Sunday, May 30, 2010

About owls and a farmer poet

This weekend we gave Table Mountain a break and left for the West Coast armed to the teeth against the expected cold weather: jerseys, all-weather jackets and a two-bar heater I smuggled into the back of the bakkie.
Fortunately the Pater of Noster blessed us with good weather in Paternoster. We had two days of blue skies and sunshine and at night the sea turned silver under the moon and splashed calmly onto the long beach in front of us.
But the story of today’s blog is about owls and a poet farmer. Sticking to the back roads from Velddrif to Hopefield and then to Darling, we noticed many wine barrels attached to the top of poles in fields. We wondered if they could be owls’ nests, but why so many? We stopped in front of a farmer’s gate and I convinced Jannie (who’s far more of a law-abiding citizen than me) that we should trespass 100m and check out a wine barrel. A small square hole had been cut out of the front and we stood there listening for chicks squeaking.
Silence. I picked up a pebble and threw it against the barrel. Silence. We walked back to the gate and then a small blue bakkie appeared on top of the hill. Soon it pulled up next to us and a young farmer with a beard, brown eyes and the shell of a small tortoise on a string around his neck, said: “Are you lost?” I noticed a canvas bag on the seat next to him and thought perhaps he was a farmer who drove around with a gun.
We explained that we were curious about the barrels on top of the poles. Yes, he said, they are indeed owls’ nests. He introduced himself as Johan “Planne” van Niekerk, a farmer from Darling.
He said because so much farmland has been cultivated, most barn owls (nonnetjies, as he called them in Afrikaans) have taken to the mountains, apart from those who have nested in barns.
With so few owls around there has been a plague of mice, who love the sandy soil. The mice became a big problem as they ate the wheat, sometimes clearing whole patches of land of wheat seed as it is sown. Then someone hit on the idea of putting up an owl’s nest, attracting more barn owls back to their original natural habitat.
“I’ve heard one nonnetjie can eat something like 25 mice an hour,” Planne said with a satisfied smile. “We have had some problems with bees or crows taking over the nests, but the farmers clean the nests out once a year,” Planne explained, then leaned towards the open window on the passenger side. “But why are you guys so far on the back roads? What do you do?”
I said I was a writer. Planne, still sitting in his bakkie, said: “A writer!” Then he became quite shy. “Actually, I write poetry. Ag man, I just write about the feelings I have sometimes about farming and so on.” Now even more shy, he opened the canvas bag (the one I thought had a gun in) and said, “I have my poems here”. He took out two notebooks and started paging through them. He had written in a neat long hand in blue ink, sometimes crossing out sections. The whole notebook was full of poetry.
“I’ll read some to you,” he said.
Then, with sheep grazing next to the road on this late Sunday afternoon, the farmer sat behind his steering wheel and read his poems. They were about the bitter aloes that flower like orange flames in a raw winter when everything else has gone wrong. About the way your horse’s sweat seeps onto your skin through your jeans’ seams when you are driving your sheep and cattle up to the winter pastures and how the dry road cracks under the horse’s feet.
And then about his love for a girl who had cancer and what he had seen in her eyes.
Then his cellphone - an iPhone - rang. We said goodbye and so did he.
Soon we got to Cape Town and Table Mountain sat there in the twilight, her outline silhouetted in the shape we love.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Sunday of delight

Something strange greeted us in the east when we woke up on Sunday morning. It was the sun. Almost unseen for the past two weeks, it made its re-appearance with a mad jumble of red and pink clouds streaked across the horizon. Every last shred of grey rain and cold was gone. It was a beautiful day.
We met Siegie and Wendy and their ridgeback Duma at Silvermine East. The fynbos exploded with birdsong. Sunbirds and sugarbirds dipped and flapped through the fresh air. Wendy said it was the mating season of the sunbirds. There certainly was excitement in the air as the orange breasted sunbirds with their bright round little bodies danced around the females.
Siegie and Wendy are training for Kilimanjaro, so we took the steepest route up, aiming for Steenberg Peak. The viewpoint up there also happens to be the perfect tea spot. From there we could see mist floating up in a straight line against the mountains in the distance. Clouds scattered high like white shards of an egg that had hatched the deep blue sky. The sun was on our backs and our bare arms. It was 16 May, almost the middle of winter. But the coast was not completely clear, so to speak. We could see fog rolling in from the ocean below us, like a duvet that had slipped off the bottom of the bed. We enjoyed the sun on our arms, knowing that in our packs we had weatherproof jackets and warm tops.
This walk is a walk. From Steenberg Peak the path gradually goes down into the valley and at Junction Pool you can casually walk slightly uphill again towards the Amphitheatre. Nellie’s Pool is along the way, a spot of silver water where there is always a frog or two that plop into the water as soon as they hear feet on the path.
Even the oxalis purpurea unfurled bright pink petals that became paler shades of pink as they opened. They sat in pink clumps all along the path, scatterlings of a spring to come.
We found one of Silvermine’s specialities, the endemic Erica urna-viridis. Just like the name says, its sticky flowers look like small green urns hanging upside down.
On this day of ambling, it was now time for lunch and we found a spot near the Amphitheatre. Here the air moved a little colder and we hid behind one of those rocks carved out by wind and rain.
Then we discovered someone had moved the Amphitheatre. Or rather, it wasn’t where I thought it was. But fortunately we had some level-headed leaders amongst us to keep us on the straight and narrow, or to be more accurate, the winding and narrow path.
Still the delights kept coming. A king protea appeared behind a rock, sitting there in its royal pink fullness, as if waiting for its subjects. On our wandering way down, a rooi Afrikaner dangled its head along the path, a tight bloom in reserve for the next burst of sunshine.
Suddenly there were clouds of flying ants in the air and swifts above us swerving and diving to catch them. Now the air was almost humid.
The last stretch of our ambling way took us over the river and below us we could hear the waterfall splashing down. After a long dry summer, the mountain was singing again with the songs of water.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Big game hunters

It is a Sunday morning with a new season’s crisp bite in the air, rain soaking the mountain. We jump out of bed and while everyone else in Cape Town pulls their duvets up higher, we pull on our waterproof boots and rain jackets. Time to hunt!
It’s one of the big pleasures of the ‘secret season’, when rain slowly turns the mountain and the slopes emerald green and the first streams of crystal white water splash down summer’s dry ravines.
Our prey is elusive, hiding under leaves and behind fallen tree trunks, blending in with the browns and dark greens of the forest. But we sniff them out, hunt them down and eat them as soon as we get home.
We are mushroom hunters.
There’s a feeling of competitiveness in the air as Jannie and I stop at the Tokai Arboretum. We check out other people walking up the path, watching carefully to see if they have bags or containers of any sort. These days more and more people are mushroom hunters and we don’t want to end up in the same patch of forest as them, staring them down over the stem of a mushroom.
It’s our first hunt of the winter. This is the best time. When the memory of summer is still on your brown skin and you don’t yet have that bleached and soggy feeling that comes after a long winter. We’re excited about the arrival of winter, the change in the air, the autumn blue sky when the sun breaks through, the golden leaves dropping from oak trees. We’ve ordered our first bakkie load of wood and already our wood stove is blazing every evening.
When Heine and Martine arrive we trundle up the Elephant’s Eye path through the forest. Soon we’re spreading out, like detectives looking for clues in a BBC crime series. First we find pepper mushrooms. Not poisonous, just not edible. Many useless pepper mushrooms, but lovely like a Victorian girl with their red blush on porcelain white skins.
Then Martine has a hit: “Isn’t this a pine ring?” We break it off and there is the orange ring in the stem, making pine rings the easiest mushrooms to hunt. A dead cert. Now that we’ve found one, we find more and more, in clumps, in clusters, on their own. We cut them off at the stem, hoping to make sure that next year there’ll be more.
The big prize in the forest is a cep (bolitis) mushroom. Far more scarce and much bigger than pine rings.
Suddenly Heine is diving towards a mother of a mushroom standing proudly on its own on the forest floor of pine needles. It’s a beautiful, perfect cep. Brand new, uneaten by insects, not yet soggy from the rain. This one must have been born in yesterday’s patch of sunshine. Ceps have a thick layer of sponge underneath them, also making it a dead cert once you know what it looks like. Everyone knows the story of old mushroom hunters and bold mushroom hunters, but no old, bold mushroom hunters. We are not old and we are not bold, so we’re taking no chances.
Tokai forest is a joy on this rainy, Sunday morning. We are ziplocked into our waterproof gear, walking up the forest roads, bags of mushrooms in our hands and the smell of new, wet earth in our nostrils. The rain wafts down between the trees in fine silverwhite sprays of water. The first streams are just starting to gurgle through the forest. A frog jumps into the water.
It’s teatime. We sit on wet moss covered rocks and drink our sweet spicy chai from a flask, dipping mother-in-law’s best rusks in the world.
Tree bark glows in the morning winter light, trees sway above us and the mat of pine needles is soft below our feet.
It’s winter. And winter is best, for now.