Sunday, August 31, 2008

All creatures great and small

We interrupt this journey to Cape Town ..... to bring you another short trip!

It was Mr Farty's birthday yesterday and we decided to treat him to a picnic at one of his favourite places, the Addo Elephant Park.

the birthday boy

It is only 70 km from here, so perfect for a day trip, or even, as in our case, a half day, because we had to wait for our son-in-law J to get home from work. K and I (supervised by young Ethan, who did the quality control) made chicken and avo tortilla wraps, and sweetcorn fritters. Due to many ... well let's just call them "baking malfunctions" that I have suffered over the years, we have a sort of unwritten agreement that K will handle any baking that is required for special occasions. She has become so good at substituting ingredients that she can now produce a gluten free, dairy free, cholesteral free carrot cake that still feels and tastes as good as the real macoy! Mr Farty went off and bought the fruit juices and spring waters, and when J got home, we were ready to roll. We all piled into Thandi, who was bought for just such occasions, and headed for the Park.

One thing we found to be a delicate balance was explaining to Ethan how dangerous the big game can be, while at the same time wanting him to enjoy them and not be scared of them. Just after we drove through the gate, we encountered a large lone buffalo bull. As you can see he is clearly having a bad hair day, and looks lonely, comical and docile. To Ethan, he looked like any number of friendly cows he has already met. So he wanted to yell out the window, and was surprised when we were all shushing him! The reality is that the docile looking animal right next to the car is one of the meanest tempered and most unpredictable of the African big game. (In fact, when we went camping at Mana Pools in Zimbabwe a few years ago, a woman had been killed by a buffalo there the previous week. And Ann, who ran the Kariba Breezes Hotel on the shores of Lake Kariba, and from whom we used to rent boats to go across to Sanyati, was also killed by a buffalo.) But we didn't want to freak him out, so we explained how wild animals don't like noise etc. Later this week, K will explain to him all about how wild they are, even if they don't look it!

The great thing about a place like Addo, for us, is that it is not just about the big 5 (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion and leopard) although all are found in the park. We can derive as much joy from watching the antics of the birds and dung beetles as we can from the big guys. Yesterday really was a sort of "all creatures great and small" day.

We started off at the picnic site overlooking a large waterhole, which was unusually dry, and did not have the usual large crowd of animals hanging around it. As we unwrapped the lunch, the trees were suddenly all aflutter with a variety of birds, who are clearly used to being fed and were remarkably tame. If they hadn't all been so cute and colourful, it might have felt a bit like something out of the Hitchcock/Du Maurier movie!!!

Cape Weavers, Spotted back weavers, Cape Glossy starling and fork tailed drongo
Despite the very large quantity of enormous elephant droppings on the road ( a fact that delighted Ethan, who is at that age where toilet humour can double him up!) we did not see a single dung beetle. This was very disappointing, as they are fascinating creatures and I was dying to see Ethan's reaction to a creature who eats poo and rolls it into balls!

But we did see the old lone Buffalo, and a large Jackal, who was off on a mission of his own and didn't wait around to pose for Max! We also came across Red Hartebees, warthogs and a distant group of Eland.

We also saw numerous kudu of all ages (in fact they are getting really common in the park, it gets to the point where you hardly blink as you come across another group.)

But of course, Addo is all about the big boys, and at first we were surprised how few we were seeing. Just the odd lone bull lurking behind a bush,

and one drinking from the outlet pipe of the spring that feeds the Domkrag Dam.

(Domkrag literally means "dumb strength" and was named after a famous HUGE leopard tortoise who lived in the park many years ago. The word also means 'jack' in Afrikkans, and this tortoise had a peculiar habit of walking in behind cars and lifting them up with enormous strength. Domkrag came to a sad end when he fell into an aardvark hole and couldn't get himself out. His shell is still on display in the reception foyer.)
But then a huge group approached the waterhole as we were leaving, and things got pretty exciting.

Again, it is hard to see them when docile like this, and realise that they can be very dangerous. Fortunately Addo elephants are much less aggressive than their Zimbabwean counterparts, especially the ones in the Zambezi Valley. Anyone who grew up in Zim either knows someone who has been charged or has been charged themselves, (as have both Max and I) and has the greatest respect for these giants of the bush. The most lethal are the mommies with small babies, you do NOT want to mess with these ladies!

We found ourselves hemmed in by cars in front of and behind us, bush to the left, and a large group of mommies and babies walking along the road next to us. We literally held our breath as one momma looked right at us with a beady eye and flapping ears, as her baby came up behind her. My window was wide open, and I couldn't close it because the noise and movement might have made her feel threatened, so we just sat and hoped that Ethan wouldn't choose that moment to tell us again that elephants are "velly plitty" .... little guy still has a hard time getting his tongue around 'r's! Luckily he didn't, and they strolled gently past.... whew.

Next week we will resume our Capetown trip, and see a different kind of African beauty.

Friday, August 29, 2008

where do I begin?

So much has been going on in the last few weeks that I really don't know if I can even remember it all. If I tried to go through it all in chronological order I'd have to write a book. So suffice to say that the last few weeks have been a whirlwind of exhibitions, painting, granson's birthday party, weekend in St Francis, Crime Forum , Gallery and Body Corporate committee meetings, sitting for a portrait (!!!!!!) and a trip to Capetown.

So I think I'll just start at the end, and fast forward to the trip. I adore long distance driving, and my absolute best is when I am on a long trip alone in the car, is to have my music going and me singing along full volume. (Trust me, with my voice this can ONLY ever happen when alone on the road!) Sadly, I soon discovered that this was one pleasure I would not enjoy on this trip, because I had a sore throat and the first song was mutilated worse than usual with excruciating croaks and squeaks, followed by a coughing fit. Oh well, never mind, just settle down and enjoy the scenery.

What could be cooler than relaxing behind the wheel, travelling along in no particular rush, and enjoying scenery which is world famous for its beauty? The coastal belt between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth is known as the garden route, because of the wonderful variety of indigenous vegetation along the way. It is mostly bounded by the sea on one side and mountains on the other.

Between Swellendam and Grabbouw the land is a tapestry of farmlands, including the most wonderful fields of Canola, grown for its oil. It flowers profusely in a rich lemon yellow.

This isn't the greatest photo, I shot it through a rather bug splatted window at 120 km per hour, but I have included it to show you the stunning solid yellow colour of the canola fields.

I have a "thing" about lighthouses, and the one in Mossel Bay is particularly interesting because it is built on a rocky headland, and from below, you can see that it has been built over a large cave.

I have often seen it from below, but this was the first time that i have taken the time to drive to the top and see it from the gardens that surround it.

I even had company, i was being closely watched by this little chap... a Rock Hyrax, or as we call them Dassie. (Believe it or not, although this looks like a rodent, its closest relative in the animal kingdom is the elephant!)

Right, so we are halfway there, we'll continue the journey in the next post.

Monday, August 18, 2008

i'm off again

hi, apart from ongoing hassles with blogger, resulting in hours of wasted time with no post uploading, I will also be away for the next week, so please bear with me ... hopefully when i get back I will have completed the move across to wordpress, and will have some nice new pix of the Garden Route and Capetown for you. And I will be able to resume visits and catch up with all of you then. Have a LEKKER week! (Afrikaans meaning nice... but so much stronger than nice, kind of ...lovely -nice -good -enjoyable rolled into one descriptive word!)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

cruising the bay part 2

After leaving St Croix Island, we headed for the third of the little rocky outcrops in this part of Algoa Bay, Jahleel, Island.

We were accompanied by a huge Antarctic Skua, a mean tempered scavenger, who flew low over our boat and then deposited a very nasty looking dropping in the sea, we were most grateful for his good timing!

It is not particularly interesting so we bypassed it and headed for the breakwater of the new deepwater harbour at Coega. I have written in some detail about these concrete structures, called dolosse in a previous post. They are enormous, about 25 tons each, and although they look as if they were randomly scattered, each one was precisely postioned using GPS. In front of the breakwater a seal was sleeping, wallowing around in the water with his flippers sticking up. He looked dead until he shook his head, and paid no attention to the boat at all.

We continued along, hugging the coast to avoid the increasing wind and swell, when, near St George's Strand, BINGO!! There in front of us, very close to the beach, we came across a pair of Southern Right whales. We acompanied them for 20 minutes as they gently wallowed along, apparently unfased by our presence. It was so wonderful and humbling being so close to these awesome and peaceloving creatures.

Reluctantly leaving the whales behind, and very aware of what a privilege it was to be in their company for a while, we moved on down the coast, heading past the mouth of the Swartkops River, just as some canoes paddled out to sea.

We passed one of the important beacons that keeps shipping safe, the Deal Light on the Eastern outskirts of town.

And then, as we entered the harbour and passed the harbour Master's tower, it was full throttle back to our berth, and the end of a really memorable and special experience. Thanks Llloyd, it was wonderful!

Monday, August 11, 2008

cruising the bay

Max and I have a thing about whales, and every year we make a point of spending time at the coast, looking out for them. When we went on our wonderful sunset sail a while ago, we met Lloyd Edwards, who runs an operation called Raggy Charters. Lloyd is both passionate and very knowledgeable about marine life in Algoa Bay and is involved in all sorts of marine conservation, education and research projects. In order to fund these, he has written a stunning book called Scenes from Algoa Bay, full of photos he has collected over his years of boating in the bay. In addition, he offers charters around the bay to the public.

Lloyd at the wheel of Orca 2, with Brenton Island in the background
We have been wanting to go on one of these ever since, and had decided that we would treat each other to a 3 hour whale watching and island cruise for each other's birthdays this year. Although the actual days are later in the year, we needed to book early while the whales are still in the Bay, as there is only a 3 month window of opportunity from June to September each year. We have been waiting for the right time, as far as available free time, weather etc is concerned, and finally it all came together.
There is, of course, no guarantee that we would see any whales, it is a very big bay, and the whales, although their numbers have recovered in recent years, are still not THAT plentiful. But it is a chance one takes, and anyway it would be fascinating to see the islands that we normally see as dark specks on the horizon when we look across the bay from our house.
So at 8.30 am we set off to the yacht club, and off we went on the Orca 2 catamaran. A gale and 5m swells had been forecast, and it was REALLY cold, but the sea wasn't too bad yet. After various infamous episodes in the past where both of us had deposited our breakfast in an inelegant fashion, I took the precaution of dosing us up with motion-sickness tablets, which, as it turned out, was a good thing, because there were times I felt very green around the gills, and if it hadn't been for the pills I would definitely have added to my already impressive portfolio of embarrassing moments!

For those of you who share my love of maps, and knowing where the things you are seeing are situated, here is a google image showing the hightlights of the cruise.
Did you know that whales leave 'footprints'?
Neither did we, until we saw a whale spouting nearby. It turned out to be a Brydes Whale. They are permanent residents of the bay, and are very shy creatures. They are also fast swimming predators who spend time chasing fish, so they are very hard to spot. We immediately headed fast in that direction, but the whale dived under the boat and dissappeared. The reason Lloyd was able to follow the movement of the whale and know which direction it was swimming in was because he is so practiced at seeing the "footprints" they leave in the water as they move along. If you look at the pattern of ripples on the water in front of the boat in the picture above, you will see an elyptical patch of smooth water to the bottom left.

This is the footprint, and you can learn to track whales by recognising them.
Our next milestone was Brenton Island, a bleak little outcrop of rock. From this angle, you can see the larger, but no less bleak, St Croix island peeping out beyond it.

Leaving Brenton and approaching St Croix, we noticed little clusters of penguins floating on the sea, and diving in after fish periodically.

We came around the windward side of St Croix, and immediately saw what a bleak and inhospitable place it is, stark, arid and windswept. Your first impression is that no living thing could survive there.

But as we rounded the island, our eyes adjusted to the well camoflaged clusters of birds nesting on the bare rocky slopes. Look closely and you will see lots of birds in this picture!

We saw penguins,
black cormorants,

white chested cormorants,

and the endangered black oystercatcher too.

It was quite amazing to see such a collection of birds clinging to life on this unfriendly windswept rock!
The cross on St Croix Island is a replica of one left by the Portugese explorer, Bartolomeu Diaz, way back in the 1488. Joshua Slocum talks about Algoa Bay in his book 'Sailing Alone Around the World':
"The early Portuguese navigators, endowed with patience, were more than sixty-nine years struggling to round this cape before they got as far as Algoa Bay, and there the crew mutinied. They landed on a small island, now called Santa Cruz, where they devoutly set up the cross, and swore they would cut the captain's throat if he attempted to sail farther. Beyond this they thought was the edge of the world, which they too believed was flat; and fearing that their ship would sail over the brink of it, they compelled Captain Diaz, their commander, to retrace his course, all being only too glad to get home. A year later, we are told, Vasco da Gama sailed successfully round the "Cape ofStorms," as the Cape of Good Hope was then called, and discovered Natal on Christmas or Natal day; hence the name. From this point the way to India was easy."

St Croix has been home to a couple of unsuccessful enterprises over the years. If you look carefully at the picture below, you can see the rusted remains of a large metal pot on the rocks. This was used by whalers to boil whale blubber, but the shark population around the island proved to much for them, they couldn't cope with the sharks jumping clear of the water to steal their whale meat, and abandoned the venture.

In the 1950s, an attemp was made to collect guano, and these cottages were built. But the island proved too inhospitable, and it was not viable trying to collect on the steep slopes, so that was also abandoned.

in this picture you can see the abandoned cottages of the guano collectors, and to the left is the smuggler's cave which goes about 30m into the rock of the island.
This makes it a great place for smugglers, and conservationists like Lloyd are constantly on the lookout for such activities, in fact when we arrived there was a boat there for a bit of illegal fishing, a fact that was duly noted and reported. A while ago Lloyd found a huge stash of Perlemoen (abalone) in the cave, left there for collection by poachers.
Who would have thought a little bare rock could be such a fascinating place? I will continue with the cruise in the next few days.... and we will meet the whales!