SOUTH AFRICA

 


PRETORIA Banie Penzhorn is a wildlife vet, doing research, plus some teaching, at the Veterinary School of the University of Pretoria, at Oonderstepoort, which has worldwide recognition in its field. We first met Banie, an Afrikaans, when he was getting his masters degree at Texas A&M in 1969. After that, he did his Ph.D. dissertation on mountain zebra in Kruger National Park. The farther south you go in Africa, the fainter the zebra's stripes get, and the extinct quagga didn’t even have any at all on their rear ends. One professor is now trying to recreate them by breeding zebras with lighter and lighter stripes. Some other interesting rebreeding being done is with cheetahs. People used to notice the occasional cheetah with strong black stripes down their backs. So at a cheetah research unit near Oonderstepoort they've been somewhat successful at developing a true breeding strain of them. They're called King Cheetahs. Other far-reaching and much more important work is done at Oonderstepoort; these two projects just caught my fancy.

Banie and his wife, Naomi, live in Pretoria with their two teenage daughters whose busy lives took me back to when our household was dominated by high school and college events. And the town itself was so much like an American town that I kept stumbling over the fact that signs were in Afrikaans instead of English. They have supermarkets, freeways, McDonald’s, Big Bird, and even familiar slang.

On Sunday I had the choice of going to church with Naomi in Afrikaans or with Banie in German. I went for the German, remembering the wonderful German singing with rolling deep basses in Pennsylvania, and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, Banie has a bass voice. The hymns were beautiful, and I taped several.

I also taped some more mourning doves at Penzhorn’s house. Banie said they were Red Eyed Doves, and the way to remember their song is, "I am, th’ red eyed dove," or "Coo coo, c’ cook, coo coo." There are Spotted Doves, and they just murmur, "Krrrrr. Coo coo. Krrrrr. Coo coo." In drastic contrast, every morning ugly black Hydada birds came by the house to squawk a harsh, abrupt hello, sounding like nasal crows. They look like crows on steroids. With toucan beaks.

Banie and Naomi took me to Pilanesberg National Park. It’s a gem of a small wildlife park with all the same animals as the big parks like Kruger, but in a smaller area, and just a couple hours away. I thought nothing could beat Tarangire Safari Lodge in Tanzania, where we sat on the edge of the world and watched the garden of Eden below us. But this equaled it in a different way, and it’s just crazy to make comparisons. They’re both best so far!!

Pilanesberg, named for, Pilanes, a Zulu chief of the Kgatla, is a natural sanctuary north of where the Crokodile (Afrikaans spelling) River joins the Limpopo, where massive landform upheavals resulted in concentric circles of mountains, as though Tolkein dreamed it up. This is Africa as I remembered it, where not only do you closely watch the road ahead, but also keep scanning the understory 360 degrees around because you might — not only might but do! — see wildlife living happily oblivious of you.

Even though we saw fifteen of the thirty-three "probable/possible" creatures listed for seeing in the park, we probably missed a bunch more because twice when we stopped and backed up for a closer look at a bird, we also then saw animals. It is wonderful to travel with a wildlife vet who knows everything, bird, beast and reptile (and bugs) by name and habit, and can show it to you familiarly — and whose wife is as good and sometimes better at spotting them as he is! A highlight of the day composed of highlights was sitting more than an hour in a hide where we watched animals visit a waterhole.

Once he skidded to a stop and backed up to show us a wattled plover we hadn’t seen yet, and that made us also spot a bunch of warthogs plus our first wildebeest, there in the shade beyond the birds, which we’d driven right past. Their wart hogs are very shaggy. Another time he stopped for a bird, there in the underbrush was a peaceful big herd of impala silently enjoying the shade.

One of our first sightings of the day, after we’d entered the big gatehouse area past puny-looking but electrified fencing, built high to keep all game in, including elephant and giraffe and leapers like impala, was some giraffe. They were washed out, faded-looking giraffe, who are quite naturally that way, thank you. The great thing about seeing them on their own turf is that you get all excited at seeing a couple, and inch forward and bam there are a dozen more, too many to keep track of all at once.

Our very last sighting was a mammoth white rhino mama, whom I thought was a young elephant at first, browsing along with her "little" baby, who resembled a tractor himself. Banie said white rhino’s big wide mouth makes it sort of mow the grass like a lawn mower when browsing. I’d never seen such a huge rhino in my life, having been brought up on smaller black rhinos in Kenya. The baby went along ahead of her, true to white rhino fashion. The African tour guides help people remember which does what by saying the black rhino baby comes behind mama like black people carry the baby on their backs, and the white baby rhino goes ahead like white people push their kids in a push cart ahead of them. They were maybe a quarter of a mile away, but the binocs made them look two feet away. After watching about fifteen minutes, we started slowly going on. The road happened to loop right around them, so we got to see all sides. It was hard to see them on the sunny side, they blended in so well, and would have been easy to miss.

One of the most fun sightings was two or three elephants near the road. They had attracted quite a little cluster of about ten vehicles which were all practically climbing over each other for better vantage points, and suddenly splitting, all trying to get out of the way as one big tusker, looking very mean and determined, chose the road to walk on. He had one broken tusk. Banie ended up going quite a distance in reverse as there just wasn’t space for all the 4x4’s and vans to turn around in, in their hasty efforts to get out of Jumbo’s and each other’s way. Then after scattering us all like that, Broken Tusk just stood still a long time in the bushes at the side of the road, laughing I think.