I can’t remember if there was ever a single moment when I realised that my family was not quite the same as other peoples’. I suspect it was rather a series of moments, and one of these had to do with a visit to the botanical garden in Pretoria.
The garden is huge, set into the side of a low hill. There are small patches of forest, beds of flowers, pockets of wetland, and large, rolling lawns. On the day of our visit, the garden was filled with people. There were young couples, wrapped up in each other and blind to the rest of the world; there were the plant-lovers, meandering slowly around the network of paths, stopping to examine the rarities in the garden’s collection; there were the birdwatchers, weighed down by cameras and binoculars, peering up into the trees.
But mostly there were families. Some had come to enjoy a picnic, others just a day in the sun. Everyone seemed to have brought something along: cooler-boxes full of snacks and drinks, bats and balls, Frisbees, even a kite or two. Not us. We brought along an umbrella and a handful of clear plastic packets. Obviously.
We were there for the tadpoles that teemed in the ponds and streams that dotted the garden. A couple of us stood guard, keeping an eye open for snooping birders and plant-lovers. The next two stripped off their shoes and waded in to herd the tadpoles into reach of the umbrella. The umbrella guy used the upturned umbrella to scoop up schools of tadpoles and pour them out into the clear plastic packet held ready by the last member of the team. Bugger Frisbees. Our family had proper hobbies.
As children we felt like a family of James Bond clones, casually pulling off the undercover operation of the century. To anyone watching, we must have presented rather an odd picture. A lawn full of shiny, happy people in shorts and t-shirts stopped their sunny frolicking for a moment to mark the passage of a moist, straggling little group in loose but oddly bulging clothes, brandishing a sodden and battered umbrella. Every now and then a packet full of squirming, slimy pond-water would fall to the ground with a squelch, only to be shoved back up a gaping sleeve with all the studied nonchalance of the world’s worst shoplifter. Don’t feel bad for me, these sorts of things build character. And a very thick skin.
There was a very good reason for this seemingly questionable behaviour. We had built a fishpond, and my father had grown obsessed with frogs. We could have waited for nature to take its course, and the odd wandering frog to move in, but that would be no fun. Instead we stocked up the garden with anything we could find. There were red toads and river frogs, reed frogs and guttural toads. The sound was deafening.
This was not enough for my father. He went off and found a cd of frog calls. He would play it at night, and we would end up with sad, hormone raddled little toads pressing their noses against the glass door like starving street urchins from Dickens. We would go to bed. The toads wouldn’t. They would sit there all night, forlornly calling out to the CD player, only to wander off, sad and alone, with the coming of the morning light, leaving only a greasy little stain on the glass as a monument to their unrequited love.
And then my father went for broke. He offered a reward to anyone who brought in a Giant African Bullfrog. If you’ve never seen one, forget everything you think you know about frogs. They can weigh over two kilograms. That’s about the size of a Chihuahua. Most frogs have a puny little row of conical teeth. These things have a bony plate sharp enough to take the end off your finger. They eat mice. And snakes. And we got one!
We came home from school one today to find an enormous green monster staring balefully up at us from the end of the bath. My parents said they had kept it there to show us. I think they were scared to touch it. Once we got it out into the garden (with a broom and a plastic bucket), we all avoided the garden for a while.
And that, my good friends, is the longest introduction to a blog post you have ever seen. Someone commented the other day that my blog could be quite nice, but that good blog posts were much shorter. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, smartypants! To those of you who are familiar with my blog, this is another post about the wildlife of the Lowveld. Let’s begin:
Frogs themselves aren’t really much of a feature down in the bush. You hardly ever see them. For most of the year, it’s just too dry. What is a feature, however, is the noise they make. When the rain does come, they go berserk. They have no time to lose before the pans (a pan is a temporary waterhole) and ditches dry up, so almost as soon as the rain starts to fall they all start shouting “Sex! Sex! Sex! I’m ready for some sex over here! Sex! Please! Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Sex!” in their various voices and languages.
If you drive an open vehicle up to the edge of a pan at night and turn off the engine and the lights, there is a moment of quiet while they all try to hide. Soon though, one brave little soul will tentatively test the silence. “Sex!” Within moments, the noise will be very close to your pain threshold. Because their sounds are so much a part of their charm, I spent a happy couple of hours editing sound clips to upload. Then I discovered I would have to spend twenty dollars on an upgrade to do so. Bummer. You will just have to use your imaginations. Me, I’m going to listen to them on my iPod at gym tomorrow. So it was time well spent.
Since I’ve used up all of my energy on the introduction, I’m only going to cover a few frogs and toads, just to give you an idea.
Brown-Back Tree Frog
Since the noise they make is the main thing about them, I’m going to start with one of the best sounds of all. “Schmuck”. I’ve never seen a Brown-Back Tree Frog, but they are all over the place. When we first started going down to the bush, we heard their call and decided they were saying “schmuck”. And so they became the schmuck-frogs. “Listen,” we would say, “there’s a schmuck frog down in the river-bed”. Then we took a Jewish friend down for a weekend, who explained that schmuck was a Yiddish word for penis.
Out of a sense of parental duty, my parents tried to find another name for them, but it was too late. I think that it adds something. There is no adequate way to describe the sound of the bush at night. You have never truly lived until you have sat outside in the wilds of Africa, staring deep into the heart of a Leadwood fire, glass of wine in hand. A spotted hyena may whoop out its call into the dark. A Scop’s owl will trill intermittently, splitting the night over and over again with an insistent “prrrp”. Nearby, something small will rustle the dead leaves and grass before going silent again, while further off, something large will crash through the trees. If you’re lucky, a lion may roar nearby, rattling your chest with its depth and power. And every 30 seconds or so, an elusive little brown frog in the top of a nearby tree will shout “PENIS!” at you in Yiddish.
These are ugly little buggers. Unusually for frogs, they never leave the water. In most bodies of permanent water, you will usually find a few, hanging motionless and staring up at you through bulging, lidless eyes. Even more unusually, despite never leaving the water, they have managed to invade various parts of the world where they don’t belong. They didn’t get there themselves. As always, we took them there. For a fascinating reason.
Before we took to peeing on magical little plastic sticks, the only way to tell whether a woman was pregnant or not was to inject her urine into a female Platanna. If the woman was pregnant, the Platanna would immediately spawn.
For a brief period in the middle of the last century, a thriving industry emerged in exporting boatloads of ugly, pregnancy detecting frogs to other parts of the world. And there they stay, hanging motionless in the water and staring up through bulging, lidless eyes.
Bushveld Rain Frogs.
One should try to avoid mocking the varied and miraculous works of nature, but these frogs are just ridiculous. If the Platanna is unusual for never leaving the water, Rain frogs are unusual for the opposite reason. They never go near the stuff. They lay their eggs in jelly-like capsules in holes in the ground from which little froglets emerge fully formed. They can’t hop. They walk. Awkwardly. Best of all, they cannot swim. If they find themselves in the water, they inflate their bodies with air and float around like badly made novelty balloons until the wild blows them ashore. They inflate themselves when they’re alarmed too, apparently in the hope that they will look too ridiculous to eat.
On top of everything else, none of these fascinating differences makes them happy. Just look at them! Miserable little buggers.
Like the Yiddish penis frog, the foam nest frog is a tree frog. It has two claims to fame. The first is revealed by its name. When the time is right, instead of laying their eggs in water, they gather together in frantically amorous little groups on branches overhanging the water, exuding slime and beating it up into a foamy nest with their back legs. They lay their eggs in this, and when they hatch, the tadpoles drop into the water below. Their other claim to fame is that, by law, every outhouse in the Lowveld has to contain at least one foam-nest frog (as well as two unfeasibly large geckos). Any time you find yourself using an outdoor public convenience in the African wilds, look around a bit. You will be sure to find one. The pipe leading up to the cistern is a good place to start your search.
Banded Rubber Frogs
This is one of the very few brightly coloured frogs down in the bush. Its colour is a warning- they’re very poisonous. It cracks the nod for this list not just because it’s a little nicer than the others to look at, but because it has one of the nicest calls. It sings out a high, lilting trill at such high volume that it feels like it has invaded your skull, and its call forms the background noise of any pool of water in the summer. Just don’t rub your eyes after you pick one up.
The rest of the chorus.
So those are the standout ones (for me), but there are lots more. There are over 30 of them. As I said, the main thing about the frogs in the Lowveld is the sounds they make, so it comes as no surprise that some of them are named for them. Thanks to the crushing corporate greed of the good people at WordPress (not really- I am constantly surprised at the level of the stuff they are giving away for free. They must be the right sort of hippies) I can’t play the clips for you (if you really want to hear them, send me twenty dollars in a plain brown envelope. Or just come up to me at the gym-I’ll lend you my iPod)
The Bubbling Cassina makes a beautiful liquid “ploip” sound, like a leaking tap in an empty bathroom. The Guttural Toad is guttural, the Raucous Toad raucous. The Knocking Sand Frog does tend to knock a bit, but if I heard someone snoring like a Snoring Puddle Frog I would immediately contact a medical proffesional. Last, but by no means least, is the Shovel-footed Squeaker, which squeaks. As would you, if someone kept calling attention to your shovel shaped feet.
So that’s it. A very brief introduction to the frogs and toads of the Lowveld. Come over and see them some time. Or rather, come over and hear them some time. If you like them, you can take some home with you- just remember to bring an umbrella, some loose-fitting clothes, and a clear plastic bag. If you need help getting through airport security, give my family a call. We’ve been practicing.