Here, Kitty Kitty!

Years ago, a colleague of mine arrived at work looking like he had lost a West Side Story-style knife fight. Twice.

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He was looking kinda pale, too.

He had two long vertical slashes on his face, a cut across the bridge of his nose, and his hands and arms had more of what CSI Miami calls “defensive wounds” than they had actual skin. He was a mess. Had he been mugged? Involved in a domestic dispute? Got caught up in a turf war with the Bloods and the Crips on a Tuesday night after work? He had not. He had tried to bath his cat.

I, to my eternal discredit, laughed like a drain. He got torn to shreds because Mr Tibbles didn’t feel like getting his little paws wet.

I wasn’t laughing quite so much a few years later when I had to retrieve a frightened tomcat from a thorn tree. Jesus. It’s all very well lying in bed with a curled up, animated hot water bottle purring at your feet on a cold night, but dealing with an unhappy cat is like trying to fix a running combine harvester from the inside. Whoever called what cats do to you a “scratch” was clearly unfamiliar with the word “slash”. I have scars.

I tell you this not to demonstrate that I have an occasionally unkind sense of humour, nor that I am intimately familiar with the concept of karma. I tell you this because it cuts to the heart of what cats are. Cats are balls of sinew, muscle and fur covered with blades. Even big cats. Even huge ones (with the possible exception of cheetahs, but we’ll get to those later).

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The bigger they get, the bigger the blades get.

Cats have sacrificed the stamina of their eternal enemies the dogs in exchange for stealth, power, sinewy grace and an absolutely stupendous capacity for violence.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Yes, this is another post about the wildlife of the Lowveld. Yes, it’s about cats. And no, it’s not about the ones you are thinking of. The big ones. There are little cats in the bush, too. Those are the ones we’re looking at here. Starting with Mr Tibbles.

African Wildcat.

Decades ago, before we knew any better, we used, after a braai (barbecue) out in the bush, to leave a couple of chop bones and other leftovers out in the open just before we went to bed. We would sit in the dark on the step at the back door and wait to see if anything would come in to snap them up.

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The dark gets that much more interesting when it might have lions in it…

This was a bad thing to do. The wildlife of Africa has made it through several million years without our help, and no good can come from training the creatures of the night to associate people with easy meals. There are some pretty gnarly things out there. Big things. With sharp teeth.

But back then, it was a magical time. We would sit in the shadows, motionless and unbreathing, our ears straining to pick out the snap of a twig or the crunch of a leaf that didn’t quite fit with the background noise of a night full of whispering life, our eyes trying to resolve the silver and the shadows of moonlight into a face or a body.

And the bodies would come. Hyenas trot through the night with heavy footfalls. Civets crunch through the undergrowth. Honey badgers puff and blow like tiny freight trains with emphysema. And African wildcats? They would come too. And they would make absolutely no noise at all. Nothing. Sometimes we would only spot them coincidentally when we turned on a torch to find our way off to bed.

I’m glad we did, though, because those are the only times I’ve seen a wild African wildcat.

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This one must have been after breakfast scraps.

I’ve seen plenty of tame ones, though. So have you. You might even have one or two in your home. Yup. The domestic cat is just an African wildcat with a bit of the wild washed out. Just a bit though. Since they domesticated themselves a couple of thousand years ago, not much about their essential natures has changed. That’s why it’s so easy for cats to go feral.

And yes, cats domesticated themselves. Once we started farming, we started storing food. And once we started storing food, we got rats. Lots of rats. And mice. If you own a cat, you will know that they will go after birds and lizards and insects and frogs. But mostly they will go after rats and mice. African wildcats are rodent specialists, and once the rats and mice moved in on us, the cats followed by their own free will. That’s what makes cats so catty. So independent and aloof and free of the fawning adoration that dogs show for us. For most of their time with us, cats have lived alongside us, not under our care. All the fluffy cuddly stuff is a fairly new development.

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I’m not too sure this one would rock the whole “feral” thing.

So you can learn a lot about wildcats by looking at the tame ones. Wildcats are solitary (as the tame ones prefer to be when we let them), territorial (that’s what that lovely night-time singing is all about), and strictly nocturnal (which is why your cat seems so damned lazy). And they are very, very good at hunting. Which is wonderful for wildcats but has been a bit of an apocalypse for any unsuspecting creatures our domestic cats run into. They have helped drive over 60 different species to extinction.

And they have one more species in their sights. Wildcats. Wildcats and domestic cats may be from the same domestic stock, but they aren’t the same. African wildcats have a very specific coat; grey with various darker spots and stripes, and reddish brown ears. They also have longer legs than domestic cats. Since domestic cats are so very good at going feral, they move into wild areas with ease and interbreed with the locals. Wildcats in marginal areas are starting to lose the longer legs and show more variability in colour. In a couple of hundred years, they’re going to all look like grumpy cat and get marketing deals on YouTube.

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The wild called. I said no.

If you’ve been watching your tame cat, you will have noticed something a little unexpected for a supposedly solitary animal. Cats are extraordinarily good at communication. They communicate with their facial expressions, with the positioning of their ears and tails, with their postures, through scent, and with those gorgeous voices. Which seems like overkill for an animal whose main social strategy is never running into the neighbours. Until you remember what cats are. Sinew, muscle and blades. If every extremity except the tip of your tail is a vicious weapon, it pays to be very, very clear about your intentions.

There is one more thing that domestic cats can teach us about wild cats. All wild cats, even the big ones.

Wild dogs and hyenas make their living by running down prey. They seem to be able to go on forever. Cats can’t go on forever. They stick to short dashes. What they specialise in is sneaking up on things. And they are very sneaky indeed. Domestic cats can give us a little insight into how they do it.

An entire genre of YouTube videos has sprung up of cats walking down passages filled with dominos. It’s a remarkable thing to see. Without hesitation, a cat will stroll down a passage crowded with obstacles without so much as touching them.

Cats know where all the parts of their bodies are at all times. And they need to. For the sneaking. I once watched a leopard stalk a herd of impala for about ten minutes on a brightly moonlit night. It was excruciating. He managed to move forward about two metres in all that time. I counted him as unlucky that none of the impala died of old age.

But here’s the thing; he was walking through thick underbrush littered with dried leaves, and managed to do so without ever stepping on a twig or leaf, and without taking his eyes off the impala. This is even more impressive when you remember that by the time his back paws reached a spot, he hadn’t looked at that spot for minutes.

He failed. No impalas were harmed in the making of this post. It was no big deal though. He wasted a fair bit of time, but very little energy.

If you really want to know what the phrase “cat footed” means, here’s a dog being dog footed…

Which is lovely. But not all that stealthy.

Servals

While I have fond memories of African wildcats, I have absolutely none of servals.

I have a short mental list of the larger creatures of the bush that I have never seen. It gets shorter as time passes. Pangolins are on it, because they are so damn rare. Aardvarks were on it for ages, until I started seeing them all over the place.

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I was, to be honest, drinking quite heavily at the time.

And servals are on it. I’ve never seen a wild one.

They aren’t particularly rare. What they are is very particular about their habitat. Servals live in tall, damp grassland, and it has shaped their bodies.

Their heads are small, about the same size as a big domestic cat’s. The rest of them, however, has been stretched out to give them a bit of an advantage in the tall grass.

They, like wildcats, eat birds and lizards and such, but specialise in rodents. They find them with the help of those satellite dish ears, and then jump up and over the grass and down onto them, like dolphins porpoising. Those are just little jumps for a serval. They can fairly casually jump 3 metres into the air to take down birds.

Servals are breathtakingly beautiful, tall, slender and graceful with a constellation of spots and stripes over a pale yellow background, like a tiny king cheetah.

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Which is a pity. People are now taking them out of the wild and breeding them with domestic cats. The outcome is the world’s largest domestic cat, a rather fetching creature called a savannah cat, whose defining characteristic is that it’s not allowed to live on the savannah anymore. Oh well…

Caracal.

Growing up, we didn’t have a television in our house. I did, however, get to watch the occasional show. One of the earliest TV movies I can remember was a horror called “The Claw!” about a young boy who gets stalked across the hills of his family farm by a terrifying and mysterious creature. A caracal.

It was an awesome movie. Haunting and atmospheric. A South African equal to “Picnic at Hanging Rock”. I couldn’t sleep for days, knowing that some time, any time, one of these horrifying murder-beasts could launch itself out of the undergrowth and tear me to shreds, or at the very least scratch my dog quite badly.

I Googled the movie yesterday. Turns out it was actually called “Claws”, and has a rating of three out of ten on IMDB. One of the reviews started “This was the single-most horrible film I have ever been witness to…”

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You won’t want to watch it with anyone else, either.

Oh well. It made a huge impression on me at the time. Huge enough to come back and haunt me a couple of years later when a caracal launched itself out of the undergrowth to attack my mother. Kinda.

I was visiting the Mountain Zebra National Park with my family, and we had stopped for a picnic at a small dam where you were allowed to get out of your car. My mother spread out a blanket and sat down to start getting lunch ready, while my dad took my sisters and me for a quick stroll around the water.

“Kul!” said my mother in the sort of voice adults use when they wish to point out imminent danger to other adults without alarming the small children in the area. This is an entirely ineffective sort of voice, and we small children swung around in very much alarm. With good reason. A caracal loomed glowering over my cowering mother.

My father grabbed us children and took a step backward. “Oh my God!” I thought. “It’s happening! The Claw! The Claw!” Viciously, the murderous cat began to purr at my mother, before savagely rubbing his cheek along her leg and strolling brutally over to a nearby patch of shade, where he flopped down menacingly in the dust and fell asleep.

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My blood still runs cold at the thought of it.

“This,” I remember thinking, “is not what I have been led to expect…”

It took us a moment or two to realise that the caracal was wearing a radio collar, and we later learned that he had been hand-raised at a nearby ranger station. This should, technically, have stopped me from removing caracals from my list of unseen wild animals, but I decided that this sighting counted because he had so viciously attacked my mother. I’ve seen a couple since then, but they certainly aren’t easy to come by.

Which isn’t the same as being as being rare. Caracals are one of those rare wild creatures that manage to cling on in farmland long after the other wildlife has been wiped out.

Which is a problem. Because Caracals aren’t rodent specialists. Caracals are about the same size as Servals. But here’s the thing with cats; Small cats kill small prey with a very precise bite to the back of the neck, while big cats kill big prey by suffocating them with a bite to the throat. Servals kill their prey with that back of the neck bite. They are, round here, the biggest of the small cats. Caracals kill their small prey in the same way. But they don’t only take small prey. They kill those by suffocation. They are the smallest of the big cats.

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Which leads us back to that problem. A 15kg caracal can kill a 60kg sheep. Caracals do not lurk around farmland as an undetected presence. They are at war with the farmers. Farmers shoot, trap, and poison caracals, and yet somehow the caracals persist.

Happily, the caracals I have seen have not been at war with anybody. In the bush they eat anything from reptiles, birds and rodents to buck the size of duikers. Like the servals, they can cheerfully jump 3 metres into the air, and are supple and agile enough to knock flying birds out of the sky.

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Sensible bush-goers wear protective headgear outdoors.

And that’s just about that for the caracal. Except for the ears. There’s something up with cats’ ears. Wildcats have rufous ears, in contrast to their grey coat. Cheetahs, servals, lions and leopards have black ears with white patches. Caracals have charcoal ears, in contrast to their reddish coats. It’s all part of that communication thing I mentioned earlier.

Thing is, all of those contrasting colours are on the back of the ears. If you survive by stalking, you don’t want to give the game away by blending perfectly into your environment except for the two striking flags waving around on the top of your head. The ears are there mostly there to signal to the cats behind you, like your kittens or cubs following you through thick grass or, if you’re a lion, your pride stalking your prey with you.

Cats do sometimes flatten their ears so you can see the back of them from the front. If you ever see a cat doing this, whatever you do don’t try to give it a bath. That is a very unhappy cat.

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Maybe just wipe it down with a damp cloth.

Caracals have taken things one step further. Their ears are tipped with tufts of hair like the eyebrows of an aging Anglican priest. Their ears have become semaphores whose every movement is exaggerated. In fact the caracal’s whole face looks like it is designed to exaggerate every expression. Black lips with white borders. Black rimmed eyes surrounded by white. A black nose with a white background. Black and white lines furrowing the brow.

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Either it’s snarling or it just saw a man fall off a bicycle.

Nobody snarls like a caracal. If anyone has ever tried to bath a caracal, they should be given a medal before being institutionalised. I’m not sure why they have such expressive faces. Maybe as the smallest of the big cats they are extra prickly, like the small guy at the end of the bar who keeps trying to stare you down while his bigger friends ignore you. It seems that caracals need to be extra clear about what and when they communicate with each other. It makes for a very striking cat.

And that’s that for the small guys. After this, things get bigger. And easier to find.

Horn

I’ve been travelling the same route down to the bush, several times a year, for more than three decades. I could have given you directions when I was 12; Pretoria. Bronkhorstspruit. Witbank. Belfast. Dullstroom. Lydenburg. Ohrigstad, Hoedspruit. Then we’d head out for Bushbuckridge and turn left into the bush. Halfway down the road the tar would run out and it was an hour of bone-shaking corrugations before we pulled up at the gate of our place.

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Things have changed over the years. Witbank is now Emalahleni. Lydenburg is now Mashishing. The road through the charming little town of Dullstroom has been turned into a strip mall where Jo’burg day trippers in Land Cruisers and Porche Cayennes can buy rustic pancakes and designer trout-killing gear. The even littler and far less charming Hoedspruit has grown bigger and more charming.

But it’s the road into the bush that has changed the most. It used to rattle along between two lines of game fence, often bent flat by the elephants that churlishly ignored the boundaries we tried so hard to impose on them. Then, as the 80’s drew to a close, the fences along the road came down, as did the fence around the Kruger Park. The elephants could do as they pleased, as could everything else. The road was tarred and a toll gate was set up to collect money to pay for its upkeep.

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It’s actually quite a sophisticated operation.

And then the controls came. Another gate was set up, with retractable spikes and a uniformed guard. And the toll gate turned into something like the entrance to the villain’s lair in a Bond movie, complete with a security force in camo fatigues, with sniffer dogs and assault rifles.

The place names changed because of politics. Hoedspruit and Dullstroom grew because of tourism. The tarred road was about progress, I suppose.

And the heavily armed security force? That’s all about rhinos.

There’s something prehistoric about rhinos. They’re huge, relics of a time when the Earth was crowded with giants like mammoths and glyptodons and giant ground sloths. White rhinos are the third largest land animal after elephants, with the males weighing in at over 2 tons, while the black rhinos can get up to a ton and a half.

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Black

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White

Apart from their size, the easiest way to tell the difference between the two is by looking at their colour. White rhinos are grey while black rhinos are a distinct grey colour. Yup. There’s no difference. No one really knows why they’re called that. The most commonly floated answer is that the white of the white rhino is a corruption of the Dutch word “wijd”, meaning wide, in reference to the shape of their mouths. Which, like most folk etymology, sounds perfectly reasonable. The only problem is that there is absolutely no historical evidence for it. And it doesn’t really explain why the other guys are called black.

Confronted by this curious state of affairs, the clever people decided it was far more sensible to call the white rhino the square lipped rhino and the black rhino the hook lipped rhino, because that really is a significant difference between the two. Square lipped rhinos eat grass. They carry their heads low to the ground and have wide, squared off mouths like lawnmowers. Hook lipped rhinos are browsers, and have sharp, turtle beak shaped mouths like garden clippers for picking out the tastiest twigs and leaves.

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Mower

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Clipper. If you squint. And have had enough vodka.

Happily, we stupid people looked at this idea, found it all far too sensible, and cheerfully carried on calling them white and black for absolutely no reason at all. We’ve done the same with wild dogs, which the clever people wanted us to call painted dogs.

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Us stupid people know a painted do when we see one.

There are a couple of other differences. Black rhino calves travel behind their mothers, while white rhino calves follow their mothers from in front. Don’t ask me how they do this; no one has ever bothered to explain it to me. Maybe their mothers are whistling at them subsonically, like deep voiced versions of shepherds whistling at their dogs.

White rhinos look noticeably more prehistoric, with huge, elongated heads and massive humped shoulders. Black rhinos are more tidily put together.

White rhinos live out on more or less open grassland, while black rhinos live in thick bush.

White rhinos have a reputation for being grumpy and dangerous. Black rhinos are grumpier and dangerouser.

There’s a reason for this. Rhinos have very bad eyes.

All animals have a series of imaginary circles around them. The outer circle is one in which the animal is aware of an intruder (we’ll call the intruder “you” because I don’t want to type out “intruder” 17 times), but essentially doesn’t care. Then there’s another, smaller circle within which the animal will start paying attention to you. It might just stop and watch you, it might move off, or it might send a half-hearted threat your way, but it will give you some sort of response. Then there’s the final, inner circle. That’s where stuff gets real, because that’s the circle within which you trigger the animal’s flight or fight response.

The size of those circles varies, depending on the temperament of the animal, its mood, who approached whom, and so on. So here’s me and my son chilling with an elephant. Everyone is relaxed. He knew we were there and approached us, so even though he’s close enough to spit on, we’re outside that inner circle.

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And he’s outside ours because us men of the wild know that elephants suck at jumping

And here’s another elephant going on a vicious and terrifying rampage after we surprised him by stepping out of the door inside his inner circle (we didn’t know he was there. Elephants are small and unobtrusive and easy to miss).

It’s a miracle we made it out alive. I still can’t wear those pants without breaking down in tears.

Now imagine an animal that can’t see very well. If the wind is right, and you move quietly, you can get within 15 metres of white rhinos on foot without their even being aware of you. Which is nice, right up ‘til the moment that the wind turns or you step on a branch and the rhino suddenly becomes aware of a bunch of people standing well within it inner circle. That’s when you remember that the buggers weigh over 2 tons and can run at over 50 km/h (just for reference, Usain Bolt can only do 44 km/h). If the rhino decides to fight, you’re in very real trouble, but even if it decides on flight, you’re not safe. People have been badly injured just by happening to be in the direction they are fleeing in.

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I don’t think this one is fleeing so much as offering a measured critique of that paint job

That’s white rhinos. Black rhinos are even more dangerous. Not only are they grumpier, they also live in thick bush, so you can stumble over them without even knowing they’re there. And vice versa. That whole “them approaching you” thing only counts if they know you’re there.

But that’s all just the stuff about rhinos themselves. The bigger story is about what’s happening to them. We’re killing them all. Again. For the bundles of hair they have stupidly decided to carry around on their noses. I won’t go into too much detail about rhino poaching, because you could fill a whole book, and I don’t know enough to avoid the pitfalls of misinformation that surround the subject. I’ll just rush through it and then tell you a bit about how the rhino crisis affects our little corner of the bush.

When I was younger, the story was simple. Rhinos were poached because the horns were used for making dagger handles in Yemen and aphrodisiacs in China. It was all so obvious. Swallowing bits of a big, stiff horn would surely give you the same. It was also wrong. Rhino horn was never used as an aphrodisiac. It was used in traditional Asian medicine to treat fevers, headaches, and other minor maladies. Of late it’s also being touted as a cure for cancer.

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Luckily scientists have recently discovered an artificial substitute for rhino horn

It doesn’t work. At all. But before you get all judgey about the naivety of other people far away, pop into your local crystal shop and ask them if they have anything that will help with your headache. They won’t laugh at you. They’ll sell you a stone. And then they’ll sell you another one to help you align your chakras.

The truth is that it doesn’t really matter what people think it does. A vast criminal network spanning continents and generating millions of dollars doesn’t exist because someone in Vietnam has a headache. To understand what is happening with rhino horn, it helps to understand these;

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That’s a Rolex Daytona. You can pick up a new one for half a million Rand. If you’re feeling flush can pick up a slightly fancier one for FIVE MILLION RAND!!!

Whatever you may think when glancing at one, a Rolex Daytona is not a watch. A watch is something you use to tell the time. This is a watch.

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It costs R500, and is handy for checking the date as well as the time.

Of course a Rolex Daytona tells the time, too. It even does so quite deep underwater. But no one is spending FIVE MILLION RAND!!! to avoid being late for meetings. No. A Rolex Daytona is a machine for showing people how rich you are. It’s a shot of adrenaline for the sort of people who get a kick out of having things. A Rolex is not a watch, beluga caviar is not salty fish eggs, and a Louis Vuitton bag is not a handy place to keep five almost finished-lipsticks, an expired parking card, and a crumbly handful of those sweets they give you with the bill at restaurants. What these things are is status symbols

And rhino horn isn’t being used to treat fevers. It’s become a status symbol too. Rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold. China and Vietnam have both seen a rapid growth in the number of rich people. People who suddenly feel a keen desire to tell the time quite deep underwater. People who need somewhere breathtakingly expensive to keep their individually wrapped peppermints. People who want to show the world that they’ve made it.

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Ah, the sweet smell of success.

And that’s all I have to say about that. Except for this. It’s kinda hard to stop someone willing to spend FIVE MILLION RAND!!! on a watch.

So what does this all mean for our little corner of the world? It doesn’t stop with the sniffer dogs at the control gate. When I was younger, you often used to see workers walking up and down that corrugated dirt road, heading out to work or visiting friends on neighbouring farms. You still see people walking, though. Armed anti-poaching units, complete with weapons and tracker dogs. They are essentially soldiers, complete with paramilitary training. There’s a private army out there, fighting a little talked about war in the place where the rest of us go on holiday. And it really is a war; their opposition are, by their very nature, armed. There are casualties. A couple of years ago, the remains of a poacher were found on the farm next door to us. He’d been killed and eaten by lions.

Our behaviour has been affected, too. Up at the ranger station on our place there’s a sighting book and a map full of colour co-ordinated pins where we can all share our sightings. Red for lions, green for leopards, blue for elephants, and so on. There are no pins for rhinos, though, and we aren’t allowed to write them up in the book. The wrong person might be watching. Our rhinos are a secret.

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One should always dress appropriately for rhino watching

It doesn’t end there. All of us have CB’s in our vehicles. It’s not really my thing, but lots of people have great fun with them, calling out to the rest of us about fresh lion tracks or leopard kills or hyena dens. No calls about rhinos, though. The wrong person might be listening. It’s quite fun listening to people trying to get around this. People will call their friends out at arbitrary times to meet for drinks in arbitrary places or radio in sightings of other animals with secret code-words worked into the announcements.

It wasn’t always like this. When we were kids, people never used to call in about rhinos for a very different reason. There were no pins for rhinos back then, either. Because there weren’t any rhinos.

That’s the greatest tragedy lurking behind all of this. Rhinos are actually a fantastic conservation success story. Halfway through the last century, there were no rhinos left in the Lowveld. None. In the case of the white rhinos, there were hardly any of them left on the planet.

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A rare photograph of all the rhinos in the Lowveld, circa 1950

By the 1950’s, there were only about a hundred of them left in the country. A bunch of conservationists in Hluhluwe–iMfolozi Park in Kwazulu Natal decided they weren’t giving up without a fight, and protected the hell out of their rhinos. The rhinos did so well that soon they were able to start translocating surplus animals to other reserves and selling them to private landowners. In the 60’s, white rhinos were reintroduced to the Lowveld, followed by black rhinos in the 70’s.

It turns out that when we stop killing them all the time, rhinos actually do pretty well for themselves. By 2010, we had 17 000 white rhinos and 5000 black rhinos in the country.

We watched it happen. As I said, when we first started going down to the bush there were no rhinos on our little patch. There hadn’t been for a hundred years. Then, while the fences were up along that corrugated dirt road, we started to spot the odd one brought in by private landowners on our way down to our place. Then the fences came down. We began to come across the odd track while out driving.

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An odd track.

Occasionally, someone would catch a glimpse of one. Occasionally turned to regularly. Four years ago, while sleeping out on the caged in stoep down at our place, I was woken up by a weird thumping noise. I sat up and glanced across the dry river bed in front of our house. Less than 50 metres away was a tiny white rhino calf, prancing around his mother like an excited Labrador puppy. The rhinos were well and truly back.

Now all we have to do is stop them from going away again.

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Some smaller families.

The spiral horned buck are far and away the largest family down I the Lowveld, but there are others.

The Hottie and the Nottie.

I will apologise now for using such an awkward sounding subheader. It’s just that I feel that not nearly enough attention is paid to the artistic endeavours of Paris Hilton, and her 2007 movie The Hottie and the Nottie should, by rights, be a modern classic. I’m doing what I can to thrust it back to the forefront of your minds, where it belongs. It’s also an appropriate way to describe the next family of buck we’re going to look at. The hippotragini.

I’ll start with the Sable, because I’ve already mentioned them. And because damn!

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Just damn!

They really are a joy to behold; powerful, well-muscled bodies, rapier-sharp horns sweeping back over the shoulders, faces boldly marked in black and white. And their outfits don’t hurt the whole picture either, all sleek black satin shining in the sun, contrasting boldly with the white of their stomachs.

The females aren’t quite in the same league. Their coats are brown, and while they, unlike most of the buck down in the bush, do have horns, they are far shorter. They are still very attractive animals. It’s just that nature is never fair when handing out the looks. Just ask a peahen.

The sad thing about beholding a sable is that you probably aren’t going to do it. They used to be far more common, but these days they’re pretty rare. And they seem to be getting rarer. Like their cousins. Which are properly rare.

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Less damn!

The roan antelope seem to have lost some sort of genetic lottery. The family name, hippotragini, means horse goats. The sable seems to have got all of the horse parts. The roan was left with the goaty bits. I vaguely remember a sitcom from the 90’s in which there was a running joke in which the main character met up for a weekly poker game with Swayze, Travolta, and Stallone. That would be Don, Joey and Frank, as opposed to Patrick, John, and Sylvester.

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The least damn.

 There was something weird about seeing them. They were, objectively, all good looking guys, and were instantly recognisable as the brothers of their more famous siblings, but despite their having all the same parts, they just hadn’t been put together quite as well. They looked odd because their siblings looked so good. And so it is with the roan. They are big, handsome buck, but their movie star cousins leave them looking just ever so slightly off.

It’s the ears. They’re too big. And they do a strange turny-downy thing at the ends that makes them look like depressed bunnies or idealistic teenagers who’ve just discovered that their idols are into a particularly nasty brand of niche porn. And if you think I’m being unfair to the noble roan, here’s a picture of their other movie star cousin, the gemsbok, from the other side of the country.

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We’re up to full damn! again.

 But we are not here to judge the creatures of the wild by their looks or their unsavoury internet histories. They serve a far more important purpose. They show us quite how bad we are at playing god.

If you are unlikely to behold a sable, you are pretty much guaranteed not to behold a roan. It’s our fault. And not because their horns are worth their weight in gold or because we turned their homes into golf estates. No. the roan is very nearly locally extinct, and the sable is going the same way. Because we tried to help.

It goes like this; roan and sable have always, at least in South Africa, been uncommon. They are specialist grazers, and lived basically by finding good patches of grass in areas with poor soil and little surface water, where the grazing was mostly bad. This meant they it wasn’t just that they were uncommon in the areas where they lived, all big herbivores were. And because the herbivores were uncommon, so were the large predators. And then we came along and fixed everything.

We set up artificial water points all over the place. And lo and behold, the numbers of large herbivores increased because more water-dependent animals like zebras and buffalos and wildebeest moved in. and roan and sable numbers began to decline.

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Leaving this barren wasteland, bereft of all life.

The decline was noticed. But not that easily understood. It was thought, at various times, to be the result of drought, diseases like anthrax, and perhaps most obviously, competition with other large herbivores. In the end, it seems to have been more complicated than that. It was all of those things, and none of them.

The greatest cause of the decline in roan and sable numbers seems to be this; their best defence against large predators was being in places where large predators weren’t, because there weren’t enough large herbivores to support them. When the large herbivores moved in, so did the lions and the hyenas. And they started to kill off the roan and the sable in higher numbers than they could cope with.

Luckily, we realised this, and began to remove the artificial water sources. Unluckily, it turns out that playing god is best left to the gods, and fixing the damage we have done is as easy as unbaking a cake. The large herbivores did indeed begin to move out of the haunts of the roan and the sable. Thing is, though, that large predators are territorial. Lions and hyenas can’t just move to other spots, because those spots are already filled by other lions and hyenas which will try to kill them. So turning off the water hasn’t brought back the roan and the sable.

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Which is all a little depressing. All we can do now is wait to see if things even out over time.

Meh.

My mother is as passionate about the bush as anyone I have ever met. Except for rhinos. “Rhinos,” she tells us “leave me stone cold.”

I get it. Not because rhinos leave me stone cold, but because there are some other animals that do. And so on to the reduncini.

There are three members of the family down in the Lowveld; two types of reedbuck (the common and the mountain) and the waterbuck.

And it is the reedbuck that leave me stone cold. They live in small groups (mountain reedbuck) or pairs (common reedbuck) in tall grass on floodplains (common reedbuck) or on high slopes (mountain reedbuck). You hardly ever see them, and when you do, they tend to whistle at you and run away. And that’s all I have to say about that. Losers.

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I don’t even know which one this is.

Luckily, the waterbuck is far more interesting.

They’re big, with males weighing in at over 250kg, and females at 200, and have bizarrely shaggy coats for an animal that lives in a place that can regularly reach 45° C. And as the name implies, they live close to water. They have to. They are prone to dehydration, another weird characteristic in a place as dry and hot as the Lowveld. They will flee into the water to escape predators, but can’t spend too much time in it because crocodiles.

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The Sable and the gemsbok are pushing to have the waterbuck replace the roan at family gatherings.

Like hippos, the lives of waterbuck are governed by the access to water in a pretty dry place, and the way they manage their lives is pretty similar. Dominant males are territorial, and they share their territories with loose herds of females and with bachelor herds which are tolerated as long as they behave. Challenges for territories can get nasty and occasionally result in deaths.

Waterbuck stink. Their skin secretes a greasy, musky substance that smells so bad that it was common knowledge when I was a child that this was a way of deterring predators. The only problem with this tidy little piece of trivia is that no-one told the predators, which cheerfully went about eating them anyway. It does have other uses, though. It waterproofs their coats, which is handy for an animal that spends its life around water. It seems to serve some sort of sexual function. And last, but not least, it seems to ward off parasites. People have been putting waterbuck-grease infused collars on their cows to stave off tsetse flies, and they seem to be working.

And that would be all if the Afrikaners weren’t so good at naming things. We call them waterbuck, because they live near water. In Afrikaans, they are called the kringgatbok. Which means, I kid you not, the “circle butthole buck”. Because of these.

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The noble “ring arsed antelope”.

It’s a beautiful language.

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I’m unlikely ever to see a moose, especially now that the world has closed down, but I would dearly love to. Not because they are huge and stately and noble, although I am sure they are all those things. No. I’d love to see a moose because anything that goofy looking should be treasured and celebrated.

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His nose appears to be melting off the end of his skull.

We don’t have anything quite so silly looking around here, although warthogs run pretty close. We do, however, have the alcelaphini, an entire family that specialises in looking a little off, a little funny, like that guy everybody knows who seems to have sold his chin in order to buy his ears and Adam’s apple from a much larger person.

Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest

Lichtenstein’s Hartebeest are prime examples of the family. They have high, rounded shoulders and sloping backs. Their faces are just a little bit too long, and their horns look, from the side, as if they’ve been caught in a high wind.

And that’s all you need to know about them, I’m afraid. Because you’re very unlikely to see them. We shot them all.

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We needed something to stick up on our walls to hang our hats on.

Lichtenstein’s hartebeest were hunted into local extinction over a hundred years ago. We had to bring some in from Malawi to try and bring them back, but right now there are only about 50 of them in South Africa, and there hasn’t been a meteoric rise in their numbers.

Wow. A quiet little post about some buck is turning out to be a little depressing. Brace yourselves. Things aren’t about to get any better.

Tsessebe

Sometimes, very occasionally, the world can give you huge ears and a giant Adam’s apple and throw them together in a way that somehow manages to be pleasing. On paper, Adam Driver should not be setting anyone’s heart racing.

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And yet somehow I’m finding it hard to breathe.

And so it is with the tsessebe. The have typical high-shouldered slope-backed bodies of their tribe. Their faces are as long and narrow as the hartebeest’s. Their horns, while not as comically swept back as their cousin’s, are by no means impressive. And yet somehow it all comes together to make for a handsome and well put-together animal.

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It’s all about posture.

Sad, then, that they fall into the same category as the roan and the sable- rare, and getting rarer, as a result of our interference. They, too are specialist grass feeders, picking out nutritious tufts of grass from amongst bad grass. They, too, are affected by the placement of artificial water points. And on top of that, they live on open grassy plains, and those are disappearing.

Tsessebe serve well to explain the ungainly, awkward-looking bodies of the alcelaphini. They’re not ungainly and awkward at all. Those bodies are built for speed, and tsessebe are blindingly fast, steaming along at close to 90 km/h. That puts them in cheetah territory, but with more stamina.

You’d think that this would make them invulnerable, but it doesn’t. For a start, the big cats are ambush predators. They hunt by taking their prey by surprise, not by outrunning it. But that’s not all. Tsessebe are particularly vulnerable to one particular predator. Us.

Tsessebe are cocky. They run really fast, but they don’t run really far. They tend to stop after a short distance to check things out, relying on their superior speed to keep them safe. It doesn’t keep them safe from the sort of people whose response to nature is to shoot it and stick it on a wall. Hunters love Tsessebe because their tendency to stop makes them really easy to shoot.

 Wildebeest.

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If the tsessebe got all the looks in the family, they took them directly from the wildebeest. They are the kings of looking goofy. They have the high shoulders and low hindquarters of the family, huge, smoothly curved heads like Texan oil derricks, wide, vacuum cleaner mouths, floppy, listless manes, and scraggly, wispy beards like live action role players who are trying to hide the space where their chins should be. To top it all off, their horns look like someone took the horns off a buffalo and turned them into a half-sized novelty buffalo hat at a wildlife based theme park. They are beautiful.

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As is this herd of derricks.

And they’re doing a hell of a lot better than anything else in this post. There are about 10 000 of them in the Kruger park alone. Don’t get too cheerful, though. Better is not the same as good.

Wildebeests are deigned to be nomads. They, like their companions the zebras, are bulk grazers. They follow the smell of distant rain and the sound of thunder to find fresh grazing, doing a little amateur landscaping as they go. They stir up the soil by trampling it up, spread a load of fresh manure about the place, push back any bushes and trees invading the grassland, actually boost the growth of healthy grassland by cropping it down to lawn height, and then head on out to fresh green pastures, leaving it all to recover in their wake. The Lowveld was never the Serengeti, but it had its own mosaic of mini migrations, which basically saw the wildebeest and zebra heading out into the vast open grasslands to take advantage of the flush of growth that came with the coming of the rains, and then heading back to the floodplains around the permanent rivers when the temporary pans and waterholes dried up in the dry season.

Had. This whole post is turning out to be a bit depressing. 10 000 seems like a nice big number. But it used to be 30 000. And it’s all our fault. Again. First, we threw up a bunch of fences to contain and protect the wildlife, which was nice of us, except that it cut off a number of old migration routes. Then we threw up a bunch of artificial water points to make up for the loss of those routes and give the game access to huge areas of virgin bush too far from permanent water to support a lot of game.

Which you would think would be a good thing. Not in this post it won’t. This whole thing seems to be morphing into a praise poem to the gods of unintended consequences. Sorry.

Permanent water tethered the great migratory herds to that previously virgin bush. Permanently. Where they used to do a bit of landscaping and move on to let the bush recover, they now stuck around, over trampling and overgrazing, and the soil ever got chance to recover.

At the same time, for reasons far too complicated to go into here, bushes and trees started to encroach on what was once grassland.

Wildebeests are designed to live on open plains. They don’t do so well in thicker bush. They’re around, but not like they used to be.

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Before

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After

Alrighty then. That was fun. I promise next time I’ll do something a bit more uplifting. Like rhinos.

Earnest and Sincere

I saw a leopard the other day. I had taken the two younger members of the 23thorns household down to the bush for ten days at the end of their Christmas holidays. Sadly Mrs 23thorns couldn’t join us (she was starting a new job), but her absence notwithstanding, it was a perfect moment. At the end of a perfect day.

When my time comes, I hope to go quickly and efficiently, with a minimum of fuss. I try my best to be considerate of the needs of others, and I would think it churlish to make anyone stand around while my whole life flashed before my eyes (they might have meetings to attend, or reading to catch up on…), but I do hope they will not begrudge me a minute or two to run through some sort of highlights package. This moment will be on it.

We had been called out at dawn to go and watch a pack of wild dogs flopping around in an open patch of dust at the side of a dried-out dam before rising at some unseen signal and flowing off into the bush like quicksilver, just as the sun broke the horizon.

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These dogs

We had bacon and eggs out on the stoep while a noisy flock of hornbills and go-away birds squawked and fidgeted in the trees above us and a scrum of mongooses snuffled around our feet until the heat got to be too much for them, and they passed out like tiny drunks in the shade nearby.

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These tiny drunks

We went out for a drive and saw great frolicking gangs of baby impalas darting and soaring in wide and wild circles through stunted thorn-trees as they learned to use their legs. We slipped through the middle of a small group of elephants, surprising them as they surprised us, hearts beating as they swung towards us with an annoyed snap of their ears.

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They were annoyed that the boy child had decided to dress like a Michael Jackson backup dancer for a drive in the bush.

We sat in a hide and watched a broken old buffalo come down for a drink.

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You should see what the other guy looked like.

We saw kudus, and giraffes, and warthogs, and followed the fresh, crisp tracks of a rhino and her calf down a dusty road until they faded off into the bush. The girl child nearly put her hand down on a snake hidden along a railing at a lookout point.

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This snake

The boy child somehow managed to open the door while we were driving and nearly fell out. Again. Sometimes I think he is just messing with us.

In the afternoon, we went up to the pool to escape the heat (it was 42 degrees in the shade). I nearly put my hand down on a snake.

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No, that is not a boomslang. No, I was not in possession of that handy little piece of information as I was nearly putting my hand down on it…

The kids made some friends and splashed and shrieked and threw themselves off irresponsibly high walls into the water below as I lay back in the shallow end drinking an ice-cold beer and swapping stories with a couple of other grown-ups. And looking out over this.

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Sometimes you can’t see all of those trees because there are elephants in the way.

As the sun went down we joined some friends for supper. Which was nice, since it gave me a chance to remind the kids what a vegetable looked like. (As I said, Mrs 23thorns wasn’t with us. It had been five days of cold cereal and charred red meat, and their gums were starting to bleed). We finished it all off with a cold glass of wine around a blazing fire whose flames turned the circle of sparse mopanes around us into a thin wall holding back the insect-buzzing dark.

On the short drive home we searched the night with hand-held spotlights, picking out the glowing red eyes of a pair of bushbabies up in the trees and the neon green ones of a genet slinking off into the undergrowth, before braving the terrifying walk from the car down to the house. At least it is terrifying for the small people. It’s a walk of about ten metres or so, but there are no fences around it, and the fitful glow of a hand-held torch doesn’t fight off much dark after the brilliance of the car-battery powered spotlights.

And that should have been it. It was, as I said before, a perfect day, and would have lasted in my memory if it had ended there. It didn’t. I bullied the kids into their pyjamas and pretended not to notice quite how unenthusiastically they brushed their teeth, and then we collapsed into bed, exhausted. That’s when we heard this.

That’s a pretty awe-inspiring sound on YouTube. It’s a little bit more so when you are lying in the dark and hear it less than a hundred metres away. And a little bit more when you are lying next to two small people you have just cajoled through that same dark with the promise that there was nothing out there. And a lot more when this is your “bedroom”.

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Sorry about the facial expression. My arthritis was playing up…

Yup. We sleep on the outside of the house in what is essentially a cage made out of chicken-wire and mosquito netting. Which seems a little flimsy when the darkness outside is making that noise. We stopped being exhausted.

You may think you have done some listening in your time, but you haven’t really done it properly until you have sat in the night with two small hearts beating like drums on either side of you, and the silence hissing in your ears as you strain to pick up the sound of the world’s sneakiest animal tiptoeing through the dark. And pick it up we did.

Leopards don’t make a lot of noise. Their lives kinda depend on it. But they do make some. We heard the crunch of gritty sand as a paw sank into the dry river-bed in front of the house. Then silence. The crackle of a dried leaf crushed underfoot. Then silence. The quiet scrape of soft fur against undergrowth. Then silence. Each small sound was closer than the last.

And then, after a particularly pregnant pause, he was there. Right there. My mother has sunk a small stone birdbath into the sand about four metres from where we sleep. Whenever we visit, we fill it up for the birds and the lizards and the squirrels and the other small creatures that bustle around the house. And the leopards, apparently.

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This birdbath.

As we sat there straining to resolve the greys and blacks of surrounding dark into something vaguely feline, there was a short sigh below us, and then the sound of a cat lapping up water. A very, very big cat.

Mosquito netting acts rather a lot like a one-way mirror. If, in the dark, you take a step back and shine a torch on it, the darkness beyond it disappears and you are faced with an opaque wall of reflected light. If, however, you hold the torch up against it, the netting becomes all but invisible.

I held a torch up against the mosquito netting. It became all but invisible. And there we sat, the three of us perched motionless and unbreathing at the sharp end of a spreading cone of light, as one of the world’s most wild and beautiful creatures lapped away at tiny birdbath just a few short metres away from us.

The back of his body was hidden by an overhanging bush, but with his head bowed, his feet drawn up under his chest and his shoulders hunched up he might as well have been a domestic cat drinking a saucer of milk.

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Awwwww.

Until he stopped drinking for a second and turned to look up at us with piercing yellow eyes. He stopped being a domestic cat and we started being meat.

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Oh.

Then he broke cover and strolled across the open ground right in front of us, paused for a backward glance, and disappeared between two trees.

I was born without the soul of a poet, and even if I had one I don’t think I would have the words to explain what it’s like to see a leopard like this. A picture can show you its beauty, its burnished golds and cloud-spotted platinums, but it cannot convey its lithe grace and brutal power, cannot show the utter self-assurance and belongingness of the thing as it slips back into the darkness it was built to haunt.

And that was that. We fell back down onto our pillows (yup. We hadn’t even needed to get out of bed for any of this), and I lay on my back for a moment staring up at the ceiling and listening to my children’s breathing settle. And wrestling with a question. What do you say?

What do you say to a six-year-old and an eleven-year-old when they have just done something profound? How do you make sure they get it? I wanted to turn on the lights and haul them out of bed by the scruffs of their necks and scream “LOVE THIS! LOVE THIS, YOU LUCKY, LUCKY LITTLE BUGGERS! BURN THIS INTO YOUR BEING AND CARRY IT WITH YOU FOREVER!”

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I wanted to teach them to appreciate the quiet serenity of the bush.

I try my best to avoid being earnest and sincere with my children. This is because earnest and sincere people tend to think in straight lines, and often confuse their own view of the world with the immutable truth.

I want my children to be people who think around corners and who will fight for their opinions right up ’til the moment they realise they are wrong. And then change them. I want my children to be subversive and just a little bit cynical. I want them to surprise people, and make them ever so slightly nervous. I want vague acquaintances to stop and think “Oh!” when they start getting to know them better.

I want, in other words, for my children to be interesting. And God bless ’em, but sincere and earnest people struggle to be interesting (unless they are slightly unhinged, in which case they are fantastic company in short bursts.)

My motives for wanting them to be like this are entirely selfish. They moved into our house when we weren’t looking, and don’t look like they are going away any time soon. I am going to be stuck talking to these people for years. Decades! There’s no reason I can’t try my best to enjoy the situation.

Most of what I tell my children is a mosaic of highly plausible lies and unlikely truths. If they want to get anything like wisdom out of me, they are going to have to work for it. Truth be told, they are going to have to create it themselves. You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear and all that.

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Although you can apparently make quite a nice coin pouch from a kangaroo scrotum. Well done, Australia!

But the world is not made up of absolutes, and every now and then I feel compelled to tell my children something heartfelt and, for want of a better word, important.

The last time I remember doing so was on a trip down to the bush last year. When we saw a leopard.

Fear not! I’m not about to launch into another florid and overworked description of burnished golds and beating hearts. I exceeded my annual quota of florid and overworked at the beginning of this post and it has given me a headache. I’ll rush you through it and stab myself in the hand with a pen every time I use an adjective.

Mrs 23thorns was with us. As was my mother. Mrs 23thorns was, for her sins, driving.

We came around a corner onto a small open plain next to a dam, and there he was, sprawled out on a low anthill in the sun, all burnished golds and cloud-spotted platinums. Ow! Stabbing yourself with a pen hurts.

He stood up, stretched, and ambled over towards us. He was one of those rare wild animals that have become so accustomed to people in vehicles that they act like we are simply not there. Since I have promised not to be florid and overworked anymore, instead of describing the scene I will show you a picture of my sister and her family doing the same thing with a lion earlier this year, in the same vehicle.

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You will note that they are far more interested by something off to their right than they are by the 200 kg murder-beast rubbing up against their bumper. Probably some sort of unusual bird.

That is almost what we did with our leopard. But not quite. My sister and her family don’t really know how to do the bush properly.

First of all, you will notice that everyone in that picture is sitting calmly and quietly. This is incorrect. To be fair, by the time our leopard got that close, we were all quiet, if not calm, but before that, we had all taken the opportunity to really enjoy the moment by helping Mrs 23thorns drive, frantically whispering useful instructions like “REVERSE FORWARD TO THE LEFT SO YOU CAN PARK IN THE SHADE OF THAT TREE ON THE RIGHT HAND SIDE THERE!”, and “TURN OFF THE CAR SO YOU CAN DRIVE MORE QUIETLY”. Nature is much more fun if you can give the person responsible for your safety a panic attack.

It is also important to remember that our kids are still quite small, and might find the approach of a large and fearsome predator a little unnerving, so we calmed them down with a few comforting words. “IF YOU DON’T STOP CRINKLING THAT DAMN CHIP PACKET, SO HELP ME GOD I WILL COME BACK THERE AND MAKE YOU EAT IT! THERE IS AN ENORMOUS BLOODY LEOPARD WALKING RIGHT TOWARDS YOU! OF ALL THE THINGS THAT THAT COULD POSSIBLY MAKE YOU FEEL, HOW THE HELL DID YOU SETTLE ON “PECKISH”?”

Secondly, you will notice that my brother-in-law is taking pictures with a rather large camera. Huge mistake. I myself had our brand new camera sitting in its brand new bag on the seat right next to me, but I refused to take it out and use it. To truly appreciate moments like these, you have to be there, living them.

The moment you lift a camera to your eye, you place a barrier between yourself and nature. You become an outsider: an observer, not a participant. Better to burn the pictures into your mind, to know that you will share them forever with those who were with you. That’s how truly special memories are made. Or at least that’s what I told Mrs 23thorns when she asked me why the hell I hadn’t taken any pictures. I am frightened of her and was too scared to admit that I had forgotten that I had our brand new camera sitting in its brand new bag on the seat right next to me.

Finally, you will notice that they have sent their very small daughter to the “naughty chair” three rows back while a 200 kg super-predator ambles past close enough to make a 2 ton Toyota Land Cruiser look a little dinky. While this might be very effective from a discipline point of view, it is, when all is said and done, pretty shocking parenting. (I might be being a little disingenuous here. When a wild animal sees a bunch of people sitting in an open vehicle, all it sees is a single enormous rumbling entity. If you stand up and break the silhouette, the wild animal sees a human being appear suddenly out of nowhere, and things can get a little dodgy. Wherever you are sitting when you spot a lion is where you will stay until the lion has gone away.)

I’m going on a bit here. We did this, just the five of us.

And it was awesome.

Awesome enough for me to try and be earnest and sincere with my children. I told them that in a world inhabited by seven billion people, there was a very good chance that, at that precise moment, no-one else was doing this, anywhere. I told them that, as far as a statistician would be concerned, no-one ever got to do this (this was a mistake, because being earnest and sincere loses a bit of shine when you have to pause to explain what a statistician is).

I wanted them to remember this. To get that this was a moment. That this was important.

Which was all very well, but things came unstuck a little three days later when we saw a unicorn.

Or as close as dammit to a unicorn as you can possibly get.

Because on the way home at the end of our holiday, we saw a white lion.

White lions are not a separate species, or even subspecies. They are not albinos. They are a very rare colour mutation, and occur naturally in only one place in the world. Which was where we happened to be.

If you Goolgle “white lion”, you will come up with hundreds of pictures of these beautiful creatures. Which is a little sad. Almost all of those pictures will be of the offspring of a couple of white lions that were taken out of the wild a few decades ago and bred up in captivity, for zoos, and circuses, and Siegfried and Roy. And, distressingly, the canned hunting trade. Yup. Some of the pictures you see will be of white lions with bullet holes in them, with men, and sometimes women, posing over them with rifles and the all-conquering expressions of those who have achieved dominion over nature.

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Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful. Hate me because I travelled 13 000 km to murder someone’s pet with a sharpened stick.

Which must make them feel just super. Except that none of the white lions that are shot, anywhere, ever, are wild. Whatever you may think of hunting as a sport, these brave souls are not hunters. They have exerted their dominion over nature by shooting the equivalent of a domestic cow, an animal bred in a cage and let out into a small enclosure for a few weeks before being slaughtered, not hunted.

If you use Google to try and find out how many truly wild white lions there are in the world right now, you will find that there are fourteen of them. In the whole world. Which makes them pretty damn rare. Or at least it would if it were true. It isn’t.

Twelve of those fourteen are held in fairly small enclosures by a group of well-intentioned people who claim to be reintroducing them to the wild. Which is nice of them, but to call them “wild” is a bit of a stretch, because those animals are either inbred captive animals rescued from captivity, or their offspring, and most reputable scientists are dead set against their being released into the wild, because that is not how nature works.

There are, as far as anyone can tell, two genuinely wild white lions on the planet right now. And we saw one of them.

She was rather startlingly beautiful, with pale, almost blue eyes and a ghostly coat that stood out against the browns and greens of the surrounding bush. She emerged from a thicket and then walked along the road for a stretch before scrambling up the trunk of a large tree that had been knocked over by an elephant. And there she sat, as we tussled over binoculars and tried to get a few shots on an iPad because some fool had packed our brand new camera in its brand new bag in the boot. Me. I had packed our brand new camera in its brand new bag in the boot I suspect I am in little danger of winning any “wildlife photographer of the year” prizes.

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Some people take photos as a form of art. We take them as evidence.

Now, if you’re going to get all dewy eyed and earnest about a common or garden leopard, you have to do the same thing about a unicorn. And we tried.

Mrs 23thorns and I waxed lyrical about how incredibly rare an experience this was, and how we ourselves had never seen one, and how they needed to remember this forever because it was unlikely they would ever see one again. We cooed about how this was the most awesome moment of an awesome holiday, and about how it was lucky we saw her on our way out since there would be no topping this.

Thing is, I think our children are smart enough to know when we are lying.

So what was it like to see a white lion for the first time? Well…

We were driving along a tarred access road that cuts through the middle of a huge area of bush filled with private game lodges. Usually, it is used purely to get in and out, but that morning we noticed that it was being used by a number of game vehicles, driven by khaki clad rangers and packed with tourists bundled up against the morning cold. We must have passed about ten of them, enough for us to start wondering what could be going on.

We didn’t have to wonder for long. We rounded a corner to find ourselves in the middle of a scrum of game vehicles, all grinding gears and revving engines as they jockeyed for positions along one side of the road. One of them kindly waved us into an open space next to him, and leaned over to explain that there was a white lion there. We searched around desperately for a minute or two, but saw nothing.

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Sometimes the wide open spaces are less wide and less open than you might think.

And then she emerged from her thicket. Followed by a Land Cruiser. Which might not sound that unusual, except that there wasn’t a road there. The vehicle was powering over bushes and flattening small trees to get as close as possible to her.

She stopped. Not to sniff the air or search around search for her companions, but because there were two more vehicles growling through the virgin bush towards her from the front. She didn’t climb the tree to get a better view of her surroundings or to have a bit of a rest. She was trying to get away. She sat there flicking her tail and glaring down in annoyance at the three vehicles which had come to rest virtually below her as the morning erupted with an angry clatter as thirty camera shutters went into overdrive.

We took our pictures and left. As we reversed out of our spot in the scrum, a jaded local on his way past wound down his window and asked “Is she still there? Shame. They’ve been on her like this since four o’clock this morning. If she’s got any sense, she’ll disappear deep into the bush for the next few months”. And that was that. Our white lion.

I’m making this sound awful. It wasn’t. I’ve always wanted to see a white lion, and now I have. Those rangers driving through the bush weren’t being awful people, either. Most of those tourists were from overseas, people who have three days to pack in the sights and experiences that I have had the privilege of collecting over a lifetime. And the rangers are there to provide those. In exchange for the money that allows this wonderful place to exist.

Don’t feel too badly for the lion, either. She was a little harassed. She had a bad morning at the office. Don’t we all, sometimes? Soon enough, she would disappear deep into the bush to do the things that lions do when Land Cruisers aren’t trying to park underneath them. And those people who saw her will all go back home and tell their friends they saw a unicorn, and maybe inspire some of them to come out here too. With their money. So this can all last a little bit longer.

It’s just that this wasn’t a moment. It won’t be on my highlights package. It might be a footnote. Part of a checklist I’ll run through to make sure I haven’t missed anything: Bungie jumping? Check. Running with the bulls? Check. Climbing the Alps? Check. White lions? Check.

iron

Superhero for a day? Check.

And that’s when I realised that it had been a mistake to try and drive home lessons about leopards. Because it wasn’t about the leopard. It was about the place we have been blessed with. It was about breakfast with mongooses, and jumping off irresponsibly high walls into pools overlooking a view of something ancient and beautiful. It was about tracking down rhinos, and red eyes in the night, and elephants snacking on my father’s garden, and hyenas whooping in the night, and nearly putting your hands down on snakes, and finding scorpions in the shower. And yes, it was about the five of us alone together with our hearts in our mouths as a vision of burnished gold and cloud spotted platinum stalked past us close enough to touch as we bickered about chip packets and explained to Mrs 23thorns how to drive with the engine off.

And maybe that doesn’t need a lesson at all. Maybe I don’t need to be earnest and sincere. They are smart kids. Maybe they don’t need a lecture to understand when they have experienced something transcendent. Maybe I just need to learn to keep my mouth shut while they put together their own highlights packages.

And so, as I lay in the dark after our night visitor had disappeared into the dark, I said nothing. I just lay there quietly listening to their breathing slow as they drifted off to sleep, trusting they would know that this had mattered.

Just in case, though, I did make a point of thinking as loudly as I could. “LOVE THIS!” I thought. “LOVE THIS, YOU LUCKY, LUCKY LITTLE BUGGERS! BURN THIS INTO YOUR BEING AND CARRY IT WITH YOU FOREVER!”

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Forever.

The Sameness Tree

I am, should you have been kind enough to follow this blog, still here. I’ve just been a little busy of late. Hello again.

If you are one of those kind people, you might have gathered that I am fond of trees. So it might come as a bit of a surprise to know that I loathe pine trees. Despise them.

I’m sure that if I had to see them in their natural home, marching in serried ranks over the jagged slopes of the frozen north, I would feel differently. But they don’t belong here. They don’t fit in. A pine tree in Southern Africa stands out like a middle-aged accountant at a nightclub. You want to walk up to it and gently explain that everyone, including itself, would be much more comfortable if it just went home.

You're not fooling anyone...

You’re not fooling anyone…

It’s not that pine trees are exotics. There are many trees from foreign climes that fit in just fine. Jacarandas and Brazilian pepper trees don’t look out of place at all (unless you’re a botanist- they just happen to be rather nasty invaders). Pine trees just don’t look right. They are jagged and angular, like the jagged, angular, glacier hewn-contours of their natural home. They are built for one thing; snow.

We don’t really have any snow. Or jagged contours. The glaciers left us alone. Our contours are rounded and soft and ancient, and sometimes a little stark. And so, like pets who grow to look like their owners, the trees that fit in here are rounded and soft, and sometimes a little stark. What they are not are spikey, uniform, angular fascists of trees. Like pine trees.

But maybe I’m being a little unfair. Because the cardinal sin of pine trees is not the way they look. It’s what they happen to be useful for; paper.

Behold! The distilled soul of a pine tree.

Behold! The distilled soul of a pine tree.

We don’t have much in the way of indigenous forest here in South Africa. But what we do have is simply breath-taking. Our forests are dark and damp and crawling with life. Soaring ancient giants like Yellowwoods and Stinkwoods lift a cathedral ceiling over clear, dripping streams and creeping ferns, and everything is softened by moss and fungus.

Nice.

Nice.

And noise. So much noise. Cicadas buzz, water drips, monkeys chatter, birds chirp and shriek, duikers crash unseen through the undergrowth, and the trees themselves creak and groan at the slightest breeze. But it is a curious sort of noise, somehow muted and respectful, like old men talking in a library. Until some bastard rips out the forest and replaces it with pine trees. Then there is no noise but the wind.

Paper. Computer age be damned, the world still runs on paper. We need it. And paper comes from pine trees. So we need pine trees. Pine trees just happen to grow in the same places that indigenous forests grow. The paper companies claim to follow strict environmental guidelines, but I have walked through their forests and crossed the bones of the world they replaced; old drainage lines, once dripping with water, now barren and dry, where the ancient forests would have been thickest. A world once fit for Arthur’s Avalon now fit only for crows.

Less nice.

Less nice.

The pine trees don’t just take over the forests, they take over the high grasslands, too, with their own sounds and life. And they replace it all with something unforgivable. Sameness. Uniformity. Every pine tree looks like every other pine tree. And as you move through them, they seem to go on forever; one tree, one pattern, for miles, and miles, and miles. And I hate them for it. Until I need to write a cheque. Or dry my hands. Or read a book. My only defence for my hypocrisy is that being unreasonable has always been one of the simplest of human pleasures. Angular, needle leaved bastards.

Which is all a rather depressing (and characteristically long-winded) introduction to my rather more cheerful post. Trees. Lowveld trees. Ones I don’t hate. Mopane trees. That’s mow-par-knee said fast. These;

Nice again.

Nice again.

Nice, aren’t they?  You might have noticed something interesting about them; Sameness. Uniformity. Every Mopane tree looks like every other Mopane tree. And as you move through them, they seem to go on forever; one tree, one pattern, for miles, and miles, and miles. It’s all rather fetching.

I am, I must confess, being a little disingenuous here, but it’s my blog and I’m allowed; the Mopanes in that picture are superstars. Brad Pitt Mopanes. Johnny Depp Mopanes. And they’re not from here. They grow like that way up in the Northern part of their range. Here, In South Africa’s Lowveld, we get Danny DeVito Mopanes. They look like this.

I'm on the fence on this one.

I’m on the fence on this one.

Which is rather less impressive. To be fair, we do have odd, isolated patches of superstars, like those in the first picture, which are rather poetically referred to as cathedral Mopane, but the vast majority of what we’ve got is more like the second, referred to rather less poetically as Mopane scrub. And we have lots of it. Stands of Mopane make pine plantations look rather insignificant. They don’t cover whole mountainsides, they cover whole countries. And where Mopanes grow, almost nothing else grows.

So why am I being so mean about the pine trees, and so nice about the Mopanes? Is grinding sameness not just grinding sameness? No. It is not.

There is one fundamental difference between the two; an ecosystem gets ripped out to make way for a pine plantation, whereas Mopane scrub is an ecosystem. Mopanes dominate vast swathes of real estate not because they have pushed out the competition but because nothing else will grow there. They have a remarkably high tolerance for shallow, poorly drained, highly alkaline soils. Even they have their limitations though; we are stuck with the scrub because the soil they grow in here is so thin.

Despite the grinding sameness of a hundred kilometre long patch of Mopane scrub, an individual Mopane is actually quite attractive. The Mopane is sometimes called the butterfly tree, because of these;

Squint. And use your imagination.

Squint. And use your imagination.

The leaves have evolved like that for a reason. Water. The parts of Africa where they grow are hot, and subject to long periods of drought. Those leaves have more in common with butterflies than you might think; during the hottest, most sun-blasted times of day, the Mopanes close their wings, and line them up so that the sun falls on their narrow edge, letting the tree hold onto its precious water.

This has a rather curious unintended outcome. Even the broad, spreading cathedral Mopanes make lousy shade trees. Yup, you can find yourself in the middle of a sea of leafy green trees with nowhere to shelter from the sun. The leaves aren’t just a nice shape. They come in nice colours, too. The Mopane is one of the few Lowveld trees that puts on a decent display of autumn colour.

The colours are OK, but the accessories are spectacular.

The colours are OK, but the accessories are spectacular.

Mopane seed-pods are kinda cool. They are flat, kidney-shaped pods that turn from emerald green to light brown, and fit in nicely with the leaves. They are, however, a little dull. Until you open them up and find a tiny human brain nestled inside.

BRAAAINS!

BRAAAINS!

The wood is kinda cool, too. It is a beautiful, rich, red colour, hard, and heavy. It is so hard that it is rather difficult to work with, but the extra effort is worthwhile, because Mopane wood is termite resistant. It’s used for fence-posts and furniture and parquet floors. And bagpipes. Obviously. But making bagpipes out of Mopane wood is a senseless waste. You are supposed to burn it.

Mopane wood burns for ages, and leaves behind hot, long lasting embers. And it has a glorious and evocative aroma. There are few better woods for making a braai (barbecue), right down to the mandatory wait for the coals to be ready for cooking. Being forced to sit around chatting and drinking beer in a blazing African sunset while your fire burns down to readiness is not necessarily a bad thing.

How long are we going to have to endure this torture!?!?

How long are we going to have to endure this torture!?!?

But Mopanes are not about usefulness. They’re about something else. Life. Those pine plantations I was going on about earlier are deserts. Nothing here is equipped to use them. They have no seeds or fruits that our monkeys or birds could live on, and nothing here can digest pine-needles. There isn’t even any undergrowth to speak of; the pine needles coat the ground and leave it too acidic to let anything else grow beneath them.

Mopanes couldn’t be more different. The endless Mopane is bursting with life. Mopanes are rich in protein. They aren’t particularly sought after, since the leaves are quite resinous, but when times get tough, they come into their own. They are supposed to be deciduous, but there always seem to be at least some green leaves about, and even if the leaves have all fallen, they are still eaten. Which means that Mopane scrub is a sought-after habitat for large herbivores.

Don't worry. Once that rhino sees how big Geoff's lens is he's sure to back down.

Don’t worry. Once that rhino sees how big Geoff’s lens is he’s sure to back down.

It is not, however, a good place to go looking for them. The Mopanes might be letting all that sunlight through, but that sunlight is coming down from above. When you’re out on a game-drive, you are looking from the side. And you’re not going to see much. To drive through Mopane scrub is to drive between two opaque green screens. A creature as big as an elephant or a buffalo could be standing just a dozen or so feet off the road, and you would be none the wiser. Unless they step out in front of you.

I fear Mopanes. Because of these;

Peekaboo!

Peekaboo!

Yup. The creature that specialises in stepping out of the Mopane in front of me is the elephant. Elephants aren’t quite as dangerous as you might have been led to believe. If you treat them with respect, keep your distance, and move slowly and deliberately, they tend to leave you alone. It is, however, quite hard to keep a respectful distance from a four-ton behemoth that steps from behind a screen of green into the road ten feet in front of you. Moving backward not very slowly or deliberately isn’t always an option, either; elephants are not solitary animals. Another four ton behemoth you failed to spot might just be stepping into the road ten feet behind you. At which point your best option is to slowly and deliberately curl up into a foetal position and weep.

It’s not just herbivores that lurk in the Mopane. Lions tend to avoid Mopane scrub, which means that it’s a good place to find their smaller competitors, like wild dogs and hyenas.

I said "tend to"...

I said “tend to”…

But that’s the big stuff. Stuff you can find anywhere in the Lowveld. What makes the Mopane scrub so rich is the small stuff. The deeply fissured bark and hard wood make an ideal home for any number of creatures like hole-living birds and cryptically coloured geckos and snakes.

But that’s not all. As I mentioned earlier, anything as widespread and dominant as Mopane becomes its own ecosystem. This isn’t always a good thing.

Those charming creatures are Mopane flies. Which is a curious thing to call them, since they are bees. Stingless bees. Which sounds nice, but isn’t. They make up for their lack of a sting by swarming all over you and trying to crawl into your eyes. They try to compensate for this rather annoying habit by producing honey. Tiny little bits of honey. Made, apparently, from the moisture they find in human eyes. They don’t seem to be trying too hard.

They don’t really have to. Other creatures have stepped in to take up the challenge. Who needs honey when you have manna? Yup. The stuff from the bible. Nobody really knows what manna was, but one of the more plausible theories is that it was the crystallised honeydew from scale insects that lived on tamarisks. Which just sounds silly.

It’s not, though. A sap-sucking insect called the Mopane psyllid lives on Mopane leaves in its larval stage. It covers itself in a scale of sweet tasting, crystallised resin, which is picked off the leaves and eaten the local people. It’s called Mopane manna. But that’s just a snack, not a meal. This is a meal.

Yummy!

Yummy!

That is a Mopane worm. Just one is a mouthful. But there isn’t just one. At the right time of year, there are tens of millions of the buggers. They are gathered by the locals and dried. In Lowveld towns, you can buy bags of them to snack on like potato chips from the seventh circle of hell. Don’t, though. They taste like the dried out inner-sole of a hobo’s shoe.

And look like the hobo's toenails...

And look like the hobo’s toenails…

They do, however, sound adventurous and exotic. And so, over the last few decades, a couple of adventurous and exotic restaurants have tried to work them into their menus. You can now, should the mood take you, order a steaming bowl of stewed Mopane worms. Don’t, though. They taste like the stewed inner sole of a hobo’s shoe.

Mopane worm stew goes wonderfully with a nice chardonnay. About three bottles should do the trick...

Mopane worm stew goes wonderfully with a nice chardonnay. About three bottles should do the trick…

So there you have it. There are enormous patches of scrubby, unrelenting sameness out in Africa that are brimming with life and unpalatable delicacies. There is a rest-camp in the Kruger Park called Mopane, on the crest of a hill overlooking a large dam and surrounded by a sea of butterfly-shaped green leaves. If you visit the park for the first time, don’t stay there. You won’t see the forest, or the life it holds, for the trees.

But if you do choose to stay there, stick around for a while. Slowly but surely, all that life will start to reveal itself to you. You will start to see the birds in their holes, and the giant potato-chip worms, and the manna from heaven.

And maybe, just as the relentless sameness of it all starts to get to you, a four ton behemoth will step out in front of you as another one appears in your rear-view mirror. And you will wish, as you slowly (and deliberately) curl up into a foetal position and start to weep, that you were driving through a pleasantly barren pine plantation.

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Magic Guarri

Trees are magical. A proper big, spreading, ancient broad-leafed tree falls into the same category as rounded, ancient rocks and deep, clear pools of water.

 

Magic

Magic.

We are drawn to these things. They make us quiet. They make us want to reach out and touch them, as if doing so will allow us to feel the pulse of the earth itself; will allow us to become part of something bigger and infinitely wiser than ourselves.

 

Magic.

Magic.

We have always known that trees can hold magic. The Vikings believed the cosmos was held up by a giant Ash called Yggdrasil. The druids worshipped in groves of spreading oaks. The Maoris declared the largest Kauri trees to be royalty.

 

Magic.

Magic.

It’s time for another Lowveld post. One about plants. Or just one plant. But it is a magical one. Here’s one now;

 

Magic?

Magic?

Were you stuck dumb with awe? Did you feel the pull of the ancient gods? Did you sense that you were in the presence of royalty, or feel a sudden urge to sacrifice a goat? Not? Oh come now! It is not, I will concede, much to look at. But it is a proper magic tree! More so than the Ash and the Oak; their magic is lost to us. We stopped believing, and now all they have left is the power to make us feel inexplicably moved in their presence.

Not so my little tree. Its name says it all. It is a Magic Guarri. Or, if you have a more scientific bent, Euclea Divinorum. And it is the sort of thing that makes you believe that it was placed on earth by a benevolent god specifically for the benefit of mankind.

Let’s get the woowoo magic out of the way first. The divinorum part of its Latin name comes from the fact that a decoction of the roots is used by some tribes for the purposes of divination. But that’s not the only type of divining it’s used for. A fresh twig of Magic Guarri is said to quiver when close to an underground water source. Yup; it’s used for dowsing, too.

But that, as they say in the infomercials, is not all. Twigs are broken off and carried around or hung up in the eaves of houses as good luck charms and to ward off witches and bad luck. And yes, witches are as real to some of the people living in Africa as they were in Europe and the States during the witch hunts. In some rural areas, people are still driven from their homes or even killed on suspicion of witchcraft. Lightning strikes and sudden illnesses don’t happen by themselves.

 

I'm warning you for the last time, Mrs Fairchild; if I catch you doing this just one more time, I'm reporting you to the inquisition.

I’m warning you for the last time, Mrs Fairchild; if I catch you doing this just one more time, I’m reporting you to the inquisition.

So much for old-school magic. Now for the real stuff; the Magic Guarri is so staggeringly useful to the people of Africa that it doesn’t need evil spirits to exist to deserve its name.

We’ll start with the wildlife tourism stuff since that’s what these posts are about, mostly. If you go on a guided walk, or even, often enough, a guided drive in the bush, you are going to get to see the Magic Guarri. Your guide will stop, stroll over to a Magic Guarri, and break off a bunch of twigs. He’ll strip a bit of bark off the end, and crush the fibrous wood so that it ends up looking like a primitive paintbrush.

Leaf300

Then he’ll make you brush your teeth with it.

 

It's best to do as he says. He does, after all, have a rather large gun with him.

It’s best to do as he says. He does, after all, have a rather large gun with him.

Do not be offended. He does not have issues with your dental hygiene. He is trying to keep you engaged because the cool things like leopards and lions and elephants are not lurking around every corner, despite what you may have seen on the Discovery Channel. And he’s onto something.

The Magic Guarri tree has been used for this purpose since time immemorial. So much so that it is also known as the toothbrush tree. And here’s the really interesting part; it used to be thought that they were used like this simply because the twigs are really fibrous and made a good, stiff brush. Until a scientific someone took a closer look. It turns out that Magic Guarri wood has powerful anti-bacterial qualities that are only now being explored. That’s right; Magic Guarri is the natural equivalent of the sort of toothpaste that nine out of ten dentists would recommend.

If you’re doing the whole touristy thing, you might want to pick up a curio or two. A traditional African basket is always a good option. You will not realise it, but you will have stumbled across the Magic Guarri’s next remarkable quality; colour.

Let’s just say that you go for a nice multi-coloured number like this one;

basket

Your basket will have been dyed with Magic Guarri. Not just one of the colours; all of them. Magic Guarri is rich in tannins, and the bark is used to make a variety of different shades of brown dye.

Which is no big deal. Lots of trees are used to make dyes. But the Magic Guarri is a bit of a show-off. The bark may be brown, but the roots are deep red. They are chewed to turn the mouth a rather fetching red colour (far more practical than lipstick), to tan leather, and to dye floor mats so dark they are almost black.

And then, as if to prove the Magic Guarri is a sport of the gods and not a nice, sensible, naturally evolved tree, you can make purple ink out of the berries.

Speaking of which. The berries are edible, but not very nice. Do not, for one second, think you have found a chink in the Guarri’s armour. The fruits are used for making beer, which makes them very important indeed. They are also, since the Guarri thrives on multi-tasking, medicine. They are used as a laxative.

 

Magic!

Very important indeed.

Which pales to insignificance compared to the rest of the tree. Medicinal plants are a source of endless fascination to some and grinding tedium to many, so I’m going to rattle through this rather quickly. In order to live up to its name, various parts of the Magic Guarri are used to treat upset stomachs, ulcers, cancer, open sores, arthritis, jaundice, snakebite, gonorrhoea, headaches, toothaches, and, I kid you not, leprosy (yup, like witchcraft, leprosy is still a thing in Africa).

A decoction of the roots is used to treat infertility. Once it has sorted out this problem, it is taken to treat stomach cramps and contractions during pregnancy. And just to prove that it will not abandon you in your time of greatest need, it is then taken to prevent miscarriages.

When I said that the Guarri was a bit of a show-off, I meant it. Remember those berries you took as a laxative? Do not be alarmed if they turn out to be a little too effective. That pregnancy causing, easing, and saving potion also acts as a natural version of Imodium.

 

I am wiling to concede that some things are even more important than beer.

I am wiling to concede that some things are even more important than beer.

You are, I hope, starting to form the vague impression that the Magic Guarri is quite useful. But we’re not done yet. It does some other things, too. In some parts of Africa, the branches are used to purify drinking water (it’s that whole anti-bacterial thing again). Even better than that, branches are added to milk to make it more digestible and stop it from going off. For more than a year. Which is kind of handy if you’re a traditional pastoralist without access to electricity.

But what if you’re not a traditional pastoralist? All the uses I’ve mentioned so far can be prefaced by the quietly belittling word “traditional”. Does this mean that the magic of the Guarri is going to go the way of that of the Ash and the Oak as the influence of the West is more strongly felt? Maybe not.

The Guarri has another trick up its sleeve. It has an unusually high tolerance for some heavy metals. And arsenic. Where there is lots of arsenic in the soil, there is lots of Magic Guarri. Which would be vaguely interesting, except for one thing. Finding lots of arsenic in the soil is a pretty good sign that there is something else there, too. Gold. Yup. Finding lots of Magic Guarri might help you find lots of gold.

 

I'll settle for the beer. This lot looks a little heavy.

I’ll settle for the beer. This lot looks a little heavy.

You might have picked up that the Guarri is a firm believer in overkill. Once you’ve found your gold, you are going to want to rip it and tear it and grind it from the earth. And you’re going to leave a bit of a mess. A poisonous mess. Gold mining waste pits are not exactly easy to rehabilitate. Almost nothing will grow on them. Almost.

Magic Guarri will. And it just so happens that it is remarkably good at holding together eroding soil.

So there you have it. An unassuming little tree that just happens to be one of the most coincidentally useful plants on the planet; there are other, more useful plants, but they have been bred over millennia for the purpose. The Magic Guarri was just kind of lying around waiting for us.

And that’s the thing. It is useful for us. Not much else. Birds eat the fruit, and a few animals browse the leaves, but not very enthusiastically (all those tannins make it rather bitter and, in excess, poisonous). Its bounty seems to have been reserved for mankind alone; an exclusive gift from mother-nature.

 

Mother nature handing out a gift under the watchful eye of the competition.

Mother nature handing out a gift under the watchful eye of the competition.

Or maybe not. The Guarri has one final magic trick up its sleeve. And it’s not for us. It talks to the plants around it. And it does so to save their lives.

When the Magic Guarri is suffering from some sort of environmental stress, such as drought, it releases a pheromone into the air around it. And the plants surrounding it pick this up and respond by increasing the level of tannins in their leaves. Which makes them unpalatable to browsers. Which is kind of handy when you need all of your bits to carry you through the hard times.

Yup. Not content to live a life of selfless service to mankind, the Guarri takes time off to perform a little selfless service for its leafy brothers and sisters every now and then.

So there you have it. It is, I am willing to concede, no noble forest giant. You would not reach out a hand to feel the pulse of the world through its trunk, or strip off your clothes and dance naked in the moonlight beneath its spreading boughs. But should you ever pass one by, pause for a second to tip your hat to it. It is, after all, not every day you come across a magical gift from the old gods.

Unless, of course, you live here.

Unless, of course, you live here.

Pretty Handsome.

There are some people out there who will tell you that we should not impose our human standards of aesthetics on the animals that share our world; all of nature’s creation should be viewed as beautiful and important components of vibrant and valuable ecosystems. These people are noble and fair minded and pure of heart. They are also wrong. This is a sable antelope;

Form a line, ladies. Single file and no pushing.

Form a line, ladies. Single file and no pushing.

Just look at that magnificent bastard! He’s a looker and he knows it. Look at that power! That grace! If he was human, he would be surrounded by fawning young women in tight bikinis and copious amounts of makeup. Then there’s this guy;

Are you religious? Cause I'm the answer to all your prayers!

Are you religious? Cause I’m the answer to all your prayers, baby!

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Game birds

I haven’t posted in a while. I could give you a thousand spurious reasons for this, but the truth is that I’ve been avoiding it because I need to do a post about birds. I’m not a birder. But if I’m trying to cover the entire ecosystem of the Lowveld, I will have to deal with the birds at some stage, because there happen to be quite a few of them.

I have managed a couple of bird posts, and now it’s time for another one. But I’m not really sure what to call these birds. Lurkers maybe. Skulkers. They are sometimes referred to as game birds, since there is a particular sort of person out there that prefers shooting them with shotguns to a nice, quiet round of Scrabble.

I can never remember... Is it pheasants or peasants that we're after?

I can never remember… Is it pheasants or peasants that we’re after?

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Miniature buck.

I haven’t posted in a while. It’s not my fault. A bird got in the way. A Francolin. Every now and then I start a post and it either doesn’t feel right or I just lose interest. This time I didn’t just start, I got two thousand words in. I was writing about game birds. I got up to the Francolins, and went off to bed. That was nearly two weeks ago. I sat down a couple of times, looked at the damn Francolins, and thought “meh”. And wrote angry diatribes about our government for a local news site instead.

Meh.

Meh.

Continue reading

News

I have a new blog! Isn’t that exciting?

No. No it is not. There is, I fear, nothing new there.

When I started 23thorns.com, all the advice I could find said that I should pick a topic or theme and stick to it, so I decided to write about as many different things as I could.

Despite my attempts to do so, the bulk of my posts seem to have been about wildlife. I’ve decided to start a new blog full of old stuff. I am reposting all of my old wildlife and Lowveld posts, just to see how this whole focussed approach thing works out. Continue reading