Eagle Rock looks over the Plains of Camdeboo in the great Karoo north of Cape Town. I surveyed this apparently endless stretch of land, keeping a cautious few paces from the edge, and thought about loss. And what follows.
There was a time not long past when this rock provided one of the greatest sights any human eyes had ever seen: the strange and unpredictable migration of the springbok. They moved in herds reckoned at 12 million and it’s said that once they’d gone the dust took two weeks to settle. The great explorer and naturalist Francois Levaillant wrote in 1783: “We had met but one flock of the gazelles known as spring-bock, but the flock contained all the plain, being an emigration, of which we nether saw the beginning or end.”
This is bioabundance on the scale of passenger pigeon of North America, a bird whose flocks blackened the sky and took all day to pass – a bird that is now extinct.
Destruction and loss have a compelling fascination for us humans, perhaps because we’re so good at it, and perhaps also because we feel such regret when it’s done. But here at Samara there were springbok once again, in hundreds rather than millions, true: but the restoration of a vast landscape and an entire ecosystem dominated by large mammals is not done overnight. At Samara they are 25 years into a project of healing. Once again springbok cross and recross the plains and are sometimes pursued by cheetahs as they do so.
One of the problems Milton had with Paradise Lost is that it’s so much more fun to write about evil than virtue. As I write now about Paradise Restored, I must turn away from the blistering stories of what’s been lost, and look instead at what’s been won. Springboks again graze the Plains of Camdeboo and soon enough there will be more of them. Just watch out for those cheetahs.