Here be dragons

I have spent the last few weeks helping my wife package products for her new business. She’s not thinking small. When we fold boxes, we fold several hundred boxes. Pinch, fold, tuck. Pinch, fold, tuck. Pinch, fold, tuck. When we stick labels on room fresheners, we stick several hundred labels on room fresheners. Peel, stick, peel, stick, peel, stick. Right now we’re busy with several thousand cloth shopping bags. We’re folding them into squares and tying them up with ribbons. This is much more interesting. Fold, fold, fold, fold, tuck, wrap, tie.  Fold, fold, fold, fold, tuck, wrap, tie. Sigh. Fold, fold, fold, fold, tuck, wrap, tie.

It’s not exactly riveting, but eventually, your brain and hands click over into autopilot. I could fold boxes or tie ribbons while operating heavy machinery. It’s become like breathing. Which got me thinking about lizards. Of course. Not that the lizards round here are particularly good at folding or tying; it just reminded me that those who feel the need to talk about such things talk about the most primitive part of your brain as the lizard brain.

This is the part that lets the vast majority of us (apart from customs agents and used car salesmen) breath without having to think about it. It blinks and yawns and coughs for us without disturbing the more important parts of our brains, freeing them up to focus on important things, like the state of Brangelina’s relationship, or which Olympic sports are most harmed by the current requirement that all athletes wear spandex (I’m thinking women’s powerlifting, but men’s table-tennis doesn’t emerge unscathed. So many bones!).

Lizards are everywhere in South Africa. All you need is a small patch of sun and a hard surface or two, and you’re guaranteed to spot at least one, usually more, rustling through the undergrowth or basking in the heat. Those are mostly just skinks though. There are several different species, but they all look the same- dark torpedo-shaped bodies, usually with a stripe or two. They’re actually quite attractive, but they are so ubiquitous that you stop noticing them. My own garden is filled with tiny geckos. They’re cuter than skinks, and at least have the decency to entertain us by ignoring gravity and running up and down walls, but they too fade into the background after a while.

There are, however, places where the lizards get more interesting. One of these is the Lowveld. Yes folks, I’m afraid it’s the next instalment of the Lowveld ecosystem series. Take heart though, soon we will be moving on to cute and cuddly. Or at least warm blooded.

For now, though, let’s wade our way through some beady-eyed and scaly. We’ll start small(ish) and work our way up.

Tropical House Geckos

All together now everyone. Jazz hands!

These are quite a bit bigger than the geckos in my garden at home, about 15cm or so. What makes them cool is that, like the name says, they live in houses. They hide behind pictures or light fittings, and come out at night to feed on insects that are drawn in by the lights. They get quite tame. This gives you a chance to see just how uncanny is their ability to ignore the pull of gravity. They can happily walk up a vertical pane of glass, but seem to spend most of their time upside down on the ceiling. They can even run upside down.

They’re not holding on with claws or anything. Without going into too much detail (it gets a bit complicated), they have millions of tiny hairs on their feet which stick to the surface using van der Waals forces (it’s a little like magnetism). It’s uncanny.

Fine, Newton. You go and tell everyone about your special little “gravity” discovey. I’ll just be up here with your Mom. Bam!

Not content to ignore the forces that keep the rest of us firmly attached to the ground, they are also fiercely territorial. This means that if you sit quietly looking up at the ceiling, every now and then you will see a vicious fight taking place above your head. Upside down.  I’ve never seen one fall. Even Spiderman falls. Nerd.

Flap-necked Chameleon

The humidity always does this to my tail.

There is one thing everyone knows about chameleons. Everyone is wrong. Chameleons don’t change colour to blend in with the background. They do however, change colour for almost every other reason. They change colour to warm up. They change pattern when on the move. They change colour to cool down. They change colour when hunting. They change colour at night. But most of all they change colour to communicate.

A couple of years ago we found one crossing the road and brought it home. We built it a nice big cage and fed it crickets, but it was not our friend. When we went too close, it would go dark with annoyance. When we picked it up, it would show its rage by breaking out in cute little black polka-dots. This strikes me as being a rather questionable self-defence tactic. But we are here to observe, not to judge.

Back up son! You don’t want me to go all spotty on you!

Happy now? Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Mostly though, they use colour to communicate with each other. The males display their colour changing ability to pick up chicks. Imagine this happening at a nightclub near you. Michael Jackson, leaning casually against a bar, flashes his eyebrows at every attractive woman that passes. When he’s sure he’s got one’s attention, he looks her straight in the eye, tips his hat down with one hand while grabbing his crotch with the other, and shouts “OHHHHHHH” while cramming his remarkable 30 year colour changing trick into a 30 second burst. I’m no expert on seduction, but I reckon if he could have mastered that move, no-one would have been whispering about little boys.

The colour thing is just the tip of the chameleon’s iceberg of weirdness. Their eyes are set on bulging pyramids of mobile flesh, and work independently.


Their tongues are like sticky harpoons, shooting out at high speed to snare their insect prey and drag it struggling back to their gaping maws.

Shooting it out is easy. Winding it back in is the tricky part.

They are shapeshifters too. An undisturbed but active chameleon is a thin, wiry little thing.

Biggest Loser winner 2012

Disturb it and it will suddenly double in size, sporting a great, strong-looking curved back. From the side. From the front, you can see it’s all bluff.

I can take anything. Except a strong wind.

They often die after giving birth. They don’t even move right. They move one leg cautiously forward at a time, rocking backwards and forwards like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman.

They rule.

Southern Tree Agama.

Some of the camouflages you see out in the bush are amazing. There are Katydids that look like leaves, beetles that look like thorns, snakes that look like blades of grass, and Southern Tree Agamas. Southern Tree Agamas have spent millions of years evolving to look just like the bark of the trees on which they live. You can look right at one from a few feet away and not notice it. It’s the perfect defence.

Shhh! I’m a tree.

Until they feel like a bit of nookie. The moment the males feel that familiar stirring of the loins, they discard those millions of years of hard won evolution and become the most obvious target in the Lowveld. Their heads and tails turn a rather fetching cobalt blue, split in the middle by a wide band of yellow. If that’s not enough to catch the attention of every hawk, eagle, cat, genet, snake, leguaan and flesh hungry baboon (yes, they do eat meat) in the area, they then proceed to the most prominent spot they can find and while away the hours by bobbing their heads up and down. Sex can make men of all breeds do very silly things.

If you squint really hard, you might be able to see it.

On a side note, this is another of those times when English speaking South Africans reveal their dull and uninspired nature when compared to their Afrikaans cousins. The Englishman who got to name them looked up and saw a bright blue and yellow lizard bouncing frantically up and down in a tree and thought “it’s an Agama. And it’s in a tree. Sorted!” His Afrikaans counterpart, however, did pick up on a minor detail.

He called it a “Bloukop Koggelmander”, which means blue headed mocking lizard. It’s lovely to say. If you’re not from here, you are reading it wrong. The first part sounds a bit like blowcorp. The second part is a bit tougher. There is simply no way to write those g’s. The Afrikaans g sounds more like a man trying to get a pubic hair out of his throat than a letter.  It sounds like a garbage disposal. So you end up with “core” (said rather abruptly) “ggghhh” (just try to hack up some phlegm- you’ll be on the right track) “el” “mun” “dur”. Like most Afrikaans names, it’s not easy for the uninitiated, but is deeply satisfying to say.

While everything else may be hunting them down, people round here tend to leave Bloukops alone. For some reason, everyone thinks they’re poisonous. They’re not. Those are not warning colours. Those are stupid colours.

Giant Plated lizard

Aaaargh! Snake!

These are just ordinary lizards, but on a grand scale. They’re about 75cm (30inches) long, and heavily built. I learned the hard way that their sturdy appearance is deceptive. At my parents place in the bush, there is a large, fractured rock just next to the house. On it, for the last twenty years or so, according to my mother, has lived “the lizard”. He’s huge, and fairly tame. We feed him kitchen scraps, and he’s used them to grow startlingly big. He’s not, a “him”, of course. He’s a “them”- a long line of lizards, male or female, which have lived in the same spot for generations.

And the deceptive sturdiness? There is an enclosed stoep (patio) on the side of the house, caged in with chicken-wire and mosquito netting, where we used to sleep as youngsters. It used to have a rather ill-fitting door with a large gap underneath it. We woke up one morning to find that “the lizard”, impatient for his breakfast, had popped in for a visit. As the only son in the family, it fell to me to get him outside again. No problem! I snuck up behind him and grabbed him by the tail. Which I kept hold of, while the rest of the lizard scuttled back off to his rock, vowing never to visit again.

You see, as I said, Giant Plated Lizards are just very big ordinary lizards. And lizards shed their tails. I was left holding 30cm worth of writhing, coiling horror. I dropped it at once, more unnerved by a lizards tail than I had been by 75cm of lizard. It lay there for ages, twitching and twisting like a disembodied hand in a zombie movie. We all just stared at with deep, superstitious dread. We eventually scooped it up in a bucket, careful not to touch it, and threw it out into the bush, all the while carefully avoiding eye contact with its former owner, who sat glaring at us from on top of his rock, shorter, but infinitely wiser.


We own a bloodhound. Inevitably, this has proved to be a disappointing undertaking. Not once have we been called upon to chase a fugitive though a foetid swamp. But the other day, we did get to experience a bloodhound at full cry. We were lounging around after lunch when the peace of the Sunday afternoon was split by an almighty “WHOOOOOO! WHOOOOWHOOOOWHOOO! WHOOOWHOOO!” from the bottom of the garden. We rushed out, fully expecting to find a sweaty Alabaman criminal in an orange jumpsuit wading through the fishpond. It wasn’t a fugitive. It was a monitor lizard.

Giant plated lizards are very big. The monitors are huge. And there’s no messing about with their tails. We don’t call them monitors. Round here they’re called leguaans. Or even better, likkewaans. They are close cousins of the Komodo dragon, and look it.

There are two types. The bigger, or at least longer, of these is the water monitor. It’s about two metres long (about six foot five), and built like iron girders. For me, there is something unwholesome about them. There is a rest camp in the Kruger Park on the banks of a river where there are two huge sycamore figs, which once a year spring to life with hundreds of nesting weaver birds. At the base of the trees, you can see several water monitors, lurking in wait of fallen nestlings. That’s how they roll. They will eat anything they can swallow, the weaker and more helpless the better.

No, I didn’t eat all of the cakes. Why would you even ask that?

They are by no means cowardly, though. They are not to be trifled with. They will scratch you, whip you with their tails, and bite you, and they are phenomenally strong. Once they get a grip with their teeth, you need a crowbar and a blowtorch to make them let go.

On top of that, it has recently been discovered that they may actually be venomous. If one of them ever appeared on the stoep I would just cut my holiday short and go back home.

Their cousins, the land monitors, are somehow much more appealing. They are almost as big, but have a more rounded, prehistoric-looking head. They often used to visit my parent’s place, lodging themselves behind furniture or climbing up into the dying tree in front of the house. They too are best left alone.

It’s a dirty secret, but the deodorant manufacturers are still doing animal testing.

That’s it with the lizards. There are scores more, but I’ve passed the 2000 word mark again, so you’ll just have to come and see them for yourselves. I not done yet, I’m afraid to say. There are a couple of other reptiles out in the bush, but not enough to warrant their own posts. I’ll try to keep this short. But you know I won’t succeed.


Damn! The dry season set in really quickly this year!

There are two different types of terrapin down in the bush, both very similar. They seem quite cute, popping their heads out of the water to take a look around, or hauling themselves out in little piles like Yertle the Turtle to catch the heat of the sun. But they aren’t. They will eat whatever they can get their teeth into, including carrion and birds, which they have been seen grabbing by the feet and dragging under the water, flapping and struggling. And they stink. Good god, do they stink.

Leopard Tortoises.

A tortoise is a strange thing to find out in the bush. You can spend an afternoon watching lions tear up a dead buffalo, or elephants ripping up trees, and then come pootling round a corner to find a tortoise ambling good-naturedly down the road, or placidly munching on a low shrub. They look like they belong in a petting zoo.

I thought that once I had a roof over my head I would finally be happy. Wrong. Maybe I should put in a swimming pool.

Coincidentally, that’s where you will usually find them. Because these ones are huge. They can get to over 40kg. This gives rise to two curious phenomena.

Firstly, when a certain type of person sees a small tortoise moseying down the road out in the wild, their first thought is “I need that!” They take them home, shoved into the glove compartment or packet up in a suitcase with some shoes and dirty underwear. Two years later, when they are no longer small, and have slowly but steadily chewed their way through the entire garden, those same people decide “I’m done with that now!” and take them off to the nearest petting zoo, or bird garden, or park. The small wild park around the corner from us has over forty of them.

Secondly, the big ones are built like speed-bumps. Visitors to the bush are generally looking off into the distance, trying to spot lions. Every now and then, someone will come around a corner and drive right over a tortoise. Sadly, they are big enough to be taken out by the sump of a sedan car. So every petting zoo, bird garden, or park has a subset of huge tortoises with shattered and broken shells, brought in by guilt ridden bush visitors. On the bright side, they will never go extinct. There is what the scientists would call a “healthy captive breeding population”


Just take the damn picture, Arlene. My cheek muscles are starting to cramp up.

Crocodiles are genuinely fascinating. Like Great White Sharks or Paris Hilton, however, they have become boring through overexposure. You cannot watch a wildlife channel on the TV for more than half an hour without seeing some gurning idiot leap onto one and truss it up with duct tape.

Watching them out in the bush can be pretty dull too. They spend most of their time just lying around. Once in a while, though, they will do something to remind you quite how awesomely powerful they are.

What do you mean it’s too big? If I take small bites and chew really well, I’ll be done by 2015.

On our honeymoon, my wife and I ended up on a high point overlooking a river. On the floodplain in front of us, a pride of lions was feeding on a buffalo kill, squabbling and ripping and tearing and growling. Until two crocodile strolled up. Or crawled up. Strolling is beyond the average croc. They moved right into the heart of the pride, without even acknowledging the fact that a bunch of Africa’s largest mammalian predators, which had just pulled down a 900kg hate-machine, was at that point trying to fight them off, picked up the huge carcass, and moseyed back on down to the water.

It was an awesome display of power. It was also the last interesting thing those particular crocs were going to be doing for a while. With a meal that size, they wouldn’t have to eat again for months.

Even when they aren’t being interesting, or aren’t even there at all, they add a certain something to the whole bush experience. Walking up to any pool of water becomes a bit of a test of nerve when you know it could explode with scales and teeth at any moment.

So that’s it with the reptiles. Thank God. Just 517 birds and 147 mammals left to go. We’re practically done. It may take a little while, though. I’m a little distracted by my new hobby. Fold, fold, fold, fold, tuck, wrap, tie. Sigh. Fold, fold, fold, fold, tuck, wrap, tie.

51 thoughts on “Here be dragons

  1. […] Which is lucky. For me, if not you. Because I can’t carry on writing about the ecosystem of the Lowveld without doing the […]

  2. Julie says:

    Hello 23thorns
    Found your blog after you liked a post on mine. Great pictures and articles here so happy I found you. Have no idea how you found me as new to all this. Look forward to more tales from SA. Thanks

  3. elleturner4 says:

    Hi, I really enjoyed reading this and especially the photos. Thanks for visiting my blog and the like 🙂

  4. tracyawillis says:

    I love your blog, the photos and write ups are amazing. Makes me want to visit and see all these wonders myself. As I’m grounded in the UK indefinitely I have to say thanks for sharing 🙂

    • 23thorns says:

      It is the greatest of pleasures. Good luck with your battle- my wife has had the odd scare (biopsies and such),and the thought makes my blood run cold.

  5. well we suffer from gekkos noisy little blighters but we are cautious here living in a forest you never know whats around only no no’s are the snakes and scorpions my wife is quite a shot with a shovel at scorpion slinging snakes well thats something else….

  6. That you for a Monday morning laugh. The only interesting lizard we have around our house is the Gila Monster. I think they may be a cousin to the monitor . If someone is stupid enough to get a hand or arm near them, they latch on and are hard to get off. People have arrived at the hospital with them still attached to them. They keep grinding they jaws when they have you to make sure their really bad bacteria gets into your system. Good thing the only stupid or drunk people get bit.

  7. Tasneem says:

    The lizard thing is so true about South Africa! :p I have a photo of a huge lizard that I found Cape Town, sneaking around in the garage. He was a pretty thing though, so I set him free

  8. Nil says:

    Fascinating! And you really have the gift of description 😀 Enjoyed it hugely…

    In Havana (Cuba) in a room where I stayed for quite some time there was a room-gekko, a cute little ceiling runner. I would take a gekko any time over the grizzly big flying cocroaches that seemed to think you were a wall they could land on, even if you jumped back – or left or right…

  9. I’ll immediately admit to not reading all (about half until I had to wrap up coz I have to leave the house in a sec…) but I LOVED what I did read and the photos are just brilliant, and I love the way you open and close it fold, fold tie etc. Great image with your title by the way, though I didn’t count the thorns. Just dropped by to check out your blog and thank you for visiting mine and for the like. Judging by this, I’ll be back:-)

  10. Thank you for “liking” my post, that was really nice of you. Reading about the animals you describe I take it you don’t live in England then? We don’t have anything that exotic or interesting here although I do have a little frog that comes and sits in my kitchen occasionally.

    Really interesting about the tiny hairs on their feet though, I aways thought they had little suckers or something similar.

    Hope you have a good day – take care 🙂

  11. WhoIsMyGuru says:

    I think this is the most I’ve ever read about lizards – interesting, entertaining and love the captions! I am not a big fan of the reptiles, but maybe, one day, my first reaction won’t involve jumping back instinctively. 🙂

  12. nutsfortreasure says:

    Thanks for the visit! WOW is all I can say oh and YIKES 🙂

  13. Kami Tilby says:

    We have little lizards here in Arizona, but I have no idea of their name or species or anything. Now I want to find out. You write with such wit I didn’t realize I was learning things. I especially liked your photo captions!! Looking forward to reading more posts.

  14. SocietyRed says:

    Great blog! Thanks for stopping by mine and opening the door to yours. I love the way you write.

  15. looseleafbri says:

    Jazz hands. Love it! There are some sort of similar lizard in El Salvador and now when I am there I will always think jazz hands. Your descriptions always keep me fascinated!

  16. nanayane says:

    I am so glad there is someone else out there that thinks jazz hands when they see the played fingers of a gecko! your photos are great! love reptiles!

  17. suchwildlove says:

    Awesome lizards. Thanks for visiting my blog!

  18. This was surprisingly really interesting! Thank you for the great read. 🙂

  19. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant! And fascinating. And hilarious.
    But please tell me that Mama elephant was relatively unscathed, otherwise I will have nightmares!

  20. lylekrahn says:

    I’m just as happy to read about your crocs rather than have to deal with them. Thanks for the stories.

  21. Oi! I also wrote about koggelmanders and GGGHHH this week. We are going to have to develop some sort of in-house blogging schedule. I was thinking, I’ll IM you on Monday with blog ideas, send you an Outlook reminder on Tuesday for Wednesday’s Skype meeting and iron out the final details on Friday via Facebook (we’ll leave Twitter out of it because honestly neither of can say anything in 160 characters). If we are still not clear about it all on Saturday morning, I might even get up from my desk and walk all the way to the bedroom to talk to you about it. If I had done that this week I would have said, “Back off from the GGGGKKKHH; I’m writing about the Boer War again.”

    • 23thorns says:

      Sounds good to me now, but you know what I’m like at remembering things. Do you think it’s possible to synch the calendar on your iPad with my Galaxy Tab, or would it be easier to just BBM me on Friday evening?
      When last did you see the children?

    • never mind, tracyloveshistory – perhaps your next post could be about the Battle of Culloden, titled ‘Here Be Dragoons’?

      • I like the way you’re thinking! My ‘The Family Business’ could be about the Medicis. ‘Ribbit’ could be about Jack the Ripper but I’d call it ‘Rippit’; ‘Forgive those who trespass against us’ about the Viking raids. You’re onto something here.

  22. javaj240 says:

    Thanks for creeping me out right before bedtime. I am a bit reptile-phobic. I can’t even go into the reptile house at the zoo; too smelly, dark, and humid. Gives me the willies.

    Florida is full of those damn gravity-defying geckos. I tend to sleep with one eye open (which is difficult, given that my eyes, unlike those of a chameleon— see? I learned something— do not work independently) when I am there. Sleep deprivation, combined with the heat, makes for quite an enjoyable vacation!

    Happy folding, tucking, and tying!

    • 23thorns says:

      I have two small, nocturnally active children, so I can tell you with some authority that if you lose enough sleep, your eyes can work very independently indeed!

  23. artsifrtsy says:

    Amazing creatures – love the wit and the images.

  24. Your monitors must be the family members who migrated in a different direction to our goannas. Nasty buggers that can run like billy-o should you piss them off enough. And yes, I can deal with lizards, just not snakes. Mind you, the tail coming off gave me the heebies.

  25. artzent says:

    Man have you got some pictures! They are awesome. The writing is first class too!

  26. The picture captions are great! What a lot of interesting information. However, my big takeaway was this bit about the land monitors: “They often used to visit my parent’s place, lodging themselves behind furniture”. That’s the stuff of my nightmares! Now if you could only train all those lizards to fold boxes….

    • 23thorns says:

      Don’t worry, it was only the outside furniture. Like children, the monitors seemed to think that crawling behind something made them magically invisible. If you pretended that you couldn’t see the 1,5meter lizard hiding behind the 50cm gas bottle, you could Carry on as if they weren’t there.

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