Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Queen's Park Zoo, East London

This recalls a visit to the zoo in East London, back in 2004. To see some drawings I did at the time, please visit http://kininline.blogspot.com/2011/02/at-zoo.html.

My sons, Doug and Luke, when they were very young in the Queen's Park Zoo, East London. The delightful duckpond can be seen through the indigenous trees behind.

I HAVE been visiting one of East London’s prime attractions, the Queen’s Park Zoo, for nearly 50 years.

But it was only recently that I became fully acquainted with the delights of the nearby Gately House, a beautifully preserved Victorian home administered by the East London Museum.

Growing up in East London in the 1950s and ’60s, a visit to the zoo was a regular occurrence. It has to be one of the most scenic zoos anywhere, thanks to its location. Officially opened as a botanic park in 1896, the first animals were housed there in the 1930s. Today, the zoo section covers 10 of the park’s 45 hectares of coastal forest.

The preservation of all that indigenous forest, including cycads, a stone’s throw from the city centre is achievement enough. But rarely has a more charming zoo been established – or so lovingly maintained.

Virtually every time we visit relatives in East London – several times a year – we make a pilgrimage to the zoo. While things naturally do seem smaller than when one was a child, I’m sure for children today the place remains just as enchanting. And a Smartie train, kiosk and jungle-gym render it particularly child-friendly – although the pony rides of my youth are sadly a thing of the past.

Many would argue that animals should not be kept in captivity. But often those that are have been injured and cannot survive in the wild.

On our most recent visit, in September, we walked the short distance from the car park to the entrance, where R40 paid for two adults and three children. A few bags of raw peanuts were acquired for under R10.

A female paradise flycatcher.

To the left of the entrance, set under palms and tall trees, is a pond which features maribou storks and crowned cranes – among 38 species of birds in various aviaries around the zoo. And, since this indigenous forest acts as a magnet to wild birds as well, it was no surprise to see a pair of yellow-billed kites hovering just above the tree tops. Among other visitors, we also saw a paradise flycatcher and numerous laughing and redeye doves. Crowned hornbills, giant kingfishers and goshawks are also regularly spotted.

Next we encountered the zoo’s rare white lion cub, Remus, before chancing upon a peacock, its fantail extended in a beautiful courting ritual beside the giraffe enclosure. The delightfully tall giraffe is a surefire hit with the kids. I saw it stre-e-e-tch out its neck and – its long black lashes framing big round eyes – virtually kiss a baby in his pram.

In several large camps under shady, indigenous trees we saw a wide variety of antelope, including nyala, bushbuck and blue duiker. Indeed, there are 47 species of mammal and seven reptile species to be found in the zoo.

One of two large pit-enclosures – this one built in the 1970s – is home to two bears. The other was opened in 1959, initially as the lions’ den. I well recall as a child quaking in my boots as the roar of the lions resonated across the park from inside their enclosure.

Now they’ve been moved to a more natural, open (but secure) camp, and replaced by a family of chimps. These strange creatures, with their large, human-like physiques and mannerisms, are a constant source of fascination – and no slouches at catching the odd peanut dropped some four metres into their mouths!

For years, as children, the zoo’s enormous crocodile always seemed to be disappointingly fast asleep. Nothing has changed – except that the croc is now in a new, larger enclosure.

The place is full of pleasant surprises: chattering primates of various description; exotic birds of paradise, their plumage a rich palette of primary and complementary earth colours; a hutch crammed with the black-and-white quills of a horde of dozing porcupines . . .

An old favourite is the tall aviary housing several species of raptor, such as the spotted eagle owl and black eagle. But the resident black crow lacks the character of a much-loved predecessor, Jimmy the Crow, famous in the sixties for shouting “Border!”, the local rugby warcry.

A white-faced duck.

The large, central duckpond remains, as it has always been, an area of tranquility at the heart of a place teeming with big and often dangerous wildlife. The gentle beauty of yellow-billed and white-faced ducks is a far cry from the latent ferocity of the nearby Bengal tigers, lions, hyenas and striped jaguars.

And, while the many nocturnal animals may disappoint daytime visitors as they doze in their cages, they come alive after sunset. The zoo offers regular night tours, two of which I’ve been on in recent years, both of them entertaining and informative. The evenings start and end at a boma, where the organisers provide a post-walk cup of hot chocolate and, for the kids, marshmallows to roast on a roaring bonfire.

A fountain, donated over 100 years ago by Martin Fleischer, is still in good working order, and packed with a collection of koi fish.

But it is that Victorian house, a five-minute walk uphill towards the city centre – though still in the park precincts – which brings a real sense of history.

Directed by a signpost near the bear pit, we passed through imposing but decayed gates before reaching the town house.

We were welcomed by charming Gately House curator Prince Mame, who gave us a memorable guided tour of the place, highlighting interesting features in each of the rooms. The house was built in 1878, some 30 years after the town was established, and was lived in by John Gately and his family until the death of his last surviving child, Margaret, in 1966. She generously donated the contents to the museum. The house was declared a National Monument in 1973.

Born in Roscommon, Ireland, in 1829, John Gately served with the Royal Rifles in the Eighth Frontier War from 1851 to 1853. After his discharge in 1857 he married Mary Ann Davis in King William’s Town, and moved to East London in 1860, setting himself up as a forwarding and general agent at the port.

The couple had 12 children. A devout Roman Catholic family, religious pictures and statuettes can be seen throughout the house.

There is also a wealth of Victoriana to be enjoyed, all for the price of a small donation.

Here you will encounter the whatnot, a three to four-tiered stand for ornaments, and another Victorian favourite, the glass dome, or shade. The one with stuffed birds in the parlour is typical of the time.

Other interesting objects include a coat and hat stand in the hall, as well as a silver salver for visiting cards.

There is a pre-1860 piano in the parlour, where Gately – East London’s second mayor, serving from 1881-83 and again from 1887-88 – entertained important visitors. Among them was Sir Gordon Sprigg, Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, who was the MP for East London in the late eighteen- and early nineteen-hundreds.

The family living room features, among others, a magnificent rosewood cylinder desk, on which resides the old family bible. A typically sentimental Victorian touch is a framed circlet which has locks of hair from each member of the family.

The rest of the tour takes you through the main bedroom, second bedroom, dining room and pantry. How 12 children fitted into this small house is a mystery, since today there is only one iron bedstead in the second bedroom.

The piece de resistance is to be found in the dining room. It is a beautiful large mahogany dining table, reputed to have come from a shipwreck. The first meeting of the municipal councillors is said to have taken place in the dining room around this table.

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