Tag Archives: Cape Town

Armchair conservationists

On the first day we saw dolphins.
About ten of them breaching behind the swell,
some way out from the surfers,
swimming across the bay at Port Elizabeth.

The hotel dog barked when we got to the gate,
then sat with us while we waited for the room
and scratched her tummy. The big dog of silence,
hulking moves, who ate grass and looked so sick
palpitating her whole body to make herself vomit.
She silently padded up to our verandah.
I was reading Oliver Sacks, up to the part where he says
he feels like ‘a single leather animal’
riding tandem on his motorcycle.

On the second day we saw a lone wilderbeest
left behind by, or staying behind, her group.
Alarmed by the sound of the engine and the five of us
in the vehicle, she pushed herself up
off the ground and limped a few paces away.
When the engine was turned off and she saw
we were still, she settled herself down again.
‘She won’t make the night’; ‘food for the lions,’
we concurred, all believers in a pecking order.
‘We do not intervene,’ our guide said, ‘because
there are too many of them.’

We saw impalas, zebras, two hippopotamuses and giraffes,
two lions, young brothers, lying about,
their bellies round. ‘They have fed,’ we were told.
One had a collar round its neck, ‘to track him
because he is injured – see his eye.
That will hinder his hunting.’

At dinner, kudu was on the menu
(‘not from the reserve, of course’)
and other bovines that you can eat in South Africa
but not where we’re from.
Trophy cow skins were laid on the floors of our lodge
and the restaurant.

On the morning of the third day, we drove
up to the top of the valley into
clouds of mist. Our heavy ponchos saturated
with the moisture in the air.
Looking for elephants, anything –
all we’d seen was a lone impala, twice,
who did not appear injured, just preferred his solitude.
I looked at you with a massive smile on your face,
excited at what we were seeing, alert to any movement,
eyes out for spotting animals we’d never seen
without a cage around them.

‘There, there!’ A group of white animals in the valley.
‘Sheep,’ said our guide, reminding us
of the electrified gates we drove through
separating the farms from the reserve.
Running away from us, we saw impalas,
a jackal, bushpigs and warthogs, monkeys
and an elephant, through binoculars, who looked
like a tree one shade of grey lighter
than the ones it was eating, from the distance.

The engine in low gear and the jeep juddering over rocks,
it felt like we were in the film Ettrick, where the camera crew
drive through the Scottish countryside, concretising
their tracks as they go. The digital image is formed
of pixels that the human eye cannot see on the screen;
Perconte magnifies this so we perceive
the landscape’s dissemblance into pixellation.
Sheep graze through a field that is knitted into wool,
eating their way through the hair off their backs:
the animal consuming itself.

ettrick-sheep

From Jacques Perconte’s Ettrick

A thread comes loose, is pulled across the screen.
The overlay on the image is continuously changing, perceptibly,
from top to bottom, side to side,
a scatter of pixels at a time.
From the sheep grazing on the hills,
industrial looms in a textile mill
punch and weave texture on the screen.
The final act: a bulldozer tearing down trees.
Tree-lopping for timber? Or tree-clearing for animal grazing?

It was time to see enclosed lions and a leopard
at the reserve’s conservation centre.
They had been rescued from circuses and cages around the world,
brought here, to this bigger enclosure, their ability to live
independently having been stolen from them,
along with everything else, when they were enslaved.
In the afternoon we saw a group of elephants,
a group of rhinoceroses, a cheetah, all up close,
ticking off the appropriate box in the species checklist.

On the fourth day we stopped the jeep in the road.
All around us was the crackle of elephants,
pulling branches off trees. One mother walking
across the road changed her direction
and came towards us, eyeing us out of her
right eye, lifting her trunk up to smell us
as she passed. We also saw:
a group of buffalo, a group of zebra,
lots of impalas, ostriches, a hippopotamus,
and other animals that choose not to be near us.

As we drove out of the game reserve in our Datsun
we did not see the lions on the road that had been there
on the way back from our last safari drive.
We saw baboons on the Garden Route
(‘baboons are dangerous animals’).
At your aunty’s house we met many dogs and saw
guineafowl and ibises going about the suburbs.
On the beach, jellyfish
had been washed up on the shore,
a giant specimen looking like
a brain encased in jelly. We peered at it up close.

On the fifth day we saw owls, birds of prey,
peacocks with their feathers out, bright orange ibises,
cockatoos that had formerly been pets
and had plucked all their feathers out.
Monkeys, guinea pigs, chickens, pigeons, macaus
and a bat-eared fox (‘all the better to hear you with’).
Any indignance at seeing the honey badger
running round and round and round
in the stereotypical behaviour of caged animals
is quelled by the sign criticising armchair conservationists.
We thought of taking a photo to send
to our safari guide, who had not yet seen
a honey badger in the wild; but this
was no valediction.

On the sixth day we saw a dead rat
by the kerb of the road along the beach,
near a drain, its body mostly intact
but with blood on its face.

On the second-last day we saw a snake,
probably a mole, being pestered
by little birds in the botanic gardens.
It snaked over to the other side of the path
and we gaped at it a safe distance away.
On our way back along the coast
you were driving but managed to discern
out of the choppy waters the tail flop
of whales, many of them.
Without binoculars it was hard to see
but we stayed a long time, while the Israeli
tourists came and went (‘haval a ha zman’);
we almost left twice but then saw the whales
rise out of the water again.

At lunch we sat next to the table of a white man
who’d had his black maid walk his dog
to the restaurant for him. We asked the waiter
to get the dog some water, struggling in the heat
or struggling with an owner who was not listening.
Once back at the hotel we heard the howls,
pained cries of a dog hit by a car on the beach road.
She was curled into the curb but got herself up,
limping, and lunged at the approach of another dog.
A passerby and the driver of the car
lifted the dog in the car and drove away.
Our hotel concierge said she would have been
taken to a vet; ‘people love dogs here’.

Back home, I sprinkle cayenne pepper around the ant mounds.
They are excavating our limestone steps
to make their homes. Next, mint leaves, lemon juice,
then vinegar. Last resort: cinnamon tea
but all that does is stain the stone.
I put the harness and leash on our dog
and we go for a walk.

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