Like Roald Dahl’s BFG, the extraordinary aardvark has amazing hearing, capable of picking up even the “chittering and scuddling” of the ants beneath the soil.
The ears of Given Mbetse, 23, are not quite so other-worldly but for a paltry human still pretty cutting-edge. Sometimes on patrol in the dead of night in the Karoo bush, Bouerskop silhouetted against a crescendo of stars, he stops his bicycle and flicks off his spotlight and just listens. And then he hears it: the tell-tale sound of the aardvark’s claws clicking along the hard surface of the gravel road.
Jan is employed on Samara Game Reserve near Graaff-Reinet as a dedicated aardvark tracker, perhaps the only one of his kind in the world. In a lifetime of visiting wild places I had never seen this mysterious creature so when I heard they were being regularly spotted at Samara I knew we had to get there.
They had obviously heard we were coming because on our way in, after we had turned onto the gravel, sure enough – we got stuck in an aardvark hole. Swerving to avoid one on the right, I drifted into one on the left and my boys had to get out and lift at the back while I revved us free.
Aardvark are nocturnal because they’re not fond of the heat of the day but with the cooler temperatures through the winter at Samara they were being spotted even after sunrise. We were now well into spring but we set off on our first game drive the afternoon we got there with ranger Jan Dunn, hoping for the best.
On top of Bouershoek in the warm evening air, we spotted a grey-winged francolin, not far from the vehicle but beautifully camouflaged in the grass in its mosaic cloak of grey-brown feathers. Winding slowly across the plateau past the little white-trunked shepherd trees (so named for the good shade they have offered to sheep herders through the centuries and their nutritious leaves which can be made into porridge), Jan pointed out the disheveled nests of the white-browed sparrow weaver (which didn’t graduate from weaver school).
A herd of Cape mountain zebra watched us then wheeled and galloped away, kicking up puffs of dust, before stopping to stare again. On the brow of a rise a phalanx of scimitar-horned gemsbok assembled against the setting sun.
We descended again through Wolwekloof, the sky on fire ahead and behind a “ghost moon” rising through a gauze of cloud.
The next morning was our first real chance of seeing an aardvark and I was up well before dawn to chivvy the boys and get us into Jan’s vehicle. Quarter of an hour into the drive we drew up to a water hole and a flock of blue cranes, which had obviously been drinking and foraging for frogs, exploded from behind the embankment and flew past us, their wings rimmed by the rising sun, making their strange rattling-purring call.
Still no aardvark so, back at Karoo Lodge, I found a corner on the magnificent veranda and delved into AN Smithers’s Mammals of the Southern African Region from which I learned that aardvark are widely distributed across Sub-Saharan Africa but little is known about them.
Covering up to 30km a night, they use their powerful legs and claws to dig up nests of ants and termites and their long sticky tongues to slurp up the insects while their thick skin allows them to withstand the retaliation of the soldier ants. Farmers are typically not fond of them because of the damage their burrows can cause to vehicles, machinery and dam walls.
From Smithers I turned to Taffy and David Shearing’s account of the Boer War battle of Paardefontein on the top of Bouershoek, that Jan had told us about. Pursued by British Lt-Col Harry Scobell, Boer leader Johannes Lotter led 26 exhausted men onto Bouershoek where they holed up in outhouses on the farm Paardefontein.
Scobell and his troops attacked them there on September 5 1901, killing 13 Boers, who were subsequently buried nearby in the hamlet of Petersburg (which is today the private reserve Asante Sana). All but one were captured and Lotter and his leaders were executed and buried in Middelburg. Today among the ruins of Paardefontein you can still see corrugated iron sheeting riddled with bullet holes.
The one man who escaped was Daantjie Jonker, an “agterryer” or black servant to the commando who, as the Shearings write, “concealed himself in an aardvark hole”.
We weren’t equipped to accompany Given at night but on our last day we walked with him through the morning dew and he showed us the aardvark’s spoor, round dung which, broken open, reveals bits of ant, and flies gathering at a fresh burrow.
A soft-spoken man with an easy-going demeanor, Given grew up in Justicia, a Shangaan village in Mpumalanga. Having graduated from the Tracker Academy, with training at Londolozi and Samara, he started working at Samara six months ago.
Aardvarks get most of their moisture from the ants and other insects they eat but Given says he has seen them drinking from puddles. He has also witnessed another little-known phenomenon where they lie “sun basking” outside their holes in the early morning. It’s a very quiet animal, its only vocalization a phfffft sound if he gets too close. It takes “two minutes” for it to dig one of its cavernous burrows (like the one that had just appeared in the hard-packed Samara staff carpark).
On our last night we went for a late game drive after dinner with Jan again and after we had given up all hope – suddenly, there it was: about 20m away, heavy-bodied with donkey ears, hunched back and a pig-like questing nose. A gentle character of myth and legend, it moved busily about in the wash of Jan’s s potlight, barely seeming to notice us.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,” it seemed to be muttering to itself, echoing Robert Frost’s poem. “But I have juicy ants to eat/ and miles to go before I sleep.”