Peter Sarstedt in the Midlands

2010-10-18 00:00

PETER Sarstedt sipped his orange juice — regular, not frozen — and surveyed a chilly, mist-shrouded KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Midlands landscape through binoculars.

“This is just like the weather back home,” he said.

Given that “home” for the sixties pop icon-turned conservation ambassador is the rural outskirts of London, the remark was probably not entirely complimentary.

Sarsdtedt and his wife Jill had arrived in Howick that morning from Johannesburg for the second leg of a national tour as guests of paper and pulp multinational, Sappi, and it was clear their stylish safari gear was not quite up to the rigours of a late spring cold snap in the Midlands.

The irony of the situation was not lost on his hosts, several of whom sported rings under their eyes from sleepless nights battling forest fires.

For the foresters, this was a welcome, if all too brief, break in a seemingly endless spell of hot, dry weather, all too reminiscent of the conditions that had helped spark the devastating fire-storm of June 2007.

But for Sarstedt, unaware he was standing virtually at the epicentre of that inferno, the conditions were not conducive to bird-spotting, which was, after all, one of the reasons he’d been invited to the area. And it wasn’t providing exactly riveting footage for the television crew recording a slot for the conservation-themed programme 50/50.

Normally, there’d be plenty to see. In fairer weather the well-appointed bird hide the party was crowded into at the Karkloof Conservation Centre is a magnet for birders. The Sappi-backed centre is alynchpin of the Midlands Birding Route and all three of South Africa’s species of cranes — the Blue, Grey-Crowned and Wattled Crane — are found in the area and enjoy protection by locals.

But none were in evidence that day. Earlier the crew had captured some heart-warming footage of the Sarstedts with some rescued baby deer at the nearby Free Me rehabilitation centre. But Sarstedt’s interest in birds was the main reason they’d driven down from Gauteng and at the moment it was looking like it would be a largely wasted trip.

That evening Sarstedt, his voice intact, performed a gig for local landowners meeting in the area, followed by an unplugged session for Sappi foresters and their partners over dinner.

The singer shot to prominence in 1969 with his United Kingdom number-one hit Where Do You Go To (My Lovely) which he performed that night, along with Take Off Your Clothes, Hemingway, Frozen Orange Juice and other old favourites.

Sarstedt, now 67, opted out of the mainstream pop scene in the early seventies, so he never went on to make the kind of money some of his contemporaries did and he describes the wealth of today’s stars as “obscene”. But he’s clearly grateful for the steady royalty income from his hit song which has allowed him to pursue a keen interest in conservation.

Where Do You Go To featured in the 2007 Wes Anderson films Hotel Chevalier and The Darjeeling Limited which sparked renewed interest in Sarstedt’s music.

The following morning dawned unpromisingly misty, but soon cleared and the Sarstedts were treated to a memorable sighting of a pair of Blue Cranes at a dam on Sappi land just outside Howick, much to the relief of both their hosts and the 50/50 crew.

The entourage then travelled the 66 km to Bulwer, location of the Marutswa Forest, home to the endangered Cape Parrot. Like the Karkloof Conservation Centre, Marutswa is a project of TreeRoutes, a partnership between Sappi and the WWF.

TreeRoutes develops conservation projects around the country in collaboration with rural communities who live near threatened indigenous forests and wetlands.

Marutswa, with hundreds of metres of aerial boardwalks, lookout jetties, decks and view points, gives visitors an unrivalled view of the forest’s various layers, including the canopy, and of the birds who call it home.

Apart from the Cape Parrot, the sought-after KZN mist-belt forest bird species found there include the Orange Ground-thrush and Green Twinspot.

With a successful KZN trip under his belt, Sarstedt moved on to the final leg of his tour, with concerts in Cape Town and Franschhoek.

He was in South Africa in September and early October as a guest of Sappi to help raise funds and awareness for various environmental conservation organisations.

Sarstedt also held workshops for aspiring musicians, in keeping with both Sappi’s and his support and encouragement of music in South Africa.

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