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.

Oddballs

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.

Stretch

Our place down in the bush is on what used to be a cattle farm. The old farmhouse stands on a rocky ridge overlooking a wide floodplain that must at one stage have been cleared to grow crops. Without the constant attention of tractors and chainsaws, the bush has spent the last few decades slowly reclaiming it. It’s not completely free of management, though. It looks like somebody is turning all the knobthorns trying to invade it into topiaries.

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They’re doing a pretty shoddy job, if truth be told.

The younger knobthorns have a pleasing, rounded, bushy shape. As they get bigger, and wider, they take on a cone shape, like scrappy Christmas trees.

Then, they go through a bit of an untidy phase where one of two leggy branches break free right at the top of the cone and make a break for the sky. If they succeed, the knobthorns will then take on an hourglass shape before eventually becoming what are, for the bush, fairly substantial trees.

It’s not somebody. It’s something. Giraffes. Female giraffes.  Knobthorns start as bushes. When the giraffes can reach all parts of them, the bushes are rounded. As the bushes begin to spread, the giraffes can’t reach the middle any more. That’s where the cone shape comes in. When the branches in the centre make their break for the sky, the tree starts to spread again, and the giraffes trim the bottom of this new growth into the hourglass shape.

Yup. We’re doing giraffes. Which are famous for one thing, and one thing only. Being tall.

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But not tall enough.

Which comes with some issues. When I was a boy, we used to play a rather stupid game. Truth be told, we used to play a lot of stupid games, but right now, you just need to know about the comb game. What you would do was you would take the toothed side of a comb and hit yourself sharply on the back of your hand, leaving a row of angry red marks stitched across your skin. It hurt like hell, but the bravado of it all was part of the fun.

Then the real fun started. You would swing your arm around like Asterix winding up to punch a Roman, five, six, seven times, and then stop to check out your handiwork. Out of the centre of each of the red marks would be flowing a thin but gratifying streak of blood. I did say it was a stupid game.

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Stupid games are the best games.

It was all about pressure. The comb didn’t break the skin, but it weakened it enough to let the blood leak through when the pressure from the arm-swinging pushed all our arm blood out to our hands. Giraffes are all about pressure.

Giraffes can be nearly six metres tall. This gives rise to a couple of issues. First of all, there’s the sheer gravitational pressure of the blood at the bottom of their legs. Then there’s the small matter of pumping blood 1,8 metres up the neck to the head. Trickiest of all, the head, in its traditional position at the top of the giraffe, usually has the lowest blood pressure. Until the giraffe decides to take a drink. And the head rather suddenly becomes the lowest part of the giraffe and should, by rights, explode, or at the very least started spraying blood all over the place should anyone have been unkind enough to hit it with a comb.

Clearly, the giraffe has found a way to deal with these issues. First, there’s the special tight skin around the legs to keep all the blood in. Then there’s the 10kg heart to pump the blood all the way up that neck. Finally, there’s a complex system of valves and contracting arteries to stop, rather disappointingly, the whole exploding head thing.

So successful is the giraffe at overcoming these obstacles that scientists are looking to them for inspiration when it comes to designing the G-suits that allow fighter pilots to cope with the gravitational forces involved in turning a fighter jet around at 2000 km/h.

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Fighter pilots make everything look cool.

It’s not just the blood that needs to cope with all that pressure. Giraffe bones are incredibly dense and heavy. And while we’re talking about bones, the next time people are throwing around random bits of trivia, you can mention that giraffes only have seven cervical vertebrae, or neck bones. Just like we do. Theirs are a little longer than ours, though. And giraffes are ruminants, which means they chew the cud. Once you get past the mechanics of it all, try to imagine how it feels to do a 1,8 metre vomit several times a day.

Their height makes it quite difficult for ethologists (animal behaviourologists) to fully understand the giraffe’s social structure, because they may well be in constant visual contact with other giraffes that us lowly ground level creatures just can’t see. And they don’t bunch together like most herd animals. They spread out. This makes spotting giraffes quite fun. If you see one, stop for a while and take a look around. More often than not, you’ll soon see another one. And another one. And another one. And even if you don’t, you can be fairly certain that the giraffe does.

We have to assume that a lot of giraffe communication is visual, because being able to see over the top of everything has to come with some advantages, but there is another intriguing possibility.

Giraffes have always been famously silent. They do snort and cough and hiss, but those are sounds that don’t require vocal chords. It was assumed that something about that long neck made having a voice impossible. Then, a few decades ago, it was discovered that elephants were communicating with infrasound; sounds too low for human ears to hear, and people began to explore whether giraffes did the same.

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Maybe they were too polite to speak with their mouths full.

It seems that they do. But while checking this all out scientists discovered that giraffes had been making audible sounds all along. Giraffes hum at each other at night. We just never noticed. Which, when you think of how many zoos, circuses and travelling shows have giraffes in them, is pretty lax of us. And no, we don’t know why they do it. It’s probably some sort of contact call, to keep track of each other in the dark. Maybe they’re just content.

I mentioned knobthorns earlier. Knobthorns are a kind of acacia, and giraffes love acacias. There are lots of different types of acacia, and all have thorns, from short, viciously hooked ones to long, straight, needle-sharp ones. Giraffes have specially toughened lips, mouths and tongues to cope with them. And what tongues they have! They’re about 45cm long, and prehensile enough to feel their way between the thorns and pull off the leaves. They’re even black to protect against sunburn.

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They have other uses, too.

 While we’re talking about eating, I mentioned that the knobthorns were shaped by female giraffes. That’s because the sexes feed differently, with the males feeding higher up than the females. This isn’t just because the males are taller; females will bend down slightly to eat, and males will stretch upward. This is all very sensible, especially when times are tough.

Being so famous for being tall has had a curious effect on how we approach giraffes. For some reason, it has made us think of them as stretched-out versions of Bambi, harmless and cute and ready at the drop of a hat to burst into a duet with their forest friends the bluebird and the bunny. And so you find giraffes in places unexpected places, like small reserves where people hike and ride bikes, or holiday resorts where they wander around among the bungalows where children play and grownups lounge around the pool. People set up raised platforms so you can pay R10 to feed them out of a cup.

It’s bizarre. Because giraffes are freaking massive. Not just tall; huge. They’re about the same size as black rhinos. And you wouldn’t scatter any of those around your local mountain biking trail. BECAUSE THEY’RE TOO BIG. Not giraffes, though.  They’re fine. Stretchy Bambis with long-lashed, dreamy eyes.

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Communing with nature, South African style.

All of this has a curious outcome. Giraffes keep killing people, and we keep ignoring it. They crack the news, but not the front page, and we all just carry on like taking a weekend stroll with 5.5m tall, 1200 kg lion killer is a normal thing to do.

Yes. Giraffes are bad-asses. They can kill lions. They chop at them with their gigantic, sharp-edged hoofs. Full grown giraffes, like the other giant animals like hippos, rhinos and elephants, are pretty much invulnerable to predators. I say pretty much because there are circumstances in which lions can take down adults. Lions charge at giraffes, hoping that they will stumble and lose their footing as they flee. And giraffes are vulnerable when they bend down to drink. And if a lion ever caught one lying down, I imagine it would be in with a chance. Fun fact; giraffes sleep lying down. And humming.

In keeping with their “how dare you call me stretchy-Bambi” vibe, giraffes regularly eat bones that they find lying around. For a bad-ass reason. Not only do they need the calcium to strengthen those load bearing bone, the males need it because their heads never stop growing. If you see the skull of a young male, it looks kinda like you would expect; eye sockets, nasal cavity, two bony “horns” at the top. The skulls of old males look very different. They seem to be growing a third horn on their foreheads, the skull is much thicker, and is cover in bumps and growths of bone. The whole thing looks like the head of an ogre’s club from a children’s book about giants.

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Depending on what your children are into…

This is because they use their skulls like ogres clubs from children’s books about giants. Giraffes fight by trying to beat each other into submission with their heads. This is usually done purely to establish dominance, but they can seriously injure each other by breaking each other’s legs or necks. The whole process actually looks fairly sedate. They stand next to each other and take turns swinging their heads and necks at each other, with long pauses in between. It’s not sedate. Imagine two men fighting with sledgehammers. They won’t be moving blindingly fast or anything, but if anyone lands a blow properly, the consequences will be dire.

Running giraffes look sedate, too. They’re the only animals I know that look like they are moving in slow motion. Again, sedate is the wrong word to use. They’re actually rattling along at 60km/h, which is not bad for an animal weighing in at over a ton.

So that’s that for giraffes then. Now that you know them a little better, you can pop down to the nearest reserve to spend some time with them. Remember to take your bike.

The water horse

Hi. Apologies. I just stepped out for a while. I’m popping back in to finish up some stuff.

And so. On to a solitary nocturnal land animal that cannot swim; the hippo.

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As seen here.

Back in the day, when things were simpler, we decided that the hippo’s closest relatives were the pigs. Which sort of made sense if you looked at them. But nature doesn’t need to make sense, so once we got down to the level of DNA, we found that the hippo’s closest relatives were in fact whales and dolphins, and if you think that makes sense, the only thing you are thinking about is water. Picture a hippo, a blue whale, and a large white (the pig, not Hafthor Bjornsson), and you’ll see how bizarre this really is.

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One of these things is not like the others..

It just goes to show quite how unlikely this whole evolution thing is. A billion years ago, life crawled up out of the water, took a look around, and decided to stay. 50 million years ago, after all the effort involved in evolving legs and lungs and hair and so on, a bunch of mammals took another look around and decided “Bugger this! We’re going back.”

They started off their slow steady return by hanging out in lakes, rivers and lagoons, and some of them, it seems, are still there. In the Lowveld. Where the word “river” is most often prefaced by the word “non-perennial”, and the fish are evolving lungs and learning to walk on land. Nature is fun.

Right. Let’s crack on with the solitary nocturnal land animal stuff.

Hippos eat grass. Grass does not grow under water, and is actually fairly hard to find in hippo quantities anywhere close to water, since that is where all the grass-eating animals tend to gather to drink. This means that every evening, at around sunset, hippos emerge from the rivers and pools where we are used to seeing them and wander off, alone or with their calves, to find some grass to eat. When times are tough this can involve a nightly round trip of over 30 km.

The hippos we are used to seeing are “resting”. I put resting in inverted commas because hippos, as a species, have made some questionable life choices. Water is a scarce commodity in the bush. Hippos are crushed in uncomfortably high numbers at uncomfortably close quarters by their need for it.

To top things off, they then live through an annual climate cycle which sees their living quarters shrink as the dry season grinds on, at just the same time of year that the grass they need is getting harder to come by. They live rather stressful lives. Their response? Violence. Don’t let the smiles fool you. Hippos are nasty pieces of work.

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Hippo’s resting.

I have been lucky enough to go on a few walking trails out in the bush, and the behaviour of the rangers and game guides can be somewhat surprising, especially in dangerous situations. Or rather situations I thought were dangerous.

I’ve had them walk me so close to rhinos I felt like I could spit on them. I’ve stumbled across a herd of elephants in thick riverine bush and watched them put down their guns to pick up sticks to throw at them (and yes, we were close enough to throw sticks at them). We’ve spotted a lion on a kill about 50 metres away and walked towards it, not away from it.

They seem fearless, and sometimes even foolhardy, but they’re not. They just know where the limits are. And the limits for hippos are apparently very far away indeed.

I have been on walking trails twice when we have stumbled across hippos away from the water. Both times, we have turned around and walked away. Fast. No pause for a couple of quick photos or a brief chat about their place in the ecosystem. Just a good old fashioned hasty retreat.

Hippos, you see, are very dangerous indeed. Lions kill about 250 people a year. Hippos kill over 500. They’re our most dangerous big animal. And they are very big indeed, fourth only to elephants and white rhinos.

They will attack boats that approach too close, but they are at their most dangerous when they’re out of the water. And their jaws are big enough to bite us in half. Which they do. Regularly.

But violence isn’t just their response to us. It’s their response to each other, too. Hippos are some of the few animals that regularly fight to the death. Most animals will content themselves with a flashy display or a bit of sparring to see who is strongest. Hippos will often straight up kill each other.

But it’s not a free-for-all. There is a system in place. One that is held together by hippos yawning and pooing at each other. Dominant bulls hold a territory, which they advertise by yawning to show the size of their jaws and spraying dung around by rapidly beating their tails.

They reaffirm their borders with neighbouring bulls by walking up to each other, locking eyes, and then turning around and spraying dung and urine at each other. For those of you concerned with hygiene, try not to remember that they are doing this in the water. Where they live.

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I wonder where they’re getting their fresh drinking water.

Territorial bulls will tolerate subordinate bulls and females in their territories, so long as they signal their status by spraying urine at them submissively. The real action happens when another bull challenges for access to the females. Then it’s on. They fight jaw to jaw, but the real danger comes in when the loser tries to break away. The skin on the neck and shoulders is incredibly thick. The skin on the sides not so much. And hippos didn’t evolve those teeth for eating grass.

That’s not it with the violence. Hippos will kill calves, particularly in the dry season when their pools and rivers start to shrink. In response, females will mob males who try to enter nursery herds.

So. “Resting”.

Hippos don’t reserve all their violence for each other and us. They have been known to kill and try to eat other animals. Interestingly, they have also been observed trying to rescue and care for injured animals.

What all this means is that hippos are seldom boring. If you find a pod of them while visiting the bush, turn off your car and watch them for a while. There always seems to be something going on. And listen, too. The bellowing of a pod of hippos is every bit as iconic a sound of the wild as a lion’s roar or a hyena’s whoop.

That’s just about it for hippos. Just a few little facts left.

Hippos aren’t scared of crocodiles. They can bite them in half.

For animals that have chosen to make their homes on the world’s hottest continent, hippos have ridiculously silly skin. It is prone to sunburn, and is also stupidly porous, leaving the hippo prone to dehydration.

To put up at least a token defence, hippos secrete a red substance that acts as a sunscreen and also has anti-bacterial qualities, which is no doubt handy when your two main hobbies are biting each other and pooing at each other in the water you live in.

Hippos can’t jump. At all. This may seem trite until you remember that this is Africa’s most dangerous big animal, and can probably run faster than you (they can steam along at 30 km/h). Don’t try and beat one on the flat. Just step over something knee high.

Oh. I nearly forgot. They really can’t swim. Despite appearances, hippos are heavily muscled and have very dense bones. They sink like stones, and move through the water by walking or running along the bottom like astronauts on the moon. You won’t find hippos out in deep water on a lake. Don’t dive in, though. Crocodiles can swim.

The Cabinet of Curiosities (part 1)

(the part with no cabinet of curiosities in it)

Should you ever visit the 23thorns household, please be careful about what you touch. Not that your touching our stuff would bother us; we gave up any rights to possessions of our own the day nature started using bits of Mrs 23thorns and me to form smaller, less co-ordinated versions of ourselves with poor impulse control and a complete absence of common sense.

Nope. We are not worried about our stuff. We are worried about your peace of mind.

It’s all Mrs 23thorn’s fault.

Mrs 23 thorns, you see, has a “more is more” approach to interior decorating. Our bed currently has forty eight pillows on it. We lost the girl child in it one Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, and only found her on Sunday morning, by following the trail of dry chocolate cereal she had cleverly left under the duvet.

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It once took us three weeks to realise the bed had been stolen.

But it is not pillows that concern us now. It’s little boxy things. Little antiquey boxy things, made of china, or silver, or pewter, with hallmarks or pottery marks or porcelain marks on the bottom, and blackened, creaky hinges, and strange, ancient residues lurking in hard-to-reach corners. Mrs 23thorns tells me they are pill boxes. She tells me she is collecting them because they are beautiful and bring a small part of history alive.

This is a lie.

She is using them to spite me because I can’t get into the habit of using a coaster. Her plan is a simple one; she has covered every square centimetre of every surface of our house with Victorian pill boxes. I haven’t been able to put a glass down in our house for seven years. If I want something to drink these days, I have to tie it around my neck with a leather cord and sip it through a straw. Or I have to wear my special hat. The children have taken to drinking their own bath-water to stay hydrated.

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It’s best to give me a 2 metre “circle of avoidance” when I’m wearing my special hat.

So what has any of this got to do with your peace of mind? Well, every single one of those boxes has something inside it. There are rusted old keys that belong to long forgotten locks; there are brightly coloured little elastic bands; shells; obscure coins from countries none of us have visited. There are acacia thorns and chewed-up chewing gum (boy children are gross). There are buttons, and beads, and curtain hooks, and spent watch batteries.

As of last week, about seven of them were filled with home-made “lip balm” brewed up by Mrs 23thorns and Miss 23thorns. They claim it is made out of coconut oil and lavender essence. I think it is made of lard. So does the dog. You can spot the lip balm pill boxes because they have tooth marks all over them and smell of dog-breath.

In one of the most enticing boxes, a flashy little porcelain number with a pheasant on top, there is a dead toad. A very, very dead toad.

Upside down, he is exquisite; a thing of surpassing beauty. I found him in our borehole pumphouse under an old bag of cement. He must have died there quite some time ago, out of reach of anything large enough to crush his delicate bones or drag bits of him off to gnaw at in hidden corners. He was cleaned by ants, busy little surgeons with a touch so delicate that even the toes, as fine and as fragile as needles of glass, are still in place. To turn him over and examine him is to view a museum specimen.

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As long as you’re not too discerning about which museums you visit.

You won’t be turning him over, though. You will be meandering around my house trying to find a place where you can put your glass down when your attention will be attracted by a little porcelain pill box with a pheasant on it. You will open it. He will be in there. And he won’t be upside down. Right way up, he looks like he has come for a small piece of your soul.

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BRAAAIIINS!!!!

I am not suggesting, for even half a second, that you are the sort to be frightened by dead amphibians, though. Nope. The workings of the 23thorns household are more insidious than that. You would already have been thrown off balance by your inability to put down your glass, and if we did not immediately take to you, we would have put you to the test by bringing you another two drinks without taking any of your empty glasses away.

Pretty soon, you would start to worry. Not about dead toads, but about people. The sort of people would keep dead toads in pillboxes sitting on the table in their foyer.

This process would be helped along by the eleven-year-old boy in the corner with the vacant stare who kept twitching and grunting while making vague intentional movements with his arms, and the six-year-old girl who kept grinning at you without blinking. That’s when we would tell you about the dead cow’s head we had buried in the flowerbed.

Don’t worry about the kids. The boy is merely busy fighting off a marauding band of orcs in an unseen corner of his imagination, while the girl-child is waiting for you to say something about her freshly missing front teeth. And the cow’s head? Don’t worry about that either. There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for it, too.

It was a gift from a friend.

Yup. Some people get flowers. I got the head of a freshly-killed cow that had apparently been slaughtered with a sledgehammer. It was handed over to me in a plastic shopping bag in a busy shopping mall.

Blood and small, clotted masses of brain tissue had pooled in the bottom of the bag, and were slowly starting to drip down onto the pristine white tiled floor. I felt the head through the thin plastic of the bag. It wasn’t moving right. Small bits of bone grated against each other, and when I felt the horns, they jiggled slightly, like loose teeth in a six-year-old girl. I did the only thing a man could do under such circumstances. I bought five kilograms of rock-salt and a plastic bucket, and set forth home, leaving a trail of blood and gristle behind me.

I popped the shattered head into the bucket and covered it with rock-salt, tucked it away on a shelf in an outside room and carried on with my day. And the day after that. And the day after that. Then Mrs 23thorns told me I wasn’t allowed to keep a rotting dead cow’s head in a bucket full of rock-salt in the outside room. She can be a little tricky sometimes.

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I don’t wish to sound sexist, but choosing gifts for women is next to impossible.

I washed the rock-salt off the head, while demonstrating truly masterful control over my gag reflex, and buried it in the flowerbed. As one does.

Fear not, gentle reader. The 23thorns household has not begun the slow descent into serial-killerdom. We are a sensible lot, and everything we do, we do for a reason. And the reason for all this? It’s rather simple.

Termites.

We have a large, barely-controlled garden that we are trying to fill with life. Up until now, we have tolerated whatever pests have moved in in the hope that nature would sort them out in the end. So far, she has done.

But then, a couple of years ago, termites moved into the bottom edge of our lawn. And ate it.

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To be fair, we might not have watered as often as we should have, either.

 

There was a simple solution. Poison.

Hah. Simple solutions are for simple people. Instead, we dug up the lawn and filled the space with a snake-mountain, the upside-down fibreglass cap of a thatched roof, and a shed filled with dead animals. Again, as one does.

I don’t feel like I’m explaining this very well. Let me start again.

A few years ago, we inherited an old and decaying plywood shed. I painted it to look like a quaint stone cottage and set it up in the darkest, most remote part of the garden for the children to play in.

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We told them there was a troll living underneath to to spark their childish curiosity.

For some reason, they never used it.

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This reason. Yes, those are baby spiders. And yes, that bag made of leaves and silk is where their mother lives…

Nerds. It lay fallow for years, slowly filling with broken pots, rusty old wheelbarrows, offcut pipes, unused tiles and black widows, as such places do.

It stopped being quaint after about 2 weeks and became a hideous eyesore that we simply ignored until the termites ate our lawn.

We dug up the scraggly remains of the termite-blighted lawn and piled them up on one side. That left us with a vast open patch of soil and a mound of turf. I discussed the matter with the girl-child, and we agreed that the best solution was to move the shed up to the newly denuded patch, restore it, and convert it into a man-cave for Dad.

She thought that this was a wonderful idea, and immediately set about deciding which of her Barbies would be moving into the man-cave, and what furniture they would be bringing with them.

I sat her down and explained to her as gently as I could that a man-cave was a special place that Dads built so they could hide away from people like her and Barbie for a little while each day. She explained to me as gently as she could that she knew that, and that was why she was choosing only her best seven Barbies to go and live there. Mrs 23thorns can smell blood in the water better than any shark, and came bustling through at high speed to suggest we paint the man-cave aquamarine and white, and surround it with Peonies and Nasturtiums. She looks harmless, but the woman has a mean streak.

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At least she chose the manliest of flowers…

I decided that a battle deferred is a battle won, and set to work. I emptied out the broken pots, rusty old wheelbarrows, offcut pipes and unused tiles from the shed, and made a pile of them in the middle of the open patch. Then I piled the old turf on top of them, making sure to leave a couple of entrances open to the junk beneath.

I did not do this because I was too lazy to take the junk to the dump. I did it because I want snakes in my garden. These snakes.

SC_0023

I don’t think the person who named them knew how lips worked.

That’s a Red-Lipped Herald. A few years ago, our neighbour decided to clean up an old pile of wood at the bottom of his garden. He got a team of guys in to carry it out to the pavement one day, and when I arrived home, there it lay. On it lay five dead Red-Lipped Heralds. Which is a little upsetting. Red-Lipped Heralds are only mildly venomous, and live on frogs and toads. There is no need to kill them.

My garden is full of frogs and toads. And now that I have built them a hollow snake mountain next to my aquamarine man-cave, the Heralds are bound to move in. Me and the seven best Barbies in the family will sit among the peonies and watch them sunning themselves on sultry summer afternoons as we hide from the girls.

Or at least that’s the plan. So far I’ve just got a pile of old grass on top of a rusty old wheelbarrow and some broken pots. At least things eventually started growing on it.

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That dark part at the bottom there is where the snakes are supposed to go in.

Which leads me to the upside down thatched-roof cap. The snake mountain, you see, started to reach a dangerous height long before I ran out of turf. I had to stop building it before it toppled over on one of the children and someone called family services (we wouldn’t stand a chance if they found out about the dead toad and the cow’s head).

Which left me with a large pile of turf.

I have long had a theory that Mrs 23thorns is secretly attracted to men with hernias, so I went out and collected a bunch of huge rocks. I made another tiny mountain of turf, and used the rocks to build a tiny cliff along one edge of it.

It turns out tiny cliffs look a little odd, so I decided to build a tiny lake at the bottom of it. And how do you make tiny lakes? Out of upside down fiberglass thatched roof caps, of course.

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A fiberglass thatched roof cap. Or half of Madonna’s bra. Google wasn’t clear.

The tiny lake wasn’t just there to add scale to my tiny cliff. It was there to act as a breeding pond for more frogs and toads. Which would attract more Red-Lipped Heralds to the snake mountain. Which would make me and the seven best Barbies in the family happy.

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I know that all you can see is a pond with some stones behind it. I see a tiny cliff and a tiny lake. Self delusion is a gift.

And then it was time to move the shed. I carried it up piece by piece (in the hopes of delighting Mrs 23thorns with a really spectacular hernia), bolted it all back together, and clad it in white and aquamarine planks.

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Until I built this, I was convinced that this colour was “blue”. The girl child assures me it is “aquamarine”.

Which leads me to the title of this post. And the dead toad in the Victorian pill box.

Right from the outset, I knew in my heart of hearts that I would never get a man-cave. Me-time is not a thing in our family. The only way you get to be alone in our house is if you stop bathing, and even that doesn’t work if anyone has a cold.

I also knew that my children would not spend any significant amount of time in a shed down at the bottom of our garden. Particularly not if some fool let it slip that said shed was the centrepiece of a garden designed to attract semi-venomous snakes (In my defence, I had no idea the kids would be so underhanded as to eavesdrop on the private progress meeting I was conducting with the seven best Barbies in the family).

So what do you do with an aquamarine and white shed surrounded by peonies, tiny cliffs, nasturtiums and snake mountains? If you are married to Mrs 23thorns, you look to history.

History has some cool stuff in it, like Vikings and tarantism.

And cabinets of curiosities. Those are beyond cool. And are, traditionally, Barbie free. From the moment I first saw one, I wanted one. And now I’ve got one. Or rather I’m getting one.

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Sadly mine will have slightly fewer human skulls in it.

I’ll tell you all about it when it’s ready. I have no idea when that will be. That depends on how long it takes the ants to strip the flesh from the shattered cow’s head in the flower bed. And how long it takes the enormous emerald beetle living in our TV room to die.

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I’m not saying I wish he would hurry up and die, but those matches are there just in case he is into self immolation…

I found him dying in the street the other day and took him home. I popped him into an old fish tank to live out his final moments, so I could mount him and frame him and stick him up on the wall.

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He is still there, feeding cheerfully off slices of apple and human fear. When he is done, my cabinet of curiosities will be done, and I’ll show it to you. And explain why I have a cow’s head in the flowerbed. And a dead toad in a pill box in the foyer.

Don’t hold your breath, though. He appears to be immortal.

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.

05-August_017

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.

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