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Epic SA road trip: Getting behind the wheel of a Nissan Patrol and discovering the Klein Karoo

2018-08-14 16:00

Roadtrip: Jim Freeman

Image: Jim Freeman

If you undertake regular road trips, you will discover the world is indeed a small place.

It was therefore with some amusement that I pulled the Nissan Patrol off the undulating road between Uniondale and Avontuur onto the Hoogstedrift farm. There had been little rain in the past months and the veld, ravaged by fire last year, was being whipped up by a fierce, cold wind into a maelstrom of dust.

Handed the keys

Ever since I travelled to the Namaqua National Park in 2016, I had been wanting to write the story of the Anatolian Shepherd Guarding Dog project, run by SANParks in conjunction with the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

READ: Epic SA road trip: What it's like to tour awesome Montagu behind the wheel of a Lexus RX SUV

Running out of petrol in the middle of nowhere had precluded a visit… However, being handed the keys to the massive Nissan Patrol 5.6-litre V8 seemed the perfect opportunity to pick up the thread again.

                                                                      Image: Jim Freeman

The project was run by Elanza van Lente, who told me the project had been moved to the Klein Karoo, "Near Uniondale," she said quite vaguely. I was unable to reach her to pinpoint the location, so I got hold of Klaas Havenga who works for SANParks in the Knysna Forest and doubles as the brother-in-law to my late best friend, Dave Hodgson.

After making some enquiries, he came back with the news that the project was being run on the farm owned by Nico Gerber and that it was on the same back road upon which Dave had farmed.

I later learned that Nico, who I had met a couple of times, was farming about 3000ha that comprised three parcels of land; including one Dave had owned.

The Anatolians

It saddens me that people and wild animals seem unable to peacefully co-exist outside the boundaries of designated conservation areas, something I realised when living in Namibia some 35 years ago.

                                                                          Image: Jim Freeman

Hardly a year goes by without some horrific tale of critically endangered populations of predators being slaughtered – by gun, gin trap, or poison – at the hand of farmers tired of them preying on their livestock.

In one sense you can understand the frustrations of the farmers. But the predators are only doing what predators do naturally. And they got there first.

                                                                         Image: Jim Freeman

That is where the Anatolians come in: this hardy European breed is fearless, and bond with the flocks and herds they protect … and will pay with their lives if need be.

These farms of Nico lie between two rugged mountain ranges, teeming with predators. "I lost six to seven sheep to leopards on quite a few occasions – they are opportunistic killers and will kill livestock almost for the fun of it – and, on average, jackals and caracals would kill between 65 and 80 lambs each season. Since I employed the Anatolians last year, I have lost a single lamb. Other farmers here in the Langkloof report the same kind of results."

                                                                        Image: Jim Freeman

"The Anatolians are working dogs and they work around the clock. They are fed twice a day and checked morning and night for injuries and parasites. They do not come into the farmhouse at night but spend the night in the kraal with the livestock, because that is when the farm animals are at their most vulnerable. 

For all that, they demonstrate considerable affection for their owners. They are able to transfer their loyalty from one flock or herd of farm animals to another; even between sheep, goats, and cattle. Their protective behaviour is also apparently deeply imprinted", said Elanza, who paid the farm an unexpected visit. 

Fia and Fina

We took the luxurious Patrol to one camp in the mountains, where Elanza introduced me to Fia and Fina. The big and powerful vehicle, unsurprisingly, made mincemeat of the rocky terrain without even having to engage four-wheel drive.

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“Fina was abused in the Namaqualand. She is blind in one eye and was cooped up in a single camp for seven years,” she said. “Although we never had any behavioural problems with her in Namaqualand, we really did not think she would again bond with a flock or humans.” 

The fears she and Nico had, were unfounded. Fina sat peaceably watching her flock (which includes a rather rambunctious ram) before happily accepting hugs from Elanza and my fellow Patrol-posse, Yolande and Melany.

                                                                         Image: Jim Freeman

She then slipped through the fence into the adjoining camp to join Fia who looked on tolerantly while "on duty," assimilating seamlessly with the other group of animals.

Nico employed his first Anatolian a year ago and only recently went into partnership with Elanza.

"Buying an Anatolian is not a cheap proposition. Anything from R15 000 to R30 000, depending on the level of training, but if you are losing a bunch of ewes and lambs to predators each year, you quickly realise it is a wise investment," he said

Nightmare journey

The clouds came in and the whipping wind got colder and grittier. We decided to head back to our base in Sedgefield, taking the scenic Prince Alfred Pass. It is one of the most beautiful roads in South Africa, but the drive is challenging and quite frightening to passengers.

                                                                         Image: Jim Freeman

The narrow and twisty road with steep drops is not one to travel in the dark. The journey from Cape Town up the Garden Route and then to Uniondale took its toll on the thirsty Patrol (140 litres and R1 000 gets you only half a tank and a range of some 600km, driving at a relatively conservative speed). About 50km from Knysna I started looking at the fuel gauge with concern. And then the nightmare began.

There were some protests on the N2 and some idiot cop advised the driver of a huge truck to take the mountain road. Sure enough, the truck jack-knifed and both its trailers went down the mountainside, leaving the horse on its side on the road. There was no way to get past.

                                                                         Image: Jim Freeman

A recovery truck operator told us we would be stuck there for at least another eight hours … and, we did not have enough fuel to get back to Uniondale. By now it was bitterly cold.

After hours of fruitless manoeuvring, the recovery truck backed away and we could just make it around the scene of the accident. It was scary, as the side of the big Patrol was hanging over the edge of a cliff, and all I could do was to trust the official directing me past the scene.

Sometimes, you need a little faith. Sometimes you need a lot. In your dogs, in your fellow humans and in your vehicle.

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