I beat the alarm clock by ten minutes, I thought. Turned out I’d beaten it by an hour and ten minutes, but there was no point in going back to bed. The kettle works as well at any hour as at another, and soon the aroma of coffee offset the loss of sleep. A second mugful of the magic brew made it all okay. Gradually the sky shed a reluctant light on the day.
After several days of consulting the weather forecasts that I don’t believe anyway, it seemed that the weatherman had got close to the truth for a change. Some high cloud reflected the light of the still-invisible sun, introducing a pinky-golden feel to the day to come. A stern berg wind was already blowing, and I knew it would be part of the whole day.
Hugh Watson arrived on cue, parked his BMW where I thought few of my friends would see it, and it was time to go, camera bags packed, along with tripods that wouldn’t be used, cooler bags containing men-made lunches that most army recruits would spurn, and some enthusiasm for the day. The morning looked better as we travelled the N3, and by the time we found a dejected-looking Andrew Brown at the roadside in the metropolis of Rosetta we were satisfied that the trip wouldn’t be a complete waste.
I've included this shot from a previous trip as the Drakensberg was in cloud for part of yesterday
Neither Hugh nor Andrew had previously seen the road we were on, and both commented on the prettiness of the surroundings. We drove slowly, looking for places to stop and enjoy the scenes. Soon enough we came to a farm I’d looked at several times before, and parked at the roadside, unloaded cameras and lenses, and the day’s activities became earnest. The wind was still a factor, but manageable, and we targeted a little family church close to the main road. Before that, though, we examined a state-of-the-art security establishment with its resident layabout who seemed to resent the gathering day.
Photo by Andrew Brown
Photo by Hugh Watson
Little family churches and chapels abound in the Midlands of Kwazulu-Natal, and each has a story to tell besides providing fascinating opportunities for photos. The setting was a working dairy farm with lowing cattle being herded here and there by farm workers who knew their jobs well, and all seemed very orderly. A vehicle carrying another troop of labourers scurried by in a cloud of dust, en route to some urgent task, the cap-clad driver intent only negotiating the rough farm road.
The church itself had been built using local stone and other materials, conforming to the basic design that incorporated the necessary amenities, but I suspect that the original thatch roof had been supplanted by the very contemporary coated corrugated sheeting. It’s a lovely little building, one of the many gems that line the roads of the Midlands of Kwazulu-Natal, lurking in thickets and in plantations, carefully tended by the families, and occasionally visited by local clergy for formal services. The graveyards are an essay in loneliness and pathos, with headstones and plaques dating from well over a century ago to quite recent.
The farm activities tell of an energetic and enthusiastic tiller of the soil, the kind who feeds the nation while caring for his family and heritage. The spectre of land claims must be a constant drain on confidence and dedication as he and his nearest go about the business of farming, with rows of stored fodder bearing testimony to foresight and planning. The area is exquisitely picturesque with the Drakensberg forming a backdrop to anything and everything.
Farther along the quiet road we found wonderful avenues of trees that cut the farmlands into near-geometric shapes, the green leaves of early summer assaulting the eye, while the struggling crops that have had sufficient rain wait impatiently for warmer weather to promote the growth that follows germination. Despite the obvious challenges of farming we were happily greeted by all the landowners onto whose land we’d slightly trespassed. It’s a very friendly community in a beautiful setting.
With our camera cards rapidly filling up with megabytes we set off for the Crane Sanctuary, now known as the Entabeni Education Centre, passing the turnoffs to Kamberg and Highmoor with the picturesque Glengarry resort snuggling just out of sight among the tall trees. On and up over the little hills we went, soon to reach the dirt road that would take us to our destination. The four kilometre stretch of track affords a wonderful view of the main Drakensberg range, passing through a series of wetlands that are home to a variety of birds that includes all three species of cranes to be found in Southern Africa. This is the very logical setting for an organisation dedicated to the conservation of these incredible birds.
We arrived well ahead of the appointed time and found the Sanctuary locked and deserted, so set off for the wetlands, finding Grey Crowned Cranes happy to perform for us. Mostly because of the unrelenting wind we found few birds, but the cranes more than made up for it. They are truly majestic in flight as well as on land, and here the wind was our ally as the birds flogged and wheeled to reach their places, giving us unrivalled opportunities to record their splendour. Before long we retraced our steps, the buffeting wind now at our backs, to be met by the effervescent Nicki at the now open gate of the Sanctuary.
The regal Blue Crane, South Africa's national bird, isn't as showy as its two cousins, but also beautiful.
I doubt whether Nicki expected the grilling she was to endure, but it was her own fault for being so open and knowledgeable about the cranes. From the discussion about and inspection of the juvenile Wattled Crane that was erratically feeding on the lawn to all and any questions and comments about the birds and premises she responded openly and candidly. It was refreshing to find someone so enthusiastic and dedicated in the field as she described the achievements and challenges that make up the work of the centre. We discussed issues that had little to do with the day-to-day activities there, and we undertook to investigate ways of supplementing funding by establishing sponsorships and outdoor activities that would complement those already in operation.
Photo by Andrew Brown Photo by Andrew Brown
She took us into an enclosure that housed a young Grey Crowned Crane and showed all her love of the birds as she coaxed the youngster to run and dance for our cameras. I’ve seldom been so absorbed by the antics of a bird as I was there. This was the epitome and essence of the Entabeni Education Centre. I felt the passion for endangered cranes as I watched the response of this single bird to the love and drive of one young woman who is part of a team that battles daily for support and funding in its effort to protect and promote the survival of the Wattled, Grey Crowned and Blue Cranes in our country.
With a steady drizzle falling from the leaden Drakensberg skies a mug of coffee was in order, and we four shared our experiences and knowledge as we relished our common love of the environment, often straying far from the theme of crane conservation, but always returning to the topic. I began to suspect we’d overstayed our welcome, and made departure noises, and there was a collecting of bags and equipment as we made our way into the courtyard. Then it all got better.
A wild Grey Crowned Crane had landed in the courtyard area as he often did, we were told. With the aid of a long stick he was coaxed into an open area where he happily posed for us all, even settling down as if for a snooze. I remember remarking to Andrew that I was putting away my camera as it was by then impossible to get better shots. What a privilege it was to have this magnificent bird relaxing a few meters away as we filled up most of the remaining space on our camera cards.
There were some other suspects in evidence, braving what was by now a strong Berg wind.
Photo by Andrew Brown
Then it really was time to go. We bade Nicki farewell with profuse thanks and many sincere compliments, and drove slowly along the dirt road, stopping often as Andrew and Hugh did their best to get good shots of Long-tailed Widows in the strong wind, the success rate not too great. The return trip entailed a stop to photograph a patch of Thode’s Poker (knipophia thodei) that we’d seen on the way to the centre, while a local farmer stopped to assist us as he thought we’d had car problems.
Photo by Hugh Watson
All in all, it was a wonderful day, even if the weather hadn’t been ideal. I know that Hugh and Andrew both enjoyed the trip, and as many times as I go there, I’ll never tire of the route or the destination. We live in a beautiful province of a beautiful country, and need to explore it more than we do.