Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Klein Karoo - Big Birds, Little Beasts and a Sex Shop

A nip back along the coast to George, inland, up and across the Outeniqua Mountains. A beautiful winding pass. Rugged peaks that divide the coast from the hinterland. Geological features which act as a buffer from the oceanic rain and in doing so define the region. To the south, the green, lush Garden Route. To the north, the semi-desert Klein Karoo.
video
After an hour gawping at the passing mountains, the scenery opened up and before us was a wide open plain, backed by far off hills. Reddy-orange earth with scattered greenery. The occasional small hut and then…..a big bird….two big birds….tonnes of big birds. On to Oudtshoorn, the heart of the Klein Karoo and home to the world’s largest ostrich population.

BIG BIRD, LITTLE BRAIN

As was becoming habit, we skidded into our destination with barely a minute to spare. We were just in time to join the last ostrich farm tour of the day. One word for the experience – silly.
From having these distinctly unintelligent birds (each of their eyes is apparently bigger than their brains) feeding out our hands with marked ferocity, to standing on eggs, looking at pickled bird bits and of course ostrich racing. The latter of these was the main draw. Comedy genius - jumping on the back of one of the birds and chaotically riding (or more accurately being ridden) around until you’re chucked head over heels in one of an array of directions that invariably leads to a rude embrace of hard earth. Hysterics all round and the birds barely seemed to notice. video
An ostrich race later, where the pro’s showed us how it should be done, we piled off to find our picturesque little hostel.
All hippified with a wonderful sunset vista, we watched the sun sink into the east. Electric-blue sky set off by ripples of cloud burning with the majesty and likeness of fire.
To cap off an action-packed day we took advantage of our sterling at one of the best ostrich restaurants in the world – Jemima’s (http://www.jemimas.com/home.php). Tender, succulent red meat. Great wine, fascinating decor and good company. Two very nice English girls came with us and, with polo playing routes, added to the strange feeling of being rather prim and proper for a night. If you are ever in this part of the world make sure you check this place out.

LITTLE MAMMAL, BIG BRAIN

As the sun had set, it was these same girls who had convinced us to join them before sunrise on a unique safari. I say convinced us, but really mean convinced Bassett, Rupert and myself. Dingo was not amused with the proposition…
You may have seen the long running BBC nature programme, Meekat Manner. This is based around a joint UK/SA research project in the Kalahari into the habits of the meerkat. One of the founders of this enterprise was the meerkat man himself Mr Grant M.Mc Ilrath. A while back he broke away and set up a new project based around his controversial research techniques. The result is Meekat Magic.
The Meerkat Man
In case you have never seen one of these creatures, they are small carnivores about a foot high, closely related to the mongoose and somewhat resembling prairie dogs. Living in groups, they are famous for their communal behaviour, one always standing high on his hind-legs scouring the sky and terrain for danger while the rest forage.

Arriving before first light to see the little furry things emerge shivering from a burrow, Grant spent the next 3 or so hours sharing more information that you may ever care to know about his obsession while we followed the Meerkats around on their morning chores. Perhaps the last hour would have gone better with a touch of coffee, but a fascinating experience.

What is most remarkable is no-one believed him that these animals were here. Farmers who had raised birds on this land for generations had never seen one. He was laughed at. Not-deterred, he kept on his search with the confidence given by years of research into Meerkats. Bloody minded no doubt - this was the sort of place they should and he was going to find them!
Find them he did and over a slow process (I believe it took 2 years or so), starting with watching them from hide’s half a mile away, he managed to get closer and closer until he was standing right next to a group of creatures which no-one round here had seen, let alone managed to approach. To them he was just part of the scenery. An animal posing no threat and since we were with him we must be fine. If ever they became concerned, with a series of hand-gestures or clicks he laid them at ease. Not communicating so much, as making the sort of noises and movements they had learned to associate with him. Ah…that’s him….he does all those strange things and is harmless.

He showed us how the local animals rely on each other for protection. It makes sense really, the more pairs of eyes and ears the safer everyone is. Rodents, birds, deer, they recognise the alarm calls of each other and act accordingly. With their trigger-finger senses, meerkats are at the core of this neighbourhood watch scheme.
With the meerkat comfortable with us, it follows that the other animals were relaxed with our presence. I mean if those uber careful little meerkats don’t mind those odd bipedal things then they must be fine. To my amazement I saw this theory working with my own eyes as a springbok, which on any other occasion would have fled from our presence before we had even noticed it, grazed in our vicinity with seeming indifference. An experience that left me dumb-founded in my sleep-depraved twilight daze.

Meekat Magic is unique and has its critics. Unlike other projects, they do not touch, tag, dissect or have any other direct contact with the animals. Others have doubted what you can gain from such hands-off research, but, as we had witnessed firsthand, the ability to watch and not interfere reaps rewards.

I shall not bore any more with explanation, but if you’re interested please check out http://www.meerkatmagic.com/ - a sight full of insight.

The reward of the morning was such that Dingo’s frown had inverted well before we headed back to town for some strong coffee and a fry-up.

THE END OF A LONG ROAD

Yet again we were in a rush. Multiple hundreds of km in front of us and only a few hours to cover it – the car was due back and Thursday night out in Cape Town was calling!
On leaving the rumoured to be inbred Oudtshoorn, the road stretched to the horizon across the wide arid plain. Leaning back in our seats we ate up the road as the music played loud on repeat. Past ostriches and many a live tortoise (and a dead one after an incident involving our bumper, a shell and a driver who shall remain nameless). An isolated shack in the distance with large red letting on its side. “RONNIE’S SEX SHOP” came into focus. Just two nights before a local lass had told me about this place. In the middle of nowhere a far from overrun bar owner had painted this sign on his large white-washed wall nearest the road. It acted as a beacon for weary passers by with even the slightest sense of humour (or sexual curiosity). He lay the place open to those who came. They drank, maid merry and left a little part of themselves behind. From the scribbles over every wall, to bank-notes, hats, cards, the occasional bit of porn and, most commonly, bras and pants that now hanged from the rafters.
A compelling combination of unintrusive welcome. The owner an appropriately laid back bearded man who, depending on the customer, was happy to chat or stare contently into the distance. A moment in time etched on my memory. Perched on a bar stool with beer hand, searching the ever-dangling memorabilia as Bassett produced contemplative melodies from the old piano, the likes of which I did not know he had it in him. Beautiful......but as ever time was running.
Through crumbling hills and out into wine country. Taking wrong directions in pretty little towns and escaping through the vineyards. Except for a comedy incident with a leak this proved to be an uneventfully enjoyable journey
Then more mountains, this time steeper and starker. Straight through another impressive feat of South African engineering and back on the plain with our goal insight. Table Mountain loomed and we were settled under its eaves barely half an hour late....a thousand or so km on the clock and only one hub cap missing!
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