Tag Archives: South Africa

My fantastiese vyf jare met Stellenbosch

I started this blog to explain my decision to leave the United States and to move to South Africa. Now it is time for me to say a fond farewell to Stellenbosch University, my academic home for these “fantastic five years.”

I want to thank the people who made it possible for me to come to Stellenbosch U. The South African Medical Research Council teamed with the Department of Science and Technology (now the Department of Science and Innovation) to contribute 60% of the funds required for my five year contract, and the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences agreed to contribute the other 40%. Gerhard Walzl, now the head of the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the Faculty, marshalled these resources to make my coming possible. After I arrived, he had the challenges of managing me, too!

Gerhard Walzl is the reason I came to South Africa.

You might ask why this contract must come to an end. The reality is that money is very tight in South Africa. Business growth was barely keeping pace with population growth when I arrived, with continuing “load shedding” power cuts undermining the economy. In a recent audit of government spending, only 100 of 421 government bodies achieved “clean” audits; money that should have been invested in national infrastructure was spent in dubious ways. South Africa engaged in a largely successful response to COVID-19, but there’s no question that lockdowns had punitive effects on its economy. In academia, researchers who were able to cover much of their salaries through grants had far more job-security than those who were not (and I have definitely not prioritized grant writing while at Stellenbosch). The academic job market at the close of 2020 is a tough one.

I will write another post about my plans for 2021, but this post is intended to look back at my time with Stellenbosch. Is it all celebrations, or do I have regrets?

From Strength to Strength

Quality Colleagues

I have repeatedly been inspired by the researchers with whom I have worked at my three main universities. I would particularly single out the “SARChi” Research Chairs at Stellenbosch University, the University of Cape Town, and the University of the Western Cape. South Africa designed an incentive funding program to retain South Africans in-country who might otherwise have moved to nations with more developed economies. I haven’t met a “SARChi” whom I didn’t admire.

Ashwil Klein (at right) has infectious enthusiasm!

I would also say that the junior investigators at Stellenbosch and elsewhere are a strong group, too. At UWC I would highlight Bronwyn Kirby and Ashwil Klein; Dr. Kirby “rolled out the red carpet” for me to teach essentially whatever topics I would like, while Dr. Klein always has a new idea for building the use of mass spectrometry at his institution. I will really miss the Immunology crew and the crop of up-and-coming post-docs in Human Genetics and TB Genomics. The wealth of skill in my colleagues throughout the Cape Town metro was always a source of inspiration for me.

The SUN Immunology team in late 2018

Teaching the World

Upon arrival in Cape Town, I was unsure who my students would be. I knew that coursework figured heavily in the “B.Sc. Honours” year, but M.Sc. and Ph.D. students did not typically attend classes. For someone who loves being in front of a class room, it was hard to hear that I would have just a few lectures each year. That said, I’ve offered a variety of courses to all comers, from the week of bioinformatics each year in honours to a once-a-week program to teach the Python programming language. When my program officer with the SA Medical Research Council told me she wanted me teaching as broadly as possible, though, I began talking with postgraduate programs at UWC and (Stellenbosch rival) University of Cape Town about teaching opportunities. UWC, as I mentioned above, has had an endless appetite for classes; in 2019 and 2020, I was teaching a week of bioinformatics, three lectures for sequencing informatics in their Next-Generation Sequencing module, two or three lectures in the Proteomics module, and almost all of the Clinical Biomarkers module! While working with Nelson Soares at UCT (he has since moved to the University of Sharjah in the UAE) I enjoyed our monthly “big show” for the community proteomics meetings, and I gave occasional lectures to their honours program, too.

During his time at UCT, Nelson Soares (right) was very important in building community among Western Cape mass spectrometrists.

One of the happy accidents of such broad teaching was that I was able to record instructional videos of almost all of these classes. Last year I assembled an index to the YouTube videos and slide PDFs that regularly draws more page views than all my other blog entries put together. I have been grateful to present workshops in other African countries from this exposure. So far I have taught in GhanaMalawi, and Namibia, but I fervently hope to arrange workshops in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Botswana, or… well, practically anywhere!

We mustered forty-nine faces on the final day of the workshop!

This section would not be complete without my praising the students who have chosen my lab for their B.Sc. Honours, M.Sc., or Ph.D. programs. Again, while some of these postgraduate students were at Stellenbosch U, I also served as co-supervisor to students at other universities, even a pair of M.Sc. students at the U of Malawi College of Medicine in Blantyre! Just like the best students I knew back in the States, these postgraduates frequently pushed me to learn new techniques and application areas; to give one example, a 2020 UWC B.Sc. Honours student wanted to work in GI disease, so we framed a challenging project in celiac disease, a first time for me as well. She did an amazing job with it! Just a couple weeks ago, I attended the Ph.D. graudation ceremony for Marina Kriek, a researcher who joined my team after working in industry. I am very grateful for the chance to work with such talented individuals.

Linking South Africa into Global Networks of Molecular Biology

South Africa is a very cosmopolitan place, with postgraduates frequently accepting jobs in Europe or America. Many of the professors who rise to high leadership positions have experience working at institutions in the Global North. My experience with global mass spectrometry, however, had left me something of a blind spot for proteomics research within South Africa. I would highlight two different projects during my time with Stellenbosch that I hope will increase the awareness of what South Africa has to offer on the global stage. After living in South Africa for two years, I had gotten to know researchers at mass spectrometry laboratories across the country. At the invitation of Ron Orlando, a team of us crafted a manuscript describing the types of challenges associated with establishing mass spectrometry facilities in the developing world. Writing a paper with colleagues from six different institutions was challenging, but I was delighted with the result. Our product was later selected as the paper of the year for the Journal of Biomolecular Techniques (the journal of the ABRF)!

HUPO-PSI 2019 drew together friends from near and far!

In 2019, we were able to make another stride forward into the international community when the Human Proteomics Organization (HUPO) Proteomics Standards Initiative (PSI) held its annual workshop in Cape Town. At first, I was unsure how many of my colleagues would make the trip to the southern tip of Africa, but our attendance was really solid, and many South African graduate students got to network with leaders in the field of proteome informatics. Since this was the first science meeting I had ever organized, I was thrilled with the result.

Emerging Research Interests

Scientists, like all people, can fall into a rut if undisturbed. I have spent the great majority of my career publishing on the identification of peptides, proteins, and post-translational modifications from tandem mass spectrometry data. It’s been a lovely “rut!” Coming to South Africa, however, meant that I would need to broaden my thinking to handle a broader array of bioinformatic and biostatistical challenges. Could I help people accustomed to manual interrogation of flow cytometry data begin using more automated techniques for gating? Could I automate recognizing DNA sequence variants through high-resolution melt curves? While I made some starts in these two directions, the challenge that has been consuming most of my concentration recently has been this: how can we conduct “functional genomics” (transcriptomics or proteomics) in non-model organisms without well-established genome annotations? After substantial work in Salvia hispanica (chia), Crocuta crocuta (spotted hyena), and Hermetia illucens (black soldier fly), I finally feel I have enough answers to pen manuscripts. I have enjoyed asking myself again just what I find interesting!

Pangs of Remorse

Just as there are no perfect people, there are no perfect jobs! I have plenty of reasons to have enjoyed the last five years, and I hope I’ve been able to convey that above. I have, however, experienced a couple of sticky points that have bedeviled me.

Shaken to the Core

Because my professorship was primarily funded from external sources, I was named as a “Research Chair in Proteomics” for Stellenbosch University. I interpreted that title as making me responsible for seeing proteomics technologies deployed as adeptly and as broadly as possible. I sought to establish a solid relationship with the Central Analytical Facilities, which operated the Proteomics Laboratory of the Mass Spectrometry Unit at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences. Seeing that the Proteomics Lab relied on several external USB hard drives as backups, I built a file server for their exclusive use from one of the heavy servers I had brought with me from the States. I offered my services to help researchers who had produced data in the Proteomics Lab get the most information possible from those experiments. For those first few months, I felt we were well-positioned to see real growth in mass spec-based proteomics.

I had become aware, though, of some challenges that caused some potential mass spectrometry users to walk away from the Proteomics Lab after initial pilot experiments. These challenges were not unusual ones for core facilities. They related to reproducibility and comparability, prices for services, experimental sensitivity, etc. I briefly spoke with the head of Central Analytical Facilities at an impromptu meeting, and he recommended that I put my suggestions for how CAF Proteomics could be improved in writing. Halfway into 2016, I wrote a four-page letter detailing ways that my division could work with the Proteomics Lab to improve “takeup” of proteomics at our university. Well, my relationship with CAF immediately cratered. To give a very concrete example, my Proteomics Laboratory key was reclaimed the very next day. I was the Research Chair for Proteomics, but after the mid-point of 2016, my ability to work with the Proteomics Laboratory at my own campus was at an end. I never really recovered from this loss.

No Job is Finished…

Sharing an office with three other staff

Something I hadn’t truly appreciated about my previous institution (an excellent university in the state of Tennessee) was the degree of staff support we enjoyed. As an assistant professor there, I and a handful of other professors were supported by an administrative assistant. When I wanted to write a grant, our department had its own grant coordinator. Even as a new assistant professor, I had my own individual office, with space adjoining it for my lab team. It is important to understand that a grant awarded to a professor is split into “direct costs” (monies to fund the research directly) and “indirect costs” (monies to keep the lights on). At my former institution, an NIH grant of a million dollars would be accompanied by indirect costs of $600,000, reflecting an “facility and administrative rate” of 60%.

I loved my individual office when it was ready!

NIH grants are frequently won by professors at Stellenbosch University, but their “facility and administrative rate” is locked at 8% because we are not an American university. As a consequence, departments at Stellenbosch are much less able to support a large number administrative staff. A large load then falls on individual staffers for handling issues such as travel reimbursement and shared equipment loan (such as the tabletop projector for the seminar room). I would particularly like to mention Trudy Snyders, the senior secretary for our division, who demonstrated great patience with me on many occasions. The Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences does have a Research Grants Management office, but a substantial amount of grant proposal help within our division came from the generosity of Helena Kuivaniemi, a professor with unflagging energy. Until the final year of my contract with Stellenbosch, our division occupied two floors of the aging physiology and anatomy (Fisan) building, with space at such a premium that even some SARChi Chairs were sharing a room with other lab heads. At the conclusion of 2020, I was able to see my division happily taking up residence in the new Biomedical Research Institute, a huge upgrade in its infrastructure.

All in all…

I was very lucky to have these five years with Stellenbosch as a time to reinvent myself. Living in these beautiful surroundings, working with people I admire, allowing me to tinker with new possible directions for my research was a genuine gift. Some cynics back in 2015 told me I would regret moving myself across the Atlantic, but I wouldn’t give up this time for anything. Stellenbosch has made its mark on me.

Kimberley: visiting the McGregor Museum and the Big Hole

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

December 24, 2019

Natasha and I started our Christmas Eve by a bit of reorganization. Both of us like to travel, but both of us feel a strong impulse to return home from this three-week road trip. We decided to cancel our reservation at Beaufort West and drive the whole distance home on Christmas Day. Today’s visit to the McGregor Museum and the Big Hole Museum would finish off our tourism for this trip. I then marched off to shower for the day, only to discover that it was only able to produce a trickle of water. Natasha thought my expression was very funny as I sat wrapped in a towel with the handyman working on the valves.

McGregor Museum

The McGregor Museum makes use of an amazing building.

The McGregor Museum is the central organizing body for several museums and monuments throughout the Northern Cape Province. We had already seen one of its branches at Calvinia, for example. The curator is an excellent researcher, having created a book on the history of resistance in the Northern Cape and developing a rather comprehensive exhibit on the involvement of South African forces in World War I. I was grateful to visit with her again this morning; I thought the museum might be operating with a skeleton crew given that it was Christmas Eve! That said, the museum opened at 9AM and closed at 11AM, so Natasha and I were moving at a more-than-comfortable pace to see everything. The docent was switching the lights off in wings as soon as we were finished with them, so we definitely felt the push.

This 1963 convent chapel is now home to displays on world religion and religious institutions in Kimberley.

I was impressed by how many different topics the McGregor tries to cover. A 1963 Convent Chapel houses an interesting exhibit on world religions as well as the development of churches within Kimberley. A neighboring passage and set of rooms gives a rather all-encompassing timeline of the fight against Apartheid. Next to that, a natural history exhibit offers taxidermy animals for a variety of South African species. From there, one can move into anthropology / archaeology of hominid development up through rock art. There’s a substantial exhibit on different indigenous people of South Africa. Certainly there’s plenty about the history of Kimberley and of South Africa, too. The building served as Cecil Rhodes’ headquarters during the Siege of Kimberley in the Anglo-Boer War, and his rooms have been preserved. The Kimberley Regiment gets a room of its own upstairs, as does the history of the building and the history of the Convent that was based here. Nominally, the original building for the McGregor Museum, a couple miles away on Chapel Street, is its history museum, but there’s plenty to see on Atlas Street!

I cannot get enough of the grand stairway in the main entrance of the McGregor Museum.

The Big Hole

The model, constructed from historic photographs, shows the scramble as diamond miners worked their small plots by hand.

Natasha and I decided to press our museum luck and try for the “Big Hole” Museum, named after its most prominent exhibit. The Vooruitzicht farm of the De Beer family was changed forever after Esau Demoense found a diamond there in 1866. Previously, diamonds had only been discovered in India (in sediments throughout antiquity) and in Brazil (first in 1725). The small hill where diamonds were discovered was quickly turned into a pit by hopeful men with shovels. When those methods tapped out, powerful equipment such as the “head gear” was installed to allow miners to chase the “Kimberlite pipe” ever deeper. This feature was probably created by volcanic activity around 90 million years ago (for context, the dinosaurs died out roughly 65 millions years ago). The name Vooruitzicht quickly became “New Rush” to reflect the fervent activity, but a British administrator changed the city name to his own surname because he though that “New Rush” was unseemly.

The “head gear” was necessary to remove the loads of rock being cut from the hole as it became ever deeper.

We opted to take part in the guided tour since it would include an informative movie as well as a walk through their on-site museum featuring a vault of real diamonds. Even at the start, though, I found that being part of the large tour group was frustrating (I sometimes suffer from agoraphobia) for both photography and my hearing. The guide urged everybody to make kissy faces when being photographed in front of the massive hole. When he guided us underground for an area demonstrating the mining techniques, we were less than enthusiastic about their very loud sound track, emulating a dynamite blast to release the Kimberlite.

I kept up with the tour group for the diamond vault visit even though it meant being enclosed with a mass of people. The exhibits in there were a little hard for me to follow. They can show me a diamond and describe it as “yellow” or “green,” but I frequently didn’t see much hue difference. Some of the elongated and variant crystals were interesting.

The lighting in their mockup of the mines was likely better than the original.

From there I slowed my pace to enjoy the museum exhibits by myself. Natasha continued with the group to watch the video, but I learned more about five famous international diamonds: Koh-i-Noor, Florentine, Hope, Great Mogul, and (Natasha’s favorite) Dresden Green. Each was represented by a replica (some of these are lost, and others are part of crown jewels). The same was true for six domestic diamonds: Star of South Africa, Tiffany, Jubilee, Cullinan I, Premier Rose, and Centenary. I can certainly see that the production of diamonds at the Big Hole would introduce a big distortion in the world price of these gemstones!

I was happy to see that the McGregor Museum had contributed posters to commemorate seven individuals who had played big roles in the growth of Kimberley. David Harris was a triple-threat, with deep connections to diamond mining, serving for decades as a member of Parliament and as an officer in the military. His cousin Barney Barnato was a rival to Cecil Rhodes as the diamond industry consolidated in the last decade of the 19th century; he owned a beautiful town house just down the hill from Natasha’s parents in Cape Town. Basil Humphreys was profiled in large part because he was instrumental in getting the museum at Kimberley off the ground. I have already mentioned Esau Demoense for finding the first diamond at the Big Hole. Awayi Tyamzashe was an inspiring leader in the black community due to his role as one of the first ordained ministers in the growing city. Henry Tucker was a name I hadn’t heard before, but he seems to have had quite a colorful life, both in trading without a license and in fomenting the Black Flag Rebellion. It’s quite a roster of people.

This small shack saw considerable business in its original location!

I joined Natasha for a drink in the air-conditioned facility. The cafe owner tried very hard to persuade me to drink honeybush tea rather than green tea, but I resisted his multiple efforts. With that, Natasha and I took a lovely walk through the many historic buildings that have been relocated to make a little village outside. I was particularly happy to see the Wernher, Beit, and company diamond buying office. These two names are also associated with a building where I work at the medical school of the University of Cape Town on Tuesdays. It was a good reminder that the infrastructure for the early days of Kimberley was quite rugged. People had to be willing to put up with a lot of discomfort and a lot of work to create this industry. Today, the Big Hole is no longer “worked,” and ground water has re-filled much of the original excavation. Landslides are still quite common, making it a rather risky site for further exploitation. Just across town, north of the McGregor Museum, another mine is being worked by De Beers. Who knows what wonders they’ll find?

December 25, 2019

Our drive home over Christmas Day was mostly unremarkable. A squad of gas station attendants at Kimberley were hilarious as all four of them contributed to getting our car ready for the drive. The roads were nearly deserted, but we waved at every driver we passed. We were nearly home when we stopped at Worcester for gasoline. I loved this picture Natasha captured!

Worcester is the first city of note one enters after passing the Hugenot Tunnel from Cape Town.

From power plants to metal mines

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

December 23, 2019

Today represented the last really long driving day of our road trip. We started in Witbank / eMalahleni in Mpumalanga Province, crossed Gauteng Province through southern Johannesburg, passed through Potchefstroom in the Northwest Province, brushed the Free State due to a caprice of Google Maps, and then concluded our day in Kimberley in the Northern Cape. We drove through more than half the provinces of South Africa in one day!

The big dip after Potchefstroom took us through perilous potholes.

Mining SA

The colonies and Boer Republics of southern Africa might have remained somewhat obscure if it were not for the discovery of vast underground riches in the late 19th century. Gold, copper, diamonds, platinum, palladium, chromium, vanadium, manganese, uranium, and coal have all become major mining industries in the country. Our long drive today took us through the heartlands of almost all of these industries!

This image comes from a website concerned with the ecological damage of coal mining in Mpumalanga.

Even a short drive in Mpumalanga province will establish its dominance in power production. We would still have a multi-tower power plant in our rear view mirror when the next came into sight on the horizon. Natasha noted that it makes a lot of sense to generate power as close as possible to the coal mines that fuel the plant. One by one, the coal-fired plants in Cape Town have closed, while nuclear and hydroelectric plants have remained live. A drive along the N12 in Mpumalanga will show both the coal mines and the plants they drive.

This image of the Majuba plant comes from a post about reducing damage from coal-fired power plants.

I knew very little about the mining industry before coming to South Africa. One word that has new significance for me is “tailings.” When a miner ships a cart to the surface, only part of its contents will be of use. Certainly, a diamond miner wants to avoid re-examining the dirt that has been separated from precious stones. The waste dirt doesn’t go back into the mine but is rather mounded into piles of tailings. As we drove around Johannesburg, we saw yellowish hills formed from the ejecta of gold mines. In Mpumalanga, black plateaus have been formed of coal mine tailings. These mounds speak to the amount of toil that has taken place beneath the surface.

This photo has been cropped from one appearing in a post concerned with the health hazards of “tailings.”

Our N12 traversal of Johannesburg was somewhat improved by the fact we weren’t stopping. On the other hand, our crossing took a long time because we were entering from the NE and exiting by the SW. I thought were were nearly through but was surprised to see a sign marking the exit for the Apartheid Museum; we still had plenty of city to go! We were still in the area of Eldorado Park when Natasha mentioned a bathroom stop would be welcome. We were truly in the sticks before we found a likely-looking gas station. I only wish the bathrooms had been as clean as the station exterior!

We encountered a series of big-name mines as we passed west on the N12. One even advertised itself as the deepest mine in the world (currently at a depth of 4 km)! I was really surprised to see just how far apart the different shafts associated with a given mine could be on the surface. Certainly the galleries below ground cover a lot of horizontal space, too.

A few moments at “Potch”

I had been curious about Potchefstroom since I learned it housed one of the premiere centers in metabolomics for South Africa. At one point, I even planned a research visit of three months to learn how our work could fit together! Since our route from eMalahleni to Kimberley ran directly through the city, I asked Natasha if we could stop to see some of its historic buildings.

The Potchefstroom city hall, opened in 1909

We made our stop at its town hall, completed in 1909. At first, I was tempted to compare “Potch” to Kirksville, the town surrounding Truman State University (where I received my first research experience). Natasha corrected my impression by noting that Potch would still be needed to support the mining and agricultural sectors of the Northwest Province even if University of the Northwest didn’t exist.

Natasha boldly volunteered to handle the remaining leg from Potch to Kimberley (estimated at 3.5 hours). For some reason, Google Maps led us on a merry chase down the R501 to the R59 (a route parallel to the N12, lying to its southeast). The route quickly took us into the fringe of the Free State. We tried to follow its instructions, but we soon found that we couldn’t drive at 120 kph or even 80 kph without being battered to smithereens by potholes. Even the “patched” ones were frequently quite jarring. By the time we reached Bothaville, we were both done. We turned west on the R504 and didn’t stop until we had rejoined the N12.

Those clouds rolled into a thunderhead around the time we reached Kimberley.

The remainder of the route down wasn’t particularly exciting, but a smooth drive was entirely worth it. Near the small town of Britten, I saw a dry salt pan to the right. I took a photo of the lovely cloud formations that were rolling together in the skies. As we drew nearer to Kimberley, though, those clouds were a distinct threat. We could see huge showers all around us, and some of the first sprinkles landed on us as we drove into our AirBNB near the Honoured Dead Memorial. We were fortunate to avoid much rain as we dashed off to the Northern Cape Mall for a run to the Woolworth’s grocery. Natasha and I both decided we felt too worn to sit down for the new Star Wars movie. I am sure that we will find the time to see it, though!

A Solstice drive to Witbank

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

December 22, 2019

Travelling to Witbank was an easy stage toward home.

After a week in Kruger National Park, we found transitioning back the “real world” quite jarring. We had crossed into Mpumalanga province from Limpopo province when we came south to Satara, but there was very little to differentiate the two from inside the park. Our travel west on the N4 would be menaced by semi truck drivers, shuttlebus taxi drivers, and intercity bus drivers. We saw many, many overloaded bakkies headed east to Mozambique for Christmas, and we saw four (!) different police roadblocks intercepting these vehicles. From a top speed of 50 kph in the park, we shifted to limits of 120 kph. Both Natasha and I felt dangerously unstable at that speed, at first!

A glimpse of Mbombela / Nelspruit

We soon encountered Mbombela / Nelspruit, though we could only see it at a distance; the N4 doesn’t pass through the city proper. It seemed a pleasant, small city. I learned from Natasha that the city was founded on a spring that is the source of the Nels River. I entertained myself by calling out every time we crossed the Crocodile River (many, many times).

Nelspruit now goes by the name Mbombela. [image from https://www.krugerlowveld.com/index.php/mbombela-nelspruit%5D

I continued west for another hour, and then we stopped at a farm store to stretch our legs and change drivers. One of the store owners started a sprawling conversation on comparative world religion. The limitations of his research rapidly became apparent. We returned to the car, with Natasha in the driver’s seat! She was locked in battle with two intercity bus drivers over thirty minutes of driving. When two beetles smacked our windshield in rapid succession, Natasha suddenly shouted, “Death to all beetles!” and laughed maniacally. We had been so careful of the dung beetles in the park that this represented an abrupt turn!

This iridescent dung beetle made an appearance at Vredefort Dome.

The drive to eMalahleni / Witbank had a few surprises in store for us. Our three hours on the N4 took us through three toll plazas charging R70, R93, and R62 (totaling around $15 USD). I liked the rocket-like monument to the Anglo-Boer War battle at Berg-En-Dal Farm. I learned from a paper about the centenary of this war that this is no “rocket!”

This image of the Berg-En-Dal monument comes from http://boervolkerfenisbewaring.co.za/en/battle-fields/battle-of-bergendal/

The latter memorial was designed by a Pretoria architect, J.I. Bosman, and was almost replicated in his Berg-en-Dal monument at Dalmanthu, unveiled in 1970: ‘four legs, one for each province… shoot out of the soil around the sarcophagus and slope upwards towards a central point. Gradually they become sturdier until they join together in the central pillar, which thrusts to the highest and most triumphant point, as bearer of a grateful posterity’s appreciation to the Supreme Being.’

No end of a [History] Lesson: Preparations for the Anglo-Boer War centenary commemoration” by Leslie Witz, Gary Minkley, and Ciraj Rassool

Between Mbombella and eMakhazeni / Belfast, we were passing by quite the succession of ridges and hills, the northern tail of the Drakensberg Mountains. At Waterval Onder, we wound through an amazing canyon that terminated in a quick tunnel. The red rock walls were very distinctive. I learned later that the Elands River Falls might have been an excellent place to pause our journey; the area offers a number of attractions.

This picture of the Elands River Falls comes from https://www.pinterest.com/agrobk/

A surprise appearance from the elusive rhino!

Not much later we reached the gently rolling hills of the highveld. Our stop at a Alzu One-Stop equidistant from Belfast and Middelburg gave me quite the surprise. The “gas station” was loaded with shops and restaurants, and when we came inside to find the bathrooms, we saw a massive pasture behind the station that was loaded with wildlife. I saw emus and zebras, and then we realized that some of the antelopes were eland, a species we had missed seeing in Kruger (they are considered sacred by the San people of southern Africa). My mind was blown when I saw five rhinos emerge to feed at the trough. Natasha spotted that their horns had been surgically removed to protect them from poachers. It was a lovely note to conclude our animal-spotting!

You can search all week for a rhino sighting in Kruger, or you can stop for gas in the Middleburg.

I am glad to see that Mpumalanga is advertising its “Cultural Heartland” sites. This region really does have a lot to offer. At present, the N4 signs don’t give a lot of information about which cultural sites are nearby. It seems that they draw pretty strongly upon the Ndebele culture that has long thrived in the region.

Arriving at Witbank

Our engagement with the city of eMalahleni / Witbank has been pretty limited. We found our room at Isle La Breeze Guest House without much of a problem. We contemplated a run to the Highveld Mall and Casino for the Woolworth’s, but they were closing early this Sunday afternoon. The Highveld Mall, by the way, is the only attraction listed for this city by TripAdvisor, which strikes me as a bit incomplete. Isn’t a visit to the nearby Duvha Power Station worthwhile?

This image shows what the mid-town shopping centre for Witbank will eventually look like. http://www.savewayscrescent.co.za/saveways-editorial/

For dinner, we ran down to the major intersection of Mandela St. and OR Tambo Rd. We were really impressed by the SuperSpar grocery; it seemed considerably more upmarket than we’ve seen in Cape Town. We struggled to find the Ocean Basket restaurant at the “HUB” market centre, but then Natasha realized that it was upstairs rather than on the ground level. With that, we retired to our room for an early bedtime! The thundershower that had begun during our dinner caused a neighborhood-wide blackout as we relaxed.

Skukuza Rest Camp: both a camp and a town

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

Zig-zagging southern Kruger Park: December 19, 2019

As this morning dawned, Natasha and I reckoned with relocating ourselves to Skukuza, one of the largest rest camps in Kruger Park. Natasha was fending off a couple challenges at home: we had reports that our security system wasn’t powering up after a battery failure, and recent rainstorms had caused some water damage to our ceiling. It’s difficult fielding those things without any internet services! Satara Rest Camp is too remote from cellular towers to offer any but sporadic mobile internet service, and none of the service offices supply wifi. It’s the most complete network blackout I’ve experienced since my visit to Cuba!

We took the scenic route from Satara to Skukuza. I didn’t enjoy the traffic, though!

Our course to Skukuza was less than direct. We began with the run from Satara to Tshokwane (“Sausage Tree”). This leg was rather pretty, even if we didn’t see huge numbers of new animals. Natasha did capture a really lovely image of a giraffe, one of a trio we came across.

If you count the legs, you’ll see there’s more than one giraffe here.

Soon thereafter we came to Kumana, where we visited the most Southerly Baobab tree in the park. It had the most interesting trunk structure, as though several smaller trees had fused together. Natasha reports the Kumana tree as her favorite. The stop also offered us a nice photo opportunity for the Southern Ground Hornbill, with vivid red-on-black feathers.

This tree is officially the southernmost baobab in Africa, but I suspect saplings can be seen further south!

Later we encountered a Martial Eagle and Bateleur, though they evaded good photos. The bird theme continued at Tshokwane. The starlings seemed to have an iridescent blue cast to their wing feathers that I didn’t recognize from their American cousins.

Natasha was in the mood for an adventure, and she persuaded me to try a triangle route to Skukuza; instead of driving directly there from Tshokwane, we opted to drop south to Lower Sabie Rest Camp along the H10 and then come back up and west to Skukuza Rest Camp. The run south on the H10 was surprising; it began with a hill climb to the high Nkumbe Lookout. From up there, we felt like we could see forever! We watched an elephant hike from one water hole to another, some distance away.

Nkumbe Lookout allows you to see forever.

Since this area is sometimes frequented by rhinos, we kept our eyes peeled, but none made an appearance. We did, however, encounter some rangers working with sniffer dogs. Natasha suspected they were on an anti-poaching mission. We came to a bidirectional pileup of cars when we were west of the Muntshe hill. A guide hollered that their group had found a leopard relaxing in a tree in the distance. It was our second pileup relating to a leopard sighting, and yet we were never entirely sure which tree they meant!

If I were a hippo, I think I would enjoy the Lower Sabie.

The Lower Sabie Camp was nicely sited, and I snapped a few photos of the river’s flow as we crossed. We stopped for an ice cream and then I took over driving for the last leg. The traffic coming out of Lower Sabie was pretty intense, though, and our drive along the H4 to Skukuza was never really solo. We pulled off to the N’watimhiri Causeway to get away from the noise and immediately found some giraffes (Natasha was delighted). We hoped that the neighboring river might contribute some hippos, but we didn’t really hear their calls.

You have a really nice campsite here. It would be a shame if something happened to it!

At Skukuza we were able to check in without a problem. As dinner time arrived, however, a troop of vervet monkeys began running shuttle routes among the braai areas of the tourist rondavels, as though they were looking for who had the best monkey dinners on offer. It was quite the family affair: mommas, poppas, and clutching babies were all over the show. I tried to keep posted near the grill until they had moved to other parts of the housing area to send the message “this grill is protected.” We did as much meal preparation and eating inside our little rondavel as we could!

Veterinary Wildlife Services: December 20, 2019

During the following afternoon, we had an unusual opportunity to visit the Veterinary Wildlife Services at Skukuza (my Stellenbosch University colleague Michele Miller works there). The camp is distinct from the others by more than the number of tourists it can serve. Skukuza, for example, offers a small airport from which the Park Service operates helicopters.

The Veterinary Wildlife Services are not essentially a large animal hospital, however. Instead, research to limit infectious disease and defeat poaching is centralized at this facility. Natasha and I learned quite a lot!

I cannot believe that this is the only photo of Michele that I acquired!

Many of the veterinary services undertaken by the team require that the personnel are airlifted or driven into rough terrain. Working on a fallen animal takes place where it can be found, not at the building. As a result, many of their kits for operating are in tubs or boxes, ready to be dumped into the vehicle at short notice. Michele showed us the new portable radiography equipment and a new portable respirator recently purchased through Stellenbosch University. She also showed us a very secure space to ensure that valuable items and medications are never taken from the facility!

These devices stimulate graduate students after tiring hours of research.

The research lab space seems really solid, as well. Because the site occasionally hosts student researchers, they have a room of bench space. The permanent staff have their own, with equipment such as GeneXpert machines ready to go for tuberculosis detection. The labs also have plenty of “biobank” space in place to store samples of blood, hair, and skin from animals who are part of research studies. Natasha and I both spent a minute in the cold room to escape the heat. Many studies require tracking locations of animals over time. We saw a variety of tracking devices, for animals big and small. They were more compact than some of the earliest generation devices we had seen at the museum.

Why are these tracking collars in a tree? They are solar-powered!

I had never really thought about how difficult it would be to transport a tranquilized elephant to a facility where it could get extended care. Michele showed us the trailers used by the Veterinary Wildlife Services for this purpose. When an elephant wakes up in the shipping container-sized “recovery room,” its instincts tell it to back out of the space. The trailer in which the animal can be transported is helpfully positioned at the “exit.”

One is a black rhino skull, and the other is a white rhino skull. Can you tell which is which?

I was glad that the facility has two rhino skulls on display to understand the difference between black rhinos and white rhinos (they are different species). I hadn’t realized that white rhinos are gregarious (they like to hang out with their own kind), while the smaller black rhinos tend to be more solitary. Black rhinos have pointed lips, able to strip leaves and fruits from branches. The larger white rhino has developed wider lips that are better for grazing. Sadly, the numbers of black rhinos worldwide have now fallen below 10,000. Perhaps three times as many white rhinos now remain.

Michele spoke about the condition in which rhinos are found when poachers attack the animals. She showed us a collection of skulls that illustrated their activities. She has seen cases in which the animal was still alive at the time the horn was sawn off, for example when poachers have repeatedly cut at the animal’s backs to paralyze them. Some conservation sites now surgically remove the horns of rhinos to enable the animals to live with less fear of poaching. I am proud that my friend Michele is at the forefront of saving the rhino for future generations!

The rhinos are sometimes alive as the poachers remove their horns.

After our visit, Michele took us on a tour of the staff village. Skukuza is home to many other administrative and conservation services. Michele estimates that the village now features more than 200 houses. We saw many facilities that make this seem like any other town: a church, a swimming pool, and basketball courts. What really surprised me was when Michele revealed a nine-hole golf course! Because it is unfenced, impala, hippos, and even crocodiles wander onto the course. Apparently even lions have been seen wandering in some parts of the town. Of course, not just anybody can decide to move to Skukuza staff village Michele explained that house allotment is keyed to the seniority of the role a new employee will play in the organization. If SANParks is not your employer, you are not allowed to live in the village.

Dinner with the monkeys, redux

At dinner, we noticed a heavy accumulation of vervet monkeys at a neighboring rondavel. When we investigated, we saw that they had left coolers and some supplies for dinner in their outdoor cooking area. The monkeys had grabbed the packet of macaroni and were greedily gobbling it up. From time to time two of them would argue over a handful and raise an unholy yell.

For the rest of the cooking time, I was on monkey duty. If one of the troop started sniffing in our direction, I would do my best body-builder pose and growl. None of them decided to pierce my bluff by charging!

Morning Game Drive: December 21, 2019

The sun was not yet peeking above the horizon at the Sabie.

Waking for a 3:15 AM alarm was not easy, even if we were excited about our morning game drive from Skukuza Rest Camp. We had been told to rally at the parking lot at 3:45 AM (for a 4:00 AM departure), though, so we pried ourselves from the pillows. Would we see some of the signature cats of the park, this far south?

Our 24-person truck managed to exit the Skukuza gates roughly on time, though it had to scoot into the oncoming traffic lane to bypass all the personal cars hoping to exit the camp as soon as the gates opened for everyone. Right away, though, we could tell something was wrong. The lights operated by the two people in the back of the truck were distinctly yellow and quite dim, not the bluish halogens of our Satara night drive. We had only traveled a mile before the high side lights at the front of the truck failed. Our driver seemed unsure what to do at first, but then she turned us around to return to Skukuza for a different truck. The joys of unloading, reloading, and navigating around an even longer queue of personal cars consumed more time (especially since we had an incoming SANParks Jeep). We were back on the road by 4:30 AM.

This spotted hyena was in considerably better shape than that one we saw at Satara.

Since the summer solstice is tomorrow, we were barely out of the camp in time for sunrise. Our truck had a fair number of visitors from Spain, and some of them were “twitchers,” bird watchers. Our first stop of the day, in fact, was for a pair of Marabou storks, perched in a tree. Soon thereafter, we stopped for a Southern yellow-billed hornbill. I was really proud of Natasha for catching a spotted hyena (this time in good health) at the side of the road. A warthog seemed a bit shy, hiding behind some tall grass clumps.

We passed a fair number of gullies and creeks and rivers without seeing much of notice. Rather suddenly, a fellow in the back sang out for a stop. He claimed to have seen a big cat! He called for the driver to back up for a dozen meters, and he pointed to a oddly-colored patch in the grass. I automatically said to myself, “false positive,” but then the patch moved slightly. That brownish-gold patch had spots! For all the time I had spent watching likely tree limbs for a sprawled leopard, I had no sightings. This guy had spotted one lying in tall grass! I breathed a sigh of relief that I had brought my telephoto lens and that the sun was up. My best shot of the cat came at ISO1600. I don’t imagine the cell phone images turned out so well.

This leopard was watching us as we watched him or her.
Leopards have rosettes rather than spots.

After that, our truck of tourists was a lot happier. We’d scratched off the most challenging member of the “Big 5!” We soon came to a river, and again someone called us to a halt. This time, they claimed to have seen a lion! The beast was quite far from the truck, and once I cranked the telephoto to maximum magnification, I was surprised to see a male adult lion with a full mane. The other tourists definitely had their eyes sharpened for this tour.

Thank you, Mr. Lion, for lying down in a spot with a clear view from the bridge!

While we and other vehicles pulled aside on the bridge for a better look at the lion, a number of other creatures had come to the bridge to stake their claims. Around seven baboons had infiltrated the group of cars, and some of them were rather big. I enjoyed watching one picking nits off another, but some of the louder hoots barked by the big ones were a bit scary. It wouldn’t be much effort for a baboon to climb into the open-sided truck with us. As we slowly navigated away to the far side of the bridge, Natasha and others spotted a hippopotamus blowing bubbles and frolicking in a side-channel of the river. He didn’t surface very much, so our photos just look like a particularly green bit of the river.

The baboons thought the lion watchers were very entertaining, except for one who didn’t get enough sleep.

For the rest of the tour, we didn’t have many notable stops (though we did observe some kudu). I saw that many of us were battling to stay awake, and that’s not a recipe for alert animal-watching. I had a bit of hallucination about the tea I would soon be drinking! The sun was soon high enough for normal daylight photography, but the animals had seemingly taken the cue to nestle down for a nice nap. We returned to the camp with a general sense of contentment.

Saying Goodbye in Style

This pied kingfisher’s quest for dinner kept us entertained for a half hour.

We spent much of the rest of the day in a combination of napping, reading novels, munching, and other distractions from the high outdoor temperatures. As we came to the close of the day, though, we opted to have a celebratory dinner. Tomorrow is the solstice, after all! Natasha put on a pretty dress, and I donned one of the two polo shirts I brought. As we stepped onto the main pedestrian walkway, we saw a momma warthog and two of her piglets just a few feet away. We had noticed them in the camp yesterday, as well. We turned in the other direction. Our steaks were excellent, and the staff took good care of Natasha’s dietary needs.

We took a farewell promenade to the riverside. I made what is probably my last false positive call for a crocodile in the shallows. Tomorrow we will take our leave of the park by the Malelane Gate and then jet along the N4 to Witbank / eMalahleni. It’s our first big step toward home!

Rolling Out: December 22, 2019

This African spurred tortoise has had a rough time of it.
This chameleon stood out rather well against the road surface!

On our summer solstice, Natasha and I made our farewells to Kruger National Park. We drove essentially south from the Skukuza Rest Camp to leave the park via the Malelane Gate (a great way to connect with the N4 highway). The road led past some of the rockiest terrain of the park. Surprisingly, in only 90 minutes or so, we crossed paths with a large number of animals. Two of Natasha’s favorites were represented when we found a small African spurred tortoise crossing the road and then a giraffe. Ever since Satara, I had been looking in tree forks for a lazing leopard. Close by the exit, we saw just that! With his tail waving back and forth in the breeze, the leopard was standing on a branch. Perhaps our photo will be too back-lit for detail, but to see him at all was a serious payoff! Having seen very few elephants since departing Satara, we were delighted to encounter two young elephants blithely galloping across the road. What an exit!

Leopards thrive in trees. See this one’s tail hanging down?

Satara Rest Camp: Home of the Big Cats

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

Driving to Satara: December 17, 2019

The Satara Camp is either the second or third-largest of all rest camps in Kruger National Park. It is a favorite for game viewing because the veld around it is reasonably open (unlike the short mopani forests up north). It has gained a reputation for cat sightings, as well, so I was glad we could stay there for two nights. First, though, we had to make our way down there. Mopani and Satara are 116 km apart, and our guide book cautioned us to allow 4h40m to make the drive (even though they are connected by the main north-south highway of Kruger Park). The overall move would change the climate quite a bit; we would leave the Letaba and Oliphants watersheds (and associated rest camps) and pass into a rainier area of the park.

With more than 10,000 elephants in Kruger, some of the herds are quite large!

We drove south on the H1 quite steadily. Calls of “impala, zebra, and wildebeeste” were generally met with a shrug. We did continue to stop when elephants came into view. Natasha was able to photograph a few warthogs along the way, though none were particularly close to the road. Again, we saw a large group of two dozen elephants crossing a wide plain south of the intersection with the H15. It seems likely that this was the same herd we had seen near Mopani rest camp the preceding afternoon.

That’s a hippo butt at the Letaba River!

We were really pleased when we found a rest stop next to the Letaba River, just north of the Letaba Rest Camp. The hippos were out to play! Natasha was able to photograph a trio, with one in the water, one squelching in the mud, and the other standing nearby. We were also able to hear the rubbery calls of another pair when we reached the Oliphants River close to the intersection with the H8. Natasha could see them in the binoculars, but they weren’t in range for a photograph. We paused soon after for lunch in a high observation point above the Oliphants River.

The warthogs were a bit shy of the roads, but we did spot this one in time!

The animal sightings came at a slower pace in the early hours of the afternoon as we passed through the relatively open plains north of Satara. We did, however, have two noteworthy encounters. The first came as Natasha found a trio of giraffes eating from a tree some distance from the road. She has sharp eyes.

Being this close to an elephant is very intimidating.

Fifteen minutes later, we had another nervy experience with elephants. This time, a male and female pair were on opposite sides of the road, standing pretty close to the road on either side. We stopped and waited for them to pick one side or the other, but they seemed quite content where they were. Natasha eventually felt that they would let us pass, so we drove by, and I triggered a photograph of the female at very close range!

Arriving at Satara

When we arrived at Satara Rest Camp, we were very surprised to see just how big it was (it’s the second largest after Skukuza, reported the ranger). It’s big enough that they have nightly movie showings. After we checked into our bungalow, Natasha and I went in search of the laundry facility. We found it in the tent camper area. We pooled our change to find a pair of R5 coins for the washer, and then Natasha headed off to get some change to operate the dryer. Both washer and dryer cycles were pretty rapid, and so we have hung much of the laundry on a line at our bungalow. The temperature is high enough here that I think they’ll be fully dry by morning!

The N’wanetsi River Road: December 18, 2019

The clock alarm sounded at 5:00. Natasha and I were upright, showered, morning beveraged, and in the car by 5:30. This morning was our best shot to see the big cats of Satara!

We had chosen the N’wanetsi River Road (S100) since it has a reputation for a good diversity of felids. Its western terminus was just a couple kilometers south of Satara, but we ran into a huge pileup of cars blocking the H1, all heading south. The shoulder was crowded, and the “passing lane” (oncoming traffic lane) was choked with cars that had begun passing the mass but then stopped in the road. A third “lane” was forming in the mud on the far side of the road. A driver hoping to go the opposite direction was sitting on the far side of the mass, just fuming. We learned later that a leopard had been seen in the field, but it was already gone by the time we came to the pileup.

Our turn onto the S100 was without incident. The S100 is a really lovely drive. It winds left and right to follow the course of the N’wanetsi River, and its rises and valleys expose you to sudden views of savanna or peeks into the river’s channel. This hour of the morning was especially beautiful (the sun rises around 5AM at this time of the year). We captured a number of images just because it was lovely.

Do you know what this scene lacks? A big cat. S100

The S100 is only 19.4 km in length. At freeway speeds that would be a twenty minute jaunt, but we spent two and a half hours driving this stretch. Clearly we weren’t traveling at the speed limit (40 kph). If you blast along the roads at full tilt, you will have time to notice nothing, you will produce so much noise that the animals move away from the road for others, and you will raise a cloud of dust that irritates lungs. Sadly, we were passed by a number of SUVs that seemed to believe the destination was the point rather than the journey.

Giraffes everywhere! S100
This water monitor on the S100 started moving quickly when we approached.

I would highlight a couple animal sightings that excited us. First, Natasha’s fond wish for giraffes was gratified when we encountered a pod of four around 7:30 in the morning. They were accompanied by some impala, zebras, and wildebeests, but we had long since decided that we wouldn’t stop to photograph them. Elephant dung was in evidence, but we saw only one elephant on the hoof during the morning. As we crossed the N’wanetsi River near the end on a low concrete ford, we saw a water monitor (type of lizard). They’re definitely not the most commonly spotted, so I was glad for the opportunity.

But where were the cats? I had tried to be vigilant about the trees on the river side (right) while Natasha scanned the fields to our left. Our final tally for the S100 came to zero cats. We paused at a gravel siding on the S41 with a nice view of the river banks. Natasha had packed some sausage sandwiches from last night’s braai at our bungalow. They were very tasty.

Now that I had finished breakfast and my tea, it was time to find a bathroom. That may seem like a simple matter, but I will confide that Kruger is not abundantly provided with bathrooms. Our map revealed that an overlook / picnic area just south of us at the intersection of the S41 and the H6 had bathrooms, so we made a beeline. I felt bad zipping along the S41 at the speed limit because another driver was enjoying a few yards’ proximity with a giraffe who didn’t appreciate our red car zipping through.

The overlook raised us up on high!

We were really impressed with the picnic area. Our eastward course had brought us to the Lebombo Mountains, meaning we were probably just a couple of miles from Mozambique. The overlook gave us an excellent line of sight on three watering holes far below. I photographed what seemed to be a bird’s nest atop a high rock. Suddenly a ruckus echoed across the valley. A group of monkeys or baboons apparently suffered a schism, and their anguished screams were soon accompanied by branches waving wildly among otherwise still trees. I imagined that I heard a hoarse voice crying “ape not kill ape!” It was time to get back on the road.

As we headed to the west on the H6, we soon encountered a few baboons (they looked none the worse for wear). We checked the Sonop water hole, but we saw only a few grazers. These water holes generally consist of a cistern that gets aquifer water pumped into it via a windmill. Electrical power, after all, is confined to just a few areas of the park.

I didn’t stop in the right spot for us to photograph the herd, but this noble beast was well-framed.

As we reached the western end of the H6, though, Natasha called for us to stop. She had just seen the largest herd of Cape Buffalo that either of us had ever seen, something like three dozen animals. The buffalo of Southern Africa are tough hombres, so much so that they’ve been named one of the “Big 5” animals. My friend Dr. Brigitte Glanzmann led a team of researchers in the annotation of its genome a few years back. We had thought initially that a rhino or two was hiding in the crowd, but we realized that an animal holding its head cocked to the side would look like just one horn.

As we slowly left the buffalo herd behind, Natasha called out “cat!” I stopped immediately, and I saw the ears and tail poking out of the grass that had drawn her attention. The tail was soon on the move! What would we find? It came into the clear, and we both exhaled at once. It was a warthog! We returned to Satara, knowing that one can do all the right things to spot a wild cat and still fail.

Night Game Drive

A “Night Game Drive” is one of the unique experiences one can try at Kruger National Park. We and many other groups signed up to depart at 8:00 PM for a two-hour drive through the bush. Joseph, our driver, checked off each of the people on his list; we nearly had to leave before the last two people showed up (call time was actually 15 min earlier). All of us were loaded onto a 24-person open-side truck. The back and top of the cabin was open so we could talk with the driver. Our vehicle was festooned with fixed lights, and three passengers carried powerful halogen spotlights.

As we drove, those halogens were pointed at whatever objects those passengers thought might be hiding an animal. The fellow at the back right corner (behind me) had a genius for picking out tree forks; that’s pretty useful for spotting leopards! Sadly, we did not detect any leopards in the course of the evening.

Hello, scrub hare! I see you!

Our initial “haul” might seem pretty poor, but I was actually very excited about it. I called out “HARE!” for a scrub hare very near the side of the road. Soon thereafter, we slowed and then stopped for a large-spotted genet cat cagily walking down the road with his prey, a snake. We saw another two hares along the route (both lingering in the road on our less-used track). We saw two other genets, but both of them also slipped away before I could acquire a photo. Someone with extremely sharp eyes spotted an African wild cat, thought to be the progenitor of domestic cats.

As a friend of hyenas, I was heart-sick to see one so ill.

Even as I type this, I feel heartsick at the next animal we saw. A young hyena was wandering down the road, and he moved to the side as our truck approached. He was clearly unsteady on his feet, and in the end he curled up in a ball at the roadside when our truck didn’t continue on its way. The guide noted that the scavenging role played by most hyenas requires them to range across many miles in a day; nobody will be bringing this hyena a meal.

After a few false positives (we didn’t stop for impalas or wildebeest), we saw a large animal moving some distance from the road. At first I thought, “great, another wildebeest”, but then Joseph agreed it was a lion. I would have remained skeptical except that the lion came quite a lot closer. In fact, he crossed the road right in front of our stopped truck. After a bit of roaring, we soon had TWO lions in front of our truck! Due to the lack of mane, I thought we were looking at two females, but Joseph clarified that the two were juvenile males.

The first lion comes into focus with prey in its mouth.
David and Jonathan discuss their days.

For some reason, I immediately began thinking of the pair as David and Jonathan (heroes from the Bible). Generally, one thinks of young male lions as solitary, but on occasion they’ll join forces for the hunt. Looking up, I could hardly miss the constellation of Orion the Hunter. As the young duo sauntered off to our left, the guide pointed to a number of black-backed jackals circling the pair, hoping to steal from any kills they made. Soon we saw a hyena interested in “cleaning up.”

Joseph took us on one of the dirt roads marked “do not enter” (these are intended for ranger use), and soon we saw a herd of elephants, hunkered down for the night. We drove through some dry rivulets with tree branches hanging over our heads, and I found myself fearing a leopard sighting rather than hoping for one. Soon he paused by a substantial, double electric fence. He gave us a short speech about the occasional need to quarantine Cape Buffalo away from the larger wild population. He noted that a few years back an epidemic of TB in the buffalo had awakened the park to the need for isolation areas. They had also encountered anthrax problems with another species. I was proud that my department at Stellenbosch University can be part of these “public health” efforts!

Mopani Rest Camp: Elephant Central!

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

Driving to Mopani: December 14, 2019

Destination: Kruger! Today Natasha and I made the drive from Polokwane to the Mopani Rest Camp, in the northern part of Kruger National Park. We were unsure how much time the drive would take, but we hoped to see some animals after entering the park’s borders. The drive from Polokwane to the Phalaborwa Gate of Kruger National Park could hardly be simpler. One gets on the R71 East and stays there!

After our quick stop at the Mall of the North for a Woolies run, Natasha took the first leg. I am grateful she did, because the R71 is not a very tame road. Between Polokwane and Tzaneen, the road climbs the Magoebaskloof Pass and then descends rather abruptly. We hardly imagined ourselves to be in Africa during this section. Near the crest, we were surrounded by stands of pine trees, and low clouds made it feel like a summer day in the Alps! In the next farm we were surrounded by eucalyptus trees. As we descended, we returned to the subtropics, with plantations of banana trees. I hadn’t seen such a green area of South Africa since my run along the Garden Route!

Natasha had mentioned that some of the best fruit and vegetables are grown in Limpopo. She hoped we would find a side-of-the-road stand to buy some mangoes since we both love them. Happily, we saw any number of places where we could buy produce, from cabbages to squash to avocados. We paused at a stand near Gravelotte to acquire our box of mangoes. For R30 ($2 USD), we acquired eight mangoes. At that price, there seemed no need to barter!

We passed by the University of Limpopo campus at Tzaneen, too, during our run from Polokwane to Mopani.

Traversing Kruger

We had been forewarned to leave ourselves lots of time to travel seemingly small distances within the park. Mopani Rest Camp is only 73 kilometers from the Phalaborwa Gate, which normally would be less than an hour on a national highway. The speed limits in Kruger, however, are 50 kph on tar roads and 40 kph on gravel. Our route to Mopani mostly lay along the H-14, a beautifully paved road, so we suffered no problems from the recent rains. Of course, a person who drives full speed on these roads is really missing the point. Even though the Phalaborwa entrance is not associated with great wildlife viewing, we encountered a fair number of of animals along our path: impala, kudu, zebras, elephants, and crocodiles.

We paused here for a while, but the riverbed didn’t draw animals in the noontime sun.

As we approached Mopani on the H1-6 highway, we were reminded that these animals are wild. We saw a bull elephant at the side of the road. I had overshot him a bit, so I backed up slowly to return to a good photo angle. When he moved forward, I inched the car forward. The elephant came to the side of the road and threw his head so that his ears flared, and he raised his trunk. Natasha hoarsely said, “Get Back.” I reversed the car slowly. The elephant crossed the road and continued his lunch on the other side. We drove away, slowly and then very quickly indeed.

While I took a nap at our cozy bungalow, an animal invaded our open-air kitchenette and took bites of three of our mangoes. We discovered a family of dwarf mongoose lived near our patio. They were very bold little creatures, and their wrestling was so cute that we shot a little video.

These six or seven dwarf mongoose could be tracked through the campground by the sounds of outraged birds.

Early Morning Guided Walk: December 15, 2019

At Kruger, lingering at the campsite gives you no chance to see shy animals. Natasha and I signed up for a guided nature walk on our first full day at the Mopani Rest Camp. We had a moment’s pause when we realized that the walkers would gather at 4:15 AM, having only arrived the day before, but we’re both morning people.

Natasha’s alarm sounded at 3:40 AM, and I jolted out of bed and headed for the shower. Our group included an American singer-songwriter from Portland, OR, and a young French couple now living in Johannesburg. Our guides Patrick and Amos drove us to the walk in a 9-passenger truck (the same type as at Mapungubwe).

We stayed well clear of the elephants while we were on foot. This image from my telephoto was also cropped!

The morning walking tour at Kruger starts with a truck ride for two chief reasons: 1) Until the sun comes up, walking around outside a camp is dangerous. 2) A walking tour starting at the camp cannot get to the most wildlife-populated areas. Our driver took us to the area east of the main north-south highway using a gravel road. We saw just a few animals on the route, but we were close to our destination before we began seeing elephants. We dismounted the truck around 5AM for a brief chat about the rules. We’d walk in single-file behind to the guides. We were not to talk to each other during the walk. We should snap our fingers or whistle if we needed a moment for a photograph.

Elephants and mopani worms both enjoy eating mopani trees.

Patrick was the more vocal of the two guides. He was willing to talk about the animals we saw, but he had a lot to say about the trees, flowers, birds, and insects we observed, too. String-of-stars is sometimes called the “scorpion’s tail” because of the curved string. Wandering Jew produces a light blue flower, and it’s a favorite food for pigs.

The camp where we are staying is called Mopani because it is part of the Mopani-veld, a plain liberally blanketed with short mopani trees. These trees are important with two species, in particular. First, the mopani worm enjoys eating the leaves; after a time, it becomes the emperor moth. Mopani worms also feature as a delicacy for some African cuisines (I’ve eaten them at the Insect Experience in Cape Town). Second, the mopani tree is a favored diet for elephants! There’s a reason we encountered so many of them on our drive to the camp.

Be prepared to get muddy on these hikes! This is a leadwood tree.

We paused for a moment by a tall tree stump in the wild. Patrick described it as a “lead-wood” tree. Although this tree had died several years ago, its trunk remained in place. The wood is very dense. When we later had the opportunity to lift a broken branch of another lead-wood, we appreciated the weight.

Our hike was not particularly rich in wildlife sightings. We saw a lone elephant as we started, but of course we did not approach him. When we heard a low rumbling sound, Patrick explained that we were hearing elephants communicating by “infrasound” at low frequencies. We also heard some lion moans, though at a considerable distance. Early on our drive we saw a bird take off, hover, and then dive back down again. Patrick explained we had seen a courtship ritual of the red-crested korhaan.

We rudely interrupted this Cape Buffalo as he enjoyed a mud bath.

For me, the highlight was seeing a Cape Buffalo. We didn’t see it on our walk but rather on our drive back to the camp (they stopped so we could get a good look). The buffalo was sprawled in a mud hole when we first saw it. When he had drawn the attention of our truck and another car, he grumbled loudly, struggled to his feet, and wandered away non-chalantly. The buffalo is one of the “big 5” that many game farms feature.

Our tour came to a close at 8:15 AM, four hours after we had gathered. The temperature had climbed to 32 degrees C! In the course of the day, the temperature continued rising to 38 degrees.

Fish Eagle Terrace

Natasha and I took up residence on the “Fish Eagle Terrace” of the Mopani restaurant, and the Portland musician joined us soon after. He even bought us our morning coffee and tea (and hot chocolate)! From time to time, I heard a sound like two rubber bumpers rubbing past each other. Natasha explained that those were hippos communicating. Hippopotami could been seen far below in the river from the overlook. Unfortunately, the bumps they formed in the water were at such a distance I couldn’t discern that there were three hippos together! We would get another look at the water from the Pioneer Dam hide on the following day.

Driving the Shongololo Loop: December 16, 2019

After yesterday morning’s hike, we acquired a copy of Andy and Lorraine Tinker’s Guide to the Kruger Park. We wanted to follow some advice from a book by Frans Rautenbach: “Do the Miles.” In short, people who linger at camp do not see a diversity of animals. The more complete maps we found in the Tinker’s Guide let us see the routes of established gravel roads near us. We chose the Shongololo Loop (S142), which offered wet (Southern) and dry (Northern) limbs. We started our drive a bit after 7:30 AM.

This crocodile was just a few feet from Natasha’s car window as we forded the Shipandani rivulet.

Our Shongololo drive started full of promise; before we reached the main road we had spotted a lovely herd of zebras. The first hide we tried at the Shipandani rivulet was amazing! We had spotted a pair of red-billed hornbills and a pair of crocodiles before we even forded the water (guarded by a saddle-billed stork)! Once we were inside the hide, we were treated to a lovely view of a pair of hippopotami, lounging in the water. I loved the occasional bellow from the animals, sounding like the basso rumble of an evil genius in a movie, shouting “Ho Ho Ho Ho!”

Do lions scare Natasha? No. But hippopotami kill around 500 people each year in Africa. Shipandani rivulet

The hide at the Pioneer Dam was considerably quieter. We saw plenty of birds on the opposite shore, but they were accessible only with binoculars, not the telephoto camera lens. Natasha’s sharp eyes did spot a long crocodile lounging below the dam. From there, we began our long drive on the loop.

I love how this giraffe posed for the picture! Shongololo Loop

Natasha called me to a stop. Over the last few days she had been hoping for a “jelly laugh,” and there it was before us, a giraffe! It was stately and still, holding position long enough for me to position for a full-length photo. When it moved aside, we saw a second right behind it! The water hole at Frasers Rus was also a big hit, with impala, zebra, and wildebeest.

After that, though, the Shongololo loop passed quite uneventfully, apart from termite mounds and impala. Of course we crossed into the tropics, though there was no sign on the loop drive that we had done so. We stopped at the water holes and riverside rests but rarely saw more than a few birds. We did see a tree with a lot of character, loaded with bird nests and with long strips of bark peeling away. Natasha spotted a turtle crossing the road, but I took so long changing lenses that I missed the shot. Mile after mile passed with us bumping up and down the gravel road, rarely reaching 30 kph.

This riverside pullout just north of the tropic was a good place to each our sandwiches.

Soon before we were to reach the H1-6 highway, we saw a single, enormous elephant, standing head and shoulder above the scrub trees around it. It turned to cross the road, and then an additional trio of elephants emerged from the bush behind it. They were simply enormous. Natasha judged that they were females because of their size and their relatively short tusks. I know that I felt intimidated, even though they were 400 meters away. The worrisome factor was that they were headed in our direction, crossing the road to move into the trees to our right. I had cut the motor so we would be just as small and insignificant as possible. As they slowly moved closer, one elephant gave us the distinct “I have my eye on you” look, with ears flared. By this time, both our windows were up, and Natasha was firing photographs only through the windshield. To remove ourselves from the equation after they crossed the road, we started the motor and eased ourselves forward and then out of the area.

The most stirring wildlife sighting of the day came as we trundled down the H1-6 to Mopani Rest Camp. We saw two cars stopped ahead of us, and we looked at our surroundings. An enormous herd of elephants (easily two dozen, and possibly more) was on the move from the area west of the road to the forests east of it. Both sexes and several little ones were in the herd. We stopped our car and simply watched, barely even taking any pictures. It was a ponderous, wondrous sight.

Leopard tortoises can exceed 40 kg at maturity! This one was only as big as a dinner plate.

Shortly thereafter, Natasha photographed a tortoise, her favorite animal. The little leopard tortoise was on a hike across the H1-6 highway. When he had crossed our lane, we eased up beside him. To our dismay, he withdrew into his shell. We decided to antagonize him no further (and flag other cars) by stopping our movement. Within a minute, he re-extended his legs and completed his traversal of the road.

We were not sure what to expect of Mopani, the newest rest camp in Kruger Park. I am really grateful that we were able to explore its nearby hides on the water, and the elephant sightings there were really outstanding. As someone who loves trees as much as I do, I was thrilled that the Mopani Rest Camp is centered on a massive baobab tree. We had to stop for a photo before we left for our next destination!

The Baobab at the center of Mopani Rest Camp is quite the specimen.

Kruger National Park: the “tenth province” of South Africa

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

December 14th-22nd, 2019

Kruger National Park is routinely named as one of the greatest national parks in all of Africa. Nearly two million visitors a year enter its gates. Many opt to stay overnight in the park; it currently offers 4179 beds in twelve main rest camps in addition to a large number of campsites. Nearly 900 kilometers of tarred roads and nearly twice as many kilometers of gravel roads enable visitors to drive to areas teeming with wildlife. Our week in “Kruger” was a first for both Natasha and me.

Our course passed through all the southern areas of Kruger National Park.

In this and the posts to follow, I will talk about our experiences starting with our entry to the park at Phalaborwa, three nights at the Mopani Rest Camp, two nights at the Satara Rest Camp, and three nights at Skukuza Rest Camp, followed by an exit via the Malelane Gate. For some visitors, Kruger can feel like a bingo card; did you see all of the “Big 5?” The equivalent among bird watchers is sometimes derisively called a “twitcher.” For other visitors, coming to Kruger is a quasi-spiritual experience, imagining that the park is what all of Africa would be like if humans had not built cities.

On December 20th, Natasha and I discovered that our rondavel at Skukuza was barely a rock throw away from the Stevenson-Hamilton Knowledge Resource Centre. We had wanted to see the museum that describes the genesis of the Kruger National Park, and here it was on our doorstep! I am adding information from Jane CarruthersThe Kruger National Park: a Social and Political History. If you cannot find it at a local library, much of the information is available in her 1988 Ph.D. thesis from UCT.

The Stevenson-Hamilton Library and Museum is centrally located at the Skukuza Rest Camp.

The Library and Museum has a nice display on the archaeology sites within the park. People have been living in Africa for millennia, of course. Given that Mapungubwe is so close by, it seems inevitable that the rich lands of Kruger Park would have attracted people to live here, as well. Thulamela is revered as a “place of birth” for the Venda people. This royal city in stone dates from 1240 AD to 1700 AD (essentially in the period immediately following the decline of Mapungubwe), and it was located in the northernmost “Pafuri” section of Kruger Park. Several artifacts from this kingdom were on display, reaffirming that their ceramic and metal-forging technologies were quite advanced. Their trade links are illustrated by the presence of Chinese porcelain fragments and glass beads.

Why was Kruger National Park named after Paul Kruger?

Photograph by Lynn Meskell

The Sabi Game Reserve (proclaimed 1898) and Singwitsi Game Reserve (proclaimed 1903) were originally created by the South African Republic (a republic created by the Boers who crossed north of the Vaal river– later called the “Transvaal”). Paul Kruger was president of the South African Republic from 1883 to 1900. Sabi and Singwitsi were merged into a national park in 1926, after the Union of South Africa joined together the Cape Colony, Natal Colony, South African Republic, and Orange Free State. Jane Carruthers and Hennie Grobler had a lively public debate about Paul Kruger’s leadership in creating the Sabi Game Reserve. Carruthers argued in a 1994 paper that Paul Kruger’s name was attached to the park largely to gain support from the Afrikaner community, creating a myth of Paul Kruger’s foresighted wildlife conservation. She noted that the first game reserve created by Paul Kruger was actually Pongola Game Reserve (1894); Kruger prioritized asserting the Republic’s eastward expansion above protecting its wildlife. Grobler shot back in 1996, describing Carruthers’ methods as “blunt instruments,” portraying Paul Kruger as a stalwart supporter of South Africa’s wildlife heritage during the “crucial 1890s.” Carruthers was given right of reply in the same journal issue, engaging each of Grobler’s points in succession. Sometimes academics are portrayed as boring, but I note that researchers occasionally require sharp elbows!

In the years since 1994’s first democratic election in South Africa, the Kruger Park brand has proven too valuable to dislodge through a renaming. Paul Kruger’s head was sculpted by Coert Steynberg in the 1970s from a granite boulder quarried in Paarl, a town associated with the growth of the Afrikaans language. A flood in 2000 submerged the base of the statue, but it was in no danger of being swept away!

How did Stevenson-Hamilton gain so much control over this area?

Apparently this rail bridge at Skukuza will become home to a river hotel!

The headquarters for the game warden of Sabi Game Reserve was established at the bridge across the Sabi River before 1907. This bridge, serving the Selati Rail Line, is still in place, though trains stopped rumbling across it in 1973. When Kruger National Park gained that status in 1926, the Report of the Game Reserves Commission (1918) specified a five-fold purpose (paraphrased here):

  1. Visitors could see what nature would have looked like before civilization developed.
  2. Students in the sciences of botany, zoology, and others would gain a valuable training ground.
  3. Animals that were becoming extinct throughout the rest of the country would be visible in something other than a zoo.
  4. Animals would be able to behave naturally rather than living in terror of huntsmen.
  5. Winter months would enable visits without fear of fever.
Harry Wolhuter’s 1904 battle with a lion is memorialized by a small statue, the lion pelt, and the knife that saved his life.

In 1936, the Sabi Bridge station was renamed “Skukuza,” a nickname for game ranger James Stevenson-Hamilton, a former British officer who set his stamp on Kruger Park by serving as its warden from 1902 to 1946 (contrary to a lot of the information one finds online, I note that he was actually its third warden; his two predecessors were short-lived). In the first years of the Sabi reserve, Stevenson-Hamilton gained an incredible amount of authority over it:

Anyone wishing to enter the reserve had first to obtain a permit from him and he was therefore aware at all times of who was within the reserve boundaries. Stevenson-Hamilton was appointed Resident Justice of the Peace as well as a Native Commissioner and, at the beginning of 1903, he arranged that the regular police vacate the reserve and hand over their powers to the Warden and his rangers.

J. Carruthers, The Kruger National Park: A Social and Political History, page 40

The warden was also able to forestall the movement of livestock into the reserve and prevent miners from prospecting within its bounds. In many respects, the reserves that would later become Kruger Park were separately administered from the Transvaal Province of the Union of South Africa in which they were located. It is worth noting that Kruger Park is much older than the Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces of South Africa; these boundaries date only from 1994. This is why I call Kruger the “tenth province” above.

What did we lose by creating this park?

The nickname Skukuza, though, is not a pleasant one. Stevenson-Hamilton gained this name because when he first arrived at Sabi Game Reserve, the warden apparently accepted the popular contemporary prejudice that the black population of the area were the chief killers of wildlife, though the Voortrekkers and English sportsmen, armed with rifles, were largely responsible for the tremendous losses of wildlife in the nineteenth century. The quagga and the blue antelope both became extinct during this era.

“Skukuza” means “to sweep away like a flowing river.” Even if no white cities were established in the area of Kruger Park, people of color had been living in this area for some time. Stevenson-Hamilton gained the nickname Skukuza because he insisted that the Sabi Game Reserve could only thrive if all humans were moved out of the area. As he developed the administrative and legal power to do so, he evicted families who had lived within the Reserve’s boundaries for generations. By the time Singwitsi Game Reserve was also placed under his control, Stevenson-Hamilton had changed his mind, perceiving the people who lived in that vast area as being helpful in catch poachers. The damage had already been done to the families removed from Sabi, though. Some communities continue to use “Skukuza” as a nickname for the entire Kruger National Park to this day.

Even if families were allowed to continue living in the Singwitsi Reserve, Stevenson-Hamilton transformed their lives in many ways, some very negative. Those who continued to live in the reserve were forbidden from eating wildlife, and substantial penalties applied to those who broke that law. The inhabitants of the reserve were held to owe rent from continued occupancy, and compelled labor was expected as “payment.” Many whites claimed that forcing blacks into the wage laborer role was part of a “civilizing” mission.

Of course, people of color were not allowed to enjoy the National Park on the same basis as whites, either. Black visitors were not offered equal accommodations at the park, and they weren’t allowed the same recreations within the park. Stevenson-Hamilton recorded in his diary that he was concerned that a visiting Japanese chargé d’affaires would be segregated as an “Asiatic” by the “fatheads” (J. Carruthers, page 99). These discriminatory policies have echoes today, as domestic park visitors still skew strongly to the white citizens of South Africa.

Bringing people to nature: park infrastructure and future

Today’s rondavels offer fully-featured open-air kitchens and, critically, air-conditioned bedrooms!

Today, Kruger National Park offers a wide range of accommodation for guests and a great road network to enable tourists to go almost anywhere in the park, often touching artificial watering holes charged by windmills. In several respects, Stevenson-Hamilton acted as a brake on building out this infrastructure in the game reserves and later in the national park, favoring genuine wilderness. In fact, the park opted in 1931 to allow visitors only in winter to forestall problems with malaria and thunderstorms. In the early days of the National Park, the Board formed an agreement with South African Railways to manage most aspects of the tourism operation. A system of concessions evolved in the 1930s, though, and general stores began opening at the rest camps springing up across the park. In 1932, a road connecting Letaba (a rest camp near the Phalaborwa Gate) and Punda Maria (a camp at the extreme north of the park) was completed, opening the north to visitors and making way for the Shingwedzi rest camp.

Kruger National Park occupies a substantial part of South Africa’s northeast, running from its border with Zimbabwe down the majority of its border with Mozambique. Because Mozambique has named its side of that border the Limpopo National Park, it’s possible to think of this entire region as one conjoined park. The governments of South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe have formed agreements to unify the entire area as the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Two big problems have stood in the way of this unification so far. One is that a fair number of rhinoceros poachers have entered Kruger Park across this border; the two governments have actively collaborated to arrest or otherwise stop the poachers. The second problem is that economic conditions in Zimbabwe mean that people are attempting to move back into Gonarezhou National Park, designated for wildlife in the 1940s. Zimbabwe’s ability to merge Gonarezhou with the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park has been on-again, off-again as it navigates its current economic crisis.

The anti-poacher squad is ready for action!

I would like to dedicate this post to Paul van Helden and Eileen Hoal, researchers whose love for the great outdoors is apparent to all!

Mapungubwe in the public eye

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

Mapungubwe was the first royal city in southern Africa’s history. The treasures found at this site are so great that they have received a museum all to themselves plus a permanent exhibition at a neighboring art centre! How have our perceptions of this civilization changed through time? I hope this post can help fill in some of the gaps in the public understanding of Mapungubwe.

Key Events in Mapungubwe Site History

Golden Treasures of Mapungubwe

Figure 1 from “Dating the Mapungubwe Hill Gold,” by S. Woodborne, M. Pienaar, and S. Tiley-Nel.

Exciting as I found our visit to Mapungubwe Hill, the experience would be even more marvelous if the relics that were unearthed there were also on display (the replicas were lovely, of course). Mapungubwe first drew the attention of South Africa because of the gold objects found in the “royal graves” at the hilltop. The workmanship on display in the manufacture of the pictured golden rhinoceros and gold anklet coils reflects a high level of skill. In many cases, the sheets used for manufacture were less than 0.5 mm in thickness. The tiny eyes that you see on the golden rhino were special nails with rounded heads. The gold foil of the exterior was originally anchored to a wooden interior by dozens of tiny nails. In several of the cases, the miniature animal form is no longer clear because the wood has vanished with time, and the foil of the delicate creatures was also damaged through looting of the graves.

The other distinctive factor making the gold artifacts of Mapungubwe rather special is the very large amount of gold found in these graves. One particular burial site contained 2.2 kilograms of gold (>70 troy ounces), including more than 12,000 gold beads formed by punching an awl through a flattened blob. I would strongly recommend you find a copy of Dr. Sian Tiley’s “Mapungubwe: South Africa’s Crown Jewels” for its absolutely luscious pictures! She has recently written a booklet for the National Treasures exhibition at Javett Art Centre that is available freely online.

Objects to signify power were also found in these burials. A large bowl-like headdress was found beside a cranium in one of the burials. Another featured a scepter of gold foil wrapped around a wooden core. I was reminded of the luxury I saw in the “Gold Hat” at Berlin.

Beads and Trade Goods

Ostrich shells and snail shells can be used for large beads or small. Some of the beads at Mapungubwe are less than a mm in diameter.

Why do people get so excited about beads in archaeological sites? In the African Middle Ages, most indigenous beads were made from bone, ostrich egg shells, or even land snails. The huge numbers and great diversity of beads at Mapungubwe reflect an active engagement in trade, probably via cities like Kilwa, Chibuene, and Sofala on the eastern coast of the continent. Glass beads could not be manufactured in sub-Saharan Africa at the time of Mapungubwe; the technology’s origin in the Middle East spread east to China by 1000 BC and to India by the third century BC, but the technology hadn’t spread to the south. Black beads from Egypt, Cambay red beads from India, and others coming from the Mediterranean or even Southeast Asia can all be found at Mapungubwe. These beads tell us that the trade network of Mapungubwe was international and indeed intercontinental. Gold and ivory from this region were worth a lot of trade goods from afar. The cowrie shells that can be found at Mapungubwe had crossed thousands of miles to be found there; these shells really did represent a type of currency for world trade!

Figure 2 from “Raman classification of glass beads excavated on Mapungubwe hill and K2, two archaeological sites in South Africa” by A. Tournie, L. C. Prinsloo, and P. Colomban

Dr. Tiley mentioned the importance of “garden roller” beads at Mapungubwe in her book. Even if the technology for making glass beads wasn’t available in sub-Saharan Africa, workers at Mapungubwe found that they could modify glass beads by melting them and reforming them in clay molds. They were able to recycle whole or broken small blue beads into larger, barrel-shaped beads by this strategy. It reveals the ingenuity of the civilization that developed here.

Mapungubwe Ceramicware

While I am barely literate in the world of ceramics (I can hardly tell the difference between a lug and a bevel), I would be remiss to ignore the importance of ceramics in the Mapungubwe story. The re-discovery of the site came about because Mowena offered some guests water in a ceramic pot that he had been given by a hermit living near the site (top bullet point in timeline above). His guests simply couldn’t understand why Mowena wouldn’t sell the pot! It is because the patterns of ceramic decoration changed that archaeologists were able to detect a shift in population pattern from the K2 valley to the Mapungubwe Hill (and differentiate Mapungubwe from the Schroda settlement, as well).

I would also emphasize the presence of Celadon pottery fragments at Mapungubwe. These ceramics were almost certainly manufactured in China. Their presence at Mapungubwe could reflect direct purchases from Chinese traders (individual Chinese traders had reached the east coast of Africa by this time in the Middle Ages), but of course the interaction might be far more indirect, with Indians acquiring celadon from China, then selling them at sites like Kilwa, after which they were traded for ivory, etc.

Wrapping up

Mapungubwe is more than a plateau in a far corner of South Africa. It is the first royal city of international reach within the borders of the nation. At present, a large fraction of the visitors to Mapungubwe are domestic visitors. This may reflect that several groups of South African perceive themselves to be the descendants of this civilization. It is my hope, though, that more of the international community comes to see this civilization as one of importance. While the archaeological site is quite a distance from the main tourist districts of South Africa, the museum of its artifacts is in the heart of Pretoria, well within reach of many guests of this country. I look forward to seeing it myself!

Mapungubwe: an iron-age city in South Africa

An index to this series can be found at the first post.

December 13, 2019

In many respects, this Friday the 13th was the day I anticipated most highly for this entire three-week road trip. Natasha and I would get our chance to tour Mapungubwe, the center of a twelfth-century kingdom at the northern-most point of South Africa. To give you an idea of its importance, Prof. Thomas N. Huffman described the Shashe-Limpopo River basin as the “Nile of South Africa!

I have it on good authority that the tank of diesel fuel was _not_ to be used on the baobab tree!

Getting to Mapungubwe is not so easy; the national park abuts the national border with Botswana and Zimbabwe, at the Shashe and Limpopo River confluence. From our base at Polokwane, we set a course north on the R521 To Alldays. On a map, that looks straightforward. This highway is not in the lovely condition of the local N1, though. It’s one lane north and one lane south, separated only by a dotted line. Especially in the northern stretches (plus the R572 east), the road is randomly littered with potholes, some deep and wide! On our course north, we frequently were stuck behind trucks moving slowly, so much so that we nearly missed our 10AM “Heritage Tour.” Our way south again was much calmer, but we encountered some deeply pathological drivers as we approached Polokwane. Driving the N1 would have been simpler, but it would have added an hour to the journey, by Google Maps reckoning.

Our road trip had a few other features I would highlight. First, this was my first time to pass the Tropic of Capricorn by car. Natasha and I sang a little song about sunburns to celebrate. Our course took us past the western end of the Soutpansbergs, and they were a lovely mix of reds and greens. Baboons were visible at several points on the way up, but quite an army of them were lurking by the side of the road on the way down. They would have a scrap on their hands if the termites in all those mounds decided to attack, though!

If you show Natasha a steep talus slope with balanced rocks and an ancient tree, she’ll find the rock art that must be nearby.

Our heritage tour started very near the entrance gate. A massive baobab tree drew my eye. Our group contained just five tourists; the others had some problems getting permission to join since their child was 10 years old rather than 12. In any case, Cedric was a very patient guide, and he had quite a lot of facts at his command. The tour started as he drove the group into the park in a nine-passenger open-side truck. On both our paths in and out, the truck paused when interesting wildlife were on offer.

I am glad that elephants enjoy this national park, as well!

On our day, we had the opportunity to see a giraffe, zebras, elephants, impala, and of course baboons. The elephants were particularly charming because their family included a young one. Our guide was equipped with a bolt-action rifle, and happily it stayed unused by his side the whole time.

Our path led through the Southern Terrace (large boulders at left) up to the top of Mapugubwe Hill via a wooden staircase rising through a gully. The summit is only 30m in height, but it is 300m in length.

After around 6km in the truck, we had reached our entry point for the climb to Mapungubwe. After rounding a small lake, we walked across a level field immediately below the flat-topped wedge-shaped hill. Natasha mused that the field we were crossing had once been filled with the kraals of highly influential members of the Mapungubwe civilization. The community had originally been centered on a hill called “K2,” or “Leopard’s Kopje,” some seven kilometers away (1000-1220 AD). Their shift to Mapungubwe (1250-1290 AD) represented several substantial changes. Most notably, the reservation of the hilltop for royalty marked a shift to monarchy. Gold items intended for use by the king have contributed greatly to the notoriety of Mapungubwe. The number of other metal artifacts at Mapungubwe is also substantially greater than at K2.

Archaeologists generally try to rebury the sites that they excavate so that the sites will be intact for later investigations and to protect against erosion and pilfering. I was glad that a “dig” at the base of Mapungubwe has a viewing station at which visitors can see four distinct layers of the site, spanning its approximately two-hundred year history. The floors of dung and clay are remarkably hard layers, even a millennium later.

The modern stairway follows the same path as the ancient one. Folks with mobility challenges may find the climb untenable.

As we began our climb to the top (via a wooden staircase, unlike the ancient inhabitants), we noticed that a modern pottery jar had been nestled beneath a leaning rock. Three different cultures claim the Mapungubwe civilization as their ancestors: the Shona, Tswana, and Venda. Each year, one of the three is allowed by the park service to perform ceremonies at the site, whether to honor their predecessors or to ask for good weather. Later, Natasha and I would encounter more than a dozen people from a Venda Church Group in the local museum.

Near the top of the stairs, Cedric reminded us that it was a privilege to be atop the hill, that almost none of the people living on the plain around the hill would ever come to its top. Only a short distance away, he stopped at a mopane tree. This site, he solemnly explained, had originally held the three royal burials at Mapungubwe. We looked in confusion at the solid rock beneath our feet. Cedric noted that hundreds or thousands of basket loads of soil had been brought to the top of the hill to allow all the grass around us to grow. This rocky area had been covered with enough soil to manage three graves, and the corpses were interred sitting up. The graves were rich in gold goods, and these are what created the legend of Mapungubwe.

The Golden Rhino has widely become a symbol for Mapungubwe. Photos of it appeared in our Johannesburg hotel hallway (the Mapungubwe Hotel). A meter-long version of it was located just a block away from that hotel, on Johannesburg’s Main Street (see image at the top of this post). It was also used as the title of a book we have been reading about medieval Africa. The original is now housed at the Mapungubwe Collection or Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria; this is why were so sad to be unable to visit! The rhino was just one of several golden treasures, including a scepter and a bowl or crown plus several necklaces. This burial was clearly intended to mark someone special.

Our guide really knew his stuff. Caching water and grain at the hilltop was essential to support the royal family.

The top of Mapungubwe Hill offers more than a royal burial place. Reconstructions show a variety of living spaces. Over the course of time, more burials accumulated over the hilltop. One finds many signs of life, such as iron-dug post holes and footings for circular houses, like rondavels. Two impressive cavities have been dug in the top, probably for grain and for water slogged up the hill from below. Having just visited the Owela Museum in Windhoek a few weeks ago, I was pleased to see a stone-carved mankala board that was first used 1000 years ago; the game is also called Owela!

The game of mancala has been played for more than 1000 years.

The hill commands a majestic view of the surrounding plain. Natasha and I got a nice picture up there. I took a photo of the Limpopo River in the distance. The land I could see to its west was from Botswana. The land to its east was Zimbabwe. This is the first I have seen of either country!

The confluence of the Shashe and Limpopo Rivers, visible from the top of Mapungubwe Hill

Once we returned to the entrance, we visited the museum showing many artifacts from K2, Mapungubwe, and an accompanying site called Schroda (occupied by the Zhizo people from 900-1000 AD). Sadly, no photos were allowed inside. I was delighted at last to see (a replica of) the Golden Rhino. Natasha was enthralled by the architectural design of the museum, employing barrel vaulted dome roofs. This technique uses three layers of tiles to create highly-arced roofs without internal support beams. She captured the look of the place as we drove back toward the entrance gates.

These domes are self supporting, without internal columns!

All good things must come to an end, and Mapungubwe is no exception. One key outcome from the departure of groups from Mapungubwe is that some traveled further north to launch one of the most spectacular civilizations of the African Middle Ages. Great Zimbabwe might never have evolved if not for its origins in Mapungubwe!

If the story of Mapungubwe interests you, you might also be interested in posts I’ve written about other city-states centered atop hills across a range of times throughout history: