I just saw the first swallow of spring! A little later than last year, but I am overjoyed!
I saw flights of swifts and swallows
Whilst out among the hills, I was amazed to see three separate flights of swifts and swallows along the route! The biggest of these I filmed, a flock of at least a hundred birds: Alpine and African Black Swifts and White-throated Swallows. Though swifts look very much like swallows on the wing, they are in fact classified as hummingbirds; even so, they behave much the same. Watching them mill high and low about me was otherworldly! They do this to feed on flying insects, but I like to think also for the pure exhilaration of flying.
I watched a crane leaping in the wind
On another occasion, I saw two pairs of Blue or Paradise Cranes (Grus paradisea) among the hills. This time of year, they are watching their eggs, laid directly on the ground, usually in the stubble of harvested wheat fields. The first pair was at the summit of a gentle hill. At one point, the male spread his wings and leapt into the air on the wind! Blue Crane males dance to attract a partner, but since he was already paired up, I presume he was simply enjoying the flow of air. The second pair was more serene, quietly pacing in the stubble.
I started composing “Over the Mountain”
“Over the Mountain” started out as a caption to a photograph I posted to social media1 in late 2017. It showed the open skies, rolling hills and distant mountains so typical of the region in which I live, the Overberg2. Accompanying this impromptu photograph was the line “The fields become the hills and the mountains become the sky”. Not long after, it occurred to me that it may have poetic value. Initially, I thought to explore in “rolling” lines the undulating landscape of the region, and a rough sketch titled “A Vista” was born.
At the end of 2018, I began developing the draft. My intention was to compose one verse extolling the beauty of the landscape, but as I reflected on the photograph—and the frame of mind that prompted the original sketch—it became clear that this would not be adequate. There is so much more to the region than the distinctive patterns and colours of agriculture upon the land: splendid creatures dwelling in the valleys and mountains! I sought therefore to encapsulate my admiration for the Overberg in a kind of poetic “song”.
Inspired by the name of the region, “Over the Mountain”—a play on Overberg—slowly took shape, resulting in a number of amusing verses and refrains, amongst others: “Over the berg! / Over the berg! / Over the berg I go! // No more ’scrapers, / No more papers, / Over the berg I go!” This, of course, did not align with the style and tone of the collection, and it was clear that I had to write from a different perspective. The “song” route was not entirely fruitless, however, for it provided the raw material for the approach that would replace it.
Instead of composing a lighthearted “ditty”, I chose to think of the poem as a “hymn”. Consequently, it became more solemn—though no less exuberant—each verse painting a vignette of the Overberg, scenes I would not trade for the world: the hillsides where the Rhebok3 watches, the fields where the wheat blows in the wind, the heavens where the buzzard4 circles, to name a few examples. The poem is now in its final phase where I must select from the many verse variations I developed, those most promising for the final composition.
I learnt about the plight of the rhebok
“Over the Mountain” naturally lead me to research the Rhebok. I was dismayed to discover that it was declared endangered in September 2017. This is mainly the result of hunting and a loss of habitat. Hunters consider them a great prize since they are difficult to find, stalk and shoot. You see them very rarely; they are shy, cautious and fast. Hunting, in addition to the expansion of farmland and the use of traps set for other animals, has devastated their numbers; and thus they join the Blue Crane on the threatened species list.
The unfortunate news brought to mind my earliest encounter with the Rhebok (or Ribbok5, in Afrikaans). It was not a sighting, but a song from my childhood. “Die Oukraalliedjie” is a well-known Afrikaans folk song (about a song) about a farm called Oukraal6. In one of its verses, it mentions “’n ribbok wat daar teen die rantjie staan”7 (“a rhebok that stands against the hill”). Imagine my delight when decades later, upon one of my rambles, I should see a Rhebok for the first time in just such a scene: quietly grazing against a hillside—
Incredibly, at first, my presence did not disturb it. It was only when I produced my camera that it lost its nerve and bolted swiftly up and over the hill. I was fortunate to capture this flight in a series of photographs which I later used to confirm that it was indeed the Grey Rhebok, Pelea capreolus. Though I pass that area often, I have not seen it since. There was one evening I saw a buck darting by the wayside in the bushes; I suspect it may have been a young Rhebok, but in the low light, I could not tell. I wait patiently to see one again.
- The original post can be viewed here (Twitter).
- A chiefly agricultural region in the Western Cape province of South Africa. “Overberg” (pronounced “oowuh-fiR-beh-R-CH”, a trilled “R” and a guttural “CH” as in “kccch” or “kgggh”) is Dutch for “over the mountain”.
- The Rhebok is a medium-sized South African antelope.
- Incidentally, the buzzard is a large bird of prey resembling a hawk. I photographed it early in 2018 and posted it here (Twitter). As you will see, it is not a vulture, as American English suggests. It is often seen circling high above, something I was able to capture (by complete accident) in 2017, which can be watched here (Twitter).
- Pronounced “Rh-bock” with a trilled “R” and the “o” a shortened version of that in “or”.
- “Die Oukraalliedjie” (pronounced “di oh-kRaahl-likki” with the “i” in “it” and a trilled “R”) is Afrikaans for “The Ol’ Pen Ditty”. “Liedjie” (pronounced “likki” with the “i” in “it”) is Afrikaans for “ditty” or “little song” and “Oukraal” (pronounced “oh-kRaahl” with a trilled “R”) is Afrikaans for “Ol’ Pen” (“ol’” as in “old” and “pen” as in an enclosure for animals), the name of a farm.
- Literally, “a rhebok that there against the little hill stands”. The line appears at the end of the first verse around the 0:20 mark. You can listen to the song as recorded by Groep Twee (Afrikaans for “group two”, pronounced “CHRoup tweeuh” with the guttural “CH” as in “kccch” or “kgggh” and a trilled “R”) on Apple Music, Spotify or Youtube.