Micro-Hippos (or tardigrades)

Americans call tardigrades ‘water bears’ and Europeans call them ‘moss piglets’. I think Africans should call them micro-hippos. They’re obviously more closely related to hippopotamuses than bears or pigs. Just look at them. Anyone can see that’s a microscopic hippo wearing his old wrinkled khaki bush outfit.*

Anyway, they live in water, like bears and pigs don’t. Microscopic, blobby-bodied tardigrades measure mostly between 0.3 to 0.5 millimeters in length. The tiny creatures have endearing features if you have a good enough microscope: fat, lumpy bodies; oblong heads, sometimes with a tubular mouth; four pairs of chubby legs tipped with grasping claws like a sloth. The word tardigrada is Latin for ‘slow stepper’.

They are famed for their ability to survive in extreme conditions, even appearing to come back from the dead. They’re found around the world on damp moss and algae, but you can’t really see them with the naked eye. Yet somehow German dominee-zoologist Johann August Ephraim Goeze discovered them back in 1773. I love it. I hope he mentioned them in his next sermon on fortitude.

Researchers have found that tardigrades can withstand searing heat up to 149 degrees Celsius and freezing cold as low as minus 200 degrees Celsius. They emerge unscathed after exposure to boiling, high pressure, and the radiation and vacuum of space.  They expel the water from their bodies and enter a suspended state. In this state they’re called ‘tuns’. They retract their limbs and shrink into tiny, desiccated balls, emerging only when life-threatening conditions have passed. OK, so that’s not like hippos, but nor is it like piglets. Bears do their hibernation thing, true.

They come in various kinds. Here’s another one and a cute micro-hippo embryo:

Scientists are studying how these amazing beasts do what they do. One is Thomas C. Boothby of the University of North Carolina. He grew up in Africa, so I hope he calls them micro-hippos!

More here and here and here

*Matt Simon on wired.com called them something like “cannons in wrinkled khaki”

dominee – preacher, pastor

 

Return of the Wagtails?

For years I would watch a large flock of Cape Wagtails settle down for the night on a low tin roof above the parking area on the roof of my shopping centre, Montclair Mall south of Durban. They would gather in a long line under a roll of security barbed wire. Its just visible, arrowed next to the little grey lift tower far right in picture. True, its a long shot, but I wanted the clouds to show.

Montclair mall roof barbed wire.jpg

The ugly wire gave them a safe place to roost. The most I counted was sixty six of the lil guys.

Then they disappeared. For the last six years or more I saw none of them. Not one. My guess is poison on people’s lawns have put paid to them. Poor buggers do such a good job cleaning up people’s lawns but we humans are impatient! We prefer mass murder to waiting for little feathered tuxedo-clad workmen to neatly pick off the offending insects and grubs one-by-one.

This week one lone waggie made a comeback on the roof! Let’s hope a recovery is starting!

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Cape Wagtail – Mocilla capensis

Wally Menne – R.I.P

Dammitall, I can think of a lot of people whose death would be good for the environment. Wally Menne is not one of them. His is a seriously sad loss for our environment.

Trish worked with Wally at BotSoc and at the big annual plant fair he was so instrumental in organising. The indigenous plant fair was huge in getting more indigenous plants out into gardens all over KZN and in spreading the word and popularising the planting of plants for a reason other than looking pretty. Azaleas are pretty but we all started to need to plant things that fit better into the local soil, insects, birds, etc biosphere.

We all knew that plantations are sterile and suck up water, but Wally gave me this book and taught me the real dangers of plantations:

Wally Menne gave me this book and taught me about the plantation industry

He told me about the plantation industry’s influence on governments and their insidious PR calling themselves “forestry people” and representing themselves as the stewards of forests when they were in fact the enemies of forests and grasslands. They sponsor bird books and create little nature reserves while destructively expanding into precious biodiverse areas, ruining them forever. They “capture” prominent environmental bodies by sponsoring them and wining and dining their representatives. Insidious. “State Capture” is old hat to them. Wally as always said it exactly as it was: He likened their use of  the word “forestry” to the Nats’ use of terms such as “separate development” or “mother tongue education” to put a pretty face on apartheid.

We miss you Wally and we need someone to stand up in your huge shoes. Ain’t gonna be easy. Most of us are easily swayed by persuasive bullshit and a book launch or a ribbon cutting at a new little nature reserve (which incidentally has no real protection).

Tonie Carnie wrote a stirring obituary for Wally in The Daily Maverick.

Lloyd’s Camp, Savuti

We flew on from Oddballs east out of the green delta across the dry Kalahari to Savuti:

We flew on to Savuti

The flight was a bit bumpy in the hot clear air and Aitch started to go green about the gills but we landed before she resorted to any lumpy laughter. At the strip we were met by pink-cheeked Emma the Pom in an open game drive vehicle. She was the camp chef – and the airstrip fetcher that day. She drove us right up an ele’s bum at a waterhole en route.

Just three of us in the vehicle. The last time I had been to Savuti was in 1985 when I’d arrived in a crowded old Land Rover full of Kiwis, Aussies, a Pom and a Yank on a budget overlander. We pitched our tiny tents in the public camping area and the eles bust the water tank.

Sixteen years later, luxury! Emma took us on to camp and fed us overlooking the famed Savuti channel. After Oddball’s roughing it: YUM!!

 

Jenny and Lionel Song hosted us. She was a honey, he was lion-obsessed. And we had Texans with us, so we did a lot of lion-chasing. ‘Myomi’s pride’ was the focus. Gotta have names.

So first thing in the morning we’d hare off to where the lions had last been seen and at last light (its a national park, so you can’t be out after dark) we’d hare back to camp. Once on the way we saw two ratels (honey badgers) skoffeling around and at least we did slow down to watch them awhile.

In Lionel’s defence he was doing his job, the Americans were repeat guests who worked for Southwest Airlines based in Dallas – world’s biggest carrier at the time. They were delighted when he gunned the Cruiser after a lioness as she started sprinting at a giraffe. She and five others brought down the giraffe and that was it, we spent the rest of the day watching lion lunch.

The good thing is a vehicle is a great hide so I could scan around for birds too. While doing so I saw two ears above the grass some 100m off. A cub watching and waiting. It stayed right there till the pride leader looked up and made a funny high-pitched bark and they (three of them) came running straight onto the carcase and started making a nuisance of themselves. When we left they had hardly made a dent in the huge female giraffe.

Next morning we drove straight back at first light and all that was left was a blood stain on the grass, a chewed head nearby  and scattered bones! Two males had arrived and they were lying there the size of dirigibles. Eight round lions and three bloated cubs. They looked like the animals from Rollin’ Safari:

Roolin Safari

Botswana Oddballs Savuti (7)

Savuti Botswana (1)

In camp Lionel, teasing, said to a guest who asked about the Lloyd of Lloyd’s Camp: ‘You should meet Lloyd, pity he’s not here. He’s 6ft 4in tall with long black hair tied back in a ponytail”. Yeah, right! Lloyd Wilmot’s a legend in deeds, but not in stature.

I love the one guest comment after yet another exciting Wilmot Safari: “While the Lloyd is my shepherd I Wilmot fear…”

It was 2001 and the Savute channel was dry, so the only waterholes were supplied by boreholes. The Savute flows with water from the Linyanti river. It apparently flowed in Livingstone’s time, around 1845, then was dry in 1880 and remained dry for over 70 years. It flooded again in 1957, dried up again in 1982, flowed again in 2008 and the marsh flooded fully in 2010. This was documented by Dereck and Beverley Joubert in their films Stolen River and Journey to the Forgotten River. Mike Myers tells how the whole dynamic of the region changes depending on what’s happening with the water. I heard in Maun how Lloyd Wilmot had found a crocodile (crocodile carcase?) high up in the rocky hills above the marsh around 1982 after the channel ceased to flow.

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skoffeling – rummaging

Xudum in Okavango

Another trip to the Delta!

Aitch and I flew from Maun to Xudum in 2001 when Janet & Duncan were running the show for Landela Safaris. We landed on the nearby bush strip.

 

After a few days in camp they had business in Maun and we accompanied them on the drive out of the Delta to Maun in the Land Cruiser. Rickety bridges, deep water crossings with water washing over the bonnet onto the windscreen.

On the drive back to camp after the day in the big smoke of the metropolis of Maun we entered a Tamboti grove and saw two leopard cubs in the road. They split and ran off to left and right, then ran alongside of us on either side for a minute calling to each other before we moved off and let them be.

We enjoyed mekoro trips, game drives & walks and afternoon boat trips stretching into evenings watching the sunset from the boat while fishing for silver catfish or silvertooth barbel – I forget what they called them. Later, wading in thigh-deep water sorting out the pumps. Only afterwards did I think hmm, crocs.

Xudum (5)

Visited Rann’s camp for lunch where we first heard the now-common salute before starting a meal: “Born Up a Tree”.

Janet moved us from camp to camp as guests arrive, filling in where there were gaps in other camps. We transferred by boat, mekoro or 4X4 vehicle. One night we stayed in a tree house in Little Xudum camp.

Okavango Xudum Camp

Lazy days in camp drinking G&T’s

Oddballs Palm Island Luxury Lodge

Getting into the Okavango Delta is awfully expensive.

A cheaper way is to fly in to Oddballs Palm Island Luxury Lodge, get on a mokoro and disappear off into the wild with a guide who knows where he’s going and what he’s doing. In 1993 Aitch and I did just that, spending a night at Oddballs, where you are given a little dome tent to pitch on the hard-baked earth.

You get visitors:

The name is ironic, see (“contrary to what is expected, and typically causing wry amusement because of this” – I made a quick check, don’t want get ironic wrong). While in camp you stock up on the meagre supplies available in their shop (like potatoes and onions), a tent, a braai grid, add it to the 10kg you’re allowed to bring in on the high-wing Cessna 206’s and you’re away! 10kg doesn’t go far when you’re a books, binocs and telescope junkie!

We enjoyed six nights out on the mokoro in the care of a wonderful man named Thaba Kamanakao. We chose to sleep three nights under a jackalberry and three under a mangosteen, minimising packing up and moving. We had little food, but Thaba provided us with the fish he caught in his gill net each night. I ate the barbel and he and Aitch the bream. Lucky me, it was delicious! He also loved barbel, but his lifestyle advisor – a sangoma? – had told him he wasn’t allowed it! The first night we were joined by Pommy doctors Louise and Richard and their guide “BT”.

OddballsOkavango (7 small)

When we moved camp from Jackalberry Camp to Mangosteen or Squirrel Camp we decided we needed a bath, so Thaba took us to a stunning clear lagoon, carefully checked for big things that could bite and then stood guard on the mokoro while we swam and rinsed – no soap, please! (Anyone going: You MUST take a diving mask! Next time I’ll pack some small swimming goggles and an underwater camera. The clarity of that water is awesome).

Beautiful underwater pic by David Doubilet to show what it looks like.

OddballsOkavango Camp
Squirrel Camp

Days were spent birding, hiking, short mokoro trips & loafing in camp, where the squirrels and birds kept us entertained for hours.

One night a herd of eles moved in and we lay listening to their tummy rumbles. We kept dead quiet and just peered at them in the moonlight as they had a little baby with them and we didn’t want to upset mama.

Botswana Oddballs Savuti (2 small) still life with sausage tree flowers

Then we headed back reluctantly for a last night at Oddballs. Warm showers under the open sky, big hearty hot meals prepared for us, ice cold beer & gin’ntonics on the deck watching otters in the lagoon. Comfy chairs.

And suddenly it dawns on you that, even though you do have to pitch your own tent again, Oddballs really IS a Luxury Lodge!

Oddballs (5)

Mfolosi Aerial Dogfight

It looked like a standoff. At a small pool of water in the dry sandy riverbed of the Black Mfolosi river a male Bataleur and a Tawny Eagle contested the scarce resource. Both stood on the sand at the water’s edge and hunched their shoulders at each other.

I watched a while then scanned all around. Suddenly I heard a cry above me. Two birds circled each other in the air just above our vantage point on a bluff overlooking the river. I looked back at the waterhole. They were gone, this must be them. It was. The eagle was dive-bombing the Bataleur shouting a hoarse kraak kraak. The Bataleur screamed defiantly, dodging the move.

The eagle circled to gain height and folded its wings and took aim again, the agile Bataleur dodging with a sideways roll.

The Bataleur then landed in a tall dead tree while the eagle was climbing again. Soon the Tawny was on his way down again, zooming straight at him and knocking him off his perch. They banked and circled and strained to gain height again, the Bataleur’s wingflaps surprisingly noisy. Once again the Tawny won the climb and launched a dive.

The Bataleur folded his wings and flew away low over the tree tops away from the river.

The Tawny landed back at the pool where it all started, victorious.

High above a white-backed vulture and a Yellow-billed Kite, witnesses to the dogfight, still circled in the thermals.


Wow!! Who needs a lion kill?

Oh, Jessica. Yes, dear. I didn’t realise how long we’d been here. We’ll drive now and look for lions, honey.

pics from https://willemkruger.wordpress.com/ and birdguides.com – thank you!