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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

4

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.

20130803-155828

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.

iron

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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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!

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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