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The parrot smugglers

In the granite hills of the Kgalagadi, ROGER GAISFORD encounters plenty of wildlife, astonishing rock art, anabundance of bird species, colourful locals and two ratherdodgy individuals with an interesting story to tell.

The Tsodilo Hills are found in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in northwestern Botswana and lie a short distance from the Namibian border. The hills occur as a series of granite massifs in the otherwise flat landscape.

The area is sparsely populated by Khoisan hunter-gatherers and Hambukushu cattle and goat herders. Wildlife is plentiful, with zebras, wildebeest, impalas and duikers a common sight, while elephants are also occasionally seen. Leopards are frequently heard grunting at night, while the grazing cattle everywhere makes for an easy meal for the lions. Birdlife is prolific, with eagles and other raptors attracted by the cliffs. There are even a number of parrot species.

The Khoisan people, commonly referred to as Bushmen, believe that man originated in the Tsodilo Hills, and executed large numbers of images of people, animals, shamans (witchdoctors) and imaginary creatures, painted on exposed rock faces. Their paint was made from dust, ground rock, ash, leaves and bark, mixed with animal fat and blood.

During a stint at university, I had studied history, anthropology and archaeology, and worked on mineral exploration projects in some remote parts of southern Africa. Having read Laurens Van der Post’s book, The Lost World of the Kalahari, on an expedition he had undertaken to the Tsodilo Hills in the 1960’s to see the rock art, I was keen on visiting the area too.

My mate Garner had a Land Rover, a well-used Series 2 hardtop which we bashed around in. He was an ardent ornithologist, and keen on visiting the Tsodilo Hills to see the raptors and parrots found there. It seemed the Tsodilo Hills was the place to be.

Our route from Pretoria stretched west through Lobatse to Ghanzi. This road was touted as being a highway but in reality, it was a misery of sand, stones, corrugations and rocks enhanced by clouds of dust from trucks transporting cattle to Lobatse. Cold beer at the Ghanzi Arms gave us sufficient courage to tackle the further trial of the road north to Sepupa, Mohembo, and further on, into Namibia if we so desired. Which we did not.

At the time, a Lucky Strike cigarette packet hooked into a thorn bush marked the track west to the Tsodilo Hills. Forty kilometres, two and a half hours of the Land Rover howling and complaining in second and third gear low range through deep loose grey sand, dry yellow grass, scrub and acacia trees, the temperature gauge needle permanently hovering on the red H stop. Small herds of zebras gazed at our going, and ostriches strode off as we came howling past, and then seemingly from nowhere, we were serenaded by a fellow strolling along strumming a homemade guitar. The hills appeared without warning, monoliths erupting from the bush just like washed up boxes on a beach.

The Tsodilo Hills are found in three parts. The higher, most easterly hill, a massive seemingly unclimbable monolith, is known as the male. The middle hill, the female, is the most interesting, covering a fair area of outcrops, cliffs, peaks, valleys and ravines overgrown by bush and yellow grass. A small spring trickles froma cleft. A collection of smaller outcrops, known as the children, straggle through the bush to the northwest.

Game such as impalas, kudus, zebras, wildebeests, leopards and sometimes elephants are seen in the area, especially in and around the female hill and the children. Occasional lions made forays to prey on cattle kept by the Hambukushu herders of the area. Dry-country birds such as twinspots, doves, rollers, swifts, dikkop (spotted thickknees), parrots, plovers, eagles, falcons, kites, ostrich and owls are also common.

Camp was made in a deep rock-sided valley in the female hill, the rocks a gallery of so-called Bushman rock art; beautiful impressions of strange figures and animals painted in red ochre, grey, white and black. We were soon set up and enjoying a few cold beers when a polite cough announced the arrival of !Xuntha.

!Xuntha hailed from the Hambukushu settlement some kilometres away and offered to guide us around the hills, pointing out hidden valleys and gulleys, and cliff faces alive with paintings. On rock faces near our camp were paintings of elands and rhinos. Further on the Van der Post Panel, a rock face reported on by the celebrated author, Laurens van der Post, on a visit to the hills some time before, had many images of animals such as eland, held to be sacred, and weird figures, perhaps spirits, seen while the artist was in trance.

Eagles soared above the cliffs while small flocks of Meyer’s Parrots and Rosy-faced Lovebirds shrieked as they flew past. Garner was enthralled as he built a fire and proceeded to cook while jackals yelped, hyenas whooped, a leopard grunted and coughed up the valley and a lion moaned in the distant dark.

Apart from the hills, the wildlife and the rock art, there was a camp of Bushmen hunter-gatherers and a Hambukushu settlement of cattle herders behind the hills where a borehole provided water. It was great afternoon’s entertainment to be at the settlement watching cattle and goats being watered, boys cranking dripping buckets of water from the depths to be poured into a mokoro, a drinking trough carved from a log. The local headman, Mr Moroba gave us advice about the area and where best to see rock art.

It was a privilege to be invited by the Bushmen to sit at their fire and be entranced by the humming of their musical bows and rapid clicking of their speech, watching their shuffling dancing in the dust around the fire.

Having explored the female hill, being awed by beautiful rock art on bare rock faces in hidden valleys, we made a foray to see something of the children hills. It was there that we met the papegaai smouse, (parrot dealers, for those who are not used to Afrikaans).

Following a flock of shrieking Meyer’s Parrots down an almost hidden valley, we came upon a camp. An ancient Willys pickup truck was parked near the remains of a fire that drifted smoke. Bits of equipment and numbers of large boxes, cold boxes and metal trunks were stacked about. The camp seemed deserted, but as we approached, a voice from the back of the pickup said: “Hello, hoe lyk dit met ‘n koffie?” (Hello, how about coffee?) Swathed in a blanket, with a hat pulled low over his brow, black eyes set in a heavily stubbled face, lay a fellow sharing a mattress with another, also hat bedecked, character.

Heaving himself out of the truck, he introduced himself as Dolf. His companion, untangling himself from the blankets, identified himself as Hannes. Coffee turned out to be brandy with flat Coke. “Tjorts,” they called. “Welcome, apologies for the flat Coke, but that is life in the bush. And understand… we only share the mattress because it is the only comfy bed we have.”

What followed was some small talk, more brandy and a discussion of their Willys pickup, a most unusual vehicle to see in Botswana, the country having been a British colony and thus infested with Land Rovers. Their vehicle had been bought for a song some years before on a South African Defence Force surplus vehicle auction sale at Voortrekker Hoogte.

We learned that the fellows were ornithologists, their particular interest being parrots. After more brandy, it transpired they dealt in parrots. “Ons smous papegaaie,” they explained in Afrikaans. Apparently, there was a great demand for the Meyer’s Parrots, Rose-ringed Parakeets, and Rosy-faced Lovebirds, all commonly found in the area. Collectors paid a fortune for the rare Grey-headed Parrot, while Rosy-faced Lovebirds fetched good prices too. After more brandy, it became apparent that their business was mostly illegal.

The Tsodilo Hills area was ideal for catching parrots and it was fairly close to the unfenced and unguarded Namibian border. They knew of a track through the bush into Namibia, the border marked at intervals by concrete beacons. Following the border took them south, avoiding having to across the Khaudum National Park in Namibia, which was active with military traffic due to the conflict in Angola. This would bring them to a track near Sikereti, and then on south to Tsumkwe and Grootfontein, where the South African Defence Force had a military base. The birds were then flown on a South African Airforce transport flight to Pretoria and smuggled aboard a regular South African Airways flight to London.

“Good money,” they said topping up our brandy. “Tjorts!” Drink done, they said their goodbyes, boarded their pickup, and trailing dust, disappeared through the bush, west to Namibia.

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