Sunday, December 25, 2011

Holy infants?

It’s Christmas Day and I’m knee-deep in nativity scenes!

OK, maybe there's a dearth of straw-filled mangers, but angelic infants I’ve got aplenty.

As a kid, one of the highlights of Christmas was braving the crowds of harried shoppers to gawk in the windows of Melbourne’s largest department store.
With my nose snubbed against the plate-glass, I’d gaze open-mouthed at the archaic, creaky animatronics. Above the gum-nut babies, possums popped in and out of velvet tree hollows, owls blinked with glassy eyes and parrots flapped garish wings. Tiny dancing mice circled Cinderella on a barely concealed conveyer, each one twirling in frozen ecstasy.
And of course there was baby Jesus, hedged in by misshapen, nodding donkeys and smiling beatifically at a drummer boy suffering severe stomach cramps.

By today’s standards, this was primitive stuff indeed.
But even the newest of whizz-bang technology can’t begin to emulate what I can see through my windows today.

You see the bush around here knows how to do Christmas.
Decked out in the lushest greens, the foliage glitters and sparkles with a million fairy lights (thanks to yesterday’s rain), and mini Chinese lanterns dangle from every trackside sickle bush.

The sickle bush (Dichrostachys cinerea): Santa's own tree.
The Shona name for this species (mupangara) means 'tassels for the chief's hat'.

Even the tree ornaments are animate.

But it’s the nativity tableaus that are the real treat of the season.

Look beneath the tree here and you’re likely to find a wobbly-legged foal, gift-wrapped in stripes, or a lavishly decorated giraffe calf touching noses with its mother. My own favourites are the drifts of russet daffodils that, on closer inspection, become snoozing impala lambs; just their little faces and black-tipped ears poking above the dew-soaked grass.

Baby baboons ride by like prize-winning jockeys, and the first warthog piglets (who emerged jitteringly from their underground nests last week) trot along in single file with tails erect, and scatter like a flock of startled birds at the slightest threat. As usual, the little brown wildebeest calves arrived only just in time; their sudden entrance into the world as unnerving as the off loading of a school bus.

Now who’s to say whether these charmers have been fathered by Gods?

Like all youngsters, this one's itching for Christmas.

Christmas dinner? Impalas believe devoutly in safety in numbers. Bundled up in huge creches, the lambs move like schooling fish.

Who are you calling a fish?

Christmas is a time for pigging out but, for wee warthogs, speed is of the essence. Mum only turns on the milk for one minute bursts.

Hogging the limelight.

Now, as anyone who’s spent time appreciating the African bush knows, every day here is rather like Christmas.

You set out at first light to pay homage and in return you’re granted an armful of gifts. And to add to the excitement, you never know whether they’ll be socks or a new Lamborghini.

However, during the festive season the lowveld really ups the ante; in fact it's as if I’m living out the Twelve days of Christmas, with a special boon arriving daily.

The other night the porcupines trundled up to my compost heap with a brand new porcupette in tow (isn’t that a wonderful name?). This little blunt-nosed guy shuffled about shyly, pressing itself up against Mum (or Dad or older sibling, since the whole family helps with childcare). I assume he was embarrassed about his extravagant mohawk.

It was on the following day that I discovered two newly minted terrapins – their tiny shells less than an inch across - paddling about in a rock pool (actually more of a puddle) atop an isolated granite koppie.

The sprogs of marsh terrapins (Pelomedusa subrufa) favour teeny pools to avoid the jaws of crocodiles. 

Then on the third day, while walking with Bugbears, I accidently flushed a family of large-spotted genets. Springing lithely from their tree stump home, the three youngsters scrambled up a nearby marula tree. Crumple-eared and blinking myopically, they clung teetering by their claws, waiting for me to leave. These breathtaking (if sleep-interrupted) carnivores are softly furred in flamboyant polka-dots and sport luxuriously ringed tails. They're strict night owls and it's the first time I've glimpsed them by light of day. Of course, with my usual aplomb, I failed to capture them on film (or should that be on digit?).

A large-spotted genet (Genetta tigrina) masterfully photographed at Cincinnati Zoo.
Posted on Flickr by West Chester Dumonts. 

And then of course there are the four young silver-backed jackals who sit around outside their termite-mound den each morning, disconsolately scratching their fleas. Presumably Mum has hussled them outside to play so she can spend quality time with her new litter.

Do you think she'll let us back yet?

I can’t help but wonder what I'll find next?
Five gold rinkhal eggs?
Five baby unicorns?

Come to think of it Halcyon’s reigning monarch, Jasmine, has just produced five tiny pups...
But don’t let me get started on mongoose pups...

‘See Dad, I could be a tree-top angel!’
Keid, an ambitious dwarf mongoose (Helogale parvula) pup, chaperoned by his older bro, Flame.
Photo copyright Cleo Grieve.

All in all, there’s nowhere in the world that I’d rather spend Christmas.
And I wish upon you the same blessing.


  1. We walked the promenade looking at sea and birds.

  2. Oh, that's so much better than the Myer windows. You've made my Boxing Day.

    Happy (belated) Christmas!

  3. Oh, what a fabulous post! Happy to have made this visit with you!

  4. My gift to you: a video of dwarf mongooses opening holiday gifts at the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn, NY!

  5. Elephant's Eye,
    It sounds an excellent Christmas. It's years since I've had the opportunity to enjoy the seaside. Have a great New Year.

    Sorry to learn of the loss of Crinkle Cut. It's distressing to watch someone lose their mum (I've never got over Bambi). I hope the joey's big enough to handle life on its own.

    Thanks for your enthusiasm. I hope the New Year brings you lots of good things.

    Oh thank you for that gift! They're charmers (unless you're a mealworm of course). It makes me think I should try it with my guys. Maybe next Valentines Day...


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