Monday, April 23, 2012

Lust to dust

Shall two knights never tilt for me
And let their blood be spilt for me?
Where are the simple joys of maidenhood?

                                      The simple joys of maidenhood,


OK, I admit that I’m too old to indulge in these girlish yearnings but, somewhere out there, a fetching young antelope must be clapping her hooves together in maidenly glee.

Well to answer that question I have to go back a month or so (oh, how I procrastinate blog posts).

I was tootling along to my study site, oblivious to the world (you know how it is driving to work), when suddenly I was dragged from my reverie by a horrible stench. Slamming on the brakes and reversing back, I discovered a mob of 40 white-backed vultures milling about on the roadside. Jostled together in a dense clump, the massive birds strutted back and forth, making snake-necked lunges at one another and uttering threatening hiss-growls (the cries of excited orcs).

At first I couldn’t see what they were all quarrelling over.
Then I glimpsed a massive grey rump.
Oh no! Another poached rhino!
(Now that’s a blog post I’m SERIOUSLY procrastinating about).
But then one of the birds leapt into the air – to hurtle with outstretched talons at its rival - and I got a proper glimpse of the carcass.
No, not a rhino.
The huge grey body was, in fact, the last mortal remains of an eland bull. Embarrassingly, the carcass looked at least two days old. Had I really sailed on past twice already?

White-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) squabbling over their breakfast of eland venison.

The dearly departed eland. I didn’t snap this photo until the following day, after the vultures had made tracks (literally and metaphorically); if they see a person at a carcass they won’t come back (legacy of centuries of poisoning).

Now elands go to a lot of trouble to prevent this sort of thing from happening.

Being thick-skinned (15 mm/0.6” on the neck)
and well-armed (those horns are 65cm/26” long)
didn’t save this Romeo from death by stabbing
(or should that be Mercutio?).
Tipping the scales at around 600 kg (1320 lbs), they’re too big to feature on the wish-lists of Africa’s many carnivores; in fact, as the world’s largest antelope, they flee from no one but man. So how did this one go astray?

If you hold your nose (figuratively) and take a closer look, you’ll detect the cause of death. Yep, a stab wound to the throat (he’s got another – presumably non-fatal - to his shoulder; enlarged, in the first photo, by peckish vultures).
This lad died for love.

Unlike most male antelopes, who bicker over their real estate holdings, elands are a romantic lot. They fight only for the attentions of a lady love. Although they swagger about in massive, mixed-sex herds (sometimes 500 beasts or more), the bulls maintain a stringent pecking order, and only the biggest and best chats up the girls. I’ve written before about the devious ways they figure out who trumps whom (without having to go head to head); heck, they don’t even have to lay eyes on one another!

But when two adversaries are perfectly matched, well, what can you do?
Maybe they’d had a bit much to drink, or some young buck had been getting up their noses, but whatever the reason, our very ex-eland and his nemesis came to blows.

Now fights between eland bulls are a rarity. This may be because - when things start heating up - elands resort to flaunting their hairdos. Like rockers slicking on the Brylcream or punks gelling up their mohawks, rival eland bulls smear their woolly quiffs with their own pungent cologne. Peeing ostentatiously, an agitated bull will then step backward and press the locks on his forehead and nose into the dampened earth. Rubbing gets so spirited, he’ll often pivot round and round in a circle, lifting his hind quarters right up off the ground. To complete the effect, he’ll add some pretentious headgear (a cool eland is an accessorized eland), violently thrashing with his horns at aromatic shrubs or weeds until he prizes out a pungent headdress of tattered leaves. Maybe a crown of thorns, or a beehive of grass, will give him that competitive edge.

An eland bull (Tragelaphus oryx) in slightly better health; note the luxuriant quiff. Like bull elephants, male elands go through periods of musth (called ukali) when their machismo (and testosterone levels) soar. Photo by Carol Foil.

But if a bull’s coiffure fails to intimidate his rival, it’s all out war. Clashes are brief and violent. The prize-fighters charge one another from 1 or 2 m/yards, ramming skulls and entangling horns. Using their massive neck muscles, they push and wrestle, striving viciously to lift and overbalance their opponent.
Now before some innocent reader comments, ‘Oh how exciting, seeing elands fight’, let me come clean. I haven’t. This is all hearsay. But don’t imagine it’s for want of trying. The problem is, elands are ridiculously shy of humans; they turn tail and flee at a distance of 300-500 m/yards.
Of course we humans only have ourselves to blame. Transform an animal into a deity and what can you expect?
You see elands feature big in San bushman mythology. San lads must skewer an eland to attain manhood, young girls are ushered into womanhood with an eland mating dance, and eland fat is both the drug of choice for shamanic trances and the favoured currency for procuring a bride. Now, this is all very flattering for your average eland, but not at all conducive to harmonious eland/human relations.

This bull’s from East Africa (southern African elands outgrow their stripes). He can go indefinitely without knocking back a drink, letting his temperature soar 7C (13F) on hot days, to save 5 litres/1.3 gallons of sweat (according to the best calculations of scientists). Photo by Carol Foil.

What’s worse, elands taste yummy. Even die-hard pastoralists - such as the Masai - who eschew dining on game, happily feast on eland. The beef-like qualities of this species didn’t escape European notice either. The 19thC English anatomist Sir Richard Owen (who coined the name dinosaur) was so delighted with eland steak he wanted the species introduced to the UK. In a letter to the Times in the 1860s he wrote, “...we might one day see troops of elands gracefully galloping over our green swards’’.

But attempts to domesticate elands (such as that at the Askania Nova reserve in the Ukraine) have met with limited success, not least because the beasts happily hurdle 3 m (10 ft) fences from a standing start. And despite their ox-like appearance, elands steadfastly refuse to hybridize with cattle (although crosses with their closest rellies - kudus, bushbucks, nyalas - have yielded a few perplexed calves).

Ahh, no wonder eland maidens are so smitten by their handsome knights.

Lady elands lack the males’ quadruple chin and bouffant hairdo. They also sport longer, thinner horns; perfect for lion-skewering. Mums team up to defend their sprogs from heartless felines.
 Photo by Lip Kee.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Not so Good Friday

This was the sound of my wheels spinning.

It was fast approaching midnight, and I was lying on my stomach on
a precipice struggling to manipulate a tyre jack into an impossible position.
I’d been at it for more than three hours and I was on the edge of despair.

How did this happen?
Well to explain, I need to wind back a bit.

“No... I don't smell bacon.”
Good Friday started out strangely. I guess one should expect this of a religious holiday.

Driving to my study site I’d met two black-backed jackals accompanied by a small warthog piglet (the lion lies down with the lamb?). All members of the threesome seemed remarkably relaxed, so I guess the piglet was too big to eat. Presumably she’d misplaced her sounder and wanted for company.
Still, two big jackals, one small piglet...

Now, perhaps unwisely, I didn’t perceive this transposition from the Lion King as an omen of ill luck, so I wasn’t prepared for what was to happen that afternoon.
Since it was a holiday, I decided to walk my dogs at the local mine where mica is gouged from a 300 ha (740 acre) patch of jungle. Of course under the tangle of lush greenery lurks a century’s worth of mine shafts, tailing dumps and sharp, rusty implements. Oh yes, and the place is also peppered with brand new snares (the handiwork of peckish miners).
But, in a realm of game farms and private reserves, it’s the only place my dogs can romp off-leash without incurring major collateral damage.

Situated on an outcrop of ancient rock (4 billion years old), the local mica mine enjoys lots of thunderstorms and a spiffy view.

If – like me - you thought mica consists of glinting flecks in river sand, think again. Here it loiters in massive chunks made up of many layered sheets, rather like an overflowing in-tray.

Mica is the secret ingredient in metallic paints, glittery make-up and soaps that ‘leave your skin sparkling’ (for wannabe vampires?).

Leaves of mica are transparent,
and the chunks sop up water
to become black and rubbery.
Half way along our walk I noticed that Magic had disappeared.
But this was nothing unusual.
She’s compulsive obsessive about hunting, racing off into the bush after the merest whiff of antelope or blissfully engrossed for hours trying to excavate some hapless creature from the rocks.

When Wizard and I returned to the car, Magic wasn’t there to meet us (as she usually is). So we sat down to wait.
And wait...
And wait...
My irritation rose to fury and then gradually metamorphosed into alarm.
By nightfall I was imagining the worst: Magic choking in a wire noose or lying crumpled at the foot of a mine shaft.

My dogs (Magic and Wizard) gallivanting at the local mine.

The mine's resident baboons keep a wary eye on anything that gallivants.
As a massive full moon rose, transforming the bush to silver, Wizard and I set out to search. Without a torch and wearing shorts and sandals, I was ill-equipped for bush-bashing; thank Heavens for the moon!
Now ever since I foolishly calculated (in a moment of middle-aged angst) how many full-moons I’m likely to live to enjoy, I’ve greeted the waxing of the moon with a certain anxiety.
Time is precious!
I should be out there doing something to appreciate the spectacle.
But this was not what I’d had in mind.

To the accompaniment of roaring lions (the mine nestles on the border of the Greater Kruger Park), Wizard and I scrambled through the thorny undergrowth, stumbling over boulders and peering blindly into plant-choked mine shafts. I tried not to contemplate the many nocturnal biting beasts (cobras, puff adders, boomslangs) and struggled valiantly against the hopelessness that engulfed me each time a passing cloud plunged us into darkness.

After a couple of futile hours - calling and straining to hear a muffled whimper - I decided to give driving a try. But it was while negotiating the rough, overgrown tracks that I became ensnared.

Without warning my car suddenly lurched sideways and the rear wheels began to spin. Leaping out, I discovered that I’d driven into a large sinkhole (where the track passed over some old mine workings that had been covered with gravel and dirt). Beneath the deceptive covering of grass, the sunken earth - broken by huge cracks - fell away abruptly to my left, where rocks and pebbles were still merrily cascading down into a half-filled mine shaft. It was over this shaft that my left front wheel was dangling.
Oh f#*@!!
Of course - at Easter - the mine was deserted.
I was going to have to get myself out.

Over and over, I jacked up my car and heaved and shoved boulders beneath the front wheel. Unfortunately, this involved crawling about on the very edge of the crumbling mine shaft; each insecure foothold creating a landslide of gravel. Time and again I tried moving the car. No go. So then I painstakingly did the same with the rear wheels (to give them more traction). But all the while the ground around us was continuing to subside, and my car was listing further and further to the left. I envisioned it slip-sliding down into the maw of the tunnel until only its rear bumper stuck out, like in those improbable car insurance ads. Meanwhile, Wizard just lay on my bakkie/ute/truck's bench seat; head on paws, softly whimpering as if his world had come to an end.

By midnight I finally concluded that I’d never get out alone; I needed to be towed.

And that meant waiting for morning. Either I could sleep (??) the night on a small seat with a large husky, or I could hike 12 km/7.5 miles home (mostly along the main road which – in South Africa – is not a safe venue for a solitary, midnight stroll).
Of course there was another option.
One I’d been steadfastly refusing to consider for the last three hours.

Up until now I’d been trying to reverse my vehicle out of the sinkhole; but I could try driving forward.
Yes, this did mean going further down into the depression and would almost inevitably result in the vehicle sliding left, down into the actual mine shaft.
But if I could just keep the rear wheel on the disintegrating edge of the shaft, there was a flicker of a chance I’d gain enough momentum to scale the far side of the sinkhole.
And heck, I was going to have to be towed out anyway...
One might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, right?

Ordering Wizard out of the car (so we both didn’t end up underground), I put the car in gear. Slamming on the accelerator, the car lurched forward. With a whomp and a judder and a loud susurration (as large quantities of earth and stones poured own the mine shaft) we managed to crawl to the far edge of the sink hole.
Oh my God!
We were OUT.

Now trembling from head to foot, I couldn’t face resuming the search for Magic.
Wherever she was – dead or alive – she was going to have to wait until morning.

Driving back along the rough, broken tracks, through the on-again, off-again moonlight, we met Magic at the mine’s front gate.
She was standing in the middle of the road, wagging furiously.
I’ve no idea where she’d been or what she’d been doing.

But all’s well that ends well, I guess...

Magic: the source of my woes.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Off air


Sorry I haven’t blogged for a while.

Unfortunately some vile evil doer has hacked into my internet connection, making it so sluggish that it’s basically unworkable.

I’m struggling to put this wrong right, but in the meantime I’m pretty much off air.

I apologise for any inconvenience!

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