Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “nature”

Eclipse

This morning there was an eclipse of the moon, so we went outside early to have a look at it.

Lunar eclipse 28 Sep 2015, about 3:15 amEclipse1

Lunar eclipse 28 Sep 2015, about 3:15 am

And again a bit later when the moon was fully in the earth’s shadow:

Lunar eclipse 28 Sep 2015, about 4:45 am

Lunar eclipse 28 Sep 2015, about 4:45 am

I thought I might be able to get better pictures of it with a better camera and a tripod, but it’s rather difficult.

I checked in my diary to remind myself of other eclipses I had seen.

There was one on 15 June 2011 which seemed to last a long time. There was another on 4 May 2004, where I noted that there wasn’t much to see except that the moon was a bit dimmer and redder than usual.

On 4 December 2002 there was supposed to be an eclipse of the sun, but it was overcast, so we didn’t see much of it.

On 21 Jun 2001 there was a partial eclipse of the sun, the first of the 21st century and the Third Millennium. It was also notable for being on the winter solstice. On 9 January 2001 was the first lunar eclipse of the new century and millennium. We went outside to have a look, but there was a cricket match on TV, South  Africa vs Sri Lanka (South Africa won), and between overs they showed the progress of the eclipse, so there was a better view from inside.

On 16 September 1997 was the last lunar eclipse of the 20th century, but it was cloudy, so we didn’t see it.

On 6 August 1971 I was with some friends watching a film at the Windhoek drive-in. There was a double feature, and for the first one we sat in the back of the bakkie under the open sky. The film was an Italian Western called Kill or be killed, and the eclipse was more interesting to watch than the movie. For the second one, Carry on spying, we turned the bakkie around to face the screen and watched from inside, as it was getting colder.

The first eclipse of any kind that I recall seeing was a solar eclipse which we watched from my aunt’s beachfront flat in Sea Point, Cape Town, which had an uninterrupted view over the sea, and it was a very good place from which to watch an eclipse.

The earliest mention of an eclipse was from when I was still at school. The regular geography teacher was away overseas, and the headmaster, Wally Mears, stood in for him. He wanted to inspect our books. In Robert Mercer-Tod’s book he found a picture of a half-undressed dancing girl, and held it up for us all to see, and asked Tod, “Is this an eclipse?” and then burst out laughing, and so did we all, for about five minutes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Influx control is for the birds

Back in the bad old days of apartheid we had a system of “influx control”. The aim was to prevent urbanisation, or at least to preserve it for white people. Black people were forced to live in rural areas, and were allowed in the cities only on sufference, as long as they could provide useful labour for whites.

By 1990 the system was beginning to disintegrate, and more and more people flocked to the cities. But birds also flocked to the cities.

Two species in particular, which had previously mainly been seen in rural areas, started showing themselves in the cities in increasing numbers in the 1990s. They were hadedas and crowned plovers.

From being quite rare sights, that would get bird watchers twitching, they became extremely common.

I suspect that one of the things responsible for the increase in the urban, or, more specifically the suburban population of hadedas was the ubiquity of pet food in the form of pellets. We used to put out such food for our dogs, and the hadedas would pounce on it. Then, on the advice of the vet, we measured out an exact quantity of food for the dogs, and fed them twice a day. The result was that there was no food left for the hadedas.

But that didn’t faze them. They started right in on the crickets in the lawn, which was probably better for them, and certainly better for the lawn. The raucaus cawing of hadedas replaced the chirping of crickets. It stopped the lawn being full of bare patches.

In the 1980s one also used to hear horror stories from Johannesburg housewives about the “Parktown prawn”. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in the flesh, or rather in the chitin, but apparently they are a large kind of cricket, or grasshopper or locust that gives housewives the screaming abdabs. But since the influx of hadedas, I have heard very little of Parktown prawns.

All this — influx control, Parktown prawns, and the rest, was satirised in the science fiction film District 9.

But I’ve noticed a change.

I can hear crickets again at night.

From seeing and hearing at least a dozen hadedas every day, we now only see one or two a week.

Blacksmith plover

Blacksmith plover

And this week there was a new visitor to our garden, one that I had not seen before – a blacksmith plover, or bontkiewietjie, as they call it in Afrikaans. It’s about the same size as the crowned plover, but has different colouring. One plover does not make a summer, but I wonder if we’ll see more of them this summer.

And, now that I come to think of it, I haven’t seen any swallows yet, even though the northern hemisphere seems to be having an early winter.

In some ways we will be glad to see fewer hadedas. For the past several years they have built theit nests in our mulberry tree, under which we park the cars. You wash the car, and within a couple of hours it’s covered in hadeda crap. But they don’t seem to have built a nest there this year.

Plovers don’t build nest in trees, they just scrape a place in the ground. But in an urban environment that isn’t really safe for the children of ground-nesting birds. Urban environments tend not to be safe, for human children, plover children , or prawn children.

And now an assassin bug has just flown in the window and landed on my computer, and is crawling across the keys towards me. Excuse me while I go and get some bug spray.

 

 

Fire and water

Nature is amazing.

Last week water began running down the gutters on both sides of the road that runs past our house. It sometimes does that after heavy rain, but this is winter, and we live in a summer rainfall area with dry winters. There’s been no rain for at least two months.

Was it a broken water main? I went up the road to have a look, and there was no sign of such a thing. The water was coming across the road all along, from the empty veld by the railway line across the road from us. Why would it come when there has been to rain? What would cause the water table to rise so that that dry veld would turn into a swamp?

The entrance to the vacant land beside the railway line -- water in the dry season

The entrance to the vacant land beside the railway line — water in the dry season

Then we recalled that a couple of weeks ago there had been a fire over the road. Every winter there’s a fire there, and some of the grass is burnt. But this time it was nearly all burnt. Between our house and the railway line was not a blade of grass, just black stubble. With no grass to suck up the water and transpire it into the air, the water rose to the surface, flowed under the concrete fence and out into the street where it ran down the gutters.

That's our house with the red roof, seen from the railway embankment, with nothing in between but blackened burnt grass/

That’s our house with the red roof, seen from the railway embankment, with nothing in between but blackened burnt grass.

It’s hard to think that the dry grass that was there before the fire sucked up so much water. It is brown and dry and brittle. Yet somehow cattle eat such grass and thrive. It gives them both food and moisture.

Burnt, dry and dead. With grass gone, the water flows

Burnt, dry and dead. With grass gone, the water flows

A little way off was a clump of trees. They too are dry and leafless, winter-brown. But somehow the fire has not penetrated the trees, and there is a clump of aloes where the fire stopped.

A clump of aloes hides a ruined habitation, a relic of a troubled past

A clump of aloes hides a ruined habitation, a relic of a troubled past

But when you go to the aloes, you see that they hide a heap of stones. And beyond it there are more heaps of stones. And then I realise that these are houses. Perhaps this is an archaeological site. Who lived here, and when?

And then I realise that this is a relic of the ethnic cleansing that took place under apartheid. Kilner Park, the suburb where we live, used to belong to the Methodist Church, as did the neighbouring suburb of Queenswood. Across the railwayline to the south-east is Weavind Park — all named after luminaries of the Methodist Church. On the hill was the Kilnerton Institution, where many black South African leaders were educated. But it was too close to white Pretoria, so the black people had to go, and all that remains are these piles of stones.

And now the suburban trains of MetroRail run past here. There is no station, nothing to stop for. They are going to Mamelodi, 15 kilometres to the east, far enough from white Pretoria for the black people to live.

The trains rush past, taking commuters to Mamelodi, farther east.

The trains rush past, taking commuters to Mamelodi, farther east.

I marvel at the interaction of fire and water. The old elements of the ancient Greek philosophers, earth, air, fire and water. The fire comes, and brings the water. Modern chemists will say that these are not real elements, not the chemical elements of the universe. But they are the elements of human life, of the human world. We need them all to live. In three weeks time spring will begin. Green shoots will appear in the grass, the trees will sprout leaves. The water table will recede again until the rains come in October, and the fire of the sun will enable the grass to suck up the water from the earth, and the life of the world goes on.

 

In the Etosha National Park 15-17 May 2013

We spent a couple of days at the Etosha National Park on the way north to Ovamboland. We drove north from the Sasa Safari Lodge through Outjo, with many of the tall north-leaning anthills found in this part of Namibia, with lots of mopane trees. In one place the trees had been cleared, and it looked as though someone was farming anthills, as they seemed to be planted in neat rows. There was also a sign of the changing landscape and a changing world – telephone poles stretching into the distance with not a wire left on them, as cell phones take over the world.

The changing landscape -- a disgth that will soon disappear -- landline telephone poles

Documenting the changing landscape — a sight that will soon disappear — landline telephone poles in northern Namibia

On the way our little Toyota Yaris reached the 200000 km mark, and we stopped to take photos of it on the endless flat road.

Our little Toyota Yaris passed the 200000 km mark between Outjo and the Etosha National Park

Our little Toyota Yaris passed the 200000 km mark between Outjo and the Etosha National Park

We entered the Etosha National Park at the Anderson or Andersson Gate (the spelling varies on maps), and I wondered if it had been named after C.J. Anderson, the Swedish naturalist and trader in these parts, who was a friend and partner of Fred Green, Val’s Great great grandfather, the elephant hunter. Most of what we know of Fred Green’s life comes from Andersson’s letters and diaries.

We stayed at the Halali resort, the middle of three on the southern “shore” of the pan, with Okaukuejo about 75 km to the west, and Namutoni about 75 km to the east. One has to book well in advance, and when we booked the only accommodation available was a “family chalet”, at the highest point in the camp, so we had a good view and a choice of two bedrooms.

Our "family chalet" at Halali camp in the Etosha National Park, Namibia

Our “family chalet” at Halali camp in the Etosha National Park, Namibia

It had been a dry year, and so the animals tended to congregate in great numbers at waterholes that were fed by boreholes, and the one that seemed to have most of the animals most of the time was Nebrownii, about 10 km east of Okaukuejo. There were always large herds of zebras, springbok, and gemsbok drinking there. drink. It was interesting to see how they all walked sedately and orderly in single file. The first time we went there a young zebra foal was amusing itself by running around and chasing the springbok, looking like a sheepdog herding sheep, though less purposefully.

Springbok, gemsbok and zebra at Nebrownii waterhold near Okaukuejo, Etosha National Park

Springbok, gemsbok and zebra at Nebrownii waterhole near Okaukuejo, Etosha National Park

At the Rietfontien waterhole near Halali we saw a rhino, the only one we saw in our time at Etosha, It was a white rhino. When I lived in Namibia 40 years ago there were no white rhino in the country. They were then an endangered species, with a couple of small hers in Natal. Brack rhino, on the other hand, were plentiful in northern Namibia. A huge effort by the Natal Parks Board saved the white rhinos, and exported them all over the continent, and then black rhino became an endangerted species. Now both are endangered species, as poachers kill them indiscrtiminately because some people in Asia believe (falsely) that rhino horn is an aphrodisac, and are prepared to pay huge prices for powdered rhino horn when they could achieve exactly the same result by chewing their own fingernails. As Val said,m it is sad that the white rhinos have had toi be saved from extinction twice in one’s lifetime.

White rhino at Rietfontein waterhole near Halali in the Etosha National Park

White rhino at Rietfontein waterhole near Halali in the Etosha National Park

On Wednesday morning (16 May), we spent the whole day driving around the south-western end of the Etosha Pan, which is about 50 km from north to south, and 100 km from east to west.

Etosha Pan looking north-west from Salvadora

Etosha Pan looking north-west from Salvadora

As we approached Nebrownii from Halali, there were some vehicles stopped on a culvert on the main road a little way from the waterhole, where there were also several elephants. Some were white from having sprayed sand over themselves. Someone said that there were lions at the culvert, and indeed at one point they ran out, and then went back under the culvert. We went on to the waterhole, and the elephants moved away, some black and some white, from the dust they had sprayed over themselves. The springbok at the waterhole were obviously aware of the lions, and kept glancing nervously in the direction of the culvert, and we wondered if the lions would rush out and try to grab one of them, but they did not.

Black and white elephants

Black and white elephants

When the elephants had gone we went back to the culvert where we had seen the lions, but they were well-hidden under the road. Then a bus came, stopped over the culvert and revved its engine, and the lions came bounding out to see what was going on. The bus moved on, and the lions went back under the culvert, but we got a couple of photos of them. It made the advice to stay in one’s car all the more impressive — it would be quite easy to stop and get out there, thinking that there were no animals around, while in fact there could be a whole pride of lions under one’s feet, and they could come bounding out with amazing speed.

Lions emerging from a culvert near Nebrownii waterhole in the Etosha National Park

Lions emerging from a culvert near Nebrownii waterhole in the Etosha National Park

We went on to Okondeka, on the western side of the pan north of Oklaukuejo, and there was a pied crow perched on the stone marking the spot, and a couple of giraffes drinking, rather far off, with the pan shimmering in the background. The Namibian giraffes seem to be darker in colour than the South African ones.

Pied crow

Pied crow

At the restaurant at Halali mosr of the tables were on a covered veranda, and a couple of glossy starlings would perch in the rafters watching to see when people left a table. Then they would call, and flocks of starlings would appear from nowhere, steaching for leftover crumbs before the waitress cleared the table. On one occasion a couple of people left half-eaten muffins on the table, and went inside to get coffee, and the starlings came to grab the muffins, but a waitress appeared and shooed them away.

Starlings grab food from unwary diners at Halali camp

Starlings grab food from unwary diners at Halali camp

We passed a herd of red hartebeest on the way back to Halali.

Red hartebeest (tsessebe). When your face is butt-ugly, you turn your best side to the camera

Red hartebeest (tsessebe). When your face is butt-ugly, you turn your best side to the camera

On our last day in the Etosha National Park we had breakfast and left Halali at 6:34 am, and went to a viewpoint out on the pan, which was reminiscent of crossing the causeway to Holy Island, at Lindisfarne on the Northumbrian coast. Once out on the pan, however, one became completely disoriented, and the horizion, which must have been 30-40 kilometres away seemed no more than a couple of hundred metres away, up a steep hill, and it looked as if one was at the bottom of a conical depression, because there was nothing to establish perspective or distance, so the horizon looked quite close.

This picture can give a small idea of the illusion of the pan -- if you scan the hotizon from lkeft to right, the horizon appears to come closer, and the flat surface looks like a sloping dune. The effect is much more pronounced when you are out on the pan

This picture can give a small idea of the illusion of the pan — if you scan the horizon from left to right, the horizon appears to come closer, and the flat surface looks like a sloping dune. The effect is much more pronounced when you are out on the pan

In some of the photos we had taken with the pan as a background it looked like a wall. Looking back to the shore there would be a line of green vegetation, but looking north, towards the opposite shore, was completely disorienting. We drove on towards Namutoni, and as we approached it began to see anthills again. We had not seen any since entering the park at the Anderson Gate, and there were none around Halali or Okaukueyo.

Gemsbok in the Etosha National Park

Gemsbok in the Etosha National Park

This is part of a series of posts on our journey through Namibia and Botswana in May 2013. You can read the previous post in the series here.

From Etosha we went on to Ovamboland, Namibia 17-20 May 2013, with flashbacks to the 1970s | Khanya

Considering ants

I’ve been getting a bit annoyed with ants lately. They’re all over our kitchen, and I’ve been applying various ant deterrents to try to chase them away.

But I noticed this lot carrying a piece of grated cheese across the kitchen counter, and tried to get a photo of them. The autofocus didn’t work too well at that distance, but I think you get the idea. Having carried the cheese grating across the horizontal surface, they were now proposing to get it up the vertical tiles, through the crack in the window, and outside. Ambitious, I would say.

Ants carrying grated cheese, and working out how to get it up the wall

Ants carrying grated cheese, and working out how to get it up the wall

The white stuff in the left of the picture is a special kind of chalk that is supposed to be an insect deterrent. The ants were undeterred.

And for ants, that piece of cheese must have looked like the stones the ancient Egyptians used to build the pyramids.

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