The Ridgeback in Africa

The History of the Breed

The Rhodesian Ridgeback owes his heritage to the Dutch Boers who began settling in colonial southern Africa. A number of different breeds contributed to the gene pool of the Rhodesian Ridgeback including the Bloodhound, Greyhound, Pointer, Mastiff, Airedale, and Africa's Hottentot Dog, among others.

The European settlers needed a multi-purpose dog, a truly fearless hunting hound on the Aflican veldt, a watch dog on the farm, and a gentle companion in the home. However, he is most famous for being used to hunt lions. He accomplished this through his ability to locate and hold the lion at bay so the hunter could get close enough to get in a shot. This required amazing courage, agility, tenacity and endurance. He comes in different shades of wheaten, meant to blend in with the surrounding grass and bush of the veldt. His coat is short and sleek, so as to not become entangled and to allow for easy maintenance and parasite removal. He is neither too big so as to be clumsy, nor too small to render him ineffective in hunting large game. He is a swift runner capable of running thirty miles an hour! In addition to his athletic ability and functional purpose, the Rhodesian Ridgeback is also beautiful to look at: graceful, regal, and fearless in appearance. The hallmark of this breed is the ridge of hair which runs backwards along his spine; a cowlick that has two whorls (crowns) opposite each other in the upper third of this ridge.

By 1924, the South African Kennel Union registered the first Rhodesian Ridgeback. The American Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1955.

Growing up in South Africa

by Elizabeth Akers

The morning ride As the sun rose, so the soil changed colour. It went from that deep blood red to that African red in minutes. Dark shadows and shapes rose up around me as I began my early morning ride. 

The horse under me was spirited and eager to stretch her legs. Around me ran several farm dogs. They were almost invisible against the red earth, yet, they glistened and shone like burnished copper as the sun's early rays hit the earth. They too were eager to stretch their legs and run the smell of the cooking fire from their hides. They snorted, and smelled the air. Some sat watching me, remaining perfectly still until they knew I was ready to move out. I caught their excitement as some of the dogs did pirouettes and played together. 

We began our first ride of that morning at a sedate walk. Well, I tried to keep Lady sedate. She sidled and pranced and chewed snippily at the bit, tossing her head swiftly. Today, she truly just wanted to be out in the open. We followed two of the dogs and allowed the breeze to take us away. We were in the middle of the Karroo. We had nowhere to be, no one to meet and no time constraints at all. We could go as far as we wished as long as we wanted and wherever we wanted. 

We travelled slowly and I watched the dogs run in the open veld. Bounding effortlessly over rocks, running up onto a kopje and down the other side. Leaping over the dry stream bed, that once it rained would contain water, (but you know the farm dogs never seemed to mind water as my dogs here in the U.S. do!), they would blend into the scenery and simply be burnished pieces of moving artwork. 

I would stop to watch a gompou watch me. The big male bustard would be still as a rock, I guess he hoped I would not see him ; we would stand staring for a few minutes until Lady reminded me she was getting bored and then on we would go, out into the salt pan. We would usually work for a while before I headed back to the farm to change horses. 

This was absolute bliss. Me, my horses and the farm dogs. 

The farm

The farm had German Merino sheep, show horses, several farm cats, eight or nine dogs, all but one of which were Ridgebacks. The single "other" dog was the house dog, although he did not live in the house, he lived at the house. The ridgebacks lived with the farm help at their rondavels (quarters). 

We were about 15 miles from the nearest dorp (village), and I don't remember how close the closest neighbour was, I never met them in all the time I lived there. There was electricity, but only because we had a generator. The refrigerator was operated with pariffin (kerosene). The stove was a huge black coal-burning monster. The beds had thick feather mattresses and the house was huge. It is built in the Cape Dutch style, I have always loved the gables of the Cape Dutch houses. Gleaming yellow wood floors went throughout the house with slate tile on the kitchen and bathroom floors. There were 14-foot ceilings and tall sash windows. It sounds grand but it was not a grand house, it was simply the farm house. 

The stables were a short way away from the house, built of brick; they were big airy stalls. The bedding was sweet-smelling straw and it was always a comfort for me be around the horses there. 

I am not a morning person, I hate mornings, I would prefer to sleep till noon and spend the night awake. However, the only time I was always eager to get up early was when there was a horse waiting saddled and bridled for me to ride, I had absolutely no trouble getting up early then. 

I would usually take the first horse out at daybreak. I would start off through the pink tinged morning and slowly wake up with the birds. I used to relish the utter aloneness, and the beauty around me. Most mornings the dogs would accompany me for the first few miles. The ridgebacks were not trained, pampered house pets. They were working farm dogs. They had never had a collar or leash on them. They ate mielie meal and lights once per day. You could smell the food cooking for miles around. It stank! 

The horse and I would walk for a few miles, find a dry pan to "work out" on and then proceed to actually work and train in as formal a setting as the karroo could give me. The dogs would range ahead of me, to the side of me, and some lagged behind. After a while, one or two would split off and go where only they knew they needed to go. Perhaps they smelled a buck in the distance or the scent of a jackal. I never went with them as I had my own schedule to follow. Some of the dogs would stay with me and watch when I began to put the horse through its paces. They seemed to enjoy the peace and solitude as much as I did. By the time I was ready to go back to the stables and change horses, the dogs were usually long gone and doing what I assumed were "their rounds." I would continue to work as many horses as I could until about 9 a.m., when it became too hot to ride. 

In the evenings, I would ride again, and would catch glimpses of the dogs as they sauntered in from various directions for their evening meal. When I was done with the horses, I would often go and sit at the fire with the labourers. 

There I would listen to their gossip, myths and lore. There were the latest problems besetting "Oom Jannie." who was courting whom, why Japie was in jail "again," and other down-to-earth real life dramas and loves and stories. I would stay, just soaking up the evening. The fires would burn low, the music and dancing was wonderful, several "klonkies" playing the penny whistle or mouth organ, and everyone making their "dop" last through the evening. We would often sing old favourites, "Sarie Marais," "Jan Pierewiet," "Bebbejaan klim die Berg" and the old Afrikaans songs from all our of youths. 

It was during these fireside evenings that I learned to speak fluent Afrikaans (I did not do well in that language in school), Xhosa and some Zulu. I was also taught Fanagalo and some Swahili. Griet the house person would laugh at my pronunciations and soon the entire group would be holding our bellies with laughter at the strange sounds I was trying to emulate. I learned so much more than how to say words in another language; I feel so fortunate to have had such marvelous teachers. The African people are wonderful and their mythology is so very rich. 

I learned about the Mantis being the Creator (a myth), the "go-'way" bird (this is a lowry bird), the "Piet-my-vrou" bird (a cuckoo), and age old stories like the honey bird leading the ratel to the honey bee nests. I learned that every snake was somebody's soul, therefore it was wrong to kill a snake. If you killed it, someone who would die would be doomed to drift somewhere without a soul. Several of the farm labourers were of Bushman origins, others were Bantu, and yet others were of mixed blood. The people taught me so very much, they enriched my life in a way I could not have had, if I had stayed in the cities. 

The dogs would be stretched out around the fire fast asleep. Sometimes I would sit with one close enough that I could stroke and pat him or her. The dogs were always happy. They did not seem to have a care in the world. They knew what they had to do and went ahead and did it alone or with the other dogs. 

Sometimes in the mornings they would play; obviously just for the heck of it. They would chase each other, streak after something only they could see, stand stock still, alert to some smell that drifted to them on the morning air. They never had a fight, that I can recall. There was boss dog and the rest fell into line behind him. It has been so long I don't remember all their names; I know there was a Tonka (after the Tonka trucks), and he was always the patriarchal figure. 

To see these dogs running across the Karroo was beautiful. Their tawny coats a bit dusty, but gleaming all the same. They would run stretched out looking like a Thoroughbred horse. They melded in with the colours of the surroundings so well. The red outcroppings of the kopjes, with scrub bushes dotting the landscape, were a wonderful backdrop for the dogs. As the evening set, or the morning colours changed, so did the surroundings. There would be pinkish skies, and the reds and dull greens would blend together with the browns and take on a purplish hue at times. Looking toward the farm house in the distance one would see the bright green of the pepper trees, wavering sometimes almost like a mirage. Behind the stable are was a lucerne field. The lucerne always seemed to be emerald green ; even when it was being dried and they were tetting.

Occasionally a troop of baboons would come close to the house looking for food. They were usually chased off by the dogs, if any of them happened to be around. Their boggams would be loud and raucous and I would watch the mothers with their little ones. The teenagers were my favourite to cheer on; I didn't mind if they tried to steal the corn, I didn't have to plant more, or put it up for storage, I was just there. (very selfish).

The toilet, separate from the actual bathroom, was on a septic system. It was a real toilet, in the house, not an outhouse, and it was always cool in there. I had come rushing in from the stables one day and hurried to "the loo." There was an odd sound from behind the toilet, but in my haste I paid it no mind and as I got ready to leave the room I froze. There wrapped around the pipes behind the toilet was a very beautiful Cape cobra. However, I was not in any position to admire the beauty of the poor thing just then. I am deathly afraid of spiders, but I do have a healthy respect for snakes of all kinds, so I stood very still, and yelled my head off for someone, anyone, to come and do something, anything, now! Griet, the housemaid called for help too and finally, I was watching the swift dispatch of the snake. I felt sorry for it, but I knew that it was in too small an area to be captured easily or safely. So, off he went to be someone else's soul. 

I certainly miss home; I think where one grows up always remains home, no matter where one lives and makes a home. I still feel very fortunate for my childhood and early adult years. I feel I had a wonderful upbringing with some very special family members and opportunities. I often think of the food, the scenery, the people, the places I used to enjoy frequenting. Odd little scenes often pop into my head as I am reminded of one event or another.

Camping on horseback in the mountains

We sent the horses to the nearest town by rail. We collected them, saddled up and started on our trek to a camp site. Now, in the mountains, one does not reserve a camp site like you do here in the States. You camp where you can, near a river, build a fire, hang your food in the tree, and either sleep on the ground under the stars or you pitch your tent. There are no showers, toilets, beds, or mod cons.

We began riding through the town on our way 30 miles south to the mountains. The first event to frighten us was riding the horses though a demonstration. Rocks flew in every direction and we scrambled to get out of that area as quickly as possible. We got past the town and out into the country. We crossed open veld and rode through the sands of a wide river. It was relaxing and beautiful. The weather was lovely, the flowers were colourful and all was well with the world around us as we rode.

We saw a small flock of ostriches nearby and admired them for what they were; truly beautiful big birds. The ostriches were not exactly ignoring us, they were in fact rather upset at our closeness, and all of a sudden we had to ride for our lives as the birds started to chase us! Those birds may not be able to fly but they can run! We managed to out maneuver them, perhaps they gave up once they realized we were leaving their territory, and we settled in again lazily riding alongside the river. 

With a loud yell one rider and horse went down into quicksand. Another rider started to sink, and we tried to throw halter ropes to the riders in the sand. The horses thrashed and screamed and it seemed like hours went by as they laboriously tried to get out of the sucking sand. They made it, horses and rider safely at the edge of the quicksand, all of us exhausted, but the two who were stuck were in bad shape. It took us a little while to catch our breath and recover ; some of us just from the fright of what we had witnessed. We continued on, however, slowly and carefully, so that we put as much distance between the river and ourselves as quickly as possible.

The next event occurred in a short space of time as we rapidly became lost in the bush. We eventually came upon some farm laborers and asked directions. We followed those directions and eventually ended up in a village where we stopped at the local hotel for refreshments. We gave our horses to some local children who walked and watered them. Unfortunately, my horse was in no condition to have water and went down with colic. There was no vet to be found in the area. Instead of getting the needed medical attention, poor Marty, the mare I rode, was walked slowly and hosed down, then walked some more until her colic spasms had passed. This took quite a long time and put us way behind any schedule we thought we may have had. When we thought she was fit enough to continue on slowly, we mounted up and went on towards the mountain range. 

It was late at night when we reached our camping site. It was close to the river but we had found a fenced off area where we could keep the horses so that they did not wander all over mountain. Our big concern was that the fenced in area was one mile from our camp and we were worried that leopard in the area would find one of the horses a tasty meal.

That first night we collapsed after attending to the horses. Their camp did not have a river running through it, so we had to first water the horses at the river them turn them loose in the fenced in camp. After that we had to walk the mile to the fenced in horse camp, ride the horses to the river for water, return them to the camp, then walk the mile back to our camp. We took nature calls in pairs. 

One morning, after having spent the night listening to strange growls and sounds from quite a distance we took turns answering the necessary nature calls. The first two trotted off into the bush and later returned to tell us about the growls they had heard through some bush not too far away. Then it was our turn to go through the bush, and as we came to a sandy animal trail, we saw large, very catlike, very definite paw prints in the sand. They had churned the sand up a bit and right in the middle was a large wet patch.

Well, I am sure I turned several shades of ash and white and we both got down on our hands and knees to smell the wet soil. We had to find out if this wet, mussed up patch was made by a big cat, a baboon, or one of the other types of animal that lived in the mountains. We convinced ourselves it was a leopard. We knew leopard were quite numerous in these mountains so it was not hard to look at the soil and be quite definite about what had preceded us to this spot. We raced back to camp, all thoughts of potty breaks totally forgotten. Breathlessly we told everyone about the possibility of a leopard so close to our camp and what precautions we should take. We were quite stunned to see the everyone rolling on the ground holding their sides laughing. It had all been a set up! They had deliberately made the paw prints, the wet spot and mussed up ground. When they heard we had even gone down on our hands and knees to smell the ground, they laughed even harder. Needless to say, we saw no real leopard that trip and we had a very enjoyable time exploring the mountains on horseback, swimming in the river, and just generally being at home.