64. Beware of the stairs.

I’m feeling a little guilty. Just a tiny bit. I fell prey to a trend yesterday, and it’s not one to be encouraged. It’s one that the Discovery Channel and National Geographic are absolutely besotted with. Nature, if the TV people (and me) are to be believed, is out to get you. It wants you dead. And your family. And everyone you have ever loved.

I don't think they really understand the "mother" part of Mother Nature.

I don’t think they really understand the “mother” part of Mother Nature.

It doesn’t, actually. I wrote about an unusual little spate of giraffe attacks yesterday. It was worth writing about, precisely because it has been so unusual. The truth is that giraffes really are gentle creatures at heart. They just happen to be wild animals. Big ones. Ones that have evolved to defend themselves from some fairly robust predators. On the incredibly rare occasions that they do go off the rails, it can get a little scary. But in the larger scheme of things, they simply aren’t dangerous.

This is a Great White shark.

Hi! Come on in, the water's lovely.

Hi! Come on in, the water’s lovely.

It’s a monster, in the true sense of the word. It’s nearly five metres long and weighs over a thousand kilograms. It can swim at 40km/h and bite you in half without breaking a sweat. It is not dangerous at all.

It's not like it can fly or anything.

It’s not like it can fly or anything.

Cows are.

This is a Grizzly bear.

Did you hear the one about the Scotsman in the thistle field?

Did you hear the one about the Scotsman in the thistle field?

It’s also a monster, weighing in at over 300 kg. It’s very close to being the biggest predatory mammal in the world. Only Polar bears are bigger. But it’s not dangerous either.

Deer, on the other hand…

The king of the beasts?

Oh' look! A big fluffy kitty!

Oh look! A big fluffy kitty!

Now we’re talking. It’s nearly one twentieth as dangerous as a British staircase.

You see, sharks only kill about eighteen people a year. That’s all sharks, not just Great Whites. It’s not like we’re not giving them the opportunity, either. This is what our beaches look like.

There's nothing quite like relaxing and unwinding in the great outdoors.

There’s nothing quite like relaxing and unwinding in the great outdoors.

Cows, however, kill 22 people in the US alone.



Grizzly bears don’t even crack the nod for one death a year. Deer? More than 150.

Look at those cold, dark, eyes. It's like staring into your own grave.

Look at those cold, dark, eyes. It’s like staring into your own grave.

Lions? 50 a year. British staircases? About a thousand.

The Germans at least keep theirs behind closed doors.

The Germans at least keep theirs behind closed doors.

I’m being slightly disingenuous. Statistics are easy to meddle with. You probably climbed 10 sets of stairs today, and, unless you are from Africa, are unlikely to have ever even seen a wild lion. But the fact remains; there are 7 billion people in the world right now, and if lions kill 50 of them a year, that wouldn’t even appear as a number on a statistician’s radar.

The thing is, we have been the most dangerous animal on the planet for a very long time. Animals are scared of us. Even the big ones. On top of that, the people exposed to wild animals the most tend to be the ones who know how best to behave around them. There are some very dangerous things out there. Hippos kill nearly 3000 people a year in Africa. Snakes kill a lot more. But still not very many in the larger scheme of things. If you want to see something really dangerous, go and take a look in your driveway.

Quick! Get in the car and lock the doors! It's a car!

Quick! Get in the car and lock the doors! It’s a car!

Over 14000 people die on the roads in South Africa every year. And those deer-related deaths I mentioned earlier? Car accidents.

So when you see a show on TV called “Anatomy of a Killer” or “Twelve Deadliest”, or read a blog post about ravening giraffes, take it with a pinch of salt. These things are dangerous, sure. But less dangerous than electricity, and you let that stuff flow around your house.

Don’t think ill of the noble giraffe just because I pointed out they’ve been trying to kill people, is what I’m saying.

Think ill of these guys instead.

Think very ill indeed.

Think very ill indeed.

If you want a dangerous wild animal to be scared of, those guys kill nearly three million people a year. Which makes your average staircase look as harmless as a bear carrying a shark.



63. The rise of the giants.

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

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

The gentle giant of the African wild. Snort.

The gentle giant of the African wild. Snort.

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

Well, hello there!

Well, hello there!

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

Anyone else having a Jurassic Park flashback?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you looking at me?

Are you looking at me?

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

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

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

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

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

My dreams have become a little peculiar

My dreams have become a little peculiar

Continue reading

59. Being practical.

When we woke up yesterday, we had no plans at all. Just another school holiday day with the kids, trying to prevent sibling interaction from escalating to gunplay, and wondering how a nine-year-old who looks like he’s suffering from malnutrition can eat eight kilograms of food a day. Between meals.

He's practically fading away!

He’s practically fading away!

By the end of the day, we had stripped all the paint off the inside of our bedroom, made a huge hole in the wall, and plastered it over. That’s how we tend to do things. Just wake up of a morning and decide to go ahead and build a carport or remodel the kitchen. We even had the children like that. Which was a hell of a thing to do on a whim. Continue reading

57. More owls.

I’ve never seen a Bushpig. I have loved wildlife for as long as I can remember, and wherever I go, I keep an eye open for things that creep and crawl and growl and bustle about in the undergrowth. I’ve seen quite a lot over the years, and in terms of mammals, I can page through a South African mammal guide and tick off most of the list, not counting rats and mice and bats, because life is too short.

A Bushpig. I think. It might be a Pangolin.

A Bushpig. I think. It might be a Pangolin.

There are a couple of ticks missing. I’ve never seen a Serval, or a Pangolin. But that’s OK. Hardly anyone has. They’re pretty rare. But I’ve never seen that Bushpig, either.  And they are not rare at all. Better yet, they tend to cling on in areas where most other big mammals have been wiped out. They are pests for farmers, and lurk around in thickets along hiking trails and wilderness areas. Continue reading

53. Some owls. Or owlets. Or Scops-Owls. Some birds.

I’ve been threatening to carry on writing about owls for a while, and now that I’ve arranged a place for them to sit, today is the day I do so. As I have said, the Lowveld supports ten different species of owl. We’ve dealt with one of them, in a bit of a hurry. Today, we deal with another three.

When most people think of owls, they tend to picture the sorts of birds that flapped around in the Harry Potter movies; large, powerful birds that would have no problem carrying obscure magical packages around. These are not those sorts of owls. These are small owls. Tiny owls.

Not these.

Not these.

Continue reading

51. The Leadwood.

I had promised I would get round to writing about Lowveld owls soon. And I will. Soon. But when I sat down to write about them this morning, I realised I had not arranged a place for them to sit. Fear not. I’m on it. They can sit in one of these, in a few centuries time;

It will be well worth the wait. Look at those fine, spreading branches!

It will be well worth the wait. Look at those fine, spreading branches!

Continue reading

47. A leprechaun with eyes on the back of his head.

I had promised to do a post on the owls of the Lowveld. I’m not going to. I’m going to do a few. And today, I’m going to do a very short one indeed. I’ve been called away on an emergency. I have to go the bush for a night. There I will be forced to spend an afternoon driving around looking at elephants and rhinos while sipping an ice-cold beer before being forced to endure yet another African sunset, while the meat sizzles over the fire and I force down a glass of chilled white wine.

How much does this suck?

How much does this suck?

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45. Not owls.

I woke up this morning in the mood to write about Lowveld owls. Actually, to tell the truth, I woke up this morning in the mood to not be awake. The cold has finally moved in, and I would like to take to my bed and stay there ‘til spring.

But life goes on, so Lowveld owls it is. Or rather owls it isn’t. Most places have one or two species of owls. The Lowveld has about seven. That involves quite a lot of research, and cannot be whipped off on a whim. And besides, there’s something in the way that must be dealt with first. The not-owls.

At a glance, the night belongs to the bats. There are tens of millions of them, flitting unseen through the dark. They are hugely successful; about 20 per cent of all mammal species are bats. But bats have their limitations. There are some things evolution hasn’t had time to do to their basic design yet. They have left some room, out there in the cold and the dark, for those other denizens of the air; the birds.

And now you are thinking of owls. But there are other birds out there in the dark. Certainly there are down in the Lowveld. So let’s get those out of the way before we tackle the owls.

The Bat Hawk.

It may look intense, but it's the worlds laziest bird.

It may look intense, but it’s the worlds laziest bird.

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40. Dog-faced monkeys.

Picture the scene. You’re in Cape Town, one of South Africa’s tourist hotspots. It’s a beautiful sunny day, perfect for a daytrip. So you decide to go here;

Or you could just stay in the hotel and watch TV.

Or you could just stay in the hotel and watch TV.

That’s Cape Point, Africa’s southernmost point. It’s a dramatic finger of rock stretching out into the sea. It’s where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic. And it’s well worth seeing. So you pack up your hire car with a few tasty snacks for the road and set off. Continue reading