A day’s work in tick paradise

2010-07-28 00:00

THE rutted track creeps inexorably upwards into the blue sky. Just before heaven, as if the hand of the almighty himself declines admission, it abruptly drops, revealing the vast expanse of Indian Ocean, the intense colour a mirror image of the sky above. It is my spiritual home, this patch of Eastern Cape coastline. A place where stressed souls are repaired and where tired minds recuperate­.

I am on a mission. Some time previously I had realised that this place of great beauty is not only attractive to those living off the land, but to those parasiting on them as well and the effect of these parasites on the livestock is very evident. Ticks create suppurating sores between the legs of cattle. Ears bleed, udder quarters are lost, condition deteriorates and the animals can succumb to tick-borne diseases, septicaemia or just the vampire effect of millions of these critters. During summer the fight was being lost. Ticks were hanging from their hosts like bunches of purple Catawba grapes.

Some intense organisation and lobbying­ resulted in Afrivet donating expertise and dipping products, the local state veterinarian­ office providing the co-ordination and the locals providing the energy and enthusiasm. I, too, packed my bag and enjoyed the ride.

It is Wednesday morning, dipping day, some months later, with the strident sounds of boys yelling “diep, diep, diep” as they cajole the cattle past my window to the communal dip tank. This structure, where the 1 350 cattle of the community are swum through a dipping compound to kill these parasites, lies some 12 km from my camp.

I rouse myself from my slumber, pack my medical bag and join the migration. The locals­ recognise my pick-up truck and as I trundle up the road I attract passengers. The cab soon becomes full and there is no more space on my running board. Happy chatter and occasional tunes break the early morning silence.

Dhlulamin is wearing a bright sky-blue overall with an orange cross on the back, the significance of which is lost on the passive observer, but which no doubt has some important history for the wearer. He flags my convoy down, explaining that one of his three cows is off colour and it has diarrhoea. Without further invitation, my retinue fling themselves on the plodding beast, two holding her head, having avoided her flailing horns like a Siamese playing with an Mfezi, three squeezing her body against a kraal fence and one attached to her tail. My cursory examination complete, I slip a plastic shoulder-length glove over my left arm and proceed to insert it deep into the rectum of the bellowing animal. This elicits raucous commentary from my assistants, which only mildly abates when I pronounce that she is three months pregnant.

I can feel her fever through the glove. Her dung, too, is olive green and the mucous membrane of her vulva is pale. I load a couple­ of syringes from my medicine chest and inject her for redwater, feeling fairly confident that she is likely to survive the exercise­.

We continue on our merry way.

A red-and-white Nguni in a small herd attracts my attention. One horn is broken, and bubbling fluid escapes from the stump. She has lost condition and holds her head at an angle like a drunk emerging from the local shebeen. Screw-worm maggots are feeding from the rotten tissue like piranhas around a corpse and they have penetrated deep into the sinuses surrounding the head.

She too is treated.

My next stop is a kraal quite close to the dip tank. Fifty or 60 goats are squeezed into the small area. I am seated on a box like a judge in a talent contest and my happy troubadours join a small bunch of onlookers as the hapless goats are paraded out one by one for my ministrations. The goats suffer from a multitude of afflictions, by far the most important being foot abscesses that are caused by the abrasive mouthparts of the bont tick. Treatment includes the lancing and cleaning of abscesses, tick control and the use of an antibiotic spray with a blue dye. The released goats bounce off like blue-booted minuets in a school pantomime.

We eventually arrive at the dip tank set in a valley that is surrounded by verdant indigenous bush. The smells are of fire, cow dung and smoke, the sounds drift and echo, the colours are so vivid and the emotion so typically African. Pockets of cattle are being marched through the dip by their minders, while the elders sit around a fire, the smoke billowing through the green foliage as they gossip and tease. My merry band disperse and join the happy throng, and I am left alone for a while to enjoy the scene below.

I reflect that true worth is achieved by acceptance and participation, not just observation. And that I belong here.

• The writer is a practising vet with a passion for his profession and a giggle in his heart.

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