An accomplished mountain biker, kite surfer and canoeist, he has broken more or less every bone in his body and in all likelihood caused some incidental fractures in the general populace in close proximity of his ventures. He is also the type of dentist that thinks nothing of pulling a tooth without administering the expected dosage of anaesthetic.
To add insult to injury, he insists on having detailed discussions with me while my mouth is pried open with a gloved finger, resulting in a predictable one-sided discourse. Add to this the fact that these discussions are usually peppered with significantly important statements like, “Ah, I see you’ve got a cavity in the second lower molar…. have to drill a bit…OK if we do this without injection?”, and it becomes clear why I have over the years developed a specialised protective modus for dentist visits.
First off, I insist that all discussions, or rather negotiations, take place before I get plonked into the electric chair. I use the word negotiations, because there is no alternative term that aptly describes the pre-chair discussions. Rule 1: No drilling EVER before I am not given the opportunity to get a second opinion. Rule 2: No questions while finger in mouth. Or even better. No questions. Period. Rule 3: In the rare instance where prior permission is given to drill, anaesthetics will be administered. Again, no questions asked.
But back to the call from Dentist. He informed me that he has just returned from a mountain bike trip in the Cedarberg where one of his patients employed by Cape Nature told him of an aardvark that died the previous evening, presumably killed by a vehicle. He requested to keep it refrigerated in order for him to arrange collection at a later stage. Since Dentist was aware of the Malherbe family’s habit of collecting road kills, he made the obvious call to the would-be owner of an aardvark corpse. During the thirty minutes that followed, and barely able to contain the excitement in his voice, he proceeded with a detailed lecture on the weird dental make-up of the aardvark. He waxed on lyrically about the distinctive characteristics of the teeth and that each tooth consisted of hexagonal, parallel tubes as opposed to the usual pulp cavity in other mammals and humans. He explained that the aardvark is born with incisors and canines at the front of the jaw, but that these teeth fall out as the animal reaches adulthood. He also mentioned some dental formula that I cannot recall, but I do remember the by now out-of-breath dentist explaining that adult aardvarks only have teeth at the back of their jaws; a total or fourteen upper and twelve lower jaw teeth - all of them molars. Interesting man, my dentist.
While a lecture on the dental make-up of the aardvark was being channelled down my left ear, my mind was racing; making plans of how to get the aardvark to my hometown of Stellenbosch. This was not your everyday road kill, but driving a total of 600km through one of the most beautiful regions of South Africa to fetch a dead animal, seemed like a wasted opportunity.
A plan for a mountain bike trip in the Cedarberg and Tankwa Karoo started to take shape and by the time Dentist explained that the aardvark teeth had no enamel coating and grows continuously as it is worn away, a plan for aardvark collection and transportation was in place.
I decided I knew enough about the inner workings of the mandibles of Orycteropus afer and after ending the call with Dentist, called a few friends that I thought would succumb to a short notice offer of a 3-day mountain bike trip through one of the remotest regions in South Africa. I called five of them. Two agreed. The plan was to do a 3-day trip from the top of the Cederberg mountain range, through the Tankwa Karoo and ending it in the small town of Middelpos. The team consisted of two cyclists and a second that would drive a double-cab bakkie (the South African word for a pick-up) with refreshments. Perhaps I should mention that neither of my compatriots knew of my intention to cart a frozen aardvark along on the trip – in the back of the bakkie. I made the decision to divulge this titbit of presumably significant information at a more opportune time.
With our bicycles loaded and armed with enough food to feed the Royal Navy, we left Stellenbosch on a Thursday morning for a farm called Houdenbek, loosely translated to “Keep mouth shut” or simply “Shut up”. This would be one of many weird and interesting place-names we encountered on the trip - names like Skitterypass, Katbakkiespass and Pramberg, to name but a few. After driving through the beautiful town of Ceres and up Gydopass, we suddenly found ourselves 1000m above sea-level and in a region called the Koue Bokkeveld. We arrived at Houdenbek in the early afternoon and after a quick lunch I decided the time was ripe to inform the crew of the dead compatriot that will travel with us for the next couple of days. Their reaction was surprisingly docile and I have to admit I was slightly disappointed. My good friend Riaan van Breda is known as a super relaxed individual, not easily rocked or rattled by anything unforeseen. I was hoping to test this attribute with my aardvark news, but it had little effect with his only reaction a “so, when are we going to fetch it?” In fact, he seemed quite eager to drive the 45km to Matjiesfontein where the corpse was awaiting collection.
The road to Matjiesrivier takes one through many rocky outcrops and weird rock formations to an old restored farm homestead and out-buildings now owned by Cape Nature, the governing body of nature conservation in the Western Cape. The countryside is generally wild and remote and the gravel roads often treacherous. We drove past the ruins of old, dilapidated farm homesteads, built from the rock and clay of the surrounding mountains with its rugged, rocky outcrops. Places where children were once brought up in another time, with a different set of skills and rules for survival. Places that were built with dreams and hope for a brighter future, now deserted and forgotten. Forgotten grave stones with the names of the deceased barely legible. One cannot help but wonder how these people managed to survive in this desolate and rugged terrain with none of our current-day communication and transportation systems.
On arriving at Matjiesrivier, we found the aardvark frozen stiff in a chest freezer. I confidently presented a 50L plastic drum, only to find it laughably unfitting for the 65kg animal carcass. In the end the carcass was loaded into the back of the bakkie between the rest of our luggage and cooler boxes, where it remained for the remainder of our trip.
After a few days it became very much a part of our team as we found that the frozen beast thawed at a very slow rate and served to preserve our spoilable foodstuff quite effectively. Want to keep the tomatoes fresh? Just pack it next to Mr Aardvark - in a plastic bag if you’re squeamish. For the next three days the animal travelled in the back of the support vehicle from the Cedarberg to Middelpos, where our cycling trip would end.
MOUNTAIN PASSES WITH COMICAL NAMES
After a braai and good night’s rest, myself and Wielie set off on our mountain bikes in the direction of the Tankwa Karoo with Riaan and Aardvark following suit in the bakkie. I should mention that Wielie is a fitness fanatic who can ride a bicycle as no-one else I know. In the days that followed I made peace with the fact that she is in a league of her own when tackling the numerous mountain passes on the trip. The first such pass we encountered was the Katbakkies pass.
The Katbakkies Pass leads over the Skurweberg mountain range, connecting the Koue Bokkeveld with the arid Tankwa Karoo. The pass’s name, “Katbakkies” is derived from Afrikaans language describing the many potholes in the road. Notorious for its steep average gradient of 1/13 the pass was used as a cattle-trekking route for the indigenous Koi-san in days gone by. Halfway up the pass one encounters two sections with gradients of 1/4 and 1/3; that implies a 1m climb in 3m horizontal! It was on these sections that I decided that attempting to keep up with the female can only result in serious deflation later on in the trip. The male ego was therefore promptly tucked away and put on ice next to Aardvark. At its peak the pass measures 1200m above sea level and is known to be covered in snow during the winter.
Top of SKITTERY PASS with the Tankwa Karoo in the distance.
The next pass encountered was the 4.5km Skittery Pass. From above it provides breath-taking views of the vast, rugged expanse of the Tankwa Karoo, an area that can easily be mistaken for a desert spare the odd Karoo bush and scarcely placed succulents. These plants grow in a weather-beaten landscape between scattered rocks, the latter bearing evidence of millennia of merciless pummelling by sun and wind. Skittery Pass was thankfully a descent, taking our trip all the way down to the Tankwa Karoo. As with Katbakkies the Skittery Pass was used by the Koisan in their nomadic annual trekking to the Tankwa Karoo. The word “Skittery” literally means “shaking”, describing the steep, bumpy and often corrugated road surface – something experienced intimately by any mountain bike rider going down this pass. Thankfully the pass was recently tarred making the approximately 750m descent considerably less shaky.
A BREAST IN THE DESERT
After the descent we found ourselves in the desolate but beautiful landscape of the Tanka Karoo. The landscape is one of contrasts and different to any place in South Africa and possibly Africa. Scattered with rocks and pebbles and hardly any growth visible to the casual observer, it is a true miracle that herds of Springbuck and Black rhino once roamed and survived in this unforgiving wildness. The answer to this riddle is found in between the smallest rocks and pebbles where various succulent species find their protection from the harshness and generate enough nutrition to feed the creatures that feeds on them. When the locals refer to trees in the Tankwa, one should expect Acacia thorn trees barely taller than a human and only to be found in dry riverbeds, their protein-rich pods serving as ideal food for rhino.
The first milestone of our trip was a stopover at the Tankwa Padstal, a small shop in the middle of nowhere that offers everything from refreshments to antiques and farm implements. At the entrance one is greeted with large ostrich breastbones stuck upon some poles. Inside the building, the weirdly mixed aromas of coffee and beer fills the air.
After a well-earned sandwich and strong cup of coffee, we set off again into the vast landscape of nothingness. The cycling stretch that followed can only be described as boring. No inclines, declines or vegetation to speak of. We were literally surrounded by deserted moon landscape that stretched as far as the eye could see.
The highlight of the day was encountering one solitary vehicle on the 70km stretch leading to our overnight stop and the only thing that motivated me was the sight of a smallish mountain koppie on the horizon, called Pramberg (direct translation: Boob mountain or Breast mountain, whichever you prefer). The source of my motivation was either the fact that I knew that Pramberg was close to our overnight hut at Elandsberg, or the fact that the scenic Pramberg erotically grew in size with every passing minute.
After 4 hours of cycling on a corrugated gravel road in temperatures hovering around 40oC we were elated to reach our overnight cottage at Elandsberg. The evening was spent consuming a 1kg T-bone steak (very rare, please) and enjoying the clearest night sky one is likely to find on planet earth. In the absence of any light pollution, the expanse is lit up with millions of stars, planets and solar systems. Almost as breath-taking as Pramberg.
THE ONE-MAN-TOWN OWNED BY ONE MAN
The following morning we set off up Gannaga pass, taking us to the top of the Roggeveld escarpment. At the crest of the pass we enjoyed a breath-taking view of the distance we covered the previous day. Looking back, the vast expanse of the Tankwa streched below us, with the Cederberg Mountain now pushed back to become a misty haze on the horizon.
With a slight smirk now evident on Aardvarks thawing snout, the animal almost seemed to enjoy the trip and amazingly we found that after two days in the back of the bakkie, he was still frozen stiff. I am not sure if the skin and layer of fat below the skin played an insulating role, but the carcass’ role in playing fridge was by now well-established and the beers and tomtatoes stacked around Aardvark, became a familiar sight.
After a delicious lunch at the Gannaga Lodge, the trip continued to Middelpos, an imposing little place hardly complying to the definition of a town. In fact, we were told at the Middelpos Hotel that the town was bought by a certain Mr. Koos van der Westhuizen and therefore strictly private property. Everything, even the post office, belongs to Mr. van der Westhuizen. I could not help wondering if a similar example exists anywhere in the world. Imagine – a town owned by one person. Only in Africa! At Middelpos one still encounters old-style shopping in the form of Middelpos Trading Store, where you can purchase anything from a rusty nail to a dead policeman. It is literally like stepping back into history to a time resembling a frame from one of my late grandfather’s tales.
The town of MIDDELPOS
And so our cycling trip ended at Middelpos with Aardvark only starting to thaw but still in excellent condition. After overnighting at the Middelpos Hotel (an experience in itself), we travelled back to Wellington where Aardvark was loaded into my vehicle – strapped safely in the front passenger seat, safety belt and all. The epic photograph of a very serene Aardvark in the passenger seat next to a grinning Malherbe, was taken by travelling companion Riaan van Breda.
AARDVARK BEAUTY AND AARDVARK MEAT
The trip from Wellington to my hometown of Stellenbosch is approximately 40km and takes one through the picturesque Winelands landscape of the Western Cape. Needless to say, the looks I got from passengers in passing cars were priceless and it is regrettable that I could not capture this on video. At one point I stopped at a red robot (Yes, we call a traffic light a robot in RSA – deal with it) when a vehicle spilling over with a family of 13, pulled up next to me. Snot-nosed children were pouring out of windows, pointing to Aardvark. The driver, whom I assume was the unfortunate father of eleven offspring, slowly started rolling down his window, a look of unashamed bewilderment written on his face.
“Hey, is that thing alive?” After answering him that he should not insult my wife, he was even more perplexed.
“Flipping ugly thing that. Where are you taking it?”
I tried my utmost to hold a straight, albeit perturbed facial expression.
“We’re just coming from the hospital where she had a face-lift.”
“Ne? jees, what did she look like before the op?” The retort in typical Western Cape slang.
With that comment, the light turned green and I sped off, leaving a family visibly shaken, clearly not knowing what to make of the incident.
On arrival at my home, I was awaited by my wife and three boys. Expecting some laughter from them on seeing Aardvark next to me in the car, I was left disappointed. Not even a smirk was forthcoming. Nothing. I think they just assumed that this is the way one transports a dead aardvark. Even Dearest just greeted me nonchalantly and started talking about the garden that needed watering and the new tiles in the bathroom. Talk about pissing on a battery...
My three boys unceremoniously proceeded to offload Aardvark into a wheelbarrow. They know the drill on roadkill slaughter and with my coffee hardly cooled down, they called me to our front garden to help them hoist the animal onto our home-made jungle gym. It should be mentioned that the jungle gym fulfills many functions in our household – from the obvious climbing; to pull-up spot; gathering platform of the wild birds of the neighbourhood; and of course as a convenient spot to drape a corpse ready for slaugher. (I have fitted an owl-house to the top of the jungle gym in the hope of attracting some barn owls, but apart from a few cape sparrows nesting in it, no luck with the owls.)
JUNGLEGYM and WHEELBARROW playing a part....
With the aardvark hoisted and pulling the scale at 65kg, we started slaughtering fairly late in the afternoon. The task ended up being far more painstaking than any animal we have processed before, mainly because of the extremely thick hide, the latter causing our knives to be blunted ever so often. Amazingly we found the intestines still frozen rock-hard! With the skin removed and intestines out, the meaty muscles were exposed, prompting my cranial cavity to produce a light-buld moment. Quality venison should not go to waste. Simple as that. The carcass was therefore meticulously deboned and the meat separated and neatly packed into bags to be frozen for potential consumption at a later stage. At this point I did not really know what we would do with the meat, initially thinking that we could cook the meat for my dogs. All I knew was that it should not go to waste. Dearest played along and made some space in the chest freezer for approximately 30kg of meat.
After making some enquiries I was informed by a reputable source that the meat of an aardvark was extremely tough and inedible except if cooked in a pressure cooker for seven days and nights. What to do with the aardvark meat? As often in life, the answers to unanswered questions often comes from the most unlikely avenues. This time it came in the form of a friend inviting me to his fiftieth birthday party. On asking him what I could buy for his birthday, his predictable response was a curt “Nothing, just help me with the braai.” On this point, I have to divert to elaborate on the word “braai”.
TO BRAAI OR NOT TO BRAAI
Braai, is South Africanism that describes the preparation of meat on a fire. In South African terms it includes far more than just preparing meat on a fire. Special note: A braai is not to be confused with the American “barbecue” and to make this comparison is regarded as an insult to any true-blooded South African.
A braai describes an experience. A transcendent experience that connects and binds South Africans of the eleven different races of this beautiful country. The word “braai” is indeed known in all official eleven languages and as far as I know, we are the only country in the world that has set aside a day as a holiday to….you guessed it….braai. On Braai Day you will find every South African lighting up a fire, eager to share an old family braai-sauce that was passed on from generation to generation, or a special skaaptjoppie (lamb chop) that was bred on a distant cousin’s farm in the Karoo, and that does not require any herbs or spices because the sheep in the Karoo are free-roaming and only eat the herbaceous Karoobossie, and that this specific sheep was caught and slaughtered in the quietness of the Karoo, thereby ensuring the most succulent and tender meat anywhere south of the north pole…..and more, believe me, much more!
In my country a braai is regarded as a near-sacred happening and when an “outsider” is invited to one, a powerful statement of inclusion and friendship is made. A braai is not a barbeque….
AARDVARK MEETS CROC
But back to my friend Dawie’s braai and the fact that I was requested to help out. In response I bravely suggested that not only will I take full responsibility for the braai; no, I will also supply all the meat for the occasion. On hearing this, Dearest’s eyes went wide and her lips went thin, while her cranium slowly moved from side to side. I know that look – it is her shock-angry-fearful-look. It is a look that she seldom utilizes, but when she does, it is enough to make a grown man grab the closest glass of whiskey. Neat. Which is exactly what I did.
“May I ask how you are going to feed 60 people?....and please don’t tell me you are contemplating the aardvark. You are?”
“Well, Dearest, my grandfather often spoke of aardvark pie. Perhaps there is a …”
“Your grandfather was a nutter. Like you. My friend from Kokstad tells me aardvark is impossible to eat. What were you thinking?”
More silence. Looong silence.
With this pregnant silence hanging in the Malherbe houshold like the odour of an overcooked cabbage, I decided to take action. With the confidence that would put Jamie Oliver to shame, I jumped up, grabbed two pieces of aardvark steak and proceeded to fry it over a very hot flame. The overcooked cabbage smell was swiftly replaced with the devine smell of venison. Only a bit of salt and pepper, and voila, a job well done. In the plate with knife and fork ready for the attack. Four pairs of eyes fixed on me and my plate of aardvark-steak.
As I lifted the knife I tried my best to put up a show of nonchalance and calmness. The key to situations like these is confidence. However, I realised I was in trouble when I tried to peg down the first piece with the fork and only managed 1mm entry into the meat – just enough to hold it in place. I bravely fought off the panic, regained composure and attempted my first cut with the knife. It bounced back. It literally bounced back. My sons laughed.
The knife was obviously blunt. Dearest was quick to hand me a murder-weapon-of-a-knife that she saved for special occasions…which this obviously was. With all eyes fixed on me, I made another attempt. The result was more or less the same, the only difference being that I almost managed to amputate my finger. Maximum force was clearly not a solution. Different knife, same result. Tail between the legs, I reluctantly admitted defeat and gave the meat to the dogs. The direness of the situation was punctuated by the fact that my fully grown German Shephard struggled a good 15 minutes before managing to strangle down the steak.
I am not one who believes in divine intervention, but what happened next almost prompted me to re-assess my viewpoint on the latter. The telephone rang and on the other end was my cousin calling to enquire on my cycling trip. He heard from another family member that I was travelling with an aardvark and just wanted to inform me that the ONLY way to consume aardvark was to allow it to tenderize for 7 days and 8 nights in a sauce called the Jansenville kebab sauce. Jansenville is a town smaller than Middelpos where hunting farms are the order of the day and where the consumption of aardvark is as popular as braaiing in the rest of SA.
After jotting down the recipe and with the support of Dearest who swiftly bought a shipload of ingredients consisting of anything from red wine to battery acid, a plan was devised to process the meat. The aardvark will be processed into kebabs and allowed to macerate for the prescribed period.
However, I felt something was amiss in the assortment of the offering to my 50-year old friend. Apparantly some delusional individuals prefer chicken to red meat. We needed variety and as it happens, we just happened to have some fresh crocodile meat in the fridge. I thought this was an opportune time to throw this into the mix. (The croc meat was earlier retrieved from a fresh crocodile in preparation for a skeleton for the La Bonheur crocodile farm between Stellenbosch and Paarl.) As those in the know would tell one: crocodile tastes very similar to chicken and unlike aardvark, it is quite tender.
So, in the end we had venison kebabs and chicken kebabs. We already decided that the guests will not be informed of the true nature of the meat, apart from the fact that it was venison (which of course, it was). Dearest, being the honest person she is, undertook to ignore and avoid any conversation on the topic of food during the occasion; not an easy task considering South Africans and their relationship with braai.
As it turned out, the braai was a raging success, with the venison kebabs consumed until there was almost nothing left. In fact, the Jansenvilles sauce did its trick and the the kebabs turned out more tender than 2-month-old lamb chops. Success! By the time I decided to inform the guests of the true nature of their earlier culinary consumption, most of them were oblivious and could care less about the species of beast they consumed earlier. Disappointed. Again.
Lets not forget the main purpose of this excursion: articulating the skeleton of an aardvark (Orycteropus afer). I don’t think I realised how special this animal was at the time of processing. As with many things, I only realised years later how priviledged we were to construct this weird and wonderful creature’s skeleton.
On initial inspection the carcass seemed to have limited damage and it was difficult to determine the cause of death. However, when opening it internal trauma became evident that some of the ribs were broken and the pelvis and various lumber vertebrae fractured.
After macerating the flensed carcass, the bones were degreased and subsequently whitened, taking a total of approximately three months. During articulation the pelvis had to be partially reconstructed where bone fragments were missing. White epoxy putty was used for this purpose. The skeleton was then assembled using wooden pegs to support the vertebral column. Four years later, I am still proud of the end result.
INTERESTING AARDVARK FACTS
• The skull is surprisingly heavy for its size, the result of an abnormally thick skull wall when compared to other mammals.
• The word “aardvark” is the first word in the Oxford dictionary.
• The animal is considered a living fossil as its chromosomes are highly conserved.
• Claws: As shown in the pic, the animal boasts an impressive set of shovel-like claws, matched with solid, thick bones. It is known to have the ability to dig a 1.5m tunnel in approximately 5 minutes. (It is rumoured by the locals that an Aardvark can dig a hole faster than a human can run….but note that it is also rumoured by the locals that Aardvark meat can be braaied and eaten without using tenderizer!)
• Names: The name “Aardvark” has its origins in the Afrikaans language and literally translated means “Earth pig”. The reason for this is simply because the animal burrows in the soil for food and shelter and because its ears and snout resemble that of a pig. However, the Aardvark has no relation to pigs and is in fact closer related to elephants and rock rabbits. Other common names are African ant bear, ant eater, and erdvark.
• Closest living relatives: the animals belonging to the superorder Afrotheria, namely elephant shrews, hyraxes (rock rabbits), elephants, sirenians and tenrecs (see pics).
• The animal is nocturnal and extremely shy. In the wild it is very seldom seen during daytime, as it hides away in self-dug underground burrows.
• On the topic of burrowing, the aardvark is regarded as a fossorial animal (fossorial animals: animals adapted to digging and life underground). Typically these animals will have a clavicle, as this bone supports the digging action.
• Eating habits: Eats ants, termites and other insects, but will occasionally eat specific plant bulbs.
• Teeth: The teeth do not have an enamel coating and regrows continuously as it is worn away. The animal is born with canines and incisors, which fall out and are not replaced. The adults therefore only have molars that are rootless. The teeth consist of 14 upper and 12 lower jaw molars.
• Smell: The animal has a very keen sense of smell and the nose contains more olfactory bulbs (responsible for capturing aroma in mammals) than any other mammal. In addition, the olfactory lobe in the cranial cavity is highly developed.
• Main predators feeding on aardvark: lions, leopards and pythons.
• Tongue: It has a long, thin tongue of up to 30cm long.
• Ears: The pig-like ears support effective hearing.
• Life span: 15 to 20 years
• Scientific classification:
Kingdom : Animalia
Phylum : Chordata
Order : Therapsida
Class : Mammalia
Super order : Afrotheria
Order : Tubulidentata
Family : Orycteropodidae
Genus : Orycteropus
Species : O. afer