Friday, November 22, 2013

Poison Mountain, and Another Fat Dog


The last time the Kaartmans visited there was January 2009. That was a mistake; it was 43 degrees when we arrived, and we spent the night outside, lying on a mattress in our underclothes. In the morning it was still 36 degrees; we drove away with the aircon on level five and promptly got bogged down to the axles of our small Bantam bakkie in a lonely drift, miles from anywhere.
We were rescued by a pleasant young man from Wiedouw, the farm at the bottom of the pass, and hence lived to tell the tale, but I digress. A few weeks ago we returned to Gifberg, in delightfully cool weather, in a rather larger vehicle, and we had a ball.
We went to explore possibilities for a map of the Gifberg paths for our host, Jansu Huisamen. Jansu tells us that the popular season at Gifberg is more or less from Easter until October, with a brief Christmas peak. Gifberg’s spring flowers are great, but even though our November visit was too late for those, the fynbos was full of eye-catching beauties.
Jansu handed us over to Spook for the first morning. Spook is a sort-of terrier who closely resembles the late Minnie, of Fat Dog fame, except that Spook is much fatter. Spook in turn introduced us to Putty, a cool young Weimeraner, who barked twice and produced Jacques Tredoux. Jacques is a fully-qualified field guide, born and bred in the Cederberg, one of those ouens with a scary, encyclopedic knowledge of tracks and dung and stones and most, if not all, of the floral beauties of the Poison Mountain. With or without Spook or Putty we can strongly recommend him as a guide. Ou toppies go slowly up hills and get ridiculously cantankerous when hot; Jacques managed us ou toppies and our even older Professor friend with skill, if not aplomb. 
Pics of a gifboom, its flowers and fruits from Plantzafrica
Gifberg is named, of course, for the presence there of the gifboom. Try to google ‘gifboom’ and you’ll get about nine million entries for a phone app called ‘gifboom’ which has something to do with swopping pictures and making movies about twerking. It’s a pity the Gifberg Bushmen didn’t register ‘gifboom’ as a cultural name, like champagne, sherry and rooibos tea, but there it is. Lost to the nation, you could say. Nevertheless, from Google I eventually dug up three plants called ‘gifboom’: a Namibian euphorbia, a Southern Cape shrubby tree, and the real thing, Hyaenanche globosa, which you can read all about at an excellent web page, http://www.plantzafrica.com/planthij/hyaenancheglob.htm.
The page’s author, the esteemed Ernst van Jaarsveld, says (amongst lots of other equally interesting stuff), “The local common name gifboom (gif = poison, and boom = tree) pertains to its toxic attributes and the name Gifberg is derived from the common name of this plant. The gifboom ... was first documented by a number of prominent European botanists visiting the Cape during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The first to come across this plant was the Van der Stel expedition, en route to the Koperberg, Namaqualand in 1685 ... Aylmer Lambert (1761–1842), a British botanist, created the genus name Hyaenanche (after its use by farmers to kill hyenas) in 1799.
Other Gifberg beauties: clockwise from top left, a Cotyledon or gwi; a daisy with a beetle; Leucospermum praemorsum; firesticks [koenakam] in berry (Diospyros austro-africanus)
“According to Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk (1962) the seed of Hyaenanche was used both by Bushmen for their arrows, and well as farmers to poison carcasses with the purpose of destroying hyenas. In 1797 Lambert wrote: ‘This shrub grows about two hundred miles from the Cape, in a rocky soil, in a single spot, on Wind-Hook Mountain near the Elephants River. A farmer lives there who collects the fruit, by which he makes profit of about 20 pounds per annum, selling it for the purpose of poisoning hyenas. The fruit is pounded into a powder and administered in the same manner as Nux Vomica. The powder is put into the carcasses of lambs, which are laid where the hyenas are known to come. By eating its flesh they are infallibly destroyed ...’”
Clockwise from top left: Spook leading us home; Rock painting of people in karosses – the men have arrows in their hats; youths frolicking around in a rather Grecian manner; the iconic Gifberg ladies
Don’t season your mutton braai tjops with ground gifboom: your destruction will infallibly follow. We avoided the November-flowering gifboom and set off with Jacques to see the rock paintings, for which the Gifberg Resort is justifiably famous. There are several sites strung alone the sides of the impressive Gifberg River Canyon, and in some of them the paintings are so well-preserved that your initial impression might be (wrongly) that someone has repainted them.
As the day got hotter chubby old Spook led us home, and while the rest of the Cape prepared itself for some pretty devastating floods we snoozed away a sunny afternoon (’strue).
Left: Jacques sorts his artefacts while Putty matches the cave d├ęcor; the Professor takes a photo [yes, he did cut the figure’s head off!]
Early the next morning Spook arrived, panting, to wake us up. The poor fellow seemed devastated, however, when we all climbed into Jansu’s 4 x 4 and left him behind. Several kilometres of plaas-pad later, through the healthiest-looking rooibos tea lands you ever saw, we all climbed out to begin our walk; Spook was already there waiting for us, panting.
I don’t know how he did that. I didn’t want to ask. I don’t normally believe in spooks, but ... well, enough said.
Jansu and Jacques, with Jansu’s kleintjie Luca, led us down a valley to spy on a black eagle’s nest. And to see some more great rock art. And baboons. That was the only problematical part of our trip. Not the baboons, but the member of our party who persisted in shouting and waving sticks and throwing stones at them.
I like seeing baboons. They’re as much a part of the wilderness as leopards and ants and black eagles and the gifboom. They’re never a threat to humans, except for the ones ruined by stupid human behaviour at Cape Point. They’re comical and fun to watch, especially their gymnastics up and down cliff faces where us humans would infallibly just die.
‘Hey, you down there! Wait for me!’
We moved on, Spook in the lead, to some truly spectacular paintings and through some truly spectacular pincushions, Leucospermum praemorsum to the botanical boffs. Jansu kindly lifted Spook into the back of the 4x4: he’d done enough panting for the day.
If you have never been there before, it’s time you visited Gifberg. There are very comfortable cottages and four walking trails, from a 2km ramble to the amazing potholes to the long, 21 km trek down into the spectacular Doring River canyon. There are incredible flowers, wonderful rock paintings and, to boot, for a very small fee the expert Jacques will be your guide. 
If you know any young people looking for a great future career, Jacques and Nadia Tredoux are also the proud owner/organisers of the Cederberg Wilderness Academy, where a six month all-found course will leave you qualified to lead parties on wilderness experiences everywhere. Overseas students wanting to fill a gap year after school take note, too! This place is real Africa, where the leopard dung on the paths is pretty darn fresh and quite smelly, and you will never forget the experience.
Just don’t eat the seeds of the gifboom, that’s all. They’re infallible; you’re not.

– Kaartman, 22 November 2013

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