Tag Archives: nature

A little Arctic Adventure

Sitting on the Inlandsbanan somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Swedish Lapland and heading south, I am saving my legs a good thousand kilometers of riding through forest and wilderness. A pity perhaps, but sometimes time, although elastic, is of the essence and choices have to be made.

Inlandsbanan in Gällivare

Crossing the Arctic Circle

But let me start at the beginning – of which I’m not exactly sure where to find it. Where did the idea come from to start the northern section of my European bicycle adventure in Tromsø, the so-called Paris of the north? I think it had to do with a book, as usual. In this case, if I remember correctly, it was one of Judith Herrmann’s short stories that was set in Tromsø in “Nichts als Gespenster” or “Nothing but Ghosts”.


And, I wanted to start at a place north of the arctic circle, from where i had access to the islands of northern Norway, and from where i could reach Kiruna. Because that original plan of riding from Kiruna to Cadiz was still bouncing around in my head.

So at the beginning of August I found myself on a plane from tropical Berlin via cool Oslo to chilly Tromsø – and immediately liked it. I loved exploring the town for a day, finding the treasure trove the Perspectivet Photographic museum is and dodging hordes of German, Dutch and Swiss tourists released from the Hurtigruten Cruiseship. The following day I set off. Around Tromsø island, over the first one of those impressive bridges that link a lot of the northern Norwegian islands, across to Kvaloya. Called it a day early when I came across a most pleasant place to stay, where I was treated to some local Norwegian wisdom and hospitality. And the waffles were just delicious!


An early departure the next morning lead to an hour of heavenly cycling. The sun was out, no cars in sight, just some arctic vegetation, chirpy birds and spectacular views.


Onto the ferry to Senja, which now has become one of my favourite cycling destinations. It just doesn’t get much better. A different, more spectacular view around each corner, blue skies, white beaches, arctic ocean, high cliffs and impressive mountains.


And then, of course, there were the tunnels. Oh my word, the tunnels. Although i was equipped with lights and a reflective vest, although there was a button to push at the entrance, which then would alert drivers to a ‘cyclist in the tunnel’, and although the traffic was minimal and mostly very respectful, i felt my body tense every time I had to enter one of the dark mouths in the mountainside. Some were narrow, others dark and the worst went uphill for two kilometres at 8%! But they say it’s good to face your demons and challenge yourself at times…

Tunnel vision

The reward – a sunny evening in picturesque Gryllefjord.


Thank you Senja!

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Encounters #4 Gary Grasshopper

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Gary Grasshopper or Luke the Locust?

May I introduce you to Gary Grasshopper. This elegant individual belongs to the Acrididae, and there are 356 different species. Some of them are winged and others wingless, but all feed on grass and leaves and are active during the day.

Gary’s antennae have less than thirty segments and are thus relatively short; he belongs to the short-horned grasshoppers, which tend to live solitary lives.

A very close relative of Gary’s is Luke Locust: apparently specific types of short-horned grasshoppers can undergo a personality change and turn into locusts under certain environmental conditions. When population density gets too high and food sources have become scarce, these grasshoppers can experience an increased release of Serotonin in their brain, which causes them to change colour, shape and behaviour. In other words, Gary turns into Luke; grasshopper becomes locust. Suddenly they eat much more, breed more abundantly and instead of each going their separate way, they fall into line and start moving as one.

Locusts are gregarious and often millions of the same species gather together to form threatening, ravenous, often destructive swarms, feared since antiquity. Apparently, a single locust swarm can consist of up to 80 Million individuals, and each one of those can eat its own body weight in plant matter each and every day. They can cover vast distances, cross oceans and deserts, and one particular swarm has been able to reach Great Britain from Northwest Africa in 1954, while another flew from West Africa to the Caribbean. But locusts don’t only eat, they are also eaten; in many cultures they have served as food throughout history and are valued as a protein-rich snack.

After our encounter gorgeous Gary went on wandering his own solitary path. Could he one day turn into Luke Locust?

 

 

 

 

 

Encounters # 3 Bubo, the Cape Eagle Owl

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I met Bubo (Bubo Capensis) during an evening stroll and was happy when I realized he wasn’t scared of me. He didn’t even seem to think of flying away. He sat on his branch, orange eyes taking me in, as well as his surroundings, while the wind was playing in his ear tufts.  He looked straight through me, as if he just knew.

Watching him for a while made me realize (again!) that it is no surprise  that people of all – or at least most – cultures have always been captivated by owls:

Symbol of wisdom for the ancient Greek, wizard’s mate in parts of Africa, harbinger of death in certain areas of the Americas and messenger of the gods and divine ancestors in Asia; ‘Owl’ is Winnie the Pooh’s wise friend, ‘Hedwig’ Harry Potter’s trusted companion, and ‘I heard the Owl call my Name’ by Margaret Craven was a New York Times bestseller.

Cape Eagle Owls are monogamous, call in duet and sometimes like sunbathing in the early morning. They eat mostly small mammals, including bats, but also small lizards, insects and crabs. Like many other species of owl, they are able to fly in effective silence, their unique wing and feather design suppressing all sound that lies within the range humans, and apparently most of their prey, can hear. Recently, scientists have been researching the owl’s flight mechanisms and wing design to improve human-made aerodynamic design.

 

A wise old owl sat in an oak,

The more he heard the less he spoke

The less he spoke the more he heard

Why aren’t we all like that wise old bird?

 

Ever since writing “Healing Rhinos and Other Souls”, I’ve been fascinated by owls. Many a night they accompanied my late writing sessions with their calls, some near, some in the distance. And to this day they remind me of Walter, who always maintained that he could chat to them.

Walter had a special relationship with owls all his life, and the night after he died, the eagle owl in the terminalia tree outside his house in Vaalwater called incessantly, until the early hours of the next morning.” Healing Rhinos and Other Souls, p298

Thank you!

 

Encounters #2 – Jiminy Cricket

When out and about, adventuring, experimenting, traveling or simply walking, I’m often amazed at the sheer variety and beauty of what I encounter along the way. At the same time I feel humbled, because I realize how little I know. So:

“Open your eyes, take note, read up – and learn something new.”

Randomly, random facts, at random times.

jiminy-cricket-1

Jiminy also goes by the name of Koringkriek, Corncricket, or South African Armoured Katydid. This fascinating, fat and flightless fellow’s proper name is Hetrodes pupus, and he grows up to five centimetres in length. He lives along the escarpment regions of the Northern, Western and Eastern Cape Provinces in South Africa, where he particularly enjoys the succulent Karoo and Fynbos biomes. He doesn’t cross the Orange River, but his cousin Acanthoplus lives further to the north where he eats millet and sorghum and is eaten by chicken and sometimes their owners. In general, Koringkrieks eat everything and anything, but preferably plants, insects and occasionally bird nestlings.

Jiminy’s body armour of vicious looking spikes and thorns serves as his outer level of self-defence, making it more difficult for birds and lizards to swallow him. Should that not be sufficient, he can autohaemorrhage, in other words spray a portion of haemolymph at his attacker, with a reach of up to six centimetres.

But beware Jiminy Cricket! – After this so-called ‘reflexive bleeding’ a meticulous cleaning of the body is required, in order to avoid attacks by his mates. Particularly when times are tough and their diet is lacking protein and salt, Koringkrieks tend to become cannibals!

 

 

 

Encounters

“I didn’t really lead an exceptional life. I mean, I didn’t invent the light bulb, nor was I ever an explorer and discovered exciting new places, nothing like that – which is what people normally write about.

But maybe there is a theme to my life. My love for nature. I suppose that’s a recurring theme that goes right through, from the early days at Juchow until today. Yes, I suppose you could write about that…”

Walter Eschenburg, May 2009, while recording his memories for “Healing Rhinos and Other Souls”

Perhaps a manifestations of this love for nature was, that Walter enjoyed taking pictures of “All Creatures Great and Small” (Thank you, James Herriot!) he encountered while doing his daily rounds.

For some reason, this habit resonated with me, and stuck. More and more often I find myself taking pictures of ‘encounters’ along the road…

like this leopard tortoise a few days ago

tortoise

Review of “Healing Rhinos…” for the Waterberg Nature Conservancy Newsletter

Richard Wadley has been so kind to include “Healing Rhinos and Other Souls” into the Books section of the Waterberg Nature Conservancy’s website. To have a look, please click here. He has also written a fabulous review for the Waterberg Nature Conservancy’s Newsletter January 2014. For the newsletter, please click here.

Thank you Richard!

Book Review 

Book Title

Healing Rhinos and Other Souls: the Extraordinary Fortunes of a Bushveld Vet,

by Stephanie Rohrbach. Privately published. www.peppertreechronicles.com

Whenever anecdotes about vets are mentioned, people of a certain age are bound to be reminded of the innumerable stories of Alf Wright – alias James Herriot – the author of over 20 books (beginning with “If Only They Could Talk”, in 1970) about sick animals, sick owners and their treatment in the Yorkshire Dales. Personally, I found many of those stories rather contrived, especially after the first couple of volumes, and soon stopped reading them.

Now at last comes a book about the experiences of a vet that not only seem very real, but which are also about the area in which we live – the Waterberg. Healing Rhinos (the title aside), is the wonderful story of the life of a beloved and highly competent, if occasionally unorthodox vet many of us living in and around the Waterberg were fortunate to have known: the late Dr Walter Eschenburg.

Walter was and still is regarded as having been one of those truly exceptional vets, who had an innate empathy for animals big and small, wild or domesticated; who (with few exceptions) almost immediately developed a reassuring communication with them; and who would apply his considerable intellect and veterinary skill to finding solutions to their maladies, using whatever equipment and material he had at his disposal.

But Walter was not only a fine vet. He was a remarkable person too. He loved people (including his delightful wife Topsy and their family), nature, the environment, humour, conversation, problem solving, teaching, story telling – and good food. In some respects, he was too good for his own good, too modest, too self-effacing, and there were those who took advantage of these attributes, failing to pay him for his services.

Stephanie Rohrbach, a qualified vet herself, German-speaking like Walter and an old family friend, set out years ago to capture Walter’s history and his often outrageous, even unlikely, but always amusing stories. Walter knew that his experiences needed to be recorded for posterity and co-operated willingly with Stephanie’s project. The result is this new book, published, sadly, four years after Walter’s premature and unexpected passing.

The content is a blend of first and third person memoirs, cleverly compiled, with an easy flow, if a little repetitive in places. While acknowledging the subject’s few shortcomings, like his difficulty with financial administration and his inability to drive slowly, the book is unashamedly a eulogy to a dear friend.  As the author notes in her foreword, “This is not a work of fiction, nor is it, strictly speaking, a biography. It is a life-story, a memoir, and a collection of anecdotes. It is a story told by many voices, a picture painted with words. It is my picture of Walter”.

It commences with Walter’s childhood, when in 1939, his family unfortunately chose to visit Germany from South Africa for a family reunion – and ended up having to remain there until the end of World War Two. This section offers a fascinating perspective of the conflict through the memories of a child; and his travails provide a glimpse of the strength of character of the man he was to become.

After the family’s safe return to SA, the book moves on to describe Walter’s affinity for animals on his father’s farm on the Highveld, leading to his decision to study veterinary science and to go into private practice. Along the way, he had the great good fortune – he was always saying how fortune smiled on him – to meet and marry Topsy Graham, a beautiful young farmer’s daughter and agricultural college graduate.

Off went the young couple to their first practice, in Potgietersrus (now Mokopane). And then the stories really began: wild Brahman bulls, reprobate buffalo, lucky escapes, inquisitive elephant, failed tranquiliser darts, cows in calf, a confused circus lion – and another that disappeared, escapades in a succession of clapped-out vehicles, unusual house guests, hungry (and other) snakes, ingenious improvisations and more, tumbling off the pages in rapid succession: the best fireside tales ever. Get a life, James Herriot!

The book’s title is misleading: although there are a couple of stories about rhino, there are so many other fascinating and arguably more rewarding tales told in this absorbing, engaging volume it is a pity the author chose the over-used rhino theme to brand her work. Many indeed were the souls – reptilian, avian and mammalian (including human) – that were bolstered, saved or redeemed during the course of this wonderful gentleman’s career and life, aided and abetted by Topsy and his able assistants Paraffin, Flying Machine and George, as they moved first to Naboomspruit (Mookgophong) and later, to Vaalwater.

We can be grateful for the memorable colourful thread Walter Eschenburg wove through the Waterberg tapestry. And we must thank Ms Rohrbach for having brought so many of his entertaining anecdotes together to paint an accurate portrait of his character, for the enjoyment of all of us who love the world he loved.

Richard Wadley