Something new for dinner

My explorations into Namibian cuisine have taken another step.  You may not want to hear about it, but hey, if you read my oryx brain story, this one should go down easy. Ready?

Jay and I ate deep-fried zebra snake.

Seriously.

It went like this:

Our chickens were in a major brooding mood.  A few of them were just desperate to sit on some eggs, and we wanted more chickens, so we let them.  The first hen hatched 13 eggs, and with that we doubled our chicken herd.

The second clutch was a bit of an accident.  The hen hid her eggs in tall grass and before we knew it, she disappeared to sit on them.  In time, we found her and her eggs, and with a bit more time, 10 chicks hatched.

Back in the coop, we could hardly keep the hens from sitting so we let one more have a chance.  Eventually, 8 more chicks were born.

Doing the maths, we now had 31 baby chickens running around.

No matter where in the world they were, these helpless balls of meat would attract predators.  I knew better than to expect them all to survive to adulthood, but nevertheless, when they began to disappear, it was depressing.

The original thirteen stayed strong.  Either their mom was tough and kicked some ass whenever something tried to grab one, or they just got lucky.  The second batch of ten, though, had a newbie, slightly air-headed, mom, and within a week, they were whittled down to five.

Then, the third batch began to dwindle – one or two at a time, every few days.  We had a repeat offender on our hands; a nocturnal snake who knew he’d found the jackpot.

When a python took one of the thirteen, who were now pretty big, he was too fat to escape.  So we hauled him out the next morning and transported him far from the house.  But the chicks kept disappearing.

One morning, I found another of the thirteen unable to walk.  His leg had a clear snake bite on it, and he died soon after.  Now we knew we had a venomous snake – that ruled out another python.  And mambas being day snakes left only one other suspect: the zebra snake.

http://lh6.ggpht.com/4bg4hIj9USj_Bg2m3vXYujHdaZjILZaxrUtNn2dht0fFbzewxiqquaYLkKRJFCNd7lQ0fo-nQkihkCE3MfTcDA=s1200

Zebra snake. Photo courtesy projectnoah.org

We began fortifying our coops.  Normally, we use just one, but with all these new animals, we were using two old, non-snake-proof ones.  We fixed holes, cemented around the bases, put up extra mesh fencing, and rested better once they were done, thinking the chickens were safe.

Yet the next morning, two more of the oldest chicks were dead but not eaten, a third paralyzed, and one of the younger chicks gone and another half-eaten and then regurgitated.  It was frustrating enough having my chickens become snake food, but to have them killed and not be anyone’s food was even worse.

I declared war.

My grand plan of attack, as told to Jay: hang bells around the coop wherever a snake might enter and then sleep outside.  “Whenever a bell rings”, I told him, “I’m going out there, and I’m taking the shotgun.”

Jay assured me this wasn’t necessary (kindly brushing aside the fact that we own approximately two bells, one being strapped to a goat’s neck, and I have only a slim idea of how to work the shotgun which is a bit overkill, anyway).  His much more realistic plan: attach a spotlight to a car battery and set it near the coop.  We then set the alarm for 3 a.m. and go out there, well-lit, in search of a snake.

Right on schedule, the snake turned up the second night.  And we didn’t even have to set the alarm, he was in the coop before we went to bed.  Jay took the appropriate-sized rifle, I held the light, and a minute later we had a dead, meter-long zebra snake.

Doing my maths again, this one snake had killed 14 chicks.  To ensure that they didn’t die in vain, in my mind, there was only one thing to do: we had to eat the snake.

Our farm staff was as clueless as we were about how to prepare a snake, not to mention completely revolted by the whole idea.  So, we briefly consulted the internet, then grabbed a knife and chopped off its head.

headlessThe head contains the venom, so headless venomous snakes are safe to eat.  The next task was to remove the skin.  First, we cut the bits holding it to the muscle,

skin be goneand after that, the skin peeled right off.

skin removalThen, out came the guts,

gutsthat contained the last of the last baby chicken,

my chickand just like that we had innards to toss, meat to eat, and a skin to . . . do something with.

3 of a kindIn the kitchen, the meat was chopped up,

filetsbattered up,

bread crumbin'and fried up.

deep fryMost people say that snake meat, ironically, tastes like chicken.  Not being a big meat eater myself, that’s the best comparison I have for you.  Jay constructively noted that it tasted like snake. In any case, there was about as much meat as there was bone, making for a tedious meal.  I’m certainly interested in trying other, fatter species, though.

So, ye legless varmints beware, there be snake eaters on this here farm.

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.

Namibia’s secret lakes

Don’t be fooled; Namibia really does have water.  It is not this dried-up-raisin of a country that it pretends to be.  That giant desert?  Just for show.  Check it out:

Apparently, this was the best picture I took of it.

Lake Guinas.  One of two, count ’em, TWO, natural lakes in Namibia.  I was astounded to hear of their existence (and a bit perturbed that no one told me about them earlier), but lo and behold, there they were on the map, practically neighbors.  As we were already in the region for a business excursion, it seemed sacrilegious not to visit.  Besides, it was hot, and we wanted to swim.  The time had come.  The girl from the Great Lakes state, the fresh water capital of the US, was going to see the oasis of her adopted desert home.

In the car on the way to the first one, Lake Otjikoto, Jay and I became as excited as two little kids talking about how we could camp there for the night, cook our dinner over the fire on the beach, go swimming under the stars, etc, etc.  It would be perfect.  Pulling into the parking lot was already a relief; big trees hung down low as if to take pity on us weary travelers.

As Jay approached the park-rangerly-dressed lady, I got sidetracked by the snakes-in-the-jars.  There, outside the gift shop, was a bench with five or six rather large snakes coiled up inside big glass bottles with some kind of yellow liquid preservative.  I must apologize, however, for the lack of photograph.  I was so excited to go swimming, I forgot I even owned a camera.

I then turned around and the ranger informed me that the dog had jumped out of the car.  “He’ll be ok,” I said and waved my hand like “no big deal”.

“No”, she said, “no dogs allowed”.

I looked around at this big, green, shady (and empty) park and then at Jay, hoping he would tell me this was a joke.

It wasn’t.

“No camping or swimming either”, he said.  I felt my heart implode.  The lady informed us that a man had drowned in the lake in 1927 and no one has been allowed in since.  Just to see the lake was N$25 a person.

So we respectfully declined, put our offensive dog back in the car and drove for the second lake, Guinas.

These two lakes are sinkholes, something like 110 meters deep, says a geophysicist friend of ours.  Rumor has it that they are actually connected underground- when a colored dye was put in one it eventually surfaced in the other.  What a trip that must be.  They even have their own endemic fish species, the Otjikoto tilapia, listed, not surprisingly, as critically endangered.

After a few long dusty roads we arrived and found a big white sign that said “Welcome to Lake Guinas.  No fishing, no swimming, no shooting.” So, it turns out, although Namibia has water, no one is allowed to use it for any sort of fun-inducing activity.  You just look at it.

Look, water.

At this point we were too hot to bother with frivolous things such as rules and since this lake was on private property, there were no rangers to scold us.  Besides, the sign was in Afrikaans and if asked, we decided, I would promptly reply in my best American accent that all I understood was the “Welcome to Lake Guinas” part.  So in we went.  At long last, relief from the heat.  Floating around, I envied the birds cheeping from the cliff edges.  How lucky they were to have this natural wonder as their home.

Sniffel, not a fan of swimming, wonders why we would do such a thing.

On our way out we brought with us a few of the many beverage bottles that littered the path down to the water.  Apparently, the rarity of this landscape in Namibia was not enough reason for people not to trash it.  We could only imagine how many had been chucked in and sunk forever.  And wondered if this was the reason all fun had been banned.

Visiting the lakes made us curious what else Namibia was hiding underground.  Once back home, we immediately began looking for cave entrances in the hills around our house.  I am quite determined to find our own massive body of water so we can go swimming whenever we want.  And the sign out front will read:

Welcome to Lake Scorpion.

Dogs and camping welcome.

Drowning and littering prohibited.

Violators will be fed to the tilapia.

The world of chickens

Chicken-wise, the past couple of months have been a roller coaster here on the farm.  I never would’ve expected so much from such goofy birds.  But after the births and deaths, love, hate, and turmoil that came out of our coop recently, I have to say, I’ve grown rather fond of them all.

It began with the eggs.  Our chickens have worked out a system where only one lays eggs at a time so the others can focus on other important tasks, like, I don’t know, walking around.  This does not result in many eggs.  What’s more, if the on-duty chicken decides to abandon the coop altogether, we have to search for the eggs, as if every day were Easter.

In the recent case, the egg chicken hid herself and her eggs in some leaf litter beneath a low-hanging palm frond.  By the time we found her, we had no way to know how old the eggs were and so we let her keep them.  Everyday we fed her there as she warmed her clutch of 10 or so. Through rain and wind, night and day, diligently she sat.

Then one day, she was gone.  All that remained was a few unfertilized eggs, many broken shells, and three lifeless chicks.  What happened, we could only speculate.  Perhaps one of Namibia’s wild cats, maybe a civet.  It was a sizable loss; a new generation of chicks and a dedicated mother.  I realized how excited I had become to see those eggs hatch.

But on the way back to the house, movement in the old, abandoned chicken stall nearby caught my eye.  There was our chicken with two yellow fluffballs running circles around her.  Whatever had happened, she successfully defended two of her chicks and moved them to the shelter of the old stall.  It was truly heart-warming to see and I was probably more excited than I should have been.  We set them up with food and water and the stall became their new home.

A little later we got another new addition to the chicken herd.  A friend needed to get rid of a rooster and thought of us.  We figured we could use some new genes in the pool so we accepted it.  But this was no ordinary rooster.  It was the biggest, manliest, most spectacularly decorated rooster I had ever seen.  He made our old roosters look like pansies which they did not appreciate.  Retaliation ensued.

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New rooster finally came in out of the rain for a game of pool.  He was not at his manliest for the photo.

We had kept the new rooster separated from the flock for a few days to allow for acclimation.  So he roamed the yard alone, standing pathetically in the rain to emphasize his solitude.  Eventually, thinking all would be alright, we gave him a night with the others.  But when the door to the coop was opened the next morning, new rooster came shooting out, in a barrage of squawks and feathers with one of the old roosters right on his heels.  When the old caught up to the new, he leapt promptly onto his back and began pulling out more of his long, luxurious feathers.  The new, big, strong, manly rooster responded by attempting to hide in a patch of aloes.  I finally managed to break them up and the new rooster was again separated.

A farm worker advised that we should give the new guy a couple of his own ladies so that he could find a niche and regain his self-esteem.  So the two youngest hens were moved in to his bachelor nook.  One was indifferent, but one was in love.  From then on, they’ve cruised the yard as the new couple, eating, drinking, and sleeping together.  The old roosters still had their admirers and gave up their bullying.  Peace returned to the coop.  But not for long.

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The couple during an afternoon nap.

Mama chicken, still over in the old stall with her two chicks was found one night unable to stand up.  I picked her up and tried stretching out her legs but it only upset her.  Beyond that, one chick had disappeared.  Again, we could only guess as to what happened, but it looked like a snake had come for one of her chicks and she was bitten while defending them once again.  Not only did she lose the chick, but she lost her life as well.  She died that night in a box in our kitchen, her last chick still nestled under her wing the next morning.

As orphaned animals tend to do on the farm, the chick moved in with us.  She deserved whatever shot at life we could give her.  In honor of our last bird visitor, Spicy Chicken the owl, she was named after another popular Namibian spice, and became Barbecue the chicken.

Understandably, Barbecue was not terribly fond of us at first.  But being the trooper that she is, she came around.  In a few days, she discovered she could get free rides on our shoulders.  Shortly thereafter, she was eating with us, literally, straight from our plates.

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We’re hoping she won’t attempt to do this when she’s bigger.

Barbecue has now exchanged almost all of her baby fluff for feathers.  She is quite independent, yet doesn’t like to be alone.  Eventually, she’ll be big enough to join the tumultuous world of chickens.  It won’t be easy, but assuming that she is the woman we think she is, one day not long from now, she’ll be a mom herself, a very fine one, and bring in a whole new crew of these bizarre and charming creatures.

I return to Namibia, Namibia returns to life (two unrelated events)

Springtime in Namibia.  I used to be under the impression that it didn’t exist.  Coming from a region of the world with summer thunderstorms, fall colors, winter blizzards, and spring bursting to life, I could not distinguish truly separate seasonal entities in this country.

Sure, one was a little colder or a little warmer than the previous.  A little windier or wetter.  But when someone would mention what a typical spring day it was, I’d look around, look at them, look around again and then nod my head and smile, totally confused.

Now I’ve got a couple years of Namibia under my belt, and upon my recent return from the States, I could actually see this mysterious springtime taking shape.

First of all, as I mentioned earlier, it is slightly warmer than “winter”.  We’re dressed in the usual Namibian attire of shorts and a t-shirt.  The jeans are in the closet and jackets are needed only occasionally.

Then there’s the trees.  Theoretically, it’s the rise in temperatures that triggers their blooming, and rumor has it that they have a mega-root that pulls water up from deep underground, but when everything else around is parched to utter crispiness, these acacias and their poof-blooms deserve a medal of valor.

A yellow life boat in a sea of brown.

They provide pollen for the bees, and so, honey for us.

The white variety.

The wildlife is sharing the little water there is to be found i.e. the cattle troughs:

And the acacias are making ludicrous numbers of poofs out of secret, underground sources.  Wacky.

With everything else as dry as earthly possible, tis’ the season of fires.  They break out randomly and unexpectedly, dotting the landscape with flames and towers of smoke.  The sky has a near constant haze.  Sometimes, if it’s close enough, it even rains ash.

If any of you have stuck with me so long, you may have read about last year’s fire.  Thankfully, the one that visited us this year wasn’t so bad and I’m hoping we’ll only have the one (knock on wood).  As before, it was due to someone playing with fire in the bush and carelessly letting it free, bringing us the late-night-tortoise-rescuing-smoke-inhalation-racing-to-beat-the-fire-at-its-own-game fun once again.

Standing by with the hose lest the fire break should wander.

Sniffel rode with me in the firefighting car. He had no idea what we were doing but he liked it.

A tortoise huddled on the spare tire as we shuttled him to a safer spot. Notice the ash everywhere.

And the tortoises aren’t the only ones resurfacing these days.  Frogs pop out of the garden beds as I plant cucumbers

and serenade us from the swimming pool at night.

The snakes are out, too, and lucky for us, they feel it necessary to come visit.  Yesterday, lunchtime, I ran into this guy.

What in the name of Steve Irwin is a snake the size of Manitoba doing in our cactus patch?  Does the bush not have enough birds, rodents, elephants for this thing to eat?  Funnily, the snake book said this estimated 2.5 meter (8 ft.) dude wasn’t even maximum python size.  No, no.  6 meters (nearly 20 ft.) is full grown.  Those are the ones that eat crocodiles.  I suppose someone should, but crikey.  Please, just satisfy my morbid curiosity from afar.  Thank you.

So, snakes and all, I’ll admit it.  I can see the signs of a spring, the land returning to life after a winter, even here in Namibia.  The good news is that after any spring that I’ve ever heard of, comes a summer, summer brings rain, and that is when life damn near explodes out of this place.

If it’s anything like the spring, it should be quite a ride.

Let’s compromise

This series of posts may periodically be updated as I think of more things to compromise on.  Please, visitors, add yours at the bottom.  I’m sure you could find one from your own life.

CATS

Good:  Coming home to cats lounging in the sun beams.

Bad:  Coming home to a present from the cats, a headless mouse which has actually been hiding there behind the chair for three days and is starting to smell and collect bugs and/or maggots.

Compromise:  Fewer mice = fewer cobras/puff adders/zebra snakes = safer cats and happy me.

DOGS

Good:  The dog likes to keep me company when I work on the computer.

Bad:  The dog has periods of toxic gas emissions that smell like a foot died inside a carton of milk that you forgot about in the trunk of your car last summer.

Compromise:  If I happen to be having a day of gas emissions myself and don’t want to take the blame….

 

WINTER

Good:  No mosquitoes.

Bad:  No moisture in my skin to the point it may just dry up and fall off.

Compromise:  I can use the fancy skin lotion that normally just sits in the cabinet and which, with its sweet smell, probably would attract more mosquitoes to me.  Oh, no wait, everything attracts mosquitoes to me.

FOREIGN LANGUAGES

Good:  I get to learn foreign languages.  Although, just one would have been ok.

Bad:  I get laughed at a lot.

Compromise:  I get to learn humility, patience, and sign language.

WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

Good:  When a wildlife conservation organization and a cattle ranch can be neighbors.

Bad:  When a cheetah released from the organization preys on the neighbor’s calves.

Compromise:  That’s the million Namibian dollar question.

This is my cow. I named her Cow. I managed to bring her back to health when she was much smaller after she was attacked by a cheetah. Most calves do not survive. This year, 2 years later, she’s going to be a mom!