Monday, 14 December 2015

A near-death experience a day during the Baviaans Buttonquail survey

There can be very few things as frightening as realising that the car you've just been driving is on fire. Maybe there are, but I sure was not thinking about them as I saw the smoke and flashes of orange flame billow from beneath my Suzuki Jimny. I'd just gotten out to close a gate to a section of the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve, where I'd been retrieving camera traps placed a few months earlier.

Run away before the car explodes or attempt to put it out? I had to act fast – I had a 5 litre water bottle easily accessible as part of camping equipment for the weekend's expedition, which I grabbed, I then had to slide myself under the car to the source of the flames and then squish the bottle to splash water onto the fire. Having extinguished the flames I then had to pull the smouldering grass and seeds that were the source of the blaze from out of the bump plate I'd had installed the previous week to protect the 4x4 engage equipment.

“Fit a bump plate and you'll have no more problems” had been the dealer's last words. So now I don't have to fear about breaking the 4x4, but I do have to live in perpetual fear of being blown up instead. Not sure I like the trade-off. Basically, the 6km off road drive I'd had to do to retrieve the cameras had packed dry plant material over the bump plate, which had then been set alight by the heat of the exhaust. Very luckily, I'd probably caught the fire just as it had started, and there was no damage to the vehicle.

However, it was a nervous further half hour drive until the first of multiple river crossings through the Baviaanskloof had me assured that any last smouldering bits were well and truly out.

5 hours of rough road later and I was rendezvousing with the survey team at the Bergplaas mountain hut. Brian Reeves, ECPTA ecologist for the wider Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve organized the accommodation and also recruited Tracey Potts and Hennie Swanevelder to help with the surveys. In addition, I'd persuaded Krista Oswald and her crack team of volunteers (those of the Kammanassie survey) to lend a hand. Brian warned us to keep an eye out for buffalo and had us all sign indemnity forms, following a couple of unpleasant encounters with these big beasts over the previous couple of years.

The team soon had the evening's fire and dinner on the go, while I pitched my tent on the other side of an old stone kraal about 100m from the hut. I generally pre-empt getting thrown out of communal sleeping areas due to my loud sleeping habits by setting myself up in isolation, even when dark clouds spell rain on the horizon. That night I would dream of herds of buffalo as Red Hartebeest snorted and chomped the grass around the tent.

After an early mug of coffee I wandered off into the bushes for a bit of early morning ablutions. It was with a bit of consternation that I then realised there were two large male buffalo between me and my tent. Caught with my pants down in the open so to speak, I had to make a dash to an old dam wall to get a shrub between me and the intruders. The dash attracted the attention of one of the bulls, which rather alarmingly started prancing towards me. It's amazing how something that weighs nearly a ton can look as light on its feet as a ballerina. Luckily for me, the attention of the other bull had been distracted by the people around the hut. Confused perhaps by the presence of so many people, the buffalo pair danced off and away.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I headed back to my tent. What I did not realise is that the big daddy bull, which I had not seen, was in the meantime sauntering down from the mountain hut towards me. Rounding the corner of the stone wall, I was greeted by the sight of a very large set of horns on a very large black body and Brian's warning shout stating the obvious: “There's a buffalo in front of you!”

I jumped onto the old stone wall, which got the bull very interested in my presence. Clearly this old man was not of the skittish nature of his two companions. A very lengthy face-off ensued as he perused me from all angles before settling under a bush and allowing me to leg it to the hut.

Krista Oswald captures how I managed the previous pictures

Somewhat incredibly, we managed to set off on our survey on time. Our numbers had been bolstered by two park rangers: Majali and Sino. It was going to be a long day; one Brian would later describe as a 'walk of death'. Our route would take us to the shadows of Mac Mountain, second highest peak of the Baviaanskloof Mountains, and then down a plateau to the reserve entrance gate, following old forest routes. Our ascent was a lively one, with Cape Eagle Owl, a dead zebra, Victorin's Warbler and Buttonquail to distract us from the damp, breezy weather.

As we neared the summit, we entered the cloud line which had been obscuring the high peaks. Surrounded by mist and with low visibility is always a nervous time for anyone in the mountains. We decided to break for an early lunch on the sheltered northern slopes with intermittent views of the Karoo plains beyond. We had finally reached Cape Rockjumper territory, and once the mists had cleared the first sighting of Krista's birds were obtained.

But we still had a long walk ahead of us, and as they say at every mountain club meet “Most accidents happen on the descent”. Sure enough, the first blood wound of the day occurred when Audrey tripped and landed unluckily on a sharp rock, grazing her hand. Audrey is a tough cookie though, and after a bit of attention we were on our way again.

By mid-afternoon we had been on our feet for close to 8 hours, and everyone was feeling the strain. But the worst was still to come. The old forestry road marked on our map did not exist. While it was easy enough walking through the 3 year old fynbos, Brian and I could see that this would end on the last section of the plateau, with unburnt fynbos 3-4 meters high an almost impenetrable wall. And beyond the vegetation wall with our destination in sight we then had to navigate a 100m cliff face covered in spiny forest for the final descent.

Hennie, our support man for the day, very luckily had realised where we were and was waiting for us as we emerged from the forest, whisking us off to a cool mountain pool for a much needed dip in a mountain pool with red-finned minnow. To crown off the tough day, Tracey had our evening meal all ready on our return to Bergplaas.

Third day of the expedition was clearly going to be a recovery day. Well, Krista and Kelly had other ideas: their plan was to head back to where we'd seen the Rockjumpers the day before. I'd singled out the flat plateau to the south of Berglaas as an easy, flat transect for the rest of us. As this was also buffalo territory, Tracey drove a support vehicle behind us in case we needed rescuing. About a kilometre into the hike and Tracey noticed Black Rhino dung in the road. Soon we also noticed browse signs on some acacia trees. Not wishing to tempt fate further, when the vegetation began to get thick, we abandoned the transect for the day. In the meantime, Krista and Kelly had also abandoned their mission, dogged by low cloud and wet weather.

A consolation for the day was an easy transect in the afternoon across the plateau close to the hut, where we were rewarded with Grysbok, Duiker, Red-winged Francolin and what felt like a Buttonquail at every second step. In fact, by the end of the two action-packed survey days we'd recorded over 20 Buttonquail.

Tracey provides vehicle support for the survey team, featuring Brian, Majali, Hennie and Audrey

The mystery of the missing sugarbirds: despite lots of flowering pincushion, sugarbirds were nearly absent. Sino and Kelly wonder where they are

Jenny is rather surprised by the size of a Mountain Zebra skull

Audrey does some in-field first aid after damaging some rocks

Alan, buttonquail, and Krista in action. Photo courtesy of Hennie Swanevelder

We are very grateful to Audrey and Jenny for Italian inspired cooking, as well as the ECPTA staff and managers (Sizwe, Nollie and Wayne) for allowing us to do this survey.   

1 comment:

  1. Nooo Not little Jimmy is all I could think.

    A great adventure. Had a similar encounter, but with Black Bear, not buffalo.

    Good to hear your Buttonquail numbers are up.


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