Adventures under Africa's night skies

Toward the end of winter, at about 9 o'clock at night, if I look out of our western window I'll see a large, brilliant ball floating above the dark outline of rocky hills. The first time I noticed it, after only a month of living in Nieu Bethesda, in South Africa's Great Karoo, I was frankly a little spooked; so I phoned a longtime resident.

He replied, "What makes you think it isn't a star?"

Of course, it wasn't a star, but neither was it something mysterious. It was Venus, which is a planet.

Having lived most of my adult life in cities with air pollution and electrification, I don't recall ever seeing a planet or star so clearly, and the semi-desert Karoo has the clearest night air in Southern Africa.

Even though I now know why Venus appears so large and bright and almost close enough to touch, I still find it awesome, as I do the entire night sky. It was here that I first understood the term Milky Way. This band of stars stretches across the Karoo sky as clearly as Dorothy's yellow-brick road.

Not just stars are bigger and brighter in the Karoo. Once, while driving along a dusty road, we became aware of twin orange orbs that seemed to loop along close to the ground.

"Spring hares," explained a local, slightly amused at my enthusiasm. "The moon reflects in their eyes, but their bodies blend in with the earth and bush, so they appear to be disembodied. They are like small kangaroos, and they jump like kangaroos. That's why their eyes seem to go in loops."

Ordinary hares, of course, and wild rabbits, are plentiful in the roads at night. They seem to be hypnotized by car lights and will run ahead, zigzagging down the road. The only way to persuade them to vacate the area of danger is to dim your beams and slow right down. Then they scamper into the verge. Sadly, many country folk are not prepared to do this.

I have a particular fondness for rabbits, which comes from a childhood of keeping them in large enclosures where they could live almost a natural life, including burrowing underground and producing kittens that emerged in due course one by one. Another influence was that wonderful book "Watership Down," by Richard Adams, which I read to my son when he was 6 years old.

So I keep a sharp eye for rabbits. The biggest "rabbit" I ever spotted in this vicinity turned out to be a giant Cape eagle owl, sitting plumb in the middle of the road. I slowed to a crawl, thinking he would rise in a great show of wings. But all he did was blink at the car's lights.

I came to a halt within three yards of him. He stood like a one-bird official roadblock, and I thought he was going to demand my identity document. Then he swivelled his head 180 degrees and my wife, Gillian, said, "I think he's expecting reinforcements."

None came, so he fixed us with the scrutiny of authority and remained immobile.

"Look," I said, "I understand this is your territory, but we have to get home."

He blinked some kind of reply, but didn't budge; so I edged the pickup truck slowly forward until he spread his impressive wings and seemed to lift into the night sky that swallowed him whole.

That time I didn't need a local to tell me what I'd seen, because not many could claim a similar prolonged sighting. The same applies to my encounters with the now-rare and shy nocturnal ant bear, better known as the aardvark, which means, in the Afrikaans language, "earth pig."

The aardvark has a long snout and an even longer sticky tongue for feeding on ants and termites. Right in the village there are aardvark holes, but few people ever see their occupants.

I was traveling to our nearest town at 1:30 in the morning to fetch Gillian from the Cape Town bus when, from the corner of my eye, I detected a large shape that seemed to be jogging beside the road. I pulled up to let it pass into my headlights and felt a thrill of surprise as a large aardvark emerged.

He seemed as tall as a Labrador dog and twice as long from snout to tail. And he was unconcerned about my presence. He ran with an ungainly waddle that came from his powerful back legs, which, I've read, can outpull a horse. We traveled together for a few hundred yards, until he peeled off.

Twice after that I saw smaller aardvarks, always in the early hours of the morning, which is why I never complain when required to leave my warm bed before sunup and go on some mission. If I don't encounter an aardvark, maybe I'll see a sputnik, or shooting star.

And, of course, there's always Venus.

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