Park off west for a cool day
It has been a long time since I visited the West Coast National Park but recently I made the trip to this really lovely venue and not only enjoyed a great walk but as things turned out had rather an educational day to boot.
The drive out was cool, with low cloud or sea mist blowing inland and offering a respite from days of stifling heat. The journey was enhanced by the fact that I was going against the Monday morning commuter traffic. There is little that will lift my spirits more than heading in the opposite direction to the power-dressed masses racing to the office, particularly if I have a date with nature and a pair of hiking boots.
The West Coast National Park is about an hour from Cape Town on the R27 and takes in much of Langebaan lagoon, offering various types of accommodation, day hikes, excellent birding, kayaking and kiteboarding, game viewing and even whale-watching at certain times of the year. You can get in with no additional cost with a Wild Card.
The speed limit in the park is a slow 50km/h which affords plenty of opportunity to keep an eye out for game. Not far inside the gate I passed a black-shouldered kite sitting atop a road sign but he took flight before I could whip out the camera. A few hundred metres on I came across an eland bull and was able to watch him at close quarters for some time. I had never been that close to an eland previously and I was fascinated to note that he seemed to emit a metallic click while he walked, something of which I was previously unaware and yet I could see no obvious reason for the noise.
I thought little more of it and sought out information about hiking possibilities at the Geelbek Information Centre. I found there were several day hikes, ranging from the 4.6km Bakoor Trail near the Langebaan Gate to the Strandveld Trail, which in fact is two separate day hikes of 14km with short cuts that bring them down to 7km and 9km if one is feeling less energetic.
Eventually I decided on a 14km trek which would take me mostly through the scrubby bush but also along a short section of 16 Mile Beach. Much of the hike, I have to admit, was pretty uneventful; ostriches and tortoises abound although it was surprising how skittish the large birds were, bolting when I was still far away, tail feathers fluttering and appearing for all the world like groups of panicked Victorian ladies, bustles bobbing in their agitation.
It was getting warm but as I neared the coast the remnants of the sea mist lingered, magnifying the sound of the surf to a booming base tone and at the same time offering some air-conditioning to my somewhat overheated body. A quick dip in the sea to cool off and I headed back inland, the beach for all its magnificence lost in the swirling grey cloud.
Not long after, as I approached the info centre once more, I passed another large eland bull together with his harem, and I once more noticed the distinct clicking of his gait, which made me decide I’d have to do some research on my return home. I passed more ostriches, more tortoises, the occasional bontebok and caught the odd glimpse of the blue waters of the lagoon in the distance as I covered the final couple of kilometres but that clicking was much on my mind.
Back home I checked out the clicking eland and discovered something quite fascinating. It turns out that two scientists, Dr Jakob Bro-Jorgensen of the Zoological Society of London and Torben Dabelsteen of the University of Copenhagen, have researched this phenomenon.
Apparently the noise comes from the flicking of a tendon over the bone in the eland’s knee but that isn’t the interesting part.
The interesting part is that the tone is determined by the thickness and length of the tendon. The bigger and stronger the bull the deeper the sound, and it signifies to all the state of his health and fitness for a fight.
Being well endowed with sharp horns, fighting for the attention of the girls can be a risky business and with this signal other bulls are able to weigh up their chances before engaging in the eland equivalent of fisticuffs.
Even more fascinating is that, because it is genuinely a function of biologically demonstrable good health, size and vitality, the eland can’t cheat. Apparently if you are an eland bull you either are big and strong with noisy knees and you get the girl, or you are not and there is no faking it.
The same system would never work for higher primates because there would be a roaring trade in “knee augmentation surgery”. We are a deceptive lot, we primates, but the eland it seems is a creature of morals, if not by intent at least by design.
Nature enthralls me with its endless complexity and it is astounding that if you only make the effort to get out there into it you will find something of interest on almost every trip. The Western Cape is blessed with lots of open space and national parks, not far from Cape Town, and I urge you to make the most of them. - Sunday Argus