Harare

Magic realism?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines magic realism as “painting in a meticulously realistic style of imaginary or fantastic scenes or images”.[1] I thought that magic realism was the stuff of some writers in our presently far land of South America such as García Marquez or Borges. My mind changed yesterday morning.

We found the wooden baboon behind the garage when we returned to our house in 2013. As the place had been rented to various tenants during our twelve-year absence, neither us nor Stephen-our caretaker- know how it got there. Although ugly, it has been allowed to stay as we are somehow fond of it.

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So, yesterday when my wife shook my otherwise placid lunch hour by shouting “Look! Nero is chasing a baboon!” It took me a while to react and join her at the kitchen window, too late to actually see our dog breathing down a large and furry baboon’s neck across our driveway! However, I did spot the primate after it managed to climb a tree next to the garage. Although this gave the monkey a pause to rest, it soon jumped off and ran again with the dog in hot pursuit until, after a second, it was lost behind the garage.

By the time we managed to get out of the house and arrive to the seen, all that remained was a very agitated dog but there was no trace of the fugitive. We climbed to the vantage point that enables us to look at our neighbour”s garden but we saw no further signs of the baboon. It all happened so fast that I started to believe that it did not happen. For obvious reasons I will omit my wife’s reply when I hinted this to her!

Then, with the corner of my eye I saw the wooden baboon and understood it all. We had noted that over the years he had been gradually eaten by termites and transformed into a dry mud-filled wooden husk and I am convinced that yesterday it was the exact time when its spirit left the shell to go wherever baboon souls go, before the next rainy season finally dissolves its crust into oblivion! Unluckily for the soul, the dog saw it and hastened its departure.

I am convinced that this is what took place but, please note that I have not shared my explanation with anyone, yet…

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/magic realism

 

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Spot the beast 26

We are very pleased to be back in our marvelous garden in Harare, always full of interesting findings.

Because of the prevailing cold weather combined with the very good rains Zimbabwe had, most garden creatures are still keeping a low profile. However, as usual, my wife called me the other day to see what she had found. This is what she spotted:

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I know, it is a very easy one! However, when you look at the young shoots of the jacaranda where my wife found it, it would have been almost impossible for you to see it as it was for me in real life! This is the picture and I assure you that the chameleon is there somewhere!

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Only the eyes reveal it below!

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Finally, a proper picture of the beast in question. I really like its rolled up tail!

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Snakeworld

The place still exists. It is located a few km outside Harare, on the Bulawayo Road. We do not go there often nowadays. In fact, we have not visited it since we returned to reside in Harare after my retirement in 2013.

However, in the late 90’s we brought our children there a few times. The idea was to familiarize them with the various reptiles they were likely to find in Africa and avoid or at least minimize the “yuck” factor.

I still remember our first visit when we were fortunate to meet George, one of the guides working in the place. He was a small skinny man probably in his late forties. George only had one arm, his left. My recollection is that he had lost it after the bite of a cobra but the rest of the family believes that a crocodile was responsible for the loss. I am sure I am wrong!

The first time he guided us through the reptile collection it left such an impression that, whenever we came back for a visit, we looked for him as our chaperone. It was well worth it. He was not only extremely kind and patient with our children, but had a natural way of putting them in “direct contact” with the various reptiles. With him they handled for the first time varios beasts such as the resident monitor lizard, chameleons and a number of harmless snakes.

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A chameleon from our Harare garden.

What really made the visit to Snakeworld different was George’s guided tour through the successive enclosures that hosted the snake collection. These were a succession of glass windows where the various African snakes were on display. You started from the various non venomous snakes and gradually worked your way through a crescendo in poison severity that reflected on our level of excitement.

The tour started with a quick walk through the harmless beasts. As some of these had already been handled, they attracted mild interest.

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Mating Spotted bushsnakes at Masuma dam, Hwange National park.

The exception were the African pythons, located at the end of the “non-poisonous” wing. Their enclosure was large and populated by a few specimens, one of which was especially large if not very active. The ability of these snakes to kill and swallow prey much larger than themselves by virtue of being able to stretch their jaws was the main comment George made about them.

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African rock python. Picture By Yinan Chen (www.goodfreephotos.com (gallery, image)) [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

While moving to the “poisonous” wing a few metres on, George prepared his audience for what was coming giving facts about the various snake teeth arrangements and various venoms.

The first dangerous ones were the boomslangs that only awoke mild interest on the youngsters. Conversely, I found their beautiful bluish-green colour and arboreal habits really fascinating and to see them brought to my memory and incident that happened a few years earlier while camping in Chobe National Park with our very young kids. We were sitting at our camp during lunchtime waiting for the heat to subside when, without warning, a green bundle landed between us with a thump. It was a boomslang that had just caught a lizard and clearly lost its balance! Almost before we could recover from our severe fright the snake re-climbed the tree and it was gone in seconds, only its bluish tinge and typical scales made me guess its identity.

But let’s go back to Snakeworld.

The twig snakes with their great ability to mimic -yes you guessed well- twigs, are always attractive as you can spend a few minutes before spotting them among the branches, even when you know they are there, looking at you!

While waiting for us to find them, George would give information about the biology of the various snakes, their distribution, conservation status and prey. Through him we learnt that Eastern Zimbabwe (the valley of the River Honde) was the place where the most dangerous snakes were likely to be found.

Then we moved to the final part of the exhibit, where George gave facts about each snake species. The latter ended with a statement about their lethality and this was the real “pièce de résistance” of the visit!

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A rather green boomslang. Picture by Day & Haghe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While boomslangs and twig snakes would kill you if they could get hold of some part of your body, death would occur after days of agony. The situation was more dramatic with the few that followed.

The gloated-looking puff adders with their excellent camouflage and slow slug-like displacement were striking as I could understand that stepping on one would be the most likely snake accident that could happen, as George confirmed.

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A freshly moulted and slow-moving Puff adder goes for a swim at the Sand River, Maasai Mara, Kenya in the 80’s.

The “cobra parade” started with the most common Egyptian cobra, that would kill you in a couple of days if not treated. We were getting anxious to continue but he would walk a couple of displays on and stop again showing us what looked like water stains inside one of the glass panels. Pointing at some beautiful terracota coloured snakes, he would explain that they would blind you if they would manage to hit your eyes with their spray of venom. I immediately remembered Alan and Joan Root filming spitting cobras in “Two in the Bush” where Joan wearing glasses was the target of a large spitting cobra while Alan filmed the scene! Two in the Bush is a great documentary worth watching!

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Young Spitting cobra pictured by bushsnob in Bushwhackers Camp, Kenya in the 80’s.

After the cobras it was the turn of the mythical mambas. The beautiful and deadly green mambas were first and they took us aback, honouring their names by sporting the most wonderful and shining pale green colour. George would explain that these were rare in Zimbabwe but rapidly lethal if not treated by the right anti-venom. We were all in awe at their almost “smiley” face that made them look deceivable friendly. “Luckily they live up trees”, George said to calm things down ‘but if beaten, you only last a couple of hours” he concluded.

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Green mamba. By Picture taken by deror avi on 24th September 2006. (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons.

The black mambas were unnerving, not black but grey and reaching a size both in thickness and length that is not what you expect. Clearly an impossible foe to escape in the field if angry as, George told us, they can reach a speed far greater than a running human! Luckily, like most snakes, they are shy and move away way before we know they are there. “Do you enter their cage?” I asked George. His answer was short and clear: “No. If bitten you would only last a short time, maybe one hour”. “In South Africa, the black mamba’s bite is known as the kiss of death”, he added. The atmosphere was getting tense!

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Black mamba. Picture by TimVickers (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Trying to control our excitement and imaginations we came to the last window where we could not see anything. When George pointed it to us, a humongous and colourful snake suddenly came together. One very large Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica), its thickest part like my forearm and with a large head, lied totally immobile in front of our eyes.

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Gaboon viper. Picture taken by deror avi on 24th September 2006. (Own work) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons.

Adorned with the most beautiful colouring, waiting to explode in a strike that would take care of its prey. Its colouring consists of a succession of cream coloured sub-rectangular splotches running down the center of the back, interspaced with dark brown hourglass markings with yellow edges while its sides have a series of fawn or brown rhomboidal shapes, with light vertical central bars.

Although its colouring seems to be rather obvious, it gives the snake an excellent camouflage on its tropical habitat littered with tree leaves. George, showing it his utmost respect, mentioned that this snake was only found in the Eastern Lowlands but that it was -luckily- rather uncommon. He also mentioned that the one we were looking at had been at Snakeworld for many years and that it was extremely aggressive. Then he added: “we call it two steps”. Although I realized why, our kids immediately asked him the reason. That was what George had been waiting for! “You get bitten by this one and you can only walk two steps, then you die”.

Although I am not able to confirm his statement, the snake was massive and at the time I could imagine that the amount of toxin it could inoculate through a good bite would be very large and rapidly lethal[1]. I can assure you that George’s “two step” statement had an impact on the family and to listen to George saying it again become one of the reasons to return to Snakeworld.

As time goes on we mature things. In our case we have incorporated George’s “step” scale into our own family “bush language” and, in the rare cases we spot a snake, the immediate comment is “was this a two-step one or a ten-step one?” I must admit that we get lots of amusement with what follows.

 

 

 

[1] The Gaboon viper is the world heaviest viper with two-inch long fangs! Not surprisingly, it dispenses the highest amount of venom of any snake. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaboon_viper

 

Lord of the (dead) flies

While living in Maputo (Mozambique) we rented a house that came with a gardener, as it is usually the case very in these places. His name was Erasmus and he was a very easy-going and religious young man. Often in the afternoon we were regularly treated to a choir of holy hymns when he and the afternoon security guard sang together. We later learnt that they were at the choir at the same church and they were rehearsing. I must admit that -as it is the norm in Africa- they sang very well.

The house was built in an area of Maputo liable to flooding and, perhaps because of the humidity and heat, we had a serious problem with flies. The latter became an issue during the rainy season, despite us keeping all rubbish in sealed containers that were removed regularly.

After some search we found the solution: a flytrap, a transparent plastic contraption that, when filled with a smelly solution, would attract flies to it where, unable to escape, they would die.

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In consultation with Odette, our housemaid, the trap was placed by the kitchen door with the objective of intercepting the flies before getting into the house. The siting was an instant success as, after a few days, flies began to get trapped. Then we confronted a problem: the smell! It gradually increased as more flies accumulated and soon Odette started to make remarks about the fedor[1] that started to emanate from the offending trap.

After a couple of days of putting up with the stink, Odette moved the trap away from the house without opposition as, despite being of small complexion, she was clearly in charge of the household personnel by virtue of being the employee closest to us.

The trap stayed in the new location, close to the security guards’ changing quarters, for a few days until they staged a “mini demo” to protest about the stench and Odette agreed to hang it far away, under a casuarina tree where its smell did not interfere with anyone.

Peace restored, the contraption continued to hammer the flies but soon it filled to near bursting point and it became less effective as no more flies would be able to get in anymore. So, Odette stroke again! She asked Erasmus to empty it. Poor old Erasmus had no option but to accept Odette’s request, being her sidekick.

The above background to this saga has been reconstructed afterwards talking to the various participants and witnesses as at the time I still had working duties.

I was at home when I heard a strange noise in the garden and went out to investigate. I saw Odette overseeing Erasmus work from a prudent distance. Erasmus -looking quite sick- was busy emptying the trap while pausing frequently to move away and take deep breaths of pure air while trying to keep his lunch down! Eventually, the job was done and Erasmus started to look his normal self while Odette looked rather amused! I am sure that it was probably his toughest assignment ever.

It was a very quiet Erasmus that walked past after completing the cleaning and that got into the toilet. It was too evident that he needed a long shower to be allowed on public transport to get back home!

After the operation, the trap was not cleaned again, a decision that I suspect followed some hard bargaining between Erasmus and Odette. In 2013 I retired and we left Maputo so the flytrap was packed away and it disappeared from our memories. Since then we have commuted between Uruguay, Argentina and Zimbabwe, avoiding the winter as much as possible.

Harare, being at about 1,500m of altitude has an extremely pleasant climate and it is almost fly- and mosquito-free for most of the year but some flies start to appear just before the rains and their numbers increase when it gets wet. Last year (2016) , the rains started on time and the flies were more numerous than normal.

A consensus was reached between my wife and Stephen -our caretaker- that preventive action was indicated to keep the flies in check. So, lo and behold, the infamous flytrap re-appeared! I immediately remembered Erasmus and felt sorry for Stephen but kept quiet…

This time, as experienced users and with the benefit of hindsight, we placed the trap far from all forms of human and pet habitation and positive results did not take long as the trap had not lost any of its effectiveness. Flies came in in numbers, again probably from the whole of our neighbourhood and, as it happened in Maputo, after about a week, it was obvious that a cleanup was needed.

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My thoughts immediately went to Stephen and I was totally taken by surprise when my wife asked me to do the cleaning! “What about Stephen?” was my immediate response. “He is going to the rural area tomorrow, to prepare the land for planting” was her reply. I found this as a very suspect situation and I even thought that Erasmus had intervened in a long-distance revenge!

So it was the trap and I! I decided to take the only course of action left to me: my often practiced procrastination to see if I could last until Stephen’s return and delegate the task to him. To my regret I failed as some flies were spotted in the kitchen despite my efforts to kill and hide the corpses.

So, like Erasmus before me, I braved the cleanup. I have to confess that I had an advantage over Erasmus as my training and practice as a veterinarian had exposed me to a variety of emanations from decomposing nature. I also found a good face mask (from the times of the flu pandemic scare!) that I decided to wear, apart from rubber gloves.

When I believed I was ready, I went for it! Remembering Erasmus, I refrained from eating prior to the event. I unhooked the trap from the tree without major problems and I sprayed its contents with insecticide to kill the flies that were still alive inside. Emptying it was not as easy as it looked. Being lazy I tried to do it without removing the lid but this was not possible. Opening it became inevitable.

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This action created a blast of malodorous miasma that hit my covered nostrils at full blast. The smell nearly knocked me off my feet and I decided that it was time for a pause to think (read “to keep all my innards in their right places”). At that stage I remember poor old Erasmus again as even the photographer used a powerful zoom to take the shots shown!

The pause worked and I managed to empty the trap from its burden and re-charge it with fresh water and powder so that it could continue functioning. I was quite happy to set it up again as I knew that the next cleanup would fall on Stephen and it would be my time to watch!

After hanging the newly-charged contraption I needed to dispose of the fly bodies by burying them as recommended to prevent any flies’ eggs from hatching. As an added precaution I also sprayed the fly mass with an insecticide and buried them deep.

The procedure over, I was triumphant for a while, until flies started to come towards me, mistaking me for the trap (now clean and smell-less) as I must have stunk badly although I was unable to smell anything at the time and for a while afterwards. Flies still followed me into the house when I entered to have a badly needed shower.

 

[1] Stink in Portuguese.

Spot the beast 16

The rain offers numerous blogging opportunities on the “spot the beast department”! Here is another one for you to find (Only look at the next picture below if you cannot find it!)

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DSCN9912 12.17.44 PM copyIt was difficult but it was spot on in the center of the picture! It had a sad expression also!

It is the flap-necked chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis) the most common sub-Saharan chameleon.

Of least concern according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, I have the impression that their numbers are declining, at least in urban Harare. Some attributed this to the proliferation of security electric fences that, apparently, can kill them.

The flap-necked chameleon lays 10-40 eggs in a hole dug in soil. The latter take an amazing 10–12 months to hatch! A very long time if we compare it with other animals such as the Nile crocodile that takes 90 days! To watch the hatching of the perfectly formed and miniature young is simply amazing.

Luckily, this rainy season we have found a few so the situation may not be as bad or the frequent electricity cuts had yielded some benefits!

Rain!

There is a great song by Lady Blacksmith Mambazo called Rain, rain, beautiful rain[1] that, as many of their songs, I strongly recommend! But it is only when you have two successive extreme dry seasons such as the ones we have gone through in Zimbabwe that you really understand the song!

I already described the seriousness of the drought at the Kruger National Park[2] and things are equally bad further north, in Zimbabwe and Harare where we are.

When we bought our house in the 90’s, we had a good borehole as well as water from the Harare Municipality. Today, the latter is erratic and, as a consequence, over the years many people have sunk boreholes and now there are thousands. As a result, the underground water table is no longer where it was and, probably the deepest end of our own old borehole is 30 meters above the water level! We have dug for water four more times since the original hole dried early in the XXI Century but we have only managed to extract grey stone dust!

Following our failures with various reputed rhabdomantists, in 2013 we decided to change our water management strategy. We gradually moved from water-thirsty plants to succulents and cacti and we buy water from the many suppliers that bring it to your house. Our swimming pool is now a water reservoir -and toad breeding ground- that we fill with the rainfall from the roof of the house (when it rains!) and take showers standing on a basin to collect and use the grey water for watering a few selected plants!

The availability of water is gradually decreasing and many of our plants and trees are no more and others are just surviving from year to year. We have lost pecans, almonds, mulberries and avocados to mention a few. Luckily, we still have a few fruit trees left although their production is near zero. The indigenous trees are still doing well, despite the clear impact of global warming.

But enough of bad news as the rains have just arrived a few days ago, precisely on 10 November. You remember the date now as rain is becoming really critical!

As usual, just before the rains our children’s leopard tortoise “George” (or Georgina?) made an appearance only to disappear again soon afterwards, as usual. In addition, the chameleons materialized out of nowhere, following their own clock, just before the rains. At this time the number of birds increased dramatically as drinking water was really scarce. Miraculously, as soon as the rains came, many species disappeared and we remained with the resident ones that are here the year round.

Another amazing phenomenon is the “greening” speed of the brown grass in our “lawn”! I can assure you that it becomes green in a few hours after the first rain drops. I often think that it is like watching lyophilized grass being reconstituted in front of one’s eyes!

Together with the greenery some interesting insects appear. Among others, the termites immediately start preparing their chimneys and, although they wait before “exploding”, they do so after a couple of days with when they detect that the ground has reached the adequate humidity for them to dig themselves.

The millipedes[3], known locally as tshongololos[4], are the next to make an appearance after spending the dry spell in chambers dug underground. They appear in all sizes, from 2-3 cm to 10-12 cm and are very fond on fruits and cucumber. They live up to seven years in the wild and they need to moult frequently as their calcified exoskeleton does not expand. They have about 270 legs and they carry some specialized mites[5] that clean their bodies.[6]

Apart from the animal life, the rains also create an explosion of colour as the plants and trees suddenly revive. The show starts with the flowering of the exotic jacarandas that turns Harare purple just before the rains. Soon the time of the flamboyant trees come and, the moment the rains start, the frangipanis become really outrageous not only in terms of colour but also by adding their wonderful scent to the garden.

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If the rains are good, our garden will become so green that it will make you forget the drought until next year when we hope that we will have a “normal” one although these are nowadays the exception!

 

[1] If you wish to hear it, it is at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUH7PM0-cpI

[2] https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/hippo-drama/

[3] Subphylum: Myriapoda; Class: Diplopoda.

[4] It means “steam train” in the local language.

[5] Neomegistus julidicola Trägärdh 1906 (Acari, Mesostigmata)

[6] They are extremely interesting creatures and, if interested, you could read more about them here: http://www.earthlife.net/insects/diplopoda.html

Spot the beast 13

Following on the subject of the earlier post, here you have another cryptic creature for you to find:

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It is hard but possible… Below I show it to you.

 

 

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The fact that its wings were in tatters adds to its camouflage. For obvious reasons it did not open its wings very often so it was tricky to get a good shot. However, this is what I could do:

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I believe it to be a Clouded mother-of-pearl (Protogoniomorpha anacardi nebulosa).

After a few attempts and with patience I caught it and, after having it inside the house for a while, eventually it landed on a towel and it settled down. With the patience I do not have and moving very slowly, I managed to get a better picture with a ruler! Wingspan about 7 cm.

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It disappeared soon after.

 

 

 

Spot the beast 12

I was not planning to blog today, Sunday. However, there are no rest days for Nature so I found this creature in the garden and took a picture for you to find it. This time it is not very difficult…

scn9945-copy-2I am sure that you spotted it but, just in case I give you a close-up.

scn9948-copyIt is (I believe) a Red Tail moth (Hypopyra capensis), a common moth of Southern Africa that has a cryptic upperside that blends very well with dead leaves this time of the year.

Its under-wings and abdomen, however, are bright orange-red hence its common name.

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As I try not to handle them, I thought I would not able to show you its underside as it flew away. Luckily it decided to land on the floor of the patio for a while where I could photograph it under direct sunshine and the underside colour can be seen, even from above!

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The larvae of this beautiful large moth of about 70mm wingspan feed on false-thorn (Albizia) and its range goes up to equatorial Africa.[1]

 

[1] Picker, M., Griffiths, C., and Weaving, A. (2004). Field Guide to Insects of South Africa. Struik Nature. pp366.

 

An ambitious Hammerkop!

We allowed plants to take over our water reservoir (former swimming pool) hoping that they would slow down the evaporation. Whether water plants do this is probably debatable but they did enable the African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis) to multiply really well.

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As the frogs are happy to stay in this small “wetland”, the population reached large numbers and, although they devoured all the guppies placed there for mosquito control, the population has not yet crashed. They are also tolerated as they are rather quiet, unlike other visitors we have had in past years.

Luckily, attracted by the “fast food” on offer at least one (I am not good in identifying individual birds yet…) hammerkop[1] became a frequent customer. It walks around the pool stalking the frogs that it catches them often. It is nice to have these birds in the garden and we hope that some of them will eventually come and nest here as there are a few trees that would be able to hold one of their humongous nests.

On a Sunday in January last, before we went for lunch to a nearby place, a hammerkop arrived. It was late morning and it perched by the pool’s edge with its sights fixed on the water plants, undoubtedly waiting for its prey. We watched it for a while but it did not move so we left it to find its food while we found ours.

After a nice lunch we returned home (for a siesta…) and found the hammerkop still there. It had caught a frog larger than anything I had seen before. It was already dead and the bird was busy “hammering” it against the floor. It seemed that the technique was to break its bones to be able to swallow it and it was really going for it!

We watched the bird “tenderizing” the frog for about one hour until it was totally limp. At that stage the hammerkop attempted to swallow it a couple of times and failed so it decided to wet it and try again but it was still a “mouth full” and it was not able to gobble it up completely so, after swallowing about half, it was forced to expel it out or it would have choked!

Eventually, after wetting it again, the bird had another swallowing attempt that nearly succeed but clearly the frog was larger than its throat so it came back out again. This time the bird, probably fed-up (my interpretation!), just dropped it in the water and left!

I thought that this was a real waste of a meal and, to avoid the toad rotting inside the pool, I fished it out to dispose of it. While getting it I noticed that despite all the hammering the carcass received, the skin was not broken anywhere, an indication that the rather large beak of the hammerkop is not used for piercing and also that it was “all or nothing”!

 

[1] Scopus umbretta