While here in South Africa we have been wondering how to name the things we see here, in Latin; and one of the difficulties has been cheetah. We did not know, offhand, the Latin for cheetah. The scientific name, right now, is acinonyx, from the Greek: onyx is nail or claw, -kin- is move or moveable, with the alpha-privative: hence the name being “no-move-claws,” referring to the cheetah’s non-retractable claws, utterly unique among cats. One way or another this is not the cat’s Latin name.
But I think I got a clue from Tanikwa. They claimed there that the cheetah is tameable, while leopards were not. And yet there is a long tradition in Europe of having large, tame cats which are called “leopards” – there is a Titian painting, for instance, of Bacchus in a chariot drawn by animals which I’m pretty sure Titian called leopards. But in the painting the animals are clearly cheetahs. Which also makes sense: they would be the only animals that a harness could be put onto. (I doubt they can pull a very heavy chariot, but that’s another issue). “Leopardus,” I’m fairly sure, is the Latin for “cheetah.”
This explains the odd etymology of leopardus. The Romans acknowledged three similar animals: the leo, the pardus, and the leo-pardus. The leo is clearly the lion, and the pardus is the leopard; but they also recognized an animal which they said was a hybrid between the two, with the color of the lion and the spots of the pard: and this is the leo-pardus, or cheetah, which does indeed have the lion’s color and a diminished version of the pard’s spots. Some translations use the word “panther” to translate “pardus,” but scientifically there’s no old world cat known as a panther: there are lions and (leo)pards (several varieties, such as snow leopards etc.) and cheetahs and tigers.
In Afrikaans they use the term luiperd for cheetah. The problem is English, which does not distinguish between pard (which has mostly vanished from the language) and leopard. But I’m pretty sure when the Romans said leopardus they meant “cheetah.”
Another long, full day of incredible experiences. We arrived at Tanikwa, and after a little waiting but very little to-do (signing an indemnity form releasing them from all responsibility if we get maimed by the animals), we were led to the cheetah enclosure. As we approached it, walking along a long fence, a honey-badger came running at us, snarling and cursing at us for the entire length of its long (eighty feet) enclosure, and then, just as quickly as it had come, it vanished. Our guides, three black men, paid the honey-badgers no attention. They walked past him to a gate, opened it, led us into a small fenced-in area, closed the gate behind us, and then opened another gate, and we walked into the cheetah-enclosure, a wooded area, quite large, enclosing perhaps an acre of ground, with a small pond, a grassy area, and dense thickets of undergrowth. I don’t think I will ever forget that first moment, when, in the dim morning light, as we stood there, two cheetahs emerged from the underbrush and walked right toward us.
I have written before of how most religious disciplines have, as their goal, the reabsorption of our entire being in the present moment, where God dwells: but a very simple way of doing this is to be in the presence of a large, dangerous animal. You have no other thoughts: you are there, watching and attentive, alert and alive. We had no idea how the animals would act.
The cheetahs walked to the gate we had just entered, where our guides put leashes on them, and finally gave us a few safety instructions: we should not crouch down in front of the cheetahs – that makes us look about the right size for a meal – nor stare in their eyes (a potential challenge), and not attempt to corral them with the leashes. If they wanted to go left, we should let them go left; if they wanted to trot, we should trot with them; if they wanted to run, we should just drop the leash and let them run. The cheetahs took very little interest in us; they were looking outside their gate: they wanted to go for their walk. They were not really affectionate with the guides either: they did not seem really tame; they tolerated life with humans, and had adapted to it, but they did not show the love and affection for certain people that dogs and (house) cats do. Their faces had looks of undiluted ferocity.
Out the gate we went and the walk began. Walking them was not like walking a dog: they smelled nothing, but rather peered into the woods and grasses continually, their heads often turned to the right or left as they walked; but even so they walked extremely quickly. Since they set the pace, and we did not check them, it was rather them walking us than us walking them.
They were beautiful creatures, but strange: their bodies were amazingly lean and long, very unlike the muscular thickness of lions and leopards; indeed they were rather like leopards crossed with greyhounds, so lean and wasplike were they. In their slenderness, much as in human slenderness, was an inbuilt need for motion: and for them I felt the walk was not an activity, or a game: it was a need, a necessary outlet that drained a vast inner reservoir of desired motion. This was a powerful wild animal, with needs that could not be sated by human society: it felt, on the leash, utterly different from either our half-human pets, the antic dog or lazy housecat. It did not amuse itself by smelling everything, or playing with dumb toys: it wanted to see something it could kill, and it could walk all day, if necessary, to find it.
We walked them for two hours, both in and outside the compound; six people, three couples, had signed up for the walk; three guides walked with us as well, and there were two cheetahs. The sun came up as we walked, and as it rose the animals noticeably stopped to look at it, as if to salute it.
The institution, Tanikwa, is supposedly an animal hospital, though we did not tour the hospital facilities; Catherine suspected it was just a tourist operation, with the animal hospital as a fig-leaf. We did see a few one-armed penguins, saved from becoming shark chow, hopping about in a somewhat sad pool. The institution certainly did provide jobs, as people black, white, and in between all worked there, and the animals seemed happy. I did not doubt that they ran an animal hospital there, as there are plenty of animal lovers in the world, who would dedicate every dollar they could find in the world, to the care of animals.
Many other places in South Africa offer similar facilities, with close-up encounters with semi-tame wild animals. I have heard of another place where you can go hunting with a cheetah, who will walk with you, and run down whatever small game is found. Other places offer close encounters with monkeys, or elephants, or crocodiles, or birds; and there are many private game reserves for people who want to see the wild animals in nearer and more daring ways than allowed in national parks; and there are private hunting reserves as well. I think if I were a kid this would be paradise: the names of these animals are our first words – certainly in the Western languages, and maybe in others as well (do Chinese children learn about lions and giraffes there? I presume so) – and a desire to see these animals, and in some way know them, I think is deep inside of us, and in childhood it is frank and unburied. And I suspect that all this middle ground between wildness and civilization – where cheetahs hunt, but hunt with humans – is actually good for us. But perhaps it is just tourism, serving to degrade the nobility of these wild animals. It seemed to me that the cheetahs, as cats often do, had quite kept their dignity even though they now lived with human food-providers.
We arrived late, coming from Cape Town, and are now in Knysna (pronounced “nize-nuh”), a holiday town on the Indian Ocean. As usual, there is no one here; winter in a seaside town. What is more, the South Africans seem to shut down at night: for sure in the hotel industry it is considered a major concession to allow you to check in after six p.m.; after nine is almost inconceivable, even in this the Garden Route, the most touristed part of the country. Similarly, after this time the roads are consistently empty; we found this even in Cape Town. I think this is a valid observation: there is a national fear of the night. Anyway, we made arrangements with our hostel, or “backpackers” as they call them here, that we would arrive at eleven, which was grudgingly assented to; and then of course we arrived on time to find all the lights off, and no one at the door. Repeated loud knocking produced no results; but a phone call did wake the man on the nightshift. This is our second backpackers’ lodge; and neither have been terribly comfortable. Catherine found various dried-out insects on the sheets, and is convinced they are bedbugs; I think otherwise, but she has all our bags off the floor. The room has no heat and is very cold; and the bathroom quite dirty. But we are here for only a few hours; we intend to leave by six a.m. Tomorrow we visit an animal hospital and rehabilitation center called Tanikwa, where at dawn we will take their cheetahs out for a walk.
Today is the feast of St. John, and we spent it in the center of one of the oddest parts of the natural world, Kirstenbosch, the great botanical garden of the Cape. The whole world is divided into six “floristic provinces,” where general distinctions in flora can be observed, and for the most part they are aligned with the continents: the holarctic (North America, Europe, and northern Asia); the paleotropical (most of Africa, Arabia, and India); the neotropical (South America); the Australian; the Antarctic; and then the Cape Region of South Africa, far and away the smallest and most unusual of all the floristic provinces of the world. The Cape is a small nub of temperate zone utterly isolated from other temperate zones; it is also an area which has never been denuded by glaciers, and whose flora has been constant and isolated for millions of years. Consequently three percent of the world’s total plant species occur in one corner of this one country, and most of those species occur nowhere else. Dominant here are a group of plants known as the Proteaceae, a disparate group of plants whose common ancestry was first identified by Linnaeus despite the diversity of the family: he named these proteaceae, it is said, after the Greek god Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea, who was capable of changing his shape at will.
They certainly are odd plants: many with wildly large flowers, blooming here in winter, and pollinated frequently not by insects but by birds and mammals (often it is the feet of the birds and mammals which pollinate them). Some have flower structures which look quite similar to pine cones. Many of them are also exceptionally beautiful: one does not need to know that they are unusual to admire them.
The highways in Cape Town all had directions for “Kirstenbosch” – a single word, with no need to note that it was a botanical garden. The area around the gardens looked to me like Hawaii – vast, multimillion-dollar homes whose pools and views of the Atlantic and perfect lawns and guest cottages and BMWs were obscured by impossibly luxuriant tropical foliage and siegeproof fences. We arrived to find an empty parking lot, parked and went in. Admission cost about three dollars. As soon as we had paid our admission, the skies opened and sheets of water fell out of the sky – as hard and tropical a rain as I have ever seen. We diverted ourselves by visiting the shop, where everything seemed great but nothing seemed quite perfect, as happens to me in gift shops. After about twenty minutes the rain passed and we had all of Kirstenbosch to ourselves – what few people were there had been washed away by the rain.
The gardens are laid out on the slopes of Table Mountain, whose ridge rises most impressively above the treeline, closing off the horizons. Today the mountain was clothed in clouds. It is winter of course, and many of the plants are absent – I saw a sign for Vernonia natalis, the Natal ironweed, a plant I would love to see, to compare it with our New-York ironweed, Vernonia noveboracensis, but like other vernonias it had died to the ground for the winter; and I believe the garden has impressive displays of annuals, which are not to be seen now. Whether it was because of the season, or because of the nature of the collection I do not know, but the garden was extraordinary more because of its diverse collection of superb plants than because they are ingeniously arranged or disposed. The largest and showiest of all the proteas, the King Protea, Protea cynaroides, was in bloom, and signs directed us to it, but there were only a few specimens of this plant in the garden, despite it being the national flower of South Africa and an incredible showy, beautiful plant. I had expected this protea – one of the flagship plants of the garden, found on mugs, plates, keychains, notepads, and suchlike in the gift shop – would be represented by more than a dozen small plants, especially since the sign for the plant noted that it was easy to grow, required no care in the Cape, and bloomed from seed within four years. But this was not the garden to go to for massing of plants: rather there was incredible variety, with dozens of different proteas. Many, though not all, had started to bloom, and they were exquisite.
Also truly superb were the aloes, many of which were very large and all of which were blooming, with fantastic, hummingbird-red flowers. I did not see any hummingbirds on them, however: instead I saw sunbirds, small passeriform birds, which looked like the progenitors of hummingbirds. They did not have the agility or hovering power of hummingbirds, and so they simply landed on the inflorescences and, holding on with their talons, stuck their long curved beaks into the tubular flowers. They were far less impressive than hummingbirds, but seemed to do the job well enough in their absence. There were also all kinds of curiosities, particularly to someone from a different floral province: tree-sized asteraceae and gardenias that have to pass through the digestive systems of elephants in order to germinate.
But to me the most impressive plants I saw there were the succulents, mostly euphorbias, which had evolved to look almost exactly like cactuses, a glorious example of convergent evolution. In particular the Transvaal Candelabra Tree, Euphorbia cooperi, was one of the most impressive plants I have ever seen: from a stout central trunk rose upward-curving branches like a hundred-armed menorah; the branches noded into green pyramidal segments, like some dragon of fantasy. These euphorbias lived happily amongst other plants, and together with the red blossoms of the aloes they formed the best desert garden I have ever seen. This is a relatively well-watered region, and apparently these succulents tolerate the damp: they just grow more thickly on the ground.
I enjoyed, as I always do, walking through the garden, and trying to appreciate the individual lives I saw here in bloom; and everything seemed organized by Providence for our pleasure. As we came to the end of our tour we came to a tea-house, where we took a late lunch; as soon as we sat down it began pouring sheets of rain again, which stopped as soon as we had paid the bill. We had seen hundreds more plants utterly new to us: like coming to know, in a single day, hundreds more Thoughts of God.
Driving along the Atlantic to Cape Town we had to take Chapman’s Peak Road, an incredible road blasted into the sea-cliffs. The cliffs are sheer and the road shows the greatest engineering ingenuity, its route climbing up several hundred feet above the sea to exploit the seam between two rock formations, being hacked into a softer sandstone which sits atop solid granite. We did not know from our maps that we were taking, as intermittent rain fell in tropical sheets of warm water and night descended, one of the most dangerous roads in the world, a road which takes lives reliably every few years due to landslides and rockfalls. All I can say is that it is rare that I drive a road that makes me physically nervous, its curves are so sharp and difficult, and the dropoff to the sea – we were on the sea- or left-hand-side – so terrifying. This one did. It is supposedly normally closed in such bad weather, and in fact probably closed shortly after we drove it. But the views were amazing. It drops into a lovely bay just south of Cape Town, Hout Bay, which is one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever seen, as good as any ocean scenery in the world. For more information and better pictures take a look here.
The road-building and engineering achievements of the South Africans interest me particularly, because they remind me so much – as much about this country does – of the United States. I’ll write more about this, but South African roadways look like the American Army Corps of Engineers let loose in Africa.
Following the Cape up to Cape Town, we came across Good Hope Nursery, “specialist in indigenous plants.” I screeched to a halt and backed up. Though we were arriving almost exactly at closing time, I got one of the workers there to give me a brief tour of the place, as I wanted to see what life was like for my fellow-plantsmen on the other side of the Atlantic. It was a very small nursery, but a happy place, and I got to see little proteas in their little pots and all kinds of other things. “All your fynbos requirements,” said the sign, referring to the ecosystem particular to the Cape, the fynbos (“fine” or “small” bush, = shrubby vegetation without timber trees; but also the distinctive, very odd flora of the Cape, about which I will write another time). After the brief tour we resumed our trip towards Cape Town, and I asked the worker there the way. He pointed it out to me, and then asked me if I’d take him home, as he didn’t have a car. So we drove him to his place, a few miles down the road. He said the Native-Plants business (here called “indigenous plants”) is good there, as every landscaper is required by law to plant a certain percentage of native plants. (Would that we had such enlightened laws in America). He himself was from Mauritius. He liked it here, but had been here six years, and was thinking of going to the next place, though he didn’t know what it was. He had long red hair in a kind of baggy knit rasta cap – settling down did not look like part of the plan.
The Chacma baboon is unusual in that it has adapted to life on the beach, eating shellfish and often living by the sea. And here are their tracks!
I’m not sure what makes some people – like myself – so curious about certain spots on the map. Other people are not so. On my first trip to Europe I took a ferry from France to Ireland, and Land’s End was visible from the boat, and I just stared and stared at it. It wasn’t, by any stretch, the most beautiful part of the English coast. There was grass, and there were rocks, and then there was ocean. But I was fascinated: I wanted to come back to the place, and stand there, and investigate it, as if I could learn something important just by being at the place where the land ended.
All sorts of other places have fired my imagination – I see something on a map, and I want to go. Staring at maps of Louisiana, and seeing the road go south and south and then dead-end at Venice – it made me to see what was there.
These figures on the map that fire our imaginations sometimes live up to expectations, and sometimes do not. I came in to Athens by bus, and found myself standing in Colonus – like, as in Oedipus at Colonus – where the bus terminal was. Sometimes, as in that instance, it almost surpasses expectations by not living up to them: Colonus was almost overwhelmingly underwhelming.
As a kid I learned about two Capes in particular, two places where the land ended which trumped all others: Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope. Both were crucial points in the navigation of the world, the exit-doors for the Atlantic Ocean, which was the only ocean known to the early Europeans; great explorers found them and rounded them.
I don’t know about Cape Horn, but the Cape of Good Hope lives up to anything a child could think of it. Perhaps my readers are familiar with Table Mountain, the large mesa which looms over Cape Town in South Africa: in fact the Cape of Good Hope is nothing other than Table Mountain extending south from the city, and jutting like a bent dagger into the sea. All along its flanks, cliffs plunge precipitously down to the ocean; winds rake the entire peninsula; waves pound the exposed shores, and penguins nest in the coves. Sea-fogs sweep over the mountain, and sudden rains precipitate over its flanks; Vasco da Gama, when he first rounded the cape, called it the Cape of Storms.
For Catherine and me it was the end-point of a great journey too: we had driven clear across the country, from Johannesburg to the Cape. And its sea-fogs, cool breezes, and rocky shores made me feel at home, the way the west coast of Ireland does as well. It made sense that Europeans would choose this place, the coolest, wettest, most temperate part of Africa, as their chosen base, and the starting-point for imperial dreams: Cape to Cairo.
As we drove down through the National Park we stopped to admire the views time and again, and as we got down to the very tip we took our shoes off and walked on the rocky beach. There were sea-urchins in the tidal pools, so we had to watch our step. The beach was lined with a very curious type of sea-weed, thick as a fisherman’s rope and rubbery and heavy; it lay at high-water mark coiled and glistening in the sun like a tangled mass of snakes.
There were tourists by the parking lot, but they didn’t make it much past, and the wind, the huge waves crashing against the rocks, and the sea surrounding us made them seem very small anyway. A huge crag towers a hundred feet above the sea, and a somewhat dilapidated staircase climbs to two good lookout-points. Feeding on a grassy saddle between the higher and lower vantages was a male ostrich with his harem of females; they seemed utterly unconcerned by the tourists, not even bothering to beg from them. There we sat, looking out over the blue-green sea.
We inteded to go today to Kirstenbosch, the famed botanical gardens, but failed to get there. We drove down to the Cape of Good Hope, which we thought would be a quick trip, but it was so spectacular and amazing we spent the whole day there, and then drove directly from there to Cape Town, where we met a friend of one of Catherine’s close friends for dinner, and then we returned to our hotel here by the sea, which is so lovely that we stayed another night.
Another difficult time finding lodging in the dark – apparently this whole area typically is without power every evening. We wanted to be in Simon’s Town, the town furthest out on the Cape of Good Hope, but everything appeared closed, and the place we had in our guidebook was not answering the phone. So we doubled back, heading up the Cape to Kalk Bay, where we found a very pretty, very chic guesthouse overlooking the sea.
It just gets more and more beautiful, as we go along. The road from Stellenbosch was incredible: the area appears to consist of a number of discrete ridges running on variations of north-south. Table Mountain is the most famous of these ridges, but is only one of many. Between the ridges are river valleys, some of great beauty and fertility. Stellenbosch lies at the head of one of these valleys. You come up over the Hottentots Holland Range – I am not making up the name – at Sir Lowry’s Pass, and beneath you is a vast basin, fringed by a white-sand beach at one end and mountains on every other side. The road was exceptionally tight and also very busy, and so we could not get photos, but it was beautiful to crest over the ridge and come sailing down into the basin – and we saw a baboon there too, just sitting at the side of the road.
We met with Professor Annemare Kotze for lunch in Stellenbosch. She was excited about SALVI’s work with Latin, and intrigued to hear that of spoken-language methods being used elsewhere. She brought with her a younger lecturer from the department, who noted that right now what people are excited about when it comes to teaching Classics – if they are excited about teaching at all, which is not always the case – is this use of spoken-language methods. It’s the only way anyone learns Hebrew, and now it is being used for teaching ancient Greek, especially koine, and Latin. But there was a general sense that Latin was not doing well in South Africa, and the prognosis was not good.
We ate in a lovely, chic bistro – chicer than chic, really, there wasn’t anyplace in New York as cool as this – one of those places which with generous applications of weathered wood and white paint manages to look immaculately perfect and utterly natural at once – and in general we were amazed by the look and feel of Stellenbosch. It was as nice as anything in Europe, but somehow a bit nicer, because it was newer, fresher, sunnier, drier – basically all the organization of northern Europe, all the good climate of southern Europe, and with a flair that was really quite different. The whole town was bathed in this wonderful combination of old and new: the streets were lined in white-painted colonnades, and the shops all had big glass windows and pretty clean things everywhere. The people looked radiant – beautiful, tall, fit, a nation of models – Dutch people who had finally gotten the sun and mountains they had always really wanted. The buildings were solid and stony, prettier than any university I had seen in Europe, as pretty as the buildings of Princeton but with more stylistic unity.
After lunch we visited the small but superb university botanical garden, which introduced me to many of the plants. And we had seen them earlier on our drive, but we still couldn’t believe our luck – the proteas, South Africa’s most exquisite plants, are coming into bloom. And in the botanical garden we saw some familiars like giant sequoias and (!) the tulip-poplar, Liriodendron tulipeferum, a good friend from home. After dessert at their little tea-house we put our laundry in a machine at a laundromat and went out for dinner, which was as usual excellent and we had wine and dessert and everything else and spent no money. I had a banana split, which had, somewhat unusually (but it was very nice), roasted sesame seeds on top of it, and the banana was roasted too. The waiters seemed very happy, and we asked about it – everyone just seemed happier in this part of the country. They were both, as it turns out, immigrants to South Africa, one from Congo, another from Zimbabwe.
But it’s not all rosy. Parking the car by the laundromat – which is not in the best part of town (they rarely are), the usual group of young black teenagers, looking like the full meaning of desperados, surrounded the car to help me park it, then as I walked away they promised to look after my car. We had seen this in Potchefstroom and Oudtshoorn as well. I was happy to see the car in one piece when I returned. And as we returned, we ran into a group of drunken university students, who were as obnoxious as rich drunk university kids usually are. They were not worse than others, but here in South Africa I don’t have much patience for them. They intercepted us, started asking us where we were from and the like, and told us things like, “The problem with this country is the blacks, that’s the problem.” It was like being back in Princeton, but even worse. I don’t know of a university that has managed to stay wealthy without prostituting itself to people like this.
Once we had our laundry we were off. Some difficulties, as I said, finding a place, but the power is back on now. Now our guesthouse is just about as chic and perfect as Meraki in Stellenbosch was. Catherine is pleased as punch and wants to take pictures of everything. I’m happy to be surrounded by beauty, as always. And we are just a few miles from the Cape of Good Hope. I can’t believe it. Tomorrow we go there, and then to Kirstenbosch.