South Africa, September, 2008


Click the thumbnails to expand them to the full size pictures

Sunken boat at Hout Bay

In September, 2008 we went to South Africa for a couple of weeks. Jenny had been invited to be keynote speaker at the biennial conference of the Palaeontological Society of South Africa (PSSA), which was all the excuse we needed.

We landed in Cape Town at about 9am and were far too early to check into our hotel, so drove around the peninsula, stopping first for lunch, then going on to the nature reserve toward the southern tip. This old fishing boat was in the harbour at Hout Bay, where we found a tourist shop which sold, amongst other things, traditional-looking masks. I bought one, of course!

Looking towards False Bay White flower Orange breasted sunbird

We stopped at the entrance to the nature reserve to look at the stalls selling all sorts of carvings, jewellery, etc., but sadly there were no hornbills. Jenny bought some soapstone hornbills from a stall there the last time we were in SA, but on this occasion the stone folks had stayed away. In the park we saw lots of flowers (I kept stopping to take photographs!) as well as a pair of ostrich, a black shouldered kite and an orange breasted sunbird. Jenny managed one, slightly fuzzy photo before it flew away!

du Toit's Kloof du Toit's Kloof

The next day we drove 250 km northeast from Cape Town to a tiny place called Matjiesfontein, where the conference was taking place. On the way, we drove through the mountains near Paarl where we were surprised to see snow on the mountains. Don't remember that from when I was a kid.

We stopped for lunch at a picnic spot, and I put the previous night's foil-wrapped leftovers on the car engine, which I left running, but VW have been much too efficient at keeping the heat inside the engine, and after 10 minutes they were still stone cold. We settled for nuts, fruit and a beer for lunch.

Yellow flowers in the Karoo Red legume in the Karoo Spring flowers by the roadside

They'd had more rain than usual in the Karoo, and our timing was perfect, so we saw sheets of wildflowers on either side of the road as we drove. I kept stopping to take photographs.

The roads are rather straight and lightly trafficked, but many of the hills are very long. The heavy trucks all haul a trailer as big as the truck, and they can be slowed drastically by the gradient. It's not uncommon to overtake one of these that's only doing about 10mph. Fortunately, the road consists of a single main carriageway in each direction, with an "emergency" lane, not quite as wide as a small car, on the verge. The accepted courtesy is for the overtakee to pull as far over to the left as possible, allowing the overtaker to squeeze by. Thanks are indicated by a double flash of the hazard warning lights, acknowledged by a flash of the headlamps from the overtakee.

Matjiesfontein Matjiesfontein

Matjiesfontein (pr. My-keess-font-ane) is a bizarre place. It must have been quite grand when it was new in Victorian times, was restored in the 1970's to be a holiday resort, but is now in its second decline.

Our bedroom sash windows rattled in their frames and even when we'd wedged bog paper into the cracks, the glass rattled in the wood, where the putty had fallen out. The water supply was a bit iffy, too. On the second day the cold water poured into the bath pre-browned. Lovely. I'm sure there was nothing wrong with it, but it wasn't particularly appealing! The staff were very friendly, courteous and helpful, so we didn't complain. Good staff can compensate for many ills!

We spent quite a while wandering around just looking at the place, so here are some photos of some of the things we saw. If you hover the mouse pointer over the thumbnail you should see a balloon open with some text. It only stays up for a few seconds, so you might have to move the cursor away, then back again to refresh it.

This had obviously flowered

Jenny's talk went well and I stayed in the conference for the whole morning, hearing several really interesting talks, but in the afternoon I decided I really had to buy some batteries for the camera. The village shop didn't sell them, nor indeed, anything else we thought we might possibly want, so I drove east on the N1. I hoped to find a petrol station before I got to Laingsburg, 25 km away, but it was not to be. My 4 batteries cost me 9 Rand, and I clearly didn't have my brain engaged, as R9 is about 60p, which is more than they were worth. (14 Rand = GBP 1) I drove half-way home and stopped to photograph the flowers, only to find I'd flattened the new batteries. I took them back, of course, and bought some Energizers, for an additional R34. Proper batteries! So I did a round trip of 75 km to buy 4 AA batteries. Nice to keep things in proportion!

Outside our bedroom window, Cape weaver birds were nesting in the trees. This thumbnail opens to a movie clip I took.

After the conference there were two days of field excursions, looking at fossil-yielding sites that various people knew about. Naturally, if you go to a well-known site, you're unlikely to find much, since the locals have already picked it clean. I picked up and discarded several promising bits which I eventually decided had been mud-cracks in permian times. Very deceptive, and I was most gratified when a couple of professionals thought they'd found a skull, only to be told it was the same stuff I'd been throwing away. Nyah nah na-nah nah!

After lunch we headed south through one of the passes through the Swartberg range of mountains. It was spectacular, and Jenny took a short film clip as we drove through. Beyond the mountains we drove through Outshoorn which I gather is the centre of ostrich farming in SA. The next picture shows John Almond, one of the prime movers of PSSA. He's showing us a fossilised termite mound, one of several that have been excavated there. It seems much of the nest was underground for that particular species. Eocene, I think he said, which would be 40 million years old. The last picture is just of pretty cloud effects. I can't resist that sort of thing! However, I have cheated and Photoshopped out a load of telegraph poles!

One site we visited had never been checked by palæontologists at all, and we were quite excited at the prospect of finding dinosaur bones there. Sadly, though the day was bright and sunny and the canyon we walked was very beautiful, nobody found anything much at all. The guy who'd got us all there, Billy de Klerk from the Albany Museum in Grahamstown was not dismayed at all, but we were rather disappointed. The track to the site was extremely rough and we had to leave our cars at the farmhouse and go in 4x4s. Some of the way back I did in the back of the farmer's bakkie (flatback pickup - the front vehicle in the movie clip), which is something you have to do at least once in your life. It's normal transportation for many farm workers in South Africa and would be completely illegal in the UK, since there are no seats in the back, let alone seat belts. The health and safety jobsworths would have a field day! Fortunately I only went in the bakkie on normal roads, not on the really rough stuff.

After the field excursions, Jenny and I drove to Grahamstown, where she did some work at the Albany Museum with Rob Gess, who has found some interesting fossil fish in a road cutting nearby. Rob and his wife Serena are a really nice couple who took great care of us all the while we were in Grahamstown. The red flowers are on a coral tree, of which there are lots in Grahamstown. It was a little early in the season for them so the show wasn't as good as it might have been. Also much too early for the jacarandas the town is abundantly planted with.

On streets where there is no parking charge, people who might otherwise be begging, have official fluorescent orange bibs and act as unofficial parking superintendents. You give them something like R20 a day and while your car is parked on their patch, they keep an eye on it. And they notice where you go, too. I didn't find out about the scheme until day 2, and the guy knew where I was staying and when I'd arrived.

At the weekend Rob and Serena had planned to take us canoeing, but it was bitterly cold, and doing things that get you wet on days like that is not to be recommended, so we headed for a fossil-yielding site he knew. It was a long way down a dirt road, and then when we arrived, it started to rain. After quite a short time it was absolutely sheeting down and we decided that there was a risk the VW Polo I'd hired from Avis would not cope with the dirt road on the way back if the rain kept up, so we skedaddled. The car coped admirably, even if I did bang various underneath bits on the road from time to time.

They took us to a deserted beach where, while the rain continued, albeit less heavily, we sat in their car eating rolls and drinking tea. The wreck is of a fishing trawler and is slowly falling apart.

While the rest were finishing their lunch, I took a stroll down the beach. Actually, I wanted a pee, but I took the opportunity to look at the wreck while I was at it. It was quite windy, cold and still raining slightly, so I didn't spend as long on the beach as I'd have liked.

These sponges and other sessile animals had been torn up from the sea floor by a recent storm and left on the beach for me to find. Fan sponges are easy to identify, but I'm baffled by most of the others. Strange, stalked blobby things, which Jenny thought might be tunicates. I've tried googling for tunicate and there seems to be something called a club tunicate, which could be related, but I didn't find any decent images that match what I saw. In case you're interested, the photo lurking behind the thumbnail is in the original resolution, so you can zoom in quite a lot. I think almost everything in the pic is animal in origin.

Serena, who drove their car all the time, is a passionate birder, and managed to drive and spot birds constantly. I usually drive off the road when I try to do that! Every now and then she'd slow right down and point out of her window at something - a jackal buzzard carrying off some small prey, a pair of Egyptian geese, and so on. Early in the day she'd pointed out an orange throated longclaw, but it had been scurrying around in a paddock, and even with her binoculars I couldn't see much.

Later in the day I saw one right by the side of the road, and stopped almost next to it. It flew, of course, but only onto a fence post about 3 metres away, so we got a perfect view of it.

On the Sunday we headed inland for about 50 or 75 km and stopped in a road cutting. We'd missed the turning they'd been heading for, as the roadsign had been stolen (anything metal that can be moved tends to get stolen and sold for scrap) and we actually stopped just to discuss what to do. In the event, it was the right sort of rock, so we stayed there and looked for fossils. The expected beasts are 200 million year old mammal-like reptiles from the Permian, for which SA is very well known.

Now Jenny and I are not bad at finding fossils, but our performance on this occasion was unimpressive. Quite quickly, Rob found a leg bone maybe 10 cm long, so we had a look to help us get our eyes in, then went back to looking. After extracting the leg bone, Rob carried on, and soon found a pelvic girdle. We continued to find nothing. Not long after that he found a skull, which took him several hours to extract. We maintained our 100% failure record. The only reptile I found was this lizard!

Later in the afternoon we tried to get to the site they'd originally been aiming for, but this entailed yet another dirt road. As the road got rougher and rougher, I eventually had to give up or I'd have left the poor Polo balanced on a rock with all 4 wheels off the ground! We tried an alternative route, but that defeated me too.

We visited the site where the Devonian fish Rob works on were found, and he showed us this enormous rockslide which had happened not long previously. Apparently the beds slope down towards the road, with sandstones on top and graphitic shales underneath. When it rains, the water percolates down through the sandstones until it hits the graphitic shales, which then form a rather splendid lubricant for the thousands of tonnes of sandstone poised above. The movie clip (right-hand thumbnail) gives a better impression of the scale of the slip.

On the last day, while Jenny and Rob finished up in his lab, I drove north on a different road, towards Cradock, intending to look for fossils. In fact, I didn't reach the target rocks, as I kept stopping to look at birds and plants, and when I finally did stop to look at the rocks, I'd not gone nearly far enough. Oh well.

The pink blobs are called jointed cactus, and they're not nice. As a dispersal mechanism, they have barbed spines and the segments are very loosely connected to each other. As you walk by one of these things, the spines catch on your shoes and just by walking along, you instantly transfer them to your calves. When I felt the spines entering my flesh, I quickly cleared them all away and avoided the nasty things thereafter. Animals aren't so lucky, and have to wait for the blob to drop off, by which time the cactus hopes it's somewhere convenient to grow.

The car was filthy when I parked it outside the hotel, and an urchin offered to wash it for R20. I hesitated, since it was a hire car, but then agreed. Turned out to be four of them, and they did a reasonable job (actually used water, rather than just a damp sponge!), but then one of them spoiled it after I paid them by pleading for another R20. I would actually have paid him, but had only taken a R20 note out with me, rather than my purse. Still left a sour taste.

And then we gave the car back to Avis and caught South African Airlines from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg, and from there on to Heathrow. A shop in Johannesburg airport took quite a lot of money from us as we bought all sorts of wonderful things, and then the restaurant sold us the most expensive wine we'd had in the entire trip. We just had a couple of starters, as we were to eat dinner on the plane, but the food came to about R50 (say GBP 3.50) while four glasses of (admittedly very nice) red totalled R240. We were used to spending R60 on a bottle, not a glass!

Last updated 2nd October, 2008 by Rob Clack