Zimbabwe

Spot the beast 29

While watching elephants at the Nyamugwe pan in Gonarezhou National Park, a small movement caught my eye up this dead tree. This is what I saw from the distance. Can you see the beast?

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A curious squirrel keeping an eye on our movements. Squirrels -to us- look somehow out of place in Africa but they are a frequent sight in Southern Africa.

 

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Night surprise!

At night, returning to our bungalow at Swimuwini after a hot shower I took a detour to investigate what looked like a small pond. From a distance I shone my torch in the general area and I froze in my tracks. There was a crocodile there!

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Without moving I maintained the light on the reptile’s head -all I could see- and I not only saw it moving but also its eyes shone under the torch’s light! “This is amazing” I thought while watching the beast. I dropped my towel and other shower implements and slowly approached the pond in the dark until I estimated to be close enough to have a good view. Then I switched on my torch again.

To my relief it was a false alarm but a clever ruse nevertheless! Someone had somehow placed a tree trunk semi-submerged in the pond with the intention of making it look like a croc. Whoever he/she was succeeded with me! The movement and shiny eyes were not fiction as the head was a resting place for a bunch of toads [1] that were using the wooden croc as their resting place!

 

I returned to the bungalow and the following morning I came back to the pond for a better look.

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During the day the trunk was more obvious but less so when the toads were on it adding some greenish colour and movement to it!

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Luckily it was a wooden croc but it was nice as it offered a good opprtunity to see the toad’s interaction and to take some nice pictures of the batracian colony.

 

[1] From Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frog). “The use of the common names “frog” and “toad” has no taxonomic justification. From a classification perspective, all members of the order Anura are frogs, but only members of the family Bufonidae are considered “true toads”. The use of the term “frog” in common names usually refers to species that are aquatic or semi-aquatic and have smooth, moist skins; the term “toad” generally refers to species that are terrestrial with dry, warty skins”.

Place of many elephants

It is clear that the more places you see, the more you learn and the more you realize the little you know! Enough of philosophical exertions and focus of the post, I hear you thinking!

Climbing Wrights’s tower to look at the Mwenezi river below spurred my curiosity about who Mr. Wright was but also about the general area where the Gonarezhou[1] National Park is located. The Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park and Conservation Area was created on 9 December 2002. It took another four years for parts of the fence separating Limpopo in Mozambique and the Kruger national parks to be removed allowing important movement of game across the hitherto fenced area. Things move slowly in conservation!

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Wright’s tower.

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The sign in Wright’s tower.

Although in April 2014, Mozambique and South Africa signed a memorandum of understanding on biodiversity conservation and management of the area, particularly addressing rhino poaching in the Great Limpopo area, Gonarezhou is lagging behind in this integration. There are, however, fresh hopes that the unique agreement, signed in 2016, between the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority to form the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust may facilitate further integration.

Allan Wright was a district Commissioner in Nuanetsi, the District where Gonarezhou is. He arrived to the area in 1958 and declared himself to be an “ardent conservationist”. After a quick exploration of the topography, soils and plants found in the area he was convinced that it was “…From and agricultural point of view the whole area was in the lowest category, almost a wasteland…”.

So, the plans to divide it into farms for African farmers were gradually scrapped and his intentions made clear when he proclaimed:

Before me, as far as the eye could see, was the vast, empty Gonakudzingwa Purchase Area – ’empty’ only in the human context for it teemed with animal life … the great wilderness looked mysterious, haze blue, inviting. What a heritage! What a wonderful national park this south-east corner of Rhodesia would make.”[2]

So, Mr. Wright managed to persuade the then Government of Rhodesia not only to spare the area from farming but also to give him funds to develop it. He describes his time at Nuanetsi in two books [3]. Mr. Wright’s efforts survived the years to come after his retirement and eventually crystalized in the creation of the Gonarezhou National Park in 1975.

Considering the Gonarezhou in the larger context of the Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park and Conservation Area, the point where the borders of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe meet is known as Crook’s Corner. Suspecting that the name had its reasons, I investigate it further and this lead to the unraveling of some interesting facts!

It was because of its “tri-national” characteristic that Crook’s Corner attracted a number of outlaws that found the facility of moving among the three countries very advantageous. Apparently, the exact location of Crook’s Corner is on an island very close to the place where the Luvuvhu River flows into the Limpopo, near to the Pafuri area of the Kruger National Park.

Although there were other brigands, Stephanus Cecil Rutgert Barnard placed it in the world map. Barnard sought refuge there from his illegal activities related to hunting and poaching, two activities very difficult to tell apart in the 1900’s. “The one who swaggers as he walks” that is what his Shangaan nickname Bvekenya meant, arrived there in 1910.

Bvekenya’s derived his living from hunting and or poaching mainly elephants for ivory as well as illegally recruiting labour for the mines (known as blackbirding) as well as trading animal skins. It was a tough life, persecuted by police and exposed to malaria! Bvekenya functioned illegally over vast large tracts of Portuguese East Africa and Rhodesia, successfully running his ivory past the law.

It seems that Bvekenya was a bit of an oddball, to put it mildly and, during the twenty years that he operated in the region, based at Makhuleke, he carried out a number of interesting exploits, from taming a herd of eland for milking to praising lose the beacon indicating the frontier so that he could move it to “migrate” his camp to a different country according to which one was after him! A larger than life character that T.V. Bulpin immortalized in his book “The Ivory Trail” [4].

More amazing still were Bvekenya’s conservation ideas that led him to suggest the creation of a Trans-frontier park at that time (1900!)! It would take over one hundred years before the politicians in the various relevant Governments agreed on the issue and it is still unfinished!

Bvekenya’s hunting ground included the present Gonarezhou National Park. In that general area he shot a number of large elephants for their ivory. It is believed that he was not a careless hunter and that, before killing an animal, he would check the dung with his Shangaan trackers to ascertain the age of their quarry. Only elephants that had passed their prime would be shot and then nothing was wasted as the meat would be consumed by the local people.

Despite his hunting experience Bvekenya was mesmerized by the sight of a particular animal known as “taller than the trees” in the local Zulu language: Dhlulamithi! Bvekenya met this very large tusker while hunting somewhere in Gonarezhou or nearby, at a muddy pan. The bull elephant towered over the large herd he was with. The ivory that Dhlulamithi carried touched the ground while it walked, leaving grooves in the sand behind its path! Bvekenya attempted a shot at the giant but, luckily for Dhlulamithi, a younger bull that walked in front of it at the fatal moment was hit and Dhlulamithi got away unscathed.

Bvekenya never forgot Dhlulamithi and, while still hunting and or poaching other animals, he kept following it. It took Bvekenya many years to find it again and when he did, towards 1929, he had it in his rifle sights but did not shoot the animal exclaiming “Let it live”.

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Tusk size and shape varies with the areas. This bull in Hwange National Park carries thick but rather short tusks.

Whether this took place or not is an issue of debate as other chroniclers claimed that Bvekenya -an inveterate commercial ivory trader- would not have missed such a tusker. This thesis is supported by the appearance in 1932 -a few years after Bvekenya ‘s retirement- of two humongous tusks that were claimed to be Dhlulamithi ‘s that were eventually auctioned in London. The tusks weighed 73 and 73.5 kg and their origin is unclear. They are meant to be now at a London Museum.

Luckily, there still are elephants carrying heavy ivory roaming in the Kruger National Park and, with patience they can be found at the various watering points, particularly in the Northern part of the park [4]. Whenever I see one of these colossuses I hope that Dhlulamithi ‘s genes are still present in them!

These two “friends” were leaving one of the waterholes in the north of the Kruger National Park.

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Masthulele seen at the Letaba river  (Kruger National Park), together with the tusker below, the largest tuskers I have seen so far.

If lucky, next time I see these colossuses I will remember this story and hope that what I see still carries Dhlulamithi’s genes that will be passed to future generations.

The above, seen by the bushsnob in 2014, is no longer an unknown tusker! (In this regard, see: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/08/20/a-tusk-task-2/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/unraveling-the-tusker-mystery/ and the next post coming soon!)

 

[1] “Place of many elephants” is the Shona language is the more accepted meaning of Gonarezhou. It is also translated less often as “sacred place of the elephants” or “elephant’s tusk”.

[2] Quoted from from Wolmer, W. (2007). From Wilderness Vision to Farm Invasions. Conservation & Development in Zimbabwe Southeast Lowveld. James Currey, Oxford. 247p.

[3] Wright, A. (1972). Valley of the ironwoods: A personal record of ten years served as District Commissioner in Rhodesia’s largest administrative area, Nuanetsi, in the south-eastern Lowveld (unknown publisher) and Wright, A. (1976). Grey Ghosts at Buffalo Bend, Galaxie Press. Both books are out of print.

[4] Bulpin, T.V. (2011). The Ivory Trail. Protea BoekhuisEds., 4 edition. 240p.

 

Postcript: Apart from T.V. Bulpin’s The Ivory Trail book I recommend to visit the following links that will provide you with more detail, if interested:

https://www.africahunting.com/threads/the-legend-of-dhlulamithi.15191/

http://www.pendukasafaris.com/history/remembering-bvekenya-country-life-february-2003/

 

Gonarezhou three years later. Northern area

We were last in Gonarezhou National Park almost three years ago and I wrote about our impressions then [1]. This time the idea was to try the Chipinda Pools Tented camp so we booked ourselves there for five nights from 21-26 August.

Interesting developments had taken place during our absence. The management of the park had changed when on 30 June 2016 the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority signed an agreement for the creation of the Gonarezhou Trust. The latter represents a new management style for a National Park in Zimbabwe, aiming at running the park in a sustainable way on a long-term basis.

The first thing we noted was that the park can now be only booked at the Chipinda Pools office and not at the Harare Reservations office as all other national parks. Despite the distance from Harare (about 500km), the process was smooth and I soon arranged for our stay through an exchange of messages via Messenger and e-mail that ended with an advance payment to secure the bookings.

The trip went smoothly and we were not stopped at Police checkpoints at all despite the rather long distance! After Chiredzi we turned towards the park and drove through land managed by the Malilangwe Trust [2]. We wondered at the time if they would have accommodation that we could try another time [3]. We were soon at the Chipinda Pools gate where we produced our booking at the reception to a friendly lady.

As the checking of our papers was taking a while we took the opportunity to read some of the posters that explained the work on the various predators that is being carried out at the park. Our reading got interrupted when we heard the lady saying, “I have bad news!” As you can imagine, she was successful in calling our attention so we were with her in a second while we heard her adding: “Your booking is for the 21st all right but of September, not August!” and she handed me over the voucher I had given her moments before! While my heart was sinking, I confirmed my error and cursed myself for not checking the booking earlier!

It was about 16:30 hours so my wife and I looked at each other and both said the same thing: “Maybe we will need to see if Malilangwe has a lodge after all!” However, before playing that last card I asked whether there was any chance of putting us up for the night at the staff camp and then decide what we did the following morning as it was now too late to depart. I felt that I was wasting my words as the lady was on the phone and ignored my plea!

As we could not hear her conversation in the office, we waited, unaware of what was going on. The uncertainty lasted until she hanged up and informed us that she had just confirmed that the camp was full as it was time for school holidays in Zimbabwe. We were clearly in a tight spot and awaited again while she made another call before finally declaring gravely: “Sorry, no luck, we are full”.

At a loss, my jerk response was “So, we go back to Harare”, feeling rather upset with myself but ready to accept the situation and go away. Then, to our astonishment she burst out laughing as only Africans can do! “I was joking,” she said, “a colleague is coming to see if what we have would be OK with you”. After recovering from narrowly missing a heart attack, I calmed down and -internally- celebrated her sense of humour and I even managed what I thought it was a smile but probably it was a smirk!

Eventually we were shown into one of the tents that are normally used by researchers that happened to be empty. We were told that, unfortunately, we needed to share the ablutions with other people. We were so delighted with the offer that we immediately accepted it as it was for the duration of our booking! We noted that we even have our own painted dog couple residing at the tent although they were papier-mâché ones!

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Our tent.

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The veranda of our tent.

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The setting.

The camp was composed of four tents with a communal kitchen and ablutions nestled by a small stream that flowed into the Save river a couple of hundred metres down the river. The camp was well shaded and it was very well kept. We finally settled down while noting that the tent had large windows closed only by mosquito mesh and curtains so we prepared for a cold night and we were happy to have our sleeping bags with us!

That night, now relaxed, we enjoyed our dinner and, after reinforcing the provided bedding with our own warm bags, went to bed for what I thought it was a well deserved rest while congratulating ourselves that we managed to survive a potential disaster. Later during the night, we heard lion roaring while it walked by our camp and we were happy to be smug in our strong tent! The following morning we learnt that there was a lone male lion stationed near camp at the time. Despite the lion living next to camp, we did not see it, unfortunately.

We spent the day exploring the area and we took a recommended route that brought us along the Sililijo stream. As soon as we left camp we climbed a hill and had a great view of a large tract of the park through which the Runde river meanders its way towards its meeting with the larger Save river.

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The view of the Runde river.

Soon we had left the Runde river behind and, after a route that was rich in game we re-joined it near the Chilojo Cliffs, Gonarezhou’s famous landmark.

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The Chilojo cliffs. Gonarezhou’s landmark.

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Another view of the cliffs.

Among the animals we found on the way were elephants, buffalo, giraffe, impala, greater kudu and eland. Yet again we admired the numerous baobabs and realized that the plentiful rains have had a positive impact on the vegetation cover as the park was very bushy. This, of course, had a negative impact on game spotting but we did not mind that at all as it was clear that the game numbers are on the increase!

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A female Greater kudu watches us.

After enjoying a picnic by the cliffs, followed by the mandatory bush siesta we waited a while longer for elephants to come to the river but, as they did not come, we decided to return to camp. As usual, we underestimated the distance and we arrived rather late as we took a wrong turning and, near the camp, we got charged by a loud trumpeting lone elephant bull that we just managed to see. The animal was very nervous and it kept coming towards us until we finally managed to avoid it and safely get back to camp. Later we learnt that the elephant was scared because of the proximity of the male lion.

We arrived tired and looking forward to a shower, dinner and bed. However, the appearance of the game ranger in charge of tourism, stopped us in our tracks. He was the bearer of more bad news: our tent was needed for some unexpected visitors! He asked us if we would mind moving to the Mabalauta area in the southern part of the park where there was room for us at Swimuwini Camp. Aware of the well known saying “beggars can’t be choosers”, we immediately and gladly agreed and convened that we could leave at about 09:00 hours the following morning.

The next day, before departure, we had a chance to talk to other guests that told us that it was possible to drive to the Mabalauta area through the park and that it was a nice and scenic drive. This was good for me as I also wished to have a look at a place called Lion pan as, years back, I was told that it was -obviously- good for lions… So, thanking the management for their hospitality we departed at a leisurely pace towards our new camp, about 100km south.

Our drive was, as expected, interesting although we did not see many animals. A rock monitor (Varanus albigularis) that crossed the road and a Purple roller (Coracias naevius) were the only animals of note we saw although there were plenty of hornbills and other common birds as well as a few squirrels. We found elephant spoor but no sign of the pachyderms anywhere. Unfortunately we missed the GPS point where we should have turned East for the Lion pan so we decided to explore it the next time we come.

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A river on the way to Mabalauta in the south of the park.

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Most pans had water, product of the excellent rains of last year. This one is on the way to Mabalauta in the south of the park.

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A male namaqua dove.

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The rock monitor that slowly crossed the road showing us its rather long tongue.

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Close up of the rock monitor.

[1] See https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/gonarezhou-national-park-safari-diary-day-1/ and the two posts that followed.

[2] See: http://www.malilangwe.org/

[3] After returning to Harare I learnt that they have a lodge called Singita Pamushana Lodge.

 

 

 

 

Spot the beast 27

We got back from Gonarezhou National Park yesterday evening and I have a lot to do before I am able to post anything yet! However, there is always time for a “Spot the beast” to keep your minds active until I can get mine starting!!!

This was the view from our tent at Chipinda Pools in the park. I am sure that you will agree with me that is a very nice spot: a river with a bit of water, lots of trees and lianas and the light filtering through the foliage.

There is a beast somewhere there (the reason why I took the picture) that it will take you some time to find, I think.

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DSCN0121 copyIt is a male bushbuck that came down for a drink and we saw it (or rather my wife, again) spotted when it was climbing back to spend the rest of the day wherever the bushbucks do this.

(Please be aware that it was walking so the second picture shows it after it walked a about a metre to the right of the first picture)

 

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

 

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 17

As easy as it is beautiful. This “beast” was seen cruising on the grass looking for prey.

DSCN8015 copy.jpgFrankly, I thought it would be easier to spot!

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However, here it is the creature for you, a harmless Spotted bush snake (Philothamnus semivariegatus) seen at Hippo Pools Wilderness camp by the Mazowe river in the Umfurudzi Park of Zimbabwe.

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These snakes are harmless and very beautiful!