Friday, March 18, 2011

Nightjars of the Karoo

A fiery-necked nightjar

MOST birders know it by its call, which sounds like the exhortation: Good Lord, deliver us! Good Lord, deliver us!

But, given that the fiery-necked nightjar is nocturnal and a master of concealment, actually spotting one of these mottled creatures is a rare occurrence indeed.

At least it was in my case – until we did an evening drive on the back of a bakkie on a Karoo farm in early 2004. Then, thanks to the sharp eyes of our host, Steynsburg district sheep farmer Bill Elliott, we encountered several of the little fellows, soaking up the warmth of the gravel road but barely visible among the stones.

Teebus and Koffiebus become one in this silhoutte.

Our journey north from Port Elizabeth had been happily uneventful. Just before turning left towards Middelburg we caught sight across the Karoo plains of the magnificent koppie combination known as Teebus and Koffiebus – tea jar and coffee jar.

These are like the pointers to the Southern Cross: and if you take the correct rather bumpy dirt road you’ll eventually negotiate a dry spruit and arrive at the optimistically named Spring Valley farm.

A klipspringer.

Along this track to the farm we spotted our first sample of wild life of the trip – although in this case it was pretty dead: the carcass of a black-backed jackal lay rotting on the side of the road.

Our couple of days on the farm were characterised by a few memorable moments, including sundowners on the koppie behind the farmhouse, as we watched the landscape stretched out around us sink into shadow beneath a sky that transformed rapidly through the spectrum. I was able to do a few pastel drawings, including one of two old grain silos, before the encroaching darkness drove us indoors, with the Red Mountain, visible from the lounge, being the last bit of the landscape to lose its light.

Our first big adventure was reserved for the next day. We were heading for a heart-shaped section of the Big Mountain, a few kilometres behind the farmhouse, which also marks the northern boundary of the farm. I had heard much talk of the Bushman paintings, or in politically correct terminology, San paintings – which somehow just doesn’t sound right, does it? – and hoped finally to get a good look at them.

But first there was the small question of hiking halfway up what, at a distance looked like a rather low, nondescript koppie. How wrong one can be!

The ever-obliging Bill took his bakkie out of a voluminous shearing shed, loaded us aboard and we bumped and thumped our way across the veld, bypassing a handful of derelict mud buildings before reaching a concrete water tank. Bill parked the bakkie and we jumped down onto the hard, stony ground. Ahead of us, the heart shape loomed larger, while behind us Teebus and Koffiebus were just peeping out above Red Mountain.

It was hot and still. Any birds there might have been had seemingly already found sanctuary and respite from the heat, although we did enjoy the sight of a splendid Cape bunting with its distinctive black-and-white striped head.

So, while our feathered friends were by and large maintaining an exhausted and conspicuous silence, our group of seven – ranging in age from Bill’s 60 through my 47 to Douglas’s 10 – were still full of beans. But what I thought would be a cakewalk through the veld ended up being a rather arduous hike, the likes of which I had not encountered since being forced, with heavy pack and rifle, to cover many dry kilometres in the foothills of the Drankensburg during national service with the 5th SA Infantry Battalion near Ladysmith, Natal, in the winter of 1979.

How nice though, I reflected, to be doing this voluntarily. How pleasant not to be at the beck and call of army officers and NCOs. Simply being out in the African veld for its own enjoyment was something I had found difficult to imagine 25 years earlier while enduring those tedious years of military conscription.

But, lost in thought, I was brought back to reality by a call from Bill for us to halt – or “stop”, since this was a civvy hike, after all. He gestured with his walking stick towards a clump of bushes on the edge of a narrow, dry ravine. The outline of some sort of antelope, standing absolutely still, was clearly visible. There was general discussion about what sort of buck it was, until I raised my binoculars to my eyes and made a startling discovery. Our buck was a mirage, or rather a very clever bit of Karoo visual trickery. A dun-coloured rock with a bush’s shadow cast over it looked exactly like a buck. It was a timeless, immobile antelope literally cast in stone – at least until such time as the sun moved sufficiently for the light-shadow show to be over.

Our next animal sightings were more of the flesh-and-blood variety. First we spotted a couple of klipspringers gambolling over the rocky landscape. Later, I also got my first sighting of the fleet-footed Cape hare, as one of them darted across the veld in front of us. But that sudden flurry of activity was soon subsumed in the intensifying heat as we negotiated the rugged, undulating “dead ground” – there I go again, another military term – at the foot of what, as we got closer, looked increasingly like a mountain. We were walking through tall, almost-white grass, but the intervening rock formations, complete with fascinating eroded circular cavities, would clearly be a geologist’s delight.

A Cape hare

The ascent was getting steeper and the younger members of the party forged ahead, leaving the more senior partners to bring up the rear at a respectable rate. Indeed, Bill and I often found it helpful to take regular stops in order to enjoy the view. When we finally hauled our bodies onto the narrow ridge where the Bushman art was to be found, the others were almost bored with the place already, and were all set to continue up the remainder of what was by now very much a mountain.

There before me were my first Bushman paintings, and sadly they told a tale of white occupation, of dispossession, and perhaps even of massacre. The white figures were mostly on horseback. The long white sticks they held were clearly rifles. But there were also lovely animal shapes, including several ostriches.

Bill told us eighteenth century trekboers had evidently come this way. Legend had it that, in the course of that period, a trap had been set. San bushmen had been lured to indulge in a feast on animals slaughtered by the Dutch farmers. They had gorged themselves into a state of defencelessness, and then been massacred. It may be apocryphal, but it is the sort of story that has the ring of truth about it.

We took a few photographs of the slightly recessed rock face on which these images were painted, and I attempted to draw one cluster of figures. I had recently reviewed a book on Bushman art in which an artist had attempted to reproduce the images, complete with the texture of the rocks on which they are painted. While these pictures were competent, it was clear from one example, in which the original was juxtaposed with the copy, that it is virtually impossible to reproduce those images convincingly, no matter how adept the artist is. Mysteriously, Bushman art has an aesthetic quality which is unique. Some would argue that it borders on child art or dismiss it as “primitive”. But I can sense within the proportions, the economy of line, the distortion for effect, and a myriad other arcane devices, that these artists were privy to artistic techniques, technical as well as intellectual, which render their work exceptional.

And it is uncanny how that “style” of painting seems to permeate and inform similar ancient rock art sites around the world. It is as if there was an international rock art movement, with cave painters in Europe achieving uncannily similar effects to those working on stone “canvases” throughout the horseshoe chain of mountain ranges in southern Africa, not to mention elsewhere in the world.

But lest I got too complacent soaking up this piece of history, the call from my climbing companions was one of “let’s head for the top”. Bill and I demurred. Instead, as the younger set set off upwards, Bill led the way horizontally across the berg to another cave, which he said was nicknamed “the cubbyhole”, where, as teenagers, he and his siblings and cousins had whiled away the hours.

It was about this time, as the rest of the party were reaching the summit and Bill and I were trying to cajole his ageing Jack Russell terrier and more sprightly border collie to follow us down and not explore every possible burrow and crevice, that we noticed some rather dark and ominous clouds building up in the west. A steady breeze came up and ushered the storm into the mountain amphitheatre. We were in for a little spectacle, courtesy of mother nature. Indeed, we agreed afterwards that it was, in many ways, a rather terrifying little spectacle.

High above us, on the ridge of the mountain, we saw the other group moving hurriedly away from the clouds, which by now were issuing forth lightning bolts and thunderclaps pretty much all around and above us. It was then that Bill, a veteran of such events I assured myself, suggested we head for a dry, narrow river bed, in order to get below ground level. It made sense. So there we and the two dogs huddled, against an increasingly wet bank of earth, as the rain came pelting down. Not a naturally religious person by nature, I found it nonetheless reassuring when Bill proceeded to recite a prayer for our safekeeping. He was, I was confident, just playing it safe; calling for a little additional assurance from the guy above who, after all, was orchestrating what was, despite our discomfort, an exhilarating and impressive display of firepower.

The water in the river bed turned from a trickle to a stream as we waited out the passing of the storm. Once the worst was over we set out down the remainder of the mountain. Soaked to the skin, we trudged through pools that covered our shoes. Visibility was a few hundred metres, but thankfully Bill knew exactly where the bakkie was. Left alone, I would not have found it. We reached it about the time the rest of the party did. All were drenched and relieved to have survived a potentially lethal roasting at the end of a jagged bolt of lightning. Indeed, I learnt subsequently that one of my brothers-in-law had at one stage even instructed his group in the art of kneeling in the foetal position, the better to survive in the event of a direct hit. It was that close, I tell you.

We bumped and slid back down to the farmhouse, with Bill somehow managing to keep the bakkie on the sludge which the road had become. The temperature had dropped considerably. But, despite our wet clothes and the brisk wind and driving rain, there was a general sense of euphoria at having both climbed the mountain and survived the storm.

Up in the shallow cave, while probably protected from the direct impact of the rain, the storm would have eroded the rock art by a further infinitesimal amount.

A spring hare

In dry clothes and warm again, after a hearty supper we ventured into the garden as the night set in. My America-based brothers-in-law gasped in awe at a sight they would have seen so often when, with my wife and their parents, as children they had visited this farm of their grandparents for regular school holidays. But now, based in New Jersey and Denver respectively, they were reacquainted with the immensity of the Karoo sky at night. Free from detracting terrestrial lights, the heavens above shone down on us in a shower of glory. Layer upon layer of stars, set in a bowl of deepest black, wended their way back in time and space to infinity. There was no moon that night, which added to the stars’ crisp brightness.

But farmers can’t sit around all night watching the stars. It was time for our night drive, again on the back of Bill’s bakkie, with one of us holding a powerful torch, in order to scan the veld for any signs of life. This was to be the night of the longtails. Like kangaroos, the ridiculously long-tailed and ugly spring hares cut a comical sight as they pranced and pronked about the place, often moving at an extraordinary speed. My brothers-in-law confided somewhat embarrassedly that in their youth, before they knew better, these poor blighters had made challenging targets as they honed their shooting skills.

A fiery-necked nightjar in typical pose - soaking up the evening warmth of the earth.

It was as Bill was travelling along the by-now dry gravel road, the sun having come out soon after that midday storm and restored the Karoo to its more normal parched status, that he spotted the spotted birds. A pair of nightjars were lying transfixed on the road, speared by the vehicle’s headlights. We all got a good look at them before Bill moved slowly forward, causing them to fly out from in front of the bakkie and disappear into the darkness. A little later, Bill stopped again. Same story. Only this time Luke got out with the torch and got a really close-up look at the bird, before it too made a rapid departure.

“Good Lord, deliver us!” it must have thought, after being so rudely interrupted.

An antbear or, in the more colourful Afrikaans, an aardvark, which happens to be the first word in most English dictionaries.

The next day saw us walking down another dry river bed – in fact that same rivulet the tributaries of which scarred the face of Big Mountain and in one of which Bill and I had found refuge. On the other side of the farm, the river was again dry. But Bill wanted to show us the antelope which were to be found on the farm, including, he believed, a kudu. As if on cue, a magnificent male kudu appeared on a rocky outcrop a few hundred metres away, amidst a small group of graceful springbok, and a flock of Bill’s sheep.

Next, Bill’s Jack Russell terrier whooped with delight as he disappeared down a three- to four-metre deep tunnel, with two exit points. It was evidently made by an antbear which, thankfully for the Jack Russell, was not at home when he called.

After traversing more acres of veld, we came back to the car via a section of the river bed where time had wrought amazing effects on the rock formations. Working with a triangle as a template, water and heat had fractured the flint-like stone into a multitude of sharp, angular shapes. I found one tall, elegant piece which I stood up vertically on the river bed. Douglas, at 10 ever alert to artistic possibilities, had meanwhile found a perfect isosceles triangle, which he proceeded to balance on my base, creating an arrow.

Bill was happy to let us take the parts back in his bakkie. We transferred them to the boot of our car and, along with our memories of a wonderful Karoo holiday, we returned with them to Port Elizabeth. Which is how we came by an arrow sculpture in our garden.

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