A day at the Bay

The east view from Honeyville

It was cold when I got up. I packed up my rooftent with cold hands in preparation for a trip to Jeffrey’s Bay (a disadvantage of a rooftent is that one has to pack up whenever one needs to drive the vehicle).

I was nervous about driving in traffic in a strange town, fearing that I would have an accident, get hijacked, not know where to park, get lost and have my car broken into. None of that happened. Jeffrey’s Bay is an easy town in which to find your way around and negotiate traffic (at least out of holiday season).

I had coffee at the beachfront, at a coffee house where the waitrons alerted patrons whenever dolphins showed themselves, leaping about in the surf. I watched a column of girls in wetsuits, in pairs, carrying their boards between them, being marched to the waterside by their surfing instructor. I exchanged second-hand books at a shop that seemed to be bursting with books, stacked to the ceiling and overflowing onto the pavement. I sought out a leather-work shop seeking to have a sandal repaired. The interior was dark, with strange objects lining the walls and with the ambience of a muti-shop. When I presented my broken sandal to the tall, sinister looking figure blocking the doorway, he looked me up and down and asked ‘How much you gonna pay?’. I suggested that he rather state his price, and settled on R20. He checked that I had that amount before accepting my sandal and disappearing with it into the interior. I collected it an half-hour later.

I shopped at the mall for a new back-pack and lunched there on a homemade pie and vegetables. Looking for the way back out of town, I passed a barber shop and stopped to have that done. Stepping out of there, I spotted an architecture office across the way, and stepped in to get some advice on the site development and approval processes that I am having to tackle for my erf.

Heading back home, there was heavy traffic on the narrow dirt road to Honeyville. There were protests on the main Hankey road, with protestors blocking the road, and heavy vehicles carrying farm produce to market were all diverting along our road.

When I was about to retire to my bed, I heard sounds of movement from the shed on the unoccupied erf down below my camping site, and feared that  there might be intruders there, but it was Nku, a worker on the eco-village who goes down there in the evening to have a smoke and listen to his music, as smoking is not permitted in his quarters, and his room-mates were already asleep.

Common Duiker
Grassbird

On dairy farming, bush clearing, and birds – August 2019

I awoke to the ‘woop woop’ calls of the herdsmen on the neighbouring dairy farm, chivvying the cattle along to the milking sheds in the darkness before dawn, and then out into the pastures again. They do this every day of the year, in all weathers, and again in the evening. The individual cow does not give milk all year round, but their reproductive and milk-producing cycles are managed so that the majority of the herd are in milk on any day, to maintain a constant supply to the market.

It rained gently for much of the night, but the taps were dry in the morning, and then because it was overcast all day and the borehole pump is solar powered, water only began to trickle through late in the day. I was not much inconvenienced though, because from old habit I keep water reserves at my camp.

I had a break, then, from my watering chores. Most days I do a round of widely scattered young fruit and nut trees, part of my effort to be useful around the property while I am camping free of charge (until a cottage is built on my erf).

The process of getting a cottage built is very complicated. I am co-owner of the erf (together with a long-time friend) and we are to have separate cottages built there, positioned closely enough as to resemble a single unit. After exploring many options, we have both settled on modular steel structures, pre-fabricated with all fittings and fully furnished. Nevertheless, the various tasks to be completed before our modules can be dropped into place are daunting.

The erf is densely covered with bush, especially the spindly, fast growing pioneer known as Renosterbos, which is now mostly standing head high. The botanical report for the erf (by Carol and Bart Logie) describes it and its surroundings as overgrown and moribund and recommended a controlled burn to not only mitigate the fire hazard, but to allow new growth and greater diversity. Bush encroachment of this nature typically occurs where the natural regime of grazing by animals and periodic fires has been disrupted.

The estate management is not equipped nor in favour of burning, and instead I am carrying out the alternative of physical clearing of the Renosterbos. This may not be the best option, because once cut, the bush has to be removed, which removes nutrients from the site (leaving it there to dry out and eventually mulch would increase the fire hazard instead of reducing it). If it were burnt, the ash would return to the soil. The clearing of bush and probably a couple of trees is in any case necessary to create space on the erf where a pair of cottages can be placed, and that links to the next complication, the site development plan, which in turn is a necessary part of the submissions for approval of the development to the estate management, Nature Conservation and the local council.

We have had various and sometimes conflicting accounts of what the site development plan involves.  In one version, it may be drawn up by a draughtsman using the survey data for the erf, without necessarily visiting the erf. That would not suit, because only by standing on the erf can one see where to position each unit to best capture the views from there, and also to have least impact on the remaining vegetation after the Renosterbos has been cleared.

The instrument I am using to clear the Renosterbos is called a brush-cutter, a sort of long-handled heavier version of a panga, not unlike the pike carried by mediaeval foot-soldiers, for the purpose of cleaving open the iron helmets of their foes. It is too heavy to swing laterally like a panga, instead one brings it crashing down from overhead like a pick-axe, to destroy whatever is in its path. The bush is fighting back though, and I am usually bleeding from scratches on legs and arms by the end of each session.

Each morning I first go for a ramble about the property for the purpose of ongoing monitoring of bird species diversity, and to submit fieldcards to the atlas project on a five day cycle. This property occupies the north-west corner of the relevant ‘pentad’ or grid-cell for the atlas. Other atlas observers who have contributed to this grid-cell over time have mostly paid attention to the southern and eastern part of the pentad, nearer town, which comprises mostly pastures and lucern fields with occasional stands of alien trees. Among the birds most commonly reported by those observers are Black Crows, Grey-backed Cisticolas, Stonechats and Orange-throated Longclaws, whereas in my observations (concentrated at but not exclusive to Honeyville) the most frequently seen species are Sombre Bulbuls, Bar-throated Apalis, Neddicky and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds. Among the birds previously reported for the pentad but which I had not yet found were Cape Canaries, but I tracked them down today. They are often found among stands of alien trees, and I found a group of them in a small stand of pines in a far corner of the property.


Brown-hooded Kingfisher
Cape Sugarbird

16 July 2019

It is very humid here, and there is heavy dew when it does not rain. I do some reading in the evenings, in order to get through the long, dark mid-winter’s nights, but then I have difficulty with my reading glasses fogging up.

It will be some time before construction of my cottage can commence. The transfer of the title deed is still in progress, and then plans have to be drawn up and approved. In the meantime, I continue to live in my roof-tent.

I have been allocated a place to camp, next to a thatched cottage that is part of the volunteer centre. The cottage is temporarily occupied by two stone masons of Angolan origin. They fled their country of birth twenty years ago, during the civil war, and settled in Cape Town, where they now have families, and a trade. They were summoned to Honeyville to work with John, the estate developer, on a stone-construction job in St Francis Bay. They are congenial neighbours, except that they call me ‘Pop’.

My campsite overlooks a deep, narrow river valley, and looks on to mountains in the west, and it is pleasant to sit still and look out in the morning and in the evening, listening to birdsong. The tips of the giant rotors of a wind farm are just visible in the east. While they are generating renewable energy, they are also killing a lot of birds, especially birds-of-prey, which when flying over are sucked down by the powerful downdraft, to collide with the rotors.

Getting my vehicle out to drive to town for supplies is a difficult operation. I have to reverse uphill, avoiding low obstacles to right and left, and then take a sharp bend, still in reverse, but not turning too sharp lest I collide with a big rock, before I can turn about. I do not think I will manage it at all after heavy rain, when the ground is slippery.

I did not go cycling at first, because I was intimidated by the very steep gradients as the road drops down to the river and climbs up the other side, but then I saw a group of rather elderly gentlemen go whizzing past on mountain bikes, and I was compelled to get on mine and do a couple of excursions.

I cycled westward, to explore the adjoining grid-cell for the bird atlas, and that was a little disappointing, for it consisted mainly of plantations of alien trees and pastures, and ugly expanses strewn with tree-stumps where plantations had been felled, and very little of the dense bush that surrounds my new home. There were some interesting birds though, Yellow-throated Sparrows (Petronias) and a Slender-billed Honeyguide (Brown-backed Honeybird, I hate these new names), which I have not yet found on the Honeyville property.

A surveyor came to do the survey of the erf where my cottage will stand. The erf is densely covered with bushes of around shoulder- and head-height, with taller vegetation along a drainage line at its western edge, and getting around in there is very difficult. The surveyor emerged with blood oozing from scratches all over his arms and legs. I was similarly bloodied when I went through the erf later to ascertain the position of the survey pegs for myself.

I have been spending my days exploring the different parts of the property, and have now been assigned some occasional labour in the food garden. I also work sporadically at clearing a trail through forest alongside the river.

I have begun to make an attempt to get to grips with the diversity of trees on the property, but that is not easy. In the Bushveld region, where I used to be familiar with many of the trees, there are a few very distinctive families, and once the family is recognised, it is not too difficult to identify the species. Here, almost every tree seems to be of a different family, and the families are not easily distinguishable either. I have managed only the obvious aloes (Aloe  ferox and A. Arborescens) and cabbage trees (Cussonia) and the Yellow-woods down the trail, and also the Guarri (Euclea undulata), of which there are several around my camp.

Silver bottom brown
African Grass Blue
Common dotted border

From the Kalahari to Honeyville – June 2019

An occasional bulletin from the eco-village.

After a lifetime of rambling and bird mapping, and most recently a five year stint wandering about in the Kalahari (www.birdsurveysbyvincentparker.wordpress.com), I have purchased an erf (actually half of an erf) on a farm, or rather an eco-village and nature reserve, called Honeyville (www.ecohoneyville.wordpress.com), in the eastern Cape, where I will have a cottage built, an settle down.

The farm is well watered, and densely wooded, grows vegetables for subsistence and is selling off plots to prospective home-builders who are interested in an off-the-grid, minimum ecological impact life-style in the bush. I came here seeking to rest from my travels, be part of a community and yet be in the wilderness.

I will look back with nostalgia to my northern Cape days (in the Kalahari, Namaqualand and Bushmanland), the vast spaces and starry nights, but I had completed most of my objectives there, and lately the seemingly endless drought had become depressing. Moreover I will be shedding some anxiety by no longer being completely dependent on my aging motor vehicle.

I ended my Kalahari and far northern Cape adventure at Kleinsee on the west coast a month ago, and since then have been travelling slowly southward in my 20-year old pick-up, with a stopover for a couple of weeks in Pretoria to take care of some of the admin involved in buying a property. My next stop was at a campground near Bloemfontein to spend a freezing night, and from where I made a late start the next morning, to allow the frost covering my roof-tent to begin to thaw before stowing it. My next stopover was in Graaff-Reinet, which was warmer.

It rained steadily all day as I drove from Graaff-Reinet to my new home, the most rain I have seen for years. I got lost near the end of my journey. I did not take the off-ramp of the highway that I needed to take, thinking that there would be another one closer to my destination. There was not. I went on for another 20 km, not daring to attempt a U-turn under the conditions of poor visibility in the rain, then turned off and headed back towards Humansdorp on the alternative road. That was another mistake. In the township of Kraaifontien, the road forked and twisted endlessly. I asked for directions, and was told to ‘go left and then turn straight’. Attempting the ‘straight turn’ got me back to the landfill site that I had already passed a couple of times. I eventually found the road to Honeyville and reached my new home before nightfall.

It is stating the obvious to say that this place contrasts strongly with me previous home range in the Kalahari. It is green, mostly covered with dense bush which merges into forest here and there, but also with open spaces with long grass, and hill-slopes covered by fynbos and proteas. The neighbouring dairy farm has large irrigated lucern meadows, in the giant circles created by the center-pivot irrigation system.

I was thrilled to hear the loud croaking calls of Blue Cranes in the early morning. They overfly in the morning and evening, commuting between the lucern fields where they feed and a dam away to the east where they roost at night.

The long-term vision of the nature reserve and eco-village is to incorporate neighbouring farms and allow them to revert to a more natural state. The possibility of allowing the irrigated pastures on the dairy farm to revert to bush raises something of a conservation quandary. It would displace the Blue Cranes, which are officially a ‘Globally Threatened’ species. These Cranes have largely disappeared from their former stronghold in the central grasslands of South Africa, but have been increasing in the southern Cape by exploiting cultivated lands. Conserve the natural habitat and thereby displace a threatened species?

The quandary highlights a flaw in current global conservation strategies which are based on a species-by-species approach, dictated by ‘Red Data’ lists.

Walking about in my new surroundings, I have to come to terms with a myriad of bird calls of the dense bush and forest that I last heard 15 or 20 years ago. Among others I soon had to differentiate between the ‘clink clink clink..’ (like two pebbles being struck together) of a Bleating Warbler (Camaroptera) and the more aspirated ‘piLLY piLLY piLLY…’ of a Bar-throated Apalis (not to mention the simpler ‘tsik tsik tsik…’ of a Neddicky).

On Sunday morning, I set out to drive to Humansdorp for supplies, and to investigate for future reference what goods and services were available there.  I was hardly out of the gate when I came across a truck, a 30-tonner, with half-trailer and trailer fully loaded, that had slipped back and jack-knifed on a steep ascent, and was wedged into the bush on either side of the road (this had happened during the afternoon of the day before). The road, a narrow, twisting dirt road with steep gradients, is certainly not suitable for such heavy vehicles. The driver had been under instructions to avoid toll-gates on the main road.

By midday, the truck had been recovered and sent on its way by means of tractors and winches from the dairy farm. By then I had made other plans for the day.

Greater Double-collared Sunbird
Black-bellied Starling
Cape Rock-Thrush
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