Thursday, January 1, 2009

LIFE IN KAROO COUNTRY… or, Random Acts of Kindness

Life on a Karoo farm is filled with accidents of Nature! Baby birds blown out of nests, mountain tortoises hauling themselves into our water troughs, a hungry duiker who could not resist the luring food laid out in a porcupine trap.

Very occasionally, one of our ewes will spurn her lamb and I am amazed at my ability, great-gran that I am, to still mix formula and bottle-feed the orphans. No more baboons are imbibing in our water tanks but every day I gently pluck thirsty honeybees from various fountain over-flows. The cobra in my kitchen had to be persuaded to seek mouse morsels in the shed instead. Coming from a long line of doctors, I am developing amazing veterinary skills to deal rather with injured animals.

These small acts of rescue pale beside the photos of the miraculous saving of 155 lives aboard the US Airways plane that landed in the Hudson River in January. The skill of the pilots astounds and the accolades they received are well earned.

I can attest to the fact that my countrymen in Bermuda always have a fleeting, perhaps sub-conscious thought of going down into the cold North Atlantic Ocean when we board our flights. We have no choice but to fly over 1,000 km of icy cold water to reach the nearest land.

Americans, luckily, have little thought of the perils of oceans whilst jetting around their enormous country. Many years ago, my father boarded a flight from Boston to Los Angeles and was utterly befuddled when woken by a stewardess trying to make him don his “Mae West” – the common name for a life-preserver jacket in those days.

Only when finally sentient did he understand that the plane had not reversed direction to the Gulf of Mexico but that his aid as a physician was being sought to tend to the famed movie-star herself. Her abundant upper physique was so constricted by layers of horsehair corsets that she was in acute respiratory distress. Dad had the honour of loosening her sartorial restraints!

Stories of (human) rescue in the Karoo abound but usually entail directions, shelter, (potable) water, a hearty meal and the ubiquitous helping hand changing flat tyres.

If we think of the oceans, it is most often to drive to the beautiful coast, seeking solace from the heat and dust of our semi-desert. The tales of dramatic and timely aid given to those ‘in peril on the sea’ are of boundless courage and valour. The wreck of the “Birkenhead” off Gansbaai contributed the ultimate measure of maritime gallantry: “Women and children first”, an injunction even applied on a sinking aircraft last week.

The southern African waters have claimed so many ships and lives. At least these disasters were not man-made. Whenever the economy faltered, wily Bermudians in the 18th century lit signal fires on our highest promontories thereby luring ships onto the treacherous reefs; in all cases, crew and passengers were successfully ‘rescued,’ along with the providential bounty.

Alas, even the most selfless and energetic efforts at rescue do not always succeed. All attempts to reach “Le Souzenance,” a French merchantman returning from the East Indies in 1871, floundering in a violent storm off Quoin Point, failed.

There were no survivors and in the following days, a number of their sorrowful bodies washed ashore. The good and kindly citizens of Hermanus gave them all, including one small, red-headed, curiously hairy man, a most proper Christian burial.

It was not for many years that this charitable community understood they had consigned to God’s good care the innocent soul of an orang-utan.

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