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.

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The Sameness Tree

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

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

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

You're not fooling anyone...

You’re not fooling anyone…

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

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

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

Behold! The distilled soul of a pine tree.

Behold! The distilled soul of a pine tree.

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

Nice.

Nice.

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

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

Less nice.

Less nice.

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

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

Nice again.

Nice again.

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

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

I'm on the fence on this one.

I’m on the fence on this one.

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

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

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

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

Squint. And use your imagination.

Squint. And use your imagination.

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

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

The colours are OK, but the accessories are spectacular.

The colours are OK, but the accessories are spectacular.

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

BRAAAINS!

BRAAAINS!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I fear Mopanes. Because of these;

Peekaboo!

Peekaboo!

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

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

I said "tend to"...

I said “tend to”…

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

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

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

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

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

Yummy!

Yummy!

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

And look like the hobo's toenails...

And look like the hobo’s toenails…

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

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

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

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

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

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

05-August_017

Magic Guarri

Trees are magical. A proper big, spreading, ancient broad-leafed tree falls into the same category as rounded, ancient rocks and deep, clear pools of water.

 

Magic

Magic.

We are drawn to these things. They make us quiet. They make us want to reach out and touch them, as if doing so will allow us to feel the pulse of the earth itself; will allow us to become part of something bigger and infinitely wiser than ourselves.

 

Magic.

Magic.

We have always known that trees can hold magic. The Vikings believed the cosmos was held up by a giant Ash called Yggdrasil. The druids worshipped in groves of spreading oaks. The Maoris declared the largest Kauri trees to be royalty.

 

Magic.

Magic.

It’s time for another Lowveld post. One about plants. Or just one plant. But it is a magical one. Here’s one now;

 

Magic?

Magic?

Were you stuck dumb with awe? Did you feel the pull of the ancient gods? Did you sense that you were in the presence of royalty, or feel a sudden urge to sacrifice a goat? Not? Oh come now! It is not, I will concede, much to look at. But it is a proper magic tree! More so than the Ash and the Oak; their magic is lost to us. We stopped believing, and now all they have left is the power to make us feel inexplicably moved in their presence.

Not so my little tree. Its name says it all. It is a Magic Guarri. Or, if you have a more scientific bent, Euclea Divinorum. And it is the sort of thing that makes you believe that it was placed on earth by a benevolent god specifically for the benefit of mankind.

Let’s get the woowoo magic out of the way first. The divinorum part of its Latin name comes from the fact that a decoction of the roots is used by some tribes for the purposes of divination. But that’s not the only type of divining it’s used for. A fresh twig of Magic Guarri is said to quiver when close to an underground water source. Yup; it’s used for dowsing, too.

But that, as they say in the infomercials, is not all. Twigs are broken off and carried around or hung up in the eaves of houses as good luck charms and to ward off witches and bad luck. And yes, witches are as real to some of the people living in Africa as they were in Europe and the States during the witch hunts. In some rural areas, people are still driven from their homes or even killed on suspicion of witchcraft. Lightning strikes and sudden illnesses don’t happen by themselves.

 

I'm warning you for the last time, Mrs Fairchild; if I catch you doing this just one more time, I'm reporting you to the inquisition.

I’m warning you for the last time, Mrs Fairchild; if I catch you doing this just one more time, I’m reporting you to the inquisition.

So much for old-school magic. Now for the real stuff; the Magic Guarri is so staggeringly useful to the people of Africa that it doesn’t need evil spirits to exist to deserve its name.

We’ll start with the wildlife tourism stuff since that’s what these posts are about, mostly. If you go on a guided walk, or even, often enough, a guided drive in the bush, you are going to get to see the Magic Guarri. Your guide will stop, stroll over to a Magic Guarri, and break off a bunch of twigs. He’ll strip a bit of bark off the end, and crush the fibrous wood so that it ends up looking like a primitive paintbrush.

Leaf300

Then he’ll make you brush your teeth with it.

 

It's best to do as he says. He does, after all, have a rather large gun with him.

It’s best to do as he says. He does, after all, have a rather large gun with him.

Do not be offended. He does not have issues with your dental hygiene. He is trying to keep you engaged because the cool things like leopards and lions and elephants are not lurking around every corner, despite what you may have seen on the Discovery Channel. And he’s onto something.

The Magic Guarri tree has been used for this purpose since time immemorial. So much so that it is also known as the toothbrush tree. And here’s the really interesting part; it used to be thought that they were used like this simply because the twigs are really fibrous and made a good, stiff brush. Until a scientific someone took a closer look. It turns out that Magic Guarri wood has powerful anti-bacterial qualities that are only now being explored. That’s right; Magic Guarri is the natural equivalent of the sort of toothpaste that nine out of ten dentists would recommend.

If you’re doing the whole touristy thing, you might want to pick up a curio or two. A traditional African basket is always a good option. You will not realise it, but you will have stumbled across the Magic Guarri’s next remarkable quality; colour.

Let’s just say that you go for a nice multi-coloured number like this one;

basket

Your basket will have been dyed with Magic Guarri. Not just one of the colours; all of them. Magic Guarri is rich in tannins, and the bark is used to make a variety of different shades of brown dye.

Which is no big deal. Lots of trees are used to make dyes. But the Magic Guarri is a bit of a show-off. The bark may be brown, but the roots are deep red. They are chewed to turn the mouth a rather fetching red colour (far more practical than lipstick), to tan leather, and to dye floor mats so dark they are almost black.

And then, as if to prove the Magic Guarri is a sport of the gods and not a nice, sensible, naturally evolved tree, you can make purple ink out of the berries.

Speaking of which. The berries are edible, but not very nice. Do not, for one second, think you have found a chink in the Guarri’s armour. The fruits are used for making beer, which makes them very important indeed. They are also, since the Guarri thrives on multi-tasking, medicine. They are used as a laxative.

 

Magic!

Very important indeed.

Which pales to insignificance compared to the rest of the tree. Medicinal plants are a source of endless fascination to some and grinding tedium to many, so I’m going to rattle through this rather quickly. In order to live up to its name, various parts of the Magic Guarri are used to treat upset stomachs, ulcers, cancer, open sores, arthritis, jaundice, snakebite, gonorrhoea, headaches, toothaches, and, I kid you not, leprosy (yup, like witchcraft, leprosy is still a thing in Africa).

A decoction of the roots is used to treat infertility. Once it has sorted out this problem, it is taken to treat stomach cramps and contractions during pregnancy. And just to prove that it will not abandon you in your time of greatest need, it is then taken to prevent miscarriages.

When I said that the Guarri was a bit of a show-off, I meant it. Remember those berries you took as a laxative? Do not be alarmed if they turn out to be a little too effective. That pregnancy causing, easing, and saving potion also acts as a natural version of Imodium.

 

I am wiling to concede that some things are even more important than beer.

I am wiling to concede that some things are even more important than beer.

You are, I hope, starting to form the vague impression that the Magic Guarri is quite useful. But we’re not done yet. It does some other things, too. In some parts of Africa, the branches are used to purify drinking water (it’s that whole anti-bacterial thing again). Even better than that, branches are added to milk to make it more digestible and stop it from going off. For more than a year. Which is kind of handy if you’re a traditional pastoralist without access to electricity.

But what if you’re not a traditional pastoralist? All the uses I’ve mentioned so far can be prefaced by the quietly belittling word “traditional”. Does this mean that the magic of the Guarri is going to go the way of that of the Ash and the Oak as the influence of the West is more strongly felt? Maybe not.

The Guarri has another trick up its sleeve. It has an unusually high tolerance for some heavy metals. And arsenic. Where there is lots of arsenic in the soil, there is lots of Magic Guarri. Which would be vaguely interesting, except for one thing. Finding lots of arsenic in the soil is a pretty good sign that there is something else there, too. Gold. Yup. Finding lots of Magic Guarri might help you find lots of gold.

 

I'll settle for the beer. This lot looks a little heavy.

I’ll settle for the beer. This lot looks a little heavy.

You might have picked up that the Guarri is a firm believer in overkill. Once you’ve found your gold, you are going to want to rip it and tear it and grind it from the earth. And you’re going to leave a bit of a mess. A poisonous mess. Gold mining waste pits are not exactly easy to rehabilitate. Almost nothing will grow on them. Almost.

Magic Guarri will. And it just so happens that it is remarkably good at holding together eroding soil.

So there you have it. An unassuming little tree that just happens to be one of the most coincidentally useful plants on the planet; there are other, more useful plants, but they have been bred over millennia for the purpose. The Magic Guarri was just kind of lying around waiting for us.

And that’s the thing. It is useful for us. Not much else. Birds eat the fruit, and a few animals browse the leaves, but not very enthusiastically (all those tannins make it rather bitter and, in excess, poisonous). Its bounty seems to have been reserved for mankind alone; an exclusive gift from mother-nature.

 

Mother nature handing out a gift under the watchful eye of the competition.

Mother nature handing out a gift under the watchful eye of the competition.

Or maybe not. The Guarri has one final magic trick up its sleeve. And it’s not for us. It talks to the plants around it. And it does so to save their lives.

When the Magic Guarri is suffering from some sort of environmental stress, such as drought, it releases a pheromone into the air around it. And the plants surrounding it pick this up and respond by increasing the level of tannins in their leaves. Which makes them unpalatable to browsers. Which is kind of handy when you need all of your bits to carry you through the hard times.

Yup. Not content to live a life of selfless service to mankind, the Guarri takes time off to perform a little selfless service for its leafy brothers and sisters every now and then.

So there you have it. It is, I am willing to concede, no noble forest giant. You would not reach out a hand to feel the pulse of the world through its trunk, or strip off your clothes and dance naked in the moonlight beneath its spreading boughs. But should you ever pass one by, pause for a second to tip your hat to it. It is, after all, not every day you come across a magical gift from the old gods.

Unless, of course, you live here.

Unless, of course, you live here.

Pretty Handsome.

There are some people out there who will tell you that we should not impose our human standards of aesthetics on the animals that share our world; all of nature’s creation should be viewed as beautiful and important components of vibrant and valuable ecosystems. These people are noble and fair minded and pure of heart. They are also wrong. This is a sable antelope;

Form a line, ladies. Single file and no pushing.

Form a line, ladies. Single file and no pushing.

Just look at that magnificent bastard! He’s a looker and he knows it. Look at that power! That grace! If he was human, he would be surrounded by fawning young women in tight bikinis and copious amounts of makeup. Then there’s this guy;

Are you religious? Cause I'm the answer to all your prayers!

Are you religious? Cause I’m the answer to all your prayers, baby!

Continue reading

Spin.

The Emperor’s New Clothes, By Hans Christian Andersen, is very nearly two hundred years old, and is still as fresh and relevant now as it was when it was written. But something very odd has happened. Its meaning has changed.

For most of its life, it was a parable about pride and the fear that adults have of standing out from one’s peers. As the emperor paraded naked down the street, no-one dared point out his nudity for fear of seeming stupid. In the end, it took a child to point out that the great man’s goolies were flapping merrily in the wind in front of the assembled masses, because children are innocent and pure and free from the social fears and insecurities that plague us adults.

Now it’s about how a skilled pair of tailors can make a set of clothes out of nothing more than words. We have discovered magic. Real magic. It’s called spin. Continue reading

Game birds

I haven’t posted in a while. I could give you a thousand spurious reasons for this, but the truth is that I’ve been avoiding it because I need to do a post about birds. I’m not a birder. But if I’m trying to cover the entire ecosystem of the Lowveld, I will have to deal with the birds at some stage, because there happen to be quite a few of them.

I have managed a couple of bird posts, and now it’s time for another one. But I’m not really sure what to call these birds. Lurkers maybe. Skulkers. They are sometimes referred to as game birds, since there is a particular sort of person out there that prefers shooting them with shotguns to a nice, quiet round of Scrabble.

I can never remember... Is it pheasants or peasants that we're after?

I can never remember… Is it pheasants or peasants that we’re after?

Continue reading

Miniature buck.

I haven’t posted in a while. It’s not my fault. A bird got in the way. A Francolin. Every now and then I start a post and it either doesn’t feel right or I just lose interest. This time I didn’t just start, I got two thousand words in. I was writing about game birds. I got up to the Francolins, and went off to bed. That was nearly two weeks ago. I sat down a couple of times, looked at the damn Francolins, and thought “meh”. And wrote angry diatribes about our government for a local news site instead.

Meh.

Meh.

Continue reading

The huntress.

I mentioned the other day that I was writing the occasional article to post on a local news site, and that if they weren’t too specific to our politics or culture(s), I might pop them onto 23thorns as well. This is one of those.

I have never understood the mechanism of something “going viral”. Why does the whole world suddenly focus on a picture of a grumpy cat, or a clip of a chubby but unexpectedly nimble Korean rapper dancing like he’s riding a horse?

We’ve got something going viral out here at the moment. Something unusual. It seems to have popped up in the UK, but I don’t know if it will reach much further than that. This charming young lady is Melissa Bachman;

melissa-bachman Continue reading

Oh the things that you’ll see.

Last Sunday, I nearly ran over a man from the bible. He wasn’t watching where he was going, and stepped into the road just as I rounded a corner. Luckily, he was quite easy to spot in his long, blue, flowing robes, so I managed to avoid him. It was a close run thing, but as they say; no harm, no foul. He seemed to think it was my fault, and waved his shepherds staff at me angrily. And that was it. Apart from the little spike of adrenaline, there was nothing unusual about the scene, so I forgot all about it. Until today.

Not my man from the bible. Another man from the bible, with a smaller man from the bible behind him.

Not my man from the bible. Another man from the bible, with a smaller man from the bible behind him.

Continue reading

News

I have a new blog! Isn’t that exciting?

No. No it is not. There is, I fear, nothing new there.

When I started 23thorns.com, all the advice I could find said that I should pick a topic or theme and stick to it, so I decided to write about as many different things as I could.

Despite my attempts to do so, the bulk of my posts seem to have been about wildlife. I’ve decided to start a new blog full of old stuff. I am reposting all of my old wildlife and Lowveld posts, just to see how this whole focussed approach thing works out. Continue reading