Saturday, 27 September 2008

Seth Efrica

So the reason for the silence is that we've been in South Africa for a couple of weeks. I'm planning to do a web page with lots of photos, so my mum can nostalge (she was born there, too), but that's a major undertaking, so I figured I'd do a blog posting with half a dozen photos so you can see where I've been. Sadly, I'll not be able to finish the post until Monday Tuesday, so I'm doing a bit as and when I can, and hoping Blogger will take care of me. Yes, I keep hitting Save Now.

Jenny had been invited to be keynote speaker at the biennial conference of the Pal├Žontological Society of South Africa (PSSA), which was all the excuse we needed. Having arrived around 09:00 in Cape Town where it was colder than the UK and raining, we failed to check into our hotel as we were far too early. Bummer! Undaunted, we drove around the peninsula, visiting the nature reserve at the southern end, where we saw lots of interesting plants and a few birds, like a pair of ostriches, an orange breasted sunbird and a black shouldered kite.
The next day we drove 250 km northeast from Cape Town to a tiny place called Matjiesfontein, where the conference was taking place. On the way, we drove through the mountains near Paarl where we were surprised to see snow on the mountains. Don't remember that from when I was a kid.

We stopped for lunch at a picnic spot, and I put the previous night's foil-wrapped leftovers on the car engine, which I left running, but VW have been much too efficient at keeping the heat inside the engine, and after 10 minutes they were still stone cold. We settled for nuts, fruit and a beer for lunch.

They'd had more rain than usual in the Karoo, and our timing was perfect, so we saw sheets of wildflowers on either side of the road as we drove. The photo's don't really do it justice, but at least you can get the idea.

On the afternoon of the first day of the conference I drove into the nearest town. Not being a conference delegate, that was fine, and my critical need was for some AA batteries, as the ones in the camera had run flat and the shop in the village sold almost nothing you could possibly want, and certainly not AA batteries!

I hoped to find a petrol station before I got to Laingsburg, 25 km away, but it was not to be. In Laingsburg I bought 4 batteries for 9 Rand, and clearly didn't have my brain engaged as I did so. R9 is about 60p, which is what they were worth, I discovered. (14 Rand = £1)

I drove half-way home and stopped to photograph the flowers, only to find I'd flattened the batteries. I took them back, of course, and bought some Energizers, for an additional R34. Proper batteries!

Half-way back I stopped again, and then did a bad thing. Pointing the camera diagonally out of the front windscreen, I drove along a promising stretch of the road, filming as I went. On a straight, lightly-trafficked road, it wasn't particularly dangerous, but I know I shouldn't have done it. The veldt isn't exactly a blaze of colour, but you do get an impression of what we could see. The truth is, though the edge of the road is the only place you see the flowers in the movie, in fact the whole veldt is full of flowers, but the orange ones predominate the near perspective.

So I did a round trip of 75 km to buy 4 AA batteries. Nice to keep things in proportion!
I've no idea why Blogger decided to only let me put 1 line of text next to the movie. It's a mystery.
Outside our bedroom window were two big trees, in which male Cape weaver birds were building nests and displaying to the females. So naturally I had to get that on film, didn't I? They were quite noisy, but fortunately not enough to wake us at dawn, so we weren't really disturbed by them. Sadly, blogger is unable or unwilling to let me upload the movie, so a photo will have to do.

There were also little swifts nesting under the eaves. It took me a while to identify them, as there are several pages of swifts, martins and swallows in our SA bird book, and of course, they're all pretty similar to each other.

Edit: Though curiously, swifts are more closely related to humming birds than they are to swallows and martins.

The Hotel Milner was built in Victorian times and renovated in the 1970's, but is now in its second decline. The sash windows rattled in their frames and even when we'd wedged bog paper into the cracks, the glass rattled in the wood, where the putty had fallen out.

The water supply was a bit iffy, too. On the second day the cold water poured into the bath pre-browned. Lovely. I'm sure there was nothing wrong with it, but it wasn't particularly appealing!

The staff were very friendly, courteous and helpful, so we didn't complain. Good staff can compensate for many ills!

After the conference there were two days of field excursions, looking at fossil-yielding sites that various people knew about. Naturally, if you go to a well-known site, you're unlikely to find much, since the locals have already picked it clean.
However, one site we visited had never been checked at all, and we were quite excited at the prospect of finding dinosaur bones there. Sadly, though the day was bright and sunny and the canyon we walked was very beautiful, nobody found anything much at all.

The guy who'd got us all there, Billy de Klerk from the Albany Museum in Grahamstown was not dismayed at all, but we were rather disappointed.

The track to the site was extremely rough and we had to leave our cars at the farmhouse and go in 4x4s. Some of the way back I did in the back of the farmer's bakkie (flatback pickup), which is something you have to do at least once in your life. It's normal transportation for many farm workers in South Africa and would be completely illegal in the UK, since there are no seats in the back, let alone seat belts. The health and safety jobsworths would have a field day! Fortunately I only went in the bakkie on normal roads, not on the really rough stuff.
After the field excursions, Jenny and I drove to Grahamstown, where she did some work at the Albany Museum with Rob Gess, who has found some interesting fossil fish in a road cutting nearby. Rob and his wife Serena are a really nice couple who took great care of us all the while we were in Grahamstown. The red flowers are on a coral tree, of which there are lots in Grahamstown. It was a little early in the season for them so the show wasn't as good as it might have been. Also much too early for the jacarandas the town is abundantly planted with.

At the weekend they'd planned to take us canoeing, but it was bitterly cold, and doing things that get you wet on days like that is not to be recommended, so we headed for a fossil-yielding site he knew. It was a long way down a dirt road, and then when we arrived, it started to rain. After quite a short time it was absolutely sheeting down and we decided that there was a risk the VW Polo I'd hired from Avis would not cope with the dirt road on the way back if the rain kept up, so we skedaddled. The car coped admirably, even if I did bang various underneath bits on the road from time to time.
They took us to a deserted beach where, while the rain continued, albeit less heavily, we sat in their car eating rolls and drinking tea. The wreck is of a fishing trawler and is slowly falling apart.

Serena, who drove their car all the time, is a passionate birder, and managed to drive and spot birds constantly. I usually drive off the road when I try to do that! Every now and then she'd slow right down and point out of her window at something - a jackal buzzard carrying off some small prey, a pair of Egyptian geese, and so on.

On the Sunday we headed inland for about 50 or 75 km and stopped in a road cutting. We'd missed the turning they'd been heading for, as the roadsign had been stolen (anything metal that can be moved tends to get stolen and sold for scrap) and we actually stopped just to discuss what to do. In the event, it was the right sort of rock, so we stayed there and looked for fossils. The expected beasts are 200 million year old mammal-like reptiles from the Permian, for which SA is very well known.

Now Jenny and I are not bad at finding fossils, but our performance on this occasion was unimpressive. Quite quickly, Rob found a leg bone maybe 10 cm long, so we had a look to help us get our eyes in, then went back to looking.

After extracting the leg bone, Rob carried on, and soon found a pelvic girdle. We continued to find nothing. Not long after that he found a skull, which took him several hours to extract. We maintained our 100% failure record.

Later in the afternoon we tried to get to the site they'd originally been aiming for, but this entailed yet another dirt road. As the road got rougher and rougher, I eventually had to give up or I'd have left the poor Polo balanced on a rock with all 4 wheels off the ground! We tried an alternative route, but that defeated me too.

Eventually we drove slowly back towards the main road, stopping every now and then when we spotted the right sort of rock cropping out of the veldt. Naturally, Rob found another leg bone, this one rather bigger than the first. We found nothing, of course. Actually, that's not entirely true. I did find a section of plant fossil, a small piece of a biggish horsetail.

Curiously, despite having found more or less nothing, we had still had a thoroughly enjoyable day, helped by wall to wall blue sky and reasonably warm sunshine.

Finally, we flew home on the Tuesday, first from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg, then on to LHR. Our hearts sank as we saw the two small babies next to us, but they were as good as gold and we hardly heard a peep out of them all night.

So I am now completely knackered. On Wednesday, having just returned, we ate in the Thai restaurant with Lorna and Richard. Then on Thursday it was Peter's birthday, so we ate out in the Chinese. Friday we sang in a concert, Saturday we had our last barbie of the year and last night we went to an amdram play, followed by excellent food and company at Peter and Julia's, celebrating his birthday again!

The concert was part of Royston Festival and we only just got away with it. We've not been so under-rehearsed for ages, and were extremely lucky that almost everything held together. The concert was focused on the Virgin Mary, so if you look at the programme you'll see several Ave Marias and Ave Maris Stellas. The music was interspersed with readings of historical and other documents, and all in all, was not bad. Jenny and I had done some notebashing, particularly of the Poulenc, and that paid off, I'm glad to say. It was a bit heavy on God for my taste, but then, it was a Virgin Mary concert. At least we were spared prayers.


Anna said...

Wow, how lovely!

And I was only singing the South African national anthem a few days ago...

Polgara said...

Everytime i pop by you always seem to have been somewhere!
Pol x

Rob Clack said...

I'm ashamed to say I've never actually learned the new SA anthem, Anna, though have obviously heard and liked it.

It has been that kind of a year, Pol. Every 5 minutes we seem to be rushing off. I hope we'll be a bit more settled for the remainder of the year.

Jane.Dudman said...

I love the pictures, especially those gorgeous red flowers on the coral tree. Look forward to seeing the full write-up!