Yesterday, the day before the end of the year was a day that began with rain and ended without water. But that’s another story.
To escape the water crisis that had me puzzled, I decided to take the Landie on a really worn and eroded little track I call Nyala road, through the lowest point and the deepest drainage line on Mansimvula, where a little water collects after good rains, a tranquil place I call Nyala pond.
As small as it is, there have been times that I have been able to immerse myself in it and it can be quite refreshing on a hot and humid summers day.
Once, whilst lying prone among the flooded grasses, with dragonflies and damselflies filling the air like fairies, an ele came to splash too and we had a bit of a stand-off as to whose pond it was on that particular day. We ended up sharing.
After the pond, I ventured to the Ntsiri riverbed in the hope that there would finally be water after a week of heavy showers and soaking rain. The Ntsiri River is a large, dry watercourse for almost 360 days a year and only flows after heavy rains late in summer.
And there was, though not the muddy flowing torrent that is often a result of flash floods. I didn’t really expect that. Instead, a continuous stretch of slow-moving surface water reflected the sky in a mirrored streak from as far upriver as I could see. It reminded me of the trickle that sustained so much life, so far up the Mwagusi River, in Ruaha.
I was just filming the green paradise that has emerged after so long a drought and was in such awe at the sight and pervasive tranquillity. The sun was blocked by banks of cloud and it was near sunset with the light fading fast. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, an ele bull stood next to the big Leadwood on the opposite bank and a herd of buffalo munched noisily not far upstream.
Nature gives us these perfect moments where so many factors come together to please and calm the soul and, invariably, it is impossible to photograph, film or capture but in the heart and memory.
And so I endeavor to share it here. Albeit brief.
Whilst focusing on this wonderful sight of a riverbed sunset with an ele, my spirits lifted at the sight of a large family of ele moms and their calves emerging from beyond the riverine scrub and descending to the riverbed with that wonderful head-rolling, ear-flapping gait.
I was soon surrounded by ele’s as they crossed the riverbed and fanned out on my side of the river and slowly made their way up the rocky hillside around me.
Naturally, the younger Bulls were last to emerge and as they did so, the small herd of buff followed in their wake. One young ele bull, a teenager not much bigger than the biggest of the buffalo bulls, tried to intimidate a big dagga boy and his delight was evident as he strutted on the bank with his head high and ears held out, quivering with rigidity and defiance as the old bovid fled across the shallow water to the other side.
The second bull he tried it with, a notably large old crank, hesitated at first and then, like an animated cartoon, he huffed and puffed and arched his back as he began to buck like a bronco, thrashing at Spike-thorn branches that got in the way, trying his best to intimidate back.
Since the young ele bull was only marginally bigger and the buffalo’s horns intimately more threatening, the young ele backed off and found safer ground closer to the herd.
As daylight faded and I sat in the dark typing my thoughts on a small phone screen with the glow the only light, another large ele bull began to break branches right next to me, eventually standing in front of the Landie, peering over the front, only slightly visible on the edge of the glow.
Later today I may venture out to meet up with some humans. It is, after all, the end of the year. A year I want to see close.
Living With Lizards (…and flowers for the ladies!)
The dry landscape that is enduring the worst drought in decades is coming to life in splashes of colour as the bush acknowledges the change of seasons and the passing of the spring equinox. Days are warmer. Hotter even, with temperatures rising to 40 plus in the shade, in between occasional cloudy, windy days.
The first trees to bloom were the Knobthorns, their creamy, pale yellow blossoms arriving much later than they have over the last few years. In fact, everything is happening later than the seasons following the 2012 flood that saw the Knobthorns blooming as early as the end of June and many others coming to life through July and August.
Now, nearing the end of September, they are joined by the pale yellow spikes of Bushwillows and bright yellow flowers of the Grewias. However, nothing quite compares to the bright yellow, lollipop bursts of the Cassias; these little trees, dotted amongst the harsh Mopane veld, remain quite inconspicuous until they wake up in spring.
The Cassias usually flower and then leaf all together, as with most trees who time blossom, bloom or leaf together. This year, these conditions are rather extreme and I guess it all depends on the soil, their roots and their reserves, which result in some trees yet to begin while some trees are in full leaf with the last of their flowers drying out in the occasional hot oven-like northerly wind. All in all, so much is happening despite the fact that it has been so long since the last rain.
Elsewhere, to the West, beyond this Combretum/Mopani veld with its stony ridges, where the mountain range looms and blocks the horizon from as far south as one can see to the curving tail of the Drakensberg bending into the bushveld of the Northern Limpopo, there lies land rich in soils and richer still in the rainfall that comes in from the South, moving up the escarpment. These lands are mostly farmland now but patches of wildlife areas are increasing and amongst these natural areas, especially at the foot of the mountain, are trees so old and so big, it is like travelling to another time or another world.
Here too are splashes of colour that tell the tales of other trees, the likes of which I don’t have close to home.
The Boerbean or Schotia, a weeping tree that, with its nectar-rich flowers, pleases the birds and the bees and a buzzing of so many other insects, as well as the eye, with crowns of crimson and the rainbows of colours of its visitors, hooked on its honey.
There is Wild Pear, having mostly blossomed already, their dying floral show of off-white to pale pink fading to tan and brown.
Although inconspicuous, the Jackalberry flowers have come and gone and it is their fruits that are finding favour amongst dozens of birds and mammals. Their seeds from trees closer to home even finding their way here to Mopane Grove via the crops of go-way birds who regurgitate indigestibles when they sit around the tree above the birdbath.
Against this backdrop of seasonal change, despite the dry conditions, some of the residents here at the Grove continue their lives oblivious to all this change around them; their worlds are so small that what lies beyond sight may as well be another galaxy.
Some of these little creatures that share my space (or I theirs) continue their daily lives as they have done for weeks or months, sometimes years.
In one case it has been months.
One of the luckiest little lizards who discovered a way to get into the hearts of a couple of humans.
More accurately, Tim is a gecko, A Dwarf Gecko of the Genus Lygodactylis and is one of the few diurnal geckos with a whole host of enemies.
Unable to compete with a variety of nocturnal cousins that are considerably bigger, dwarf geckos found their niche in a diurnal world and Mopane Grove has a healthy population of them. It is one thing to find a niche but another to have to deal with a far more diverse diurnal predator population but somehow they thrive. Their abilities to climb, to cling to any surface, even glass, with their almost prehensile tails that have the same clinging abilities as their toes, help them escape even the most determined of predators.
I see many of these little geckos in their little territories as I move about during the day. There are some individuals who are always in the same place and although I can scarcely tell one from the other, it’s their consistency that tells them apart.
Timotee appears on the table at the side of the day-bed in the short time between me coming out to sit and actually sitting. We call him Timo for short. He obviously spends time elsewhere when I’m inside or elsewhere myself and, on passing by during my daily routine, he’s nowhere to be found, so I have to conclude that he enjoys our presence as much as we do his.
Of course, his is a dual-purpose acceptance because my presence just happens to create more opportunities to fill his little belly with the increase in insect activity around me as well as our mutual appreciation of green tea and honey.
Not that I am smelly or anything although sometimes a day can be truly trying in 45-degree heat and, in this drought, I do try to conserve water. It’s just that I am just another large moving mammal that flies and mosquitoes are programmed to seek out regardless and I guess my appearance on the day-bed means their appearance too.
And so it is that, whilst sitting outside, wracking my brain to a solution to a crisis, reading, writing my thoughts or playing Gin, I swat at these persistent antagonists and occasionally, accidentally, actually manage to hit one. Now, not one to waste, I usually have a spider that I give food aid to but sadly, since something (a wasp, I suspect), abducted Charlotte the only golden orb at mopane grove this last summer and the tent spider that disappeared from under the window, the next best candidate was a scrawny gecko, a dwarf gecko, I might add, that jumped on my shoulder one day and ran down my arm. On eventually landing on the bed he turned and looked up at me and held my gaze for a few seconds.
The next morning, having morning tea and biscuits with Fabienne and the resident impala rams, whilst we were playing another round of rummy, I noticed that it wasn’t only the usual ants that came to the moisture where I accidentally spill tea on the table, a gecko was licking at the liquid too.
Shortly after that, I noticed that he would appear anytime I sat down and when it came time to dispose of a fly, he was there, on the table, looking up at me with a few wrinkles in his neck and a plea for a fly.
We were in a drought. We’re still in a drought but this was supposed to be the height of summer with insects swarming the lights at night and hot nights abuzz with sound yet very few insects bugged us and nights were eerily quiet.
Insect eaters, from birds to reptiles, frogs and fish and spiders and even insects, themselves, struggled to find food and populations were crashing. Insect eaters were hungry!
It was almost as if he knew my intention. As I leaned over to drop the fly on the table, he anticipated it and it had barely landed on the table when he slammed it in his jaws like a hungry croc launching at an impala. Then he looked up at me, expectantly. As he does every time I sit down.
He first started training me in February. Being out of work and mostly confined to MG for most of the day, I have developed a routine of my own and I guess this coincides with the routines of the other residents amongst whom I am so lucky to live. No sooner was he aware that a fly was coming, he began coming closer to my hand and perhaps driven by hunger or simply opportunism, he eventually began taking insects from my fingers, sometimes running from the aloe next to the table, scaling the leg of the table as soon as he knew I had swatted something.
As months wore on, winter came along and I was once again at home alone. I was still having my daily tea and spilling it on the table. Timo and another gecko were alternately licking the moisture and it was only Timo who waited for food aid. There were days of cold and grey when no self-respecting reptile would be seen outdoors, that I would find Timo on the inside of the window frame above my inside bed hiding from the weather. There were times when I couldn’t find the little thing for more than a week and became worried as each day the tea on the table would dry up and I would have to continue with my daily chores.
As I’ve said, it’s hard to tell who is who with little things that all look alike but Timo is so distinctive; there are asymmetrical spots at the base of his tail whereas, with all others that live here, their spots line up. And so it was quite easy to find him again after he must have had an encounter that made him shed his tail and it was with huge relief that the tail was lost on the vertebra just below these very unique spots.
This was a wonderful opportunity to watch a gecko regenerate its tail and I looked forward to the ensuing months especially since spring was on its way.
I mentioned that there was another gecko, albeit a bit less adventurous that visited the table with Timo. He was quite distinctive as he had already regenerated a tail after losing his original so he was quite distinct in his own right.
Recently, after months of interaction and spilling tea and catching flies, Timo moved and seldom visited the table but we did see activity close by. You can imagine our surprise when we found the two of them together and they weren’t exactly fighting! Timo was clearly not a male but suddenly it was evident that she was indeed Mrs Timo and so the other is now known as MR.
They were in a lover’s embrace. Well, as reptiles go, he was. She could hardly do anything about it as he gripped her hard with his forearms and wrapped his body around hers. I felt guilty about photographing them but I wanted a record and it’s educational.
After this ordeal, she rarely visited the table, spending her time on a makeshift pole bench that has been at the door since the bungalow was built sometime in the middle of the last century. We occasionally saw her there and there were no more tea parties but if a fly interrupted the morning game of gin and we could catch it, it became more imperative to give her a treat since I believed she was going to be laying eggs pretty soon. The tail stub began to grow and instead of a blunt and red end to her stump, a little pointy protuberance began to show.
Then she disappeared. For the longest time ever. Perhaps more than two weeks. We were having a sunset drink on the patio with my friend Nelson when she appeared on a log at my feet and looked up at me with that reptilian smirk. We were happy to see her again and happier still that she was not dependent on the supply of flies that had been coming her way.
A couple of days later, I was alone on the day-bed, tea and cards were done, I was reading a novel and Fabienne was working inside. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye on the log I had last seen her. I jumped up with camera in hand and was stunned to see that one of the resident skinks had just caught a dwarf gecko. The gecko was fighting back but could do very little as the skink had it by the neck. My presence and my angling to see better made the skink run under an aloe and deeper into the Euphorbia and out of sight. The incident was so quick and, although I managed to get a couple of really bad shots with soft focus, it was very clear that the little gecko that was caught was missing its tail. Whether that was a result of the attack that I witnessed or whether it was our friend Timo, it is hard to say. I am still trying to focus on the blurry image and the spots on the tail just above the break!
I will also look at every gecko that is regenerating its tail to see if there are those two irregular spots where new tail meets old.
Larry, a friendly fireless dragon
There’s another lizard that is a resident here at Mopane Grove, we call him Larry. He, on the other hand, has no concept of a name and thus is unmoved when I say “hi Larry!” every time I see him out of his cave.
His cave is a hole that has been excavated underneath a small pond that I built about 30 years ago. Over the years vegetation has come and gone but the dominant feature now is the huge euphorbia that we planted in the early nineties. The pond is dry and full of leaves and is protected by the overhanging, thorny branches of the Euphorbia. It provides a lot of cover for the many residents that shelter under it.
Larry is a Rough Scaled Plated Lizard, which is a mouthful. So he’s Larry. He’s quite a remarcable reptile with dragon-like features and a very secretive nature.
He was here on my return to the Grove in 2008, after an absence of almost seven years and therefore don’t know where he came from or when he took residence. I remember filming him eating a millipede in the summer of 2011 but it is only over the last year, that I have been able to share every day of every season with him and at times I get quite worried when he doesn’t show his scales for days on end. Usually it’s weather-related.
There have been times when he has allowed me to be close and quite by accident, I discovered that he is rather fond of fruit. Certain types of soft fruit.
I eat papaya as often as I can for breakfast and I hang the skins on the spines of an old sicklebush for the birds. Mostly grey louries, the go-way birds, who are not only clumsy but can rival lion in the way they squabble and fight for a bite and in the process, tend to drop a lot to the ground where Larry finds easy pickings. But then a drought has gripped life pretty hard at the moment so there’s a lot of squabbling over scraps.
Anyway, I noticed Larry helping himself to the fragments that the birds were dropping and so I began to inadvertently drop some near one of his entrances to his kaya.
I was eating a banana one day and I always leave an inch or so for the birds and especially the butterflies and moths that are drawn to its minerals. As I approached the old dead Sickle Bush that has the fruit station, Larry was outside his northern cave and I bent down and offered him a bite of the last of the banana.
One can imagine how astounded I was that this plated dragon, who usually slides back into the darkness of his cave if I approach, stretched up to accept my offer! Needless to say, it hasn’t happened again and so, instead, I leave fruit on a rock at his entrance and I hope the rains will soon come, bringing millipedes and frogs and insects and a more varied diet for him.
My days here at MG are pretty routine. I mean, irrespective of what I do during the day, I am in and out of the bungalow and alternate between being inside or being in only a handful of places outside, the main resting place being the day-bed outside, which happens to be just opposite two of Larry’s entrances. His main cave entrance is beyond my feet, when on the bed, and there are times when he is sunning himself in the late afternoons that I have a one-sided conversation with him. A sort of self-administered therapy for, well, myself. Larry just sits and listens. Like a good therapist.
I know he hears, I can’t tell if he’s listening or not but he doesn’t hide and that’s always a good sign that I can go on ranting.
One day, after I had spent most of the day indoors because of a cold front that had a strong southerly blowing a cold gale in from the snowy peaks of the southern Drakensberg, I finally ventured out in the late afternoon as clouds cleared and the wind dropped under a pale blue sky that had the remnants of cloud burning orange as the sun sank onto the escarpment. I noticed that Larry wasn’t interested in this fading glow and had a startling realisation as I started thinking about our similarities.
We are no different in some respects.
To him I am another creature that hides in my hole and comes out for periods during the day to laze around a stare into space, retreating to the sanctity of my cave whenever any human presence is detected or when the wind blows or the rain comes or it gets dark and it’s time to curl up and sleep.
Only to emerge with the new day or the sun or the departure of humans.
I’m living like a lizard!
Basking in sunshine.
Retreating from the world when it ventures too close to my space yet mostly at one with the day-to-day world around me.
And yet the world around me carries on regardless of me.
The birds, the reptiles, the mongoose clans, the squirrels, sometimes elephants, the nocturnal regulars like Cyril the civet, the as yet unnamed genets, porcupines, hyena and hares.
I could be invisible.
To us, this little island of Mopane, in a sea of drought-stricken bushveld, is home and the lives of those of us simple things that inhabit it continue to interact and we are all comfortable in our space, regardless of seasons and weather.
Today I sat for hours trying to capture a photo or footage of two snake-eyed-skinks performing a mating ritual at my feet. Knowing how sensitive and secretive these little lizards are, I set up the cam amongst the leaf litter that is their home and hoped for the best and although I know that they live such fast and hidden lives, I also know how hard it is to catch them in action.
Also, despite a wide angle of view at ground level, I was hoping that a creature, barely 3 inches long would happen to play in front of the lens. That was in itself the height of optimism but I persevered and watched and waited and hoped.
Every time one of them emerged from the leaf litter under the raisin-bush, it was everywhere but in front of the camera. Once or twice, I managed to get a glimpse as one of them came up out of the leaves before diving back in again like an otter in a swamp. A couple of times they came out into the open of the concrete step, but it didn’t last long and moving the camera around, in such close proximity, made them dive back under the leaves even more.
It had been a muggy day with high cloud cover and the air was still but for an occasional gust of wind. The residual heat of the 40+ day yesterday made it somewhat humid. The Raisin-bush are in full bloom and there is a noticeable lack of insects, so hunting for lizards must be quite hard.
I was contemplating all this when I looked down and the pair of skinks were lying together out in the open, his chin seemingly resting on her flank in a pose of marital bliss and likely post-coital exhaustion. But it wasn’t, it was a pivotal moment that I had never witnessed before.
Amongst all the reptiles I live with, having been fortunate to live in their world for as long as I have and witnessed their intriguing lives as an outside observer, somehow it is only a number of species that have revealed such intimate moments. Some are so elusive, I may never get to see them at all so I just knew this was special.
They may have been exhausted after the all the activity I had been watching but I was sure that this was the moment he had finally convinced her/seduced her/subdued her and he was actually holding her in his jaw, a sort of a love bite, just strong enough to restrain, yet gentle enough to entice and convince her.
I managed a hurried photo and turned away, not having the heart to make any sudden movements that would spoil the moment or disturb them. I looked over my shoulder a few moments later and saw that they had soon changed positions and were indeed making baby skinks and I felt that the only way to record the moment would be to use this keyboard. As I sit and type, they dive in and out of their own little utopia, as bronzed as the drying Mopane leaves that make up the sea that they live in.
A Mopane Grove mongoose lies in the shadow of the curved arm of a Candelabra Euphorbia, the scene dappled in sunlight and rustic hues. The shadows contrast with the whiteness of her throne and her elbow rests on the crest of the ageing and flaking cervical vertebra of an ele who died a long time ago. She wears the latest in mongoose fashion accessories, a fake canine, looking every bit the false sabre-tooth that her temperament may show her to be.
There have been times that an elephant has stood here and touched these very bones with the tips of their trunk, even moved them, though never far. Hyena have chanced a theft but deferred to reason and also left them not too far away, though they often gnaw at the raw calcium they provide.
These bones lie at my front door.
They are my memorial to elephants I have known, loved and lost.
It’s a wonderful Summer, given the amount of persistent rain and the speed at which nature has bounced back after such a test of endurance that this last extended dry season has thrust upon it. It’s hard to compare it with any other wet season that has come before. From a sun-baked and wind-blown bare earth, with seemingly lifeless trees holding on to their moisture, to the dense green wonderland that has emerged, with so many flowers and a constant flutter of butterflies.
It is such a stark transition and a time when we see the process of survival and adaptation with a climactic change that has swung the gene favour in a completely different direction to the wet and dry years of seasons gone by, resulting in the somewhat sudden proliferation of some species and the inexorable decline of others.
Last Summer, we lacked the successive and soaking showers that were needed to continue the growth spurt that began after the first rains. It’s like a false start when it rains and life begins to grow and then there’s no rain to feed it but only the blazing sun to bake it.
Last Summer, we had only a few, heavy, once-off downpours, that caused more run-off than soaking, life-giving hydration. The consequences were manifest in the plants that did manage to survive and the whole food chain that had to depend on them. And so, the quality and the quantity of a season pretty much dictates what flourishes; whoever can adapt the quickest and even benefit from the conditions.
It’s not quite that simple, but it’s a good place to start when trying to figure out the changes we see from season to season and why some things are here at one time and completely absent at others.
This summer, after an absence of a few years, the Foxgloves are back.
And back with a vengeance in fact.
In the past few years, our Wild Foxglove, Ceratotheca triloba, started growing with the first, sparse rains that fell in early summer and I doubt whether even a fraction of them flowered and even fewer managed to seed. I watched a lot of them wilt before they even left the ground.
Now, however, filling the gaps between the trees where bare, baked earth made it hard to imagine that anything could grow, are the towering, flowering Foxgloves, hiding the Heliotropes that were the first to fill the spaces. Many more species are flourishing; the pioneers of the soil, the ones whose seed survived the wind and unrelenting sun.
With all these flowers being so insect-dependent, there are myriads of insects and some of the most extraordinary are the hover-flies, bee-flies, carpenter bees and solitary bees and their extraordinary aeronautical abilities. There are also robber flies and dragonflies and ooh, all the spiders and mantids that also like the bees and flies, but in a different way.
So much life and action, it tempts me to digress just thinking of it all.
Sometimes I wish I could just plug into a USB port.
So, this current status quo, this life that now explodes around me that has different tones to anything before, but is reminiscent of the floods of five years ago, is slowly revealing a new world around me, things I haven’t seen for years, things that are different because the bush has never been like this in our lifetimes and it is a wonderful feeling to be in something so new.
Yet also so familiar.
One species I haven’t seen in such numbers as I am seeing now, in this area, for so many years, is the Quelea, although I did miss out on a number of years here at Mopane Grove when I was either in East Africa or when I was on the southern tip of Africa in the wet and windy Cape, when I had to have my transplant.
A few weeks ago, I noticed the presence of a few families of Red-Billed Quelea; a small bird, cousin of the finches and not only a prolific breeder but also an avid seed-eater. They are probably one of the most numerous of species on the planet and obviously of some consequence to a farmer or two.
Within days, these small families became larger clans and bigger gangs and soon they were in flocks of uncountable numbers that appeared throughout the day. As the birds gathered, plants grew, rain fell, grasses came back and began seeding. After the late December rains, those daily soaking showers that left little rain but made sure to soak it in, the veld is a green sea of seed and now, with flocks in their thousands, there is a constant Quelea presence. Their combined weight flattens the veld, bends and breaks branches and we still have a lot of Summer to go.
We might be surprised by a spectacle.
With this constant presence comes the background symphony of their chirping and the occasional hurricane sound as a whole flock takes flight and the whoosh of their collective wing-beats is enough to give even a lion a start. I have some resident Go-Way birds, which I still call Grey Louries.
The Louries hide in the Mopane and every now and then emit a life threatening alarm, as only they can do when they want some attention. At this, the Quelea take fright and fly up in unison to the nearest thorn tree. Knowing the Louries as I do, I’m sure they get some sort of perverse pleasure out of these antics.
A couple of days ago, at sunset, clouds of Quelea made their way to their nightly roost, flying in large shadowy flocks, making shapes against a pink and purple sky. When the sky eventually emptied of clouds and birds and the colour faded and the day darkened, a pre-full moon cast Mopane leaf shadows and a wasp plugged a hole with a stone and flew off to hide under a leaf for the night.
She’d been digging the hole for most of the day. Just one of those tiny, unrecognized and complex wonders that are at play every moment of the day or night. Beauty and perfection of the smaller components that make everything else work so well. Like so many other things that go unnoticed in the pursuit of the hairy and scary and the ultimate photograph.
I was quite young when I first followed a wasp with a worm and saw her plug a hole with a stone.
It was some time after I discovered a batch of wasps emerge from a mantis egg case that had been made on the curtain above my bed one day. I was baffled at first, especially since I had come home from school for weeks hoping to see the new mantids and instead found these tiny wasps! There was littleliterature available for an enquiring mind in the early 70’s and all I had apart from a meager school library, was access to a neighbour’s Time-Life library and I spent a lot of time on the insect edition and developed an intriguing fascination for wasps.
I don’t think it was very long after that, perhaps on a trip to Kruger or even here at Mopane Grove, still in the early 70’s, that I followed a sand wasp with a worm. I was probably looking for a chameleon and ended up mesmerised as this wasp dragged a caterpillar across the ground.
I was reminded of this as I watched one whilst out on the day bed waiting for an elephant as the Quelea faded away with the light.
There are many insects and arachnids that dig holes as homes and for many, if not most, not much care is taken to mask or conceal their burrow. In fact, for some, ants in particular, the piles of sand that appear around the entrances to their nests are most noticeable as the atmospheric pressure changes and weather moves in, bringing with it sometimes heavy rain. The volcano-shaped mounds of sand then become plugs that seal the entrance as water gushes over it and the colony stays dry.
It is often easy to see the sand that is brought up to the surface, being a darker, richer soil than the wind-blown and rain-washed sand that makes up the substrate; it is usually pale sand that is composed of granules of quartz and granite in colours from light beige to brown or the iron rich red that is found in many parts of Africa.
For many things it is not likely that their homes will be invaded by something else and usually, with the residents present, there is enough of a defense to safeguard their domain. For the sand wasp, however, no such thing exists and as she prepares her burrow for her offspring, there is always a danger that something will find it during the long, hot hours of preparation and the times when she is absent.
For her, the burrow is not a home but a place to hide her egg and a food store for her young when it hatches so she can ill afford the likes of an ant or another predator discovering her secret. She is a very slender wasp and a meticulous mother who goes to great lengths to safeguard her progeny and their survival. Every grain of sand that is excavated is taken several feet away, disposed of and dispersed in a way that makes it impossible to see that a hole is being dug in the first place.
Using her jaws as a chisel and the vibration of her wings as a jackhammer, she drills into the hardest of sun-baked soil, emerging every few seconds with the loosened soil, which she then holds together as she flies away a few feet to sprinkle it over a few square feet, returning to the excavation with pinpoint accuracy. To do this, she maps out the immediate area around the hole, taking note of twigs, stones or other objects to navigate to her nest.
At times when there is other insect activity around her excavation, she becomes extremely agitated, aggressive and protective, resorting to the physical removal of the intruder by picking them up and carrying them several feet away, discarding them as she does a clump of sand and no doubt with a message to stay away.
Once the burrow is complete, perhaps a few inches deep, she takes time selecting a small stone to plug the entrance, often vibrating her wings over the “door” to blow dust over any sign of disturbance as the next task in her quest can take some time. To provide for her young, she needs to find a caterpillar. A very particular caterpillar. Too small and it will be finished before the larva can pupate and too large could leave something to rot and attract attention.
Usually, it is a drab brown looper caterpillar (or inch-worm to some) that she will sting and immobilize, sometimes dragging it up to 50 feet or more to the nest. To find the caterpillar, she hones in on the scent given off by a leaf of a tree as it is eaten by the caterpillar that she wants to abduct. Her sting is not deadly because her prey would die before her larva emerged and so her venom acts as a neurotoxin, disabling the prey yet keeping it just above the threshold of death, in an induced coma.
With it being too heavy for her to carry whilst flying, she grasps it behind the head and drags it between her long slender legs, occasionally administering another dose of venom if it struggles too much. Often, when the burrow is still some distance away, she will risk leaving the caterpillar to fly a sortie over her target area to readjust her bearings, before going back to her prey to continue the arduous task.
Back at her burrow, she removes the plug, has a quick scan for ants or other parasitic wasps and proceeds to stuff the caterpillar down the hole and, once it is secure, she emerges, turns around and deposits an egg on the back of the caterpillar and then proceeds to close up the hole in a most extraordinary way.
Unlike the single stone plug she used when she would have to leave an unfinished job, she now takes time to find several large grains of sand that she can pack around the edges of the plug to make a very strong seal. Once this is done, she gathers sand and sprinkles it on top of her door before finally brushing sand from around the hole by kicking sand with her legs and fanning it smooth with her wings.
When finished, there is no evidence that hidden just under the surface, an egg will hatch and a little white grub will begin feeding on a live caterpillar, finally becoming a pupa when the true transformation will take place. That science-fiction-like process where the cells of the body transform the creature from a blind, pale and legless grub into a powerful, winged and maternal adult.
When the rains wet the soil and soften the earth again, the adult wasp will emerge to set off and find her spot in the sand, to begin to dig a hole. And find a caterpillar.
It has taken a few days to complete the process of typing this up, editing and waiting for batteries to charge. During this time, with the full moon present, the weather has changed considerably, bringing with it some days of cloud and a soaking rain over the last 24 hours. The Quelea have not been seen since the weather change and the wasp hasn’t returned to her burrow. Yet.
Not too long ago I had days of grey skies, promising rain and uncomfortable wind. Today is the same and it reminded me of some special moments I would like to share. Some evenings, bolts of lightning had overhead thunder shaking a fine dust from the thatch and rattling the windows, yet only a few drops fell. A couple of days ago there was a severe lightning warning for the area and I experienced a light show no 4th of July, Guy Fawkes or New Year celebration could compete with as the sky lit up from here to the Mozambique coast.
It reminded me of when the wind finally died down and left an almost imperceptible breeze that barely moved the fresh new growth of leaves and blossoms on the trees. I ventured out to find flowers, to see what the lack of a scorching sun and a 40 degree heat would conjure to colour this world of grey skies, red earth and emerging green foliage.
There was a lot of colour to be found. The Terminalias were in full bloom; their cream coloured spikes hinting at their kinship with the Combretums and infusing the air with that mix of a sweet scent and a pungent aroma. Jasmine, where it can be found, added another, more pleasant perfume and one can only take deep breaths of its beautiful scent, to try to fill the senses with the memory of it for it will be a long time to flower again next summer.
The Xerophytes, those brown, drab, candle-like protuberances one finds on hilly, stony ground, had wisps of green, as their grass-like leaves began to grow and starkly contrasted with the mauve to lilac blooms that seemed to miraculously emerge from what appear to be lifeless husks.
Then there are still the occasional Crossandras, little red to scarlet half-flowers that hide at the base of an odd tree here and there and are only noticed when their red stands out like shiny baubles among the creeping green carpet of herbs and forbs that appear out of bare earth and, everywhere, the Heliotropes pioneer their way with their rows of white stars and it is but a beginning of the splashes of colour on a canvas ravaged by drought that this summer will paint.
During my quest for floral fecundity, I came across an ele bull near Sibon Dam, a bull I am not sure whether I know or not. He seemed to subtly acknowledge my presence but made no move to object to it. He was feeding on a small Knobthorn he had just felled.
Soon, the sounds of another bull pushing over a tree came from behind my left shoulder. He was well hidden by foliage and, at first, I couldn’t see him at all. He fed a while, I suspect a pretence to investigate my intrusion but he soon appeared, heading straight towards the back of the Landie. When he came level with my door, I began to film him and he made no effort to hide his inquisitiveness. He made a complete 360 of the Landie, showing only mild curiosity before returning to the tree he had originally felled.
As the other, older bull snapped yet another sapling, another bull appeared from the west, new to the party. He approached the older bull and lifted his head in greeting, prompting the older bull to do the same as they entwined trunks, then placed the tips of their trunks in each other’s mouths in a formal greeting and clashed tusks playfully and briefly before continuing to feed.
Every couple of minutes they would face off and spar, loud cracks rang out in the quiet, late afternoon as their tusks knocked against each other’s, not in aggression, but clearly a greeting of sorts and an enforcement of a bond and hierarchy that only elephants know and which we humans can only guess at.
Soon their antics brought them close to me, only metres away but behind some trees and it was when they were exposed by a small gap in the trees, that the late-comer broke off his sparring, turned toward me and tested my resolve by flaring his ears, taking a bold step in my direction and kicked some sand towards me.
A move to intimidate that I am quite accustomed to by now and as soon as he saw that I was unresponsive, he turned back to the older bull and they began to parry once again.
I lost sight of them as their antics took them into thicker bush, only the sounds of tusks hitting tusks, their flanks brushing trees and branches breaking with their frivolity fading as the sun sank behind the tree-line.
I so needed an elemoment!
I have been in such a box!
Calmed and grounded by the encounter, I moved on to the dam where I witnessed a marvel one might only see once a year. For this type of spectacle, time and place are everything.
On a scale of 1 to 10 for entertainment, it might not have been an elemoment or a pride of lion on a kill or even the mating ritual of two rarely seen skinks but for me, the moment was exhilarating given the circumstances and would be up around an eight.
Swifts and swallows were arriving en masse. What at first might have seemed an endless spiral of the same birds swirling over the rippled surface, diving and dipping for a drink on the wing after a turn or two over the water, became something else entirely as wave after wave of clans came and went.
As each wave of swallows circled and skimmed the surface for their drink, they moved off in different directions and as each wave disappeared over the trees, a new wave descended.
Looking up to the high ceiling of cloud that was breaking up into patches of blue and pink in the glow of the setting sun, out of thousands of feet, new clans dropped altitude and circled the dam.
This was the arrival of some of our regular European Summer migrants and this was the end of an epic journey, having spent weeks on the wing, flying across Europe and Africa and starting their summer vacation.
Eventually, the water’s surface stilled. All except for the hopeful terrapins that swam about and the frogs and aquatic insects that made raindrop-like ripples as they broke the surface for air. As dusk closed out the day, not a feather filled the sky, not a breath of wind stirred the trees and the night woke up with little knowledge of what the day had done.
Twenty years ago today, it was a Sunday, I was in East Africa, at my best on a three-day walking safari with a couple from London in one of the biggest wildlife areas on the continent. It was only their second day in Africa, their first morning in a wilderness, waking up in a small fly-camp under a grove of Jackalberry trees, the smell of coffee brewing on the fire and a vastness around them that could only be found in a place like Selous Game Reserve. We had set up camp quite far from the lakes, just beyond the forests of spiny Terminalia, where the tree line thinned out to large baobabs, sporadic palms and then evened out to black cotton soils, Knobthorn thickets, and endless grassland.
As they rubbed the sleep from their eyes and followed the smell of caffeine to the fire pit, I climbed a fallen tree to survey the skies and decide on a direction to walk for the day. The sun was barely up yet vultures were straining in the cool morning air to get airborne, all with a destination in mind as they flew over camp heading North with their heavy wing beats barely giving them lift.
Apart from the small flattened grass two track that ferried equipment to the site from the nearest road to the South and ending at our small forest, no roads lay to the North so with the thought of finding a sight worth seeing, we set off, ready for another spectacular day on foot in remotest and wildest Africa. The sun rose slowly but the temperature climbed steadily and soon we were out in the sun, in the grasslands, with sporadic Acacias dotting the landscape. In the shade of each lone tree stood a small group of Buffalo already seeking shade and, to avoid them, I decided to cross a small Karongo, a dry riverbed, which was lined with somewhat denser riparian trees and lower foliage, with the intent to emerge on the grassland on the opposite side and continue my quest to find out what the vultures had found..
It took a while to find a path to cross the deeply scoured riverbed but a hippo path soon made it possible and as we broke through the tree line on the other side, we were confronted with a huge herd of buffalo, most of who were already settling down for the heat of the day. All, though, seemed more concerned with the incessant swarm of flies that they have to contend with than our emergence out of nowhere.
Not wanting to disturb them or cause a stampede, I turned back to the riverbed and headed along the banks, following a game path that meandered along the edge of the steep side. On a particularly sharp bend, a red flash caught my eye and we were soon enthralled by a mating pair of red squirrels, a first for me and, having never seen the species before, a rare encounter. It was while we were quietly watching these two red balls of fluff scrambling up tree trunks, against such contrasting green foliage that I heard the unmistakable sound of leaves being stripped from a branch. There was no doubt elephant were up ahead.
The riparian habitat was too dense to venture closer so I looked for a crossing to get downwind of them and to break out into the open, higher ground to the West so that we may have been able to see them. At this point I had no idea how many there were nor the composition; whether a matriarch and her family or a bull or herd of boys. I soon found another hippo trail that allowed for an easy crossing and as I emerged on the other side, I came face to face with an elephant calf who was just as surprised to see me.
The vegetation was still quite dense and as the calf turned to retreat, I saw the legs of a cow making a beeline for the riverbed to the East and felt it safe for us to continue up the slope out of the tree line and into open country where I could better grasp the situation.
Unbeknown to me, the elephant and her calf had encountered the steep sides of the karongo and were running alongside it trying to find a crossing to avoid another confrontation, but the riverbed made a sharp horseshoe, which brought her right in front of us; about 50 metres away, with me standing in the open, briefly slack jawed as she turned and came at me full tilt without hesitation, shouting her rage and trumpeting for emphasis.
I had time to get the couple behind an acacia and stepped out to the side to draw her at an angle away from them, all the while assessing her intent but knowing that she meant business. As she got closer, I waved my arms and shouted, hoping she would stop the charge but the fury and rage she was displaying (and no doubt feeling), made me realize I was in for some trouble. At the last couple of seconds, I raised the rifle and didn’t even get to contemplate a shot as she hit me full tilt with her trunk that swung out from between her legs, knocking the thing some distance from me.
Somehow, I ended up underneath her; perhaps I ducked as her trunk swung for me and her bulk overwhelmed me, maybe it was simply that her momentum took her over me, I was suddenly underneath her. In this confusion as to where I was, she swiveled around to find me, knocking me between the muscular pillars of her legs. As soon as she figured out how I lay she came at me with her left tusk, gouging a hole in the ground as I maneuvered out of its path, grabbing hold of the tusks as she withdrew, lifting me off the ground, all the while vocalising and trumpeting and screaming. I remember screaming too, shouting, aware of every moment.
Using her front legs, she beat me in the back and sides with her wrist until I let go and fell back to the ground, giving her another chance to take a stab at me, this time the tusk missing my head by inches as it dug into the dry clay of the ground. Once again I grabbed the tusks and was lifted off the ground as she drew back her head, swiping at me with her front legs to make me let go. I don’t remember how many times this happened. It might have been the third time that I was holding on to the tusks, with my legs stretched out between her front legs as she raised a foot to push me off and somehow connected with my shoulder, dislocating it badly. I fell onto it unable to scramble with my left arm to avoid what I knew was coming next. At this, she swirled around, knocking me in the face with the clubbed end of her tail and as I fell back from the blow, she came down at me again, her left tusk piercing my groin just inside and below of my right hip bone.
Almost instantly and inexplicably, she stood up and ran off to the calf, disappearing into the riverine vegetation with a final scream that I barely heard with the ringing in my ears and the adrenaline pumping through my body. Items that I had been carrying were scattered in a radius of about 5 metres and after I was sure she wasn’t coming back, I asked Phillip and Baiju to help me gather it all together. Despite the adrenalin, my shoulder was beginning to throb with stabs of pain; the ball of my arm was well out of the socket and was sitting almost beneath my chin and already any movement sent these shockwaves through my body.
The backpack I had been carrying had broken straps from being ripped from my body, the rifle lay off to one side, the two-way radio had been ripped from my belt and lay several feet away, as did my binocular pouch, also ripped from my belt. Phillip gathered it all together and we set off back to camp.
Since leaving the fly-camp we had been walking for a couple of hours and I explained how to get back to the vicinity of camp and landmarks to look out for in case I couldn’t continue but we made slow progress over the most uneven ground one could walk on. The dried, black-cotton clay, pockmarked with the depressions of elephants and buffalo footprints from the wetter months, which made each step agonizing.
We eventually crested a ridge with a familiar baobab in sight and made our way back to the shade of the Jackalberry trees and our little campsite. Phillip and staff managed to lower me onto a mattress, propped against one of the larger trees to assess the situation. The radio didn’t work well so I sent the Game Scout, Peter, onto the ridge with a backup to try to raise someone within range. We were not likely going to reach base camp from this distance but there was at least one boat safari on the lake and with guests in the main camp, at least two vehicles out on a morning safari.
Neither Phillip nor Baiju had any first aid training and with a lot of blood leaking from down below, I needed to know what the damage was. At least it wasn’t an artery but the red streaks down my legs and the big patch of red on my shorts where they were torn from the tusk, showed that there was a gash that needed attention.
It must have been quite daunting for this random Texan from London to strip a man of his shorts to assess an injury in a rather private area of the body but Phillip didn’t blink, it was what needed to be done. I couldn’t move my head, let alone look down with my left arm as it was, any movement elicited searing pain. I don’t remember him mentioning anything about the gash to my lower abdomen, next to the hip bone, but I do remember him muttering and then telling me, somewhat blandly, that a testicle was completely ejected from my scrotum. No amount of first aid knowledge prepares one for that.
I had a hard time keeping focus, my head had been knocked around between four of the heaviest legs in the animal world and I no doubt was going into shock and suffering from a concussion.
Luckily there was a vehicle watching a pride of lion further down the very same dry riverbed, closer to one of the lakes. Peter managed to communicate the urgency of the situation and soon the noise and dust trail that roared into camp delivered a game viewer, replete with ashen-faced guests and a concerned Apollo, the guide, behind the wheel. (Some years later, Apollo also had an encounter with an ele and was also gored but returned to guiding in the Selous too).
I had the vehicle pull up as close as it could get alongside me so that I could communicate with camp directly, needing someone to try to raise the alarm in Dar es Salaam, a few hundred kilometers away. But it was a Sunday. In Africa. After a while, I managed to talk to Sal, our chef and the guy I co-managed the camp with, recounting the incident in brief but highlighting the seriousness of the dilemma. At that point, it was out of our hands and we needed to settle in for a wait.
After the initial shock at their hasty departure from a pride of lion, a mad dash through the bushveld, arriving at an injured and bleeding person under a tree with little more than mosquito nets hanging from trees around a central fireplace, the guests on the vehicle began to understand a bit of the situation and understood that this was not a typical day on safari.
A lady climbed down and introduced herself as Diane, she said she was a nurse, from Cape Town and knelt beside me to help. I was quite disoriented by now, well into the third hour after the incident and she was talking to me, telling me to stay awake, saying all sorts of random things. At one point she was talking about dead dodoes and it made me think of a cousin from Australia who, when visiting South Africa, had misread a sign about a dodo without knowing it was in Afrikaans and here, out of the blue, this was being repeated by a strange lady in one of the remotest wildlife areas in Africa.
After repeating it a second time, I focused more on her words and ignored my memory and realized she was telling me that Di and Dodi had had an accident in Paris and that they had not survived. This was in the biggest game reserve in Africa, in one of the remotest places in the Northern Sector, it only dawned on me later on how bizarre it was that the news had already reached so far. So fast.
It was only four months prior to this that Charles and the boys had spent a glorious few days at our main camp, Mbuyuni, Selous Safari Camp, having fun with the guides and fishing on the banks of the mighty Rufiji.
It took a while but Sal managed to get someone at the Dar airport on the HF radio and a few calls were made, eventually the crucial one, to the Flying Doctors in Nairobi and the plane was dispatched.
There was still a long drive to the airstrip that necessitated a makeshift bed under the back seats of the game-viewer and the long, painful, bumpy ride there. I don’t remember much other than being given a shot of morphine and don’t recall whether the medics came out to the campsite or it was administered on the airstrip but it helped. It was mid afternoon when the wheels of the Cessna 5H-DEA left the gravelly strip at Kibo, banked over the Rufiji and headed North and there was a measure of relief that I was in the right hands.
We had to land at Kilimanjaro airport to clear customs and it took a while for them to understand that I was in no position to disembark to have my passport checked and stamped and we somehow got through those formalities.
Sometime later, descending out of a dark sky, the lights of Nairobi began to reflect through the windows onto the bulkhead and as we taxied in at Wilson Airport, I had the strobe of the ambulance waiting next to the terminal filling the small interior of the plane. I don’t remember the dash through the darkness of outlying streets of Nairobi, but once at Nairobi General, I do remember looking at a clock on a stark hospital wall behind an anesthetist asking the usual questions prior to theater. It had been about thirteen hours since I had done the tango with an angry elephant cow. My shoulder still hurt like hell.
Many who know me are aware that I cannot exist without elephants. I spoke to an elephant earlier today after relocating a pair of mice that need to be far away from my bungalow after the mess they made in my absence. I have been sitting in the dark on my day bed, typing this to the sounds of elephants trumpeting in the distance and at least one closer to camp, stripping leaves and gently breaking branches. I have only just returned from an unpleasant time in the city, three months of not knowing when or if I could come home and not for the first time either. And, whilst I couldn’t be here for the 14th anniversary for my kidney transplant, it was essential that I be here for today. My Elephant day.
The moon must’ve moved passed Jupiter somewhere in the Western Hemisphere recently because one day it was on one side of the moon and on this particular evening, a day later, another. I suspect there was an eclipse somewhere on the planet, of both Jupiter and our Sun. The Plane of the Ecliptic, our planetary equator, must have been in perfect alignment to produce some stellar sights elsewhere on the planet but for me, just to sit up on the deck with fading light, the rising moon dominating a clear summer sky over a couple of ele’s browsing nearby, that was entertainment enough.
A scorpion was at the base of a Mopane as we descended from the deck after the magical ele moonrise. There was a low bank of cloud on the horizon in the East and as she rose, she slipped through the various layers of cloud wearing different shades of moonrise silk until finally, lifting from the cloud layer, like a yellow balloon, she shed her veils and shone as bright as ever.
Anyhow, I was talking about this scorpion we found as we came down from the deck. She was at the base of a medium size Mopane, one of the many here at Mopane grove. In the dryness of the current drought, there are a lot of antlions’ conical depressions in the sand, where the larvae of these fairylike creatures lure unsuspecting prey, mostly ants that are foraging.
It was a Parabuthid, the most venomous of our scorpions although not a very large individual. Much like the hatchling puff adder we had found at the door earlier in the day, the venom is excruciating and is no less potent coming from a juvenile.
I soon noticed the most reMarcable behaviour. The scorpion was angled down into the depression of the antlion hole and my first impression was that it was playing ostrich – trying to hide in an “I can’t see you, you can’t see me” type of scenario. But I noticed and felt at the same time, a different energy, something that had nothing to do with me or the light I was shining for the very purpose of looking out for scorpions and things so that I don’t stand on them. She was fishing – Antlion fishing.
She was teasing the sand at the bottom of the depression, trying to get a response from the insect. With no place to go, the larva had to give away its presence and as soon as the scorpion felt movement under the sand, she dug frantically, like a scene from Dune, scrabbling to get the cascading sand out the way to find her quarry.
(It was reminiscent of times I’ve played with a cat on top of the bed, moving fingers under the blanket, ever so quietly and the intense concentration of the cat to hear or see movement before pouncing.)
Eventually, she struck, swinging her powerful tail over her back and delivering the fatal sting, then grabbing the antlion in her jaws and making a hasty retreat. I tried to follow her, I wanted to know where she lives so that I have a chance at filming this amazing hunting behaviour. Clearly, she didn’t like being followed, which no doubt had a lot to do with the light because she took me in circles until I had to relent and let her be. I can only hope I find her again, out fishing for antlions like no scorpion I ever knew.
Antlions are very similar to dragonflies and damselflies in their adult form but differ in that they are able to flex their wings at rest and their wings are held alongside the body at rest. Dragonflies have set wings, which are held at right angles to the body and are unable to flex (flap) at rest. Damselflies, however, hold their wings at 45degrees to the body at rest. They belong to different families of insects.
Most antlion larvae ( they have nymphs, much like the other two) are free ranging hunters that look like something out of a science fiction film, thus my reference to the Dune Trilogy but some of them are burrowers, living a fossorial life under soft sand. Some merely wait on tree bark or just under the soil surface for their prey but there are a few that dig these very impressive little cone-shaped depressions, which trap ground-dwelling insects.
As an insect falls into the trap, the antlion becomes active, flicking the cascading sand back up the sides with its shovel-shaped head and large mandibles, creating a continuous ‘conveyor belt’ of sand that ultimately brings the prey to the bottom of the cone, where the huge jaws of the antlion rise up through the sand to grab the prey in a vice-like grip.
Somewhere in the archives of the antlion observations and memories in my head is another story about some remarkable ant behaviour around an antlion hole. I’ll have to find the file path one of these days.
Some time ago, well actually a few months ago, I was heading out for a short morning drive to meet with an elephant friend of mine who had been around camp earlier in the morning. I suspected he had headed to the Ntsiri river bed and that facilitated a drive on to the main road at a time when there were quite a few shareholders around from neighbouring share blocks.
This usually means that I stay away from the main road as a lot of them drive up and down quite fast and very loud. They all have radio contact so that when an animal is spotted, there is a race to get there and the overwhelming number of vehicles, their short attention spans and the desire to be seen rather than to see the animal, means that I get very annoyed and I try to avoid such moments.
Since I do not have radio contact, I tend to just stumble upon a sighting and I usually turn around and go my own way.
On this particular day, I noticed a number of vehicles on the main road at the entrance to Mansimvula and soon realized that there was a leopard with a kill in a very prominent Knobthorn that designates the driveway to Mopane Grove. Putting aside prejudice and gifted with the chance to watch her on my own, away from the other vehicles on a small track that runs past the tree, I sat for a while and watched her, enthralled and proud to have such a sighting on home ground. However, She soon disappeared into the Mopane scrub and I returned home hoping she would be back later in the day.
What follows is something that I thumbed on the tiny keyboard of an iPhone as inspiration struck on my return later that day. I suspect I may have posted this somewhere before but now I want to add it to my Musings.
The next day,
Which was windy and cloudy
And even a little chilly
And hundreds of hues of grey,
The cat had had enough of
Pressure from cars
And human things like that,
She moved her kill deeper into the bush,
Found a Marula and repositioned her stash.
I found her asleep in the late afternoon,
In the lee of a tree,
Her white tipped tail
Stuck up in the air,
Caught among branches;
She was asleep so why should she care.
The wind was unpleasant,
A little head popped up as the sun went down;
She had been off to find her cub.
Who had just woken up
And was beginning to frown.
The little one looked around,
Up into the tree,
At me watching her
and mom asleep in the lee.
With a leap and a bound
And a little miss-step,
She aimed up high and began to sup.
Whilst climbing the tree
I discovered it was a daughter,
Maybe eight months,
Plus or minus a quarter.
With vigour, she chomped
And relish she chewed,
She pulled with her teeth
And tugged with her claws.
But alas the kill slipped away
through the fork of the tree
To the drooling hyena below
And her expectant gaping jaws.
Is the inevitability
As this was happening, I could see the whole thing unfold as the carcass slipped out of her grasp. Mom climbed the tree soon after and gave such a disapproving look before dropping back down and walking away in disgust. The cub had no choice but to follow and no doubt learned something from the experience. It takes a while for the little ones to learn how to eat and keep their meal in the tree.
Subsequently, that particular Marula tree is no longer. A breach in the bark from past elephant activity must have made it possible for the larvae of wood-boring beetles to weaken the trunk and, in a strong wind, a few weeks later, the tree snapped about six feet from the ground and it will not be the host to a leopard kill again. This highlights the uniqueness of every encounter we have out here. Nothing is ever repeated.