En Excursion to Medike, Soutpansberg Mountains, South Africa

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Face of Nelson Mandela superimposed upon map of Africa.

Our Excursion to Medike, Soutpansberg Mountains, South Africa

I've wanted for so long to get my dad out of the house and into a bit of Nature. Well, we got our chance this weekend! Our good friends Gigi Gottwald and Danie Rossouw planned an excursion to the Soutpansberg mountains with family, but a sudden crisis meant that the family could no longer join them, so they asked us instead. Of course my father was concerned because his health could worsen at any time but we decided to take the chance. He had been feeling fairly well recently. But the day just before we left, he slept very poorly and also had some pain in his abdomen. Nevertheless, he decided we should go ahead.

The place is a farm called Medike belonging to Hannes and Marietjie Underhay. It is not cultivated at all, it is all wild land. It is situated in the Soutpansberg Mountains right where the Sand River cuts through them. The river originates far to the south and then flows northward through the mountains and into the Limpopo River (which forms the boundary between South Africa and Zimbabwe). I would say we were about 100 miles south of the Zimbabwe border.

Our trip there was uneventful... A bit more than an hour and a half's drive northward of Pietersburg. Along the way we saw birds like Yellow billed Kites, lots of falcons (probably Eastern Red footed Kestrels preparing to migrate back to Asia), Jackal Buzzards, and Rollers – both European and Lilac breasted. The landscape was also lovely since we've been receiving above–average rainfall this season... Everything was a fresh green. This part of the country is also very wild and there was little sign of humans for most of our route.

My dad also took along our newly–bought GPS device so we could track our route and mark our destination on it! It also shows contour maps of the region, giving us an indication of how high above sea level we were, as well as the mountains.

We arrived and chatted a bit with our hosts, Hannes and Marietjie, I also photographed some plants in their garden. Hannes directed us to our hut, called Boulders, where we spent the first night. It is situated amidst huge boulders in the bed of the Sand River, they must have fallen down from the cliffs and rolled there, probably relics of thousands of years of erosion. The hut itself was actually built around one such huge boulder, with the boulder actually forming the walls of a good bit of it! Inside there were maps showing us the hiking trails. Hannes told us about Bushman paintings on the farm, situated next to the rail road going to and from Zimbabwe. We unloaded the car and settled in, and then I went for a hike of my own, while my dad, mom and Gigi relaxed. My dad, of course, was not at all up to anything strenuous.

On my hike I looked at the lovely vegetation – this part of the country is one of the richest in terms of species. Most of the place is well developed woodland, mostly dominated by knob thorn trees. There are also many lovely flowering herbs and shrubs. There would certainly be interesting species growing between the rocks on the slopes and cliffs and I would have loved to be able to do a bit of climbing.

I returned from my hike having seen some fine scenery and vegetation and then we started preparing for dinner. There was no electricity in the hut so we cooked over a fire. I, of course, didn't eat the 'braaivleis' (barbecued meat), but I did eat some mushrooms Danie brought along and roasted!

We also had to warm our hut's water with fire under a water tank. Because of the heavy rains almost all the wood was rather wet and soggy but somehow we eventually managed to get a fire going!

While at our hut we saw large birds flying around the surrounding cliffs. With our binoculars we saw they were Black Eagles! These are nowhere common so it's great to have seen them. They nest on the cliffs. There were white bird droppings streaking some of the rocks, so apart from eagles there might have been other cliff–nesting birds as well – Cape Vultures, perhaps, or Black Storks.

We ate rather late and went to bed. Then, in the night, it started raining... Which wouldn't have been so bad if it wasn't falling right on my head! I was sleeping on the upper story under the skylight, which was leaking badly. Thankfully I could just shift my bed a bit to get out of the rain. But the whole hut was leaking. Hannes had told us of his difficulties with sealing the grass roof around the boulder – sometimes there would be an indoor waterfall on the boulder face! Which is more or less what happened. Water was leaking in everywhere and there were even toads hopping and splashing around inside the hut. All of this might not have been so bad... but Hannes arrived and told us because of the rains the Sand River might be coming down, and if it flooded the bridge, we might be stuck there for some days! All of this was just NOT an option. My dad had to know for sure that he could get back to Pietersburg *pronto* in case of any emergency. We then had a bit of a talk; would we go to the other side of the river to the Wood Hut, which was safe from the flood, and remain for the rest of the weekend, or, would we just call it off and go back to Pietersburg? I told my parents that for me it was fine, since I'd already had a great outing, I saw the place and on my hike the previous day had taken many photos, and could come back again at some other date. But in the end we decided to just withdraw from the hut first and make that choice later.

In haste we packed everything back in the car and went back over the river. It was still low. We then went to Hannes and Marietjie's house and 'kuiered' a bit! ('Kuier' means to visit and chat with people in Afrikaans). During our visit the rain let up – which was a major factor in our decision since one thing was, why would we stay if it just rained all the time? The rain letting up meant we could at least do some more hiking and sightseeing.

At our hosts' house I photographed some lovely caterpillars that seem to have been 'energised' by the rain.

So after our 'kuier' we went to the Wood Hut. This was well constructed and raised on a platform. It did not leak and overall was much nicer than the Boulders hut! There was also a spectacular view of the mountains from the porch. So we hauled our stuff in; luckily I was there to carry most of the heavy stuff up the wooden steps!

We walked back from the Wood Hut to see the river. We had heard the rush of it coming down strong during our visit with Hannes and Marietjie. The walk wasn't too far, so my dad came along. So he also got to see some of the nice scenery and plant life during the walk! We reached the river and sure enough it was flowing strongly and turbulently. It was not actually flowing over the bridge though, so we *could* still have been safe on the other side, but we just couldn't take that chance.

We walked back, ate lunch and then decided that I would go for a hike to the Bushman paintings along with Gigi and Danie, while my dad and mom rested. The hike was mainly along the railway. We took some rain coats along – which is a good thing since it started raining lightly again! We hiked along the tracks for about an hour and a half and then came to the tunnel going through a projecting rocky cliff wall. The paintings were on the other side. They were difficult to reach, we had to push through thick vegetation (including stinging Mountain Nettle trees and bushes!) and scramble up rocks, then squeeze through a narrow crevice between rocks. Gigi was at first very hesitant and thought Danie was crazy to even try to get there! But then I went and helped to coax her, finally we all three managed to squeeze through and see the paintings. They were very faded but still visible. On that side the cliff face was overhanging to such a degree that underneath it was very dry and would probably remain dry even during torrential rains – thus protecting the Bushman paintings.

I don't know how old these paintings are; I never got to read the booklet that was in the huts. But they must have been centuries old, perhaps millennia. We photographed the paintings, which included a fine, clear little figure, cattle or antelope standing in a line, and a long undulating snake–like creature.

Oh I almost forgot! On our way there, we met a couple of folks coming from the other side, from Zimbabwe. They were neat in appearance and spoke English well, but said things were tough in the country. They gave Tsvangirai the thumbs up... but they're, unfortunately, still stuck with Bob. One said he hadn't eaten properly in five days! We had no food or money with us to help them out, though, but we could tell them they would reach the village (Mara) which was not too far off. I hope they make it.

This is really a thorny issue. They are of course illegal immigrants. Such immigrants cause as well as encounter many problems here in South Africa. But what are they to do? If the choice is between facing such difficulties in South Africa, or starving in Zimbabwe, the choice is clear.

On our way back after seeing the paintings, a train came by! This was the first one we encountered. Hannes actually said that about fifteen or so trains come by every day, but maybe there was something wrong with the railway line to prevent the trains. Well this was the first one that came... and, incidentally, just after passing us it stopped! We were told that a large boulder was on the track. There were lots of cops on the train and I wonder what would have happened if they encountered the Zimbabweans. At any rate one of the cops (a young fellow) was very surprised we would be hiking out there and braving the lions and elephants he imagined would be inhabiting such wild country!

They got the boulder away before we reached the front of the train and then drove on further. Many folks hung out the train window and waved at us!

Well, we got back to the Wood Hut before dark, ate dinner and went to bed early. The next morning there wasn't time for doing much, except prepare for our departure.

Well, we packed up and went home, no problem... The house was still there when we got back, our cats were still there, and my dad was still feeling well and had enjoyed the outing. He'd even taken a few videos! We haven't loaded them up on the computer yet, though...

Interesting things we saw:

Birds: There were many species; the black eagles were special; oh, – especially special were the Paradise Flycatchers! These cheerful little birds are orange–red in body with a bluish, crested head and a bright bluish wattle around the eye. The male has very long, wispy, orange–red central tail feather. What is especially special is that we saw them on their little nest! Actually there were two nests in the Underhay's garden, but we saw them sitting in the one. It is a tiny egg-cup sized nest, coated on the outside with lichens to disguise it. The bird squeezes itself in with its head and tail hanging over the rim! Incredible that they can sometimes raise two or three chicks in such a nest. At any rate this nest was close to the porch where we sat and 'kuiered' and the birds weren't too upset by us.

Other birds: White-browed Scrub Robins merrily sang their fluty songs. We heard orange–breasted bush shrikes, sombre bulbuls, and terrestrial bulbuls. We heard, and also saw, a little Yellow*ndash;breasted Apalis (tiny warbler-bird). There were swifts flying around, nesting on the cliffs. We heard the raucous calls and cackles of Natal and Crested Francolins. On the boulders there were Mocking Chats, and at the Bushman Painting Cliff there was a little Familiar Chat. I was also very happy at encountering some Bleating Warblers! They are very active little birds, cocking their short tails up over their backs and constantly uttering their bleating, buzzing and sometimes tiny–whip–crack calls!

There weren't many mammals. I disturbed some hyraxes on my first hike, and we heard baboons calling from time to time.

Reptiles: There were plenty! Rainbow Skinks on the rocks around the Boulders hut; on my hike I saw a lovely green Flat Lizard; on our way to see the Sand River in flood we met a little terrapin that seems to have come onto land so as not to be washed away. When Gigi,Danie and I were hiking on the rail road, we surprised a small cobra – perhaps an Egyptian cobra. It was very frightened by Gigi who almost stepped on it! I heard Gigi scream and then saw just about a metre in front of her, the highly surprised little cobra rearing up and spreading its hood – but also while backing away. When Gigi backed away too, it rapidly dropped down and sailed away into a crevice below the tracks.

Amphibians: Well, a few Olive Toads, a Red Toad, and a little Sand Frog we met during our hike to the paintings.

Insects: The place was abuzz with them! Huge numbers of butterflies of many species; flies, bees and wasps – there was a magnificent wasp nest next to the toilet area at the Boulders hut! There were beetles, grasshoppers, ants, mantises and what else... lacewings, we got one with extremely pretty wing patterns in the hut.

Other invertebrates A nice slug, and something I'd never seen before... a Tailless Whip Scorpion in the kitchen washbasin! Despite the name, it is a totally harmless creature. It's not really a scorpion at all... it can't sting or bite and belongs to a totally different order of arachnids. I took it out of the sink and put it somewhere that's safe for itself and others.

Plants: Many, many species! New species, and some especially impressive specimens of ones I already know.

Scenery: I'd never before seen this part of the Soutpansberg Mountains and there were cliffs, rocks, and lovely vistas!

I didn't get to climb up any mountains as I'd wanted, but still... I enjoyed it a lot. I would very much love to return again some day!

I did take lots of photos! And, if you managed to read all of this, then you probably wouldn't mind taking a bit more time to look at a few pictures.

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