When I was but a callow youth, I went on a school tour to Russia, and saw, for the first time, a people who were really into queuing. South Africans aren’t bad at queuing, but for the Russians, it was an art. A passion. A calling. Communism hadn’t fallen yet, and there were shortages of everything, so quite understandably, people were queuing for bread and milk. And cigarettes. And vodka. The necessities.
They also queued for things that seemed less desirable through western eyes; bright red plastic shoes, polyester pants painted to look like jeans, and Elvis LP’s. I’m not knocking them for this- if that was all that was available to me, I might queue up for a little blue suede shoe action myself.
Soon, I began to realise that these people were not just lining up for the things they wanted or needed. Queuing was a legitimate leisure activity, too. I first noticed this when I realised that the people wandering around an open square one evening were slowly forming into a neat, well-behaved line.
We ambled over to see what they were lining up for. It was a caricature artist, dashing off a quick cartoon of a smiling young couple. My first thought was “Wow, all of these people must really want pictures of themselves with enormous teeth”. But they didn’t. They just wanted to have a peek. And we had started getting dirty looks from the queuers for having the gall to just walk up and check things out without waiting our turn. Arrogant foreign scum!
This rather odd pastime reached the level of true art though, when we realised that they would queue for nothing. We were quite a large group, and when we stopped and gathered round to look at something, like a shop window full of bright red shoes and pirated “Jailhouse Rock” LP’s, a short but orderly queue would form up behind us. If we went about our business, and happened to pass by the same spot later on, the queue would still be there. As each person reached the front, looked sadly down at the fruits of capitalism, and wandered off to see if anything interesting was happening in the borscht queue, someone else would be joining at the back. It was beautiful.
Oddly enough, this wasn’t the first time I had seen this. My family had been causing scenes like this for years. With cars. The Kruger National Park is a wonderful place. It’s huge- bigger than Israel, and filled with large, dangerous animals and wild scenery. But someone has kindly taken the trouble to lay out a tidy little network of tarred roads and comfortable rest camps, with shops and restaurants and swimming pools.
It’s one of the few truly wild places in Africa that you can explore by yourself, in your own car. In most other places, you have to hand yourself over to the tender ministrations of a game ranger in tight khaki shorts, who will seize every opportunity to tell you more than you would like to know about rhino dung and palatable grazing.
There is a drawback to this though. Wild animals make their living by not being seen. They are good at it. To the untrained eye, a 200kg lion lying behind a small tuft of dried grass is almost invisible. Game rangers in tight khaki shorts make their living by finding wild animals for tourists. They are good at it. Life insurance salesmen from Cape Town make their living by selling life insurance. Not finding wild animals. They suck at it.
What this means is that the Kruger National Park is filled with life insurance salesmen driving around not finding wild animals. There is a way around this though. You don’t have to find any wild animals yourself. What you have to find is other life insurance salesmen who have found wild animals. A thousand life insurance salesmen are at least as good at finding wild animals as one game ranger in tight khaki shorts, so in the end, everyone does get to see the wildlife. But not alone. Every worthwhile animal spotted in the park will end up with a little queue of cars watching it. Something like a lion-kill can cause a proper traffic jam.
Because my father was not quite the same as other people, we mastered the art of creating tidy little queues of cars looking at nothing, like the Russians and their bright red plastic shoes. He was into plants. He didn’t just like them, he was passionate about them. Driving through the park, he would suddenly slam on the brakes and throw the car into reverse. The life insurance salesman from Cape Town trailing us at a distance would see this, and come rushing up behind us.
My father would haul out his binoculars, and start peering off into the bush. The life insurance salesman would do the same, convinced that the only reason he couldn’t see anything was because the angle was wrong. As my father pointed out to my mother that that Sour Plum over there was coming into flower, another life insurance salesman would round the corner behind us and think “Aha!”, and join the queue. As children, we were bored by plants, so we entertained ourselves by peering animatedly into the bush for the benefit of the life insurance salesmen, pointing and craning our necks to get a better view.
By the time we would leave, there would be a tidy little queue of life insurance salesmen behind us. The car behind us would pull forward to the prime spot, convinced he was about to see something spectacular. Hours later, on our way back to the camp, we would pass the same spot. There would be our tidy little queue of life insurance salesmen. As each one reached the prime spot, looked sadly into the empty bush, and moved on, another would join the back of the queue. It was enough to get me interested in plants.
And so, after a mere 1004 words, I can begin my blog post. It’s another in the series I’ve been doing on the ecosystem of the Lowveld. It’s about plants. Small ones. I know that plants are dull to most people, but stick with me- I’ll do my best to make it interesting. Really. There’s gonna be zombies. And rotting corpses. And deadly poisons. I’ll even throw in some romance for the poets out there. If that doesn’t work for you, at least you’ve learnt something about Russians and life insurance salesmen.
The number and variety of plants growing in the Lowveld is breathtaking. I’ve just chosen a few that I think may be interesting. I hope you think so too.
Beautiful. But deadly. Unless you’re not feeling very well.
If you visit the bush at the right time of year, you might be lucky enough to chance upon one of the Amaryllidaceae. This is a family of bulbs which is best known for the beauty of its flowers. Just look at some of them!
They aren’t very common, so it’s always a treat to chance upon one. It’s best to leave them alone though. They are very, very poisonous. That pretty round red one up there is called a Tumbleweed, because once the flowering is over, the flower head breaks off and blows around in the wind, scattering seeds. It’s also called a Bushman’s poison. It was used to poison arrowheads.
If you really want to know what the family is all about though, you need to look at the Afrikaans names. There’s the Seerooglelie (sore eye lily), the Gifbol (ball of poison), the Kopseerblom (the headache flower), and the Perdespook (the horse ghost). They are extensively used in traditional medicine. This is not a good idea. When the dosage is wrong, people die. That having been said, scientists the world over are falling over themselves to study them, because when they don’t kill you, they actually work. Personally, I’ll stick with aspirin.
You see! I wasn’t lying. Let’s get back to the game rangers in tight khaki shorts. If you ever go out for a guided walk in the bush, the game ranger in tight khaki shorts who is leading you will almost invariably take you out onto one of the sheets of exposed rock that dot the Lowveld. There he will point out the shrivelled, desiccated remains of the plants that once grew in the cracks and recesses of the rock surface. Like a magician at a child’s party, he will take out a bottle of water and pour some out onto one of them. And in front of your eyes, the brittle brown leaves will slowly swell and turn green.
It’s called a resurrection plant. It’s adapted to grow in pockets of soil that dry out very quickly after the rain. When there’s no water, it gives every indication of being very dead indeed. When the rains do come, it wastes no time in springing back to life.
A fish out of water.
If you ever see a drawing or a painting of life in the rainforests, the artist will be sure to include some epiphytes. These are small plants that grow high up in the branches of other trees, roots wrapped around their hosts, drawing their moisture from the constant rain and steaming humidity. They aren’t parasites, like mistletoe. They are just using the trees as a place to sit.
The Lowveld isn’t a rainforest. In fact it runs pretty damn close to being a desert. But it has its own epiphyte. It’s called a Leopard Orchid. It’s not as pretty as some orchids, but it deserves some credit just for being there. This is a plant with its roots exposed to the open air, in a place where there is no rain at all for over half of the year, and the temperature reaches over 45 degrees Centigrade. God alone knows how it survives. But it does. It doesn’t go into dormancy like the resurrection plant; it just clings stubbornly to life.
Timing is everything
Most of the plants I am talking about here have one thing in common. For most of the year, you are not even aware that they are there. Then, suddenly, usually after the first rain, they burst into your consciousness. For a week or two, they will treat you to a display of unparalleled beauty. Then they will recede into the background again. There is no better example of this than these:
It’s called a Bobbejaanstert (Baboon’s Tail), and no, that one is not dead. That’s just what they look like far most of the year. They have evolved to resist fire, and do so so well that they used to be used to carry hot coals around. They also make pretty good pot scourers. And then, once a year, they do this.
They can turn an ordinary looking patch of grass into this.
Then they go back to being pot scourers again.
If you are planning to scour some pots, you’re going to need some soap. All you need to do is find one of those game rangers in tight khaki shorts again. He will lead you over to a scraggly, innocuous looking little groundcover. It only looks innocuous- it’s called a devil’s thorn.
He will pick up some leaves, pour a bit of water over them, and rub them vigorously between his hands. His hands will soon be covered in lather, and any dirt will wash out. You don’t even have to rinse, since the saponids in the leaves evaporate away to nothing. Very handy, should you ever find yourself lost in the wilds of Africa with dirty hands, a bottle of water, and a game ranger in tight khaki shorts.
There is a little succulent that grows out in the bush that looks just like a clump of tiny cactuses. Like most of the small plants of the bush, it spends most of its time being completely unremarkable.
Then it flowers. The flowers are huge. This is not necessarily a good thing.
If that flower looks a little creepy to you, well spotted. It’s supposed to look like rotting meat. Not convinced? Should you ever see one, go up and take a good deep sniff. It’s called a carrion plant. And it smells like rotting meat. There’s a reason for this. Unlike all the other boring, mainstream plants out there, which are pollinated by butterflies and bees and moths and fairies and nature sprites, these are pollinated by flies. Carrion flies.
All this is merely interesting, until the day comes when you fall hopelessly in love with a Goth Give her one of these on your first date, and she will be yours forever. You can thank me then.
And one for the poets.
I promised one for the poets, and I will do my best to deliver. Fifteen or so years ago, my wife and I spent a few days out in the bush during October. Spring. We happened to be on our honeymoon. One night, while out on a drive, we came around a corner and found these.
I’d been visiting the bush for years, and had never seen one before. They don’t look like much in the picture. You have to see them in context. It was a full moon. We turned off the vehicle and turned out the lights. Full moon out in the bush isn’t like full moon anywhere else. There is very little artificial light around, so everything looks brighter. It’s bright enough to read a newspaper by. But it’s a strange sort of light. It robs the world of colour. Everything turns shades of grey and black. Except our flowers.
They were white. Achingly, piercingly white. And there were hundreds of them. It looked like someone had laid out a field of frosted champagne glasses. They seemed to suck in the moonlight and shine it back out from inside themselves. It was enchanting.
Don’t worry, poetry people. That’s not the poetry part. No-one does pretty flowers any more. Who cares about hosts of golden daffodils and roses by any other name? It’s 2012. We don’t need beauty unless it’s tainted. We need metaphors for the impermanence of beauty and the fleetingness of love. Here goes.
We went back the next day at lunchtime to take some pictures. There was nothing there. We hopped out to get a closer look. All that was left were shrivelled remains, drooping down like flags on a windless day, and robbed of their colour by the burning sun. The plants themselves were not much to look at, just a few sad green stalks sticking out of the ground. I’ve never seen them again.
We tried to find out what they were, and got nowhere. We couldn’t even find out the name. When I found the picture above, the photographer didn’t know what they were either. All we could find out was that the flowers open together for one night, and then burn away in the sun the next day. They must be pollinated by moths.
Maybe sometimes it’s better not to know everything. If I could track them down, they would be reduced to Latin names, and flowering seasons, and growth habits, and their magic would be gone.
Maybe it’s better to close your eyes and remember a field of glowing white flowers, lighting up the dark like shards of broken moonlight fallen to Earth, stirring gently beneath the wings of an army of silent moths.
So there you have it. Some of the flowers of the Lowveld. They’re quite nice. Not really worth a visit in themselves though. The Lowveld is more about life insurance salesmen from Cape Town and game rangers in tight khaki shorts than it is about flowers. If you’re really into flowers, you need to go to the other side of the country. That really is a desert. It looks like this.
Unless you come in spring. Then it looks like this.