Yesterdays tales

Redrawn by Janke Strauss from African Wild Life.

By John Parsons, In Graaff-Reinet


What is the plural form of dormouse? ‘Dormice', or should it be ‘dormouses'? Since the name is derived from the French name this little rodent, ‘La dormeuse', the sleeper or the sleepy one, perhaps it should be ‘dormouses'. Never mind, as long as it's clear to your audience.

I came across this interesting bit of trivia while browsing through a copy of African Wildlife, the regular magazine then of the Wild Life Protection Conservation Society of South Africa which was dated March 1968. AF van Gass had written an article on this intriguing little animal. Bushy-tailed and hairily beautiful, this ‘mini-squirrel' lives on nuts, berries and seeds and the occasional cricket or grasshopper.

Being nocturnal, it had not been studied much at the at that time. Perhaps in the years since it has been properly investigated. It was Henry Ford, I believe who said ‘history is bunk'. But then, he was a materialistic man, creator of the Ford motorcar and inventor of the soul-deadening conveyor-belt system of manufacturing cars. He had no interest in anything except profit. History defines our places in the world; it makes you belong. Somewhere.

It forms you. In the Karoo where I live, history starts millions of years ago when the place was teeming with mammal-like reptiles. Their fossils, discovered in what was then a huge inland sea, are now painting the picture of their long-ago lives. Graaf-Reinet itself was a meltingpot of people more than two hundred years ago. The ‘colonists' who crowded during the last decades of the 18th century were mostly of Dutch origin. They brought with them slaves, who were mostly from the East and of Khoikhoi origin.

No black people lived there then, they were mostly beyond the Fish River. The Great Trek started from there and after 1840 the British Settlers of 1820 moved into the area. My own family was started in the town in 1817 by a Londonborn Scot, who was probably a discharged soldier. Perhaps a deserter. All this just for a perspective on history.

Which brings me to the Kruger Park where history was made over the last half-century. And the half-century prior to that when, through hard experience Stevenson-Hamilton was laying foundations for conservation in South Africa. His book, "South African Eden", published after his retirement in 1946, is part of my travel library and on any one of my frequent tours in South Africa is always a good read in the still bushveld or desert nights.

African Wildlife Treasure

But in those old issues of the African Wildlife there is treasure to be found. More than once I have been told the story about the baboon that acted as a signalman on the Railways. In the February 1948 issue an article on this tale appeared, written by AJ Havers.

He tells that railwayman JE Wide, who had lost both his legs in a railway accident, was given the post of signalman on the Uitenhage junction. At the town market he chanced to see a wagon drawn by sturdy oxen pass by. This was normal but the ‘touleier', the person leading the oxen down the street, was amazingly, a baboon! He bought the young animal and taught it many tricks.

It was very intelligent and understood readily; it could undertake tasks that required thought and soon acquired skills. Wide's cottage was a mile and a half from the signal cabin. One of the first tasks the baboon, called Jack, learnt was to push Wide on a small trolley to and from the signal cabin to the cottage. He was extraordinarily intelligent and before long, from watching Wide at work, Jack could work the points and pull the right signal leavers. Of course, when passengers found out that a baboon was doing the signals there was a great to do.

But on an inspection railway officials found that Jack was as faithful, punctual and thorough as any human official and he became a servant of the railways. He liked his drink and every week-end he got a half-bottle of brandy which he drank in one long swallow. Thereafter, he would disappear into his box for 24 hours. Little wonder! Jack died of old age in 1890 having served Wide for nine years. The signalman grieved over his clever baboon friend for a long time.

Jack's compatriots in the Kruger Park are likewise short of neither intelligence or assertiveness. In that 1948 issue mention is made of a report by the Warden to the Parks Board about damage to Park staff vegetable gardens by the increasing numbers of baboons, their truculent attitude particularly to children and their killing of fowls and small buck. Nothing has changed. Even today, in spite of even electrified fences baboons get in and and out of camps easily and frequently are a nuisance.

Sound Familiar?

Something else has not changed. In the Kruger Park Times attention has been drawn to those selfish visitors who leave their cars and inconvenience others, often at risk to themselves. In the 1946 report the Parks Board noted that ‘an amazing number of tourists showed little or no consideration for fellow tourists and acts of discourtesy were the rule and not the exception. Many were stupid, and dangerous practices were common. The comment at the end of the report appeals to me. "The lions of the Park showed considerable and commendable control under the maximum provocation." Sound familiar?

A letter to the editor by W Gilges makes a very interesting observation. A Mr Russel of Northam has been observing wild life for several decades. One of his cows fell into a donga and slipped under an overhanging rock. It could not be seen from the air but the vultures found it. He called this ‘chain observation'. Insects find the body by scent, small birds are attracted by the presence of the insects, larger birds by the smaller birds, and a stream of larger and smaller visitors arrive at the carrion.

Nothing Stays the same

Change is inherent in the human situation. A letter in that year takes the Kruger Park management to task for introducing tarred roads. To quote from the letter of this gentleman whom I knew well as a manufacturer of folding garden furniture (and whose name I will keep to myself); "many visitors will have noticed with horror the new autostrada from Numbi Gate to Pretorius Kop." Difficult now to visualise the old dusty corrugated roads!

But he does strike a sympathetic note with me. To quote again; "With nostalgia I remember that charming winding road that used to lead the visitor from the gate to the camp not so very long ago. The road promised a surprise after each bend, a new view, some unexpected game, birds in trees that almost touched your car, a wildlife adventure if ever there was," Man, I loved that scene myself.

But nothing stays the same. In the same issue the Parks Board defends its action logically and at some length. Speaking for myself, I like the convenience of tarred roads between camps but I spend a lot of time on those winding gravel roads; since I travel very slowly there is no dust and the bush atmosphere is great. I live in the hope that the road to Nossob in the Kalahari will be similarly treated soon!



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