I’ve got it! I’ve finally worked out why I haven’t been able to settle down to writing about the denizens of the bush (I’m trying to write a book. In the absence of genuine creative talent, I’ve decided to plagiarise an entire ecosystem. They’re not copyrighted. I checked.) I’ve been trying to start in the middle. Today, I’m going to start with the little things. The insignificant things. Bugs.
A problem immediately presents itself, in that the bugs down in the bush are certainly not insignificant. They’re often not little, either. The most significant bug in the system is the mosquito. I was staggered to learn the other day that, in the course of human history, more people have been killed by mosquitos than by any other causes put together. That includes things like old-age, war, traffic, the black plague, and ninjas. Millions are still killed in Africa every year. The mosquitos (or rather, some of the species of mosquito) down in the bush can carry malaria.
On a personal note, this has deprived us of the chance to spend any decent amount of time down there for the last eight years. You see, the rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t be taking your kids into a malaria area until they weigh at least fifteen kilograms. This seems to be the accepted weight for surviving not the malaria, but the drugs used to cure it.
We have cheated a little, and gone down in the middle of winter every year (when there is no water around for the mosquitos to breed in), but seeing the bush in the middle of winter only is kind of like looking at the grand canyon through one of those cardboard tubes they so thoughtfully put at the centre of the toilet paper. What you see may be very beautiful indeed, but you’re missing out on much, much more.
It didn’t help that my son is a skinny little bugger either. He seemed to stick at twelve kilograms for about four years. I suggested feeding him purely on bacon, and trying to get him hooked on beer, but before his mother could see the light of reason, his little sister came along. Oh well. She’s three now. Just another two to go (years, not children). And still no bacon.
Even when they do reach the magic fifteen kilograms, we won’t be able to relax. Those with common sense cover themselves from head to toe with mosquito repellent. Unfortunately, I have always had a rather tenuous relationship with common sense. To make matters even worse, I appear to have some sort of mutant immunity to mosquito bites (put that in your pipe and smoke it, Wolverine!) I get bitten as often as everyone else, but I don’t react. At all. So while everyone else gets to be covered in angry, itching red welts as a reminder every time they forget to coat themselves in citronella and benzene, I get nothing. Which is all well and good until the wrong mosquito bites me.
But enough about mosquitos. They may be world’s deadliest killers, but they are also pretty dull. Let’s move on to the cool stuff.
I think it’s best to divide things up scientifically. We’ll start with the cute and cuddly group. Relatively speaking. This is a millipede.
We call them songololos. Down in the bush they can be about a foot long and as thick as a man’s thumb. They bumble around good naturedly, rolling into a ball when picked up. They don’t have to focus very hard on self-defence, since their shells contain cyanide. There is only one creature, the civet, which can eat them. You can always identify their droppings because they are full of circles of millipede shell.
Next in the cute and cuddly group are the toktokkies. The name is Afrikaans, and is onomatopoeic. No-one uses, or even knows the English name. He’s called a toktokkie because, at the right time of year, he loses all sense of self preservation and wanders around in the open, forlornly tapping away a love song to any toktokkie girls out there. He does this by tapping the shell on his belly on the hard ground below: “toktoktoktoktoktok”. If you crouch down and tap out the same tune with a fingernail, he will go berserk, tapping away frantically for hours, while you sit quietly ashamed that you got his hopes up so.
Rhino beetles are just cute to look at. Black and shiny, they trundle along like fanciful tanks. They get pretty big out here, too, but are harmless. You can pick them up and let them walk carefully up and down your hands. Be very careful about putting them on three-year old girls, though. They have feet like grappling hooks, and don’t necessarily understand the concept of letting go when no-one is having fun anymore.
Dung beetles get a lot of bad press. They are one of the most interesting things in the bush to watch. One thing none of the brochures tell you in the African safari industry is that some of the big, impressive animals you see on the TV are inordinately dull. When you see lions on the Discovery Channel, a film crew has rather kindly spent a year filming their every move, and chosen the best moments for you. When you see lions in the bush during the day, they will be asleep. They sleep 18 hours out of every 24. Most of the time, watching lions is like watching paint dry.
Dung beetles, however, are never dull. You will come across a great big ball of elephant dung, rippling and heaving with shiny black beetles as they race to make the biggest, roundest ball they can, to lay their eggs in. If you stop and look around, you will soon spot the winners of this race. The dung ball is about five times the size of the beetle, and to move it he must turn backward, pushing with his feet. This means he has to stop every few inches to see where he is going.
To watch him go up a slope can be heart-breaking. Over and over again, he will almost reach the top before slipping. The ball will roll down, taking him with it. Instead of giving up or choosing a different route, he will check out his route one more time, turn around, and head on up for the top of the slope. Again. And again. And again. While all of this happens, the female sits on top of the dung ball like the queen of Sheba, offering neither help nor advice.
All of this is just a warm-up. When he reaches his final destination, exhausted but victorious, he will prepare to dig a hole to bury his prize in. Almost invariably, this will be the moment chosen by some low-down, cheap, lazy, poop-coveting BASTARD of a rival to drop down out of the sky to try and steal the fruits of his labours. Then IT’S ON!!!!
And that, I think, will have to serve as a brief introduction to the cute and cuddly group. There are others, of course. There are caterpillars so hairy that they look like novelty fox-tail key rings. There are large, gentle-winged moths that will fly down, land on the edge of your wineglass, straighten out their huge, coiled proboscises, and join you for a quiet sun downer. There are curious, fuzzy little jumping spiders that will come and check you out as you lie in the grass. But I think it’s time to get the adrenaline flowing.
But first, I’m going to try something new. I am still fairly new at this whole blogging thing. While I was poking around on WordPress the other day, I came across a category called “long reads”. Each of the articles in it was about half the size of my average post. I followed up by reading an article on how to get more readers, likes, followers etc. It said that one of the ways to get more traffic was to keep your posts short. At least I think that was what it said- I didn’t finish reading it. It was too long.
I have always been inordinately bad at following good advice, so instead of keeping my article short, I’m just going to cut it in half, like the final episode of a popular TV series: “TO BE CONTINUED”.
That way, I can ramble on for as long as I like while still pretending to be sensible. It only remains to be seen whether I can deal with the abandonment issues caused by having half the number of views on part two that I get on part one. If that happens, I can go into a sulk. I’ll settle down and write part three, just so I can be alone for a while!
Hope to see you on the other side. If and when I get round to writing it.
PS. It’s done. you can find it here: https://23thorns.wordpress.com/2012/07/29/this-is-the-sec-9/