At 3 am last Saturday, while wading ankle-deep through my lounge room, I realised I may have been a bit hasty saying that I'd escaped the floods.
Fortunately, the water merrily gushing in under my front door was just runoff – clean and blessedly crocodile-free; a consequence of the night-long deluge. As I sloshed about trying to divert the flow away from essential appliances, and reclaiming sodden groceries and clothing (well, I sometimes leave them on the floor), the pets watched with great interest, sitting, dry-footed, on the furniture.
Outside, the swollen Oliphants River was making a deafening roar, but didn't appear to be rising.
That would come later.
By morning, the rain had stopped and I began mopping (much to the irritation of my resident toads who were delighted to be able to orgy in the comfort of their own home). I kept dashing outside to check the river, and at around 8.00 it started to rise.
By 8.15, I was madly packing boxes.
In the space of 15 minutes it had halved the distance between me and it, and the swirling water was still creeping closer. If it continued at this pace, I was going to have very little time to evacuate. Fortunately, by about 8.25, the encroachment slowed, and then the water level stabilised, with the torrent rushing by closer than I've ever seen before.
But I'm still not sure whether to unpack my possessions or not!
|The Makhutsi river. This small tributary is dry eleven months a year and, even when flowing, is normally only a few meters across. Thankfully it joins the Oliphants downstream of my house.|
If the heavy rain caused me a few tense moments, it's been a bonanza for the local wildlife. With all the temporary pans brimful, the frogs are going berserk. Every now and again they send an emissary into the house just so I know how much fun they're having.
And the frogs aren't the only ones. While searching for Halcyon, I was crossing a granite outcrop when I noticed movement in a shallow pool of rainwater. Looking closer, I was amazed to see several baby terrapins madly scuttling toward the deepest part of the pool. They lay cryptically on the bottom among the debris for a while, but soon one paddled up to cautiously poke its nose above the surface, and eventually a whole flotilla of the little creatures was drifting on the surface. They were only about an inch long (25 mm) and unspeakably cute (for mere reptiles), reminding me uncannily of the baby turtles in Finding Nemo.
But how on earth did they get there?
|The terrapins' ephemeral home. The rock pool is only a couple of inches deep and situated up on a koppie, many kilometres from the nearest creek or waterhole.|
|A newly-hatched marsh or helmeted terrapin (Pelomedusa subrufa). It's probably male given our wimpy summer. Terrapins (concerned about sex-appeal) let temperature determine the gender of their kids, producing hot females and cool males.|
Now chelonians (that's turtles, tortoises and terrapins, not residents of Chelonia) have done very well out of their protective-shell racket, in fact they've been trundling about under cover since before the dinosaurs were a twinkle in a reptilian eye (210 million years in total). Yet a shell has to be mighty tough to withstand the jaws of a crocodile, and the relatively thin covering of marsh terrapins make them tempting snacks, especially when small. So while you'll see adult terrapins basking nonchalantly on logs (or hippos) in croc-infested waters, you won't spot a baby one. When it comes time to raise a family, marsh terrapins trek off into the bush in search of crocodile-free accommodation. I've been utterly shocked, on several occasions, to find one shuffling about in a rocky cleft of stagnant water at least 4 km (2.5 miles) from the nearest water.
The love life of marsh terrapins can only be described as kinky. When a male's consumed with passion, he trails his lady love, suggestively touching his snout against her hind legs and tail. If she reciprocates his feelings, he'll teeter up on top of her, hooking the claws of all four feet under the rim of her shell. With neck fully extended, he rubs his chin back and forth on the back of her head, tickling her with two short chin tentacles. And just to keep her in the mood, he squirts a stream of water over her face from his nostrils. Now tell me, can your lover do that?
|Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.|
If size matters, terrapins have a right to look smug.
Like mammals, chelonians have erectile phalluses, but - unlike mammals -they're BIG, often extending more than half the length of their shell. Males fold these impressive appendages up neatly inside their cloacae when not in the throes of love, but some species are not above flashing to intimidate their rivals.
As Ogden Nash so aptly put it:
'The turtle lives twixt plated decks
That practically conceal its sex.
I think it clever of the turtle
In such a fix to be so fertile.'
The end product of all this hanky-panky is a clutch of 10 to 30 soft-shelled eggs buried in a pit that Mum scrapes in the soil with her hind feet. Ground too hard? No problem: Mum just wees on it.
Heavy rain triggers hatching, about 90-110 days later, and the little terrapins must head out, often climbing many meters of rock, to find the water that Mum intended.