Last year, I was standing in the Hamilton Zoo aviary when I came across a Kingfisher. What a pathetic looking creature, this one turned out to be. It did not fly away as I expected he would, but rather sat on the branch only an arm reach away from me. I stared into his eyes, and it was there where I discovered the price animals are paying for human behaviour. You might say that animals are being conserved so that we can enjoy seeing them. Most will even remind me of God instruction for both man and woman: “…Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26, KJV). Of course, the man hopped right on to it and took ‘sovereignty’ or ‘control’ over everything, by bringing animals under control by force. I was reminded of this nature of ‘man’ during a trip my husband and I went on in the summer of 2002…
South Africa is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world. They could just as well post on their borders or airports a signpost stating: Enter at own risk! As I once saw displayed on a notice board outside a game reserve travelling through the Drakensberg Mountains. But South Africa I find isn’t its people. It’s the open roads, the flatlands, the blue mountains, the animals that graze the savanna, the lion roaring on a hilltop, and the ocean surf breaking on jagged rock, which makes my heart call home.
We threw our bags in the back of Pieter (my husband’s) car and would be travelling down to Oudtshoorn, Knysna, then via the Garden Route to Port Elizabeth. We left our Pretorian flat at four in the morning, heading south on the National Highway towards Johannesburg.
We fueled up at Kroonstad ultra-city to stretch our legs. Pieter turned the key in the ignition, and the only sound that met us was rat-a-tat-tat. I looked over at Pieter, who gave the key another turn.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked him while holding my breath. We were far away from home to be calling for family to come and help us push the car.
He got out of the vehicle to assess the problem. As Pieter opened up the bonnet, people passed by glancing at the open hood and rolling their eyes. Pieter stroked his chin then started looking around finding a size-able smooth stone which he used to knock the starter motor. Soon we would be on the road again with the stone in the back, for ‘just in case.’
The sweltering heat of Bloemfontein was tangible when we got out of the vehicle, after a few more hours of driving. The landscape changed from urban high rises to small townships to open vastness with miles and miles of precision lined cornfields.
The route up until Colesberg can be busy during holiday seasons. Most people travel to Durban or Cape Town, taking the train or plane. For me, it was the journey getting to Port Elizabeth that was important.
We stopped over at the Bloemfontein Anglo Boer War Museum that served in remembrance of the Second Anglo Boer War that lasted from 1899 to 1902. The war began because of British imperialism and the gold rush in Transvaal and Witwatersrand, with the Transvaal Afrikaans colony resisting the invasion. The war ended with the signing of the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging on the 3rd of June 1902. The museum is an exhibit of the lives lost for liberty that we today take for granted, but it also showed the turbulent past that South Africans experienced. Moreover, this event and many others from the past let me wonder if one person could treat another with so much contempt, how cruel would they treat animals?
The one monument that caught my eye is a pinnacle in a dark irony, stretching up to heaven with the cry of the 26370, Heldinnen en lieve kinderen (heroin and loved children). They lost their lives in the British concentration camps during the Anglo Boer war. I was reminded back then of the horse memorial in Port Elizabeth that stood in commemoration of the many horses that died in that same conflict.
The scenery changed again to a dreary patchy dry grassland stretching out on both sides of the vehicle, and it wasn’t my imagination that it was even warmer than before. We reached South Africa’s largest constructed dam, Gariep Dam, just after noon. A few sailboats dot the coffee-coloured water.
The Great Karoo is considered Semi-desert area. But South Africa was plagued by droughts. Standing by the dam, I looked up to the few clouds that were chased by the wind to bring only a promise to the hopeful hearts of the sheep farmers around. I couldn’t help to wonder who would want to live in this deserted place full of wiregrass and Acacia trees. The people living in Colesberg and surrounding areas are hardened and understand the meaning of perseverance. But they don’t like change as I saw visiting the Old Horse & Mill Pub creating the pioneering atmosphere. It was like you have gone into a time warp where everything was always the same. The bar gave the place a certain cosy warmth with the display of a variety of drinks. The wooden tables and chairs were unadorned. The food outmatched the rustic charm, and you got a sense that the people who lived in Colesberg not just love living in a one-horse town but have a great passion for what they were doing there.
Have you ever heard the myth that wild animals walk South African streets? Well…
The next day we entered the Meiringspoort pass ending the monotonous hours of staring at the flat, dry countryside that was only interrupted by the bladed windmills of the Great Karoo. We found ourselves travelling through a mountainous coiling road with space where the weary traveller can pull over to look at parts of the Swartberg ranges that were 230km in length stretching from the Western Cape region into Willowmore. Nearly halfway through the pass is a waterfall, called the Meiringspoort Waterfall with a sixty-meter drop over smooth dark rocks pouring into a quiet, dark pool. With the heat of the day, I wished to jump into the pool for a refreshing cool down. We climbed onto some of the rocks to see the falls from another vantage point and found that baboons were observing our process.
Some tourist would feed these baboons, causing the baboons to attack when not fed. I’ve learned the hard way as a child how vindictive those grabbing hands can be, losing my roadside snack to one who was fearlessly bold. Leaning onto one of the rocks, Pieter asked me, ‘how would you capture a baboon?’
I thought for a while. ‘I’ll set a trap for him.’
‘Farmers would hollow out a Boer-pumpkin, putting peanuts through the hole. The hole is only big enough to put their hands in, but they won’t let go of the nuts. So, they are stuck holding this heavy pumpkin because their hand is in a tight fist.’
‘What happens to them?’
‘Some get shot. Some farmers phone CARE Sanctuary to take the baboons off-site to another area where the baboons are rehabilitated and released into another pack. They are considered a pest, after all.’ Pieter got up and stretched his hand out towards me. ‘Come, we need to go. I don’t want problems with the locals.’ I looked around at where the baboons lazed asleep in the sun or sat grooming each other.
Just before sunset, we arrived at a backpacker’s in Oudtshoorn, Ostrich capital of South Africa. One of South Africa’s many marvels was the dishes that you can try from ostrich, crocodile meat, or Mopane worms. Although not all meals are for everyone, and you need adventurous taste buds for these kinds of explorations. Pieter felt adventurous and tried some barbequed ostrich steak but judging from his facial expression; the meal hadn’t made his favourite’s list. Guess it was a delicacy that only a few would appreciate.
The next morning, we got served scrambled ostrich egg for breakfast that tasted very much like chicken eggs. As we sat by the table, the hostess came and sat down with us.
“You guys came at the right time. With all the other people here, we could serve ostrich eggs. It takes two dozen chicken eggs to make out one ostrich egg.” She said, getting up to serve the other guests.
Pieter and I started exploring Oudtshoorn, kicking off with the Cango Ostrich farm with its dry and stony ground and wired fenced off areas that separate the ostriches. Both Pieter and I was given a chance to touch the ostriches and feed them some corn. The ostriches seem tame, but just the opposite was true, for if they catch you in an open space, there was no way you could outrun this bird. They have a nasty kick and would do anything to protect their young ones. The farmer advised to run to the closes high tree and start climbing, for ostriches couldn’t climb or fly.
Their eggs were enormous, weighing over two kilograms, and were also stone-hard, therefore, not easy to break. Both Pieter, and I had the opportunity to stand on top of the eggs. During our stay there, we witnessed a graceful dance the male performed to attract the female’s attention. But these lovely birds were exploited for more than being a tourist attraction. Every piece of this bird is used for commercial consumption from their meat, the eggs, feathers for feather dusters, and their skin to make expensive purses and handbags. They even have ostrich racing, and the tourists were allowed to ride one of these animals. Pieter and I weren’t that brave, though.
On our visit the Cango Wildlife Ranch, Pieter and I were permitted to go into the enclosure with a hand-reared cheetah. The coarse hair was a surprise under my fingers touch. It was the look in the animal’s eyes that I would never forget—the quiver under the palms of my hands. The ears were pushed back. I never thought of how my insouciance behaviour would affect them.
The same look of defeat, I saw in a tiger’s eye while visiting Hamilton Zoo. The man there told us that tigers were close to extinction. I was amazed by the way they take care of these animals by changing where they feed them every day. The tigers are on a breeding program in conjunction with the Australian Conservation department to make sure of their survival. The zookeepers even chase goats through the enclosed area, while the tigers are locked in another area, of course. This is so they can smell something different in their enclosure. I guess that is what conservation is all about? The sanctuary was preserving other animals such as crocodiles, lions, lemurs and different bird species so that future generations can also have the pleasure of meeting these creatures.
Although the cheetahs were well fed, well looked after and kept safe from poachers and hunters, I felt as if they paid for it by giving up their wide-open spaces. The money made of the encounter will go into the preservation of these animals, for cheetahs are dangerously close to extinction with just over 7000 cheetah’s left in the wild. I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like running into one of these creatures in the wild.
The next day we took our trip further down south towards Knysna. Home to the Garden of Eden. Yes, the Garden of Eden was found in South Africa and rightly so. It was a short walk, just enough to stretch the legs looking up to the tall trees that were hundreds of years old. Knysna was part of the Garden Route where you can find bountiful flora such as yellowwood, ironwood, stinkwood, fig-trees which also was the home of the Knysna Lourie (Turaco), a large green and blue bird with a red beak.
Later that evening, we all sat on my ex-colleague, *Jane’s porch overlooking the Knysna lagoon watching the sunset. Jane explained that there was a motion put forward to get rid of the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe train, that still runs on a line through the woods. Because of the drought, the steam engine could cause a spark which would create a significant loss of woodlands, homes and destroying lives. In 2017 I was told by family, still living in South Africa, that due to the dry climate a considerable part of these forests was destroyed by a fire, caused by a lightning strike.
There were much to do in Knysna. We took a ferry ride on the lagoon, and the tour guide explained to us about the Knysna Seahorses that was becoming an endangered species. These seahorses can be found in the Knysna Estuary. But because of the loss of habitat, overfishing from locals, people using them for traditional medicine, pollution and global warming these seahorses were in great peril.
The seahorses are the underwater chameleons that make conservation difficult. And many are lost due to the low water levels. The conservation was due to people volunteering to catch them and taking them to deeper water habitats. But their lives still remain under constant threat.
If I have to imagine a new South Africa, I will envisage it like the Addo Elephant National Park. We were travelling through the park that covers 686000 hectares taking us nearly a day to drive through.
The African Elephants were grazing away on the plants with no care, for there were no lions inside the park. I understand that, since we have been there, the park introduced lions. At the time we traveled through the park, many antelope could be seen throughout the park as well as buffalo, kudu’s, bushbucks, eland and zebras, grazing languidly—the ultimate bush experience in a day. The dryness has touched these bushes too, but the shrubs you find there are the kind that can survive in harsh surroundings and heat, such as the Albany Thicket, fynbos, and Nama-Karoo. I was disappointed not seeing any giraffe or rhinos on our safari. But then these are also animals that find themselves with smaller numbers, and rhinos are rare to find on any safari tour.
Elephants again find themselves under threat because neighbouring countries to South Africa wanted to trade in ivory to pay for the elephant’s conservation and pay off their countries debt. This after such great success has been reached with the preservation of the elephant with a considerable increase in their number.
Although International laws are preventing ivory trade, there are still those who ignore this legislation. There is a great market out there for ivory to make ornaments and to use for traditional medicine to cure cancer. Ivory is a status symbol in some cultures. However, experts say that the horns are nothing more than the same material as your hair or nails.
Animal abuse, exploitation and disregard doesn’t just happen in South Africa. I’ve been living in New Zealand for quite a while. I find that just like South African animals lose their habitat to human ventures, animals across this beautiful country of New Zealand are exposed to the same brutal reality.
I enjoy walking down Auckland’s shorelines on weekends. It’s on these sandy beaches that you find the dainty taraiti, that is one of New Zealand’s most endangered bird species. These small grey and white birds with a black crown, and orange beak are losing their nesting areas to farming, new developments and people enjoying the soft dunes to catch a few rays.
But ultimately, it is not us paying the price. It is those who lose their habitats, that will find themselves in enclosed wired or glass areas. All this in the name of conservation.
*Jane -pseudo name to protect her privacy
Chingono, Nyasha. “Lift ‘Unfair’ Ban on Ivory Trade, Southern African Leaders Urge Summit.” The Guardian, 26 June 2019. http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/jun/26/lift-ban-ivory-trade-southern-african-leaders-summit. Accessed 25 October 2019.
Endangered Species Foundation. Taraiti, Sterna nereis davisae, 2017. http://www.endangeredspecies.org.nz/store/doc/New%20Zealand%20fairy%20tern%20Endangered%20species%20factsheet.pdf. Accessed 24 October 2019.
enkosini.org. Hands-on Baboon Experience. n.d. http://www.enkosini.org/CAREBaboonSanctuary.htm. Accessed 24 October 2019.
Horn, Gerhard. “How Garden Route Locals are Saving the Knysna Seahorse.” South African Country Life, 6 September 2017. http://www.countrylife.co.za/conservation/garden-route-locals-saving-knysna-seahorse. Accessed 21 October 2019.
South African History Online toward a people’s history. Horse Memorial, junction of Cape and Russell Roads, Port Elizabeth, 14 July 2011. http://www.sahistory.org.za/place/horse-memorial-junction-cape-and-russell-roads-port-elizabeth. Accessed 16 October 2019.
—. Second Anglo-Boer War – 1899-1902, 21 March 2011. http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/second-anglo-boer-war-1899-1902. Accessed 07 October 2019.