Discovering treasure in the wild

Guy Rogers

THE mist is rising from the Great Fish River Valley as we bump along in the early morning towards Salpeterskop.

It swells out the valley and creeps across this northeast part of the Mountain Zebra National Park, called Welbedacht. It crouches on the veld ahead of us, then pounces, engulfs.

Inside the shifting whiteness, we pass a massive kudu bull, standing warrior-proud, watching us watching it. Senior field guide Michael Paxton counts three spirals of horn, each spiral equating to about 18 months. The tips go white and growth slows as the buck reaches old age, he explains. This is an animal in its prime.

In the Namib, so I’ve read, when the fog rolls in from the Atlantic, the toktokkie beetle labours to the top of the highest dune. It pirouettes around to get the best alignment so the fog droplets collect on its back and run down striations into its mouth.

There are hundreds of species of toktokkie, including in the Karoo. Could it not be that in this section of the park, arid but blessed by regular mist, they might have evolved the same harvesting technique? In the bush, every revelation throws up another question, I find.

Parking at the foot of the 1514m koppie near a dry stone sheep kraal, remnant of a farm long ago incorporated into the park, we begin our ascent, guided by Paxton and student guide Terrence Dingela. Up and up through acacia Karoo, spikethorn, crossberry, gwarrie and a swatch of spekboom; over difficult loose stone then, near the summit, a thin necklace of prickly pear, sprouted from the seeds in the fruit carried up here for picnics by the recalcitrant baboons.

It takes us just over an hour to reach the top of Salpeterskop and the view, as the baboons know, is spectacular. The Redcoat lookout corps which once manned this rocky turret would have been able to spy the Boers coming from a long way off. If they weren’t too immersed in their chess, that is. The chessboard they used all those years ago is scratched into a slab of stone, rimmed today with jackleberry and rooigras, but still quite clear enough to see the squares and the names of the soldiers who were here. Among them is Cpl Hutchinson, 5th Lancashire Fusiliers. There is a force number and a date 15/03/02 – 1902, that is.

There are more corporals and privates, a Nisbet, a Penney and a Kidd. Also a Joe Keely, 4th KORL, which is King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment. Over 200 soldiers of the KORL died at Spionkop. Had Keely come through that battle, I wonder?

The park’s preliminary research has turned up a wonderful story. The soldiers used their army issue mirror – which was supposed to be used for transmitting official signals – to communicate their chess moves.

They played against their fellow lookouts on nearby Middelkop and Spekboomkop and their comrades in the Cradock fort. The story goes that a certain farmer picked up on all this signalling and took them on as well from the stoep of his farmhouse.

On the way down Salpeterskop – we ran into a rhino. Well, the image of a rhino, etched onto the flat sunbaked and blackened face of a dolerite boulder.

There are a number of examples of Bushman rock art in the Mountain Zebra National Park but this is the latest discovery – and the first time it is being shown to the press.

And there is something extra special here. Paxton, who found it, points out the prominent grazer’s hump, distinctive of a white rhino. But this world about us is established black rhino territory. The terrain and settler journal accounts alike point to that. A white rhino, here, is an alien.

Yet, it is possible the sighting of the animal which inspired this etching goes back to an earlier period, suggests Paxton. And how do we know if another weather cycle and vegetation mix were not prevailing then prompting, possibly, an influx of animals, which later moved on.

Unless the artist, member of a nomadic people, after all, at some point travelled north of the Orange River, and returned with this vision?

So once again a myriad questions which, with further research, will be answered … prompting more.

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