A Trip to Portugal, Spain and the Makapan’s Caves
Today the bird club went to Portugal and Spain! Yes, I’m not kidding, we did. But not the Portugal and Spain you might be thinking of … no, Portugal and Spain are the names of two farms about forty km to the southwest of Polokwane, in the region where we went. The goal of the bird club was to get some specialties of the area, birds found there, but not in or around Polokwane. Polokwane and its surroundings is flat countryside, the natural vegetation being savannah or grassland. There are only a few small hills around the town. But Portugal and Spain are situated in a mountainous region, the closest high mountains to Polokwane. The highest peaks exceed 2000 m/6700’ in altitude. There is also a surprisingly extensive rolling upland region. Not many people realize that we have such a fine mountain area so close to Polokwane. Though quite high, the mountains are not very steep, and we were able to drive all the way up them by car. We stopped a few times along the way, taking in birds in different habitats. Cattle were grazing right up to the top of the mountains, and there is some invasion of the grassland by alien black wattle trees, but overall the environment is in good shape.
The vegetation up on top was mountain grassland, dotted with shrubs and trees. At the highest levels the trees were rather stunted and gnarly-looking. The mountains receive somewhat more rain than Polokwane does and there was already much greenery and many flowers, in spite of the spring rains only just having arrived. In terms of birds the trip was very rewarding. We got almost all of the ‘specials’ we were targeting, and almost all of us got ‘lifers’ – bird species seen for the first time. So here is a small list only of the highland ‘specials’:
- African Stonechat. The males have brightly coloured rufous-brown chests, and black-and-white wings. The females are drab brown in colour. These highland birds were quite common and perched prominently. They can be recognized by their ‘chak-chak’ calls sounding like two stones being knocked together.
- Malachite Sunbird. The males are beautiful irridescent green, with long central tail feathers. There were many flowering aloes and proteas for them to feed from.
- African Rock Thrush. Bright rufous in the body, with a bluish-grey head. This rock thrush likes mountainous regions with lots of rocks – and there were plenty of those!
- Gurney’s Sugarbird. One of only two sugarbird species in South Africa (and the world, for that matter). The male has a long tail, and is brownish with a reddish brown breast. We saw quite a few perched on proteas. Like sunbirds, they are nectar drinkers.
- Jackal Buzzard. A compact bird of prey quite commonly seen in mountainous regions, with a reddish breast and black and white wings (but MUCH bigger than a stonechat!)
- Buff-streaked Chat. A montane bird endemic to South Africa, buff in the body, the male having a bold black mask over his face and lower neck, as well as bold black wings. They also like the exposed rocks, where we saw a pair perched.
- Grassbird, a large warbler-like bird. We heard this one, but none of us got a good look at it. Next time!
Other interesting sightings included Orange-throated Longclaws, a Sparrowhawk (or goshawk), a Cape Vulture, a Brown-backed Honeybird, Southern Double-collared Sunbirds, Red-collared Widowbirds, Cape Canaries, and Cape Buntings. All of these would be quite unusual sights around Polokwane.
I of course was very interested in the plants! The habitats changed from well-developed woodland at the low levels to wind-blown short grasslands at the top, some of them strewn with rocks. There were many rocky outcroppings at various different levels. We saw patches of forest in the ravines but didn’t go there. I wish I could sometime go just for the plants. But as it is, I saw a lot, and am very happy to have had the opportunity! There was way too much to tell you of here so just the photos:
1. Scadoxus puniceus, Blood Lily. On the way up we saw more of them than I’ve ever seen in any other place! These beautiful brush-like flower heads (each bearing many small flowers) are large and conspicuous, arising from poisonous bulbs. We were lucky to find them in flower just now. We even saw sunbirds perched on them, taking drinks from them!
2. Another beautiful Blood Lily, Scadoxus puniceus. (The large green leaves just to its right belong to a Bushman’s Grape, Rhoicissus tridentata.
3. Cyphostemma lanigerum (no common name): also a member of the Grape Family. This one has soft, fluffy leaves, arising each spring from new shoots from the persisent fleshy underground woodstock. These shoots are still forming.
4. Cyphostemma lanigerum, here the leaves are fully formed. They are broad, large and luxuriant. Cyphostemma bear berries that are juicy-looking but mildly toxic to humans.
5. Polygala virgata, Purple Broom. The plant has thin, wand-like stems sparsely branched at the top, but each branch bears these lovely flowers.
6. This is a species of Hypoxis, the same genus in which the ‘African Potato’ is classified, a plant with many wondrous claimed medicinal uses. These were small plants, but their proportionally large and bright yellow flowers really made them stand out in the short grassland at the highest levels.
7. This is a species of, most likely, Helichrysum, an Everlasting. These members of the daisy family include many small, tough plants able to survive in the high mountains, with flowers that last very long after being picked, the more showy members popular in flower arrangements.
8. A Protea tree. These were abundant up to the very tops of the mountains, and in flower, attracting sunbirds and sugarbirds.
9. Probably a Cycnium adonense. A semi-parasitic plant, extracting nutrients from the roots of surrounding grasses. The flowers are delicate and lovely!
10. Another Cycnium adonense, this one with more flowers. The flowers are up to about 7cm/2.8” in diameter.
11. These lovely flowers belong to an Asclepiad, perhaps Asclepias cucullata, the Hooded Meadow Star. I saw another lovely relative, with very tiny, delicate, bright yellow flowers, which I’d seen only once around Polokwane but which was quite common here – too small to get a good picture of, sadly.
12. A white member of the daisy family. This family is well-represented in the montane flora.
13. A yellow daisy.
14. Probably Pentanisia prunellioides, a small and delicate flowering herb in the coffee family, not at all rare in grasslands over here.
15. Transvaal Cabbage Tree, Cussonia transvaalensis. These strangely-shaped trees have weirdly divided grey-green leaves, making them very prominent and easy to identify.
16. Another Transvaal Cabbage Tree. At higher altitudes they are
more gnarly in appearance.
17. A colourful, gnarly rock. The terrain was extremely rocky in places. The round green and reddish leaves around the middle of the rock belong to a small succulent, Crassula swaziensis.
18. The lovely flowers of a wild sage, Salvia dolomitica. These soft shrubs were common at the medium elevations.
19. A Xerophyta-species, called Baboon’s Tail. This species is a monocot, unusual for producing fibrous above-ground stems bearing leaves at the tips. (You can see the reddish-brown stems here.) They also bear beautiful flowers, especially after fires (against which the stems are resistant).
20. The morning sun on the mountains, taken right at the start of the trip.
21. A view from the top of the mountains, showing the Strydpoort Mountains in the distance.
22. A view from the top of the mountains, showing a few of the highest peaks, some of the rolling uplands, and some cliffs (the cliffs mainly faced towards the east; we reached the peak by much gentler slopes).
23. A view from the top, looking down on some of the steepest east-facing cliffs.
There was much, much more but let these photos suffice to give you a taste.
But that was not all! After our trip we drove back down, but some of us decided to go see the caves. See, on the way to these mountains we passed the Makapan’s Caves, a most important historical site! (It is actually supposed to be a World Heritage site but just about all money invested in its development was squandered, so that now there are only rough access roads, a hastily manufactured monument-sculpture, and a few info boards. We had a great guide though who took us in and informed us). The Makapan’s Caves encapsulate an incredible amount of history.
The first cave we saw was the Lime Works. For long they were quarried for limestone, then someone realized there were bones in the limestone, and called in some university folks. They realized that the stone being quarried was chock full of fossils! These were fossils mostly of mammals including our own Australopithecine forebears, dating from about 3.5 to 1.6 million years ago! The animals fell into caves through ‘death trap’ sinkholes, and then their bones were cemented together by calcium carbonate dissolved in the water percolating down through the caves. In addition to our ancestors, the caves contained bones of extinct animals like two kinds of sabertooth cat, giant baboons, giant ox-like creatures, giant porcupines, giant hyenas, giant baboons, giant hyraxes and a great short-necked giraffe. Unfortunately there are no fossils there, these having been sent on to the universities that conducted the excavations. I was told there are some fossils in the museum in the town of Mokopane.
There were even older fossils … there were sedimentary stones laid down BILLIONS of years ago containing stromatolites, which were formed by layers of algae in shallow seas.
The next cave, the Cave of Hearths, contained much younger remains, from the stone age. The oldest remains included stone hand-axes made by Homo erectus, which was more human-like than the australopithecines, and these old folks were already using fires and tools. But there were also flint tools used by true modern humans, Homo sapiens, including spear- and arrowheads. These caves appear to have been inhabited from the old stone age into the iron age.
The last caves we were shown had a much younger history. They were the caves in which chief Makapan (also spelled Mokopane and a few other ways) hid from the Boers. (I’m repeating now what the guide told us … actually the accepted historical details were rather different!) His people were Ndebele. They were living in the region when the trekking Boers arrived in the early nineteenth century. For a time the Boers traded ivory and hides with other peoples to the north. They had Mokopane’s permission only to move through the area and to conduct their trade. Later he also asked them some tribute. But they wanted to stay and get some land for themselves. Mokopane and his people were very leery of this. They were also scared of the Boers with their advanced weapons. Mokopane hatched a rather nasty plan. The Boers were invited to a feast, and asked to leave their weapons outside of the feasting kraal as a show of goodwill, then got relaxed and drunk – then Makapan’s people attacked them. About forty were killed, but some escaped. They went to Rustenburg, told the Boers there what happened, and the Boers launched an expedition to punish Makapan and his people.
But Mokopane and his people realized that they had brought trouble down on themselves, so they fled. They’d already prepared the caves, and all went there, and barricaded themselves in with food supplies and even livestock. There was little water available in the caves. They were betrayed by some of the other locals who were frightened of the Boers. So the Boers went to the caves, but were too afraid to enter the caves themselves, since some of Mokopane’s warriors knew how to use the firearms they took from the murdered Boers. Those warriors took shots at the Boers from the dark caves – the Boers could not see them but they could see the Boers, so it was very dangerous. Indeed, the Ndebeles managed to shoot the Boer leader Piet Potgieter, and his corpse lay at the entrance of the caves, the other Boers being too afraid to go and retrieve it. They feared that the Ndebeles would desecrate his corpse and use his bodyparts for muti, magical ‘medicine’ supposedly giving them the power of the Boers.
None other than Paul Kruger, then a teenage boy but much later the president of the South African Republic, volunteered to retrieve the body. In a very early ‘blackface’ incident, he smeared himself black all over and with his fluent use of the Tswana language managed to deceive the folks in the caves for long enough to grab hold of the corpse and make off with it unscathed.
The Boer warriors then besieged the caves, preventing anyone from leaving. They tried explosives to blow up the barricades or to try and collapse the caves’ roofs, which did not work; a plan on lighting fires to smoke the people out also failed. But soon enough the water supplies ran out and folks started dying. Mokopane himself managed to sneak out. A decoy warrior went out conspicuously and was shot dead, the Boers thinking they’d managed to kill the chief. But the real chief was tied below the belly of an ox; a large number of people rushed out along with lots of their cattle, and while the Boers concentrated on the people, they let the cattle pass unscathed, and so Mokopane succeeded in escaping the siege of the caves. But many of his people were not so lucky. Of about six hundred people who hid in the caves, about three hundred, mainly women and children, died of starvation, thirst, and disease caused by the unsanitary conditions. Piet Potgieter’s remains were interred in the town of Vredenburg that was renamed Piet Potgietersrus or ‘Piet Potgieter’s Rest’, later shortened to Potgietersrus. But after 1994 the town was renamed Mokopane, after the chief who had defied the Boers.
All right … so that was the version of history the guide told us! Actually the real story was rather more complex, and some things he seems to have made up, like the story about the Boers being invited to a party, and the story about Mokopane’s escape tied underneath the cow might be a bit of popular mythology. But there really was a conflict that led to the siege of the caves, which lasted 29 days. Official history actually says that 2000 people died in the caves, but from what we saw of them it seems likely that this number is grossly inflated and that the number our guide gave, 300 deaths, is much closer to the truth. Still, it is a most horrific chapter of our history.
So ... a most eventful and rewarding trip it was!