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.

Midlife Crisis

This morning I woke up to find that I had been invaded. Violated. I turned on my tablet to be greeted by a cheerful message informing me that my blog was doing rather nicely. This seemed a little strange, since I haven’t been a particularly diligent blogger of late. I logged on to see what was up. This. This was up.

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I had apparently posted it yesterday. Twice. Which would have been a curious thing to do. If you had to ask someone who knows me to sum me up as quickly and efficiently as possible, they would show you that image and say “Do you see this? He is the exact opposite of every single thing you can see right here.”

So what was it doing there? Twice? Well, thereby hangs a tale. Let’s start with lions, shall we…

If you spend any time out in the African bush, or with bushy people, you will be confronted with an interesting little piece of advice. Don’t run. It’s pretty simple. If you find yourself out in the bush on foot, and something is running towards you, don’t run away. Whatever it is will be faster than you and stronger than you. Run, and you will die.

It is advice that holds true for most, but not all animals. But most of all, it is given about lions. They are cats. And if you run from them, you become a mouse. Cats chase mice even when they aren’t hungry.

It’s a pretty gnarly piece of advice, though. This is a lion walking past my sister and her family earlier this year. I posted it in a couple of weeks ago in a very different context. But it’s pretty big. Pushing 200 kg.

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And my sister and her family aren’t looking at it. They’re looking at its brother. This guy.

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He is not, you will note, the MGM lion. He is not pretty. His mane is not brushed. His face is battle-scarred and broken. He is a pride male, which means he has defeated, and quite possibly killed, the previous pride males in a hostile takeover. The night before, he and his brother had taken down a buffalo, 600 kg of battle hardened muscle with some sharp bits at the one end. And some friends. He is, in other words, brutal. He is power, and strength, and fearlessness. He is, in every sense, the bogey-man from our deep past. He is death incarnate.

So could you do it? Knowing that running would be the end of you, could you stand? If that lion launched himself at you at 80 odd km an hour, tail flicking and a choking growl in his throat, would your nerve hold? Could you stand, all thin-skinned and naked and defenceless, as he skidded to a halt just a few short feet away from you, and spat, and snarled, and batted up clouds of dust at you?

Me? I don’t know. Never done it before. But I think now, maybe, that I could. Though I’d be a little freaked out afterwards.

I have, you see, just had a mid-life crisis. You know the one. I’m 43. Halfway through. Have I done enough? Achieved enough? Do I need to buy a Harley and get a tattoo? Organise an attempt on the north face of K2? Am I happy with who I am, and what I’ve done, and whom I am with?

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Bob. Bob is a chartered accountant from New Jersey.

This is not an unusual thing. Everyone has one, to some degree or other. What is a little unusual is that mine took about an hour.

I work late on Thursday evenings. Not too late: I get home at about eight thirty. I have got into the habit of bringing home a bottle of wine and sharing a glass with Mrs. 23thorns out in the carport next to our kitchen. Which is a curious thing to do. We have a large, beautiful garden with comfortable furniture on the other side of the house. But on Thursdays, we sit on an old wooden stool and a broken wicker armchair in a dusty little carport next to the bonnet of Mrs. 23thorns’ car. It’s nice.

And so we sat and chatted. Until Mrs. 23thorns suddenly looked up at me with a strange look in her eye, and said “Oh Schwei” (for that is what she calls me).

Now Mrs. 23thorns looks at me strangely all the time. This is the natural result of her being a little strange. But this was different. I stood. And the world changed. Because I was not standing alone. There was a man standing with me, one hand gripped tightly to the back of my belt and another pressing the short, ugly barrel of a 9mm pistol to my temple while another man did the same to Mrs. 23thorns.

Gunpoint

Yup. One of those.

He pushed me down to my knees, leaned forward, and said, quietly, for the first time that night, but not the last, “Don’t look at me. I’ll fucken kill you.”

Well, that, as they say in the movies, escalated quickly! Sorry. This is not the sort of thing most people come here for. But it happened, and I’m going to write about it.

There’s something to get out of the way, first, though. This is all going to mean different things to different people. If you are from somewhere like New Zealand or the UK, your immediate response will likely be best summed up by the phrase “Holy shit!!!” If you’re from the USA, you might be thinking “Wow! 23thorns cracked the front page of the local news!”

And if, like half the people who read this blog, you’re from South Africa, you’re probably thinking “Oh, god, not this again”.

Yup. Sorry. This again.

If you’re from New Zealand, and you are wondering what the hell I’m on about, let me try to explain:

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New Zealanders have their own, unique problems to deal with.

While this was happening to us, it was happening to two eighteen year old girls one block away from us in our quiet little suburb. On Easter Sunday, we went for lunch at my sister’s house. There were two other families there. This had happened to one of them.

On Tuesday, I went back to work. I saw five people over the course of the week. This had happened to three of them. It happened to Mrs. 23thorns’ cousin. It killed her uncle, and a woman we knew from work, and a guy I saw every year on holidays down in the bush when we were kids. It happened to the family next door to us and to a colleague I spoke to on the phone and to the man who runs our local nursery and to the teacher who looks after our kids at aftercare.

It happens so often, in other words, that it doesn’t crack the front page of the local news. It has lost its “Wow”. Even when people die.

So what am I getting at? Just this. I’m not writing this down to shock anyone or to impress anyone or to try and steal any “Wows”. If you are reading this and feel impressed or shocked, bear in mind that where I come from it is neither impressive nor shocking, just ugly and sad, and that there will be a whole bunch of people reading it whose main response will not be “Wow”, but rather “Oh, god. I remember how that feels.” You’ll probably meet one or two of them in the comments section.

If you’re one of those people, I’m sorry if I awaken any beasts that you thought you’d put to bed.

So why am I writing it at all? Just for me this time. And for Mrs. 23thorns. I went for trauma counselling the other day and was rather profoundly underwhelmed. So I’m putting my own beasts to bed.

You’re welcome to come along for the ride, but I’m not sure if it will be worth your while. I don’t know how to frame all of this, so buckle up, it might get a bit messy. And long. So very, very long. And the story gets longer every day. Let’s get the details out the way first. Then we can move onto the stuff that frightens me more than guns, like feelings.

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Aaaaargh!

Right. So where were we? Oh, yes. “I’ll fucken kill you”. This should be a blast…

I was hauled up onto my feet and Mrs. 23thorns and I were driven inside like confused sheep, steered from side to side by a tug on the belt. The questions started. “Where is the gun?” “How many people in the house?” Each question was punctuated by a slight increase in pressure from the gun barrel at my temple. I tried my best to answer. “No gun. Just us and two children. Tell us what you want and, we will do everything we can to give it to you. Just stay calm. We aren’t going to fight.”

That was the moment that Mrs. 23thorns chose to remind me why I love her so desperately. “Do you guys”, she asked in a calm and measured voice, “have a bank account? If you give me the details, I can make a direct deposit.” The woman is a god-damned lunatic. I know no-one else whose opening gambit in a home invasion would be to try and get the invaders’ personal banking details. “Do you have a home address? Our camera is being repaired right now, but I’ll come ‘round and drop it off when they’re done…”

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Crimefighting, Mrs.23thorns style.

That was the first time I dared to believe we would make it through all this. People like that are an asset to the world and should not, on some cosmic level, be allowed to be harmed.

As charming as I found Mrs.23thorns attempt at identity theft, I did find her timing a little worrying. “Mrs. 23thorns,” I said, in a calm and measured voice of my own, “You need to stop talking now.” And she did, mostly.

And so we move on to the parts where my heart stopped beating.

They led us to the door of the room where the kids were sleeping. “What’s in here?” A sharp thrust from the gun barrel. “The children. Our children are in there. They’re small. They are sleeping. Please. Let them sleep.”

A hand reached out and opened the door. I stopped breathing. A face appeared at my shoulder and took a slow, careful look around. The door was pulled shut. And my heart started beating again.

Since I’m not looking for any “Wows” here, let’s cut out the drama as we find it. The opening and closing of the door didn’t wake the kids. But they lurked at the backs of our minds for the rest of the ordeal, springing to the front with every raised voice or bump of furniture. “Don’tWakeUp!Don’tWakeUp!Don’tWakeUp!” They didn’t. The door stayed closed throughout.

And then it was time for my heart to stop beating again. I was led through into the lounge. Mrs23thorns was led off into the bedroom. Yup. That thing. That fear. The one with bad men with guns and defenceless women and bedrooms and the need to exert power and to hurt and to damage and to take everything, everything, and me with my hands behind my back and a gun against my head and “I’ll fucken kill you” in my ear and a noiseless, godless prayer for Mrs 23thorns that just went “Don’t!Don’t!Don’t!Don’t!Don’t!Don’t!”

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Crimefighting, Mr 23thorns style.

And they didn’t. Not then or any time later. But the fear lay there for the rest of our ordeal, closed away but ready to burst open like the children’s door. “Don’t!” And they didn’t. All they did was pistol-whip her. And jump on her head. Ineptly. Small mercies, then.

Well this is fun. What next?

Shoelaces.

Mrs 23thorns and I were reunited in the foyer, forced down onto our stomachs on the hard wooden floor, and then lay there listening to a weird zipping noise behind us. Shoelaces. They were unthreading the shoelaces from my shoes, and used them to truss us up like turkeys, hands behind our backs and feet bound tightly together. And then they told us to sleep, which is shorthand for “Stop talking, stop moving, and stop looking at us.”

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This is now a deeply disturbing image to me.

Things should have quietened down a little, then. They didn’t. There was an awful lot of shouting and pushing of guns into heads. “WHERE’S THE SAFE? WHERE’S THE GUN? DON’T LOOK AT ME! WHERE’S THE JEWELLERY? I’LL FUCKEN KILL YOU! SLEEP”

What can you do in a situation like that? What can you say? “I don’t have a safe.” “I don’t have a gun.” “We’ll take you to the jewellery.” “Fucken kill me if you must, just stop acting so damn jumpy about it. You’re an armed robber! Pull yourself towards yourself and start acting like you’re in charge here!”

OK, so I didn’t say all of those things. Just some of them. But I meant them all. Because as time went by, we slowly became aware that our captors were neither as smart nor as in control as they thought they were. Which was not a good thing.

It started with my feet. I had tried my best to keep my hands and feet braced to give me a little wiggle room. Not to escape- there was no thought of that. But I did want to be able to free myself once it was all over without waking our kids and confronting them with the uglier side of the world. And to be honest, I’ve seen them try to untie their shoelaces, and didn’t think they’d be up to the tangles on our wrists. But it didn’t come to that.

Knot Tangle

“Just start at one end and work your way through. We’re not busy with anything else…”

Pretty much as soon as they had tied up my feet, they demanded that I take them through and show them where we kept the jewellery.

We all have our own essential natures. Myself, I’ve always been a smug, sarcastic bastard. It’s kinda hard to turn that stuff off.

So when two armed men truss you up like a turkey and then demand that you take a little stroll with them, it’s not that easy to frame a response that doesn’t include an implicit “but you’ve just tied my feet together, you stupid tit!” Even when one of the men is trying to drag you up by the collar and the other one is trying to push you up with the barrel of a 9mm pistol.

Luckily, they worked it out for themselves before I got myself into any trouble, and cut my feet loose. And then the trouble with being 23thorns suddenly came to the fore. Nobody would describe me as well organised. I don’t even know where my car keys are kept. My day starts, every day, with a brief but frantic search for them. Followed by a similar search for my wallet. I don’t know anything about my immediate environment. It’s like being a high-functioning goldfish.

“Where,” demanded the barrel pusher behind me, “do you keep the jewellery?” Well. Goldfish. I had no freaking idea. I had no choice but to turn to Mrs. 23thorns. “Where,” I asked, as calmly and as quietly as I could, “do we keep the jewellery?”

I got a dodgy look or two from my 9mm wielding friend, but Mrs. 23thorns explained equally calmly and quietly that it was in the cupboard next to our bed.

Off we went. And straightaway got into trouble with the sarcasm thing again. Mr 9mm threw me down on the bed. “Sleep!”

He immediately set to work rifling through the drawer full of nail polish and dental floss and spent pens next to the bed. He swung on me and thrust the barrel of his gun into the back of my neck. “THE JEWELLERY!” He snarled. “WHERE IS THE JEWELLERY? I’LL FUCKEN KILL YOU!”

How do you say “That’s a drawer, not a cupboard” without an implicit “You stupid tit!” at the end?

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A stupid tit, just in case you thought I was being rude.

I pointed with my chin. As unsarcastically as I could. He found the jewellery. I was reunited with Mrs 23thorns on the foyer floor again. And then things got curiously dull.

Our heads were covered with a blanket, and our new friends set to work ransacking the house and disconnecting all our electronics. They were joined by two other men whom we never saw. The base of my nose started to itch. I have a pretty big nose, so there was no way to scratch it. I tried rubbing it on the floor, as slowly and carefully as possible, but I couldn’t reach the spot. The itch receded. I wondered if it would be rude to have a nap.

This might seem like a weird thing to want to do, but one of the first things Mrs 23thorns mentioned once it was all over was that she, too, had been tempted to catch up on a little sleep. Maybe it’s a response to stress. Maybe our captors were just dull. Who knows?

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Mr. and Mrs. 23thorns dealing with a crisis.

I thought, then, that we were in the clear. Not so much. Out of the blue, one of our new friends whipped the duvet off my head and thrust the barrel of the gun into my forehead. “I’m counting to five.” He announced. “Where is the gun? Where is the safe? If I get to five, I fucken shoot you!”

What do you say? “Look at the house. Look at our things. We aren’t rich enough for a safe. I don’t have a gun.” And then I just waited. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.

He didn’t shoot me. He dropped his gun onto the floor instead. “Oh, shit!”, he said. Oh, shit indeed. We were being robbed by Inspector Clouseau.

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“Merde!”

He wasn’t done, though. He stepped over me. Straight onto Mrs. 23thorns’ face. He tried, not hugely effectively, to grind it down into the floor. Then he stepped off again, and went about his business. It was an odd, seemingly random thing to do; a last, mad desperate attempt to get us to reveal our well-disguised riches.

They went back to work again, rifling through cupboards and tipping out drawers.

Then things got dodgy again. The blanket was whipped off my head. “Where,” demanded the gun-waver, “are the car keys?” Goldfish. Oh shit…

Luckily, Mrs 23thorns knows me pretty well. Calm, quiet voice. “They’re on a hook next to the door.” Ah. Her car keys. That would have been a better idea.

But it wasn’t over yet. Mr. 9mm strolled over. He thrust the keys into my face. “Is this,” he asked, “the remote for the gate?” Oh shit. Again. I didn’t know. It’s a new car. I never drive it. “I don’t know.” I said quietly. The consequences for getting it wrong would have been too much. “I don’t know.”

It was time for my new friend to get his own back. “Do you,” he asked, in a voice dripping with some sarcasm of his own, “even live here?” Which was a little unkind.

“It’s the remote for the gate.” Piped up Mrs. 23thorns from under her blanket. And that was that.

They packed up all their stuff, paused quietly at the door for long enough to say, one final time, “I’m still here. Don’t move. I’ll fucken kill you.”

And then they were gone.

I sprang into action. I leapt to my feet (inasmuch as one can leap to one’s feet with one’s hands behind one’s back) and strode manfully into the kitchen, wrestled the knife drawer (not cupboard) open, and whipped out a knife. Unfortunately it was an ornamental cheese knife, which was slightly less manful.

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Maybe it would help if I called it a “Cheese scimitar”. Or maybe not…

I twisted it through what I thought were my bonds, and with a triumphant “HAH!” cut off one of my bracelets, scattering round wooden beads around the kitchen. With a slightly less triumphant “OK”, I freed myself. And Mrs. 23thorns. And it was over.

So how does it feel? What was it like, having those men in our house, having guns shoved in our faces, having our children threatened? Pretty complicated, actually. And what happens afterwards? Quite a lot.

But I’m done for now. I’ll tell you all that stuff tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year.

But for now, we are fine. We faced down our lion, and we stood. We stood, all thin-skinned and naked and defenceless, as the bad people skidded to a halt just a few short feet from us, and spat, and growled, and batted up clouds of dust at us. And we held. We are fine.

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Apart from the odd little flashback…

Or at least we will be. It might just take a little time…

See you tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year. Don’t worry. There won’t be any soft-focus purple motivational posters involved.

Earnest and Sincere

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

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

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

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These dogs

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

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These tiny drunks

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

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

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

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You should see what the other guy looked like.

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

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This snake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This birdbath.

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

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

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

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

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Awwwww.

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

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Oh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it was awesome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Superhero for a day? Check.

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

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

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

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

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Forever.

Party People

The girl-child (let’s call her “V” again) was all aflutter a couple of weeks ago. She had received an invitation to her friend Kondi’s birthday party. A purple and pink invitation. And purple and pink, she informed me with a grave look on her face, both just happened to be her favourite colour. It was to be a Barbie princess party. V was most pleased.

 

Strange. I would have thought Barbie was a bit too subtle for five-year-olds...

Strange. I would have thought Barbie was a bit too subtle for five-year-olds…

V had, as is the way with five-year-olds, woken up at four thirty in the morning, brushed her hair, put on her party dress, and woken us up so that we wouldn’t be late. The party started at two that afternoon.

Her rather gung-ho approach to punctuality was not in vain, however, since it gave her the opportunity to try on three more outfits, and to meddle with the enticingly elaborate wrapping job Mrs 23thorns had done on the present, until the legs fell off the wire and satin butterfly that was tied to the top with a ribbon (Mrs 23thorns does not bugger around when it comes to wrapping presents for five-year-olds). This gave us something to talk about on the way there.

“Don’t worry, mouse,” I said in a calm, soothing tone, “I’m sure we can fix it once we get there.”

“Waaaargyeeeurghaar,” said V, in a tone that could shatter glass at forty paces, “now-I-can-never-have-a-beautiful-present-for-Kondi-and-her-party-will-be-ruined-forever-I-want-Mom-to-fixit. Waaaargyeeeurghaar.”

 

We talk all the time. Maintaining an open channel of communication with your kids is vital.

We talk all the time. Maintaining an open channel of communication with your kids is vital.

The fact that this soulful little lament started at home might explain why we left under a certain amount of pressure. It does not, however, explain Mrs 23thorns’s cruel and unconscionable role in this story.

“Where am I going?” I asked. Mrs 23thorns has always had a better idea of where I am supposed to be than I have.

“Waaaargyeeeurghaar.” Said V. Loudly

“Imagine the Venue.” Said the good Mrs 23thorns. Although she denies it now. The woman has a refreshingly cavalier attitude toward the truth.

 

Why they chose these guys as the embodiment of devil-may-care off-handedness is beyond me. He looks like he took 4 hours to get dressed, and another 45 minutes to do his moustache.

Why they chose these guys as the embodiment of devil-may-care off-handedness is beyond me. He looks like he took 4 hours to get dressed, and another 45 minutes to do his moustache.

“Kondi-is-never-going-to-like-her-present! Waaaargyeeerghaar!” said V. Loudly.

Mrs 23thorns began to develop a pronounced facial tic. We left.

Telling your loyal and faithful husband to “Imagine the Venue” may seem unkind. It’s not. “Imagine the Venue” is the name of a party venue near our house. Not “Imagine. The Venue.” Or “Imagine: the Venue”. Just “Imagine the Venue”. There is something delightfully and engagingly wrong about it. That’s not the name of a party place. It’s the beginning of a story. “Sit down, children. Is everyone listening? Good. Now, Imagine the Venue…”

It’s the sort of name that lurks around the edge of your consciousness trying to get in, the sort that might spring unbidden into the mind of a lesser man than myself as he set off at speed with a grieving five-year-old under one arm, a mangled present under the other, and a pair of bent wire butterfly legs clenched between his teeth. I suspect that something along those lines happened to Mrs 23thorns. She doesn’t handle pressure as well as I do.

 

"I have no idea where the party is, But I have to tell him something..."

“I have no idea where the party is, But I have to tell him something…”

I know the place well. We’ve been there a couple of times. The clubhouse overlooks a wide, spreading lawn filled with jungle-gyms and swings. There’s a pen filled with geese and rabbits and an angry goat, and a huge, shady sand-pit on one side.

I am a little less familiar with where it is, apparently. We set off cheerfully (Waaaargyeeerghaar!) at a quarter to two, with time to spare. At two o’clock, party time, I stopped to inform V that if I heard one more waaaargyeeerghaar I would be forced to be unkind, and imagining the venue would be as close as we would come. I decided to check the carefully laid out directions on the invitation at the same time. Not that I was lost or anything. It was just that the venue seemed to have moved since the last time we had been there. Imagine!

The invitation seemed to have moved as well. We found it under the kitchen table the next morning. I don’t wish to point any fingers, but I think we all know who put it there. There’s no need to name names. Mrs 23thorns. Mrs23throns put it there.

Oh, well. We would have to find it the old-fashioned way; street smarts and an unerring sense of direction.

 

"It's just over the hill there." "It damned well better be. We just popped out for a pack of smokes, and that was four years ago..."

“It’s just over the hill there.”
“It damned well better be. We just popped out for a pack of smokes, and that was four years ago…”

At two fifteen, I turned on the GPS on my phone. It led me to a charmingly rustic little dam full of ducks and invasive water hyacinths.

At two thirty we arrived at the venue. Imagine.

We have a rather laid back approach to time-keeping out here in South Africa. Arriving half an hour late is not really that big a deal. But I like to do things properly, so we tried to look just a little embarrassed as we scuttled into the venue (imagine). I needn’t have worried. They were still setting things up when we walked in. There was a beautiful little table laid out with a purple tablecloth and pink napkins, with little silver plastic tiaras and a Barbie birthday cake, and there was bunting up on the walls, but the mother of the birthday girl was up a ladder sticking up a birthday message made of huge polystyrene letters. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” it said “N”.

I went over and introduced myself to her, and apologised for being late.

“Oh, don’t stress.” She said “The birthday girl isn’t here yet.”

Laid back we might be, but being half an hour late for your own party is pushing it. Oh, well. We put the present down on the table with the others, and I ushered V outside to play with her friends. Then I sat down and looked around me with the inane grin I like to use when confronted by a room full of strangers with whom I have to make small-talk for an afternoon. I was, I must confess, a little disappointed to see no-one I recognised.

 

"Hellooo, everyone! Who wants to be my friend?"

“Hellooo, everyone! Who wants to be my friend?”

I entered into an earnest discussion with a nervous-looking woman (don’t worry, I put her at her ease by grinning a little more widely) about what a lovely day it was for a party and how it had looked like it might be overcast earlier but had cleared up nicely. I did so despite the fact that it was 3 degrees Celsius outside, and that there was a gale-force wind blowing. You can do that at parties. It’s one of the rules. I was about to launch into a series of fascinating anecdotes about other sorts of weather I had seen at other parties when I noticed something a little odd. V. She was playing alone. That wasn’t like her. I nipped out to see what was up.

“Why,” I asked, “are you not playing with your friends?”

“These,” she replied, bouncing happily backwards and forwards on a small plastic horse attached to a large metal spring, “are not my friends.”

Ah. Kindergarten politics.

Or… A rather uncomfortable idea began to crawl its way up my spine.

I went back inside and grabbed as full a plate of snacks as I could. I sank back into my chair and sat staring fiercely down at my chicken drumsticks and dried-out sausage rolls for a moment before falling upon them like a hungry wolf in a speed-eating competition. The nervous woman leapt to her feet and dashed off out of sight. Maybe she was hungry. I have no idea where she went, because I didn’t look up. Didn’t want to. Couldn’t. Not until I’d finished my snack platter. I had my reasons.

 

I only took a couple of each...

I only took a couple of each…

Had to. The mother was finished putting up her polystyrene letters. She climbed down the ladder, spread out her arms like a game-show assistant and let out a theatrical “Tahdaah!” I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, but it is physically impossible to ignore a woman standing with her arms spread out and saying “Tahdaah!” That’s why the game-show assistants do it. I had to look up.

My worst fears were realised. “HAPPY BIRTHDAY LEE-ANNE” was spelled out in purple and pink. Bugger. Bye-bye snack platter.

We left with our backs straight and our heads held high, looking the mother square in the eye as we thanked her for a wonderful half hour and sparing a cheerful little wave for my new weather-discussing friend, who seemed to be hiding behind a pillar. I must confess to feeling just a little awkward as we rummaged through the pile of presents to retrieve our butterfly festooned offering. It seemed a little churlish in light of the hospitality with which we had been received, but we had a party to go to.

I called Kondi’s mother. It was time. I was out of options. We were nearly an hour and a half late, and still had no idea where the party was. She was very understanding. The party was at Fantasy Park, she said. The next day.

We had fun. There was cake.

 

We didn’t see Kondi anywhere, though. Maybe she had gone to bed. 9:30 did seem a little late for a five-year-old’s party…

We didn’t see Kondi anywhere, though. Maybe she had gone to bed. 9:30 did seem a little late for a five-year-old’s party…

I would tell you all about it, but I simply don’t have the time. I’m taking the boy-child off to a party this afternoon. We haven’t picked a venue yet, but I do have an idea. Imagine.

We invited Mrs 23thorns along, but she says that that would be dishonest. Hah! She’s a strange woman. Smart. Well spoken. Snappy dresser. But absolutely no appreciation for a decent snack platter…

Bookclubs.

As promised, I am putting up a couple of posts that I had written for a putative blog for the bookshop I manage. I have written a few, but haven’t been able to go live with my blog yet. I need to hammer out some sort of deal with my head office. They have just moved into a shiny new office, with shiny new furniture and shiny new computers. What they do not have, despite promises to the contrary by various government departments, are shiny new telephone lines and shiny new internet connections. They’re a little distracted right now. This is not hammer time.

 

Which is a pity, since hammer time is probably my favourite time.

Which is a pity, since hammer time is probably my favourite time.

I am hoping to recruit a few more bookclubs for my store. And I suspect I’m going to run into a little trouble from all of you.

I remember hearing, years ago, that the South African bookclub is a unique thing. Our thing. The story went that isolated farming communities were getting together to pool their resources to get hold of books, which they then shared among themselves, like a members-only library. Somewhere along the line, people realised that the social aspect of these clubs was as fun as the literary one, and when the isolated farmers started to move to town, they took their bookclubs with them.

And there’s more to the story, too. Bookclubs were, back in the day, a white thing. But they were one of the few crossovers, in the days of “whites only” park benches and policemen in body-armour patrolling local shopping centres and plastic relief posters of terrorist bombs on post office walls, between white and black culture.

Black people, back in the day, were largely denied access to formal financial structures like banking and insurance. So they created their own structures, and one of these was the “stokvel”. It’s a curious sort of name, because it’s Afrikaans, and means “stick skin”. And no, I don’t know why.

This does not clear anything up.

This does not clear anything up.

 

A stokvel works like this; a group of friends or neighbours gets together for some specific purpose. It could be for weddings, or funerals, or parties, or pretty much anything that requires the occasional injection of cash.

Each member makes a monthly contribution, which is held in trust. When the need arises, the money goes to the member who needs it, or to the group as a whole (this works pretty damn well with parties). It is, in effect, an old school insurance policy, without the bank charges and taxes and formal legal requirements. And it lives on. For now. I was a little crushed to hear a formal banker type on the radio the other day announcing that she thought stokvels were a very good idea and the formal sector felt it was high time they got involved. To help. Not to take their share of all that lovely money, I’m sure. But I digress.

A bookclub is essentially a stokvel; a bunch of private individuals pooling their resources for their mutual benefit. Books. I can think of no better way to manage a cultural crossover.

And now you get to burst my bubble and tell me that there are bookclubs all over the world, and they have nothing to do with stokvels. You can go first, Australia…

 

A typical Australian sets of for his bookclub meeting.

A typical Australian sets of for his bookclub meeting.

Anyway, here’s my putative bookclub post. Mzansi is South Africa. I’ve blanked out some of the names, because that’s how I roll (few of you might have realised that my name isn’t really 23thorns…).

“I come from a large, loud, boisterous gang of a family. We are close. Growing up, we moved as a pack; whatever we did, we did as a group. We socialised as a family. Any friends our parents had were family friends. We travelled as a family, stayed at home as a family, went out to dinner as a family. My mother was (and is) a homemaker, and spent most of her life running around behind four busy children. And then there were “the girls”.

The girls.

The girls.

 

Once a month, on the last Thursday of every month, my mother would set aside the school lunches and the birthday parties and the extra lessons and the soccer matches and the family braais, and head off to spend a morning with “the girls”. She still does.

It was, as far as I ever knew, the only thing she ever did which was hers and hers alone. I never really knew who “the girls” were. They were not my mother’s friends in the way we understood the concept. They didn’t know my father well enough to call him his nickname like all the other grownups around us did. We children were not required to prefix their names with “Aunt”. They never popped in for a visit on the weekend or dropped in for a cup of coffee after the school run. I have met one or two of them over the years, incidentally at shopping centres or restaurants, but I could not name a single one of them now.

“The girls” are my mother’s bookclub. My mother is in her seventies now, and “the girls” have been together for longer than I have been alive; more than four decades (which should call into question their definition of themselves as “girls”, but who am I to question the wisdom of my elders?). There have, no doubt, been changes over the years, as people have moved away and new people have moved in, but the core has remained the same. Yup. “The girls” have shown more commitment to their bookclub than most people show to their marriages.

 

They might be getting on a bit, but they're still a pretty rough crowd.

They might be getting on a bit, but they’re still a pretty rough crowd.

What they are doing, if my understanding is correct, is uniquely South African.

Sure, other countries have things called bookclubs. We would call them reading circles. They work like this; all the members of the club go out and buy a book. The same book. They read it. Then they get together and talk about it. Which is, I’m sure, very nice, if you’re into that sort of thing, but sounds just a little bit like work to me. School work.

There are even clubs that go one better. They are correctly referred to as book reading clubs. They sound magnificent. A group of people get together once a month, and one of their number reads a book to them. Aloud. I would pay good money to be a fly on the wall at one of their meetings. I have so many questions. Does the reader do different voices when the characters are speaking? Are there sound effects? Are the listeners allowed to make eye-contact with the reader? Do you get kicked out if you shoot coffee out of your nose during a pivotal sex-scene?

 

Sorry! Allergies!

Sorry! Allergies!

And in South Africa? Things work a little differently. ‘Round here, your bookclub gets together to buy the books. And you get to read them by yourself. This is how it works;

  • Step one:            Go and find yourself a bunch of members. They don’t have to be girls. Or even women. You can even invite a boy or two. It would be best if they aren’t all friends of yours. Choose one or two of your own friends, and get them to choose one or two of theirs, and so on. If you suffer from OCD, it would be best to get twelve members; one for each month. If not, you can get away with anything from about six to about fifteen.

 

  • Step two:            Go to the ♦♦♦♦Books in ♦♦♦♦ and fill out a book-club registration form. You’ll need to leave a copy of your license, and fill in the contact details of all of your members.

 

  • Does it have to be the ♦♦♦♦Books in ♦♦♦♦? It most certainly does. If you go somewhere else, we will be sad. We will be distant when we are with our partners, and short tempered with our children. And you wouldn’t want that now, would you?

 

  • Step three:         Set yourself up a roster. Each time you meet, you need to have a different member acting as the book-getter. For your first meeting, I’m going to assume that it’s you, since you are clearly a trailblazer and an adventurous spirit.

 

  • Step four:            At last, we come to the book part. Go and get some books. From ♦♦♦♦Books. In ♦♦♦♦. We’d prefer for you to take novels, but won’t be too upset if you throw in a novel-sized biography or history. Stay away from the R1000,00 cookery books, though. Choose about twelve or so books. Don’t worry, you won’t be buying all of these. We’re just going to let you take them home. Because we know you aren’t going to read them for free and then bring them back. We are trusting like that. You will, of course, need to check them out at the till; we do need to keep some semblance of order round here.

 

  • Step five:             You are now ready for your first meeting. Arrange a get-together with the other members. Bring wine. You might just need it; you’re about to have an argument. Haul out the books you got and display them to the assembled members. You’re about to whittle them down from twelve to the four or five you are going to buy. Things are going to get a little heated. Someone is going to make a snide remark about at least one the books you chose, and everyone will disagree about which books to buy. If they don’t, your members are not passionate enough about books, or arguing, and you need to kick them out and choose another lot.

 

  • Step six:               That’s it as far as the book part of your bookclub meeting goes. All you need to do is draw up another roster so that, over the next few weeks or months, each member gets a chance to read each of the books you have chosen to buy. If you were left unsatisfied by your argument about books, you can now have an argument about money (We do need to get paid, after all). If not, you have nowhere else to be. You have wine. If you’ve chosen well, you have good company. You have wine. And you have one night off from the rest of your life which is yours and yours alone. Make the most of them.
We're not here to judge...

We won’t judge you, I promise…

 

  • Step seven:        The next day, bring the books you have decided not to buy back to ♦♦♦♦Books. In ♦♦♦♦. And bring some money for the books you have decided to keep. So very pleased will we be that, if you buy enough books, we will give you a discount. And the more books you buy, the more pleased will we be.

So that’s it. That’s how to bookclub, Mzansi style. It’s all rather straightforward.

It is not, however, ironclad. If you live out of town, or happen to know exactly what you want, you can simply buy the books before the meeting. As long as you have registered, and spend above the threshold limit, you will still get your discount. But you’ll be missing out on a damn fine argument. Just saying.

 

"I TOLD YOU NEVER TO BRING ANOTHER NORA ROBERTS! EVER!" "IT'S NOT A NORA ROBERTS! IT'S A J.D.ROBB!"

“I TOLD YOU NEVER TO BRING ANOTHER NORA ROBERTS! EVER!”
“IT’S NOT A NORA ROBERTS! IT’S A J.D.ROBB!”

You can, should you feel that way inclined, buy a copy of the same book for each member of the club, read it beforehand, and then discuss it at the meeting. We will be impressed, and ever so slightly intimidated.

You can even buy just a single book, and read it out loud at your next bookclub meeting. You are unlikely to qualify for the official discount, but if you promise to invite us along to your meeting, I’m sure we can make a plan. If you use different voices for different characters, throw in the odd sound effect, and cover a pivotal sex-scene, you might even get to see us shoot coffee out of our noses.

I owe you a bit of an apology. This article was called “Why you should start a bookclub”, not “How you should start a bookclub”, and now I’ve been rattling on about admin for an age, and am running out of time. And space.

So here goes. We live in a city. So many of us have been thrown together in so little space that we have become isolated. We are friends to our friends, family to our family, and avoid everyone else. We don’t get together for village fairs or barn raisings or cake-sales at the town hall. Half of us don’t even know our neighbours. It’s bad for us. We need to get out more. And if we do so in honour of books, so much the better.

 

Some people choose to be isolated. This woman, however, clearly has cooties.

Some people choose to be isolated. This woman, however, clearly has cooties.

But that’s not all! We are by no means a selfless society, and yet we have somehow forgotten to do things for ourselves. Not selfish things, just our own things. We live for our jobs or our children or our partners. We spend our free time doing team-building exercises with colleagues, or watching our children play sport, or hanging around with people who aren’t blood kin, but whom our children refer to as “Aunt So-and-so” or “Uncle Whatsit”

We need to start doing more things that are our own things, not shared things. We need to find more people who are our own people, not shared people. We need to spend a little time that is our own time, not shared time. And if we satisfy that need with something as harmless and benevolent as a bookclub, no-one in our lives can honestly claim that their feelings are being hurt.

But wait! There’s more! (Sorry. I watched a lot of infomercials in the eighties). One day we’re all going to be in our seventies. What a rare thing it would be to look back and to remember that you popped out one evening all those years ago to check out what this whole “bookclub” thing was all about. To remember feeling a little nervous, a little shy, and a little excited about trying a new thing with new people. And to remember that it turned out to be good enough to stick with for forty years, through arrivals and departures and births and deaths and marriages and divorces. And then to stop looking back and instead start looking forward, because you would be doing it again next Thursday.

Just remember to take along some bail money.

Just remember to take along some bail money.

 

And that is all. No more “there’s mores”. Except for a rather obvious one. More books. For less money. At ♦♦♦♦Books. In ♦♦♦♦.”

Cat People

My father was not a man about whom people said “He has such a way with animals.” Not that he disliked them or anything. He just wasn’t one of those people who spend their first ten minutes of a visit to someone else’s house aggressively patting the dog and shouting “Who’s a good boy, then?”, or trying to win over the surly cat by holding out a hand a going “Psshwhsshwhsshwhsshwhssh” and gurning like a lunatic. He tended to ignore animals and they tended to ignore him.

 

Some people ignore animals more energetically than others.

Some people ignore animals more energetically than others.

So it came as a bit of a surprise when, as he was walking in his garden one day, a cockatiel landed on his shoulder and just didn’t go away. We put up some “Found. Naively trusting cockatiel” signs, but no-one claimed him. And so we went out and bought him a cage and some toys, and a tiny mirror so that he would have an imaginary mortal enemy to fight with. Cheeky Boy (for some reason, all cockatiels round here are called Cheeky Boy) lived with us for a year or two, nibbling his way through the edges of our childhood books and noisily beating the crap out of the bird in the mirror until, sadly, he went the way of all flesh.

We packed the cage away in the back of the garage and forgot about it until, as my father was walking in his garden one day, a cockatiel landed on his shoulder and just didn’t go away. Up went the “Found” signs. Out came the cage. We called him Cheeky Boy (rules are rules). Being older and wiser, we threw away the mirror.

This is, I’m sure you will agree, a rather unusual way of acquiring pets. I have heard of other people who have captured escaped cockatiels (all cockatiels round here have escaped; they don’t occur here naturally, and can’t survive as ferals) by luring them in with food or spraying them with a hose, but my father just had to step outside.

We began to suspect that sinister forces were at play when, some time after Cheeky Boy II had passed on, my father stepped out into his garden, and a Sulphur Crested Cockatoo landed on his shoulder, and just didn’t go away. Up went the signs. Away went the bird. Cockatiels may be a dime a dozen, but a Sulphur Crested Cockatoo is $1000 for just the one. The owners turned up almost as soon as we put up the signs. No free pet for us.

 

"Cute! If only there was a way we could turn it into cash..."

“Cute! If only there was a way we could turn it into cash…”

This was, in retrospect, probably a good thing. Sulphur Crested Cockatoos can live for over 70 years, and besides, none of us had the faintest idea of what you are supposed to call them.

My father passed on a couple of years ago, and among the many things we lost was the ability to pluck free pets from the ether with no effort at all. These days it takes a bit of effort.

My family, you see, is obviously rather taken with the idea of free pets. Not birds, though. Without my father’s curiously impractical super-power, birds are out of reach for us. No more Cheeky Boys. So my family has taken to stealing cats instead.

They will loudly protest their innocence, but I know what they’re up to. It started with my youngest sister. A few years ago, she and her family moved into a new house. Once they’d been there for a week or two, the neighbour’s cat popped over the wall to check them out, as cats do. And so, obviously, my sister fed him a can of top-grade tuna. As one does. Or rather, as one doesn’t.

 

Psshwhsshwhsshwhsshwhssh

Psshwhsshwhsshwhsshwhssh

This wasn’t a starving feral cat from a back alley somewhere. It was the neighbours’ pet. They had a little basket for it. They had a litter box for it. They fed it and had a cute little name for it, like Mr Whiskers. They did not, however, feed it top-grade tuna. For some inexplicable reason, the cat began to visit my sister’s house more often, and spend more time there. And put on weight.

And now? It doesn’t go “home” anymore. Ever. She might have done so very, very slowly, but my sister stole her neighbour’s cat. Is she racked by guilt? Filled with remorse? She is not. She has renamed the beast “Tuna Cat” in recognition of her glorious victory. And the best part? She doesn’t really like cats.

My mother was slightly disapproving of all of this. One shouldn’t use high-quality saltwater finfish of the tribe Thunnini to steal one’s neighbours’ cat. Not content to merely point this out, she then went on to demonstrate, by stealing her neighbours’ cat through the power of love alone. It took nearly a year. She knew she had won when the unfortunate beast began to starve to death. It was clearly spending so much time at my mother’s house that the neighbours forgot they had a pet and stopped feeding it.

Honour was satisfied. My mother declared victory and started to feed the stolen cat. She named her Mishka. My mother has set aside a couch in the TV room for her. And the best part? She doesn’t really like cats.

I don't know why not. There's just so much you can do with them...

I don’t know why not. There’s just so much you can do with them…

I try not to judge these people. As they say, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. I love them for who they are, and to be perfectly honest, moral superiority is quite a warm and snuggly feeling.

So why this long and rambling redefinition of the word “catnap”? Well, this is actually one of those long and rambling “I haven’t posted for ages!” posts. I’ve been a little scarce.

I have, you see, re-joined the ranks of the nine-to-fivers. I started a new job at the beginning of last month. It’s exactly the same as the job I left a year ago, but in a different place. Yup. I’m a bookseller again.

It’s all been a bit of a shock to the system. My time is no longer my own. It took me a while to find my rhythm. Evenings were for catching my breath, not writing. But I got over it pretty quickly. I’m a bookseller, not a lumberjack. After a week or two I was ready to return to blogging. And then it happened.

 

Now try to keep Monty Python's lumberjack song out of your head for the rest of the day.

Now try to keep Monty Python’s lumberjack song out of your head for the rest of the day.

I am sorry to have to tell you this, but Mrs 23thorns has been sneaking around behind my back. All it took was for my absence to be guaranteed and my movements predictable. I stepped out of the door one day, and everything around me crumbled. Mrs 23thorns betrayed me.

Yes, good people. No sooner was my back turned than Mrs 23thorns up and stole a cat. Bam! Just like that! No high-quality tuna. No furtive strokes as the cat came stealing over the wall. Nope. I went off to work one day without any cats to speak of, and came home to find Ginger Cassidy living in my house. Yup. Ginger Cassidy. He was named by a committee of small people.

 

I wanted to go for "Contraband", but the committee disagreed...

I wanted to go for “Contraband”, but the committee disagreed…

The whole operation was flawlessly executed. Mrs 23thorns arrived home with her two tiny henchpersons to find the soon-to-be Ginger Cassidy mewing in the driveway. In a heartbeat he was installed in my daughter’s bedroom, calmly chewing on a piece of sausage and lapping up some milk while the dogs barked hysterically at the window.

Luckily I, the calm, rational, sensible member of the family, arrived home soon after, and immediately set about remedying the situation. I took Ginger Cassidy back out into the driveway and explained to him in short, easy-to-understand Anglo-Saxon words that it was time for him to leave. Sorted. I dusted off my hands and went back inside, nodding firmly to myself in acknowledgement of a job well done. Until I glanced out the window and saw that Ginger Cassidy was still there. As was the younger Ms 23thorns.

 

They were having a pose-off...

They were having a pose-off…

Every time Ginger Cassidy so much as glanced at the gate, she would scoop him up in her four-year-old arms and carry him back to the middle of the driveway while explaining that she loved him very much and he was not allowed to go anywhere.

Right. Desperate times called for desperate measures. I set the dogs on him. Kinda. What I actually did was carry him out of the gate and then let the dogs into the garden to keep him from coming back in. Theoretically.

Apparently Ginger Cassidy can levitate. Ten minutes later we found him sitting comfortably up a thorn-tree in the middle of the garden while the dogs went berserk just below him. “We need”, said Mrs 23thorns, looking at me pointedly, “to get him down.”

Right. This is what our thorn-tree looks like.

Mrs 23thorns refers to this category of things around the home as "Your job".

Mrs 23thorns refers to this category of things around the home as “Your job”.

 

“We” got him down. There was blood. No matter. I had another idea. I locked the dogs in the house, and the cat outside, and off we went to bed. It was perfect. As we slept, Ginger Cassidy would get bored and bugger off home to his real family. And he has a real family. Feral cats don’t let four-year-olds carry them around like ragdolls. Perfect.

Theoretically. In reality, I stepped outside the next morning all clean and polished and ready for work to be greeted by a plaintive mewing. From the thorn-tree. More blood. The dogs were locked outside and Ginger Cassidy was locked inside, and I went off to work.

I returned to find that we now had a litter-box full of cheerful white and blue crystals, and eighty kilograms of cat food. I wasn’t going to give up that easily. I went around the neighbourhood knocking on doors. No joy. I put up some “Found. Naively trusting cat” posters. Success! That very evening I got an excited phonecall from a pleasant-sounding Nigerian man with only a passing familiarity with the English language. It took me just ten minutes to work out that he wanted me to go and fetch my cat. And its kittens. It took me just another ten minutes to explain the small but fundamental difference between the words “lost” and “found”. Bugger.

 

Although he did give me an idea...

Although he did give me an idea…

I mentioned the SPCA to Mrs 23thorns. She mentioned euthanasia to me with moist eyes and a quivering lower lip. Bugger.

It would appear that we now have a cat. And allergies.

And so to the paucity of posts on this blog. I have found my new routine. It goes like this:

We wake up bright and early in the morning. Or rather we are woken by a distraught four-year-old who has been bitten by a cat. There is little or no brightness involved. We lock the dogs outside. We remove an unreasonably large poo coated in cheerful white and blue crystals from a specially bought plastic tray full of cheerful white and blue crytals with a small, specially bought pink spatula, and throw it away. Then we vacuum up the cheerful white and blue crystals that have been artfully scattered around my daughter’s room. We close the cat back in my daughter’s room and let one of the dogs back inside to feed it while the other eats outside. Then it’s just a simple matter of locking the dogs outside again so that my daughter can get dressed with Ginger Cassidy before moving them back inside (while making sure Ginger Cassidy is safe in his room) so that they don’t run out into the street when I go off to work.

God only knows what happens when I’m away at work. All I can tell you is that yesterday it involved a tetanus injection. Then I come home again.

 

So that's what Karma looks like...

So that’s what Karma looks like…

I arrive home to a scene of idyllic peace. This lasts up until the moment I open the front door. The dogs run out. I pause briefly to greet the family before having a quiet cup of coffee with Mrs 23thorns in the garden. Or not. First, we have to drive the dogs back inside and lock one of them in the bathroom (the reasons for this are complex, but revolve around his ability to open windows) so that Ginger Cassidy can have some outside time. We then have to threaten the children with death if they let the dogs out. And then we can have our quiet cup of coffee.

Or not. My children do not fear death. We have about three minutes in which to soak up the peaceful sounds of the dog barking hysterically in the bathroom before one of the children needs to come outside to tell us that they are drawing a picture, or the other needs to answer a call of nature and releases the window-opening hell-beast. Then we get to relax by sprinting off down the lawn to drive the dogs back into the house before retrieving the cat from the thorn tree. And bleeding.

Once we have finished relaxing, we drive the dogs back out of one door while bringing the cat in another. We feed and bath the children before closing the cat in my daughter’s room and letting the one dog inside so we can feed the entire menagerie in their separate locations. Then we let the dogs inside for the night and squeeze my daughter into her room while holding various animals at bay with our feet. All that remains is to open my daughter’s window once she has fallen asleep so that the cat can frolic around in the dark for a while before coming back in to bite her awake at four in the morning so that we can do it all again.

 

Dawn at my house.

Dawn at my house.

And then it is my time to write. For some reason I don’t really feel up to it, and Mrs 23thorns and I opt instead to weep ourselves quietly to sleep while one of the dogs whines peacefully at my daughter’s door.

Fear not! Things are going to change around here! We are going to find a new routine! I wish I could tell you that we are taking control back from the vicious swarm of vermin that have taken over our lives, but I can’t. Nope. Today’s the day my daughter gets to bring Mickey and Mouse home with her. Micky and Mouse are the class hamsters. They live in a cheerful looking circus tent-cage covered in transparent pipes, and apparently need to be taken out and held every fifteen minutes or they will feel sad. My daughter is very pleased with herself. All the other kids get the hamsters for a weekend. She’s got them for the holidays.

Hamster cages have come a long way since I was small.

Hamster cages have come a long way since I was small.

 

And so, good people, it might be just a little while before I get back to regular posting. I need to find a way to keep the cat away from the hamsters. And the dogs away from the cat. Which involves keeping my daughter away from the hamsters. And my son away from the bathroom. I can, at least, relax just a little and leave the dangerous work up to Mrs 23thorns. Not that she’s in control or anything. It’s just that she recently had a tetanus shot…

I’m beginning to understand why they say that owning a pet adds ten years to your life. I’ve aged at least that much in the last two weeks. And the best part? I don’t really like cats. Maybe we should get a cockatiel…

We could call him Cheeky Boy.

We could call him Cheeky Boy.

 

 

The Sameness Tree

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

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

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

You're not fooling anyone...

You’re not fooling anyone…

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

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

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

Behold! The distilled soul of a pine tree.

Behold! The distilled soul of a pine tree.

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

Nice.

Nice.

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

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

Less nice.

Less nice.

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

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

Nice again.

Nice again.

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

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

I'm on the fence on this one.

I’m on the fence on this one.

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

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

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

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

Squint. And use your imagination.

Squint. And use your imagination.

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

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

The colours are OK, but the accessories are spectacular.

The colours are OK, but the accessories are spectacular.

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

BRAAAINS!

BRAAAINS!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I fear Mopanes. Because of these;

Peekaboo!

Peekaboo!

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

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

I said "tend to"...

I said “tend to”…

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

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

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

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

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

Yummy!

Yummy!

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

And look like the hobo's toenails...

And look like the hobo’s toenails…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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