South African Travels 2

Once we had seen Inge safely on her way back to New York, we decided to make best use of the car we had rented for a month, by heading north to the Northern Cape and the Kalahari. After a pit-stop at the little town of Springbok, we headed across the arid plain toward the provincial centre of Uppington. On the way, we stopped to view the falls in the Orange River at Augrabie. Though the gorge is an impressive natural feature, the river was in a dry spell and so the falls were little more than an impressive cataract. However, we had a very pleasant hike through the Park which surrounds the falls area, enough to stretch our legs after hours in the car. When we arrived at Uppington serendipity intervened. Our booking at a cheap but unimpressive hotel had somehow failed, so we went looking and were fortunate to stumble on a beautiful river-side B&B, where the next morning we could watch the mist rising off the Orange River in the dawn.


For our trip to the Kalahari we had decided against using our little car, which was really unsuitable for the rugged tracks of the Gemsbok or Kgalagadi Trans-Frontier Park. Instead we went with a local guide, Pieter, who runs regular tours to the Park. On the road north we repeatedly passed what appeared to be huge haystacks on the telephone poles. These were the communal nests of the sociable weaver birds, often with as many as 300 individual nests within the 'stack', which is added to continually.





Unlike the game parks and reserves, all the animals in the Trans-Frontier Park are indigenous to the area. Though we had seen most of the varieties of antelope before, such as the red hartebeest and the wildebeest, we had not seen them in such profusion. What we had not seen were the wide range of desert birds, such as the secretary bird (left) and the kori bustard (right). The latter is the largest flying bird in Africa, though the flightless ostrich, which is also native to the area, is far larger.


We also saw a number of animals during the day which are primarily nocturnal, such as the bat-eared foxes (above) and the very handsome black-backed jackal (left).


Most of the antelope, such as the springbok (right and below), are not particularly shy. However, the dainty and elegant steenbok is very wary and hard to spot. This is perhaps understandable, as only the tiny klipspringer is smaller.


Though the springbok is by no means an unusual sight in South Africa, it is a most attractive animal and we could well understand why it was adopted as the national symbol. Occasionally in the early morning we saw young males sparring with each other or showing off their exuberance by darting around the herd 'pronking', which is a kind of stiff-legged, arch-backed leap in the air, similar to lambs frisking. We also saw a springbok 'creche' (above) with an older aunt or two watching over a group of very young fawns, probably only a few weeks old. Though not unique, this kind of communal care is unusual among animals.


In such a harsh environment, it is hardly surprising that the animals that thrive here are very well adapted. One of the best examples is the gemsbok (pronounced 'hemsbock'). These extremely handsome antelope drink virtually no water and merely recycle the moisture in the vegetation they eat, as well as the liquid in their own bodies. Considering the dryness of their fodder, this is pretty remarkable. The pair of mating puff adders (right) are equally well adapted.


There was a huge variety of birds in the Park, with a surprising number of predators, from the nocturnal eagle owl - here having a mid-day snooze - to the tawny eagle, to the tiny pygmy falcon. The latter nests symbiotically with the sociable weavers, keeping off other predators such as snakes and rodents.


During our two and half days in the Park, Pieter drove us some 600 kilometers, picking out with his practiced eye scores of animals which we would never have noticed, despite improving our animal spotting techniques in the Parks to the south. Though they are numerous, particularly difficult to spot are the small animals (below) at the bottom of the food chain, which are so essential to the health of the areas ecosystem. Ground squirrels (left) abound. Two, of a family of meerkats, keep a wary eye on a prowling jackal (top right). A yellow mongoose scouts for food (bottom right). Unfortunately, though we saw a wide variety of smaller animals, Inge had taken some of our animal spotting luck with her and we saw neither lions now leopards, both of which are often seen in the Park.



From the sand dunes of the Kalahari, we drove the 1000 kilometers from Uppington back to Simon's Town in a single day, with only a brief stop for a fruitless attempt to see some Bushmen rock paintings. After hours of driving, down the long straight roads of the high velt, we suddenly came to this escarpment, where the land drops away for nearly 1000 meters to the coastal plain below, with its hints of rushing rivers, which only have water a few times a year and sometimes not for several years. A view like this gives some understanding of why the farms of the velt are only thought to be economic in units of at least 5000 hectares and many farms are composed of five or six of such units. The scale of things in Africa is sometimes a little hard to grasp.