liking the name Racosperma; and because they could. So what did they do? They got some sandpaper and started roughing up the ball. They got 250 people to email the oke who was in charge of the committee, ‘supporting’ this unusual name change which went against the established rules. How Australian. Yes, 244 of those emailers were Australians, just saying. Sandpaper.
So in Vienna in 2005 the committee said ‘Let’s bend the rules’ and put it to the vote. So 54.9% voted to retain the current African type for the name Acacia. 54.9% said let’s NOT bend the rules. So they bent the rules cos another rule said you need 60% to overrule the committee. They sandpaper’d the rules cos Money Prestige Laziness and Not liking the name Racosperma.
How do you explain that? Well, its like if one’s ancestors were convicts and you didn’t want them to be convicts, you wanted people to nod when you said “I come from Royal blood,’ but the ancestral name (say Dinkum) was listed in the jail rolls; and you wanted to be a surname not on the jail rolls so you said ‘I know: Windsor!’ so you call yourself Windsor from that day on. Something like that.
And, like politicians, here’s how this was sold to the public: ‘The International Botanical Congress at Vienna in 2005 ratified this decision,’ sandpaper-talk, instead of a truthful ‘The International Botanical Congress at Vienna in 2005 failed to overturn this decision as, although 54.9% voted against it, a 60% vote is needed to overturn it.’
So then African acacias got one more African name, Senegalia (from Senegal and meaning, maybe, water or boat), which was nice; and one more Pommy name Vachellia, after Rev. John Harvey Vachell (1798-1839), chaplain to the British East India Company in Macao from 1825-1836 and a plant collector in China, which wasn’t so lekker; But the Acacia name was undoubtedly more prestigious, long-established and well-known. More desirable, y’know (imagine that said in an Aussie accent). It was derived from Ancient Greek with THORN in the meaning – ἀκακία (‘shittah tree’). Also ‘thorny Egyptian tree.’ Greek ‘kaktos’ also has been compared. A word of uncertain – but ancient – origin.
So I thought Oh Well, We’ll Get Used To It. You get used to anything except a big thorn sticking into your shoe – which reminded me that Aussie acacias are wimpily thornless – but some Africa tree people were less accommodating and determined to fight this rule-bending. Maybe they might have accepted Senegalia, but that other Pommy dominee name? Aikona!
The next gathering of the International Botanical Congress was in Melbourne in 2011! And there the decision to ratify the decision to bend the rules ‘was ratified by a large majority’ (I haven’t been able to find the actual vote yet). So strict scientific priority lost out to – I must confess I agree, bloody Aussies – a more pragmatic solution.
So Vachellia xanthophloeait is. Our Fever Tree. umkhanyakude. Seen here at Nyamithi Pan in Ndumo Game Reserve in Zululand.
And Senegalia nigrescens with its distinctive leaves and knobbly bark. The knobthorn.
So I’ll mostly be using Senegalia and Vachellia now, just as I use the new bird names as they change. Adapt or dye.
A guest post! A more factual and detailed report on this day by Nigel Hemming.
This year’s Mystery Tour took us to Harrismith in the Free State where, amongst other things, we were to visit the Platberg Nature Reserve (PNR) and take a drive up to the top of the mountain before descending partway for a picnic lunch at Akkerbos picnic site.
The cast of 24: Mike & Yvonne Lello; Gavin & Judy Bolton; Gary & Meryl Wylie; Pete & Gill Hockey; George & Jeannette Smith; Jon & Elize Taylor; Graeme & Audrey Fuller; Tim & Gail De Wet; Nigel & Barbara Hemming; Garth & Di Gower-Jackson; Bruce & Heather Soutar; Pete Swanepoel (long-standing member and Harrismith native); Leon Strachan (historian, guide and story-teller)
day started well enough and after an early breakfast we all set off
in convoy to PNR where we left some of the vehicles and climbed into
the five that were to tackle Donkey Pass to the top.
The reduced convoy was as follows: Gower-Jacksons, Hockeys and Leon (Toyota Hilux); Hemmings and De Wets (Subaru Forester); Fullers, Smiths and Meryl (Ford Everest); Soutars, Taylors and Gary (Toyota Prado); Lellos, Boltons and Pete (Toyota Fortuner).
forest ‘road’ up to Donkey Pass was pretty rough and eroded and
had two very hairy rocky sections, which we all managed without
incident. The road up the pass itself was very steep but had a good
concrete surface, so was not difficult. Once on top at the
south-eastern end of the mountain, we followed a rough and at times
rocky track to the north-western end where we stopped near One Man
Pass to take in the spectacular views across the town and to
Sterkfontein Dam and the Malutis in the distance.
This very narrow and steep pass is part of the route of the annual Platberg Challenge run (Harrismith Mountain Race) and so a few people conceived the idea of walking down it if possible.
Pete, who had run the Challenge in the past, assured them it was possible, so it was soon decided that Barbara, Di, Tim (who had suffered a bit of whiplash over the rocky sections, compounding the injury he had suffered the week before when he tried to do a swan-dive off his bike) and Gail would walk down with Pete as their guide. They would meet up with the rest of us at Akkerbos – which Pete believed was quite near the bottom of the pass!
rest of us then drove all the way back along the track to the top of
Donkey Pass where, instead of heading straight down, we took a detour
along an even rougher and rockier track, to have a look at the dam
which the British had built when they occupied Harrismith during the
this point the Soutars decided that they were not going to join us
for the picnic as they were anxious to get back to Durban and set off
down the pass (taking the Taylors with them). The Fullers, Smiths
and Meryl followed them down, followed a little while later, by
Nigel, Lellos and Boltons and Garth, Hockeys and Leon.
this 3-car convoy got to the bottom of the concrete road and reached
the turnoff to the picnic site we made several discoveries.
The sign had
fallen and was not visible
There were no
tyre-tracks leading to the picnic-site, therefore the Fuller party
had missed the turnoff.
assurance that they should have already arrived as it was ‘only a
short distance’ there was also no sign of the walkers.
phoned Graeme to alert him to the fact that he needed to turn back,
only to be told that the Everest had suffered a puncture over one of
the bad rocky sections and was very low on fuel and that he had
decided not to return but to head for Harrismith to refuel and buy a
Mike left his passengers behind and drove down to the Fuller party to fetch Meryl (but not the Smiths as we would not have enough space for them) and brought her back to the turnoff. He then collected Judy who had remained at the turnoff with Nigel and took them both to the picnic site to join Gary who had walked there with Gavin. Having managed to contact Pete, we learned that the descent of One Man Pass had been very difficult and that far from beating us to the picnic site (which he now realised wasn’t where he thought it was!) they had only just reached the contour road and started walking in our direction. In the meantime Garth had delivered the Hockeys and Yvonne to the picnic site and then returned with Leon to the turnoff.
Garth & Leon and Nigel then set off north-west along the virtually disused and very bad contour road to go to the ‘rescue’ of the walkers. We drove through an apocalyptic, fire-ravaged landscape and after stopping several times to remove branches and even a few small trees we eventually came to an immovable obstruction in the form of a fallen mature gum-tree. We then continued on foot and eventually met up with the walkers about a kilometre further along. They were in good spirits but had no idea of how far they were from Akkerbos. Di and Tim got into Garth’s car and Barbara, Gail and Pete came back with Nigel. Half-an-hour later we were back at Akkerbos, a distance that we agreed would have taken them at least another two hours to walk.
– a movable feast!
so the planned picnic lunch had become a movable feast in time and
place and was eventually eaten as follows:
Soutars – on their way home
Taylors – by the dam near the PNR car park
Fullers and Smiths – at the Harrismith Mugg and Bean!
Lellos, Hockeys, Wylies and Boltons – Akkerbos (1st sitting)
De Wets, Gower-Jacksons, Hemmings, Leon and Pete – Akkerbos (2nd sitting)
Francis Galton, (1822–1911) was an English polymath, geographer, meteorologist and much else. We are mainly interested here in his 1850 expedition to Namibia. For the rest – and there is a lot of it! – refer to the sources at the bottom. Grandson of Erasmus Darwin and cousin and contemporary of Charles Darwin, Galton is best known as the founder of eugenics, but his interests and subsequent contributions as Victorian traveler and scientist were myriad. The most important and lasting part of Galton’s work was his realisation that science (biology as much as physics) needs mathematics rather than words. Like Darwin, he set out to become a doctor but his curiosity led him further afield—in Galton’s case, to Africa. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1853, a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1860, and was knighted in 1909.
He attended King’s College in London to study medicine, but became frustrated and discontented with his studies when he was confronted with his first cadaver, much like cousin Charles Darwin, and in 1840, went to study the Mathematical Tripos at Trinity College, Cambridge. After suffering through three years of studying, he obtained a BA and was awarded an MA, but a nervous breakdown terminated his further studies. In February 1844 his father died and left him and his siblings a large inheritance. Now independently wealthy, he became a charming social snob who never had to work a day in his long life to earn a living. He stopped studying and became a gentleman of leisure, though he might have disputed my terminology! He became an athlete, a sportsman (hunter) and then decided to travel.
Galton’s first trip was as a student from Germany through Eastern Europe to Constantinople. He rafted down the Danube and swam naked across the harbour in Trieste in order to avoid the hassle of quarantine procedures. In 1845 he went to Egypt and traveled up the Nile to Khartoum in the Sudan, and from there to Beirut, Damascus and down the Jordan.
In 1850 he joined the Royal Geographical Society, and decided to not just travel, but now to do some serious ‘exploring.’ Over the next two years he planned and mounted an expedition into then little-known South West Africa, now Namibia.
Between April 1850 and January 1852 Galton explored and charted ‘Damaraland’ and ‘Ovampoland’ in South West Africa, financing the expedition himself. In Cape Town he was warned by Sir Harry Smith about the “fierce Boers” that he might encounter in the interior, so he sailed to Walvis Bay and started his explorations from there instead. He was accompanied by Charles Andersson, who would stay on in the region to seek his fortune. The original intention had been to penetrate from Damaraland to Lake Ngami, which had recently been described by Livingstone and promised an abundance of well-watered territory in the interior. Galton’s party was ultimately unable to reach the lake, and contented itself with charting the previously unknown interior regions of Ovampoland in northern South-West Africa, where they came close to the Cunene river but were ultimately forced to withdraw short of it.
Once again at leisure back in England, he wrote a book entitled Narrative of an explorer in tropical South Africa (1853). This book was very well written and illustrated with numerous colour plates produced from the sketches made by the artist that accompanied Galton. The book proved to be a huge success. He then went on to pursue his many theories, some genius, some rather nutty. He himself proposed a connection between genius and insanity based on his own experience:
Men who leave their mark on the world are very often those who, being gifted and full of nervous power, are at the same time haunted and driven by a dominant idea, and are therefore within a measurable distance of insanity. – Karl Pearson, ‘The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton,’
This from the introduction to his book on his South West African journeys by anthropologist & historian GT Bettany: Mr. Francis Galton, the third son of Samuel Tertius Galton, a banker in Birmingham, in whose family the love of statistical accuracy was very remarkable; and of Violetta, eldest daughter of the celebrated Dr. Erasmus Darwin, author of ‘Zoonomia’, ‘The Botanic Garden’, etc, was born on February 16th 1822, and educated at King Edward’s School, Birmingham, where he gained no great admiration for ‘the unhappy system of education that has hitherto prevailed, by which boys acquire a very imperfect knowledge of the structure of two dead languages, and none at all of the structure of the living world.’
In 1855 he also wrote a wonderful book on The Art of Travel in which he advised future travelers on things he had learnt from experience and the experience of others.
William Tyrer Gerrard sent a stuffed aardvark to Derby! How cool or how bad ass is that? You receive a parcel from your botanical collector: Here are some flowers and some leaves; oh, and one aardvark! Poor bloody aardvark had to stare out on grey Pommie skies from then on.
I went looking for his story after seeing a Forest Iron Plum tree at Sand Forest Lodge in Zululand, the Drypetes gerrardii.
He was an English professional botanical (and anything else) collector in Natal and Madagascar in the 1860s. Born in Merseyside in 1831, he worked in Australia, then in Natal, where he collected over 150 previously unknown plant species and . . it was a Natal aardvark he stuffed and shipped to England. He left Natal in April 1865 for coastal Madagascar, where he made large collections of plants, insects, and birds. He died age 34 of yellow fever in Mahavelona on the north east coast of Madagascar, north of Toamasina.
Gerrard was obviously good at finding plants, as In the early 1860’s he gathered the only known specimens of an Emplectanthus and an Adeniaspecies. Considered Critically Endangered and possibly Extinct according to IUCN Red List criteria, they were only re-discovered in the lower Msikaba River valley and the lower Tugela River Valley in 2006 and 2016 respectively.
Just one night with Jessie and Jordi. At Sand Forest Lodge. An emergence of flying ants saw birds in profusion feeding on them. Despite a stiff breeze I saw plenty good birds. Some birders there had counted up over seventy in their 24 hour stay. Seven Broad-billed Rollers in one tree was special – this was the furthest south I’ve seen them. Then my first-ever sighting of African Bullfrogs! I’ve seen the Giant Bullfrog in Botswana – once – but had never seen the African.
Godfrey the owner came round to visit Saturday evening, having recognised my name on his guest list; we had a long chat about his trees. He is a huge dendrology enthusiast and his current project is photographing a new un-named Combretum ‘novospeciosa’ – new species. He takes daily pics as the leaves and buds unfold and has a daily whatsapp conversation with ace botanist Richard Boon (now living in Aussie). Fascinating. He is building up an amazing catalogue of images of the 180 tree species on his property. He soon lost me as I’ve grown rusty on the dendrology side! The purple flower below is a Vitex (I think). I didn’t get a good picture. His pictures are pin-point sharp. He tried to show me how to get better pictures, but I think the extra secret is practice, practice.
Godfrey showed me a number of his trees and they’re all beautiful, but I am so rusty and he knew mainly the common names of the ones he isn’t actively studying at present, so I couldn’t place them easily. One I do remember is the Forest Iron Plum, Drypetes gerrardii. I’ll slip in a little post about young Mr Gerrard after whom it was named.
On the way home we drove through Hluhluwe Game Reserve. Lots and lots of water after seeing it dry for a long time. Lots of greenery too, so very few animals, as they didn’t need to be anywhere near the roads. Four tiny little warthogs were the only sighting of note. Hot dog-sized.
PS: On the way up I told Jess the Lodge owner’s names are Godfrey and Cary and she refused to believe me! There’s no such name as God-free she insisted. She’s heard of sugar-free and gluten-free but she just knew I was pulling her leg about God-free. When I introduced him to her she went wide-eyed and quiet like only my Jess-Jess can!
I now call them God-free and Care-free and that reminds me of Frank and Gretel Reitz who Sheila, Bess and Georgie used to call Frankful and Grateful.
Bird list: Broad-billed Roller – seven of them, most I’ve ever seen together; Crested, White-eared and Black-collared Barbets; Yellow-rumped Tinker; Klaas’, Diederik, Red-chested and Emerald Cuckoos; The Emerald only heard, the Red-chested put on a big display and I got saturation views. He / She was being mobbed by a drongo and a __ (forget); Square-tailed Drongo; Red-eyed, Emerald-spotted and Tambourine Doves; Long-crested Eagle; Three dark sunbirds – I think Marico, Neergaards and Purple-chested, but I can’t claim them all for sure. The other birders had long lens cameras and were trying to get pics of all three to prove it; Scarlet-chested Sunbird; Lesser Honeyguide calling all day – didn’t spot him; Yellow-breasted and Rudd’s Apalis; A big flock of European Bee-eaters; Spectacled and Dark-backed Weavers; Dark-capped Bulbul; Yellow-bellied and Sombre Greenbuls; Terrestrial Brownbul; Purple-crested Turaco; Southern Boubou; Orange-breasted and Gorgeous Bush-shrikes (heard both only); Green-backed Camaroptera; Rattling Cisticola; Yellow-fronted Canary; Tawny-flanked Prinia; Long-billed Crombec; Crested Guineafowl; Natal Francolin; Pied Crow; Egyptian Goose; Paradise and Black Flycatchers; African Goshawk; Striped and Brown-hooded Kingfishers; Crowned and Trumpeter Hornbills; African Hoopoe; Green Wood-hoopoe; Rufous-naped Lark; Black-and-White Mannikin; Red-faced Mousebird; Black-headed Oriole; Yellow-throated Petronia; Red-capped Robin-Chat; Cape White-eye; Fiscal Shrike; Black-bellied Starling; Lesser Striped Swallow; Palm Swift; Kurrichane Thrush; Southern Black Tit; Heard the Nerina Trogon often on both days; Pied Wagtail; Golden-tailed Woodpecker;
Godfrey was excited by something about a new tree in his sand forest: Dovyalis revoluta. I couldn’t quite get what was new; something about Richard Boon and Abraham van Wyk and a new discovery. So I went looking and found it. Dovyalis revoluta is a separate species, not just another Dovyalis zeyheri. So we have a new tree in the ‘Wild Apricot’ gang. My garden has plenty Dovyalis caffra surrounding it as a thorny hedge and bird and creature refuge.
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.