THE END OF AN ERA
The end of our nine-year sojourn in Iswepe came to an unexpectedly sudden end when Barry was phoned by the MD of the company and given the option of a transfer to Hermannsburg, another tiny hamlet, this time in Kwazulu-Natal.
After a brief discussion of our options we decided that the positives far outweighed the negatives and Barry accepted. First, however, he had an operation to undergo, and this took place a few weeks after the news of our impending move.
The six weeks of recovery was a very trying time – for me.
Barry is a very active person and having nothing to do but watch television and read newspapers, thoroughly bored him. It was during this period that I realised that my husband suffers quite severely from Manager Syndrome. This unfortunate malady strikes men who have secretaries and other subordinates who jump to their bidding. They are then under the impression that their wives will willingly take on the role of these unfortunate underlings whenever necessary. (Yes, raised eyebrows and slightly heated exchanges were involved in the retraining. Not of me, I might add.)
The knee joint and the operation site on the shin bone had to be iced four times a day. On one occasion, soon after his return from hospital, I was busy elsewhere and out of earshot of the bedroom, when I heard my cell phone ringing. I do not carry my cell phone around with me when I’m at home, so I had a mad dash to get to it only to discover that I was being summoned to attend to His Majesty in the bedroom and that I was a few minutes late with the ice-packs!
This happened more than once. (Yes, the retraining was not a quick and simple matter.)
However, this annoying and prolonged stay in the bedroom did have a fascinating upside – it gave me a surprising insight into the ways of swallows.
We had a resident pair of whitethroat swallows which nested under the eaves of the outbuilding at the upper end of our property every summer, but it was only with the advent of Tilly and Poppy that we got to know them really well.
Whitethroats are easily distinguished from the other swallows in our region. Instead of swooping so high in the sky that you can scarcely see them, whitethroats like to skim near the ground. And, my word, they are amazingly swift flyers!
In early spring, these two whitethroats spent much time swooping over the lawn to and from the dam as they collected mud pellets from the dam to refurbish their nest. When feeding, they skimmed in all directions either over the lawn or over the dam as they feasted on the clouds of ever-present insects.
The pups were just on three months old when the whitethroats arrived for their annual visit and it was not long before the hunt was on. It was almost as though those two swallows had made a pact to train those puppies and turn them into Olympic athletes. We had no need to take them for walks. The swallows did all the work for us.
The swallows’ training sessions took place on the front lawn and were carried out by both parties with serious dedication.
Although Poppy would dearly have liked to catch one, it was more of a fun game for her. After half an hour or so of strenuous sprinting, she would give it up and lie happily panting in the shade of the nearest tree. (In all fairness to Poppy though, anyone sprinting in a thick, black coat would be happy to get into the shade for a rest!)
But Tilly was altogether another matter.
She grew up to be a tiny and dainty lady, with slightly longer legs than is usual in daxies, and her daily workout turned her lithe little body into an athletic machine with amazing speed and stamina. She could run for hours. (Up until then we had never owned a dog with so much staying power and we were all convinced that if we had lived in the appropriate place, she could have become a champion daxie sprinter.)
With typical daxie determination she become a true fanatic, as obsessed with birds as Wolfie was with shadows.
Even when she came inside, her time was spent mostly on the back of the couch in the lounge, staring out of the window for any sign of the “bird”. Yes, any mention of the b-word and she was off the couch in a flash and into the garden to continue the hunt.
She became a most uncomfortable travelling companion in the car, because even the trips to the vet were birding expeditions. She would jump onto your lap to get her front paws onto the dashboard, keeping her eyes peeled and fixed skyward, her tail wagging furiously and whining in excitement – all the way. And if she actually saw a bird, well, semi-hysteria ensued!
When the pups grew older, we introduced them to the dam, to their great delight, as they could now also chase those pesky swallows when they zipped over the water!
Although Tilly could swim quite well, it was here that Poppy came into her own.
She absolutely loved swimming. She had an unusually long back – quite out of proportion with her legs – and also a surprising amount of weight on her abdomen. This made her more buoyant than is usual, so she was very comfortable in the water. In fact, she could swim for as long as Tilly could run.
Besides being a better swimmer, she also had the advantage over Tilly in that she found the cold dam refreshing, while Tilly, with her thin coat and without an ounce of surplus fat, soon got cold.
Poppy would swim after the swallows and then rapidly change direction as they flew past her head. Up and down the dam they went. It appeared as though the birds were deliberately dive-bombing her, and she, almost beside herself with excitement, would turn frantic pirouettes in the water, lunging at them as they went past, but never succeeding in catching them.
Tasha became absolutely convinced that the swallows were thoroughly enjoying themselves and were actually deliberately teasing the dogs. I could not make up my mind. Surely birds did not have that kind of reasoning ability?
Then something happened to change my mind.
During the weeks of Barry’s confinement, I had placed my dressing-table stool against the wall below the window and, after jumping up onto it, Tilly discovered that she had the most marvellous view of the lawn, right down to the dam! Here she kept a keen and devoted vigil.
One afternoon, she was upright on the stool as usual, her front paws resting on the windowsill, when she noticed a pair of visiting striped swallows perched on the telephone wire which joined the house just above our bedroom window. She whined with excitement and her tail wagged furiously. Suddenly one of them fluttered down and hovered right in front of her, practically beak to muzzle, with only the thin window pane separating them. Tilly became almost hysterical and that swallow just stayed in place, hovering in the most provocative manner. I could scarcely believe what I was seeing!
After that I looked at the whitethroat chases in the garden and the dam with new eyes. They were definitely having fun with both dogs!
It was only on one occasion that I ever saw Tilly give up the chase.
Although only one pair of whitethroats nested in our garden, there were easily another ten to twelve pairs in the area and they also came to feed over the dam, often extending their flights over our lawn, especially in the late afternoons. The pups would be almost beside themselves with excitement as four to six birds at a time whizzed past their noses in different directions.
One afternoon in autumn, these whitethroats were joined by a gathering of European swallows. There must have been at least three hundred of them. It was difficult to count as they kept flying from their perch on the power cables nearby and swooping over the dam, the garden and the adjacent veld. It was a fantastic sight!
The pups, now a year old, tried their best. They valiantly sprinted after them but they became more and more confused as dozens and dozens of birds flew over them – the whitethroats along the ground and the others flying up into the sky and swooping downwards again in dozens of different directions.
Poppy was the first to give it up as a forlorn task, but Tilly was not so easily deterred.
Eventually, however, even she was forced to give up the quest.
To save face (her reputation was at stake!) she plonked herself down and feigned utter unconcern. In fact, she didn’t even see them. So there!
We return now to the subject at hand.
By mid-October, Barry, pronounced by the surgeon to be fit to go, started commuting to Hermannsburg, coming home over the weekends. (It’s a four hour trip.) For reasons not relevant here, Tasha and I only moved the following year. Thus it was that we were able to enjoy the rest of that glorious spring and the summer months in the place we had come to love.
It was almost as if nature pulled out all the stops to give us a show to end all shows – a grand finale.
Never had the azaleas looked as lovely. As they did not all bloom at the same time, the garden was a profusion of colour for almost the entire spring.
And the birds!
Down at the dam four kinds of kingfishers and four kinds of herons were regular visitors.
A female black sunbird (which is brown) came and built her nest in the tree which provided the paradise flycatchers with such a feast. (See The Guardian and Porridge Face) As this was in full view of one of the kitchen windows, I was able to keep an interested eye on the entire process. She built the most exquisite nest, with a little awning over the opening, like a little porch! Her husband (ebony with green jewelled cap and purple chest) came to check up on her a few times, but she did all the building and hatching and feeding herself.
In the pine grove, two black crows and a flock of Cape weavers nested. A flock of masked weavers preferred a tree at the back. (I was privileged to see an African cuckoo and a Diederick’s cuckoo being fed by their frantic weaver parents.) There were many others, too many to list without causing most of you to get glazed expressions. Suffice it to say that I felt as though I had my own personal bird sanctuary.
The most entertaining of the lot was a bokmakierie – a kind of shrike. This beautiful bird has greenish upper parts, a yellow belly and throat, and a broad black collar. It was, in fact, the third season in a row that he spent the summer in our garden.
This silly bird seemed to be suffering from a severe Narcissus complex, for he spent hours courting himself in the reflection of a garage window. He lovingly tapped the window and sang seductively, occasionally jumping at his reflection in an agony of frustrated love.
But, in spite of the beauty surrounding us, we remained constantly aware that we had one unpleasant and difficult decision ahead of us.
Although Wolfie still ate well, and was quite jaunty when he followed The Hand down to the dam, and he still enjoyed lying in the cool water, he was becoming weak, and often stumbled. He could also no longer stand for longer than a few minutes. He was getting stiffer by the day and was starting to get that inward-looking expression which animals get when they are suffering.
We were constantly monitoring his condition and then, in the months while we were packing, we noticed that his abdomen was becoming quite taut and swollen. It was almost certain that the testicular cancer had metastasised.
We agreed that it would be unfair to put him through the trauma of the move, so the week before we left Iswepe, Barry and Tasha took him through to Piet Retief.
Tasha says he lay down obediently on the floor and the vet knelt down to administer the injection.
As it took effect, Wolfie let out a long sigh, as though of great relief.
We did not grieve as we had done after the loss of Lulu and Scampy, for we had known for a long time that this decision was inevitable, although, exactly as had happened when her mother had disappeared from her life, Tess’s bewilderment and puzzled search for him wrung my heart.
He had been a particularly gentle and good-natured dog and he had crept deep into our hearts.
As the first of our Rottweilers, he was responsible for our falling in love with the breed.
Ask most people which breed they consider to be the most vicious and dangerous and you can be sure that many, if not most, people will choose the Rottweiler. But Wolfie was a revelation to us. Rottweilers love their humans and always want to be with them. In fact, while it is cruel to leave any dog on its own, because they are social animals which belong in a pack, it is particularly cruel to leave a Rottweiler to spend most of its life outside on its own. They are very family-centred. (It is a good idea to socialise them, however, especially with strange dogs and cats, as their hunting instinct is very strong, as we found to our cost. See The Hunters.)
Being working dogs they are very focused on pleasing their humans so they are easy to train, and their strong territorial instinct with their Rottweiler Rush tactics (which I have described at length before in Shadow Chaser) and intimidating display at your gate or fence, go a long way to keeping intruders away.
The final Iswepe tally was high. During those nine years we had lost two poodles, two cats, two Rottweilers, two dachshunds, and five of sixteen puppies.
However, as all pet lovers know – you will more likely than not outlive your pets, and somewhere along the line you will surely have to nurse a broken heart, but oh, the joy and delight of loving and being loved by them!
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