Walking into the shop is like shoving your nose into a yellow stained page, musty and still as captured time. Rather than the expected unique South African antiques, I am met by an Empire. British memorabilia spatters the shelves, extending the monarchs tyranny centuries after his body has turned back to earth. Yet, the pieces do not shout. They do not stamp and demand attention. They sit, unnoticed, unclaimed, on shelves and desks. Abandoned far from home, they gather dust and rust and crust over in disuse. One cup cries for company, begs to be taken back to the chemically cleaned cupboards at the Norfolk Hotel. Whining, he promises he can be polished. The liver spot petina that speckles his body will fade with a rub down. The copper stain down his no longer proud lion and unicorn East Anglia crest, left from years of leaning sideways along a forgotten shelf, may be removed. He pleads, “Please, I can change!” He yearns for the heat of arabica, the blanket of tea leaf resin, the cold slosh of cream. Lips on lips on lips. “Please. Please.” But I can see his dented metal, the small handle that risks cut fingers, and the rainbow splashed bottom of a material too cheap to even grace my parched tongue without worrying it may turn green. “You are too cold, too old,” I mumble, backing away into the labyrinth of wishful thinking.
Trailblazing through the waters of Wilderness
Driving over the bridge, surrounded by emerald foliage rolling down the mountainous hills, one would never imagine the adventure carrying out below. For under the concrete and mortar, a canoe crew skims along the Touw River, plunging paddles into the skin-numbing water and pumping underdeveloped muscles to pull the vessels forward.
Field specialist Amanda Robbins arranged the half hour trek to Wilderness to put her five Africa Media journalist interns’ thrill seeking writing skills to the test. As one of those Big Five, I can attest to the adrenalin surge Eden Adventures’ abseiling along the Kaaimans Waterfall caused, and the welcome journey back down to water where four canoes lay waiting at the river’s embankment.
Making my way down to the edge, my bare feet work to maneuver over gravel and stones until the chill liquid greets my toes to soothe the aches away. Our guide, Steve, flashes a cheeky grin and asks if anyone needs a brief lesson on canoe etiquette, safety, or paddling, and as he explains how to scoop ice cream to move forward, I become lost in the beauty of the contrasting views.
The rumbling of vehicles hums in eardrums as drivers zoom by with thoughts of dates and deadlines, but cormorants and king fishers croon and sunbathe detached from human cares of temporality. Nature coexists with man, separate, yet entwined through a shared surrounding.
Steve’s voice cuts through the spiderweb strands of my wandering mind, and he urges us to all board our boats. “Front steadies, back steers,” he reminds us. Megan, my canoe companion, clambers in and plops down onto the seat then waits patiently for her paddle. I wade out into the algae-tinged river, stepping gingerly as my skin prickles from the frigid water. I drag the craft further out until the bottom no longer drags, then climb in, push off, and begin to pull the water with the curved edge of the plastic.
The ride is smooth, and beneath the boats, eels and fish flit unseen. Each stroke slices into the glassy surface and propels our bodies further into the indigenous forest that hides histories and houses mysterious shapes and sounds. Leopards, baboons, and bushmen could be camouflaged in the brush, tracking our antics and pondering our erratic comments. Our rhythmic movement is abbreviated with bursts of chatter and giggles as our pants become damp from the drips that slide down our poles and one canoe careens into a clump of vines near the shoreline.
“It is not a race,” I cry as the boys, John and Surya, zip past in an attempt to reach a narrow pass first, but all I receive as answer is a splash and a laugh. Synchronizing our sweeps, we push our muscles with a smirk past the competition, then come to a landing against the riverbank, ending our bold and venturous crusade into the wild waters of Wilderness for the moment. We mount the shore, and my bare feet bound onto the warm stones.
I briefly regret my decision not to keep my shoes on, but the anticipation of jungle possibilities drown out the pain in my cautious steps. Leopards may be lurking in the gloom. Wild elephants, tucked away from prying eyes, could come crashing out through the trees. My nightmare, the baboon, might be watching. I hungrily scan the forest, searching for any hint of movement or glint of glassy eyes. Nothing.
We walk on, the group chatting and laughing and driving the wild away with their civilized shoes and upright gaits. The moment is gone, the dream of connection chased away by skipping stones. Soon we will clamber back into our man-made contraptions, paddle back upstream in a lurching race, and squelch back up the path to Fairy Knowe Lodge. Then, maybe, the jungle will come alive.
Hiking to me means mildly hilly woodland trails, so my surprise upon arriving at Mosselbaai’s most popular spot was mixed with an anxiety that the mountainous terrain would prove to be too much for my Western New York legs. However, two hours later, any sweat from the climb had been soothed away by brine mists that danced up the sheer drops of the jagged rock face and I was convinced the five day Saint Blaize Trail lives up to its reputation as a must for avid hikers and adventure seekers all over the globe.
The trek offers eye catching views for casual walkers as well, with photo ops of seal bounding through foaming waves that crash onto bronze cliffs, a variety of vivid pink, white, red, and yellow wildflowers that help make Mosselbaai a mecca for herbology enthusiasts; gentle fluttering butterflies, glimpses back in time with seashells left behind by ancient natives, and a gradual erosion of rocks to smooth sand. However, the trail’s Oystercatcher Path has more secrets than just stone-scratched caves and untold histories hiding in its hills.
My first initiation with South African wildlife was not the big five in a game reserve, but the elephants’ beaver meets guinea pig meets squirrel relative, the dassie, an oddball that frequents the area. The experience begins in the parking lot when the skittering rock rat stops to give a memorable welcome, zipping back and forth across the worn tar pavement, dashing under green paint chipped park benches, and hiding behind oblivious sneakers. These goofy critters are more than willing to pose for a glamour shot, but the taciturn and trusting attitude of the animal is anything but ordinary. Dassies are natural foragers and due to regular feedings by hikers and uncovered trash cans, the creatures have started to associate humans with an easy meal and are no longer bothered by the close proximity of curious tourists.
South Africa has strict trash and recycling policies in place, and most receptacles are not easily accessible to animals. Mosselbaai requires residents to sort their refuse and dispose of plastics, paper products, and glass properly in the blue bags given to each household by the municipality. With sites like My Waste, finding a center is never an issue, and the city has also set up bins to manage the daily out and about waste. Tourists, however, are not always ready to adapt ritual habits like tossing trash on the ground, picking up dropped items, or feeding wildlife.
Walking the trail, it is easy to overlook innocuous litter while soaking in the scenery, but unfortunately the dassies are not as oblivious. Ice cream containers, snack wrappers, soda bottles: much of this tossed trash offers a tasty treat to the hungry dassie.
Why is feeding the adorable dassie an issue? Studies have shown that feeding wild animals, even those as small as this rock rat, can make the creature lose their fear of people and cause them to become a nuisance as they begin to actively seek out sustenance. Another problem with panhandling meals to wildlife, especially in areas like the Saint Blaize Trail which begins on the edge of a public area filled with restaurants like Big Blue and snack shacks such as The Waffle Hut, is that the creatures put themselves and others into dangerous situations.
A recent example of the effects of introducing human delicacies into wild animals’ diets in South Africa can be seen in the Knysna baboon crisis. What started as a seasonal occurrence has turned into a full scale invasion. Knysna turned into a war zone, with baboons facing off with adult males and killing domestic pets to gain access to a much needed supply of food. Luckily, instead of destroying the dangerous new inhabitants, locals started efforts to coexist with the animals, rendering appetizing items inaccessible and placing locks on bins. The Action Group began to understand the situation, realizing that humans had unintentionally created the problem through the provision of tasty treats to the hungry baboons.
The Saint Blaize Trail dassies, like the Knysna baboons, have begun to evolve into a local dilemma due to the creatures search for grub. The vegetation surrounding the area is minimal, yet the dassie population continues to grow due to the meals of chips and french fries provided. This association with food has already started to cause problems. There have not been instances of dassies stowing away in vehicles near Oystercatcher Path, but there have been several surprised hikers who arrived hoping for sun and scenic views and left with souvenir bites. The animals also have begun to attempt to seek sanctuary beside automobile wheels. Though cute, the dassie can carry diseases like rabies, making what should be an enjoyable experience dangerous for unsuspecting walkers. Also, despite the population growth, the species is at risk of dying out in Mosselbaai due to their new artificial diets, a death that would leave Hyraceum perfume makers scrambling for ingredients and the Saint Blaize Trail lacking its delightful welcome committee.
Dassies have no qualms about getting up close and personal with human visitors, and in time the minor inconveniences may escalate into a much bigger dilemma. While it’s tempting to share a bit of your burger or step over the abandoned bits of rubbish while snapping a panoramic view of the bay to show off on Facebook, take a moment think of the dassie. This creature that made you squeal in childish wonder when you pulled up to Saint Blaize Trail, whose very nature is changing with each human decision that is made, is counting on us to fight for its continued existence.