Category Archives: Karoo Ecology

Riddle Of The Lily And The Beetle

An ancient poem telling of a beautiful lily and a noisy beetle, called the sonbesie in the Karoo, puzzled Greek scholars for centuries. Then in the 1930s, a South African solved the riddle.  The great Greek poet Homer mentioned “the lily-like sound of the cicada” in one of his poems and dumfounded his followers. Eventually, learned men decided “lily-like” was an error of translation, and that explanation was accepted for 3 000 years.  But, in the ‘30s, Professor Kolbe, of Cape Town University, discovered when picking chincherinchees that when the stems of these lilies rubbed together a shrill sound was emitted.  It was just like the shriek of the cicada. Thus the ancient mystery surrounding these beautiful lilies and the tiny beetle was solved. The cicada, known as the sonbesie or Christmas Beetle in arid zones such as the Karoo, uses his shrill shriek as a serenade, a love song sung only by the males.  The females do not have voices. Which is why the ancient Greeks quipped: “Happy are cicadas’ lives, as they have silent wives!”

The Strange Ways Of The Karoo Sunbird

Bird watchers in the Karoo have been  amazed to see malachite sunbirds foraging at ground level.  Ecologists Richard Dean and Sue Milton once explained (in the William Quinton Wild Bird Society Newsletter), that this is not an unusual phenomenon.  “Bird-pollinated plants in this arid zone  grow at such a low level that birds often have to perch on the ground to feed,” said Sue.

“The Aloe claviflora, for instance, has to attract sunbirds, essential to its pollination, yet be inconspicuous to buck and baboons, who love its large, bright flowers. Baboons eat the flowers and pull out the stalks to munch the soft end. Weavils are also a delicacy for both buck and baboons so their searches for these little creatures often destroy the plants. To prevent such damage the aloe flowers grow on horizontal spikes about 30cm long and so close to the ground as to be virtually invisible to animals walking by. But, they are highly conspicuous from the air, so they attract malachite and lesser double-collared sunbirds, so they are often seen flying low over what appears to be barren Karoo veld or sitting on the ground feeding.” Birding is a popular pastime in the Karoo and the market constantly expands as new ecological sites are developed.

Midas of the Mountains

The Nuweveld Mountains home of a rare butterfly.

There is a rare golden creature that flutters about only in the Nuweveld Mountains above Beaufort West in the Great Karoo.   This seldom seen butterfly is the Poecilmitis midas, a handsome creature with brilliant metallic golden-orange coloured wings.   It was seen during summer flying flies under high precipices at altitudes of over 1 500 m above sea level and once reported it drew lepidopterists to the area.  The first specimen was caught in October, 1954, by D Dickson and because of its rich colour this beautiful rarity was named after the mythical King Midas who turned everything he touched to gold.  The butterfly was seen again in 1967 and after that it seems to have disappeared.  In the 1970s after a severe drought lepidopterists scoured the mountains in search of the rare butterfly without any luck.  Now and then farmers spied some, but there are no official reports of the Midas of the Mountains ever having been seen again.   There is a specimen in the British museum, a few specimens are in private collections.  Well-known lepidopterist and author of Butterflies of Africa, K M Pennington, also has a specimen.  Continuous droughts in the Karoo have been blamed for the non-appearance of this beautiful creature.

It is not the only “midas” of its kind to be found in the Karoo. The Midas Opal Chrysoritis midas, a member of the Lycaenidae family is found in various spots along the Roggeveld escarpment to Nuweveld Mountains from September to November, each year.    This creature is more common. Males have a wingspan of 24-28 mm and females are slightly bigger with a wingspan of 25-30 mm. Only one generation occurs each year.   The larvae feed on Disopyros austro-africana a beautiful indigenous shrub that bears little cream, pink and even red lantern-like flowers, commonly known as “tolbos”.  It is a water-wise plant that can tolerate frosts.  Its name comes from the Greek – “dios” meaning “divine” and “pyro” meaning whet or grain.  It was given this name because its various parts provide food for so many animals.

The butterfly larvae are attended to by Crematogaster liengmei ants.

The Eternal Duel Of The Plains

The crags where eagles hunt

A daily duel takes place out there in the wilds on the limitless plains of the Great Karoo and few are even aware of it.  The adversaries have honed their timing.  This daily duel is fought with the split-second timing now associated with high-speed sports such as motor racing, yet this deadly duel was already honed to perfection when men were still swinging from the trees.  The rivals are the black eagle and the elephant’s tiny cousin, the dassie or rock hyrax. These eagles, monarchs of the mountains, prowl the skies their keen eyes scanning the plains below in search of a tasty dassie. But in order to sing his claws into this little animal, his staple diet, the eagle must dive from 150m to ground level in three seconds.  This means that the raptor hits a speed of about 180 kph as he cannons downwards.   The canny little dassie, which has a special lens in its eye which enables it to look directly into the sun,  has figured this out, so he limits his feeding to a maximum range of 12 meters from his rock shelter.  When grazing or simply basking in the sun the dassie colony ensures that sentinels are always on duty.   These fellows are extremely vigilant and scream out a warning the instant they spot an eagle. Once the sentinel sounds the warning the dassie has 2,7 seconds to scamper back to safety doing about 16 kph.    For the brave who have ventured out for the full 12 meters it’s a breathtaking dash.   But it’s all pretty neat  when you think about it – only only 0,3 seconds is the difference between eating or being eaten.   Things come apart, however, when young males are driven out of the shelters and denied the services of a sentry.    But then eagles have to eat and a pair of black eagles usually catches about 150 dassies a year.  Cute as they may seem to some dasses can be an awful menace and in days of yore early farmers used to pay a “penny a pelt” for dassie skins.

Drought always lurks in the shadows

A klipspringer searches for water

The plight of Beaufort West has touched the nation.  The town is in the grips of the worst drought in 130 years and has no water.  Most travellers of the busy N1 highway are answering pleas made by journalists like David Biggs (Tavern of the Seas, Cape Argus) and Amoré Bekker of Radio RSC who have appealed to all  who pass through to bring “a bottle for Beaufort.”   Locals say the reaction has been heart-warming.  Even Bonnievale has reacted and this little town today dispatching tankers carrying 200 000 litres of water for the struggling Beaufort Westers.

The first drought in the recorded history of Beaufort West ended in 1823. However, 1827 was also a particularly dry year and hundreds of animals died.  Then things went better for a while, but drought struck again from 1856 – 1859 and this three-year drought said the newspapers was “of a dimension never before experienced.” The farming community was crippled.  There was no fodder and fountains began to dry up. Game died in the hundreds.

Then there was a year’s reprieve, but drought struck again in 1861. For a decade and a half things were fine, but a different problem arose in 1872, and 1875 – extraordinary high falls of snow took their toll of stock.  By 1876 a new drought started and lasted until 1878. In the first year Nelspoort, a little hamlet 40 km north of Beaufort West, received only 25 mm (one inch) of rain.  Beaufort West farmers culled their lambs to save the ewes, but despite this lost over two thirds of their livestock.

Drought struck Beaufort West again in 1901 at the height of the Anglo-Boer War and the crisis was made worse by the British Army setting up a camp in this village.  In drought ravaged conditions (between 1901 and 1902) locals had to contend with supporting the thousands of British soldiers and their horses.   There was little fresh drinking water and the horses trampled what little grazing existed on the veld.  By 1903 it was so dry that 300 blue gum trees in a plantation at the end of Donkin Street died.  Relief came, then severe snow in 1912 and another extreme drought.

Beaufort West was hit by severe drought at the outbreak of the First World War and this one lasted until 1916. A decade of relief followed, but 1926 was again exceptionally dry – only a 63mm (2,47 inches) of rain fell.  Locals said this was barely enough to settle the dust.  The drought lasted for two years and in that time killed most fruit trees, quince and pomegranate hedges.  Rain came. A world wide depression followed and another drought (stories of  drought at this time appear in Rose’s Round-up)  Heavy snow fell again in 1933 – this fall was so intense that sheep were able to walk from one farm to another as the fences were buried.  Farmers considered 1934 to be “a good year” and in 1937 they said “really good rains fell.” Then there was more drought, more rain and more snow. The cycle rolled on across the decades to peaking at this severe drought.

The Karoo is a harsh country and will always be, but severest conditions bring people together and Beaufort West will be eternally grateful to all who have opened their hearts to them in this time of woe.

An unforgettable land

The end of a perfect day

The Khoisan called it the Great Dry Thirstland and now it is living up to its name.  Beaufort West, which was my home for 13 years, has no water.  Things there are so bad that people I have never heard of here in the Free State are sending me e.mail messages entreating me to call on everyone I know to pray for rain for Beaufort West.   Bloemfontein has had a few good showers lately and I feel guilty knowing how the people of Beaufort West are struggling.     Some of the recent e.mail messages  have included photographs of the Great Gamka Dam  in the Nuweveld Mountains.   Gamka, is the San word for Lion, and in its heyday the Gamka was a lion of a dam.  When I lived in Beaufort West it was a wonderful stretch of water, stocked with fish, a beautiful sight right on top of the mountains, but then, water is always a welcome sight in the arid zone.  Wally and I often drove up into the mountains on hot summer afternoons to get away from the oppressive heat of the town and each time we did we would glimpse the waters of the Gamka Dam as we rounded the bend on the of the first steep curls of Molteno Pass and feel confident that it would always keep the town supplied with water.     In those days it was full and the sight of all that water  was comforting.  Now this once mighty dam is empty.   Farmers have tried to rescue the fish.  They scooped up bucketsful and carried off hundreds of fish in bags and huge drums on the backs of their bakkies,  but even this gargantuan effort was not enough many were left struggling in the mud which now, as some of the photogtraphs show, has turned to cracked ground.   Despite these hardship, I miss the Karoo.  I miss the sunrises, the sunsets and the Nuweveld Mountains, which seemed to be right in my backyard. On the positive side, I believe Beaufort West is installing a plant to purify waste water and that this is one of the first of its kind in the country.  Well done!   Just goes to prove the people of the Karoo are as hardy as the land itself – they can always make a plan!