99. Something fishy.

In 1950, a rather surprised angler caught a two metre Zambesi shark at the confluence of the Levuvhu and Limpopo Rivers in South Africa’s Lowveld.

Duuum dum. duum dum. dum dum, dum dum, dum dum, dum dum.

Duuum dum. duum dum. dum dum, dum dum, dum dum, dum dum.

This must have come as a little bit of a surprise, since the nearest ocean, the Indian, is over 400 km away. Continue reading

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94. Spots.

There are some people, I was reminded this morning as she danced around the dustbin waving a bin-liner in homage to Isadora Duncan, who might accuse Mrs23thorns of being a little eccentric.

I have no idea where they would get that notion from.

I have no idea where they would get that notion from.

What nonsense! The woman is as sane and as rational as the day is long! But she does, I thought as she pretended to strangle herself with the bin-liner, have just one peculiarity. She has a favourite animal.

Don't worry. I know CPR.

Don’t worry. I know CPR.

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93. Corkwoods.

This is something that almost everyone reading this has heard of.

No, that is not Yuletide crack.

No, that is not Yuletide crack.

If you live in a westernised country, you’ve been talking about it since you were small. You’ve sung songs about it. You’ve watched people carry it about in little boxes or in bottles on stage. And if you’re anything like me, you have never really bothered to find out what it was. Maybe this will help.

camels3wisemen

Yes, good people, that funny yellow dried snot looking stuff is myrrh. As in “gold, frankincense and myrrh.” It was of huge religious importance in biblical times. It was used by the Egyptians to embalm their dead and by other groups, including the Israelites, as incense in their temples. It was pretty hard to come by. So hard, in fact, that it could be mentioned in the same breath as gold as a nifty little present for a baby. And it was made by beating up a living creature and harvesting its blood. Continue reading

89. The Lightning Bird

The Lowveld is not exactly a wet place. It is, in fact, rather dry. It is criss-crossed by a network of dry, sandy riverbeds that flow maybe four or five times a year, after heavy rain, to be swallowed up by the sand again after a few days in the driving heat of the sun.

Come on in, the water's lovely!

Come on in, the water’s lovely!

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74. Marula

A while back, I wrote a post about a magic tree. A magic penis tree. It was, of course, not really magic at all. It just had such strange, unlikely fruit that it some odd beliefs got attached to it. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any magic trees down in the Lowveld. Here’s one.

Spooky!

Abracadabrah!

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69. Unseen.

Yesterday, I told you how you can enjoy the bush without seeing any big animals. If you’re new here, I went down to South Africa’s wild Lowveld for a family holiday. I’m not finished dining out on it quite yet, so today I’ll tell you how to enjoy not seeing animals at all.

One morning we were having breakfast on the stoep (patio) with a gang of thirty five mongooses.

As one does.

As one does.

A couple of Vervet monkeys had come down to see what all the fuss was about. Don’t worry, I haven’t been drinking; the Vervets and the mongooses weren’t the animals we enjoyed not seeing. They were happily waging psychological warfare against each other. The monkeys were dashing in to see if they could find a fallen scrap of food (my kids are not tidy eaters. We haven’t had to feed our dogs since they were born.) and the mongooses were ganging up and driving them off. It was all very entertaining. Then this happened.

Well, not quite that. That’s a couple of Vervets watching a leopard on someone’s TV through their window. Vervet Monkeys are starved for entertainment. But one of our Vervets made exactly the same noise. The effect was electrifying. All the birds that had been serenading us with their morning racket suddenly went silent, and the mongooses disappeared in an instant.

Vervet Monkeys are pretty smart little buggers. They have something approaching a rudimentary language. They’re actually usually fairly quiet, but when the need arises, they give alarm calls. Complicated alarm calls. There’s one for eagles and other birds of prey, one for snakes, and one for predators on the ground. There’s even one for humans. Oddly enough, the one for humans is closest to the one for snakes. Make of that what you will.

The resemblance is uncanny!

The resemblance is uncanny!

Our Vervet was giving the ground predator call, the one they save for land animals big enough to eat them. It’s an electrifying experience to hear it when you’re sitting outside with your kids. Monkeys have an advantage over us. They spend their time in the tops of trees. Which means they can see much further than us. And our guy had definitely seen something. As alarm calls, go, this one sounded pretty damn alarming.

We bustled the kids inside, just in case whatever he had seen was close by. And that’s when the unseen animal action started. First, we heard this.

That’s an Impala alarm call. Impalas are not quite so smart. They have one alarm call. But it’s a pretty distinctive one. And they only give it for animals big enough to kill them. Oddly enough, their alarm signal doesn’t always mean “run away!” For it to mean that, they have to be running themselves. Sometimes it’s not so much a signal to each other as it is a signal to the predator they have spotted. Then it means “I see you, you bastard, and you’re never going to catch me. Try again another day.”

But that’s not what this call meant. It meant “run”. I know this not because I speak Impala, but because we could hear them running. It was all very exciting, but there was a problem. They were close. A few hundred metres away across a dry river-bed. But the bush was too thick, so we couldn’t see a thing.

We cut our breakfast short and took a drive over to the general area, but there are no roads that lead to the spot where we heard them, and we saw nothing. Oh, well. It probably meant nothing. Predators, you see, aren’t all that good at predating. If they were, there wouldn’t be any prey left. Most attempted kills do not succeed.

Sometimes I feel like such a failure. Sigh.

Sometimes I feel like such a failure. Sigh.

We came back home and went about our business. We filed the incident away as a cool little diversion, and let it slip from our minds. Until bedtime.

When we’re down in the bush, we sleep out on the “sleeper stoep”. It’s a deep, raised patio under the eaves of the house, caged in with mosquito netting and chicken-wire, on the basis that if it’s strong enough to hold in a chicken, it’s strong enough to hold out a lion.

Add a pair of legs and they're practically the same animal.

Add a pair of legs and they’re practically the same animal.

It’s a wonderful place to sleep. You can feel the breeze on your face and smell the rich tapestry of smells wafting in from the surrounding wilderness. But more than that you can hear the sounds.

You hear lions roar and hyenas whoop. You hear mysterious rustlings in the leaves right next to you, and the patter of feet on the hard stone tiles of the stoep. Buffalos cruise through the undergrowth without bothering to go round anything, and elephants smash trees with a sound like a gunshot. Lions roar and hyenas whoop. It’s all very atmospheric. But there’s a problem. My son is not too keen on the dark. We can talk him through most noises, but how do you explain this?

Sorry about the dongs. That was the best clip of hyenas laughing that I could find. And besides, those aren’t dongs at all. Those hyenas are all females. As god is my witness. But I digress.

Hyenas laugh like that when they are excited. Or scared. Hyenas are ludicrously courageous animals. They weigh in at about 50 kg, and will take on lions weighing three times that. But it scares the crap out of them to do so.

Stop it! You're terrifying me!

Stop it! You’re terrifying me!

And they were doing it across the riverbed from us as we slept. Or failed to sleep. And they were doing it in the exact spot where the Impala had been that morning. One of them had failed to make it. Hyenas are not the pure scavengers they’re made out to be. They hunt a lot of their own prey. But if something dies in their back yard, they’ll be there.

So that was it. One of Africa’s ancient life and death dramas had taken place within a few hundred yards of us. And we hadn’t seen a thing. What was it? We’ll never know. There were lots of lions around last week. We saw their tracks round every corner. But it could have been a leopard, too. It could even have been a hyena.

But we were given a clue. You see, we weren’t quite done with our unseen animals. The next day, I tried to settle down for an afternoon nap. I try this fairly often, but always fail. But at least this time I had an excuse for my daytime insomnia. Because I heard this;

I’m scared of elephants, so that is a bone-chilling sound. Elephants do that when they’re frightened, like the herd in that clip, or when they’re cross. Not a little cross. A lot cross. Enraged. And the one that gave me an excuse for my failure to nap was doing it over and over again. In the same spot across the river-bed.

Elephants don’t get that cross very often. They don’t need to. They’re bigger than anything else. They do get cross with each other. And they get cross with us, because we keep killing them to steal their teeth. But they get cross with lions, too. Lions kill elephants. Not often, and not adult elephants, but they will kill and eat the youngsters. And elephants never forget.

Now where the hell did I put my keys?

Now where the hell did I put my keys?

As I said, it was a clue, not an answer. Maybe the trumpeting wasn’t connected to the action. A coincidence. Maybe the killer was a leopard, and the elephant was short sighted. Or just practising for the next lion that crossed its path.

That’s the nicest and the worst part of enjoying animals you can’t see. It’s not just about sound. There are other ways of not seeing things. You might see vultures drop from the sky onto an unseen spot. You might smell a distinctive smell. And when you do, you can let your inner amateur detective run free to come up with a thousand different potential explanations. But never an answer.

66. Safari

I’m back. I interrupted my 100 posts in 100 days in order to go and sit in an unpowered bungalow out in the wilds of Africa for a week with two small children. As one does. I’ve actually been back for a day, but I didn’t post yesterday because it was Christmas. Again. I’ll explain tomorrow.

What kind of person would blog on Christmas Day?

What kind of person would blog on Christmas Day?

We were out in an unfenced wildlife area in the Lowveld next to the Kruger National Park. It really is a wild place. There are lions and hyenas and elephants and (last week at least) my children walking around. And giraffes. Continue reading

63. The rise of the giants.

I’m going away for a short holiday at the end of the week. The 23thorns brood is going down to the bush. This is a big deal. Over the last few years we haven’t been able to go nearly as often as we’d like to. The place we go to is in a malaria area, and while there are precautions one can take, the kids have been too small to undergo the treatment should they catch it.

This year, though, things are different. I’ve been feeding the kids on a pure McDonalds and Ice-cream diet for months, and now we’re good to go. I’m a bit worried though. In our extended absence, something sinister has been happening. This is a giraffe.

The gentle giant of the African wild. Snort.

The gentle giant of the African wild. Snort.

I’ve always been a bit surprised by people’s reactions to giraffes. When you take people down to the bush who’ve never been there before, and ask them what they would most like to see, the giraffe is often at the top of the list, ahead of lions and leopards and elephants. I do get it, I suppose. Lions and leopards are just big cats. Elephants are quite something, but there is nothing like a giraffe. It manages to be beautiful and freaky looking at the same time. Strangely graceful and strangely awkward. Comically grave and gravely comical.

Well, hello there!

Well, hello there!

What they have always been is utterly charming and just a little awe inspiring. A giraffe is a big animal. It’s huge. A male giraffe is over 6m tall (that’s over 20 feet) and weighs over a ton (2500 pounds). Which makes it a bit of a problem that they’ve decided not to be charming any more. Have a look;

Anyone else having a Jurassic Park flashback?

I have never done a course in body language before, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I don’t think that woman is charmed. Still, it’s no big deal, right? A six metre, 1 ton animal just ran after a car for three miles and made an otherwise perfectly charming looking young woman use some colourful Afrikaans. The experts chalked it up to a hormonal imbalance, rather than the animal simply having been possessed by demons. Come out on safari; it’s nice and warm, and this sort of thing almost never happens.

Oops. That one got close enough to kick off the rear view mirror. It’s not nice to laugh at the naivety of tourists, but I love that that German guy wanted to radio for help. Doesn’t he know that almost all of our elite giraffe emergency response teams are out on strike?

Still, no harm, no foul. No one was hurt and it’s not like you really need a rear view mirror in the bush. There’s not much traffic, and all you’re likely to see is a mad-eyed, hormonally-imbalanced towering freak of nature bearing down on you at an unlikely clip. They can rattle along at over 50km/h (35mph). They decided that one was hormonally imbalanced too. Must be something in the water. There’s no way the giraffes are the vanguard of the coming animal apocalypse.

For what it’s worth, kicking a mirror off a jeep is no big deal for a giraffe. They have feet like dinner plates, and a well-aimed kick can kill a male lion.

This is what is known as a "dignified withdrawal."

This is what is known as a “dignified withdrawal.”

It seems that not all giraffes have been overtaken by the desire to murder cars yet. There’s one outside Bloemfontein which has decided to warm up a bit first, by hurdling over BMW convertibles. I don’t think we have much to fear from her though; she didn’t even make it all the way over. Nobody but the BMW was hurt, and the driver’s seat probably needed a wash anyway. Hormones.

For her next trick, she's going to try and slide underneath.

For her next trick, she’s going to try and slide underneath.

The giraffes aren’t just waging their war on the vehicular front. Last year, a man was head-butted by one. Which sounds funny, in a biker-bar joke sort of way. It’s not. Giraffes might use their feet for fighting lions, but they use their heads for fighting each other. The skull of a male giraffe never stops growing, building up odd shaped bumps of bone. Their necks and heads end up like huge sledgehammers. And they use them like this;

The guy who got head-butted did not end up with a headache. He ended up in intensive care, with severe spinal damage. But no one is to blame here. The man was drawing blood, no doubt for the giraffe’s benefit. The giraffe was being stabbed in the neck by a strange little pink thing. I just hope the guy is doing OK. And they left the giraffe alone. This was not part of the coming giraffocalypse. Just a horrible accident.

As horrible, but less explicable is the unfolding mystery down in Kwazulu Natal. A seventy-year-old man popped out to a local game reserve for his regular morning walk. Hours later, he staggered home covered in blood. “I ran away.” He said. And died. No-one really knows what happened. But there is a prime suspect. A giraffe. With a hormone imbalance.

Are you looking at me?

Are you looking at me?

I’m trying very hard not to see a pattern here. It doesn’t pay to be alarmist. It doesn’t pay to be foolhardy either. I’m going to be wrapping Mrs 23thorns and the kids up in bubble-wrap and making them wear crash helmets. It might not protect them from the giraffes, but it will give me a head start if we need to flee. And I’m popping out tomorrow to buy some darts filled with HRT. It never hurts to be prepared.

Anyone know where I can get my hands on a couple of these?

Anyone know where I can get my hands on a couple of these?

61. Owls. Again. For the last time. I promise.

If you’ve been following this blog, you will know that I occasionally write about the ecosystem of the Lowveld. These last few weeks, I’ve been writing about owls. Lots of them. I like owls. But I must confess to being just about over writing about owls.

My dreams have become a little peculiar

My dreams have become a little peculiar

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