Out of Africa

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Our train journey was now well begun. Several days had passed since departing Pretoria in South Africa, as we rolled through the semi-arid countryside that fringes the Namibia desert of central Namibia. It was just past 7 a.m., in bright morning sunshine that promised another hot day. I was looking out the window of our compartment, as the train slowed and came to a halt. Alongside us there was a wooden platform and a small wooden building with a nearby sign announcing, in painted letters, faded and peeling, that we had arrived in Rehoboth.

Actually, we were at the train stop in Rehoboth. The small town itself, still lay some distance away. Nevertheless, several small, tired buildings stood in a row a few hundred meters beyond the train platform. It appeared they had been built many years ago in hopes that train travel would play a much bigger role in carrying visitors to the town. Now the structures were dilapidated and decaying and no local residents were anywhere in sight. A small adobe store appeared to be the most vital in the lineup. At the moment, though, even this store seemed as abandoned as the shell of a 1950's era pickup truck, parked in front. There, resting on rims, tireless for years, with all its windows and both doors missing, the truck stood, slowly rusting in the desert dryness.

Who would believe that this location would become, for me, the scene of one of the most memorable highlights of a recent visit to Africa? It certainly was not on our itinerary and I'm quite sure that few, if any, of my fellow travelers even remember the place. But, let me explain.

Before the train had come to a complete stop, from my window vantage point, I had spotted a fenced enclosure holding a herd of perhaps fifty goats. It was located at the end of the row of buildings just described. A woman, of substantial size, in a pink dress, could be seen moving amongst the goats. She intrigued me and I wished that I could talk with her and learn about her animals. However, it was time for breakfast. After the meal, all the passengers would be disembarking to spend a night off the train in a lodge near the Sossusvlei dunes in the desert. I needed food to start a busy day.

Imagine, though, if you can, my delight at finding that after I had eaten, packed and all ready to go, I had 45 minutes before we were to depart. I hopped off the train and made straight for that herd of goats, a short, brisk walk away. As I approached the fence of the enclosure, the surface I was walking on changed from hard packed sandy soil, supporting scattered clumps of grass, to a less firm, ever so slight, crunchy material. On closer inspection, I found it to be a carpet of dried, desiccated goat fecal pellets laid out around me. Obviously, goats had been gathering around this enclosure, in large numbers, for many years. I was glad desert conditions had so thoroughly dried the droppings that it would be unnecessary to do any shoe cleaning before returning to the train.

I threw off my back pack, placed it on a nearby tree stump and walked up to the fence enclosing the goats. I carried only my camera. I could now see the 50-60 goats were being held in a fenced corner of a somewhat larger surrounding paddock. A  windowless   shack, constructed with sheets of tin forming both the sides and the roof of the structure was located in a corner of this paddock area, just a short distance from where I stood. Scattered about the entranceway, cooking pots and a plastic chair proved it was a home. A cat sat under the chair silently surveying the scene before it. Several guard dogs had not missed my arrival and I was very glad that a fence separated us as they rushed toward me. They were in full voice, leaving no doubt as to their unhappiness to see me. My concern lessened slightly when I saw the lady in the pink dress still standing on the other side of the fence among the goats. In fact, she was not alone. A teen-aged girl, who later I learned to be her daughter, was there with her. It was this young girl who called off the dogs and conveyed to them that I was an acceptable visitor.

Through this fence, constructed of closely placed wooden posts, interlaced with smaller sticks and barbed wire, rendering it quite in-penetrable, I wished them good morning. Needlessly, I'm sure, I told them I was a visitor from the train and asked if they would mind if I took some photographs of them and their goats. In a friendly, welcoming tone, spoken in fluently understandable English, the teen-ager assured me that would be no problem. Well, the part that comes next proves that you can take a veterinarian out of the veterinary practice but you can't take the practice of veterinary medicine out of the veterinarian. However, I've run out of space for now, but will continue this story in my next column. Barry Burtis is a local companion animal veterinarian. Past Pet Tales can be found at www.baycitiesanimalhospital.ca