Saturday, December 22, 2012

Interesting Black Vulture Behavior


Black Vulture on light pole.  Photo by Steve Schwartzman


Each morning when I drive to 7-11 to get my one cup of coffee for the day I see one Black Vulture perched on every light standard between my place and University Parkway. They are there every morning at dawn like clockwork.  When I typically see them they are roosted right near the junction of the support pole coming coming up from the ground and the arm that extends out to the lights. Think of a small r -  they are at that intersection.

This morning at 42 degrees out it feels like a brisk June day in North Dakota.  Just now as I drove to 7-11 the Black Vultures were roosted on every light pole as usual however today every one of them was sleeping while standing directly on top of the lights.  I wonder if they weren't doing that to help transfer a little of the heat escaping from the illuminated lights to their bodies to keep them a tad warmer? I would not blame them if they were.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

On Seeing a River Otter



This morning while on a bicycle ride through the “wilds” of suburban Sarasota I had the pleasure of watching an adult River Otter (Lutra canadensis) lope across Cooper Creek Parkway in front of me.  The otter came out of a wetland to the south (right on this aerial image) and then run to the median of the road.  There, as he attempted to cross the road and continue north he encountered some traffic that convinced him that crossing the road was a life-limiting activity.  Wisely he turned around and went back to the artificial wetland.  I was lucky and got to watch him twice.

The yellow pin shows the location of today's River Otter sighting.  Not exactly in the middle of the wilderness

Normally and usually people think of River Otter’s as being somewhere in the wilderness of the north woods of America but as the aerial image above demonstrates this River Otter is living large in a heavily urbanized area with an Interstate Highway just a few yards to the west.

I became fascinated with River Otters quite early in my life.  I think it all started with a television show on the “Wonderful World of Disney” that aired every Sunday night at 6:30 p.m. when I was a kid.  One Sunday the show aired an episode titled “One Day at Teton Marsh.”  A part of the episode included following a family group of River Otters as they played and fished and just generally goofed off in the wetlands of Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming.  The program left me fascinated with River Otters which, at the time, I had never seen in the wild.  I made it a goal to make sure that I saw one.  I visited Grand Teton National Park for the first time in 1970.  On entering the Visitor Center the very first thing I asked the Park Ranger who stood before me in her Smokey the Bear hat was “Where is Teton Marsh where they filmed the show “One Day at Teton Marsh?”  She crinkled up her nose at me and said “huh, what are you talking about?”  Twelve years later I discovered the spot where the movie was filmed but that's another story.

I started trapping furbearers in 1964, the same year that “One Day at Teton Marsh” aired on the Disney program.  I used to get up very early on Saturday mornings and pedal my bicycle one mile east of Cameron then one mile north and then another mile east to a place where Rice Creek crossed under the bridge.  There while filled with fantasies of someday being a trapper living off the land in the wilds of Canada, I set out 10-traps in the hopes of catching a muskrat or a mink or a raccoon.  Because of school (this was the 8th grade) I had to pull up the traps on Sunday morning and wait until the following weekend to reset them.  That first year I caught five muskrats and one mink.  Despite my lousy showing as a trapper (Sam Parker paid me $6.25 for my total year’s catch) I had all sorts of dreams about being a better trapper next year.

Through the winter and the following spring I read every issue of the Fur Fish and Game magazine that I could get my hands on.  My uncle Allen Beranek had a collection of FFG in his old closet in my grandparent’s home and I took them home and read all of them.  My reading was designed to help me be a better muskrat trapper.  However there were all sorts of stories about how to trap River Otters.  The authors of those stories made it sound like River Otter was the smartest creature on earth and only the best of the best trappers could ever catch one.  There was a trapper named David Barta who lived on a dairy farm along the Red Cedar River in Barron County who was the premiere River Otter trapper in my part of the world when I was a kid.  He always caught his limit of Otters every winter and I used to stand in awe of him for that ability. Many were the times I would stop at his farm with my dad and I would interrogate him about how to catch an Otter.  He would give up little bits and pieces of information but not much else.
Spring Creek east of Rice Lake Wisconsin. I learned more basics of biology along this stream than anywhere else on earth.

We moved to our farm east of Rice Lake in July 1967.  It was just one-quarter mile from Spring Creek which, luckily, had what seemed to me like a super abundance of Brook Trout in it.  I spent many hours traipsing up and down the stream bed of Spring Creek fishing for Brook Trout with my fly rod.  When I wasn’t fishing in those days I was hunting ducks or anything else that flew and when I wasn’t hunting I was trapping Muskrats and Mink and Raccoon along Spring Creek and nearby areas.  It was near the end of the 1967 trapping and duck hunting season, right about at the time of the first snowfall that I noticed River Otter tracks along the banks of Spring Creek.  For a budding Otter trapper this was very good information.

Otter tracks

River Otter is a very social animal.  They usually travel in family groups that can include mom, dad, and maybe up to five young (called kits when babies in my part of the world).  They have been variously called playful and comical and many other similar terms and all of them seem to fit.  I remember once when my youngest daughter was 2 years old she and I went for a walk in the heavily forested area known as the “Mikana Swamp.”  There we came on to a family group of River Otters sliding down a hill and diving into the water.  Dana and I sat motionless (amazing for a two year old) for almost an hour watching the Otters frolic around in the water.  I still remember Dana saying “they playing daddy” as we sat silently in the forest.
 River Otters just being River Otters

One characteristic of River Otters that can be there downfall is that they have a tendency to defecate in the same place all the time.  Biologists appropriately call these places Otter “toilets” and that is what they are.  Not long after discovering the Otter tracks on the banks of Spring Creek I also discovered an Otter toilet.  During my regular explorations of my “neighborhood” I would also regularly walk along the banks of the Red Cedar River by what we called the “Dobie Bridge” and sometimes I’d walk it down to the Highway 48 Bridge.  While walking this area I discovered another Otter toilet and much to my surprise around it in the snow I found an Otter track that looked like one I had seen along Spring Creek a few miles south.  I knew this because the middle toe on the right front foot was missing. 

The contents of an Otter toilet

Still later near Hawthorne Park where the Red Cedar dumps into Rice Lake I found another Otter toilet and it contained the same distinctive track as the one by the Dobie Bridge.  Adding to the mystery was the Otter tracks where Spring Creek leaves Lake Montanis.  Again, another Otter toilet and again the foot with the missing toe.  Looking on a map I could tell that these Otters were traversing an almost circular route during the winter.  With enough time and exploring that winter I learned about the biological concept of “home range” and these Otters had a home range of about 12 miles that they traversed in an average of 6 days.  The route went up Spring Creek to near its headwaters then cut cross country to the Red Cedar River by Campia.  From there they worked their way down the river to Rice Lake that they crossed along its eastern shore.  From Rice Lake they hopped over Orchard Beach Lane by Jachim’s house and spent time on Lake Montains then down to what I called "Johnson Lake" before turning north.  They passed throught he Lake Monntanis bog before finding the inflow of Spring Creek and following it back north to one-quarter mile from our farm. From there they continued the circle.
The Red Cedar River in Barron County Wisconsin

This was very good information for a budding Otter trapper.  I followed them like a Lion on an Impala for a year and eventually knew that if I went to Place X on Day Y and then hung out there long enough the Otters would put in a showing.  They always did and they almost always used the same pieces of ground and river bank and it was there that I decided to place some traps to catch one.
The circular home range (shown in orange) of "my" River Otters in Barron County, Wisconsin.  

I had 6 Victor size 4 double spring traps set specifically for Otter that winter.  Each one was set on an obvious Otter toilet and all I had to do was to wait for Mother Nature to call when an Otter was in the neighborhood and I would be able to graduate to the self-described rank of Supreme Trapper because I had caught the smartest furbearer in North America.

And I did catch one. Only one.  And when I took that one and only River Otter out of my trap that day along Spring Creek I felt so incredibly ashamed of myself for killing such utter beauty just for my own gratification that I did two things in less than an hour.  First and foremost I made a vow to myself to never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever set a trap anywhere near where there was even a remote possibility of catching another Otter.  Once that vow was made I jumped in our pickup truck and raced off to the other five traps I had set for this family group and hoped that none of the others had an Otter in them.  None of them did and despite trapping (and paying for my undergraduate degree by trapping) Muskrats, Mink, Raccoon, Fox, and Beaver for several years to come I never caught another Otter.
 An Otter pelt.  This picture was downloaded (without attribution) from Google Images.

As I have aged I have developed a deep appreciation for River Otters.  There is something about them that even when I see one in suburban Florida they still give me a sense of wonder and a feeling like I’m a kid again on Spring Creek tracking down where Otters go to take a dump. 

Otters have been persecuted for ages by misinformed people who believe they eat trout.  And trout, of course, are a very highly sought after sport fish.  However while in graduate school I conducted a little research on Otter food habits and I did this by collecting all sorts of Otter droppings at all of those Otter toilets and then identifying the fish they ate by looking at the fish scales in the droppings.  At the end of my research I discovered an interesting thing – at least where my otters were concerned about 96 percent of their food was made up of two fishes – Suckers and Carp.  Both are large, lumbering, and slow moving and consequently easier to catch than a sleek and fast moving trout.  And before you ask about the remaining 4 percent of the food items, they were evenly divided between Perch and Bluegills.  The Otters never touched a trout.

We are very lucky here in Florida to have an abundance of River Otters almost everywhere in the State.  I have not kept track but I would bet I have seen them in at least 50 of Florida’s 67 counties and I see them with great regularity.  Florida is the only place they occur in enough abundance that it’s not uncommon to find a road-killed River Otter lying on the side of the highway and that is especially true when you are out in the Everglades.  Other parts of the country are not so lucky and do not have half the apparent population of River Otters that Florida has.  Although the number of animals taken by trappers is regulated and managed what isn’t regulated and managed is the widespread and rampant destruction of wetlands on which River Otters depend.  To help conservation efforts the River Otter Alliance has been formed to educate people about these wonderful mammals and to affect changes that can benefit them and make sure that River Otters are on the landscape long after you and I are gone.
Chilled out River Otters (Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service)

I hope they succeed and I hope 200 years from now there are still River Otters around so when some bicyclist pedals down Cooper Creek Parkway he or she has a chance to take a mini trip to the wilderness like I did this morning when I had a brief encounter with a River Otter.

About Returning from Africa


Paul Theroux ended his epic trans-Africa journey while riding the commuter rail from downtown Cape Town to Simon’s Town.  It was a route that I mimicked when I was in Simon’s Town.  It was as far south as anyone can travel by rail in Africa. Completing his journey, Theroux boarded the ultra-plush five-star Blue Train and rode it from Cape Town back to Johannesburg.  The Blue Train website says this about the train and its service:


The Blue Train is unique – it is not merely a train.  It combines the luxury of the world’s leading hotels with the charm of train travel.  Think of it as an all-inclusive luxury rail cruise with an opportunity to view South Africa’s spectacular landscapes and visit interesting tourist attractions along the way.
The opulence of South Africa's Blue Train
The website goes on to say, while discussing the Blue Train’s rates “… on this all-suite train the rates are ….inclusive of all meals, high tea, drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) and off-train excursions.”   Excluded from the rates are “French champagne, caviar, and external telephone calls.”

All of this costs a paltry $1,500 US one way per person for an overnight trip.  Meanwhile lesser mortals can follow the same route for $60 US one way on the regular train routes.  About everyone on the Blue Train is white.  A similar contrast exists with airline travel. South African Airways flights are full service with both Business Class and Coach Class cabins.  Low cost airlines like Kululu.com have one class of service (a seat) and it’s all in coach. Fare differences are striking between the two with Kululu.com much cheaper.  When you sit in a South African airport watching planes board for departure, South African Airways passengers are almost entirely white; those on the low fare airlines are almost always black.

Many of the inequalities created and maintained by apartheid still remain in South Africa. The country has one of the most unequal income distribution patterns in the world: about sixty percent of the population earns less than about US$7,000 annually and two percent of the population has an income exceeding about US$50,000.  The haves and the have not’s of South Africa maintain the same unequal distribution of wealth as what is experienced in the United States.  Poverty in South Africa is still largely defined by skin color, with black people constituting the poorest layer. Despite the African National Congress government having implemented a policy of Black Economic Empowerment, blacks make up over eighty percent of the country's poor at the same time they are eighty percent of the population.

Eighty percent of the farms remain in the hands of white farmers; the requirement that claimants for restoration of land seized during the apartheid era make a contribution towards the cost of the land "excludes the poorest layers of the population altogether while a large number of white farmers have been murdered since 1994 (roughly 313 per 100 000 annually) in what campaign groups claim is a campaign of genocide.  Human Rights Watch contends that the publicity given to these murders and attacks removes attention from the plight of rural black people, and contend that they are purely criminal in nature. Regardless, crime against white farmers receives strong media coverage. Opposition against land reforms created fear that by removing commercial farmers from their land and dividing up the land to urbanized people with no comprehension of agriculture or agricultural management would lead to a state of famine.  South Africa sounds a lot like Zimbabwe.

Birds and other wildlife were the major reason for my trip to South Africa but so too was a desire to learn about race relations in a country that was a living laboratory for a college course in Race Relations 101.  What I discovered, in my view, is that South Africa just like the United States has many miles to travel before either country can say with a straight face that there is racial equality.  It’s true that apartheid has ended legislatively in South Africa but on the surface it has ended only because some politicians somewhere enacted legislation that some guilt ridden white person signed thinking that everything would be different when the ink dried.  That ink dried twenty years ago; the mentality of apartheid failed to dry with it.

Abraham Lincoln emancipated slaves in 1863 and oversaw the end of the Civil War in 1865.  Yet it took more than eighty years, until 1947, before a black person could play major league baseball in America. As late as the mid-1960s there were separate rest rooms and separate store entrances and separate sections of public buses for black people in America.  In 2008, exactly 145 years after slaves were emancipated in America the country elected its first black President and when it did look at how American’s responded. The Tea Party Anarchists almost rioted in the streets calling themselves “patriots” out of one corner of their mouths while out of the other side of their mouths they called the black President every nasty name they could concoct.  As they did, Rush Limbaugh went on his hate-filled radio program and begged for the black President and his policies to fail.

America looks like that after 145 years of the evolution of race relations and an attempt to consider everyone equal.   South Africa has had only twenty years of evolution.  Neither country will be rid of racial animosity until every person in both countries follows the words of the black gas station attendant in the township near Port Elizabeth who reminded me that if my skin was cut I would bleed red just like he would.
East Africa - Where We All Began
 We are all the same through all of our differences.  We all began from the same place and we adapted to fit our local environment.  In ecology it’s referred to as “adaptive radiation.”  It works for birds and it works for fish and it also works for human beings.  If you think pragmatically about the origin of human beings all of the evidence suggests that we first appeared in East Africa.  From there human beings radiated out in all directions until we have occupied virtually all of the earth except the rapidly melting poles.  However, at the level of our DNA, everything is the same no matter where you are or from where you came.  What is curious to me about that observation is the realization of what color skin was on the first hominids.  Most probably because our first ancestor arose in East Africa where the bulk of the population today is black, there is a very good chance that our original ancestor was also black.  From those black beginnings we changed with time into white people who lived in colder climates where there was less intense sunlight. We also evolved into yellow people and red people and brown skinned people because we adapted to the environment into which we moved.  We all came from the same place and we all looked the same. Then evolution took over and everything changed.  One of my biggest pleasures is explaining this theory to xenophobic racists.  White’s may be the dominant race economically, but they are not the dominant race at the population level and they were not the dominant race when evolution made homonids stand upright.   Still at our core we all remain the same.  That is something that can only be learned by travel and by exposing ourselves to things and places and people who make us feel uncomfortable.  Eventually if you learned from your experience all those things become a part of who you are.  It’s a lesson more people need to learn.
Air France Business Class Lounge at Johannesburg.  I Love Air France
Check-in for Delta’s nightly nonstop from Johannesburg to Atlanta was scheduled to begin at four in the afternoon.  Because my reservation was in Business Class I was given access to the Air France Business Class lounge where I read several newspapers and news magazines and I caught up with some of what had happened in the world while I was away.  The juxtaposition between where I had been and to where I was returning was stark. 

When my sixteen hour nonstop was complete I would be back in a land where the daily antics of the Kardashians are more newsworthy and greeted with greater anticipation than is information about the murder rate among sixteen year olds in Chicago.  Sixteen hours after lifting off from Johannesburg I would be in a land where if you asked people to identify Robert Mugabe, the murderous dictator of Zimbabwe, the bulk of the people would guess he was a linebacker for some professional football team.  In sixteen hours I would be back in a country where the only knowledge most people have of South Africa is that some guy named Nelson something was in jail there for some reason, and that the 2010 World Cup of soccer was held there.

After five weeks in South Africa I had morphed into someone who didn’t want to return to the land of the Kardashians, or Hiltons or of Lindsey Lohan.  I wanted to stay in a place where lions dine on impala when they can catch one, and where small flocks of bontebok nibble on grasses at the edge of the ocean, and where “robots” tell drivers and pedestrians what to do at an intersection.
Dinner - Lion style
 As I sat in the departure area waiting to board my flight, a group of bible thumpers from Iowa who had traveled to Swaziland to do a week of good deed doing, sat waiting in a group of chairs next to me.  They had built one house in a Swazi village during their week and felt that their effort would cause them to get a merit badge from god. Despite accomplishing their mission, they looked dumbfounded when I asked if any Swazi people had helped them in their house-building endeavors.
Do-gooders building a house in Swaziland.  Note the lack of any Swazi's learning from them.
 “Nobody but our group from Dubuque helped us,” Benton, the leader of the group and a local dentist, told me with great pride.  “You see it was our mission to build homes for these poor people who have so little.”  When I asked why they didn’t teach the Swazi’s how to build houses so they could do so when his group had returned home, Benton said rather emphatically, “You don’t understand the mission of Christians do you?”   I think I understand the mission of Christians perfectly and that is why I long ago gave up on organized religion.
Business Class seat on Delta's 777 from Johannesburg

On board the plane I was offered a glass of wine and some roasted nuts before departure.  Once underway I was treated to a sumptuous dinner of broiled quail and roasted vegetables with a blueberry tart for dessert.  Everything was washed down with an excellent French burgundy.  Meanwhile 20,000 feet below me people were eating their daily ration of rice and vegetables washed down with water from a decrepit and probably contaminated cistern.

We passed over Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana and not long after it, there was nothing below us but darkness.  For as far as I could see in all directions there was not a single electric light burning anywhere.  Instead it was raw wonderful Africa as it should be.  We passed over the endless Kalahari Desert for several hours. That emptiness stayed with me as we passed over the breadth of Botswana and it continued until we reached the coast of Angola and we were out over the South Atlantic.  My mind was overwhelmed with thoughts and fantasies of all the interactions that were occurring on the plains of southern Africa as our plane lumbered north and west through the African night toward the modern opulence of America. 

Ambien and French burgundy did their trick and I fell asleep not long after we passed over the coast.  I remained asleep for nine hours until we were approaching the coast of South Carolina.  North America was obvious in midnight sky with the glare of the lights of Charleston prominent on the horizon even 100 miles away.

We touched down in Atlanta at the exact minute predicted by the pilot sixteen hours and five minutes earlier when we lifted off from Johannesburg.  We shuffled our way through US immigration and then on to US Customs. The agent checking my bag at Customs asked me where I had been, how long I had been out of the country and who employed me.  Saying that I was a retired US government wildlife biologist he asked what I thought of South Africa.  “I have wanted to go there for as long as I can remember,” the agent said.
US Customs and Immigration - Atlanta International Airport
 Telling him a bit more about my experiences I mentioned the leopards, and about watching African elephants tearing limbs from trees just because they could, and watching the puff adder, and the story of the man whose leg was bitten off by a great white shark, and how beautiful the Karoo desert is at dawn, and about Upington, and about Springbok rugby, and about Lambert’s Bay, and about everything I came to love and appreciate about South Africa.  We talked for fifteen minutes and finally the Customs agent said to me as he waved me on, “I think you should write a book about your trip.”

I thought about his suggestion during the one hour connecting flight to Sarasota and decided that the agent had a good idea.  If nothing else reading a book I wrote about traveling throughout South Africa would take me back there any time I wanted to return.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Will Your Grandchildren Ever See a Rhinoceros?





A stuffy Brit from Wolverhampton waved his arms furiously as he stood on a bridge over a dry stream bed.  He was pointing to the south at a large dark gray object grazing on grasses near the edge of the stream bed.  I parked next to him and asked what he had found.  Excitedly he said, “There’s a bloody wildebeest!! It’s the first one I’ve seen in my life!”  Having already seen thousands of blue wildebeest in the last several days I thought that this had to be the man’s first day in Kruger.  If it wasn’t then he had been driving around with his eyes closed because blue wildebeest generally dotted the savanna like flocks of sheep on a South Dakota prairie. 

Even without binoculars I could tell that this large gray animal whose skin appeared to be painted on in patches was not a wildebeest.  It was something far rarer.  I went through the motions and then put down my binoculars saying, “Sir, I am a trained wildlife biologist and I want you to know that this is not a wildebeest, blue, black or any other kind.  My first clue that it was not any kind of wildebeest was that wildebeest do not have two large horns that point skyward from the end of their nose,” I said.  Then I added, “Your first wildebeest isn’t a wildebeest, it’s my first rhinoceros.”

Embarrassed by his mistake this man put his binoculars to his eyes again, peered through them for several seconds and then said rather sheepishly, “Bloody hell!  It’s a rhino!  You did very well for a Yank.”

In December 2007 there were an estimated 17,480 southern white rhino in the wild. South Africa is the stronghold for this subspecies conserving ninety three percent of all the white rhinos remaining.  There are smaller reintroduced populations in the historical range of the species in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Swaziland, while a small population survives in Mozambique. Populations have also been introduced outside of the former range of the species to Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. 

Ignorance leads the list of reasons why the rhinoceroses of the world are in immediate danger of extinction.  There is a misinformed belief that has existed for hundreds of years that the horns of a rhino possess elixir like qualities that can cure hangovers and general malaise. This belief is especially true in China and Vietnam where trade in rhino horns is almost rampant. 

If the myth about the health benefits of rhino horn weren’t bad enough there is also the misguided belief that rhino horn works as an aphrodisiac.  This information is used from science.discovery.com

The power of many aphrodisiacs relies upon a medieval philosophy known as the "Doctrine of Signatures." People believed that God designated his purpose for things by their appearance; for example, if an herb was meant to treat the liver, then it would resemble a liver. For that reason, many of the aphrodisiacs on our list resemble genitalia, often phalluses.

While the horns of several animals, including those of the unicorn, have been touted as aphrodisiacs over the centuries, perhaps the most famous myth is that rhino horn is used for its aphrodisiacal properties. This myth has persisted in Western cultures despite significant educational efforts made by the World Wildlife Federation and other organizations.

In fact, rhino horn is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat fever, high blood pressure, and other illnesses, but it is not used as an aphrodisiac. Rhino horn from Asian and Africa, used for these medicinal purposes, commands thousands of dollars per pound, and demand for the product has led to the death of hundreds of rhinos each year until most Asian countries banned the sale and use of rhino horn.

I vividly remember a night in Hong Kong when I sought out an apothecary to obtain something to help me combat a cold I had contracted.  When I asked for help I expected the person behind the counter to offer me Excedrin or maybe Benadryl to help my runny nose.  Instead she took me into a cavernous room where row after row after row of shelves held almost endless combinations of wild animal parts each, I was assured, would cure me of whatever ailed me.  The store clerk offered me what turned out to be dried deer anus and told me it was a traditional cure for a cold. “It work very well on your code.”  I told her I wanted something else.  She then reached over and picked up a container of rhino horn.  It sold for about $450 an ounce.

I asked what it was and she told me “It rhino horn.” 

“Rhino horn is good for curing my cold,” I asked.

“No, no, no, rhino horn not for code.  Rhino horn give you hard on that last week,” she said excitedly.  “It better than Viagra and keep you hard longer too.”  Walking through the throngs of humanity that make up China I realized that the last thing China needs is men running around with out of control erections.  I declined the rhino horn and asked for some aspirin instead.

If that was not bad enough, there is also a misguided belief among Arabs especially in Yemen that the horn of a rhinoceros is one of the best products that can be used to for the handle of a specific kind of dagger called a janbiya.   The price of a janbiya is in most cases determined by its handle. The saifani handle is known to be the most famous and is found on the daggers of wealthier citizens. The saifani handle is made of rhinoceros horn. Different versions of saifani handles can be distinguished by their color. Most other janbiya handles are made of different types of horns or wood. Apart from the material used for the handle, the design and detail on the handle describe its value and the status of its owner.  The saifani janbiya is often worn by dignitaries among them the Hashimites (an Arab tribe that claims a direct bloodline to the prophet Mohammed), the judges, famous merchants and businessmen.  The saifani janbiya of sheikh Al-Shaif, which goes back to Imam Yahia Hameed Aldeen, recently sold for $1,000,000 US.

My first night out of Kruger Park I stayed in Komatipoort where I read the local newspaper over dinner. There on the third page was an almost full page story about how just two days before forces of the South African military, the South African Police force, the South African National Parks agency and the South African wildlife authority had tracked down and killed one of three poachers who were stalking a lone white-lipped rhinoceros in a dry stream bed not far south of the Satara Rest Camp.  When the poachers were surprised they opened fire on the good guys who returned fire killing one of them as the two others sped away in a Land Rover.  Other details were sketchy at press time but the leader of the local South African military post assured readers that the other two poachers will be tracked down.  “When we find them they will be dead.” Justice in South Africa for even attempting to kill rhinoceroses is swift and often fatal.  It needs to be before there are none left.

Will my grandchildren or yours ever see a rhinoceros in the wild?  My guess is that if I had any grandchildren and if they wanted to see a rhinoceros anywhere but stuffed in a museum, they need to see it yesterday.  With more than one billion horny Chinese thinking they can get a perpetual erection from rhino horn, and with the Hashimites in Yemen willing to spend $1,000,000 on a knife with a rhino horn handle the animal has little if any chance of surviving.  Now I understood why I saw only one rhinoceros.  I was extremely fortunate to even see it.

African Buffalo - The Native Cow of Africa




The word taxonomy is derived from two Greek root words.  “Taxis” means “arrangement” and the word “nomis” means “method.”  Thus taxonomy is the arrangement of biological organisms in groups or subgroups based on similar characteristics. For example, hawks are in a family of birds called Buteonidae.  All hawks from the massive martial eagle of the African savanna to the diminutive tiny hawk found in South American rain forest have many of the same characteristics.  Prominent among them among them is the presence of a hooked beak used for tearing the flesh from their prey, and elongated, super sharp toes (called talons) used to capture and hold its prey while killing it.  Those two characteristics separate hawks and eagles from, say, herons or cranes or sandpipers so biologists have arranged all hawks and eagles and placed them in the same biological arrangement called a family.

At the broadest level there are categories of biological arrangement from the broadest to the most narrow:

Kingdom
Phylum
Class
Order
Family
Genus
Species

The principles of taxonomy are not restricted to birds.  One of the most useful and informative classes I ever took in college was Plant Taxonomy.  In it I learned how to tell one family of plants from another and how to differentiate similar looking species in each plant family.  It was accomplished by comparing flowers and flower parts and leaves and stems.  The same process can be used for fish or snakes or any other living organism.

Most organisms on earth have names by which they are commonly known such as Dickinson’s falcon or white-eyed vireo or pink lady-slipper.  Common names are helpful in knowing one species from another.  However what happens if someone in Europe decides to name a species of loon the great northern diver while in North America someone calls the same species common loon.  Taxonomists have eliminated the potential confusion by giving every organism a scientific name which is made up of the genus and the species names in the larger hierarchy mentioned before.  Thus, the great northern diver is Gavia immer just as the common loon is Gavia immer.  No matter where an organism is on earth, its common name doesn’t really matter if it has the same scientific name.

The mammal family Bovidae is a group of large mammals that includes American bison, African buffalo, water buffalo, antelopes, gazelles, sheep, goats, musk ox and domestic cattle.  At least taxonomically all the bovines could be considered to be “cows.”  Once at the end of a staff meeting in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Grand Island, Nebraska, Bob McCue our Field Supervisor, asked if anyone had any more questions before he wrapped up the meeting. Having been perplexed by a nonsensical issue for some time I asked this group of biologists, “a cow is a female what?”   After all, Bob had asked if anyone had any questions.

Kenny Dinan replied saying “A cow is a female bull.”

“It is,” I asked in return.  “Does that mean that a bull is a male cow?” Put that way the classification of a cow being a female male didn’t make much sense.

A debate ensued with someone else saying that a cow was a female cattle.  Cattle is a collective word for a group of cows or bulls.  For instance, the trucks used to transport them to market are not called cow trucks or bull trucks they are called cattle trucks. 

The spirited debate continued for than twenty minutes.  It was a fine display of wisely using taxpayer funds to cover our salaries.  The debate finally ended when Tim Fannin, the only PhD in the office said authoritatively that “A cow is a female bovine just like a bull is a male bovine.”  That was enough to convince me.

Not long after leaving Punda Maria camp in northern Kruger National Park a group of four African buffalo sauntered across the road in front of me.  As I pulled up beside them for a closer view I could not help noticing their very bovine-like odor reminiscent of domestic bovines on northern Wisconsin farm land.  The thick plate that makes up the central portion of an African buffalo’s massive horns is called the boss.  I remember walking in the early morning light among the pastures on my grandfather’s farm when he and I were gathering up the cattle to herd them to the barn for their morning milking.  As we walked through those fields my grandfather would call out “come boss” as a way of getting the cattle to follow us to the barn.  Regularly several of the cows would walk up and place their wet dripping noses in my hand almost begging to have their face scratched.

The scientific name of domesticated bovines is Bos domesticus or domestic bovine.  I am certain that my grandfather, a northern Wisconsin farmer with a third grade education did not know the scientific name of his cattle.  However he called them “boss” which sounded like their genus name and like that part of an African buffalo’s horns.

Herds of twenty to two hundred African buffalo dotted the savanna as I moved south through Kruger.  Occasionally they were seen lying down under trees to escape the scorching sun, but mostly these herds were on the move, chewing dried grasses and scarifying the earth with their hooves.  And as they did they gave off an odor just like my grandfather’s cows did ages ago in northern Wisconsin.

One herd crossing the road in front of me was made up of about two hundred individuals.  Included in the herd was one utterly massive male who was likely the dominant honcho of this herd.  This bull was at least five feet tall and probably weighed 1,500 pounds.  His muscles had muscles on their muscles.  His back was adorned with a small flock of yellow-billed oxpeckers each working frantically to eat ticks and lice from the bull’s skin.  As I watched in awe of this massive creature it snorted once and then took several steps toward me.

Once while conducting a breeding bird census on a patch of native prairie in central Montana I crested a small hill and encountered a herd of Hereford cattle grazing the prairie grasses at the base of the hill.  As I watched them I saw a large bull begin to stare me down as he stepped away from the herd.  He snorted once and then snot and slobber poured from his nose and mouth as his face foamed like a rabid dog.  This bovine bull then scraped the earth with its right front foot and broke into a trot across the prairie directly at me.  I turned and ran toward a nearby fence with the bull in hot pursuit.  Reaching it with the bull closing in I put my left hand on the top of a wooden fence post and vaulted over the barbed wire fence to the relative safety of the other side.  The bull charged up to the fence and then luckily stopped its charge.  With his face still foaming he snorted again, turned, and walked away.  I thought of that Montana Hereford bull as this South African buffalo started to size me up.

Curious about me the male slowly walked toward me as I cowered in my car.  On several occasions I considered starting the car and escaping.  Even though I was supposedly safe inside the car I had seen pictures and heard stories of African buffalo and rhinoceros charging and attacking vehicles in Kruger National Park.  I didn’t want to be a statistic however at the same time I also didn’t want to lose out on learning about this buffalo.

I became more and more nervous the closer the bull advanced.  Occasionally he would stop his movement, sniff and test the air, look back, and then stand and stare at me.  After maybe fifteen minutes of moving a few feet and stopping and then moving again he was less than five feet from my car.  He simply continued his slow and deliberate move toward me.  By now I had rolled up the window on the driver’s side.  Considering the mass of the animal there was no way I was protected by a thin film of glass.  The bull took two more steps toward me and placed its nose on the window next to my face.

On entering Kruger National Park all visitors are given a list of rules that must be adhered to for their own safety.  Paramount among them is that under no circumstances is anyone allowed out of their vehicle except in the gated and fenced rest camps and at a few other select areas throughout the park.  Additionally nobody is allowed to have any part of their body protruding from the car.  Earlier that morning I saw a blatant violation of this rule.  A group of six young adults decided to hang from the side of a large van as it approached a group of elephants by the side of the road.  Luckily for them the elephants were not provoked but it would have been nobody’s fault but their own had there been an incident.  I considered those rules as 1,500 pounds of pure bovine muscle sniffed the glass just inches from my face.

Satisfied with his olfactory explorations the buffalo removed his nose from my window and took a few steps back.  He then turned and trotted back to his herd.  As he did I wondered about the meaning of the encounter.  Had he been enraged he could have easily trampled the car with me in it.  At a minimum the tip of one or both of his massive horns could have crashed through my window and likely gored me. However none of that happened.  Instead and for whatever reason I believe he was just curious about me and sought to check me out. Being color blind there was no way he was attracted to the color of my car or to the drab olive green of my shirt.  I certainly didn’t smell like anything that could have been dangerous to him (like a lion or leopard) because I had showered just a few hours earlier and had on clean clothes.  However this massive bull was overly curious and wanted to stare down this thing in a car that was staring him down.

Known as the “black death” and the “widow maker,” African buffalo are suspected of goring and killing up to two hundred people in Africa each year.  Hunters, some of them willing to pay up to $10,000 for the chance to shoot an African buffalo, consider this species to be very dangerous because wounded buffalo are known to ambush and attack those that hunt them. Turnabout I guess is fair play.

However on a blindingly clear and sunny day in the thorn veld of South Africa a massive male, the size of an Angus bull, decided he wanted to check me out.  And as he did all I saw was one of my grandfather’s Guernsey cows nuzzling me with her wet sloppy nose as I walked her back to the barn.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Three Species of African Cranes





Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. The quality of cranes lies, I think, in this higher gamut, as yet beyond the reach of words.... Aldo Leopold


If I was a betting person I would bet, with some certainty, that most people with an ecological consciousness remember the day they saw their first sandhill crane. For me it was a cold early April morning in 1968. I had recently earned my driver's license and decided that it was time to take off exploring. The Crex Meadows Wildlife Management Area near Grantsburg, Wisconsin was about two hours from home - far enough to be "away" but close enough to get home to if it turned out to be too far away.

My main reason for traveling to Crex Meadows that day was to see an osprey, a species of bird that then was almost extinct. Its population was declining at a rapid pace because of chemicals placed in the environment. One of them, DDT, took a special interest in causing the shells of osprey eggs to thin.  Thin eggs meant that adults crushed the eggs when incubating and that meant no baby ospreys. For some reason, however, ospreys were doing fairly well at Crex Meadows.  Something I read somewhere told me that with a modicum of luck, if I searched long enough, I might see one of those fishing eating hawks.

Not long after arriving I found a large reservoir where a group of dead trees occupied the center.  In one of those dead trees was a pair of ospreys repairing winter's damage to last year's nest. Despite my anticipation it took me only a few minutes to see an osprey and begin learning about them - how they flew, how they fed, how one squawked at the other when there was a squabble.  About mid-morning I heard a voice to the south that was unlike any I had heard before. It was loud and trumpeting and seemed to fill the entire basin of Crex Meadows.  I searched the southern sky and in the distance, I saw two small dots that looked at first glance like fighter jets. Their wings were set and there was no motion.  They were losing altitude like a plane would do.  They continued to call this primordial call from as high in the sky as I could detect them. I could tell nothing else about them.

Norman Stone was the first manager of the Crex Meadows Wildlife Area. He had been there since the 1940s and probably knew every tree and every grass on his domain by its first and last name. Norm came along in an old beat up pickup truck as he patrolled the area.  When he stopped to ask this sixteen year old kid what I had seen on the marsh I told him about the ospreys.  More importantly I said I was perplexed by this noise in the sky from what I thought was birds but were too far away to really tell.

"Ah," Norm said, "You get to welcome back the first sandhill cranes of the year to Crex Meadows. They should have been here a couple days ago. I guess they just took their time getting up here from Florida." Not knowing a thing about sandhill cranes I asked Norm for more information and like a gushing river he filled me with his knowledge of where they come from what they do, how they live how they die and what makes a crane a crane. Stone also told me that sandhill cranes were a living reminder of primordial America. They were on the landscape long before the American bison showed up and with luck they would be on the landscape many years after humans take leave of the planet.

Stone also told me about a story in a book by Aldo Leopold that I needed to read. The story was called "A Marshland Elegy" and it was an essay in a book called A Sand County Almanac. Norm told me "If you want to understand how things were and why they are today like they are today you need to read that book. And when you do you'll know a lot more about sandhill cranes."  As I stood on the road by the reservoir and listened to Norm tell me about cranes, the birds I had heard now looked like gigantic bombers making their final approach to the meadows.  They ultimately heralded their arrival with a triumphant bugle once they stood on the ground. It was a sound that never left me.

In 1979 I was conducting research designed to figure out how to keep water in the Nebraska’s Platte River for sandhill cranes while allowing agricultural development to continue. At the time more than eighty percent of the world's sandhill cranes descended on the Platte River each spring where they prepared themselves for the rest of their migration to northern Canada, western Alaska and to eastern Siberia.  I vividly remember a conversation one March morning with a corn farmer near Kearney Nebraska. He could tell from the emblem on the side of the truck that I drove that I was with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. He waved me down, gave me a thorough chewing out because of who employed me and then informed me in no uncertain terms that I should carry a side arm for protection "because you're trying to save those god damned cranes."  I owned a .357 magnum pistol at the time and it promptly went under the front seat of my car no matter where I drove.

Luckily with the passage of time and education efforts the attitudes about cranes on the Platte River have changed dramatically. Where once farmers were threatening my life because I was protecting a bird, now those same farmers referred to them as "our cranes." Where once the Omaha World-Herald newspaper wrote editorials bemoaning how water flowing down the Platte River that hadn't irrigated corn was wasted water, that same newspaper now writes editorials about the need to protect an obscure flower from going extinct.

Throughout my career as a wildlife biologist I was able to study sandhill cranes in Alaska, central Canada, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, and Wyoming. I once spent ten days with them in Cuba and still remember the blistering cold morning on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea watching a flock of sandhill cranes fly over me and land in Russia just a few miles away.

Living in Florida we are lucky to have so many sandhill cranes in so many places. For me I often don't need an alarm clock in the morning. I am regularly blasted out of bed by the duetting call of a pair of sandhill cranes who have decided that my development is ground zero for their territory. Each morning the pair sends a message out to all of cranedom that this is theirs and any interlopers better keep on keeping on.

Of all the nearly 6,000 species of birds I have seen worldwide I feel no greater kinship with or love for any species except sandhill cranes and with that kinship a love of all species of cranes has blossomed.  I watch and listen to them every chance I get. And each time I do I still have a synapse in the back of my head that reminds me of that day long ago when I first heard them herald their triumphant arrival on a primordial marsh in the wilds of northern Wisconsin.

 Sandhill Cranes on Nebraska's Platte River - the ONLY place to watch Sandhill's

No matter where I have traveled in the world I have always sought out cranes. Something about their voice and their antics and simply their being makes me grounded. I have fond memories of a flock of common cranes migrating overhead one morning in Luxembourg and I will never forget the sight of brolga cranes dancing and displaying to each other on the edge of the Outback region of Australia.  Then there was the rush I experienced along the Platte River when one day I picked up a child with muscular dystrophy and held him up to my spotting scope so he could look at a whooping crane feeding in a field.  I’ll never forget the feeling of that tiny battered body tensing and then shaking as he screamed out “I see it!” when the regal bird walked into his view.  For that same primal reason, cranes took my breath away long ago they continue to do so today.

Six crane species occur on the African continent and four of them are found nowhere else on earth than there.  Three of those four can be found in South Africa and from almost the moment I  stepped off the plane in Johannesburg, seeing any of the three species was very important to me.  With a large dose of luck I might even be able to see all three.

I had driven west from the Mozambique border and began climbing a prominent escarpment.  To the east the vegetation was lush and verdant.  Some type of conifer dotted the higher slopes.  Thickets of some unknown shrubby vegetation choked the banks of the frequent stream beds.  Signs along the highway told of places to fish for trout or just escape to your own nirvana in a mountain retreat. That all changed at the crest of the escarpment near Machado.

Beyond Machado the landscape was dominated by grasslands and wetlands scattered among agricultural fields.  For as far as I could see in any direction I felt like I was back in Kidder County, North Dakota taking in an agricultural landscape of wheat fields and wetlands.  Interspersed on the landscape was an abundance of natural wetlands (viels in South Africa) and small reservoirs (dams in South Africa).  Each wetland was ringed with luxuriant vegetation and red-knobbed coots and yellow-billed ducks floated like fishing bobbers on the surface.

Wattled Cranes in South Africa 

In the distance, on the far side of one wetland at the edge of an agricultural field I found three wattled cranes.  Standing about six feet tall they are among the tallest of any crane species. Given the time of year I assumed that three birds together was a family group.  Amazed by their enormous size I stood by the roadside and watched and listened.  I hoped to hear their voice or maybe to watch some displays but these birds were only intent on feeding.  I watched them until something spooked them into flight.  They circled the wetland and then disappeared over a small hill.  Had I arrived there fifteen minutes later I would have never seen these birds. They were the only wattled cranes of the trip.

Blue crane is the national bird of South Africa.  Although much smaller than their gigantic wattled cousin, blue crane make up for their diminutiveness by projecting an aura of ethereal regality.  My first blue cranes were just north of Wakkerstroom.  It was late afternoon and a family group of three strolled effortlessly across the recently-burned grasslands.  Occasionally they would stop and two birds would pick at something on the ground while the third bird remained alert for signs of danger.  Eventually the two birds took on a vigilant pose as the third one sought out food. 

Blue Crane

A gentle cold breeze was blowing across the landscape from the south.  Blue cranes have large, long, conspicuous feathers on the edge of their wings.  One of the cranes, probably the adult male, spread its wings into the wind as the feathers gently pulsed in the breeze.  I heard their voice once and then like the two adults began to display.  Unlike human beings, cranes remain mated for life.  Also unlike humans, cranes go through elaborate rituals to maintain a bond with their mate.  Each of those rituals involves some form of dancing and bowing and dipping of their head and wings.  It’s all designed to reassure the mate that you’re still theirs.  With the gentle wind blowing through the male’s outstretched wings he began to strut and dance and dip his head.  I stood by this dirt road and watched them until sunset. The adults called to each other, all three birds took flight, and they disappeared into the gathering darkness.

Various words like regal and striking and stately have been used to describe cranes and for the most part those words are fitting.  However for the two species of crowned crane in Africa, the word majestic also applies.  South Africa is home to the gray crowned crane; black crowned crane occurs further north on the continent.  The combination their black back, white belly, gray neck, black face and the punk rocker orange crown of this species make it so different from all the other species.

I have seen five gray crowned canes in the wild.  I saw them the same morning and along the same road where I saw eight blue cranes just after sunrise.  A strong cold south wind began to blow as the blue cranes danced and preened and fed on insects plucked from the ground. Despite this being my twenty-fifth trip below the equator, I still have difficulty wrapping my head around cold winds from the south and moist tropical winds from the north.

Maybe five miles after I watched the group of eight blue cranes I caught movement from the corner of my eye and I immediately stopped.  Putting my binoculars to my eyes I saw five birds in flight that reminded me of B-52 bombers on their final approach gliding to a stop on the side of a hill.  I didn’t need to use a bird book to know that they were cranes and I didn’t need to use that book to determine their identity.  There was simply no way to not know they were gray crowned cranes. This was the one species I wanted to see more than any other in South Africa.  More than twenty five years earlier I saw my first male resplendent quetzal in a giant fig tree in the cloud forest of Costa Rica.  Its emerald green back and blood red chest shown like a beacon through the tropical forest.  I watched that quetzal for twenty minutes before it disappeared into the forest as quietly as it had arrived.  As it did I told myself that I could die happily because I had seen a quetzal. This morning, on a windswept grassland north of Wakkerstroom, I repeated the same statement.  I had seen a gray crowned crane.  There was little else to look forward to seeing.

Gray-crowned Crane - WOW!

On landing, the cranes began bowing and strutting and displaying.  Some made a bugling noise while others jumped vertically and began to dance.  Once their bond was reconnected the gang of five slowly strutted toward a small reservoir where they drank water, looked for food, and displayed to each other.  Cranes of all species demonstrate very ritualized behaviors  They all dance and call and interact in much the same way whether its sandhill cranes in Cuba or whooping cranes in Texas or brolga cranes on the edge of Australia’s Outback. 

The gray crowned cranes stayed near this wetland for nearly an hour as the now-frigid south wind continued to blow.  Suddenly for no apparent reason one of the gang of five raised its head and looked toward me.  It called loudly and the others became alert. They nervously looked at each other and then on cue they rose in unison into the gusting wind and flew away.  I watched them until they were mere specks on the southern horizon and then they were gone.

Had my trip ended at that moment it would have been a highly successful journey.  I had seen and experienced three species of cranes on the grasslands of South Africa.  Afterwards everything else was secondary. 

Saturday Night in Calvinia South Africa



I finished reading Julian Smith’s excellent book Crossing the Heart of Africa which attempting to fall asleep in a guesthouse near Worcester.  The book chronicles Smith’s attempt to retrace the steps of an Englishman named Grogan who during the late 1890s and early 1900s tried to be the first person to travel from Cape Town to Cairo on foot.  Grogan undertook this arduous journey to prove to the father of a woman from New Zealand that he was worthy enough to marry the man’s daughter.  Smith made his trip because of his fascination with Grogan and as a prelude to his own upcoming wedding.

Smith’s book was not as in-depth or as enlightening as any work by Paul Theroux, yet it was a valuable commentary on traveling and the hardships that go with it once you leave the Euorpean-esque security of South Africa and venture into the rest of Africa.  Smith began his journey in Cape Town and traveled north.  Theroux began the journey for his book Dark Star Safari in Cairo and traveled south to Cape Town.  I thought it was most appropriate that I had finished both of their books an hour by car from where one of them began and the other ended their journey.

The Karoo is a vast semi-desert region in the interior of southern and western South Africa.  It’s the interface between the vast Namib Desert to the north and the succulent fynbos vegetation that lines South Africa’s southern coast.  It’s an extensive area of low scrubby vegetation that will remind North Americans of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona.  To the average person the Karoo is a vast wasteland with no practical value.  To a naturalist it’s a vast cornucopia of plants and animals found nowhere else on earth.  I wanted to see the Karoo through the eyes of a naturalist.

Travel into and across the Karoo is problematic during the rainy season and without sufficient water it is suicidal in the middle of summer.  My visit was during the shoulder period between those two extremes.  Locals at the edge of the Karoo told me that although the previous winter wasn’t as rainy as they had hoped I could expect a great display of wild flowers as I moved across the desert.  Anyone with an eye for nature that has been in the Mojave Desert of California or the Sonoran Desert in Arizona in spring knows what a beautiful riot of colorful flowering plants can be produced by winter rains.  There the right amount of winter rain occurs only once every ten years or so.  Conditions were similar in the Karoo and as I drove through it I regularly stopped to visually inhale the enormous beauty of a desert on fire with color.

A bird watching guide to Southern Africa recommended travel across the Karoo on a dirt and rock road signposted the R 355.  That same guide forewarns travelers about the condition of the rocky and bumpy road saying that the R 355 is renowned for puncturing tires. The guide went on to recommend that travelers carry with them at least two spare tires throughout their journey.

I intersected the R 355 somewhere northeast of Worcester.  From that point to Calvinia, the only place resembling a large town in the Karoo, was 130 miles of horrible road.  Its biggest distinction was that these 130 miles were the longest stretch of road in South Africa without a settlement or habitation along it.

Unfamiliar birds flushed from the roadside throughout my journey.  My already snail-like pace across the desert was made even slower by the frequent stops to identify birds or simply to look at the landscape.  Karoo vegetation has been evolving millions of years since the last glaciation scoured the landscape.  Evolving with the vegetation was an entire suite of bird species that had adapted to the unique vegetation.  Clearly there were forty or fifty species of birds here that could not be found elsewhere in South Africa.  It paid to travel slowly, stop often, and look at every bird I could find.

About thirty miles north on the R 355 I was passed by two 4 x 4 trucks each with a camper top covering the bed and one of them was pulling a trailer.  Had I been back in Australia they would have been called a caravan.  Both trucks had to be traveling at least sixty miles an hour down this terrible bouncy and rutted road.  I wondered what condition everyone’s kidneys would be in after a morning of jarring travel.  I was traveling less than twenty miles per hour.  Their passage produced huge billows of dust that clogged my view and that of any birds along the road’s verge.  An hour after they passed me I found this pair parked by the roadside.  I thought they had stopped for coffee.

Pale chanting goshawks, one of the prettiest hawks I have seen anywhere on earth, sat like sentinels on the electric wire poles that paralleled the road.  As predicted, the ample winter rains had produced a kaleidoscope of colorful flowering plants.  At the start of the R 355 virtually every flower was yellow.  However as I progressed north and the soils and the vegetation became sparser the color of the flowers changed from pink to lavender to red.  The R 355 began to remind me of the road to Hereford, Arizona along the Mexico border where spring flowers bloom in profusion.


 After a long, bumpy, desolate trek across the Karoo, I crested a small hill and saw Calvinia laid out before me.  It appeared as a green oasis on the floor of the desert surrounded by massive Utah-like buttes.  Two trucks had passed me as I drove north and two others passed me as they drove south during the seven hours and 130 miles that I drove on the R 355. 

I checked into the Die Blou Nartige guesthouse near the edge of town.  Herman Wick, the owner, appeared from a back room and welcomed me to “the Blue Orange” guesthouse.  Blou nartije (blue orange in Afrikaans) is an endangered desert shrub.  Herman named his guest house after the plant and did not know it was an endangered species until a Cape Town botanist stayed one night and told him about the plant and its precarious status. 

Unloading my belongings from my car I noticed that the left rear tire was quickly going flat.  The R 355 had struck again almost as if it had been selected to so in the South African birding guide.  I was lucky it was a slow leak that didn’t get worse until I was in Calvinia.

While there was still some air in the tire I drove quickly to the nearby "Supa Quick" tire repair shop.  This being a Saturday afternoon the shop was closed.  However I laughed as I drove into the parking lot because the two 4x4 trucks that had passed me going north on the R 355 were parked in the same lot waiting for repairs.  One tire, on the truck driven by Jan, was flat.  When I had seen this pair pulled to the side of the road they were not having coffee as I suspected.  Instead they were fixing a flat tire.  Once the flat was replaced the spare tire was quickly punctured and was rapidly losing air.

“We passed you on that god-awful road,” Neels began.  “And then you passed us a little later.”

Neels, his brother-in-law Jan and their wives were from Ceres, South Africa, not far from Worcester where I spent the previous night.  They were enroute to Bushmanland for a week of four-wheeling in the desert. At least that was the plan once Jan’s two tired were repaired.  Neels had called the emergency phone number for the tire shop and learned that the owner was in the middle of eighteen holes of golf at the local course.  He told Neels he would be there to help us once he finished his round of golf.  After introductions and an explanation of my trip to South Africa they told me about their regular 4-wheel drive adventures in the desert.  “Namibia.  You have to go to Namibia, Craig,” I was told by Neels.  “Namibia is where it’s still wild.”

Jan then recounted a story about a recent camping trip to Namibia.  “We parked in the middle of nowhere and put our tent on the top of the 4-wheeler.  It must have been midnight when we were jolted awake by the roar of a Namibian lion!”

“I looked out the tent flap,” Jan continued, “and there not sixty feet away was a male lion in full mane.  He had with him a female and two youngsters. They just stood there looking at our truck and the male kept roaring.”

Jan and his wife stayed awake until past two o’clock.  “We were shivering and it was 99 degrees out!  Finally the male tired of roaring and they all just walked away.”

Jan then said, “I think we just pissed them off camping in the middle of their area and that’s why they roared so much.”  Jokingly I asked if they took any pictures of the lions.  Jan’s wife smiled and said, “The camera was down below in the truck and there was no fucking way I was going to go get it.”

One desert animal that I really wanted to see in the wild was the honey badger.  It looks like a large skunk and has an attitude like ten wolverines with steroidal rage.  There are several documented records of a lone honey badger coming on to a group of lions eating an animal they had killed.  Undaunted and outnumbered the lone honey badger scared them all away and took over the kill.  Imagine an animal smaller than a Labrador retriever.  Put white stripes on it and give it the personality of a wolverine and that is a honey badger.

“Oh, you want to see a honey badger, huh,” Neels asked.  “They are scarce but they are out there in the desert. We see one or two a year.”  I asked if the stories I had heard about their ferocity were true.

“Damned right they are true,” Jan said.  “If I was a male lion and I came onto a honey badger the first thing I would do is put my paws over my nuts and run away hoping that crazy fucker wasn’t hungry.”

We talked more about Namibia and then switched to the wildness of Botswana and from there came back to South Africa.  The country was a major discussion point with about every South African I met.  I recounted some of my experiences so far in South Africa and mentioned that everywhere I went people were worried about crime.  Yet the only time I felt the least bit concerned for my safety was very briefly in Johannesburg.

“It’s all tribal,” Neels started.  “If your great grandfather hurt someone a hundred years ago, the black South African population remembers it.  That means today if you are a descendant of that person you are a target.”

What Neels described was reminiscent of the Arabs and the Jews at each other’s throats in the Middle East.  Only there the memory goes back two thousand years not merely one hundred.  It is also the same story with the ridiculousness of the North and the South standoff that continues today in the United States.  At least here only the South remains bent out of shape because they lost the “War of Northern Aggression” nearly 150 years ago.

“I think it’s in their genes to be violent,” Neels said. “Just look at what the early explorers found when they arrived in Africa.  Nobody had any interaction with the blacks before yet when the whites arrived the blacks attacked them.”  Grogan, the explorer who walked across the length of Africa from Cape Town to Cairo commented similarly more than 100 years ago.  It didn’t matter where Grogan was on the continent, the local residents robbed him blind when they saw an opportunity.  Grogan also described some brutal interactions between blacks.  It had nothing to do with honor or personal defense or anything else.  It was the nature of the locals to be violent.

 “When we were under white rule in South Africa we had crime but nothing like we have now,” Jan said.  “If you are in Johannesburg and you cross a street in a way someone doesn’t like they kill you.  Go to a crowded area and your pocket will be picked.  Leave your car window down and someone will steal whatever they can grab.” Neels continued, “It’s almost never white on white or white on black.  Its black on black or black on white.”

Jan then asked me about the United States.  “Where is the most crime in your country?”  I told him that Detroit has the highest murder rate in the nation.  “And what is the dominant ethnic group in Detroit,” he asked.

In the United States there is continual mention that seventy percent of the prison population is black.  Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and other black leaders claim that the prison population is dominated by blacks because of a prejudiced judicial system.  However nobody, and especially no politician, has ever come out and asked the rather obvious question – Could it be that seventy percent of the people in prison are black because seventy percent of the crime is committed by black people?’  My guess is that it is.  Unfortunately nobody will ever conduct research to confirm or disprove that point.  Until then we will continue to hide behind the curtain of white rage and not confront the obvious.  There were many more people than Jan and Neels who said essentially the same thing wherever I traveled in South Africa.

The subject changed back to travel and I mentioned a woman named Susan who was in my life then.  “So why isn’t she on the trip with you,” Neels wife Evelyn asked.

I mentioned her concerns about travel in Africa and Neels laughed.  “When you come back to South Africa you bring her along.  You will stay with Evelyn and me for a few days.  Maybe we will take a four-wheeler trip to Namibia or Botswana.  She will find out it’s as easy to be in Africa as it is to be in the United States.”  Neels was correct however a month to the day later Susan was freaking out in relatively sanguine Nicaragua.  She would never survive Africa.

Christopher, the owner of the tire shop, showed up two hours after our arrival.  Despite Neels and Jan having about 150 miles of inhospitable desert to cross, and despite the sun quickly being consumed by the western horizon, they insisted that my tire be repaired first.  “We just want to wait around to make sure you are ok,” Jan said.  Theirs was an outlook that I found commonly among black and white South Africans.

My tire had been punctured in the middle of the tread obviously by a very sharp rock somewhere along the R 355.  I was lucky that it hadn’t been more extensive or more severe and I had wound up stranded in the middle of the Karoo. Because of the Saturday afternoon call for repair service Christopher charged me the equivalent of sixty dollars US to repair the tire.  The entire operation took five minutes to complete.  That certainly beat the ninety cents I once paid to repair a flat tire in Tela, Honduras.

As I prepared to leave the tire shop to continue my exploring, Neels thanked me for two hours of conversation.  Jan then said, “You’re not at all like the other Americans I have met.” I thanked him for the compliment and then asked for clarification.  “You take Africa on its terms.  Most Americans want Africa on their terms.”  A bed and breakfast owner in Ireland once told me the same thing about accepting her country.

Akkerndam Preserve is a large nature reserve on the north side of Calvinia.  I spent the remaining sunlight hours enjoying a hike through the riotous colors of desert vegetation that seemed even more prominent here.  Just before the sun disappeared behind a giant butte, a black-headed canary sang its evening song while perched on a flowering shrub and a Karoo chat chortled out its jumbled song from a nearby patch of small trees.  I waited there for darkness to overtake me.  When it did I was overwhelmed by the deathly silence of the desert.  It was the same in the Karoo as it was in the Negev Desert of Israel and the Sahara Desert of Morocco or the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico.  Complete silence is one of the most pleasant experiences you can have in a desert.

Rolling up the sidewalks on a Saturday night in Calvinia

Dinner options were limited as I later walked around Calvinia.  Whomever I asked on the street told me that the best food in town was at the guest house where I was staying.  Calvinia after dark on a Saturday night was like most other small towns.  Several people sat at the local bar drinking Windhoek larger beer from Namibia while watching rugby on satellite television.  Teenaged boys stood on street corners making the same ridiculous comments to teenaged girls that teenaged boys make everywhere on the planet.  Mothers hurriedly left the food store carrying bags of groceries needed to prepare the night’s dinner.  Other teenagers in cars were driving up and down Main Street “bombing Main” as we did when I was that age.  Then, as has probably happened in Calvinia for ages, the streets rolled up at 7:30 and everyone went home.

Dinner was lamb pie at the guest house restaurant.  I arrived at the restaurant a few minutes after eight and was the only person present.  By 8:15 there were no empty tables.  “We’re usually busy but not usually this slow,” said Grace one of the servers.  Asking her if she didn’t mean that the other way around, Grace said “We are the only place to be in Calvinia on Saturday night.  In fact this is the only place to be on Saturday night.

As Grace asked me where I was staying she also wanted to know if I would like another glass of pinotage to wash down my lamb pie.  Telling her I was staying at the guest house she said “Since you don’t have to drive there is no excuse not to have another glass of wine. And because we rarely see Americans in Calvinia let me buy this glass for you.”

Grace returned with my glass of pinotage and then asked if I would be there for breakfast.  Answering yes she wondered if I would mind paying for dinner tomorrow morning because she was too busy with the Saturday night crowd to take care of my bill.  She then said, “It’s not to worry.  We trust everyone in this town.  It’s not like Johannesburg here.”

Calvinia really isn’t and especially on Saturday night.