Up the sharp-end without a scope!

By some quirk of fate, we found ourselves in the company of others facing an unpalatable truth. We’d left the spotting-scope on the lee-side of chaos, two fuel-stops further west. Reduced to mayhem, our only option was to scan the wetland – ID the common folk – dismiss these from the assembly – & move on to others with more potential. We were squinting against failure & the stakes were high…

Lebombo / Ressano Garcia border – 6am

 I considered the available evidence.

We’d left Sandton after 11pm on Friday evening and rendezvoused with Helen Biram, a featured doyen. I can confirm ‘doyen’ does exactly what it says on the tin – tenacity the hero of the dish. Helen had dipped the previous week on a reported 1st for Africa – the hitherto suspected, but until recently unreported, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. The ‘Sharpie‘ [dubbed thus by card-carrying members] is an unobtrusive wader given to a scurried life in ankle-deep muck. It’s a furtive beast not unlike a large mouse at an all-u-can-eat buffet for cats.

A subsequent sighting of the same individual, in the company of another [unicorn-stuff], rendered a return trip feasible. We were lucky enough to tag along. Two others joined us – a back-seat stacker not for the spatially aware & especially stiffening with the addition of Sebastian, our 3-yr old son who values sprawl over form.

… returned on a predicted tide

The rapid volte face following the bird’s rediscovery on Thursday – the reprobate had gone AWOL for an indeterminable number of days – was an emotive demonstration of the fickleness of the gag. In unison we faced east & scuttled back to Mozambique’s Marracuene – a mixed-fortunes’ village, near Macaneta, north of Maputo.

Most caught the wave in by air – we drove.

Driving to far-flung corners, in pursuit of waifs, is our tattoo in trade. Between us & ‘Sharpie‘ nirvana, however, crouched the Lebombo / Ressano Garcia border – a soulless, wretched creature. It occurred to me that there was a distinct possibility that I would lose my sh*t & punch babies. This den of thieves is a criminal guild masquerading as ‘a centre for cross-border formalities’. Fortunately, we arrived in the wee hours – pre-empting the Saturday morning 6am opening bell – a minute after 5. The queue to the front-desk wound around eternity three times. Babies nodded skyward & thanked the Ides of March; apparently this border’s busiest time – a fact unknown to us until then. We stepped out of the chaos by vaulting over the middle island & by ‘vault’ I mean in the vehicle – over foot-high concrete. Back on earth; a few clicks westward & 60 more southwards – the Swaziland / South Africa border beckoned. The detour offered a loop around the hole. Don’t say I didn’t tell-ya. Use it. 30 minutes more and we were on the legal side of Mozambique’s Namaacha border singing coastwards; success the sugar on our off-key tune. Those who couldn’t sing whistled eastwards on hot-cross buns & other culinary delights; the unsavoury charms of border-police all but forgotten.

…Crouched the Lebombo / Ressano Garcia border – a soulless, wretched creature.

By 11am we were on-site. Nearer 1pm any imagined thoughts of success were replaced by the tortured-metal (silent) screams of too-far to tell. Before 2 we gave up the unequal struggle and checked into our night’s accommodation; a gambit from one of two Facebook recommendations. We pulled one – Tan ‘n Biki – others wanted two – Lugar do Mar – but made do with one anyway. If sticks over bricks is your preference, goto T ‘n B – vice versa if you want more for more & Wi-Fi. Tan’s nearer the beach – has the smell of drying fish, fair food, grass cover & some coastal bush. Mar has no beach, few fish, air-conditioning, different bush and no grass. Get a singleton cottage if you head to Tan – forego the 6-bedded, wooden townhouse – especially if you’re on the ground floor. Speaking of floored, the upper level was occupied by a local family on a weekend-retreat – the Dad’s motorised wheelchair, down-below, a corollary of his ‘no-hands + no-legs’ handicap. The Mom carried him up / down two flights – & for what it’s worth, I couldn’t help but be distracted; midnight creaking from the floor above, notwithstanding.

Africa’s first sighting of Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

The day’s festivities had been gruelling, but we returned to the site, later that afternoon, refreshed & renewed after a preprandial shower & a nap. The salicornia [the ‘ankle-deep muck’ I spoke about before] had not disappeared, however, & the birds remained hidden in the myriad channels in-betwixt.

It might have been the light drizzle, rather than tears, but our glasses had runneth over… and then, from the depths of despair another vehicle bearing two scopes + 3 men & a lady [not necessarily in that order – but the scope had my attention, I must admit. Shallow knows no depths in desperation…].

Bearing the scopes [x2 you’ll remember] none other than Margaret Hardaker & the usual hangers’-on, Trevor & John. The three & one other, who kept his own counsel & stayed anonymous until I made the effort next morning, had flown-in from Cape Town. The group had, in fact, seen the two birds earlier that morning. When South Africa’s southern peoples collide with the country’s northerly tribes [ie: JHB], the crossing-over can be one of suspicion – until a common cause makes us friends. I wasn’t exactly vaulting for joy – that would be silly & premature, but things were looking up. A small jig of celebration, however, wasn’t too much or a sybaritic indulgence, in the circumstances that is – at least as far as I could tell. Nobody was watching anyway.

S h a r p i e!’ – Trevor  (a full-member of the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in Africa club & therefore entitled to use the hypocorism).

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper?’ – us [nogschleppers].

Dammit [or something similar] – They’re outta sight‘ – Trevor / John (later & much later).

‘Oh lordy-lord.’ – us (for the rest of the day).

The afternoon stretched into evening and as the sun sank towards our eyes & the impending gloom, so did we. Undeterred, however, we arranged an early morning bring-a-scope with the others; the intention a more productive tramp along the shore. Rain had been an off-again / on-again fixture most of the day – a misery not lost on the Cape Town four. You would think people accustomed to bathing in a jam-jar would welcome some precipitation – No sirree – it’s all about the birds & that’s okay by me. Rain wasn’t forecast for the Sunday…

Dinner wasn’t a fancy affair – neither is Tan – but we made do with hot-sauce prawns, line fish, some flat-chicken and a pizza; our precarious but long-established routine. Conversation inevitably clawed its way back to a silent contemplation of the missing birds. Would they – wouldn’t they?

Separated from our dwindling stack of local currency, we adjourned to bed / some to sleep & at a guess, before they did, cursing the birds, mosquitoes & the humidity, in that order.

A light drizzle held the mood early on the Sunday morning but a small window in the heavens was a blue-sky shot in the arm – a dose of anticipation that pre-empted – ‘There they are…‘ & yes, there they were – bobbing – sometimes preening – always hunched – on the move – & move they did – intra-channel for as long as we cared to guess where they’d pop-up next. Won in adversity & with the timely intervention of Margaret et al, the Sharpies launched themselves onto our list – an inconsequential 880-odd – but a catharsis and a date forever etched into the memories of all who were there.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper
1 of 1000s in discarded by-catch

Sebastian looked on, a little bemused, preferring the joy of passing cattle & intrigued by crabs, frogs, sticks & stones and the other bric-a-brac that makes life worth living. He did, however, take his turn at the scope – becoming, perhaps, Africa’s youngest Sharpie – ‘A bird Dad?‘ – ‘Can we go to the beach now?’ & we did. One lesson at a time…

The trip home was a hot-collared affair – border tensions tend to work the nerves. I’d called the play badly & recommended a return home via the Lebombo chaos; not that I suspected any chaos. Ours was a midday Sunday exit – but, like moths to urban lights, the local migrants had joined the queue, a queue we dodged eventually; perhaps unfairly.

A grizzled head isn’t always the wisest & we do, from time to time, get out of whack. A return trip to sanity – somewhere, anywhere is the elixir of life. It’s activities like these that keep us sharp.

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