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Why scorpion spotting is the coolest thing ever

9 Jan

Scorpion spotting

Nights in the bush are wonderful and mysterious and just a little scary. The distant roar of a lion. The unearthly shriek of a barn owl. The rustle in the grass of… who knows what. Hyenas laugh, jackals yowl, elephants rumble.  And, if two hippos choose to have a fight across the riverbed, it sounds like the dinosaurs have returned in all their terrible glory.

You can pick up eyeshine with a torch and get divebombed by dung beetles, but all of this takes place in the dark which rolls . So to find something new in the night, something that has been there all along, is extraordinary and wonderful.

All it took was the purchase of a torch from the Khamai Reptile Centre near Hoedspruit. It uses UV light, and scorpions glow under UV light. With a scorpion spotting torch, a stone birdbath is transformed into this:

Scorpion birdbath

A fork in a tree provides the stage for this unearthly tango:

Scorpion dance

Even dead scorpions take on a strange beauty under UV light.

Scorpion beautiful death

These are all pretty harmless scorpions, by the way – Opistacanthus asper – which favour Acacia nigrescens trees because they can hide in the bark and ambush passing insects. They’re cousins of Doris the Knysna scorpion. You can find out more about them in the online version of the scorpion guide book I use here.

If you ever spend time in the great outdoors, consider investing in a UV scorpion torch. It will add a fascinating new dimension to the dark.

How I got bitten by a chameleon

8 Jan

On Monday, I got bitten by a chameleon. This is not the sort of thing that happens often, so let me explain.

As my brother and I drove out of the access control point just off the R40, we noticed a chameleon crossing the road. (Why, we don’t know; presumably to get to the other side.) We avoided squashing him, but we were both worried he wouldn’t survive the journey.  Chameleons make tortoises look like Usain Bolt.

Chameleon crossed road

“We have to save it!” I yelped. My brother put on the hazards, drew to a halt and I leapt out to assist the reptile. He was not happy. Not unreasonably, he assumed I was about to attack him.

First he puffed himself up:

Chameleon 2

Then he gaped to show me the bright orange interior of his mouth and hissed like an angry cat:

Chameleon 3

There was no way to get him out of the road without picking him up. He immediately clamped his jaws shut on my left index finger. Chameleons don’t have teeth, so he couldn’t do much damage. I shrieked with laughter, did a little dance, and deposited him in in the grass on the verge where, I hope, he went on his way no worse for wear.

This was a big chap, as chameleons go – I’d estimate he was over 20cm nose to tail. The red jaw-shaped mark he left on my finger lasted about 15 minutes, the only side effect of the experience. Sadly, I have gained no chameleon powers.


Meet Doris

22 Dec

Last night, as I stepped out of the bedroom of our B&B in Knysna to get to the bathroom, I was greeted by the sight of this:

Doris the scorpion

My travel companion and I were mildly alarmed. Though I know that large pincers and a small tail signify a non-dangerous species, the thought of something that makes sounds when it scuttles was not conducive to a peaceful night’s sleep.

I have since named her Doris. No particular reason other than that she’s a Doris. (Even if she is a he, that’s her name.)

Naturally, I tweeted about the encounter.

Scorpion tweet

Thanks to Nechama Brodie (whose dad lives in Knysna; back in 1997 I did one of his tantric sex courses in a town called Mooinooi, but that’s another story), I quickly established that Doris was most probably Opistacanthus capensis, which is the most common scorpion in Knysna. Importantly, it’s “very docile indeed”. So we were able to sleep after all.

This morning I discussed Doris with the B&B owner, who used to run a hunting lodge in Namibia. I’m hoping my pleas for Doris were heard, and that she won’t get squashed. I hate killing things unnecessarily, even if you can hear them when they walk.

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On (not) getting lost

4 Dec

I am incredibly, remarkably, amazingly, magnificently good at getting lost. Give me two alternative routes and chances are I will take the wrong one.


Until now. Because finally, after years of willing the universe to make it so, I have a GPS to play with. The TomTom I’ve been loaned is so wonderful at not getting me lost that I am completely in love with it.

I love the way it sticks with the minimum of fuss to the windscreen.

I love the perky little drumbeat when it starts up.

I love the way it doesn’t get the address totally wrong, the way Google Maps does.

I love the way it just works.

The TomTom came in handy during my trip to Cape Town. It got me to from the airport to an address Green Point no problem. I used it to give me a sense of where I was in the world when I took the scenic route to visit David Bullard in Somerset West through Camps Bay, Hout Bay and Constantia instead of the more traditional route to the N2.

David examining his vines

David examining his vines

It also got me back from the Lalela Project to the airport with the minimum of fuss. The woman who recites the directions to me pronounces Hout Bay to rhyme with Oat, which is correct, and Newlands and New-Lands, which is strange, but she turned what could have been a disaster into something completely stress-free, and I am very grateful for that.

Next trip for the TomTom will be Knysna just before Christmas.

On the road with the Aircross

1 Sep

Aircross at sunset

When I started planning a trip to my favourite place in the world for my least favourite day, my birthday, I knew I needed to find a vehicle that could make the journey comfortable and fuss-free. The ability to handle the horrendous potholes on the R36 was a must, as was high ground clearance for the middelmannetjies on the roads of Timbavati.

The dry riverbed above is one example of the hazards you can encounter, as is this present left in the road by an elephant. It’s covered in thorns (I know, because I pricked myself on them):

Road hazard

You also need something that can take a decent amount of luggage.

Arrival at camp

So I approached Citroen and asked if I could use the C4 Aircross. It seemed to fit the bill on all counts, and because you don’t see many of them on the roads, I was curious about it.

I ended up going on my own, but the Aircross would have comfortably taken three more people and their luggage. Once I found the right seating position, the drive was comfortable and uneventful. The Aircross handled the twisty roads and potholes around Ohrigstad with aplomb, and I felt really  confident and comfortable driving it in challenging conditions – important when you have no co-driver.

The 2 litre engine produces 113kW – it’s not a rocket, but it has enough oomph for overtaking, and it cruises very happily on the highways which makes it a good all-rounder.  It was made for weekend trips – to Dullstroom, the bush, or wherever you want the road to take you.

At Walkersons

I had assumed that the C4 was a raised version of a sedan equivalent, but not so: it is in fact built on the same platform as the Mitsubishi ASX, but with some added French styling flair.  (Naturally I learned this thanks to my petrolhead friends on Twitter.) Some reviews I’ve read have expressed disappointment at the “Japanese” layout, but since I only have one experience driving a friend’s DS4 to Dullstroom, I can’t really compare. Everything was easy to reach, and while the petrol attendants at the Hoedspruit Total battled to figure out how to open the petrol cap (it took us five minutes) that’s because we overlooked the obvious.

There are lovely small touches: the way the car says “See you” when you turn off the ignition, and the fact that there are heated seats. (The adjustability of the seats are one of this car’s most convenient features and the thing I liked most about it.) From a design point of view, the rear headlights are probably this car’s most distinguishing feature. Here the look is completed by genuine African dust:

African dust

I’m very grateful to Citroen and the team at Machine (who run their social media)  for hooking me up with the perfect set of wheels for my birthday road trip. The one thing anyone needs to be independent in South Africa is a reliable car, and thanks to the Aircross, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

A confession: on the way back, I drove in my Croc boots – and my French car forgave me. Getting to know this car was a pleasure, and I’m glad I did.

Things I learned in Cape Town

27 May

Kalk Bay view

“Granny’s been taken into ICU in Sandton Clinic. I don’t think she’s going to make it, so I’m flying up.” The man on the phone is surprisingly calm about this. He’s older, in his mid sixties perhaps, corporate. He exudes that kind of pleasant, rather placid air of entitlement that the well-heeled possess. I’m surprised he’s sitting in Economy class, at the back of the plane, with me.

It is a Sunday afternoon. Soon, this British Airways 737-400 will take off and fly me back from Cape Town to Johannesburg, where I will return to a more familiar version of myself.  Because, of course, I am a Joburger, born and bred. This means I am driven, obsessed with work, in a constant state of delirious anxiety and defined, despite my best intentions, by what I do and do not own.

But every now and then, I have to leave this city to rediscover myself.

Me in Cape Town

This weekend, I travelled to Cape Town. There, I learned these things:

That I can stop thinking about work, if I try.

That I don’t have to be surgically attached to my laptop. (For one thing, travelling without a laptop makes going through security so much easier.)

That I don’t have to be Productive every single second of the day to be a worthwhile human being.

That despite my crustiness and my cynicism, I am still capable of allowing myself to be vulnerable.

That being a good person matters more than anything. “Only connect,” as EM Forster once so famously wrote, though I’ve known that for a long time; this trip simply reminded me of that, again.

But having money is nice, and if I want to make a difference to the world and the people around me, I have to acquire more of the freedom that comes with having it.  (The irony.)

On the plane, I transition from the chilled Cape Town version of myself back to the Joburg me. First, I draw sketches for a painting. Then I write the outline for this post. Then I map out a strategy for a client I am seeing tomorrow afternoon. Just before we start descending to Joburg, I drift off to sleep, the engines roaring in my ears.

I wake up just in time for rubber to connect with tarmac. Seatbelts click, passengers position themselves in the queue and reach for the overhead lockers. The man next to me makes a phonecall. “Is the black Range Rover ready for me?” he asks.  “I’ll be there in six or seven minutes.” He files off the plane. I hope he makes it in time. I wonder what he will do once he gets there,  if he will weep, if what he shows on the outside will hint at what lies beneath.

How to fix a broken bridge

20 Dec

The bridge across the Klaserie on the Argyle Road was partly washed away during floods more than two years ago. The floods of January this year further damaged it. Instead of fixing it, the local roads agency has found an innovative solution: put up a stop sign telling people the road narrows from two lanes to one.



One wonders what they will do when the bridge is finally unusable, as it will almost certainly be after another flood.

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