RfossilsSomething Really Old!

Found in the small garden outside the entrance to the East London Museum in the eastern Cape, South Africa.

These sections of fossilized trees are from the Permian Period, 299-241 million years before the present. It’s amazing to think that all that time ago, these trees were alive and now they are fossilized wood!

They were found on the farm Winkelhurst in the Stutterheim District by landowner Bobbly Wilson and brought to the East London Museum in 1955.

Prof. Marion Bamford of Wits University has identified sections of this specimen as an fossils closeAgathoxylon species. Associated with the Glossopteris plant life of the Permian Period, these trees grew in fairly moist environments and contributed to the formation of the coal deposits in South Africa. They were deciduous trees called gymnosperms, a group of seed-bearing plants that includes the conifers (like pines), yellowwoods and cycads.

Rod has always been keen on fossils, so this was an interesting find.


Elephant Interaction


His name is Ramadiba


Her name is Mopane


Main building at Inkwenkwezi

Elephant Interaction—An amazing Experience 

(This post has a lot of photos—so please be patient and scroll through, and please enjoy!)

Our family in East London had won a raffle giving two tickets to a special Elephant Experience at Inkwenkwezi Private Game Reserve. It’s not far from where they live, about 20 miles north of East London. They kept the tickets to give to Rod and I, and bought tickets for themselves, and we all went one morning. An amazing experience, in the true sense of the word.



Our driver introduces the main trainer, Patrick

Inkwenkwezi is a lovely place. It’s not big, compared to the National Parks in South Africa, but it has a fair amount of wild game that one can view on their morning or afternoon game drives in 4 X 4 safari vehicles. They have a good restaurant, various types of accommodation, canoeing and guided quad bike tours too.

What they also offer is this Elephant Interaction. You can go early morning (8am) or mid-morning (11am), which is what we did, or at 2pm. You start at the visitors’ desk at the main building and a ranger drives you in a safari vehicle to the place in the park where the elephants are.




The 2 elephants waiting for the “show”



The ranger drove our group of 8 people to a remote part of the reserve and on the way we saw many impala—such graceful, beautiful antelope. We arrived at the elephant spot where there were two elephants, a male and a female, and four trainers. The male elephant, named Ramadiba after Nelson Nandela’s grandson, weighs 2.2 tons. The female, Mopane, weighs 1.9 tons. They used to have a third elephant but they had to release him to another big park because of erratic behavior. These are all rescue elephants from the Limpopo area in northern South Africa.




Patrick feeds Ramadiba pellets while explaining about elephants

Patrick is the main guide and trainer. He came with the elephants from Limpopo and has been here at Inkwenkwezi for four years. There are 3-4 other elephant carers/trainers, so the elephants get to know them all so one can go on leave sometimes. The care is for 24 hours, and these men actually sleep in a building next to where the elephants go at night.

Ramadiba was first in the Encounter experience. Patrick and another trainer RamPatbrought him closer to our group and he stood behind a wooden pole, a bit like a hitching post. Patrick fed Ramadiba with special pellets, made of lucerne, some sort of grass and molasses, placing a handful of the pellets into the tip of the trunk. As Patrick did this repeatedly, he told the group about elephants, in a very knowledgeable and informative way: the life and social habits of elephants, and about all the different parts of their bodies (see at the end). For example, as he explained about teeth and tusks, he showed the tusks and opened Ramadiba’s mouth; when talking about the eyes, he zeroed in on an eye. It was a great way to learn about these huge, very special animals.


Rod feeds Ramadiba


And Mike does too


Rod and another guest touch Mopane

After that, people in the group could go up and feed Ramadiba too. Rod and Mike both did quite eagerly. I did too, but very gingerly! It’s a strange feeling, to hold the trunk, place the pellets at the tip, which he then sort of snuffled up.

Then, another trainer brought Mopane forward. She just stood there, while one trainer fed her pellets and Patrick demonstrated on her—-mostly talking about the skin, the feet and the ears. People could also go and touch her, to feel how prickly the skin is, as there are many spikey hairs all over, and to feel how soft the back of the ears are. Rod, Mike and I all did this: what a unique experience and what a privilege.


Mike feels Mopane’s ears


I got brave enough to touch Mopane too!


Impala waiting to clean up spilt pellets

Thanks Mike and Margie.

As we left it was interesting to see that a herd of impala was hovering nearby, ready to come in and get the last of the pellets off the ground!

Some Elephant Facts:

—2.4 times the circumference of the front foot pad = the height of the elephant from foot to withers.


Patrick giving elephant facts

—60% of the body weight is in front, 40% in the back.

—the foot has a pad that’s unique, like a human fingerprint. Each foot has a shock absorber pad that helps with the huge weight and lets them walk silently. There are 4 toenails on front foot and 4 on the back. The nails are not connected to bones, just to the skin.



—the end of the trunk has lips; the top one can come over the bottom one. Elephants are left- or right-handed, depending on the length of the tusks and on how many callouses on that side of the trunk.

—the mouth: elephants have 6 sets of molars during their life that erupt from the back and move forward. After the 6th set, the elephant retires to a grassy spot for soft grass, as no more teeth will come. The tusks are the incisors. They continue to grow but if broken at the root in the cheek they stop growing. There’s a large tongue, which the elephant can’t lift back.




—the eyes have a nictitating membrane, and long eye lashes, for protection. Vision is very poor, but sense of sound and smell is very good.


—the ears are shaped like a map of Africa. The outside is rough, the inside very soft, like leather. The opening is in front of the ear. Ear flapping is used for cooling, and ears have lots of veins, also to help with cooling.

—the skin is different to human skin as it can absorb water. It has coarse hairs all over.


—the tail is used to swat flies, for balance in the bush and has a sensor for how far something is behind the elephant. Don’t stand behind an elephant as they sense that and feel threatened.


–gestation is 22 months. At birth the calf is about 1 meter (3 feet) high and is pale grey. The babies can’t use the trunk properly until 6 months old. Until then they use it like a toy.

More information on Inkwenkwezi Game Reserve:



Male nyala


Female nyala


What a beautiful creature: male nyala

Feeding Nyala

Some of our family members in South Africa live on a fenced estate on the coast about 20 miles north of East London. It’s a large estate, with “wild” areas in between the houses, gardens, and paved roads. The estate residents decided they would like to have some typical wild South African buck (antelope), as the grassy areas could support that. So they bought a herd of impala, a herd of blesbok, and three nyala (a male and two females).



Female nyala

It’s a lovely experience to drive to our family’s home and see these lovely animals grazing on the side of the road or on a slight grassy rise behind the house.


Impala behind the house

Impala (Aepyceros melampus) is a very graceful animal, the most common antelope of the bushveld regions of South Africa, and also found in East Africa.


Male impala grazing on the estate

Blesbok (Damaliscus pygargus phillipsi ) is bigger than impala and both males and females have horns. Notable is the prominent white blaze on the face.


Blesbok on the estate




Female nyala grooming

Nyala (Tragelaphus Angasii) is a very handsome antelope. The males are much larger than the females and have a brown shaggy coat with white vertical stripes. Females do not have horns and are chestnut colored, with very prominent white stripes.

On the estate the impala and blesbok are still quite wild, as in skittish if people get close. But the nyala have grown somewhat bolder. Whether it’s a good thing or not I don’t know, but the estate manager started leaving cabbage and carrots out for them when the rains didn’t come and the grass wasn’t growing. Now, the nyala expect those vegetables each day and come to the estate manager’s garden. Often he just throws the vegetables, but he also feeds them by hand sometimes. And sometimes other residents will do the same.


Cabbage leaves



The male chews on a cabbage core


The female edges closer to me

When we were there, we were invited to try one early evening and decided “Why not?” Feeding a nyala is not an experience that happens every day. So, we did. I was a bit nervous, as they are still wild animals. In addition, the male is very dominant and will try to nudge out the females, and one day as he tossed his head to get rid of the females he did gore the estate manager with his horns.

Anyway, it was an interesting adventure. I gingerly held out a cabbage leaf to the male and then a hard cabbage core. While he devoured that, we tried to entice the rather skittish females to come and take cabbage leaves, which eventaully they did.femaleeating

We felt very privileged to see these beautiful creatures so close up.



South Africa: A Coelacanth Statue



Special Coelacanth Gallery


Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer with the coelacanth

Coelacanth Statue

As you probably know by now, I really love outdoor art, especially sculpture, so we were happy to find this interesting piece. This sculpture is in the small garden in front of the East London Museum, a fitting place as the museum has the special exhibit on the Coelacanth.

It is one in a series of sculptures commissioned by the Sunday Times, and put up around the country, as memorials to prominent South Africans. This one is in honour of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer (1907-2004), a one-time curator at East London’s small museum, who is credited with discovering the fascinating coelacanth, a pre-historic fish that even pre-dates dinousaurs. On December 22nd, 1938, she spotted an unusual fish in the catch on the deck of the trawler Nerine. She took the 1.5 meter (4.9 ft), 57.5 kg (127 lbs), fish home and had it stuffed to preserve it until it could be identified by Rhodes University chemistry lecturer and keen ichthyologist JLB Smith.


Coelacanth in the gallery

RodThe artist is Graham Jones, a well-known eastern Cape sculptor. He was born in Zimbabwe but went to school and studied in Port Elizabeth.

The sculpture weighs four and a half tons and is made of cast iron, giving it a wonderful surface texture, with all sorts of fascinating bits and pieces attached. The mouth is stuffed with fishing gut, a silent protest against the wicked exploitation of this hugely endangered species.



Part 2: The Flag at Fort McHenry



Flag flying at the fort the day we were there

flagplaque copyVisiting Fort McHenry Part 2: The Flag 

Another important part of this history is the story of the flag, the different flag sizes, and new flags flying at the fort.

The Star-Spangled Banner flag of Francis Scott Key’s song was created during the people of Baltimore’s preparations to defend their city.

Major George Armistead, commander at Fort McHenry, commissioned the flag a year before the British attack. Armistead was a seasoned soldier who had participated in the American capture of Fort George on the Niagara River in 1813. He was aware of Fort McHenry’s vital strategic and symbolic importance, so he asked for a flag so large “that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.”

In the summer of 1813 a local seamstress, Mary Young Pickersgill, received the flaginsidecommission to make an “American ensign” measuring 30 x 42 feet and using “finest quality bunting.” It was a major undertaking; her daughter, nieces, and possibly an enslaved servant, helped Mary. The flag was so large that they had to assemble it on the floor of a brewery near Mary’s workshop.

Her total fee of $574.44 was a very large sum of money at that time and included the production of a smaller flag, which may have been the “storm flag” flown during the night of the British bombardment in 1814. The huge flag was only hoisted early the next morning after the rain ended, as a signal that the fort was still standing. (I will write later about visiting the house where Mary Pickersgill lived, the so-called Flag House.

flagtodaysignAn information board titled “O’er the Ramparts We Watch” tells us Which Flag Flies Today. It says, “The fort’s walls are called ramparts. An American flag flies over Fort McHenry 24 hours a day by Presidential Proclamation. The size of the flag varies. On clear days with the right amount of wind, a full-size replica of the Star-Spangled Banner measuring 30 x 42 feet with 15 stars and 15 stripes waves. The fort also flies smaller versions of this flag. On rainy days and at night, a small, modern 50-star American flag is flown.

In 1948, a proclamation issued by President Harry S. Truman stated that “as a perpetual

Vflag copy

Copy of original flag in the fort museum, and statue of Francis Scott Key

symbol of our patriotism, the flag of the United States shall hereafter be displayed at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine at all times during the day and night, except when the weather is inclement.” At night the flag is illuminated by lights powered by solar panels.”

The original 30 x 42 feet flag is now in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC. However, because of its delicate nature, it is kept under very low light and no photography is possible. But, we did go and see it.




Entrance to the original flag exhibit in Washington DC


The 15-star, 15-stripe flag at Fort McHenry

Also linked to American flags: as states were added to the United States so too were stars added to the flag. In 1818, Congress proclaimed that one star for each new state would be added on the 4th of July following the state’s admission to the union and there would be thirteen stripes representing the thirteen original colonies.


So, new flags were produced and each time that flag was first flown here at Fort McHenry.

As we walked back to catch the bus, we noted


Illinois, admitted December 3, 1818

metal plaques set into the sidewalk along the edge of the entrance road, with the names of US states. We believe that there is one for each state, commemorating when the state entered the union. We couldn’t find them all, but did find Illinois!

Next is Part 3 on the History of the Fort.



Visiting Fort McHenry



Inside the fort today

canonPart 1: Our Visit to Fort McHenry

Fort McHenry and what it stands for in American history is so important, with so much information available, that I decided to break it up into 4 parts—that makes for easier reading and understanding, I hope.

One of the most popular places to visit in Baltimore is Fort McHenry—to visit the actual fort and to learn about the American flag and anthem. As we discovered, it’s impossible to talk about the fort without also mentioning the flag and anthem as their history is so intertwined.

We caught the free Banner bus at the stop close to the Baltimore Visitors’ Center—about a 20-minute bus ride to the entrance to the park, but it’s also possible to go by water taxi.


At the entrance to the park


Visitor Center at the fort


View through windows as curtains open

A short walk takes you to the impressive fort Visitor Center, which has a ticket counter, shop, restrooms, and a small museum that offers an audio-visual show at regular intervals. We bought a life-time pass to the US National Parks for only $10 each as seniors—what an amazing deal! The museum has information on the fort, the siege and defense of Baltimore, and the story of Francis Scott Key writing the words to the Star-Spangled Banner. (See my earlier background post here https://viviennemackie.wordpress.com/2017/09/27/fort-mchenry-and-the-star-spangled-banner/ ). A ranger gives a short audio-visual presentation, at the end of which curtains open over huge picture windows, giving a dramatic view out to the fort.



Entrance to the inner part of the fort

canon2You can take a ranger-guided tour, or just walk around by yourself, which we opted to do. The sight has many information boards along the paths and by all the buildings and other points of view, so it is very easy to picture what was going on here. Some of the structures from the original fort no longer exist (such as the Tavern, as alcohol was important to the soldiers), but the foundation outline is still there, so we can imagine the layout. What we see today are the modifications over 200 years.




These Rodman canons were installed in 1866

It’s a large grassy area, with great views out to the river, and it’s fun to ramble around. The fort is in an excellent location for protecting Baltimore as it controlled the entrance to the Inner harbor. Almost all of this was new information for us, which we tried to absorb, but being there and walking around made it much more personal and meaningful

fortinsideThe actual fort inside is quite small (it was built for 150 soldiers), so trying to imagine 1,000 people crammed in there during the siege of Baltimore is hard. Many of the rooms in the inner fort buildings now serve as a museum depicting life in the fort. We learn details and snippets, such as the fact that officers were from rich families and often had their own servants and paid for their own (nice) food. Tobacco was important as an export to America and the British blockade badly affected imports and exports, with negative impact on the economy. One of the important ports was Baltimore, so it’s also symbolic that it played a pivotal role in fending off the British.


Example of an information board —this one about the Magazine


Magazine inside today

We saw the cross-traverse for the original flag. This kept the flagpole from falling over, because such a big flag on a pole would just blow over. We also saw the magazine used for stored gunpowder (it was used to store coal in WW1), and some of the canons used in 1814 and later, plus explanations about the fuses and how long fuses should be. The canon balls were solid and varied in size—all were deadly.

What are the main take-home lessons from visiting the fort?

First, how important the War of 1812 was in American history. It was the second war against Britain, and the success of the American defense got the British “off their backs”. It’s also very clear that the British could potentially have sacked Baltimore just as they did Washington DC, so holding them off here was enormously important.


Canon balls (shots) of different sizes


A 36-pound shot. Absolutely lethal 

Second, this was the naval battle that led to the development of the national anthem. And this was due to a huge American flag flying at the fort. See Part 2 on information about the flags at Fort McHenry.

For more information about Fort McHenry and the park, go to their website:




fortsign4Fort McHenry and the Star-Spangled Banner: Historical Context

With all the hou-haa going on right now about the US anthem, honoring it and what it means to be patriotic, this seemed like a good time for me to try and finish writing about Fort McHenry in Baltimore and the birth of the song that was inspired by a huge flag.

In July we were in Baltimore for a conference, our first time to visit this American city. Our knowledge of its history was a bit sketchy to say the least, so we had a great time exploring Fort McHenry, and the small house where Mary Pickersgill lived and helped stitch the flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen his victory poem that later became the American anthem.

It’s actually a tense and dramatic story, made more real by visiting the sites of the action, and trying to visualize what happened on those momentous days.


The inside of Fort McHenry today


Entrance to the inside of the fort today

battle_starsignEveryone speaks of the War of 1812, but in reality the major events took place in 1814.

Bit of background:

After the American Revolution and the exhausting fight to win independence from Great Britain, tensions between the two countries still smoldered. Britain was at war with France for supremacy in Europe, and also set policies that interfered with American trade, like confiscating merchant ships and cargoes. The British navy needed more men, so would board American vessels and seize men said to be British deserters. They also forcefully blocked American expansion along the Great Lakes and Northern Frontier.

Many Americans, including President James Madison, wanted to strike back, and Congress declared war on June 18, 1812. Over the next 2 years, American and British forces clashed in many places from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. The British occupied the fertile Chesapeake Bay, and raided waterfront towns.


One of the canons in Fort McHenry


Fort McHenry

By summer 1814, President Madison realized the war could escalate, especially since Napoleon had fallen and the British then had more troops available. He worried in particular about the Washington-Maryland area and called for more militiamen and volunteers.

On August 19, 1814 British General Robert Ross brought more than 4,000 troops ashore in southern Maryland to start a land invasion, and Rear Admiral George Cockburn sailed up the Potomac River towards Washington DC. Both of them and their troops arrived at the edge of DC at dusk on August 24, and created havoc and panic. They torched much of the city, including the US Capitol and the President’s house. The rampage only ended because of a violent rainstorm. Bladensburg, a tobacco port just 5 miles northeast of the capital, was also attacked and badly affected, mostly because the American commanders and troops were very inexperienced compared to the British counterparts.

From August 28 the British plundered Alexandria for 5-6 days and then set their sights on Baltimore, on the Patapsco River with its many ‘arms’ and branches.


The guns that won the battle


armisteadplaqueBut, Baltimore was better prepared than Washington had been. Under Maj. Gen. Samuel Smith, a US Senator and veteran of the Revolution, defences were erected, arms and equipment stockpiled, and troops trained. He had about 15,000 men, and Fort McHenry, the key to the harbor, had 1,000 men. Fort McHenry was commanded by Maj. George Armistead. The fort’s guns and two batteries along the river’s edge dominated the channels leading to the city. A line of gunboats and sunken hulks across the mouth of Northwest Branch also obstructed entry.



Direct Hits to Fort McHenry–in which 2 officers were killed

On September 12, Ross’s troops marched towards Baltimore. Ross was killed but his replacement, Col Arthur Brooke, marched to within 2 miles of the city and was waiting for the naval attack to end before assaulting the city. British Admiral Cochrane knew that for the British campaign to succeed he had to capture or destroy Fort McHenry. He attacked the fort at dawn on September 13th and the bombardment from the water carried on for 25 hours. Armistead estimated later that between 1500 and 1800 shells and rockets were fired at the fort. However, only two officers were killed and several gun crew members injured.


Dawn’s Early Light


The soldiers on Fort McHenry hoist the huge flag

Around midnight Cochrane realized that shelling the fort was not enough and decided to send small boats as a diversion up the Ferry Branch of the river to distract the Americans and allow Brooke to storm the east side of the city where he was waiting. But in the dark, this plan went wrong—they rowed up the wrong branch, and other barges were detected and driven back by the Americans. The British carried on bombing the fort until 7am on September 14th, and then they withdrew.

The American soldiers fired the morning gun and hoisted the huge flag that Armistead had ordered especially, which later became known as the “Star-Spangled Banner”.

How did that happen? This takes us to Francis Scott Key.


Plaque to Francis Scott Key on Fort McHenry

As the British sailed toward Baltimore in early September 1814, Georgetown attorney Francis Scott Key and John Skinner, the US agent for the exchange of prisoners, met the British to negotiate the release of Key’s friend, a physician abducted from Maryland. They were aboard a truce ship when the British began bombarding Fort McHenry outside Baltimore. They had to watch the fighting through the night, but then came the raising of that large flag measuring 30×42 feet, which Key could see even from a distance. He then knew that the Americans were victorious and was very proud. To record his thoughts at that moment, he wrote a poem about his feelings on seeing the flag. This poem later became the national anthem. Some of his words say “the stars of that banner”, which led to the actual flag being called The Star-Spangled Banner too.


Viv M and a flag and statue of Key in the Fort McHenry Museum


The flag on Fort McHenry today

President Madison signed the Treaty of Ghent on February 17th, 1815, and the war was officially over. Neither America nor Britain had won a clear victory, but the war gave Americans a stronger sense of collective identity and confirmed its new position on the international stage.

Fort McHenry became a National Monument, which people can visit. We did and it was fascinating—I’ll write more on that later.

Two lasting symbols came from this war: The Star-Spangled Banner (now in the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington DC) and the national anthem that honors it. More details on those coming too.


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