Author Archive | David

Visualising the ancient Karoo

I’m fascinated by dry places that were once at the bottom of oceans. The Karoo is such a place, at least for a period of its ancient history it was under water. During that time rocks formed when sediments sunk to the bottom of oceans and lakes. The sediments were transported from higher ground by glaciers and rivers into the Karoo basin.

Conceptual map of the rock formations, towns, and fossils of the ancient Karoo.

But the ancient Karoo wasn’t always under water. Towards the end of a 90 million year rock forming period, the Karoo became drier, until it resembled today’s Namib desert. Then, at about 190 million years ago, lava flows covered the entire Karoo putting an end to the rock formation period. The Drakensberg mountains being the striking remnant from that event, but the characteristic Karoo Koppies are also a consequence of the upwelling lava (sills) that infiltrated older sedimentary rocks (shales) on its way to the surface. The Karoo today is the result of a 190 million year erosion process that started after the lava flows.

I like to think of the Karoo as a book, the rocks are its pages, to read the story of the Karoo you need to know what to look at, and understand what it means. But the story becomes complicated quite soon.

How to represent the story of the ancient Karoo in a simple infographic? The result of my first attempt is a conceptual map plotting rocks, fossils, and towns. I visualised the Karoo basin as a saucer consisting of 5 layers. The oldest layers are at the bottom, and crop out on the surface at the edge of the saucer. Moving towards the centre the rocks become progressively younger. This is a distortion of the actual geography, but I find it a useful model to understand the order of events, and physical structure of the Karoo.

Interesting facts cropped up during my research that I’d like to explore further: the end of a glacial period led to the formation of the Dwyka Group, and evidence of a mass extinction at the end of the Permian is visible in the rocks of the Beaufort Group.

More to explore, and more to follow.

It’s Not Rocket Science

I helped the author Di Kamp transform her manuscript It’s Not Rocket Science into an ebook. But then she also wanted a printed copy. The design was never intended for print, but the result is looking good considering I designed for RGB and not CMYK. If you are unfamiliar with CMYK and RGB colour modes check out this very useful explanation from

I received a copy by post, it travelled all the way from Worcester in the UK to Cape Town, it’s a little rough for wear around the edges after the journey.

For the first time, instead of making the illustrations myself, I sourced them from The Noun Project, and I’m very happy with the result. The illustration shown here is by Garrett Knoll.

A beautiful design

Since reading Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside I look at oystercatchers differently. He writes that the Eurasian oystercatcher:

…eats mostly mussels and cockles teased from the shore, using its greatest asset: a bone strengthened bill, part hammer, part chisel, able to prise open the biggest bivalves. Delicately coloured carrot-red to toucan-yellow – it might be made of porcelain – it a surprisingly sensitive probe. At its tip are specialised Herbst corposcules that allow the bird to sense its prey by touch as well as sight; an oystercatcher can forage as well by night as by day. Perpetually prospecting the beach, it stabs and pecks or ‘sows’ and ‘ploughs’, altering it methods to suit its prey.

what stayed with me is this:

It can even change the shape of its bill – the fastest-growing of any bird – morphing from blunt mussel-blade to fine worm-teaser in a matter of days.

Walking on the beach after a storm I picked up the body of an African oystercatcher that didn’t make it. Getting to see an oystercatcher up close is rare – and special – considering its wildness, holding it in my hands feels wrong somehow. They live on the edge always looking towards the sea – quick to fly when they sense people’s attention on them. They are not concerned with our world.

Recalling Philip Hoare’s words I studied the bill closely. It appears deceptively delicate, but considering that it is designed to withstand foraging abrasive mussel beds, the efficiency of its design is complete, allowing nature room to indulge in pure beauty.

More on African oystercatchers

According to the The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species there are an estimated 6000 African oystercatchers on earth.

The scientific name is Haematopus moquini. It means blood-foot (Haema: blood, topus: feet), named by Alfred Moquin-Tandon. Moquini’s blood-foot.

They are monogamous and can live for up to 35 years. Pairs have been observed to remain together for 18 years.

Afrikaans name: Swarttobie.

I live by the sea

*A lone person walking on Scarborough beach.*

I live by the sea.

It’s not just any sea – I live at the edge of a wild sea.

When in a rage she’ll rip a kelp forest from the sea floor and heave it onto the beach in layers as deep as a tall man’s waist. Then, when the fly eggs hatch in the rotting blades and stipes, she’ll come at night and take it all back for a feeding frenzy of fish and crabs and abalone.

It’s a sea that tempts you to lean into her week-long gusts with nothing in your head but fears and doubts. It is a sea that calls you to her. You see this when drivers park their cars on the narrow shoulders of the winding roads that snake along her shoreline. And they sit and stare into, what can only be, themselves.

It is the sea where I walked when my father passed away – and then my mother too, suddenly – staring into the waves, hoping for a voice, comforting and profound, to emerge from the roar, but nothing. Only a sense, both dreadful and inviting, that I had to turn around, face the mountains, and go on.

I live by the sea. It is a sea that gives no answers but is somehow the answer itself.

Mister Sengi’s Very Big Friend wins award

Mister Sengi’s Very Big Friend wins a Bookchat Award for 2013.

Which is a pleasant surprise, but also an honour as there are some big names on the list.


  • MISTER SENGI’S VERY BIG FRIEND by David du Plessis & Charles de Villiers (Struik Nature 2013)
  • MONDAY EVENING, THURSDAY AFTERNOON by Jenny Robson (Tafelberg 2013)
  • SHARP EDGES by S A Partridge (Human & Rousseau 2013)
  • SISI GOES TO SCHOOL and other stories by Wendy Hartmann, illustrated by Joan Rankin (Human & Rousseau 2013)
  • STORYTIME : 10 South African stories for children by various authors (Sunday Times/Nal’ibali 2013)
  • THE NAME OF THE TREE IS BOJABI by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Piet Grobler (Human & Rousseau 2013)


  • FIRST FACT FINDER by Helen Lewis (Metz Press 2013)
  • SAM, The Toad in the Hole by Lulu & Tee (African Penguin 2013)
  • MISTER SENGI’S VERY BIG FRIEND by David du Plessis & Charles de Villiers (Struik Nature 2013)
  • MONDAY EVENING, THURSDAY AFTERNOON by Jenny Robson (Tafelberg 2013)
  • SHARP EDGES by S A Partridge (Human & Rousseau 2013)
  • SISI GOES TO SCHOOL and other stories by Wendy Hartmann, illustrated by Joan Rankin (Human & Rousseau 2013)
  • STORYTIME : 10 South African stories for children by various authors (Sunday Times/Nal’ibali 2013)
  • THE NAME OF THE TREE IS BOJABI by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Piet Grobler (Human & Rousseau 2013)


  • FIRST FACT FINDER by Helen Lewis (Metz Press 2013)
  • SAM, The Toad in the Hole by Lulu & Tee (African Penguin 2013)

Last days in London

In London I suffer from a three-pronged obsession: street names, station names, and the architectural remnants of Victorian London.

I think it has something to do with the ring of English in London, and the structure of the city. It marries a love of maps and dictionaries; a fixation that finds perfect expression in one of my favourite books, the London A–Z (an atlas of the city).

Whenever I feel self-conscious about this (let’s face it, some people will find it odd) I’m reminded of Bill Bryson writing in Notes from a Small Island:

… as ever amazed and quietly excited to find it peppered with districts, villages, sometimes small swallowed cities whose names, I would swear, had not been there the last time I looked – Dudden Hill, Plashet, Snaresbrook, Fulwell cross…

He is writing about the A–Z, and it gets better:

The A–Z really is quite the most absorbing tome. It scrupulously fixes and identifies every cricket ground and sewage works, every forgotten cemetery and wandering suburban close, and packs the densest names onto the tiniest, most obscure spaces. I flipped to the index and, for want of anything better to do, lost myself there.

Now, lying on the couch and flipping through the A–Z, it doesn’t feel strange at all.

That’s what I’ll be doing – at times – during my last nine days in London.

And I’m grateful to be able to.

Mister Sengi’s Very Big Friend first review… and the serval

Mister Sengi cover

Mister Sengi’s Very Big Friend by David du Plessis & Charles de Villiers (Struik Nature 2013) is book of the month on Bookchat. Jay Heale writes:

An animal picture book story about size and safety in the bushveld, with the details remaining true to nature. Sengi is an elephant shrew (that’s what a ‘sengi’ is) whose new friend Tortoise tries to take him to meet a real elephant. On the way they encounter the dangers of a Hornbill and a Serval – and having a Very Big Friend comes in handy. Sensible, enjoyable text with some superb artwork. Computer graphics used as art. Soft graded colour-washes in the background, stylised grasses, clearly outlined main characters. I loved the way that the tortoise’s shell (and the Moon) suggested a map of the world. This is quality stuff, with atmosphere, character, drama (the first appearance of the serval is magnificently menacing) and still a splendid story for children 3 to 8.

How the serval came to be

Now that reviews are appearing I’m thinking about the amount of work it takes to create a picture book. A sane person wouldn’t attempt it. But it’s the drawings themselves that inspire you to keep working, and when they emerge fully formed you know you’re on the right track. About halfway through the book I met Mister Serval in Charles’s evocative writing ‘with his neat whiskers and his big ears sticking straight up like a top-hat’.

So I sketched him like this,

Sengi Pencil

and then all that remained was adding colour,

Sengi Colour

he is one of the stars of the show!

I’m lucky to have the opportunity to do this.

Mister Sengi’s Very Big Friend

The mopane bushveld of southern Botswana is a magical place. This is how I remember it:

The Magical Bushveld

orange-yellow rust coloured earth – scraggly mopane trees with leathery butterfly shaped leaves – abandoned shells of giant land snails – trees snapped at the base by rambling elephants – rhino dung set upon anxiously by tribes of dung beetles – southern yellow-billed hornbills gliding in wide arcs from tree to tree – baobab trees towering above the bushveld scrub, ancient and otherworldly – the sound of a startled leopard’s nails gripping dry tree bark – the crimson African sunsets – abandoned ant hills excavated by aardvarks…

And that’s only a fraction of what’s on show in daylight; after dark everything changes when a cast of noisy and unusual characters wake up: bushbabies, aardvarks, pangolins, giant crickets, nightjars.

All the buzzing bush activity made me curious so I decided to explore on my own (not a good idea in the wild) – risking it down an overgrown footpath on the banks of the Limpopo River. I was on high alert for something big and potentially angry, but instead, I was startled by a tiny creature racing across the footpath. It stopped suddenly, hiding in the shade under a nearby shrub. I peered into the shadows and slowly an elephant shrew, or sengi, came into view, looking something like this:

Mister Sengi's Very Big Friend

We froze – sized each other up and waited – then he, or she, was gone.

The result of that day is a new book, Mister Sengi’s Very Big Friend. It is the story of an elephant shrew who wants to see the world through the eyes of something much bigger than himself.

Mister Sengi's Very Big Friend

A number of story iterations, and many drawings later, the tale was beautifully captured and written by Charles de Villiers. The book is scheduled to appear in December 2013.

It is available in English and Afrikaans from You can also buy it as an ebook.