I have spent the last few weeks helping my wife package products for her new business. She’s not thinking small. When we fold boxes, we fold several hundred boxes. Pinch, fold, tuck. Pinch, fold, tuck. Pinch, fold, tuck. When we stick labels on room fresheners, we stick several hundred labels on room fresheners. Peel, stick, peel, stick, peel, stick. Right now we’re busy with several thousand cloth shopping bags. We’re folding them into squares and tying them up with ribbons. This is much more interesting. Fold, fold, fold, fold, tuck, wrap, tie. Fold, fold, fold, fold, tuck, wrap, tie. Sigh. Fold, fold, fold, fold, tuck, wrap, tie.
It’s not exactly riveting, but eventually, your brain and hands click over into autopilot. I could fold boxes or tie ribbons while operating heavy machinery. It’s become like breathing. Which got me thinking about lizards. Of course. Not that the lizards round here are particularly good at folding or tying; it just reminded me that those who feel the need to talk about such things talk about the most primitive part of your brain as the lizard brain.
This is the part that lets the vast majority of us (apart from customs agents and used car salesmen) breath without having to think about it. It blinks and yawns and coughs for us without disturbing the more important parts of our brains, freeing them up to focus on important things, like the state of Brangelina’s relationship, or which Olympic sports are most harmed by the current requirement that all athletes wear spandex (I’m thinking women’s powerlifting, but men’s table-tennis doesn’t emerge unscathed. So many bones!).
Lizards are everywhere in South Africa. All you need is a small patch of sun and a hard surface or two, and you’re guaranteed to spot at least one, usually more, rustling through the undergrowth or basking in the heat. Those are mostly just skinks though. There are several different species, but they all look the same- dark torpedo-shaped bodies, usually with a stripe or two. They’re actually quite attractive, but they are so ubiquitous that you stop noticing them. My own garden is filled with tiny geckos. They’re cuter than skinks, and at least have the decency to entertain us by ignoring gravity and running up and down walls, but they too fade into the background after a while.
There are, however, places where the lizards get more interesting. One of these is the Lowveld. Yes folks, I’m afraid it’s the next instalment of the Lowveld ecosystem series. Take heart though, soon we will be moving on to cute and cuddly. Or at least warm blooded.
For now, though, let’s wade our way through some beady-eyed and scaly. We’ll start small(ish) and work our way up.
Tropical House Geckos
These are quite a bit bigger than the geckos in my garden at home, about 15cm or so. What makes them cool is that, like the name says, they live in houses. They hide behind pictures or light fittings, and come out at night to feed on insects that are drawn in by the lights. They get quite tame. This gives you a chance to see just how uncanny is their ability to ignore the pull of gravity. They can happily walk up a vertical pane of glass, but seem to spend most of their time upside down on the ceiling. They can even run upside down.
They’re not holding on with claws or anything. Without going into too much detail (it gets a bit complicated), they have millions of tiny hairs on their feet which stick to the surface using van der Waals forces (it’s a little like magnetism). It’s uncanny.
Not content to ignore the forces that keep the rest of us firmly attached to the ground, they are also fiercely territorial. This means that if you sit quietly looking up at the ceiling, every now and then you will see a vicious fight taking place above your head. Upside down. I’ve never seen one fall. Even Spiderman falls. Nerd.
There is one thing everyone knows about chameleons. Everyone is wrong. Chameleons don’t change colour to blend in with the background. They do however, change colour for almost every other reason. They change colour to warm up. They change pattern when on the move. They change colour to cool down. They change colour when hunting. They change colour at night. But most of all they change colour to communicate.
A couple of years ago we found one crossing the road and brought it home. We built it a nice big cage and fed it crickets, but it was not our friend. When we went too close, it would go dark with annoyance. When we picked it up, it would show its rage by breaking out in cute little black polka-dots. This strikes me as being a rather questionable self-defence tactic. But we are here to observe, not to judge.
Mostly though, they use colour to communicate with each other. The males display their colour changing ability to pick up chicks. Imagine this happening at a nightclub near you. Michael Jackson, leaning casually against a bar, flashes his eyebrows at every attractive woman that passes. When he’s sure he’s got one’s attention, he looks her straight in the eye, tips his hat down with one hand while grabbing his crotch with the other, and shouts “OHHHHHHH” while cramming his remarkable 30 year colour changing trick into a 30 second burst. I’m no expert on seduction, but I reckon if he could have mastered that move, no-one would have been whispering about little boys.
The colour thing is just the tip of the chameleon’s iceberg of weirdness. Their eyes are set on bulging pyramids of mobile flesh, and work independently.
Their tongues are like sticky harpoons, shooting out at high speed to snare their insect prey and drag it struggling back to their gaping maws.
They are shapeshifters too. An undisturbed but active chameleon is a thin, wiry little thing.
Disturb it and it will suddenly double in size, sporting a great, strong-looking curved back. From the side. From the front, you can see it’s all bluff.
They often die after giving birth. They don’t even move right. They move one leg cautiously forward at a time, rocking backwards and forwards like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman.
Southern Tree Agama.
Some of the camouflages you see out in the bush are amazing. There are Katydids that look like leaves, beetles that look like thorns, snakes that look like blades of grass, and Southern Tree Agamas. Southern Tree Agamas have spent millions of years evolving to look just like the bark of the trees on which they live. You can look right at one from a few feet away and not notice it. It’s the perfect defence.
Until they feel like a bit of nookie. The moment the males feel that familiar stirring of the loins, they discard those millions of years of hard won evolution and become the most obvious target in the Lowveld. Their heads and tails turn a rather fetching cobalt blue, split in the middle by a wide band of yellow. If that’s not enough to catch the attention of every hawk, eagle, cat, genet, snake, leguaan and flesh hungry baboon (yes, they do eat meat) in the area, they then proceed to the most prominent spot they can find and while away the hours by bobbing their heads up and down. Sex can make men of all breeds do very silly things.
On a side note, this is another of those times when English speaking South Africans reveal their dull and uninspired nature when compared to their Afrikaans cousins. The Englishman who got to name them looked up and saw a bright blue and yellow lizard bouncing frantically up and down in a tree and thought “it’s an Agama. And it’s in a tree. Sorted!” His Afrikaans counterpart, however, did pick up on a minor detail.
He called it a “Bloukop Koggelmander”, which means blue headed mocking lizard. It’s lovely to say. If you’re not from here, you are reading it wrong. The first part sounds a bit like blowcorp. The second part is a bit tougher. There is simply no way to write those g’s. The Afrikaans g sounds more like a man trying to get a pubic hair out of his throat than a letter. It sounds like a garbage disposal. So you end up with “core” (said rather abruptly) “ggghhh” (just try to hack up some phlegm- you’ll be on the right track) “el” “mun” “dur”. Like most Afrikaans names, it’s not easy for the uninitiated, but is deeply satisfying to say.
While everything else may be hunting them down, people round here tend to leave Bloukops alone. For some reason, everyone thinks they’re poisonous. They’re not. Those are not warning colours. Those are stupid colours.
Giant Plated lizard
These are just ordinary lizards, but on a grand scale. They’re about 75cm (30inches) long, and heavily built. I learned the hard way that their sturdy appearance is deceptive. At my parents place in the bush, there is a large, fractured rock just next to the house. On it, for the last twenty years or so, according to my mother, has lived “the lizard”. He’s huge, and fairly tame. We feed him kitchen scraps, and he’s used them to grow startlingly big. He’s not, a “him”, of course. He’s a “them”- a long line of lizards, male or female, which have lived in the same spot for generations.
And the deceptive sturdiness? There is an enclosed stoep (patio) on the side of the house, caged in with chicken-wire and mosquito netting, where we used to sleep as youngsters. It used to have a rather ill-fitting door with a large gap underneath it. We woke up one morning to find that “the lizard”, impatient for his breakfast, had popped in for a visit. As the only son in the family, it fell to me to get him outside again. No problem! I snuck up behind him and grabbed him by the tail. Which I kept hold of, while the rest of the lizard scuttled back off to his rock, vowing never to visit again.
You see, as I said, Giant Plated Lizards are just very big ordinary lizards. And lizards shed their tails. I was left holding 30cm worth of writhing, coiling horror. I dropped it at once, more unnerved by a lizards tail than I had been by 75cm of lizard. It lay there for ages, twitching and twisting like a disembodied hand in a zombie movie. We all just stared at with deep, superstitious dread. We eventually scooped it up in a bucket, careful not to touch it, and threw it out into the bush, all the while carefully avoiding eye contact with its former owner, who sat glaring at us from on top of his rock, shorter, but infinitely wiser.
We own a bloodhound. Inevitably, this has proved to be a disappointing undertaking. Not once have we been called upon to chase a fugitive though a foetid swamp. But the other day, we did get to experience a bloodhound at full cry. We were lounging around after lunch when the peace of the Sunday afternoon was split by an almighty “WHOOOOOO! WHOOOOWHOOOOWHOOO! WHOOOWHOOO!” from the bottom of the garden. We rushed out, fully expecting to find a sweaty Alabaman criminal in an orange jumpsuit wading through the fishpond. It wasn’t a fugitive. It was a monitor lizard.
Giant plated lizards are very big. The monitors are huge. And there’s no messing about with their tails. We don’t call them monitors. Round here they’re called leguaans. Or even better, likkewaans. They are close cousins of the Komodo dragon, and look it.
There are two types. The bigger, or at least longer, of these is the water monitor. It’s about two metres long (about six foot five), and built like iron girders. For me, there is something unwholesome about them. There is a rest camp in the Kruger Park on the banks of a river where there are two huge sycamore figs, which once a year spring to life with hundreds of nesting weaver birds. At the base of the trees, you can see several water monitors, lurking in wait of fallen nestlings. That’s how they roll. They will eat anything they can swallow, the weaker and more helpless the better.
They are by no means cowardly, though. They are not to be trifled with. They will scratch you, whip you with their tails, and bite you, and they are phenomenally strong. Once they get a grip with their teeth, you need a crowbar and a blowtorch to make them let go.
On top of that, it has recently been discovered that they may actually be venomous. If one of them ever appeared on the stoep I would just cut my holiday short and go back home.
Their cousins, the land monitors, are somehow much more appealing. They are almost as big, but have a more rounded, prehistoric-looking head. They often used to visit my parent’s place, lodging themselves behind furniture or climbing up into the dying tree in front of the house. They too are best left alone.
That’s it with the lizards. There are scores more, but I’ve passed the 2000 word mark again, so you’ll just have to come and see them for yourselves. I not done yet, I’m afraid to say. There are a couple of other reptiles out in the bush, but not enough to warrant their own posts. I’ll try to keep this short. But you know I won’t succeed.
There are two different types of terrapin down in the bush, both very similar. They seem quite cute, popping their heads out of the water to take a look around, or hauling themselves out in little piles like Yertle the Turtle to catch the heat of the sun. But they aren’t. They will eat whatever they can get their teeth into, including carrion and birds, which they have been seen grabbing by the feet and dragging under the water, flapping and struggling. And they stink. Good god, do they stink.
A tortoise is a strange thing to find out in the bush. You can spend an afternoon watching lions tear up a dead buffalo, or elephants ripping up trees, and then come pootling round a corner to find a tortoise ambling good-naturedly down the road, or placidly munching on a low shrub. They look like they belong in a petting zoo.
Coincidentally, that’s where you will usually find them. Because these ones are huge. They can get to over 40kg. This gives rise to two curious phenomena.
Firstly, when a certain type of person sees a small tortoise moseying down the road out in the wild, their first thought is “I need that!” They take them home, shoved into the glove compartment or packet up in a suitcase with some shoes and dirty underwear. Two years later, when they are no longer small, and have slowly but steadily chewed their way through the entire garden, those same people decide “I’m done with that now!” and take them off to the nearest petting zoo, or bird garden, or park. The small wild park around the corner from us has over forty of them.
Secondly, the big ones are built like speed-bumps. Visitors to the bush are generally looking off into the distance, trying to spot lions. Every now and then, someone will come around a corner and drive right over a tortoise. Sadly, they are big enough to be taken out by the sump of a sedan car. So every petting zoo, bird garden, or park has a subset of huge tortoises with shattered and broken shells, brought in by guilt ridden bush visitors. On the bright side, they will never go extinct. There is what the scientists would call a “healthy captive breeding population”
Crocodiles are genuinely fascinating. Like Great White Sharks or Paris Hilton, however, they have become boring through overexposure. You cannot watch a wildlife channel on the TV for more than half an hour without seeing some gurning idiot leap onto one and truss it up with duct tape.
Watching them out in the bush can be pretty dull too. They spend most of their time just lying around. Once in a while, though, they will do something to remind you quite how awesomely powerful they are.
On our honeymoon, my wife and I ended up on a high point overlooking a river. On the floodplain in front of us, a pride of lions was feeding on a buffalo kill, squabbling and ripping and tearing and growling. Until two crocodile strolled up. Or crawled up. Strolling is beyond the average croc. They moved right into the heart of the pride, without even acknowledging the fact that a bunch of Africa’s largest mammalian predators, which had just pulled down a 900kg hate-machine, was at that point trying to fight them off, picked up the huge carcass, and moseyed back on down to the water.
It was an awesome display of power. It was also the last interesting thing those particular crocs were going to be doing for a while. With a meal that size, they wouldn’t have to eat again for months.
Even when they aren’t being interesting, or aren’t even there at all, they add a certain something to the whole bush experience. Walking up to any pool of water becomes a bit of a test of nerve when you know it could explode with scales and teeth at any moment.
So that’s it with the reptiles. Thank God. Just 517 birds and 147 mammals left to go. We’re practically done. It may take a little while, though. I’m a little distracted by my new hobby. Fold, fold, fold, fold, tuck, wrap, tie. Sigh. Fold, fold, fold, fold, tuck, wrap, tie.