Wake up to Wakkerstroom


The view towards Wakkerstroom’s famous wetlands from town

“So when are YOU moving to Wakkerstroom?”

After being asked that question for about the fifth time during our one-week vacation, we were wondering whether it was the law to ask visitors this, or if the residents of this little village on the border of Mpumalanga and northern KwaZulu Natal genuinely wanted us to emigrate here.

“Emigrate” may seem too strong a term for a mere 300km move within the same country, especially considering we have both previously done the real thing of leaving the respective land of our birth and moving to South Africa. However, the differences in lifestyle between Johannesburg and Wakkerstroom are such that one might as well be in another country altogether. Not wanting to make Jo’burg sound ALL bad (I’ve lived here for forty years and it really isn’t), the quality of life combined with the friendliness of the people and virtual non-existence of crime in this village are worth gold. Why it hasn’t exploded in size and population is a mystery to me.

Make no mistake though – it can be harsh as well, with the winters being very cold and longer than in Jo’burg. Temperatures of -10C at night are not that unusual, although between -2C and -5C are probably more normal. So everyone’s homes are equipped with built-in fireplaces and the like … can’t you imagine that familiar wood smell already? The days in winter are just as mild as in Jozi though. Blue skies, 17C, no problems there. And summers are more pleasant than the boilers Jo’burg has seen of late, up to 27C or so  rather than 33/ 35/ 37 as last summer.

Mind you, we didn’t come for the weather this October. Louise and I had kindly been offered the use of a friend’s holiday home for a week, and we were going to relax, take Ziggy for walks, go bird watching (the real “biggie” of Wakkerstroom), have a meal or two at some of the village’s eateries, and just enjoy some time together after spending a lot of time apart through work. And we did all that, with a lot more walking than expected – the village’s flat open roads really encouraged that – Ziggy thought it was Christmas with two or three walks a day! The birding wasn’t quite as good as usual at this time of year due to the drought, as no rain had fallen yet and the famous wetland had very little water so few of the birds had begun breeding. We enjoyed what we saw though, with African Fish Eagles, Marsh Harrier, Cape Shoveler, as well as flocks of Widowbirds putting on a show. There was also a family of domesticated geese which roamed the streets with their four tiny goslings, with nobody bothering them. Ziggy had her usual vocal arguments with the Hadeda Ibises, and would have loved to catch a guinea fowl or two.


Where geese take their kids walking in the streets

Actually our Ziggy had a highly stimulating time of it. She was very good on her walks off-lead, hardly straying more than a few metres from us. There were so many new sights for her to look at – donkeys, goats, sheep, cattle, and tractors (definitely bark at those – they’re huge and noisy!); then there were horses, people on top of horses, horses without people  trotting behind horses WITH people on top ….. And lots of dogs. In the road, on the smallholdings, barking at the gates, sometimes being a bit over-friendly (probably saying “So…. when are YOU moving to Wakkerstroom?”)


Ziggy meeting new creatures

Also, during most of the time we were there the wind was blowing, and Ziggy had either one or both ears at strange angles. All good fun for her Mums, but causing indignant looks from the lady herself who always tries to look super-cool.

Coming from the big city, it takes a bit of getting used to that everybody greets one another here. A friendly wave from every passing vehicle, a genuine smile and “hello, how are you today” from every person you meet on your wanderings epitomise the real community spirit that exists here. While the races are sadly still mostly separated by geography (the local township nearby far outsizes the rest of the village), there is not the feeling of separate-ness of people, economics or you-will-never-have-what-I-have that Johannesburg sports. It is a tiny community at best.

Which means that everybody knows everybody else’s business. Something else to get used to for anyone moving here from a larger city! Did you know that so-and-so’s son is seeing the florist’s daughter who was engaged to the butcher’s nephew in Amersfoort? The scandal! But there will be nice flowers in the NG Kerk if they get married ey, titter titter!


N.G. Church in the centre of the village

Despite the nosy neighbours this is also the type of community that pulls together in an emergency. You have to out here. The nearest larger town is Volksrust, 27km away. And while there are the most urgent emergency facilities around here, there is for example only one fire truck – and they are only allowed to help with veldfires, not house fires. So if your place is on fire you rely on your neighbours and the community at large, and all differences and gossip are put aside immediately as everyone mucks together to assist. It could be your house tomorrow.

The current drought has no doubt drawn them closer together too; if livestock suffers it’s everybody’s problem. They’re not used to worrying about water in this neck of the woods, as they are usually blessed with it. Now everyone is looking heavenward to watch for the rainclouds. No water restrictions have been implemented, but since many properties have a JoJo tank or similar it shows they are aware of how precious this resource is.

By the way, don’t try to go into any of the shops or restaurants when you’re a hurry – everybody loves to chat. Time is just not a factor here, and you will end up talking about a host of topics from (inevitably) the weather, to the surprisingly busy schedule of weekly happenings in town, the sights to see including where to find the birdlife, the frustrations of changing people’s thought patterns to living more “eco”, the history of a village that dates back to before the First South African War, recycling projects and the new sewage works upgrade, the challenges of building (and gardening) on clay ground, the lifestyle at the retirement village and frail care centre, living off-grid, and how to cope without the convenience of shopping centres.


Old steam engine and a useful oak tree for shade

One area of town that particularly caught our interest was the cemetery. Old ones like the one in Wakkerstroom are really interesting, and if places could talk this one would have some interesting tales to tell. It’s still used to this day, but there are numerous graves dating back to the latter parts of the 19th Century. As this area is part of the Battlefields Region, there is also a section dedicated to both the First and Second South African wars (Anglo Boer Wars), and even a memorial – whether just a marker or his actual gravesite is unclear – of a Victoria Cross recipient from the former conflict. Soldiers from several of the Empire’s countries are buried and remembered by their fellow troops here, and it is moving to read some of the inscriptions.

Interestingly there is a separate memorial to the Boer soldiers at the N.G. Church, as well as to the women and children who died at the British concentration camps at the time. Some memories would not do well side by side.

Remembering the war dead: British graves, and memorial plaque to Victoria Cross recipient Pvt James Osborne

British soldiers who were re-interred from their resting places at Piet Retief. – A Canadian soldier remembered.

The Boer memorial at the NG Kerk.        “In memory of the suffering by Woman and Child during the Second Freedom War, 1899 – 1902”

If you want to know all about the history and everything else in and around Wakkerstroom, you need only pop into the tourism office. I think the gentleman working there could happily keep talking all day – alas, Ziggy dragged us away after an hour or so. We didn’t get time to go to the museum but will save that for the next visit, as well as the views from the surrounding hills, and the recommended drives to nearby battle sites (we were a bit handicapped by not having a high clearance vehicle). You wouldn’t think that there was so much to see and do in this little place, but between our walks, bird watching, visits to the few little shops and chatting to their owners and all the other folks in town, the week flew by. We’ll definitely be back someday soon. To enjoy the peace and quiet, the crime-free feeling, the welcoming people, the birdlife, the climate and fresh air, the history, the views, and the creativity.

So, when are YOU visiting Wakkerstroom?



Oh My Aching Heart, Gareth Patterson

Love & Lollipops

Gareth Patterson's  My Lion's Heart Gareth Patterson’s
My Lion’s Heart

As I read the final page of this book, I remembered why I read fantasy and fiction novels most of the time; they provide an escape from the hardships of life in general. They create doorways to worlds that don’t exist, they open your imagination to lands of mystical beasts and magic, to wondrous creatures and they pretty much always end happily. One cannot say the same for reading life stories and autobiographies, not all are pretty and not all end happily and some just leave you shaken and stirred, sans the olive.

Gareth Patterson’s autobiography, although being steeped in the harsh reality of life in the African bush does not fail to evoke the images of lands of mystical beasts and magic and wondrous creatures, which is all the more heartbreaking for it’s sad reality. I spent many pages of the book with tears…

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A Tale of Two Lion Kitties

A Tale of Two Lion Kitties
Once upon a time there were two little lion cubs in Spain. They had been taken from their loving mother when they were only a few days’ young, by a seemingly-kind Human. This Human fed them only on milk, even as they got older, and never hugged them or cuddled them. The Human advertised the lion cubs to People who wanted their photograph taken with them. Those People paid lots of money to have their photos taken with the babies, even when the cubs were very tired, and even when just wanted to stay under a warm blanket they were dragged out to be pawed and touched and passed around; the People were noisy, shouting and laughing. The cubs didn’t like that at all. Why couldn’t they just go back to Mum?
Because they were fed only cow’s milk, the cubs didn’t grow properly. And they were always feeling hungry – they wanted meat! They didn’t feel well; they were getting seriously ill…..
The end.
Not quite, fortunately. One day an organisation called “Campaign against Canned Hunting” (CACH) in South Africa heard about these cubs in Spain, and asked their volunteers there to look into the situation. Those volunteers acted very quickly, and got the cubs away from the Human, and to experienced wildlife veterinarians. The cubs were put onto medication, antibiotics, and were slowly introduced to a new, better, diet. And they thrived quickly! Within a few weeks they had doubled their weight! Good news indeed.
And the good news doesn’t end there either. Because never again will those cubs have to experience anything like they did in their first months – CACH are currently raising funds to bring them from Spain to South Africa, where Kevin Richardson has offered them a life of peace at his sanctuary near Cullinan near Pretoria. Richardson, known worldwide as The Lion Whisperer for his awe-inspiring interaction with lions as well as hyenas over many years, is an animal behaviourist. He never hesitated when CACH sent him information on the cubs. They will never be able to go back into the wild, as they have been handled by humans from birth and have never been taught how to “be lions”, but at Richardson’s sanctuary they will live in a large enclosure where they will not be “bothered” by People but left much to their own devices, albeit getting their food delivered to them without having to hunt for it themselves – again, this is not something they have ever been taught how to do.
So once upon a time……two little lion cubs were nearly in a lot of trouble and doomed to a short life of malnutrition and confusion. But sometimes fairytales are real, and sometimes they have happy endings.
For more information, and to keep following the cubs’ story, go to http://www.cannedlion.org. For more information on Kevin Richardson and his sanctuary, go to http://www.lionwhisperer.co.za.

Cub petting and walking-with-lions: conservation or death certificate?

When planning a visit to South Africa, most dream of seeing some of her famed wildlife, preferably in its natural environment. These days we are spoilt by television programmes which show up close the marvels of what can be seen on safari, and it is almost expected that – if so fortunate to  be able to go to a wildlife reserve – these animals should just pop out and practically greet one, posing for photographs and videos, doing Africa proud. Well, often they do; not because they mean to, but just because you happen to be near where they want to be walking/ lying/ hunting/ drinking water or whatever else one does as an African animal. And it’s unbelievably exciting to be a part of their day. But even then these animals sometimes seem distant – they are, after all, wild animals and behave as such. And humans have a deep need to “connect” with animals, to be close to them, to feel as though we can communicate with them even. So when offered the chance to cuddle with a cute little lion cub and have your photograph taken for all to admire when you get back from your African holiday – well….. doesn’t that sound like one of the highlights of your trip? Nowadays, there are numerous places in South Africa and other countries, where you can do this, as well as “walking with lions” opportunities – an equally exciting-sounding venture.  Even celebrities are doing it – Kylie Minogue cuddling a cute lion cub, John Edward walking with some half-grown lions during his last South African visit – doesn’t that look great! But did you notice how thin the lions look that he was walking with? Did you notice their empty eyes? Why would little tiny lion cubs want to rather be pawed and manhandled by people all day than be with their mothers, spending their days sleeping and playing with their own kind instead? Isn’t there a little voice in your head asking if this is just not the right thing to do? So why is happening? In short – for the money. Your money. Places offering cub petting and lion walking are feeding directly into the canned hunting industry (where animals are hunted within a limited area, often drugged, with no chance of getting away). And by visiting these places and paying for the privilege of being with these young animals, you are dooming them to a lifetime of suffering and, ultimately, to death. Most of the cubs you see are males. Those are the ones that will ultimately grow the big manes that hunters are after. The cubs have been taken from their mothers within five days of birth – this is so that the females get back into their breeding cycles as quickly as possible. The female cubs are killed, left to starve to death. But even these little ones have value – their bones are shipped to the Far East and used as “tiger bones”. If you are shocked, I’m sorry. But these things ARE shocking – we are about to lose the “King of Beasts” forever – because of greed and money. And YOU can help us stop that. So if you are travelling to Africa to see wildlife, please don’t stop reading now! If you ask questions at these places such as “where are the cubs’ mothers?” you will be told either that they are orphans or that the mothers rejected them – playing on your emotions and ensuring that your caring human side is virtually forced to help these helpless babies – because you are a good person. You will also be told that, once they are old enough, these animals will go back into the wild. Does that make sense to you? You are playing, or walking, with an animal that will be put back into the wild, to find its own food – how will it know not to go to the nearest human village and “ask” for food, a.k.a. kill livestock? How would those humans know that this is an animal used to people? Wouldn’t they just shoot it on sight? A lion is a social animal, the only truly social cat; it grows up in its pride and is taught everything it knows by that pride – socialisation, play, how to hunt, what to hunt. Humans cannot teach them that, especially not by letting hundreds of strangers manhandle it as a baby. This is definitely not what Joy and George Adamson had in mind in Born Free…… This is NOT conservation. The truth is that these cubs, once too big for petting (at around 3-4 months), get passed on to lion walking – once they are too big (too dangerous) for that, they go back to the breeders. For the next few years they live in small camps with dozens of others, growing. All that time they are monitored – if it looks as though their manes are not going to be large, they are killed as no hunter wants a lion with a small mane. Only the biggest males make it to adulthood.  The rest have their bones shipped to the Far East….they are worth a lot of money. In Vietnam a 15 kg skeleton of a lion is mixed with approximately 6 kg of turtle shell, deer antler and monkey bone and then boiled down in large pots over a three day period. This yields about 6-7 kg of “tiger cake”, which is worth at least US$60,000 – $70,000 in Vietnam. Eventually, the lion has made it to adulthood. He has a huge mane, he is in his prime. But he’s not there to impress females, to forge a territory, to fight off other weaker males – he is there for the bullet. A hunter will pay tens of thousands of US dollars to shoot him, and will be given a guarantee that he will be successful. Mostly the hunter won’t be told that this is a “canned hunt”, but does he/ she care? Have you seen the smug and proud grin on a hunter’s face like the now-famous photos of Melissa Bachmann from 2013? Is this what you wanted to support when you cuddled that tiny, helpless lion cub? Of course not, you didn’t know that this is what it leads to. I understand that. But now you DO know. So help spread that new-found knowledge please. Tell other soon-to-be travellers. Tell the “voluntours” who want to travel to Africa and do some good – because they too are duped by places like this. Don’t hide your photos if you went to one of these places – it’s okay to have made a mistake that you didn’t know you were making. Now is your chance to do right by those animals that are still in lion parks such as the one you visited. Tell travel agencies and tour operators to stop supporting them. Use social media to spread the word. Lions need you. There are less than 20 000 left in Africa. In South Africa, we have less than 3000 in the wild – but an estimated 8000 in the canned hunting camps of which up to 1000 are hunted annually. You can help to stop that. Africa without her lions is unthinkable.   Chris Voets For more information on canned hunting, go to www.cannedlion.org