1Red-billed Queleas. In some summers these superabundant seed-eaters invade the bush around the house in incredible numbers. Their sleepy swizzlings songs are a constant from dawn to dusk, even drowning out the droning of the cicadas. We have had endless hours of fun with the queleas – you can see some videos here. One December we were planting some big indigenous Combretum trees around the house, and we had dug some deep holes. Like I said, being relaxed leads to creativity. So I put a camping chair in the hole, and constructed a makeshift shadecloth hide over myself. Put out some bird seed, and within minutes I had a thousand queleas literally 30 cm from my face. When they got a fright and took flight, the combined wind generated by their wings seemed like a gale, blasting with that pet shop smell and millions of dehusked seed shells. Incredible! Queleas often fly into the house, and on one memorable occasion, a Pearl-spotted Owlet followed them in looking for an easy meal!
2The splash pool. Can there be anything more soul-satisfying than lounging in a small, 33 degrees Celcius pool, with a drink in one hand, a soggy paperback on the deck next to you, and a bunch of Cape Vultures cruising overhead? I guarantee you will spend the vast majority of the day in this pool on summer days. And even summer nights.
3Porcupines. At times, a family of these impressive creatures lives under the deck. When the last francolins stop calling, you start hearing the porcupines’ quills rattling and shaking under the deck before they emerge and stroll off into the African night. They have nibbled a few PVC pipes here and there, but that’s a small price to pay for the privilege of sharing your home with these guys. When they are absent, Warthogs, Dwarf Mongoose and even an African Rocky Python sometimes make themselves at home under the deck.
4The barge. Our slow but steady motorized barge, to be sold with the house, is the perfect way to explore the 1,066 ha dam. It is stable enough to put up a tripod for birding or photography and wildlife often allow a very close approach. Try some fishing, identify waterbirds, or have an onboard braai. Keep an eye open for hippos though!
5Summer storms. Violent, erratic, unpredictable and utterly spectacular, these storms unleash a torrent of much-needed water on the landscape. The process usually starts with incredible winds suddenly sweeping up from the dam – take this as a cue to get inside, quick. Seemingly within minutes huge cumulonimbus towers ascend the purple heavens and then sound their fury with deafening thunder and lighting that momentarily transform the gloom into searing brightness. Better than anything you can see on TV!
6The spacious wooden deck is where you’re likely to be if you’re not in the pool. The moment you arrive you can throw open all the stacker doors to let nature in, and soak up the views of the dam. You’ll have most of your meals out here, with occasional distractions like antelope running past or an African Fish Eagle calling overhead.
7Insect lights. After a university entomology course, I bought a special bulb that attracts insects. As its gets dark, you hang the bulb next to a white sheet in the bush. After a few minutes, that sheet is absolutely covered in all manner of bugs: huge dung beetles, breathtakingly beautiful moths, delicate lacewings (antlions), vicious mantids and countless other micro-fauna. Of course, this feeding frenzy brings a multitude of frogs which are quick to take advantage of the easy pickings. Not for the squeamish, but if you can stand a few bugs in your clothes, seeing the splendour of insect diversity in this way is astounding.
8Late afternoon strolls. A stroll along the dam’s shore is the perfect way to end a long day of doing absolutely nothing. The last rays of the setting sun cast an almost ethereal glow over the water, turning whites into golds as if through alchemy. You’re likely to have Rufous-cheeked Nightjars flitting about overhead if you stay out late. And keep watch for Double-banded Sandgrouse materializing by the water’s edge to quench their day-long thirst.
9An outside shower. If you’re feeling a little adventurous, why not give it a try? It is simply awesome – the soapy water mixing with the dappled shade of the tree overhead, steam rising, and birds calling all around you. Contrary to what you might expect, it is especially enjoyable on a cold winter’s morning. It just takes a little bit of courage, and then ecstasy.
10Banded Groundlings. When you walk down to the dam, you’ll soon find yourself surrounded by dragonflies with black-tipped wings. These are Banded Groundlings, and they are following you in the hope that you’ll disturb smaller insects for them to catch. Their reaction times are so quick that they easily steer clear of your feet, even if you’re running.
11Family time. Vaalkop is a place to connect and reconnect. To spend time – quality time, not just five minutes while waiting for the kettle to boil – with your loved ones. Be it your spouse, kids, parents, grandparents or just friends. One of the most fulfilling parts of visiting the dam over the last decade, has been the time spent with people. It is only when you step out of the daily grind of work, finances, responsibilities, concerns and appointments, that you can truly connect. Get into stimulating conversations. Feel true empathy. Find out what’s really going on in other people’s lives. And live. Together.
For me, life at Vaalkop is all about learning and making discoveries. They don’t have to be grandiose, life-changing or even worthy of a Facebook update. But they have to be special to you. I remember marveling at the intricacy of an Acacia Katydid’s camouflage (see blog here
). Finding the eggs of a White-throated Robin-Chat in a secluded corner of the decking. The joy at finding that some Yellow House Bats had taken up residence in the bat box we had put up for them. Watching a Barn Owl bringing food to her chicks in the roof. Learning to distinguish the different species of parasitic indigobirds by the mimicry of their hosts in their songs. Finding a Sundevall’s Writhing Skink under some firewood one evening. Making a sketch of a juvenile Marico Sunbird outside the front door. Counting several hundred Comb Ducks moulting on the dam. Showing my kids how an antlion’s den works using a plastic straw. Hearing a multitude of Banded Rubber Frogs calling after the first rains. Star-gazing. Finding an erruption of white flowers on a specific soil type. And in the process, rediscovering yourself.