Baboons + dogs + drought = not good

It was Saturday afternoon.  Hot, but we cooled off with a dip in the pool.  We read a bit, then laid down for a nap, minds relaxed because it was Saturday – we knew we didn’t have to get up for work, no farm staff until Monday.

Yet, our eyes weren’t closed long, when I felt Jay climb out of bed.  I didn’t concern myself at first, sometimes he gets ideas and gets up, and it was a quick thing – he’s one of those people who can get up in a flash.  I’m one of those who has to flop around for ten minutes then force my eyes open and drag myself out.  I began this process when I realized he wasn’t coming back.  Something was up.  I had managed to roll over, not yet gotten my eyes open, when a gun shot rang out.

And with that, I was on my feet.

A random shot in the afternoon usually means one of two things: rabid kudu at the gate or baboon in the garden.  In the case of a kudu, it’s meant to kill.  For baboons, it’s meant to scare away.  This afternoon, I knew it was for baboons because they’d been after our fruit trees for a while now.

A rainy season that doesn’t rain is hard on everyone, for many reasons, but at least we humans still manage to eat.  The wildlife, after the long dry season, depends on rain – no rain means no food and no food means visiting the humans, even if they have to dodge a bullet on the way.

But that’s usually all it is, a bullet.  Singular.  So, I got dressed, but not in any particular hurry.  Not until I heard Jay’s voice, “Sniiiffffeeeelllll!”, followed by our little dog’s incessant barking disappearing into the distance, and then another gun shot.

And then the stomach dropped.

Our doofy little dog, Sniffel, rarely deems something worthy of barking at.  He’s a pretty live-and-let-live kind of guy.  But something in his terrier brain snaps when he hears a gun shot.  He must, under any circumstance, be a part of the hunt.  He doesn’t know what the prey is, he doesn’t know where it is, but no matter, he’s off at top speed to find it.  Which is exactly what he did on this Saturday afternoon.

SniffdogThere were two things wrong with this.  One: baboons can be dangerous if provoked, say by doofy little barking dogs.  They are big, strong, and have some serious teeth.  Two: one baboon might not take on a doofy little dog, but a whole troop might just tear it apart.  Especially if they’re all hungry.  And as Sniffel ran after the one baboon that took off up the hill, Jay watched as it stopped, turned around, and ran back in the direction of the dog, with its whole troop behind him.

babsThis is when Jay yelled, fired the second shot, and I got my pants on and my ass out the door.

I ran in the direction of the barking, both dog and baboon – out the front gate, toward the main road.  I couldn’t see Jay or Sniff, but a second later he fired a third shot and cloud of smoke rose from half way up the hill.  What it meant, I didn’t know, but then all was quiet.

I think I would’ve kept running, oblivious to the whizzing bullets or hungry, pissed off baboons, but then Jay popped out of the brush, rifle in one hand, little dog in the other.  Sniff was panting wildly, tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth, enormous grin on his face.  He was obviously very proud of himself.

Jay spilled the whole story once down from the hill, explaining how Sniffel hadn’t originally followed him outside, he must’ve slipped through the gate after the first shot.  All he saw was a bolt of white tearing up the hill and he couldn’t stop it.  And we had both been afraid that we’d lost our dog.

The drought continues, as does the battle with the baboons.  There is a degree of sympathy for hungry wildlife, but wildlife that can eat your dog is not something to welcome onto the yard.

We wonder what the rest of the year will be like, when the chance of rain disappears for another six months and the animals still haven’t eaten.  All we can do is now though is watch the sky and keep the gun nearby.

Oh My Africa – May 2014

This month’s OMA is brought to you by our one and only neighbor to the south.

I just recently discovered this comic strip but, apparently, it’s pretty popular down there, possibly even the most popular South African comic strip, despite the fact that its premise is a black woman (Eve) working as a maid in a white woman’s house (Madam).  The website claims they “have become icons of a changing South Africa”.  I don’t understand…

Anyway, here’s a recent one in honor of President Jacob Zuma’s re-election.  As far as I know, Zuma has no musical inclinations – it’s supposed to be a metaphor.

This might have something to do with the claims that the national South African television broadcaster, SABC, banned campaign ads from parties competing against the ANC (Zuma’s party), or ads that spoke negatively of them.

Just a guess.

Mambas, mambas, everywhere

Snakes are common neighbors here in southern Africa.  We’ve got lots; from tiny blind snakes that live underground, which completely baffled me the first time I found one, to egg-eaters that put on a big show but are harmless, unless you’re an egg.  There are semi-dangerous ones like the pythons with a vicious bite and a tight grip; they can kill a person if they’re big enough.  And we have the lethal line-up too, including multiple varieties of cobras, the bad-tempered puff adders, and to top it off, Africa’s largest venomous, most aggressive, and easily most dangerous snake, Dendroaspis polylepis, the black mamba.

Although I would rather not, these are the neighbors I run into most often.  Or maybe it’s just that the occasions are so vividly burned into my mind with adrenaline and fear.  Take for instance the latest encounter:

Jay and I were checking on our bees in the bee house out in the bush.  We had to stick them out there in an old worker’s dwelling because we ran out of room here by the main house.  The building consists of two small, separated rooms containing a total of five bee swarms.  We’ve been on alert lately when working in that house due to a run-in during a past bee-check that Jay was lucky to survive.  He had bravely (word choice debatable) gone in ahead of me, without a suit, to smoke the hives (smoke makes bees believe there’s a fire, so they suck up loads of honey for safe-keeping and get too fat to fight when we open the box).  When I heard a shriek from within, I figured he’d lost his bet of not being stung.  But when he came flying out the door, arms and legs flailing, his enormous eyes spoke of something much worse than a bee sting.  Indeed, although he had checked before entering, he overlooked the large gray snake against the gray floor in the dimly lit room.  Only once the 2.5 meter (8+ feet) body was slinking its way between his legs did he spot it.  Hence the shriek.  Although there was only one escape route, the door, the snake, possibly befuddled, disappeared behind the door, allowing Jay to run through it.

So this time, as he was preparing the smoker, I went in full-suited (though I don’t know if that would make a big difference against a pissed-off mamba) and peeked around for a giant venomous snake.  I found none, so I returned to Jay in the other room.  As I watched him, crouched over, back to the door, try to coax the smoke out, death turned the corner.

I had the enviable position of facing the door where I could see the mamba accelerating toward us.  My words, “ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod” were probably not the most useful warning to give my partner, alas, they were the best I could come up with at the time.  At least they got him to stand up and turn around, just in time to see the thick black tail disappear past the other side of the door.  It seems we had frightened it as much as it had frightened me, and it decided against joining us in the tiny room.  I then found a few more words “Closethedoorclosethedoorclosethedoor”, which Jay did.  I glimpsed the snake again as it slid past the room’s one window which the bees fly through.  It then occurred to me that we should leave the wee room, now filling with smoke, in case the mamba decided to climb in through the window.  It was gone by the time we got outside, so with great haste and apprehension we finished the bees and fled for home.

The bee/mamba house

The mamba is feared for many reasons; its size, speed, and aggression (it has been known to chase people); the fact that it will spread a hood (in case the person has not already shit himself); and it will deliver multiple bites if deemed necessary (even though one bite can kill a man in an hour).  Once bitten, your brain will remain alert while the rest of your body succumbs to paralyzation and you slowly suffocate.  This according to in an oft-consulted book on our shelf, The Complete Guide to the Snakes of Southern Africa.

The author notes that large quantities of antivenom may be required to save the victim’s life.  That is if the victim has access to antivenom.  An employee of Jay’s uncle was bitten by a black mamba last year on a farm a couple of hours away from us.  His co-workers loaded him into the truck and rushed him the 100km into the nearest town.  The man arrived at the hospital alive but the facility had no antivenom and no heart-lung machine to keep him alive.  He died within the hour.

The book also mentions that most snake bites occur on the limbs and that pressure bandages can be applied to prevent the rapid spread of the venom.  Tourniquets, however, should be avoided, except in the case of a black mamba bite.  But what if the bite is not on a limb?

A neighbor was once cruising his farm on a motorbike.  Up ahead on the dirt road, he spotted a black mamba.  Long as they are, they often cover the entire width of the road, leaving no room to go around.  He may also have been driving too fast, and on dirt, braking hard results more in sliding than braking.  In any case, he drove over the snake, effectively triggering a defense response.  Since he wisely did not stop, all he saw of the mamba’s reaction was that it had raised up off the ground, as if to strike.  Once back home, he found two teeth punctures in the seat of his bike, right behind his butt.  He sold his bike after that and has never ridden since.

My best shot of a mamba

Despite the fact that the sight of them stops my heart, or maybe because of it, I am strangely fascinated by black mambas, especially when I can observe them from a healthy distance.  Jay and I have found them on the road before too, and we turn off the car for a couple of minutes to watch as they glide into a nearby tree and camouflage as just another branch.  We ran into one once on foot as well as we searched a field for mushrooms for dinner.  I think both species were surprised at how close we had unwittingly come to each other, but it didn’t charge us and we slowly retreated to the car.  We each had the capacity to kill the other but we rather went our separate ways.

And that’s the choice we have.  Black mambas and humans are never going to be roommates but we’re obliged to be neighbors.  Conflicts (i.e. shootings and/or injections of lethal neurotoxins) arise when we aren’t respectful of each other’s boundaries but, in general, Namibia has enough space for us to be those neighbors who simply avoid each other.  Greet politely when our paths inevitably cross, back away slowly, and then observe inconspicuously from behind the curtains.

In pursuit of the elusive Namibian kangaroo

The sun had long ago set, it was probably nearly 9 pm.  Usually, we try not to drive at night because headlights, even brights, will only do so much when an antelope the size of a refrigerator decides his road-crossing must be done in front of your speeding car But my flight got in late in the afternoon, and it’s three hours to get back to the farm.  Staying in Windhoek wasn’t an option either; Jay and I both prefer the farm to the big city, especially when there are cats waiting for you.

The one good thing about driving at night is, although the wildlife is oblivious to mortality, they are active, and for the most part, it’s a whole other set of creatures than we normally get to see during the day.  There’s the owls and night jars that hang out on the road and the jackals and rabbits that fling themselves into the road.  On rare occasions, a porcupine or honey badger might waddle by.  But this particular night held something in store that I never knew existed.

We had just come to the neighbors’ farm, only another 5 minutes to go, and the headlights captured movement ahead of us on the left.  My eyes focused in on it; a small, reddish-brown furry thing, about the size of a big squirrel, with a long, black-tipped tail.  And then it raised itself onto its lengthy hind legs and hopped away.

“Huh”, I said in my tired, travel-dulled state of mind, “I didn’t know Namibia had kangaroos”.

“Yeah”, answered Jay, “it’s a springhase (said shpring-HA-zeh).  I don’t know what they’re called in English”.

“Oh.  What’s a springhase?”

“It’s a rabbit.  It just jumps on its hind legs.”

And there you go.  I may not have seen an aardwolf, a desert lion, or a lechwe, but I have at least heard of them.  Never, in my 6 years of traveling to, through, or living in this country, had I ever heard of a springhase.  There was a brand new mammal in my world.

The next day I looked it up in my animal books, but found nothing.  It didn’t help having only it’s German name but none of the pictures looked like what I saw.  So I turned to the trusty internet and googled “springhase”.  And there I learned, sensibly, that their English name is spring hare.  But in the nonsensible world of naming animals, they aren’t actually a hare.  They’re a rodent.  But a very special one, as they are the only living genus and species of the family Pedetidae.  Which may be why I’ve never heard of them.

the only living genus and species of the family Pedetidae
the only living genus and species of the family Pedetidae

If you haven’t already yet googled it yourself after buckling to curiosity, here’s a link to a site with some good pictures of the spring hare.  I want you all to know though, that being the authentic blogger that I am, I went out that night, camera in hand, in an attempt to get my own photo of this unusual animal.  Jay and Sniffeldog came too.

As we had never seen one on our farm, we drove back to the neighbors hoping they’d still be there.  Jay hauled out the giant spotlight for more precise lighting and we called the neighbors to let them know that the weird flashing out front was just us trying to get a picture of their jumping rodents.

Each time eyeballs appeared in the distance, Jay zoomed forward and I snapped a photo.  Here’s the winner from that chaotic series:

Which may just be a normal rabbit.  Eventually we reached the end of the field and only thick bush lay ahead, which I had learned from my extensive internet research, was unsuitable spring hare habitat.  So we turned around and headed for home, hoping for another glimpse.

When we saw more eyeballs, I leapt out of the car, determined to get a better picture.  I landed, however, directly in a short, unseen thorn bush and got stuck while Jay sped ahead to keep them in sight.  So while I was bumbling about with the bush, Jay got our object of pursuit directly in the spotlight as they slowly hopped away.  By the time I freed myself and caught up to them, this was the best I could get:

If you look really close you can see the long tail.

So this authentic blogger and abysmal photographer is getting on with life in Namibia and wondering what other bizarre creatures are lurking in those bushes, waiting for fortuitous discovery.

Fire 2011: Day 2

Sometimes you can look at the morning sky and know exactly what the day will be like.  This was one of those days.  The sky was hazy; filled with black smoke pillars rising over our hill.  

The fire had, inevitably, moved into the next neighbor’s farm. But it was spreading within our own as well.  We met him on the border road fence line.  None of us knew quite what to do to contain it.  This time we had no road to work with, the fire was moving through deep, dense bush.  We tuned our radios to the same channel, wished each other luck, and parted ways.

Jay sent his right-hand man out on the tractor to plow a firebreak through the bush.  We had to keep it from spreading further.  The direction it was headed would end at our house, reservoirs, and cows and pastures.  Our only option was to try to encircle the fire with the tractor and burn towards it, as yesterday, to take away its fuel.  So we sent the tractor into the least thick bush, picked a spot with a lot of grass and set it on fire.

Today we had only four people, one was on the tractor, leaving three on foot to keep the fire from jumping the break. (This accounts for the few pictures I have for this day, please forgive me.)  We had one firefighter but we had left it behind since the newly cleared road was quite rough.  It started smoothly, Jay dragged the fire along with a rake, and me and Eddie, a donation of labor from the neighbors to the north, had firebeater sticks to stamp out any rogue sparks.  I expected some as the road was only two meters wide and the wind was strong and irregular.  So I ran back and forth between the two ends of the spreading fire.  If it did jump, we would need more than one man on the job.

In between, I had some time to think.  I worried about the tortoises.  I knew the antelope could run, the birds could fly, but the tortoises had a slim chance if they got stuck between the two fires racing to meet.  I found one little guy on the road trying to cross to safety.  I helped him to the other side. 

I also thought my choice of a tank top for clothing was not my smartest idea.  The sun was strong and I knew I would be pink by the end of the day (I was). 

I walked past what we had already burnt.  It looked like a war zone.

I hope there were no tortoises in there.

I returned to Jay with an all-clear report from the other side.  We chatted for a minute and then I began to stroll down the line again.  I should’ve stayed with him.  A minute later he was yelling for help.  I turned on a dime.  Even so, by the time I got there, we couldn’t keep the flames down.  It was scorching hot and the smoke kept us from seeing and/or breathing properly to effectively fight.  I told him to get the firefighter, I’d do my best in the meantime. 

I beat those flames for all I was worth.  I tried not to listen to my crying eyes, parched throat, coughing lungs or jello arms.  I thought about the tortoises and the house on the other side of the hill.  They were depending on me.  But the fire kept spreading.

In no less than an eternity, Jay came flying to a halt in the truck.  We started the generator and the water began to flow.  In a minute we had killed it, what we couldn’t do in twenty minutes by ourselves.  We stood back and looked at our 10-meter, semi-circle of ash and laughed at our close call.  Too bad it wouldn’t be the last.  I proceeded to drink about a gallon of water.

We decided to keep the truck with us from now on.  After the fire on the proper side of the road had died down, we drove down to our other man and found he, too, had had a mishap.  Luckily, the tractor had been with him and they were able to carve out a break around it.  We all worked together after that.

We couldn’t plow a road up and over the hill so we aimed at a spot at the bottom with many big boulders.  There, the fire would not be able to pass.  Eddie walked behind the tractor with the fire rake, Jay drove the truck slowly behind him and I was on the back with the firefighter putting out what I could along the road.  It still spread toward the approaching fire but now would not, and did not, jump the break.

The fire reaches a pile of debris discarded by the tractor.

Although we sped it up by working together, the job still took a couple of hours.  We all drank a lot of water throughout, refilling our bottles with our trusty firefighter.  Eddie had a cigarette from time to time, despite our constant proximity to an intense fire. When we reached the hill the sun was heading into late afternoon hours.  And we still had a whole other side to burn.

The fire we had just halted was the one on our farm.  There was still a fire on the neighbor’s farm which would burn the camp we had just saved if we did not stop it.  So from the end of the first fire we started another.  And then we got a flat tire.

Here the truck drives along our firebreak as I put out what we’ve started. It was a long and intimate day with the flames.

So, after a quick change we were back in action.  Same procedure as before; rake, truck, water.  But the road was narrower now, the tractor had only gone through once.  We had to retrace our tracks many times to catch jumpers.  After half an hour of progress we looked back and saw a smoke pillar on what looked like the wrong side.  We raced backward and sure enough, the camp we worked all day to protect was burning.  Something, somewhere, had escaped.  The firefighter couldn’t help if she wanted to, her tank was empty.  The tractor went to work trying, again, to encircle the fire.  We radioed the neighbor to find his nearest water point.  In half an hour we were full and back at the fire.

Our tractor man had done a remarkable job while we were gone.  He had made two roads; one to stop the fire and one to stop the fire when it jumped the first one.  When we got there, the danger was gone and we put out any flames near the edges.  I think he won MVP for the day.

The next day from the air we could see the extent of the tractor maze.

We returned to where we’d left off and continued around the neighbor’s border without incident.  We met them at the end when the sun disappeared from the sky.  Just as we both agreed our respective sides were under control, our northerly neighbor radioed saying the fire was heading toward our house.  There were not two fires that day, but three, and this one had climbed our hill.

Despite the darkness and exhaustion, the day was not over.  As we pulled up to the front gate, we could see the sparkles of multiple hot spots on the hill overlooking our house.  It was actually quite pretty and looked like a little village had sprouted.  It felt rather cozy.  We had a swig of whiskey then got back to reality.  We refilled the firefighter and burned a line between our house and the fire.  This time we didn’t run out of water, we ran out of fuel to pump the water.  So we ditched the rake and the truck and each grabbed a firebeater.  Fortunately, we were in a rocky area with not a lot of grass so we managed manually.  Then we called it a night.  The fire never came down from the hill.

                      Our late night, cattywampus attempt to protect the house.
 
Although we took a shower that night, everything still smelled like smoke; our food, our cats, our bed.  Regardless, I fell asleep quickly, thinking our firefighting days were over.
 

Fire 2011: Day 1

It does rain in Namibia, even sometimes in the desert.  But like any semi-tropical country, only in the rainy season.  That season ended about four months ago and is still about three away.  Conclusion: it is currently very dry here.  Result: fires start in a careless instant.

For the past couple of months, voices have been crying out over the CB in the kitchen; fire.  Fire here, come help.  Fire there, they need more hands.  Sometimes the smoke towers could be seen in the distance.  But it was always that, in the distance.  Until last week.

Monday we saw the smoke billowing out of the neighbor’s farm to the north.  We called them up, asked what happened.  Their neighbor on the other side had workers camping in the bush one night and their fire ran away.  Without telling anyone, they let it spread and so it arrived without warning on our neighbor’s doorstep.  We asked if we could help.  No, they had it under control.  Until Wednesday.

That morning we looked outside and the fire had climbed over the hill between us and appeared awfully close to our fence line.  Another fire was already deep into our fields but far from anything it could damage.  Seems something had escaped control. 

Another phone call.  They needed help this time.  The fire was approaching their camp with cattle and what was left of the grass they had to graze.  They needed a firebreak.  Quickly.  We headed over and met another crew ready to go.  We could see the smoke above the trees.  The fire was not far away.

What was fortunate was the camp with the fire was separated from the camp with the cows by the main road.  So all we had to do was burn the grass remaining between the road and the fire to take away its fuel.  And not let it jump the road.  We had a pick-up truck with an enormous tank of water and a power sprayer on the back in case it did.  They call these contraptions firefighters, sensibly.  Then we set a chunk of dead grass alight and dragged it along with a rake.  It was my first time actually starting a wildfire.

It spread quickly and we kept moving forward.  We had a long way to go before the border to our farm.

As we worked, more people staff from the farm showed up with more firefighters.  They started the firebreak heading in the opposite direction.  The owners of the farm, drove through from time to time to check on things.  The husband, calm as a bug in a rug.  The wife, frantic as the flames.  Just to make her feel better, her tire popped in the middle of it all.  I had to continually return to our truck and move it away from the growing flames and snap photos in between.  Sniffel seemed absolutely oblivious to what was going on. 

I walked along with some other fellas, setting fires with matches, or in their case, cigarettes, to speed up the process.  When our fire reached back into the bigger trees the flames grew to sizes I’ve never seen in my life.  They created thick, black smoke, blocking the sun, and made mid-morning feel like late afternoon. 

The other half of the crew finished their side and met us at the border to our farm.  The fire did, too.

We closed what we could with a firebreak but some of it would just have to burn.  We went for a flight later in the evening to see where the fire might be heading, and the damage left in its wake.  It told us tomorrow would be a long day.

The fire found the neighbors’ house.  They were able to stop it without loss.

I came to call these “tree ghosts”.  Like a stick of incense, they fell in perfect form as they burned.  We would see many of them.