Tuesday, June 7, 2016
I met a former student and current research colleague, Eric Jensen, in Johannesburg airport for the flight to George, where we were met by an old friend of mine from way back in my days at Stanford. He and his gracious wife Linda have been our hosts here – Linda has set up what she described (accurately) as an “ambitious” agenda for seeing some of the many highlights of the southeast coast of SA. We have visited a preserve where we walked with (actually slightly to one side of) a pair of lions (attended by a guide and three trainers, who attended the lions every move.) It is a rather awe-inspiring experience to spend an hour in the company of these magnificent and powerful beasts – well trained, used to people, but still definitely wild. We went to another preserve where we fed and petted elephants. When you feed them, they are behind a sturdy restraining barrier; they reach forward with their trunks to receive the pieces of fruit you hold out with your hands. (Yes, they provide water and soap to clean off the elephant snot later.) Again, trainers all over the place watching them – still, one I was touching and petting kept sidling toward me, and I had the distinct impression she would have liked to step on my foot, which I carefully kept out of her way. (I experienced similar behavior from cranky cows during my farm childhood.) Again, it is rather intimidating and definitely awe-inspiring to be next to these beasts. We spent another hour in a large forest developed as a monkey rehab center – ten species of primate, including ring-tailed lemurs and one other lemur species. Most of them are rescue animals, either formerly abused / neglected pets or abandoned orphans. The large area, if I remember correctly over 1000 hectares, is filled with enough trees that the animals can travel from one end to the other in the canopy. Other than the feeding stations with enough food (fruit, pasta, some meat) to ensure they do not compete and fight with one another, the area is a natural forest. Visitors are prohibited from touching or feeding; the idea is to “re-wild” the animals for eventual release back into the forest. All of them zip around so fast that taking decent pictures is very difficult; I only got a handful. A particular highlight was crossing a long swinging bridge where a dozen or more were clustered – apparently hoping to catch an unwary tourist with something shiny hanging loose. Monkeys have stolen sunglasses, purses, and even an i-phone. We kept our belongings firmly in hand as we watched their grooming, mock- (and occasionally real) fights, and general play on the bridge.
Linda had rented a cabin at a national park on a particularly spectacular section of coastline at the mouth of the Storm River. The cabin was clean and comfortable, the view spectacular – a rugged rocky coast very reminiscent of the Monterey Peninsula, with 300 meter headlands plunging into the sea, shale and limestone formations, crashing surf, lush green forests. Eric and I agreed that one could easily spend a week here – there are several interesting hiking trails in the area, no sand beaches where we stayed but some very nice ones within a short drive. The little store inside the park isn’t much – one would need either to plan to eat in the restaurant or bring sufficient food (like many of the parks I’ve visited in the US). Between there and George the highway is lined with game parks and preserves; we only touched the surface.
At 34 degrees south, the latitude and climate of George are also similar to Monterey. We visited at the beginning of winter (early June); the nights have been cool (you occasionally need a coat) and the days very mild – short sleeves or a light sweater. Our hosts tell us it is rather warm in summer, but it would be ideal in spring and fall.
Before we left the Storm River we crossed a suspension bridge, then climbed up (about 300 meters) to a spectacular viewpoint. Then we went to a drive through a dense forest, where apparently there are some wild elephants no-one ever sees – but their damage is apparent. In this forest is a group of abandoned houses that have been taken over by a troop of baboons; very eerie watching them – like an end of the world movie.
Yesterday we went to some game parks where we fed baby giraffes (baby – but I had to stand on tiptoe to keep the bottle upright!) We walked with lions – a rather interesting experience, and I had the opportunity to ride an ostrich – a bit scary (they have two speeds – stop and full run) but a lot of fun. The trainers did not explain how to steer, stop, etc., but they ran along beside the bird the whole way to control it.
One of Manie’s friends, Barry, came over and spent the night; in the morning we packed up clothing and supplies, drove over to buy some more food and pick up a second friend, Rassie. Then we drove the same route as yesterday, but continued on up a long valley, over another range of hills and into the semi-arid area called the Big Karoo. The landscape is reminiscent of the Western US upland plateau – low hills with barren mountains in the background, desert plant communities, and when we reached the area where they were planning to hunt, the same harsh cold wind.
I learned that in South Africa, the owner of the land on which animals are found owns the animals. Animals in the national parks are the property of the government; animals on a farm the property of the farmer – most of whom construct high game-proof fences. They manage the game carefully, culling the herd to keep the population in line with forage and selling the rights to kill (and take home) the animals to supplement their income from sheep and cattle. To my surprise there is no other hunting license – you pay for what you kill, not for the right to hunt in the first place. The farm where we stayed has a four bedroom house with beds for 14 or 15, a reasonable kitchen and dining room. The farmer, whose daughter is married to Barry’s son, came to greet us – his name is Olaf but he told me to call him Odie. By looks, mannerisms, and (I gather from Manie) political attitudes he would fit right in in any farm area coffee shop in Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, etc.
Dinner was cooked over the coals from an open fire in a kind of shed to protect from the wind – a bommie, I think – while we had drinks and chatted. When it was ready we carried it into the dining room where I added salad thoughtfully provided for me by Linda. Lots of stories about previous hunting trips; Barry told of going for a boat ride in an estuary infested with rhinos, crocs, and sharks, and how his brother almost got them killed by speeding over the top of a rhino – which could easily have tipped them into the water, where plenty of predators would have been happy to make their acquaintance.
It was quite cold at night but I slept pretty well, disturbed only by the constant sound of the wind. I got up early as usual, did a little stretching, and made myself some coffee then did a little work on my photos. When everyone was up and had had breakfast, Odie came and set up a target for the guys to sight in their rifles. Then we drove out to a large valley with a good sized herd of springbok. Odie positioned all three hunters several hundred meters apart a few meters up the slope of a steep hill above the herd. I stayed with Manie to watch how they did it. Some hands on horses more or less herded the springbok up to the waiting hunters, who waited behind the cover of bushes. The first group that ran in front of Manie was going quite fast, and the females were in the back. He lined up the rifle but did not get a good shot. After fifteen minutes, the herd came back, somewhat slower; one of the males paused and looked over its shoulder. Manie took the shot and shot it cleanly just below the ear; it dropped instantly, kicked for a minute or two, and was still, with its back fur ruffed up – which Manie tells me happens when they die. I waited with him a while, watched two lone males pass, just beyond Manie’s comfortable shooting range (up to 200 meters). Then Manie went down to slit the animal’s throat so it could bleed out, but he did not gut it yet. I gather he waited so long for fear of spooking the herd, since he still wanted to shoot two more. I later learned that a consequence of the delay is that the liver and heart get an objectionable strong taste – they are usually left in the veldt for the jackals.
I picked up my pack to go for a walk. I crossed over the ridge, walked along the back side of the ridge, climbed up to a high rock for lunch with a view, walked a ways farther behind the ridge, crossed over and came down the hill behind Rassie, who had just shot his third and final springbok. He showed me a desert tortoise he had found, and we walked to the desert road to wait for the others.
The hunt went generally well, with just a couple of snags. A young male broke his leg, so the horse riders cut its throat. Then the very last shot was through the jaw; they had to chase it down to be sure to kill it cleanly. We piled the carcasses in the back of Odie’s pickup and drove back to the hunting lodge. The springbok apparently knew when the hunt was over – as we drove around they ignored us and grazed peacefully, half the herd within easy rifle shot. I think they have learned through conditioning that men on foot and on horseback are trouble, but vehicles driving around are not.
We had barely unloaded our stuff into the house when it started to rain, at first softly then a hard, wind-driven cold rain that lasted a couple of hours. The weather had clearly changed. After the rain it cleared up for a few minutes, then clouded up again. The wind died for a while, but by the time I got up the next morning it was blowing again at about the same 20 knots. The skies were completely clear; temperature just above freezing. After breakfast Odie came over and said he had arranged with a neighbor for me to take a walk in an interesting hilly terrain, lots of interesting rock formation. When it warmed up a bit, everyone piled into Manie’s SUV and we drove over to the place. The owner is a really nice guy; he outlined a walk that I thought he said is 3 km. I started walking; after a while the track started climbing up into the rocky hills. It circled around, at least a mile from the road and a mile or two beyond the pickup point – a total of 2 ¼ hours, walking at my normal brisk pace (3.5 to 4.5 mph, probably averaging 4). It was the longest 3 km I’ve ever walked – but it was interesting country, very nice walk.
I used the rest of the day to sort and bring some order to my photos. At about 4 Odie showed up with his son-in-law for a visit, and invited us to come to the main house to watch a rugby game – Springboks against Ireland. It was an interesting way to end the hunting trip – Odie gets as worked up about rugby as he does about politics. It was an exciting game, ending with Ireland up one goal but SA came within a foot of scoring a final tying goal on the last “try.” Ireland was the underdog, but their defense was tougher and they won on turnovers, one to SA’s seven. We went back to a meal of baked potato and springbok liver, which is very very good; nicely textured, mild, with only a hint of gamey sharpness.
As Manie commented, the farmers live here because it’s the life they chose. It’s not an easy life, but from my observation they have very warm family relationships. The main farmhouse is quite comfortable, large and well furnished. There is a fireplace in the living room and he brought a portable heater in to the TV room for the game. I enjoyed meeting them and experiencing their way of life for a few days.
About the animals:
As I’ve talked with the various guides, and had the opportunity to observe many wild animals (as well as half-tamed animals here in SA), I’ve learned quite a bit about these animals and their behavior.
Danger: The animal the guides fear most is not the lion, it is the hippo. The hippo rarely comes out of the water during the day; when it does, the guides clear out. It is unpredictable, easily annoyed, and very fast. The guides fear lions mainly at night; during the day they are predictable and, as long as you don’t corner or threaten one (or its cubs, of course) unaggressive. Elephants are respected but not feared unless they get upset (shining a light in one’s eye is a good way to get it very upset) they are ordinarily not aggressive. Leopards are rarely out in the daytime; at night they like all the other predators are very much feared. Rhinos – the one I observed is very unaggressive; they named it “No Worry.” Another in the same area is unpredictable and easily annoyed – the guides keep tourists at twice the distance from him as from the others. All wild animals, of course, are dangerous if approached or threatened, but most will give warning signals (for elephants, like moose in the US, a shake of the head is an early warning.)
“King of the beasts.” Not really. Lions are slow relative to their prey and must get close enough to take the prey animal down before it can react – they are good for only a short burst of speed, and take a long time to recover. On the hunt, they move at a slow amble, stopping to rest every hundred meters or so. They hunt both alone and together; when hunting together one lion will circle out in front of the prey in an ambush. When hunting alone, they crawl, belly to the ground, from one bit of cover to the next to get as close as possible. On average, only about one hunt in seven is successful. After an attempt, it takes a couple of hours to build energy back for another try. Male lions will take a kill away from the female (leaving her cubs to go hungry) but hyenas will take a kill away from any lion. I was amazed how long it took the single lioness to kill the young kudu. It was apparent that, up until the kudu was all but dead, had she lost her grip he would have been able to get away – and had she let him get into a position where he could get at her with his hooves, he could have broken her leg or even killed her.
Cheetahs do not protect a kill from any other predator – even wild dogs can drive them away. They depend on a burst of speed to take down the prey, and their lean build means that they could easily be hurt badly enough to lose that one advantage. Even in an area as game-rich as the Okavanga Delta it is not an easy life for any of the predators.
If an animal (predator or prey) is wounded it often means death. I did see one male lion with a detectable limp – a hind leg was wounded in a territorial fight – but the guides said it is still a good hunter and still able to hold its own against other males. Since the cheetah relies on its strength, even a minor wound to a leg can mean starvation; that’s why they will allow any other predator to drive them away from a kill. Male antelopes often have a broken horn – they can still survive but it greatly limits their ability to compete for females. The territorial and mating fights are serious business, often fatal. For example the curved horns of the impala sometimes lock, and the animals will starve to death unless a predator happens upon them, which will usually happen.
Prey animals often herd with other species: each has a unique set of perceptual defenses, and herding together allows them to benefit from the entire range. In the desert, where forage is scarcer, there is more competition for forage, so cooperation is a little less common and usually limited to species that specialize in different forage.
According to one of the trainers, elephants have long memories and hold a grudge. After feeding elephants he always shows them the empty bucket so they won’t think he’s holding out on them – he told a story about one elephant who held a grudge against him for several years and, when he let himself get in a vulnerable position, tried to kill him. When I was near one of the elephants I noticed it kept leaning toward me, and recalled how cows will sometimes try to step on your foot; I was careful to keep my feet out of its reach and moved away as soon as Eric had taken a photo.
The ostrich has only two toes; the main toe has a long sharp nail that can disembowel an enemy at one stroke. It can kick only in front, so the bird is virtually always approached from the side or back.
In the South African game parks, they have trained lions, elephants, ostriches, and other normally quite dangerous animals to allow limited interaction with humans. However, there are always trainers present, and, like the guides in Botswana and Namibia, the trainers keep a close eye on the animals, and if anything seems out of the ordinary they bring the encounter to a rapid close. Even so, it is an intimidating and awe-inspiring experience to be so close to a lion or elephant – or, for that matter – to a giraffe or ostrich. Even with the training, these animals are still wild and still very much to be respected.
I finally ran out of luck with respect to weather. Linda came down with a bad bronchial flu so Manie and I drove to Capetown alone, stopping overnight in a small tourist town at the foot a mountain – I think it is a very pretty mountain but we couldn’t see much of it for the clouds and rain. It slowed down and finally stopped about the time we checked in. Manie crossed the street to a little pub where I joined him after trying – unsuccessfully – to get onto internet; turns out the phone company had crossed the lines to the lodge and hadn’t managed to fix the problem yet. The tavern was decorated like something from San Francisco circa 1967. I ordered a gin and tonic and Manie a whiskey and passion fruit; she initially poured brandy in his glass and, I realized as soon as I sipped mine, soda instead of tonic. On the wall someone had written in large letters “supercalifragiexpialidocious” and that seemed quite fitting. However we walked down to a restaurant where we had a good meal of ribs.
The next morning I walked over a mile down the street and back in a beautiful morning; then we had breakfast and drove on. We hadn’t gone 1/3 of the way to CT before the rain started again, quite heavy most of the way – at one point as we went over a low pass the clouds were so low and it was raining so hard that visibility was less than 50 feet – quite frightening. The next morning the rain had slowed and, after we picked Eric up, ceased altogether. Eric and I did some shopping then walked a couple of miles along the base of Table Mountain – we realized it was too late to go all the way up since we had theater tickets for the evening.
The play, District Six – Kanala, was very interesting. The background: District Six was an area of Capetown in mid-20th century that was composed of a vibrant blend of races – Black, Colored, White, Indian, and others. In 1961 the Apartheid government designated it a White area, ad 1964 they moved everyone out to different areas and demolished the neighborhood, bulldozing all the buildings to rubble. Promises of new housing were never realized, and for decades nothing at all was done with the cleared land. The play is organized around a young woman looking through her grandmother’s photo album; the actors acted out vignettes about life in the District based on the photos – mostly through song and dance. The contrast between the somber back-story and the vibrant, life-affirming music and dance gives the play a tremendous resonance and vitality. Eric and I could understand maybe ¼ of the dialog and lyrics since much of it was in Afrikaans and other languages and/or in heavily accented dialects of English. The SA members of the audience frequently laughed at humor we could only guess at. Even when we could understand the dialog, much of the humor referred to local cultural events and practices. In spite of the language and culture barriers we both enjoyed it tremendously; I felt it was a fitting part of my visit to South Africa, which is drawing to an end, a celebration of the diverse cultures and tragic history of the place, and of the spirit of the people.
On Saturday we went to Robben Island – the prison island where Mandela was imprisoned for several years. It was interesting, but not very well organized and poorly managed – a missed opportunity, really. They put us on huge busses, five seats across (2 and 3) – Eric and I both in the center seat, could see hardly anything; they stopped only once, at a snack stand where there was nothing to look at, before letting us out for a tour of the prison itself, which would have been very interesting had we been in a group of 10 or 12 not 55+. The guide on the bus was no better than a voice recording would have been – the guide in the prison a little better, but it was hard to understand him or even hear him with so many people. Both Eric and I felt the time could have been much better spent at a museum. If they ever get their act together this will be a great tour but for now we wished we had skipped it.
Sunday – our last day here – was better in spite of a driving rain. Manie drove us down to Boulder Beach, near the end of the cape, where there is an observation area for a large nesting colony of South African penguins. They are beautiful and interesting to watch and the scenery along the way is spectacular. In spite of getting rather wet and cold we enjoyed it immensely.