Tuesday, January 29, 2008

It's a wide open road (full of bugs)

Remember that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where Kate Capshaw's ditsy nightclub singer is rushing around their jungle campsite being growled at by lizards and accidentally picking up bats? No? She comes rushing back to Indy and says, "This whole place is completely surrounded by living things!"

I'm starting to get that same feeling myself.

Yes, the bit behind the fence wire
reads "prosecuted or EATEN".

There aren't really any of these around. It's a sign on the fence that separates Palm Haven from the property next door. The owner was going to get some lions, but he must have changed his mind. A sign like this would make an excellent alternative to a monitored alarm, though, don't you think?

Most of what's surrounding us doesn't have teeth quite that big. Frogs, spiders, moths and a stunning range of supersized bugs - you name it, we've got it. There are a few types of frog here, though none are more than a handful. There are flat ones, little stripy green ones and a brown, toady one. The dogs and Gilgy the cat are all obsessed. Gilgy likes to chase them, but he knows better than to eat them. The dogs never learn and end up frothing at the mouth after one solid lick. It doesn't make them sick, as such, but a floor covered in cappucino de pooch isn't overly pleasant.

Gilgy seems to have been quite restrained with his hunting while we've been here. Probably because of the amount of steak and bacon he cadges from us at the table. Apparently last year he was forever bringing back rabbits from the veldt and taking them apart on the lawn. He'd just leave the ears and a few clumps of bunny fluff. Which does beg the question, what's wrong with rabbit ears? Bitter? Too chewy? Just not worth the effort?

The bugs are interesting, though. There are big black horned beetles; huge grasshoppers in various shades of acid; millipedes as long as a pen and thick as a finger; black-and-white bumblebees the size of Clinkers that wobble about, merrily oblivious to the fact that they shouldn't be able to fly.

Here's one I prpeared earlier. It's quite small, I'm told.

Everything seems to creak or buzz or hum, especially in flight. There are a few types that make a noise that could pass for a small motorbike. The other night, I found something in the bathroom that could have been cockroach or cricket, but I couldn't work out which and couldn't be bothered opening the window to turf it. It woke me up an hour later with its singing, so I suppose it was either the rare Pavarotti roach or a particularly massive cricket. I think I'm one up on one of Bloke's workmates, though. One night last week, every time he opened the door to throw something out (frog, spider, moth the size of your hand), something else would fly/jump/scuttle in.

And naturally, everything has made it its mission to bite you. The mozzies must be pretty bloody sturdy if one managed to bite me through denim. Twice. On the bum. Typical. I do like the name of the bug spray in our room, though. It's called Doom. And the Saffie Aerogard equivalent? Peaceful Sleep. I can't decide whether it sounds more like the bottle of stuff a vet keeps for putting down kittens or a less popular Soylent Green substitute, but it's the only one that really keeps the mozzies away. Hey, what's a little toluene between friends?

I don't think Peaceful Sleep works on snakes, though. I have yet to see one on this trip, but they're certainly around. Richard shot two cobras yesterday. One was only small - only about three feet long - but the other one was a good seven or eight feet. Cobras aren't the only type of snake around, of course. Don't forget the boa constrictors and black mambas. Everyone has a black mamba story to tell. They're particularly aggressive snakes and just a wee bit poisonous. My favourite mamba tale is the one where someone saw one stretched all the way across the road (did I mention they're quite big, too?) and ran over it. Quick as you like, it flicked up and struck at the closed passenger window. Handy hint for beginners: drive with your windows up.

Or just walk and don't worry about it. I went for a walk up the driveway yesterday, hoping to see the family of warthogs that has been lolling about in a wallow by the road. It was a nice stroll - just me, the thorn trees and a long red road.

Oh, and of course, the bugs. Don't forget the bugs. No warthogs to be found, unfortunately. They must have been pigging about elsewhere. I did see a dead chameleon, though. It had faded to a pallid green against the dust. I wonder whether that was its natural colour or whether it was the just last colour it had been before it dropped dead?

In other news, I have a new feather in my hat. Real, not metaphorical. It's a wing feather from a lilac-breasted roller, a very pretty bird with feathers in purple, blue and turquoise. It was actually my second attempt at a hat feather. I'd already seen one in the grass, striped brown and cream, and tucked it into the band. I saw Richard afterwards, spraying weeds, and stopped to chat. "By the way, what sort of feather is this?" I asked. "Oh, that? Um, chicken."

I think that makes me a loser.


Monday, January 28, 2008

The green, green grass

The Soutpansberg Mountains, seen from Palm Haven

The road from Johannesburg could hardly look more different from last summer. When I was here the first time, the country was baked red, the grass tawny like a lion's hide. This year, South Africa is having a true wet season and the roadside and veldt have been washed green. Wetlands and muddy wallows have appeared by the highway, followed by white wading birds. Fields of corn stand tall. Even the red stone kopjes by the road have acquired a green tinge.

Bloke retrieved me from the muggy airport on Thursday night, whisking me past taxi touts who wore white shoes with extended toes. The touts were the only airport workers who smiled and made eye contact. The plane landed through rain and the showers kept on for the whole four-hour drive to Louis Trichardt, ranging from a miserable drizzle to solid cloudbursts. The labourers riding home in the open trays of trucks and bakkies were rugged up in balaclavas and thick jackets. I suppose it was about 19 degrees - cold for Africa.

After half a dozen toll gates and a pit stop for a cold hamburger and chips soggy with oil and crusted in sweet salt, we finally turned off the highway. Palm Haven is at the end of a long red drive and rain turns it into a network of puddles and thin streams. A brown water bird stood stubbornly in one of the pot holes, soaking its feet and staring us down. Who knew plovers played chicken?

Driving through the first gate always feels like entering Jurassic Park and the rain in the headlights make the illusion stronger. The gate posts are heavy logs and eight-foot electric fences guard both sides of the road, more to keep uninvited visitors out than to keep a T-Rex in. An electric gate close to the house completes the secure zone.

By the time Bloke dropped my suitcase in his room, it was nearly 9pm, or 5.30am Adelaide time - 24 hours since I'd left home. I managed to buck the jetlag, staying up til 10 and waking with the birds the next morning. I don't hold out much hope that the return trip will be as free of misery, but this time I'm definitely keeping away from those bloody No Jetlag pills. Christ, it was like herbal ice last time - they left me so wired I got seven hours' sleep in three days and was on the verge of a psychotic break.

With the break in the drought, Palm Haven looks different too. The veldt beyond the garden fence is green and dotted with tiny yellow wild flowers. Even the thorn trees look somehow more lush. They probably have a better crop of thorns. In the distance, the Soutpansberg Mountains have been lost in thunderheads most mornings, emerging blue and hazy later in the day. Misty rain, or perhaps rainy mist, leaves the fence wires strung with water beads. Distant rumbles are either thunder or the Cheetahs and Hawks from the airbase out on manoeuvres.

The paradise flycatcher, with his long fiery tail, still flits back and forth across the garden, but there are other, less obvious birds that I didn't notice last time. I found a sunbird peering from a thorn tree just beyond the fence and was dazzled by the metallic gloss of his feathers. A pair of golden weavers is tending a new, gourd-shaped nest in another tree and in the afternoon, tiny blue birds appear to drink from the round brick trough just beyond the fence. I've been flicking through my copy of Newman's Birds of Southern Africa and scanning the trees with my binoculars. That makes me a bird nerd, doesn't it? But I don't have an anorak or one of those geeky little trainspotting notebooks, so perhaps all is not lost.

Palm Haven's owners, Richard and Angela, are as lovely and welcoming as ever. Richard is struggling back to strength after a wasp attack last week that nearly killed him. He disturbed a nest while he was pruning and the wasps came barreling out, stinging him on the face and arms. He stopped breathing on the way to the hospital. He's on the mend slowly, but he tires more easily than he will admit and the pills make his hands shake unless he concentrates hard. Despite last week's trauma, everything continues to run smoothly and nothing is ever too much trouble for Angela.

Life isn't being made any easier by the fact that South Africa is in the middle of a power crisis. Everybody here is worried because for the past few weeks, there has been load-shedding, which is really a weasel word for power cuts of up to five hours every day. And when the lights go out, the wheels fall off. There are the obvious things like no traffic lights (which are called "robots" here, for some reason) and being wrapped in darkness in the supermarket, but then there are the things that no-one thought of, like the few hundred tourists who got stuck in a cable car halfway up a Cape Town mountain recently.

South Africa used to sell power to Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, but last week they pulled the plug. Thabo Mbecki has admitted the government ignored warnings ten years ago that there would be shortages unless more power stations were built. Apparently the problem has been made worse by the fact that the existing turbines haven't been maintained properly. The government promised there would be no cuts over the weekend and there weren't. I think they sensed there would have been mutiny if the lights had gone out during the day/night cricket match against the West Indies.

The trade-off for being able to have the lights on was shutting down the country's gold, diamond and platinum mines all weekend. The shut-down has cost something like six billion rand a day, or at least that's what they're admitting to. More than 480,000 people work in mining and while this time the bosses are paying them during the standstill, that can't last. There are already rumblings that unless the problem is fixed, South Africa hosting the 2010 World Cup could be in jeopardy.

The power crunch has come after a water crisis a few months ago, when purification shut down in some areas. People are worried that South Africa is going the same way as Zimbabwe: to hell in a handbasket. The jokes have already started. For example, what's the difference between the Titanic and South Africa? The Titanic went down with its lights on. Naturally, it was the main topic of conversation on Saturday night, when people from the base came to Palm Haven for an Australia Day braii.

I don't really hold with all this patriotic Strayaday rubbish. I've had a good old whinge about it before, so I won't bore you with it again. I wondered whether I'd feel different spending the national day overseas. Nup. Not really. But at least it was devoid of drunken yobbos and people who thought it was fine to substitute Australian flags for items of clothing. The barbecue was pretty tasty, though. I have to admit that a Saffie braii makes an Aussie barbie look pretty darned lightweight. It's all about the wood, baby. You have to have a taste to make sure it's just right, then let it burn down to the perfect ember base before you start cooking. And of course it's a huge meatfest: boerwors, ribs, lamb chops, Mozambique prawns - you name it, it was dead and gettin' grilled like a French stockbroker.

There was one type of meat that some of the guests wouldn't touch, though: my kangaroo biltong. I made a batch before I came and brought it in vacuum sealed. Richard says it tastes just like venison biltong, which can be any antelope from springbok to kudu and is quite expensive here compared to the usual beef variety. I wonder whether it's more expensive than ordinary biltong at home? I've seen it in the Central Market for $60 a kilo.

Anyway, venison or not, more than a few people were a bit leary of having a taste. "Oh, I couldn't! Kangaroos are so cute!" one of the pilots' wives said. I pointed out that kudu were pretty nice-looking animals too, but she said there'd never been a movie made about a kudu. What's that Skip? Bambi would make good biltong? Sure he would, Skip - with the right spices.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Rampant antipathy

Just after Christmas, Bloke was stretched out on the couch, watching the Boxing Day test. Which Melbourne stole from Adelaide, by the way. Just like they stole the Grand Prix. Well, admittedly, we only pretended to give a rat’s tail about the Grand Prix. It was bloody noisy. The only reason we have to be angry now is that instead of a Grand Pricks, we ended up with a mob of V8 Supercar pricks, who represent a very special breed of drunken bogan scum. Digression, digression. Sorry. Couch; cricket (stolen).

There was a slap and then another and finally he jumped up and said, “There are bloody ants on the couch!” I’d noticed a few myself, on and off, for a few months, so I just said, “Yeah, there have been a few.” He changed couches and all speech was lost to beer and lethargy.

Ants and I don’t really get along. I’ve complained before about their regular attacks on my kitchen, but those stick-on ant baits do seem to keep them at bay. And anyway, I’m not nearly as bad as my mum when it comes to ants. She makes it her business in life to keep lots of cheap fly spray on hand so she can nuke them into antigeddon. The other day, I went over and she said, “Look at this!” She led me into the backyard and there, on the slate path, was a piece of bread spread with honey sprinkled with something oddly white and crystalline. “Ant Rid,” she said smugly. “They’re loving it!” And they were.

I don’t know quite where mum’s antipathy comes from, but I have a feeling it’s a minor phobia of possibly falling over in the garden and being beset by three million soldier ants before being able to get up. Which, now that I mention it, sounds horrific. Nuke 'em, mum, nuke 'em!

Anyway, back to the couch. Later on the day that Bloke first noticed the ant-couch conundrum, I flopped down on the same sofa and swiftly realised that I was being walked on by many little feet. “How by jiminy could there be so many col-danged, naughty ants on the couch?” I wondered aloud. (Of course, there was no swearing.) “From whence could they possibly be coming?”

A closer inspection revealed a slim trail snaking across the floor from a gap in the skirting, climbing up the couch leg and disappearing between the seat cushion and the arm. Not entirely normal ant behaviour, you must admit. What were they eating? Flock? Springs? Lost bookmarks?

So, in spite of heat and post-Christmas lethargy, I ripped the couch apart. And discovered, along with two bookmarks, a business card and a few fragments of crisp, half an After Dinner Mint stuck between the arm and the seat. “Ah, so this is the reason we have nieces and nephews,” I said with an indulgent and auntie-like smile. “In order that one of the little dears might insert half-eaten chocolates into our couch! Excellent.”

I even can’t remember the last time we had After Dinner Mints in the house. It must have been two or three years ago at least. And it looked like the ants had been working on it all that time. They’d mined deep into that mint, gradually nibbling out the white bit and leaving a hollow shell of slightly desiccated brownness behind. It was a sustainable resource and only known to a few, by the looks of it, or they would have Hoovered it long ago. But obviously someone blabbed, because there were so many ants on the couch that we finally twigged and destroyed their minty motherlode.

Mint removed, ants Baygonned. All that was left was to whine about the ant problem at a full-moon gathering of the coven. “Bloody ants,” I moaned. “Mint. Couch. Two years. Little fuckers.”

Well, it was on for young and old. How many mint and ant jokes do you think there are out there? Between them, Petstarr, Audrey, LMac and KFlip came up with more puns than I’ve heard in many a long year. Bloody journos. Be warned – this is what writing headlines will do to you.

Audrey and Petstarr even decided an antimated movie based on The Legend of the Great Mint was warranted. I’m still not entirely convinced. I think Antz, A Bug’s Life and finally Bee Movie have taken insect jokes as far as they can really go. Possibly further. Nevertheless, the movie had to have a name and LMac decided it would have to be called Antonemint. Not that anyone likes that scary little Keira Knightley even if she does have a good dress. And my three regular readers know what I think of Ian McEwan.

While we mulled over the storyline for said movie, we hopped in to some truffles that my outlaw had given me for Christmas. (After first having given me nut chocolates. For the 12th time. Even though she knows I’m allergic to nuts. She’s trying to kill me, I swear.)

The ant/mint thing developed a life of its own, turning into the joke that refused to die. It even sank into a reply-all email loop the next day. Ten days later, we’d nearly got past Antonemint, but on Friday night, I came home from the pub and found a steady little trail of ants wandering along the kitchen bench in front of the cooker and totally ignoring the natty little stick-on baits. I smacked 'em into the middle of next week and followed the trail back to its source.

Back to the dining table, in fact.

Where the box of truffles was still sitting.

The little bastards!

I suppose that’s what you’d call vengeants.

And in other news just to hand, I’m packing my gear and getting ready to clear out for Africa again. On Thursday, sometime before our local sparrows roll over and scratch whatever they scratch in the morning, I’m on a plane to Jo'burg. Himself has been there for two weeks already, tweaking and poking things on the flight simulator. Happily, Mr Furpants has a kittysitter this time. He doesn’t have to go to Guantanamo Puss and I don't have to feel like the biggest heel south-west of John Howard. (Thanks Luke – you rock.)

So, I get about six days at Palm Haven to get over my jetlag and the ridiculous amount of work I have to finish before I can leave the country. There’ll be some lolling on the stoop, looking at this view, I think, possibly with Gilgy and/or Lady for company.

Stoop, sweet stoop

When Bloke finishes work, we’re off to Namibia for a road trip. We were going to fly to Kenya and Tanzania, but then Kenya had to go and have an election and things went to putty. First we decided that we’d just skip Kenya and still go to Tanzania, but then the death toll hit 600 and we figured that if Kenya sank into civil war, there’d be a big ol’ refugee exodus across the border, especially since they share tribes. Things could get really sticky at about five minutes’ notice. And “see Kilimanjaro and die” is meant to be just a saying, you know?

So while I’m a tad annoyed at not getting to see Masai Mara, the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater or Mt Kilimanjaro, I figure discretion is the better part of not getting dead. And yes, I’m aware that I’m being selfish at whining over a foregone holiday when more than a quarter of a million people have had to run from their homes and a formerly stable country has gone to pot. At least I know I’m being selfish. Bite me.

Anyway, Namibia. Strange plants called welwitschias that they’re quite proud of, for some reason. They just look dead and mangled to me. Huge red sand dunes. Salt pans. Flamingoes. Kayaking near flamingoes. Meerkats. Rhinos. Super-sized pussycats. All these are good things. There are probably a few too many Germans there, but I suppose we can cope with that so long as we don't mention the war. And apparently everything runs on time, at least.

After Namibia, we head back to South Africa for a little jaunt in Kruger. Four days wending our way from the park’s southern-most gate to Bateleur Camp about three-quarters of the way up, then back to Kapama, a private game reserve outside the boundary fence and a little trip down the Blyde River Canyon to God’s Window. There could well be some river rafting involved.

So, keep an eye out. I’ll post with pictures when I can. Tootle-pip!

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