38. Bushbabies.

There are few things in this world quite as cool as going on a night-drive in the bush. You bundle into an open vehicle with hand-held spotlights and set off into a world completely different to the one you left as the sun went down.

If you choose the premium package, your hosts might even take you out in a vehicle with a door.

If you pay a little extra for the premium package, your hosts might even take you out in a vehicle with a door.

There is no colour, for a start. The world is revealed in shades of light and dark like an old black and white movie. It sounds different, too. A different set of insects is awake, frogs are calling, and on the right night, that’s when the lions roar and the hyenas whoop.

But the main reason you go out is because there is a completely different set of animals on the prowl. Gone are the Warthogs, the Vervet Monkeys and the Baboons. The birds that fill the day with their colour and sound have gone to sleep, and the bats and owls are out and about, flitting and gliding through the shadows like flakes of animated darkness. Sleek, slinky creatures like genets and wildcats pad noiselessly through the undergrowth, and if you’re lucky, this is when you’re most likely to see leopards and lions. And tiny monkeys.

I'm really not trying to put any pressure on you. I'm just suggesting that it might be worth upgrading to the premium package.

I’m really not trying to put any pressure on you. I’m just suggesting that it might be worth upgrading to the premium package.

Those little reflective bumps that mark out the lanes of roads are called cat’s-eyes for a reason, because that’s how you find most things at night. You sweep through the bush with the light of your spotlight, seeking out open channels through the undergrowth and shining up into the trees. Every now and then, you will be rewarded with a pair of lights shining back at you.

They can be green or yellow or red. Lions’ eyes tend to be yellow, and spread quite far apart. Herds of Impala have green eyes, spreading out through open patches like rivers of stars. And every now and then, if you shine up into the trees, you will see a huge pair of bright red spotlights beaming back at you.

The lion, master of the night, king of the African wild. Isn't he majestic?

The lion, master of the night, king of the African wild. Isn’t he majestic?

If you stop and watch them for a while they will, if you’re lucky, suddenly launch themselves through the air in a great, soaring arc, pausing for a second as they land in a nearby tree before launching themselves again. If they jump down to the ground, they bounce straight back up again, like a tennis ball on steroids. You are looking at a Lesser Bushbaby.

And he is looking at you.

And he is looking at you.

I wrote a post about a tree the other day. A Lowveld tree. It reminded me that I have been neglecting my posts on the Lowveld of late. So here we go. Whether you like it or not, you’re hearing about monkeys this week. Lowveld monkeys. I’m starting small, and working my way up. And Bushbabies are small.

What they are not, of course, are monkeys. They have far more in common with Madagascar’s lemurs. But they are primates. So they count.

They are tiny. At least the Lesser Bushbabies are, weighing in at 150g. They have fingers just like people, with the same rounded fingernails. They have ears like bats, and they are almost as sharp, sensitive enough to track a moth in flight and snatch it from the air. They have large, fluffy tails to help guide them through the air as they jump. And they have big eyes. Ludicrously big eyes. If you scaled their skulls up to human size, their eyes would be as big as footballs. They are so big that they can’t move around in their sockets, so the Bushbaby has to move its head to look around, giving it a peculiar owl-like quality.

Bushbabies are always surprised to see you.

Bushbabies are always surprised to see you.

All this makes them cute. Stupidly cute. I am not a sentimental man. I only find other people’s children appealing when they are relieving themselves on someone else’s bookshelf. But I melt when I see a Bushbaby. And a baby Bushbaby is almost too much to cope with. Look;

Your failure to click on the "Buy me a beer" button has made this bushbaby baby sad.

Your failure to click on the “Buy me a beer” button has made this bushbaby baby sad.

They live on insects and tree gum. They catch the insects by leaping into the air and grabbing them in their hands. And if tree gum sounds like an odd thing to eat, if you’ve ever eaten fancy confectionery with gum Arabic in it, you’ve eaten it too.

Their diet has led to the development of a rather unusual feature. Gum, you see, is a little bit sticky, in the same way that water is a little bit wet. It gets stuck in their fur. But they have come up with a rather elegant solution. Teeth. They have evolved their very own built-in comb. Evolving funny shaped teeth is not, in itself, unusual. The English have done the same thing. What is unusual is that they have also evolved as second tongue to keep their toothcombs clean. Which the English, to the best of my knowledge, have not yet done.

The "toothcomb" is also ideal for sqwooshing jelly through to make it runny.

The “toothcomb” is also ideal for sqwooshing jelly through to make it runny.

There is another type of Bushbaby down in the Lowveld. It lives in forested patches. Our little patch of the bush doesn’t have any forested patches, so I have hardly ever seen them. They are much bigger, and move around in the branches more like cats than self-propelled ping pong balls. It was they who earned the tribe the name “Bushbaby”. They are not called that because they are small and cute. They are called that because the greater Bushbaby has a call that sounds uncannily like a crying baby.

The world is a cruel place. the bigger you are, the cuter you aren't.

The world is a cruel place. the bigger you are, the cuter you aren’t.

There’s a story I’ve heard down in the bush a couple of times about a ranger who had a Lesser Bushbaby as a pet. He would take it with him to the pub at night, where it would do it’s best to cadge a drink or two from the regulars. It would fail. None of them would let it come anywhere near their beer. But sooner or later, it would find a tourist who, charmed by those enormous eyes and tiny man-hands, would let it share his drink.

Then the fun would start. It wasn’t a greedy drinker. Wild Bushbabies hardly drink at all. It would simply dip in a tiny hand every now and then and then suck off the beer. The tourist would sit there, glowing with joy at really connecting with the wildlife, quietly working on the story he would tell his friends as he matched the tiny primate sip for sip. And the locals would sit snorting into their own beers, refusing to meet each other’s eyes until the last drop was drunk. And then it was time for the ranger to go and retrieve his little friend, and tell the tourist a little bit about him, while the regulars fell about laughing.

Because Bushbabies have a dirty little secret. Every now and then, as they make their way through the trees, they stop to for a pee. On their hands. They quickly rub half of it onto their feet and set off again.

It used to be thought that they were doing this to improve their grip. But that’s not what they’re up to. Bushbabies are territorial. Like most territorial animals, they need to mark their territory, like dogs lifting their legs or rhinos building huge latrines along their borders. But that’s not so easy when you live in the treetops. Their territories work in three dimensions, for a start. And gravity doesn’t help. So they’ve found a rather elegant solution.

Little did they know it, but Evans and Jones were squandering yet another opportunity to make their mark at Spooner, Withers & Haversham.

Little did they know it, but Evans and Jones were squandering yet another opportunity to make their mark at Spooner, Withers & Haversham.

Wherever they go, they leave a handy little trail behind them. Of pee. This makes it easier for them to establish pathways through the trees and lets the neighbours know to keep out.

And that would be just about it, except for one rather wonderful thing. The Bushbabies are coming to town. My mother still lives in the house I grew up in. A few years ago, my father put a nesting box up in one of his trees to attract owls. No owls were attracted. What was attracted was a small family of Bushbabies.

Not owls.

Not owls.

Every evening, just before dark, they poke their heads out of the entrance hole, all ears and eyes, for a bit of a look around. Then they make their way carefully down to the hummingbird feeder hanging outside the kitchen for a shot of nectar. If you sit very still, they will come to within a few feet of you.

This is a new thing. Over the last few decades, people have been planting more and more indigenous trees, and those trees are now coming of age. And the suburbs are now full of Bushbaby food.

My mother lives in a different city from us. But there’s hope. My son’s school is just around the corner from us. And it is home to several families of Bushbabies. I have put up an owl box myself, to the echoing indifference of the local owl population. But maybe, just maybe, we too will one day find ourselves sitting outside in the evenings with a chilled glass of wine, while a tiny, goggle-eyed, bat-eared proto-monkey tracks an invisible line of pee down to a feeder in front of us. And that would be a fine thing indeed.

Premium package. Just saying. The seats are more comfortable, and you get a free drink.

Premium package. Just saying. The seats are more comfortable, and you get a free drink.


10 thoughts on “38. Bushbabies.

  1. […] was quite fun to see where the ideas came from. On Monday, I was going to write about Bushbabies. And then I read in the news that the lead singer of Yothu Yindi had died. I liked Yothu Yindi. So I […]

  2. Max Shields says:

    Reblogged this on Max Shields and commented:
    This hilarious post waxes poetic about the wonders of venturing into the African bush at night and goes on at giddy length about the greatness of bushbabies. I loved every word. I hope you will, too.

  3. Sadly I didn’t see any lessers when I visited. I did spend most of an evening in Malawi trying to get pictures of a pair of greaters who inhabited the trees over my tent. Nobody but me and them. I did finally capture one with flash with his tongue out lapping up sap. I thought they were cute, but really I was impressed mostly with their ability to span great inter-tree distances with seeming grace and ease. The joke about English teeth was funny.

    • 23thorns says:

      I spent years looking for the greaters, and only saw them for the first time last year. No jumping- they moved through the trees like cats.

  4. Johna Till Johnson says:

    Oh my LORD this was funny! Thanks for posting!

  5. Naww, African possums! And just as cute as the Aussie ones. I agree with Narf on the Brush tailed ones. At our last house our car was decorated every morning with sticky dried possum pee and pellets of poop. Yuk! But for cuteness, yep, those bushbabies come up the cute-o-metre like a possum does. But I’ll raise you a sugar glider. 😉

  6. Nylabluesmum says:

    Lesser Busbabies are jsut so adorable….the Greater Bushbabies kind of remind me of our raccoons….also cute & round & furry. I have to say African wildlife is so much more interesting to ours in Canada….
    I loved the sub commentary on the premium package for the Jeep; I think doors are a really good idea, lol…you are so brave to venture out at night. i’d be home locked in the basement…if there is a basement???
    Fab reading as usual, SherriEllen

  7. narf77 says:

    Where’s that beer button…I will push it repeatedly if I can look at that bushbaby for a bit longer…The only thing that eats tree gum here are enormous wattle grubs that our Australian indigenous people made famous on “those” nature programs and Squeakers (a cross between a magpie and a crow) rule the tree canopy and neither of them come close to being this cute. I think Mr Freddie Mercury might just have had that very same oral denticular structure Mr 23Thorns so no doubt was able to keep his most handsome moustache clean at all hours of the day. A most fine thing indeed Mr 23Thorns :). Hopefully Mrs 23Thorns doesn’t get them caught in her hair like that poor unfortunate own in that uncannily representative illustration of her that you recently shared with us. The closest thing to bush babies that we have here are our huge eyed gentle little ring-tailed possums. Go look them up Mr 23Thorns…a Google image search will do. They can be picked up (if the need arises) and moved around to another place should they want to take up residence in the fire flue or the downpipe of your water tank. You MUST be sure that you are handling the right kind of possum though…the ringtail has a skinny tail with a white tip on it. The brush tail has a toilet brush of a tail and you can forget about him just peeing on his hands, he pees on EVERYTHING! Earl hates them. They are the native animal equivalent of Aussie larrikin yobs. You think that your larger bushbabies cry like a baby? Our brush tailed possums scream like banshees! They hate Earl because he chases them off our deck whenever he sees them and they are forced to sit just out of reach and scream at him in rage as he barks at them and he hates them ot because they compete with him for food (the main reason that he hates things…) but because they pee all over Serendipity Farm at night when he is sprawled out asleep in our bed upside down (who SAYS it gets better when your kids get older…sigh…) and incapable of chasing them up the deck. He gets up at 7am and has to do his rounds and decontaminate everything that the possums have contaminated overnight. Never EVER let an Australian brush tailed possum near you beer…not only will he pee IN it. He will get drunk and belligerent and will want a fight. Cheers for another Lowveld post. They bring out the inner naturalist in narf7.

  8. Jocelyn Hers says:

    Saying a forest bushbaby sounds like a human baby crying is polite. The families we met in Natal sounded as if someone was being murdered, slowly and screamingly. The English friends we were with were convinced they were about to be attacked , and wanted to go home ASAP. (Perhaps we should have left a tiny beer trail to calm the bushbabies down?)

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