The Evening Run

The dogs and I love winter evening runs on the farm.  If I’m working at my desk I set the alarm for 5pm, head up to the house, change into running gear and we set off.  The sun is just dipping behind the Paardeberg as we leave and the light slowly bleeds out of the sky, filling the evening with colour and drama, a typical winter sunset.

The evening was unexpectedly mild as we headed up the mountain.  We stopped by the stream which is flowing with proper determination now, after several weeks of regular rain.

I have been neglecting this blog, in part because there are fewer ‘surprised by joy’ moments as the land takes its time to recover from the ferocity of the summer fires.  But I have been away for a week and to my delight today there was some wild rosemary, Eriocephalus africanus flowering by the road.  We had thousands of these sweet smelling shrubs with their delicate white winter flowers, and I daresay we will again.  For now I was happy to see any at all, the flowers gleaming in the late light of day.

Another jewel is Microloma tenufolia.  The waxy texture of its flowers make it hard to photograph, I can never capture the amazing coral colour that flashes bright as we run past it.  I was delighted to see it, a dear friend, determined to survive and thrive, just like us.  It’s a climber and flourishing all over the place at the moment.

A determined friend is Leucadendron salignum. This brilliant green shrub thrives on the north side of the farm which was completely destroyed by fire three.  New plants emerge from the roots of twisted skeletons and here and there a plant has survived, casting a remarkable effulgent green light onto the bleak mountain.  A joy to behold as the light fades towards the end of the run.

Along the drive the charming blue Morea tripetala flourishes.  The bulbs seem to be fine after the fire.

A mist rose from the valley tonight as the dams reflected the light.  The sky turned a myriad of colours, deep blue and pink with a rising moon above the mountains to the east.  To the west a huge cape eagle owl launched from this tree into the valley below, just before I took this picture. We returned home, the dogs and I, happy, exercised, carrying the enchantment of the mountain in our spirits and I took one last photo of the darkening valley and the deepening sky.

 

 

The Sound of Silence

We’ve been in the bush a couple of times recently.  That’s what South Africans say when the rest of the world might say “on safari”.  Most recently at Mashatu Game Reserve on the border of the Limpopo river in Botswana.  We love the bush, especially being there with family and good friends.  Relaxing, great food, great wine, great fun and spectacular game.
But it’s noisy in the bush.  At night the noise never stops – you lie awake surrounded by the croaking frogs, the rustling, the grunt of the invisible leopard strolling through camp, the far off roar of a lion and the whoop of a distant hyena.  Closer to home, just outside the window the tiny pearl spotted owl spouts forth all night, his whistling call climbing a lengthy scale, the volume all out of proportion with his tiny frame.  With the dawn comes the chacaphony of the chorus but luckily we are up by then, heading out into the cold bitter morning to see what’s out there.
On the way home I stayed in Johannesburg for a night.  Although I stayed with Yvonne who lives in a leafy suburb, the city is never silent for a moment.  My ears are bashed by rumbles and thumps and engines and shouts, by barking dogs and rustles and squeaks that may or may not signify danger.   And because Johannesburg is a city in a forest, the dawn chorus is every bit as loud as in the bush, only now I’d like to sleep.
Home on the farm last night I went high into the mountain with the dogs.  A little rain has fallen in recent weeks and it feels like the whole farm, indeed the whole mountain, is a patient who has been through terrible trauma and slowly beginning to heal.  The green is emerging in patches, and treasures are coming out of the blackened earth.  I almost feel bad for going away as I suspect there are flowering bulbs that have come and gone and I’ve missed them.  Never mind.  Here is silence.  On a still, warm evening the mountain has taken on the magnificent silent presence of a cathedral.  The dogs and I stop, catching familiar scents, surrounded by silently growing plants, holding the quiet, the peace, the magnificence of the entire Cape laid out before us in glittering evening light.  Such beauty.  Such silence.
Fynbos needs fire and rewards us with flowers.  Coming up the drive little flashes of pink caught my eye high on the bank.  The dogs and I went to explore and found masses of tiny pink nerines, something I’ve never seen on the farm before.

A few weeks ago Peter was down by the river, clearing all the dead Port Jacksons (invasive trees that got completely destroyed by the fire).  He found these incredible red flowers, emerging from nowhere.  They are paintbrush lilies, Haemanthus pubescens.

There are always thousands of Oxalis studding the farm at this time of year and even in the badly burned places some have emerged, nothing like as prolific as other years, but all the same, there they are.

Then there are these fabulous aloes that have probably been there all along but were hidden by massed proteas.  The proteas are gone and somehow these survived and I can see them from the road at the top of the farm.  I think they are Aloe plicatilus.  They would normally flower later in the year but between the fire and the unseasonably hot weather they may have decided to flower early.

Small signs of life

For a blog that records flowers on our mountain there isn’t a lot to report.  The end of summer is once again hot and dry, we’ve had one decent fall of rain and a little drizzle here and there, interspersed with days hot enough to make the earth hot, dry and hollow as a drum.

There is a serious drought in the Cape, with dams at some of their lowest levels ever recorded.  If we don’t have heavy rains in April Cape Town will be in serious trouble.  Don’t tell anyone, but here on the farm we have never had so much water at the end of summer.  With all the trees gone along the riverbeds high above us, the water is pouring down the mountain strong and pure.  As a consequence the dams below us may not be full but they are not doing too badly.

The dogs and I run through the desolate landscape; the girls play in the empty land, sniffing and running on the cooler mornings.

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Meath surveys the farm

There are signs of life.  The first things to emerge after the fire are the ferns.  They stud the black earth with bright green flares.

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There was a yellow daisy for a day or two.  Then it disappeared, almost as though it made a mistake and decided to wait for better times.  I am sure it is Haplocapha lanata which flowers especially after fire and has the peculiarity  of being leafless.

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Haplocarpha lanata

The most surprising thing of all is that just a couple of weeks after the fires this Asparagus rubicundis emerged all over the farm.  A small shrub that I have recorded in flower only once before, but clearly it likes the fire, it is the only green flowering thing on the mountain and it’s all over the place, anywhere that has a bit of damp from a watercourse it flourishes and flowers like mad.

Almost all the proteas are gone and I cannot imagine how long it will take them to grow back in their thousands.  One is making an astonishing recovery.  Protea nitida, which I was particularly sad to lose, as it grows into a tree putting out huge fluffy white flowers in winter and great redheads of regrowth in spring.  To my delight the trees are recovering fast, they seem to be fireproof, even where the fire burned hottest and destroyed everything most of nitidas have glowing trunks in the black landscape.  If the trunk is too badly damaged the leaves emerge from the ground.  Mostly they are coming into leaf quite quickly.  It will be a delight to see them flower, perhaps later than normal but I hope they do.

This is, I hope, the very start of a massive outpouring of life and recovery.

The Otters

The wind is howling tonight as I write and I confess I am still nervous about fire.  When it blows like this I can’t sleep.  Almost everything around us has gone, but we are a green oasis on the mountain and the fire might like another bite.  Peter doesn’t want me to call them flare-ups, but how to name the smouldering stump that suddenly bursts into flames?  We have them all the time, sudden breakouts.  The drama is over but the battle continues and we long for rain.  It could be a month or more.

Protea repens chooses the hottest and most inauspicious time of the year to flower, covering the farm with fat pink and white flowers in February.  This year they are dead skeletons and thousands of seeds, probably millions of them, released by the heat of the fire.  And yet…  As I ran around the desolate blackness with the dogs the other day, here and there a protea has survived; sometimes a whole group of them.  By the lookout at the top of the farm all the leucodendrum tincta are intact – Fire two came at them from one side, and Fire three from the other, yet somehow that tiny part of the farm didn’t burn. Where they have survived they thrive and I managed to photograph a couple of Protea repens, one on the drive – literally the only one left out of hundreds, and one from the top of the farm on a different day.

Early the other morning Peter came and called me urgently – I was fast asleep.  “Sarah, come quickly.”  Sometimes it’s really annoying when he does this, but sometimes he’s got something really worth seeing.  I dragged my unwilling body out of bed, onto the balcony and into the cold dawn.  Meabh was sitting by the edge of the dam barking.  Right in front of her, not five metres away, was a cape clawless otter, teasing her.  And right behind him, a few metres back, his family was playing and cavorting in the water.  Peter told me he’d seen this when I was away, but it seemed so incredible that I hardly believed it.  Yet there they were, wild otters, teasing the Irish Wolfhound.   A couple of evenings later they were there again.  I didn’t manage to capture the otter, but if you look closely you can see the silhouettes of Peter and the dogs in the silver water and to the left the ripples of the otter as he swam away.

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It is a great privilege to live in Africa and at times it’s a privilege that exacts a high price.  At other moments you get cape clawless otters in the sparkling dawn.

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Cape Clawless Otter – credit Nik Borrow

 

Fire Three

It started on Thursday, as fires do, with a puff of smoke on the other side of the mountain.  We were in Johannesburg on business and everyone assured us that it was quite far away and we were safe.  By late Thursday it was on our neighbours’ farm, still high above us.  Peter was on a plane home and I was getting our farm workers back onto the farm to help.

On Friday at 4am Peter phoned to say they had lost it on the south side of our farm. I was already wide awake; I got up and packed to come straight home.

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The fire from the air as we flew over the farm

By late Friday I was standing at the gate with a friend and neighbour.  I’d been running food, drinks, diesel and other supplies but couldn’t get onto the farm because of a raging fire at the gate.  Our neighbour John, an experienced farmer and firefighter had come up to give us water and sustenance.   He said “The first fire was to test us.  The second fire was serious.  But this, this fire is the real thing.”  Meanwhile complete strangers were stopping me on the dirt road to tell me they “knew” our house had burned down.  The fire raged on.

It is Saturday evening now.  We’ve been fighting flare ups all day.  The nights can be frightening.  Last night we had “resources” to help – because there were so many hotspots.  Tonight we will be on our own.  I am becoming more competent at firefighting.  If it flares tonight I won’t evacuate.  I will make sure the dogs are safe and go and fight it.  The whole mountain has burned and now the fire seeks the last lines of green, the few remaining trees and plantations that we’ve saved.  Another neighbour says “the fire sees something it wants to eat, dry grass, a tree, a thatched roof; then it goes and gets it, even if it has to jump far.”

Not a single fynbos flower left and barely a plant anywhere on this entire mountain that hasn’t been damaged by the fire.  The forest is dead and the land is a moonscape.  It will revive of course.  That is what the fynbos does.  But so many old friends gone.  All my old friends that have appeared on these blog posts; all are gone.  Now they must regenerate.  They say the fynbos burns every 15 – 20 years.  It has been 17 since this farm burned.  I cannot bring myself to post the really terrible photos of the scorched earth.

 

I am told the spring flowers will be incredible.  I hope so and I hope to share that joy on these pages.  It will take a while.

All we have left are the olives, which miraculously survive and some buchu lands that our farm workers fought bravely to save because they have not yet been harvested.

The hungry fire smouldering darkly.

And our house.

 

The Elephant of Hope

We left the farm in November to spend a few days in the bush.  Peter’s family have a share in a lodge in Mashatu on the banks of the Limpopo River and we congregate there once or twice a year.  The lodge is a peaceful place and the game viewing is spectacular.  It is a place for deep refection and peace, where the pressures of life dissipate and the soul can recharge.

One afternoon we sat with a glass of ice cold white wine in hand as we watched a herd of elephant playing in the waterhole.

Then a miracle happened.  Twenty-two months after her encounter with her mate, on this hot summer day in the riverbed not 30 metres from where we sat, an elephant gave birth. For the next two hours we watched the outpouring of love, family, and attention that comprise the heritage of a baby elephant. He will grow up bearing a name that we gave him, witnesses to this rarest of sights.

As we spoke around the fire that night, I reflected on the experience and the profound impact it had on me. This has been a difficult year. Witnessing the birth of this beautiful creature brought, I said “an element of hope to the year”. “You mean an elephant of hope”, quipped Peter’s cousin, Yvonne.

Yes, an elephant of hope. The hope that every new life will encounter a better world. That we might preserve this lovely place where he was born so that in 50 years he may stride the land, massive and magnificent. That we might preserve a climate that provides him with the water he drank on his first day at this watering hole in the Limpopo River. That our grandchildren may encounter his. That we will live in a world that continues to care for nature and the earth’s heritage.

An elephant of hope that no matter how hard our lives may seem, life goes on and at times we must simply bear it and at others we may rejoice. Sometimes the two overlap one another at a terrifying speed, offering despair and opportunity in equal measures.

I write this blog primarily to share the flowers that grow on the farm, and I only post photos that I have taken on the farm.  But as Georgie was quick enough to capture the birth of our elephant, I shall break my rule this once and have uploaded the videos of that and of him getting on his feet for the first time.

Back on the farm we have stepped up the running and I feel fitter, stronger and more at peace with the world.  The flowers are fewer than in wetter years, but they never fail to surprise and delight me – the joy of turning a corner and seeing the magnificently named Wachendorfia paniculata shining against the sandy bank, or the blue powderpuff suddenly appear on the path ahead.  The world cannot be a bad place while the elephant still roam and the land is full of flowers, the house full of dogs and the sun sets magnificently behind Table Mountain, turning our Hawequas Mountains a brilliant pink.

 

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