The Little Karoo
The vineyards and orchards exhibit modern farming techniques; orderly rows of trussed and clipped plants respond to drip fed nutrients plumbed into their systems with sophisticated irrigation. Even the smart modern motorway escorts the visitor through the terrain in a manner destined to invoke a sense of detachment from the land. However a backdrop of dramatic geology reduces the man-made scenery to toy-land and the scale of the awesome volcanic ochre cliff-faces make a firm promise of something more powerful that hides beyond the curtain they form.
The car turns off Cape Route 62 and gradually the road becomes more a track, occasionally benefitting from the addition of gravel or the work of a small grader to make the pathway safe as it snakes up and around the steep slope of the valley wall. Then the plateau opens out, still etched with ravines and walls on which you can read the upheaval from ancient movements of tectonic plates, but now a wide flat sea bed of fossils is exposed by the erosion of the centuries. This natural process was more than kicked along by the decades of ill-informed agricultural practices such as overgrazing by large herds of hardy goats and of course the annihilation of the wild game, Africa’s ‘Big Five’, which had roamed this land with the traditional tribes of San people. Rehabilitation would be the expensive and dedicated task of the men and women with a vision. Their mission to ‘nurture the nature’ was to be dependent on the tourist dollar, a trend in the media, and the fascination of a few minds toward the future.
Jack held the tracking antenna on an outstretched arm, the vehicle sat in sudden silence after its fifty minute jog over the bumpy dirt track where it had rattled protesting the rough surface or lurched through a sandy creek bed. The fifty thousand hectares were securely fenced and this area was a remote corner favoured by the cheetah now as she sought solitude and safety for the litter. All the big cats were collared so that rangers could locate them but it was still not an easy process, with no guarantee of a sighting. The regime of stopping, listening, looking, was frequent once the predicted area was reached and Jack had the required patience and expertise to exude a sense of confidence in the desired outcome. The four tourists sat trancelike wondering what it was he was looking for, he gave away very little, his instructions had all been given in short commands with a strong Afrikaans accent typical of the Karoo.
Although the television programing in South Africa was not on a par with the UK, even back in 1964 they were running the popular series “Zoo Quest” which had been a feature of British television for the past decade. David Attenborough was young Jack’s hero. Unlike the other boys in Paarl he did not have time to spare; his every waking moment was spent watching Attenborough on television or being Attenborough in that make believe world young boys can conjure. Each episode of Zoo Quest was the story of a wild animal being captured and expatriated for display in London Zoo. The films, all shot on location in the wild, had a compelling central story for every animal. The paradox was that Jack had the exotic in his own backyard, and the politics of conservationism were awakened by the program in which dwindling communities of rare species were literally airlifted to captivity in a country half a world away.
His chubby fingers lift the poisonous grasshopper from its concealment in the long dry grass growing tall at the edge of the lake …his voice mimics the softly whispered tones of his idol as he explains to the imagined audience through the lens of a defunct Kodak Super 8, propped up on a short tree which role plays the cameraman: “black and yellow on the underpart, also a little bit of nice red on the legs and there on the abdomen, purple dots. A whole host of warning colours all over the shot. And what happens when this guy gets threatened or angry is just underneath the thorax there, tiny little pores … and when this guy gets really ticked off …no, he’s not… I’m just holding him gently, what he’ll do when he’s stressed out is he’ll exude his own blood, tiny little bubbles and it smells pretty bad ok? You can smell it from aways away. And whatever wants to eat him, that blood goes into the predator’s mouth and causes it to get a heart attack, that’s how poisonous these guys actually are.” Jack lapses out of character, giggling as he tries to pull the small hooks of the grasshopper’s feet from his finger.
A giant granite rock glistens in the sun after a rainstorm, its pearl colour and shape giving a name to the mountain which was the epicentre as many philosophical contradictions were brought to a head in the 1990’s. The land that was home to apartheid, big game hunting and environmental disinterest was also the nursery to Jack in his most formative years. And in this same period he became intellectually introduced to alternative social, cultural and husbandry practices, forming his approach to dealing with people, animals and the beautiful landscape of the Little Karoo. Mandela’s walk from the Victor Verster Correctional Centre in Paarl ends twenty seven years of imprisonment, celebrated there by a bronze statue; Johan Fourie leaves a living legacy in his mentorship of guides who preach protection from poaching; Mother Nature is heard as she begs conservation and stewardship from the local authorities.
All through his childhood Jack spent his holidays with Grandpa Dave and some older cousins on the farm outside of Montagu not realising that this place in the heart of the Kleine Karoo would later hold the key to his adult aspirations. The road from Paarl had a moment where it twisted and turned through Cogman’s Kloof but suddenly the little tunnel through the mountain was threaded like a needle eye and the car would transit an older geography, stepping back in time 350 million years to the aftermath of a cataclysmic collision of the earth’s crust and the inland sea. They stepped out into a dusty dry wind and were met by two swaggering hunting dogs, aloof but unable to hide their pleasure at this familiar arrival. The evenings around a coal stove with paraffin lamps throwing ever moving shadows on the white washed brick walls of the small Cape Dutch farmhouse were spent listening. The old man would pick up a small white stone from the window sill, “do you remember when I told you how the supercontinent formed? That slamming of the plates and stuff created the inland ocean where the Karoo is today and that’s where all these shell and ocean like creatures came from”. He looked at the fossil as if it were alive. “Under the shallow water the little fellers got petrified like that”. Sometimes legends of the Khoi-San would be repeated, revealing secrets of the black backed Jackal’s markings or the folkloric explanations for the behaviour of the Hippo during the dark of night when he would leave the concealment of the waterhole.
In the early morning even before the cicadas had chimed up, the dogs leapt into the back of the rusty jeep and the boys headed on up the dirt track, Grandpa Dave stopping with a bit of a slide if one of the others spotted scat. Then they’d all pile out and squat around a lump of digested berries and acacia leaves which they could read like a book. “I’m sure this is only 45 minutes ago and we’re looking fully grown,” said Dave. They would carefully finger the sand and measure the distances between obscure markings on it, finally coming up with statistics such as weight and the circumference of the scull, all based on the size of the pads and their spacing as the animal had crouched momentarily. Dave got back behind the wheel signalling to the others. Part of the ritual was to drive over the examined specimen thus marking it for the return trip when they would be slowly freewheeling back down the mountain as silently as possible in the last moments of daylight. Then any new scat stuck out like a beacon, causing all muscles to tense and eyes to strain through the grey light. The Chacma baboons used the track; it was much easier than pushing your way through the trees and the wild roots grew better in the cleared ground where the sunlight could reach them. So on sighting new dung the tyres would crunch even more surreptitiously forward until the hunched figure browsing alongside the route came within scope.
Jack sighed as he reminisced. Those lessons of hunting and tracking had now become the trademark skills in his professional expertise as head game keeper on the huge private reserve which gave hope to several endangered species: white lion, white rhino and even the riverine rabbit. He put the RDF antenna back on the dash of the jeep. The cheetah he had now sighted lying under a scraggy tree half way up a gentle slope was under no threat from his gun, in fact the tourists were stunned when they realised he did not carry a weapon. Obediently they followed silently in single file stepping unwittingly over the sedimentary Devonian fossils, heading for a little koppie, staying downwind though there was hardly a breath. She slowly rose from the carcass of the Springbok and stared in their direction putting her magnificent presence as a barrier between them and the three cubs, all still wearing the tufts of shoulder pad hair, the camouflage uniform to make them appear from a distance as a loathsome warthog. It was spellbinding for the tourists but more spiritual for Jack.
The mantle Jack now wore was a reflection of the actions and emotions from his past which linked and finally converged to eventually place him in the right spot, a unique position which perfectly defined the many aspects of his make-up. Where he found his place in the productive process of society was through his work, this led to his maxim that what defines us is ultimately our job and that is why the first question we ask of any stranger is “what do you do” and not “how do you do”. Motivation and focus based on real observation and life experience.
Decades had passed since Dave’s farm had become part of the huge reserve, now after two centuries of abuse the parched land was set aside for the repatriation of the original species, plant and animal. The wilderness, the inaccessible, the pristine, the unspoilt, all contributed to the principles governing a certain management style that Jack absorbed into the rich miasma with which he massaged the old farm and gradually transformed and restored it into the paradise of natural biomes embracing the return of life that belonged. Jack knew every outcrop of igneous rock, the smell of the veld after rain, which thicket of thorny scrub held a silent row of elephant, where the shadowy imprint of ancient San rock art was carved into the escarpment. He could not be part of the neatly planned cropping techniques, the straight fencing and carefully tilled fields. Equally, he was not the proponent of a fatalistic ‘hands off’ approach to the threatened species who relied on his care. Just as his own past was a series of random events and chance probabilities rather than the traditional nature or nurture opposition, he used a non-deterministic approach to the area.
Stochastic social science theory says that events are interactions of systems growing from unconscious processes. An event creates its own conditions of possibility, rendering it unpredictable if only due to the amount of variables involved. This recognition of a third axis in which to situate his oneness with the wilderness was what Jack saw when he sat in the sunset on a red ochre cliff and wondered how he ‘got lucky’.