By Debby Kay © 2017 All rights reserved
As our Land Cruiser slowly inched across the rocky terrain the sun began to rise to take away the evening chill. Soon the driver stopped by a daunting cliff making like a natural rock terrace overlooking the reservoir. This was the main water source for all the animals for miles around. Carefully they filed in to get their fill before heading out forging. It did not seem like there was much here to support life yet hundreds of animals, many of them quite large, called this home.
Our guide laid out a cloth, mugs of hot coffee, and tins filled with fresh baked muffins and cookies. Even my dull sense of smell was aroused with the waifs of blueberry and warmed raisins. I was not the only one however that took interest in the feast before us. From the crevice of a boulder emerged an elephant shrew, so named for their proboscis like extension of a nose. The shrew was nervous about the human presence but we all held quite still and soon he got enough nerve to come closer to the bit of crumbs the guide had tossed on the rock. Using his “trunk” he carefully sniffed the crumbs before snatching them up then scurrying away. As if a signal, a chorus of several different species of birds soon appeared to get whatever the shrew had found so inviting. The parade of marauders made for pleasant entertainment during our coffee break.
After cleaning up we began to trek down through this mountain gorge to the other side to an overhand of rock about the size of a midsize sedan. At this spot the sandstone had cleaved in such a manner that it made a curved semi cave like shelter with large boulders to either side as further protection from the wind and weather.
As I took that like step then looked up, before me was a mural of 10,000-year-old bushman cave art. We studied the figures one by one as our guide talked about the lost culture of the nomadic hunter gathering Sans tribe of bushman. Here was the story of a hunting party and some of the events surrounding it. These people traveled with the migrating herds and changing seasons over a large area of southern Africa. They had learned over time all the natural signals for the coming of rains, the main signal that young will be born and there will be an abundance of food. As the tribes moved about on these migratory routes they seemingly had favorite caves they frequented where murals were left to mark their passing.
Over my limited days here I looked at other cave drawings and learned more about survival in this forsaken land of extremes. The strategies adopted by the smallest of carnivorous insects, birds, plants, even the endangered fish of the area were all evolved to fill a niche that somehow maintained a rich diversity of life in spite of the semi arid conditions.
The area where we were studying the cave drawings was also home to a preservation program for the nearly extinct and quite rare Rock Mountain Zebra. These stunning creatures live in small family groups with one stallion and a handful of mares. The battles between stallions can become quite brutal and we saw one fella lose a tail over his fight to keep his ladies. These sentinel males will stay in the background always alert to danger and will run at the back of the herd as protection against any attackers.
Weaverbirds caught my attention with their lovely woven orbs of a nest decorating the trees as if for the holidays. The males will spend days preparing just the right home in
hopes that a receptive female will approve it and allow him to mate. It seems the skill is learned and they will get better at it as time goes on, in the meantime a male lacking sufficient skills might be a bachelor for several seasons until he gets things right. This whole ecosystem is harsh and unforgiving, anyone who lives here fights daily for existence but they have learned to use the strengths of others to increase their chances for survival. I spent the hours I had here watching in awe at all these dramas unfold. As I learned and studied life both present and past in the area I was reminded how the lessons of the Bushman’s land echo the lessons of our own struggles in modern society.
I would not be true to my nature if I traveled and failed to observe and report on the indigenous dogs of the area. I was particularly keen to learn about the native dogs of Africa where many modern breeds that I judge at shows claim as the continent of their origins. As it turns out there is a dog here known all over the continent as the Africanis who until relatively recently was left to evolve without the muddling of the gene pool by humans. These dogs I learned evolved from the primeval Levantine wolf stock and were untouched by human manipulation for over 7,000 years. They are what I envision as the dogs that early humans formed a hunting pact with which transformed both the canine and human’s survival to today. I regret I was not able to go out with the local tribesmen on a hunting party however I was fortunate enough to add a rare book to my collection documenting several decades of study of the Africanis by a well-known African canologist.
The thing that will strike you about these dogs is the how remarkably well built they are. There are no poor gaits, any poor structure has been weeded out long ago as evidenced by the perfect, effortless trotting I watched from every dog that I saw. There is more uniformity than you might think for a race that nature selected. The sizes do have some range to them but that is more dependent on the region where the dogs come from and appears to be an adaptation to that local environment. As I have noticed with other breeds in colder and more mountainous environments the dogs here have shorter and heavier of bone with denser coats to ward off the cold relative to the plain dwelling dogs. The plain dwelling dogs are normally of the racier body build with longer, thinner legs. Ear types will vary but the large prick ear seems to be the most dominate. If there is any pressure from humans on the selection of breeding stock at all it will be against those dogs that molest stock that the tribes might tend. The dogs are expected to tolerate the stock and leave it alone. Their job of hunting is quite specific and any dog that persists in pestering stock is taken care of without reservation. Food is scarce and sacred in this harsh bush country and stock is precious for survival.
The main purpose of my trip was to help a new charity get off the ground in medical alert training of dogs. As it turns out one of the dogs that will be entering the diabetes alert program here is a rescued Africanis. I think she might do quite well, her nose never quit sampling the air the whole time I was evaluating her for training. I was able to look at several other Africanis at a local rescue shelter that I also felt had potential. I will be very keen to learn of their progress as training proceeds with the local trainer. My month in South Africa has been a wonderful blend of work and study with a splash of sightseeing, wine sampling and beach combing. I’ve come away with an even stronger conviction that the dogs we so love, that help us daily with their special skills are a precious gift from nature. They very well could have chosen to not partner with early humans and I am sure as I saw from the Africanis, they would have done quite well. Certainly much better than humans left to their own.
 The Story of the African Dog by Johan Gallant, University of Natal Press, 2002