Okay, birds. Which is actually the remit of your faithful scribe. After all, what else is there to write about in the autumn of one’s senses, here in Never-Never land. Certainly not politics. For her part, Mother Nature (why this gender distinction when no-one knows for sure?) seems undecided about the transition from summer to autumn to winter, so has apparently compromised on an exquisite combination of clear sparkly days and nippy nights. Whatever, it is quite delightful and charms visitors out of their 4x4s and into the village shops in large numbers.
But if only they would spread their wings, so to speak, and do the countryside as well. They would discover, for example, blue-grey mountain ranges and verdant hidden valleys to die for, nestling countless guest houses, B&Bs, wedding venues and country shops. The Golden Gate Park, literally around the corner, sports red sandstone formations that dominate deep blue skies and over 175 species of birds. You’ll probably see Buzzards, Kestrels, Verreaux’s Eagles, Lanner Falcons, the Cape Vulture and even the threatened Bearded Vulture, but you really need to look! And who wouldn’t commit a Schedule 4 crime for the sighting of a Buff-Streaked Chat or Gurney’s Sugarbird? On an unrelated quest for fresh sightings, your faithful correspondent was press-ganged into taking the alternative route from Clarens to Fouriesburg, actually with a wine-farm destination in mind (yes, there is one and very splendid it is too!). Sitting mulling through the complex aftertaste of this year’s fledgling reds, the trip along the Lesotho border came sharply into focus, confirming that the term ‘paradise’ was not far off the local truth. Long assumed by uitlanders to be flat, big-sky country churning out maize by the container-load and rugby players by the klomp, it turns out that the Eastern Free State is a sensory geographic experience not to be missed.
So what about the birds? Well, for those dark souls who prowl the night, the Spotted Eagle Owl is on the hunt, clearly fond of now very chilled rat au gratin. They are a nocturnal species and emerge at dusk to start hunting voraciously; as a salutary lesson to the residents of Clarens, they are unfashionably monogamous and have one partner for life. On the Golf Estate they sport and play in a haunting dress-rehearsal for the mating season, enchanting visitors and residents alike with their seductive calls (to whit, and I quote: hoot hoo-hoo buhoohoo-hooo). For their part, it appears that the Indian Mynahs have flapped back to points east, finding succour in their Natal bridgehead. They have left behind a copious collection of fruit and seed eaters, now restored to their indigenous dignity, and the rare Southern Bald Ibis (Geronticus calvus). More a decorative tractor than bird, these spectacular creatures stalk the golf course, scaring the crap out of city golfers, since their shiny pates are clearly reminiscent of auditors and accountants, the most feared of predatory creatures for any aspirant city businessperson (note the politically-correct gender delineation?).
That said, the crème de la crème of the local feathered community remains the Guinea Fowl. Not, of course for its uncertain looks, which cast it between a Zebra and a Gadfly in terms of colour and design, but for its intense stupidity. The growing flocks around the village are territorial to a degree and keep dividing and re-establishing themselves on ever-tighter turfs. Our local flock numbers between 21 and 44 depending on the season, but collectively consume about two-tons of broken maize per week. I’m not complaining however; it is a while since I last tripped over a snake on my front lawn and the bugs that once sported in the warmer months are nowhere to be seen. The inherent problem with having a semi-tame flock of these creatures is of course their aggression: You have not felt true fear clutch at your heart until half-a-dozen of these mad creatures surround you looking for food! Screaming hysterically, to the consternation of your guests, you have to make a wild dash for the safety of the nearest shed, pulse galloping, white and breathless, to retrieve a sack of finest Free State mealies. Only then can you limp back to the safety of your little stone house and collapse with a very large libation of Scottish wine in your shaking hand.