Lowveld miracles

Suddenly the deep and loud guttural “Hooouwp” of a hyena sounded out of the bushes quite close by.
Issue date : 07 November 2008

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Suddenly the deep and loud guttural “Hooouwp” of a hyena sounded out of the bushes quite close by. The piping call of a little pearl-spotted owlet in a big mopane tree behind us ended abruptly and we all stopped eating. It was not far beyond the ring of our firelight and it sent a shiver down my spine. Then a few other “Hooouwps” answered from the opposite side of the camp. We were apparently surrounded.

We were sitting in the open under the stars enjoying the products of our braai, the smell of which may have attracted the hyenas. We were still peering into the darkness, when suddenly something fell out of the sky right onto my brother’s head. Feeling it wriggling down his shoulder, he thought it was a big spider, jumped up and almost landed his juicy boerewors in the sand. By the light of the maglite it turned out to be a small, black snake. We were in no danger from the hyenas or any other large predator though, as we were like kindergarten kids protected behind a 2m mesh-wire electrified fence in the Kruger National Park. But a snake is a different matter. It pays no attention to fences and despite its small size, it was quite a dangerous little poisonous snake.

From its appearance and jerking movements from side to side, I immediately recognised it as a stiletto snake or burrowing viper as it used to be called. A stiletto is a long, thin knife used for stabbing. For its size, this snake has the longest fangs of any snake in the world. In fact, they are so large that when opening its mouth, it can’t unfold them into an erect position like a true viper and it can’t bite anything. To inject venom into its prey or enemy, it has to draw its lower jaw to one side, erect its fang outside its mouth and stab its victim, hence the name stiletto snake.

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The strangest thing, however, was not its fangs, but how it simply fell from the sky. We weren’t sitting under a tree. Although the sloping canopy of my brother’s tent was not far behind him and I presume it was possible it could have slid down the slope and fell at an angle, but there was also no tree above the tent and only way it could have gotten on top of the tent, would have been to climb the tent-pole guy-ropes, but a burrowing snake simply doesn’t climb.

The mystery remained unsolved and we decided to call it a miracle.
African bush miracles he African bush is full of miracles and the greatest of all is its incredible variety of plants and animals, especially large mammals. The Amazon rainforests may have a greater abundance of the small stuff, but to see big animals in multitude, people come from all over the world. The great plains of Africa used to teem with large herbivores and the carnivores that preyed on them, like nowhere else on earth. To have seen this continent 200 years ago must have been an incredible sight. Fortunately, through the efforts of a few farsighted men some remnants of what used to be, has been saved for us to enjoy today.

 Now that I live in the Lowveld, one such magic place is literally on my doorstep, the Kruger National Park and with the Phalaborwa gate only 45 minutes away, I can easily pop over there for the weekend or even just a day. That’s what I did last weekend and the snake wasn’t the only miracle we saw.The great African beast When we exited the camp gate the following morning, we were literally engulfed by a herd of buffalo – the likes of which I’ve never seen. he bush encroaching mopanes, which in summer obstruct one’s view and in many places prevent one from seeing further than 30m off the road, were still leafless and bare, as virtually no rain has fallen yet. his is the best time of year to visit the park, when visibility is at its best and large numbers of game congregate where water is available.

This enabled us to see through the stunted trees, hundreds of black buffalo literally dotting the landscape from one horizon to the other. o me the buffalo embodies the vigour and power of Africa like no other beast. Among them we even saw a herd of elephant on their way to water. It was an amazing sight that took me on wings of imagination back to a time when only the most courageous of old hunters penetrated so deep into these once dangerous fever-stricken lowlands. In my mind I was on horseback with all my supplies and equipment in my saddlebags. My short rifle in a scabbard beside the saddle and my long “star-barrel” big-bore muzzle loader, together with my bandolier and powder horn slung over my shoulder.

I wore soft fur-tanned clothes and a big buffalo skin hat and was totally alone, isolated from the rest of the world. In front of the horse my two dogs, driving on the spoor of a huge sable bull that we’d have tracked all the way from the foothills of the great mountain chain to the west, started to mill around. They’d lost the spoor among those of a great herd of buffalo that dotted the open grassland, with its hip-high buffalo grass and isolated huge mopanes from one horizon to the other. Some elephant were on their way to the waterhole were I would have had to fill my empty water bottle. When my brother spoke, it brought me back to reality. We were in his luxury, air-conditioned 4×4 on a tarred road.

Our supplies and ice-cold beverages were in an electric cooler box and I was armed with two digital cameras and in my pocket was a cell phone, with which I could talk to anyone in the world. The sable are now very scarce and they don’t come here anymore because such wooded veld is unsuitable to them, but the buffalo and elephant are still there and in the mountains to the west. In its foothills the sable are now detained behind wire fences and sold like oxen on an auction floor. But despite all the changes, the lowveld of the Kruger Park is a delightful place at the right time of the year.

We were there last year at the end of December and it was awful unless you were a botanist only interested in mopanes, because for a week that’s about all we saw. It rained a lot and with water everywhere the animals scattered and we almost drowned in mud in Tsendze Camp. Now, apart from the buffalo, we saw at times more animals in an hour than we had seen in December in a week, including many elephant of which a large number were huge tuskers, lions, a leopard kill, many large eagles as well as a number of tsesebe which I haven’t seen for a very long time.

Management and potential
One of the most welcome sights was that vast areas of mopane veld east of the Mopani Camp had been burnt this year. Whether SANPARKS paid heed to frequent appeals for bush control in Farmer’s Weekly, doesn’t matter. They’re doing the right thing and should be commended. Some fires obviously burnt with the wind and produced a nice, hot fire, well above the ground, because quite a lot of grass and leaf litter stayed behind. That’s the right way. While young mopanes were consumed by flames, larger ones survived. Of course many of the small trees will sprout from root stock, but if the process is repeated in two or three year’s time one can keep them under control. Unfortunately, in some southern areas the encroachment is so severe there’s no grass left to fuel a fire and mechanical control is the only viable option.

Excellent, locally designed devices are available for the task. Around Kruger’s borders live a huge population of people who rely on wood for fuel. To prevent them denuding the entire countryside, SANPARKS could easily supply some of their requirements and let them share in the benefits, and deliver a great environmental service. In cities there is also a vast market for braai wood and charcoal and if SANPARKS can build and operate a state-of-the-art abattoir for elephant and buffalo, then surely they could build a charcoal plant and turn their biggest problem into an opportunity, and restore the region to the beautiful savannah it used to be. Let’s hope they do, and good luck. – Abré J Steyn Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail [email protected]. |fw