Saturday, January 28, 2012

Hey, I ain't drowned yet!

Do you ever have one of those days?
You know, when getting out of bed turns out to be a seriously bad decision?

Well Wednesday (18th Jan) was that kind of day for me.
Things actually started going pear-shaped on Tuesday afternoon, I just didn't notice.
That was when the rain started.

Now rain is good; we need rain.
I’m thoroughly sick of providing halfway housing for dispossessed tadpoles.
OK, I did spend much of Tuesday night emptying drip-buckets, mopping up indoor waterways and rearranging electrical appliances, but that’s only to be expected.
Yet perhaps if someone had mentioned the word ‘cyclone’ I may have been more wary.
Maybe I wouldn't have headed out into the downpour at 5am to collect an Australian friend who was flying into Nelspruit (200 km/124 miles south of here).

The 3 km (1.9 miles) slalom run to the front gate was an eye-opener. Skidding through sticky red mud, plunging into overflowing creeks, circumventing hitherto unknown lakes and careening into culverts was somewhat off-putting. When I finally crept onto the tarred road (with one headlight blearily water-filled and my fan-belt squealing in protest), I thought my troubles were over.

I can’t see anything in this torrential rain.
Did those oncoming cars have their hazard lights on? I wonder..?

Next minute I’m aquaplaning at 100 kph (60 mph) down a road that’s a river. The water is almost 18 inches (45cm) deep and bubbling along at a merry pace. When my tyres finally touchdown, I figure I’d better keep going, since I’m already in it (in every sense of the phrase). So on I chug... and on... and on... milk chocolate water churning against the windows. I’m getting nervous: how deep is this water going to get?
Then looming through my deluge-smeared windscreen are the rabbit-dazzling headlights of a massive truck.
In the centre of the bloody river road!
The behemoth’s horn blares deafeningly and just as I’m thinking my end has come, the truck’s huge bow wave catches my car and swirls it sideways. Shit, shit, where does the tarmac end?? Once I regain steering, I manage to lurch back on to what could be the road.
Oh God!
Can I really reach the airport?

By the time I slew, skid and slosh my way into Hoedspruit (35 km/22 miles from home) I have the demeanour of a druggie in rehab.

I’ll just stop here, calm down and decide what to do, I think.
The petrol station is hidden behind Lake Geneva. The supermarket’s car park is an ocean vista.
Maybe not.

But how is an aeroplane going to land in this??

Still unable to see more than a foot in front of my beleaguered windscreen wipers, I decide to flee for home before the road is cut entirely. So back I chug, through hell and high water.

Just as I reach my front gate, the deluge stops. My mood lightens with the sky. I phone the airline: oh yes, the flight touched down right on time. I envision my friend sitting, waiting...
Maybe I gave up too easily.
Maybe I’m just being a wimp.
After all, the water is probably no more than runoff from the actual downpour. Give it a few minutes and it’ll all flow away...
So round I go again and head back.

There’s more traffic about now and big 4-wheel-drives cluster nervously at the edge of the floodwaters, like bathers in winter. Their occupants stare open-mouthed as I zip past them in my little bakkie/ute/truck/van (a 1989, 2-wheel-drive, 1800 Hilux), plunging fearlessly into the swirling torrent (heck, I’ve forded it twice already!).

This time I’m determined not to give up. My grim resolve carries me through rushing, log-toting rivers, over-pouring dams and vast brown lakes. But 50 km (30 miles) from home I’m defeated. Up ahead a long line of motorists sit gazing in dismay at an endless expanse of water. In the middle a single car sits. Its tail lights still blaze defiantly although they’re submerged, and water's gently lapping over its bonnet/hood.

Ahh. Time to head back home.

But I don’t make it home. Just one kilometre (half a mile) from pay dirt I’m forced to abandon my waterlogged trusty car on the edge of a waist-deep beck. After wading through, I squelch home on foot.

Now this should be the end of the tale, shouldn’t it?

I'd love to be able to describe how I snuggled up on the sofa with my dogs and a warm cup of cocoa and listened to the falling rain.

But I can’t. Or rather I couldn’t (hear the rain, or anything else for that matter). You see outside my backdoor a jumbo jet was taxiing. Or at least that’s how it sounded. In reality it was the Oliphants River and it was in FULL flood. 

The view from my spare bedroom.
The nice caramelly bit is raging floodwater.

The caramelly bit up close.
Not something you want to find on your doorstep.

Now for those of you, like myself, who didn’t think South Africa suffered cyclones, let me introduce you to the wonders of climate change.
Cyclone Dando made landfall in Mozambique on Sunday the 15th and after successfully inundating 4000 homes decided to try its luck in South Africa. Fortunately its overland trek exhausted the 120 kph (75 mph) winds, but didn't prevent it from dumping 380 mm (15 inches) of rain in the Hoedspruit area (in about 36 hours). The town suffered its worst floods on record; every access road was cut and both the Blyde and Klaserie rivers broke their banks, destroying shops, businesses and homes. Floods swept through the nearby Kruger National Park where several camps had to be evacuated and stranded tourists airlifted to terra firma.

Kruger National Parks’ Sabie River (viewed from the Lower Sabie restaurant). Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

Not the best choice for a game drive (the Sabie River showing its teeth). Photo by Arno & Louise Meintjes.

With the rain still bucketing down, I stood gazing at the river racing below my house. Huge waves and eddies churned the water and spume flew high into the air. Enormous tree trunks surfed by as fast as a car on the highway, and breakers crashed against the banks.

When you live on the banks of a major river you formulate plans for this sort of an eventuality. But mine did not involve being car-less.
And NO vehicle could breast the torrent that I’d just waded through.

I looked like I'd have to abandon all my possessions, and just trudge off into the hills with my pets, singing Climb every mountain.

Surveying my house, I was a bit disconcerted to find that I really didn’t mind losing most of its contents (is this one of the benefits of being a hoarder?). But there were my books; and the computer. And all my work equipment.

I spent several hours packing. The moment I opened the front door to move the boxes, my dogs hurtled out, disappearing off into the rain-soaked bush. Was this some eerie animal ‘presentiment’ thing, I wondered? Or just the irresistible lure of displaced cane rats? Sans dogs, I carted my books through the rain to an old shed (on slightly higher ground) and shoved and hauled my ‘valuables’ (in lidded plastic crates) up the slope into the bush.

As the river continued to rise during the afternoon, army helicopters zoomed back and forth overhead, presumably searching for hapless victims stranded by the flood. I stood outside hopefully, looking pathetic, but I guess I wasn’t hapless enough because they just whop-whopped on by. (I’ve since heard about an 80-year-old who sat up a tree for several hours awaiting rescue - OK, her need was greater than mine.)

The Oliphants River roaring past my house (at 3118 cubic metres/110,111 cubic feet per second). Just enough to fill my house - floor to ceiling - in one-twelfth of a second.

My back garden. The little black blobs in the water are the uprights of a picnic table. The top is already scudding its way to Mozambique.
The water continued to rise all evening and I kept dashing outside with my torch to check where the surf was breaking. If it rose another 2 m (6 ft), my house was a goner.

I wasn’t relishing the prospect of sitting out the night on a hilltop in the rain. The pets wandered about restlessly with widened eyes, and my head throbbed painfully from the constant roar. I’d intended to mount an all-night vigil (so as not to wake surrounded by swirling, crocodile-infested floodwater) but tiredness overcame anxiety and prudence. Huddled in a heap, the pets and I eventually fell asleep.

And lo and behold, at dawn the next day we were still there!
And the river was starting to fall.


The aftermath. The riverbed below my house now looks ravaged.

The Sabie River a week after the flood. Check out the railings torn from the bridge (on second thoughts you’ll need a magnifying glass; see below instead).

Flood-wracked railings.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Three's a crowd

‘twas the night before Thursday
And all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
Not even a mouse.

THIS house??

Where bushbabies hold nightly gumboot races in the ceiling, cheered on by a squeakery of bats?
Where three species of gecko brawl raucously over the rights to my mealworm colony, and resident gerbils sharpen their teeth - without pause - on my electrical appliances?
Oh, and let’s not forget the live-in toads who are convinced that beetle-hunting is most lucrative deep within my store of recycled plastic shopping bags.

THAT house??

Silent as the grave (and the simile wasn’t chosen idly).

What catastrophe has befallen us?
Did my housemates succumb to radio-active fallout from the gnawed microwave? Or maybe deadly spores wafted from the dishes mouldering in my sink? Was our water supply craftily poisoned by delinquent baboons?
No. We simply have a visitor come to stay.

In truth, we’ve had three visitors (all equally ostracized by my roommates) but I managed to persuade the other two to leave.

Now don’t imagine that these houseguests turned up unannounced.
It’s just that sometimes I have trouble understanding the local lingo.
Still, the first warning came through loud and clear.

I was beavering away on my computer on Tuesday afternoon when a large toad hopped by. Now this is nothing unusual as I share my domicile with at least four of the beasts.
Hey, but wait... It’s daytime!
I leapt to me feet in panic.
You see my toads are nocturnal beings, and there’s only one thing that will drag them from their beds before sundown: a professional toad-muncher.

A red toad (Schismaderma carens): snake-detector extraordinaire.

As the toad hurried out the back door, I cautiously crept into the kitchen (from whence the refugee had hopped). On route I passed a panic-stricken gecko, fleeing its daytime haunt behind the fridge.
Not a good sign.
A wary search of the kitchen’s nooks and crannies revealed the culprit: a Mozambique spitting cobra, lurking behind the stove.

Now I’ve written about spitting cobras before (here, here and here). With appalling manners (spitting in the faces of strangers) and a lethal overbite, they’re not the sort of guest you want loitering in your food preparation area. But, fortunately, the judicious application of a broom induced the creature to retreat into a poster tube (ah, one of life’s essentials), and in no time at all I was trudging off into the bush to liberate it.

The following day I was once again plugging away at my computer (see how diligent I am?) when Magic (my husky-cross) leapt up and rushed to the backdoor. We knew that something was loitering immediately outside because its shadow was moving in the strip of light under the door. I was gazing at this dark shape when, suddenly, a thin, black filament flicked, just for a moment, in under the door.
It’s a skink’s tail, I assumed erroneously.

Rainbow skinks (Trachylepsis quinquetaeniata) frequently skitter in and out of my house, hunting for any creepy-crawlies the toads may have missed (or maybe just to taunt the dogs).

Since the skinks are masters at evading canine pursuit, I opened the door to let Magic out.
Standing there on the doorstep was a two meter (6 ft) long rock monitor. Grey and gnarly-looking, it was bent forward with its stubby nose pressed to the crack below the door, and was flicking its long, forked tongue in underneath. I managed to grab Magic’s collar as she lunged for the reptile, and while I struggled to hold her, the monitor took off, racing in a claw-scritching, side-to-side, swayback sort of way for the back fence.

Once rational thought had returned, I sagely concluded that the monitor was hunting skinks, and nonchalantly went back to the computer.
Big mistake. It was not hunting skinks.

The rock monitor (Varanus albigularis) actively pursues its meals, licking up its victim’s scent with its forked tongue. The tongue’s prongs slot neatly into the paired opening of its vomeronasal organ, snugged away on the roof of its mouth.

Some hours later, when I lifted the lid from a mega carton of eggs sitting on my countertop (the carton, not me), I discovered what the monitor was hunting. A very large spitting cobra was coiled neatly among the eggs. The unexpectedness of this rendezvous sent me reeling backwards out of the kitchen, and the wily serpent slipped away beneath an immovable cupboard.

Oh dear.

Hence the complete exodus of my roomies.

Those of us brave enough to remain behind for the night (just myself and the pets) congregated by silent consent in my bed. As the kitchen has no door, we all hoped that a massed pile of big, warm furry mammals would be sufficient disincentive to a roving serpent.

Mozambique spitting cobra (Naja mossambica).
Last seen wearing a smug expression,
in the vicinity of my saucepan cupboard.
Photo posted on Flickr by Jeppestown.

My hopes that our scaly tenant would do a moonlight flit were dashed when I went to feed the birds next morning. I discovered it curled up asleep in the spilled birdseed (clearly a strategic thinker). Once again, it exploited its shock-value to zip into hiding. My frantic efforts to find the beast failed, and the pets and I crept about the house on hyper alert, cringing from any object even remotely reminiscent of a snake.

Serpent induced chaos. Emptying all my kitchen cupboards did not reveal the felon.

My state of mind was not improved when I arrived home from my weekly shopping trip to discover my third caller, schlepping on the bed in my spare room.
What was this, a cobra convention??

As much as I wanted to believe that this creature was my overnight guest, its wholemeal-tinted sheen gave the game away (my kitchen resident was decidedly terracotta). Fortunately, this one zipped into the poster tube lickety-spit split, but I was still feeling shaken.
The prospect of immediately resuming a snake-hunt was more than I could face.

No, I thought, I’ll just take a wee break; let myself calm down a bit.
I know, I’ll treat myself and open the Christmas package I just picked up from the post office.
My mouth was already watering because it was from my sister (in Oregon USA) who normally sends me candy.

Now I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but siblings – even those you rarely see – have an uncanny knack for ‘hitting the spot’; and not always in a good way. That day was no exception.

Ripping impatiently at the packaging, my heart suddenly stopped. Hidden within the torn wrapping paper - right beneath my fingers! - were the unmistakable coils of a snake!
Oh my God!
I let out a shriek and hurled the package across the room. My dozing pets, seeing a metre-long serpent uncoiling on the floor, careered away in all directions.

It took us all some time to regain our composure.

And there, lying in the middle of the lounge room floor, was a cellophane-wrapped, confectionary snake.
The label read, “The world’s largest gummy snake”.
“Almost 36 inches long” (almost?).
And then, just in case you were worried, “Artificially flavoured”.

While munching belligerently on this snake (delicious, by the way), I decided that this would be a symbolic gesture. No more would I be terrorized in my own home by a mere elongated reptile. As I devoured the snake, so I would annihilate my fear. After all, my houseguest clearly didn’t want to meet me (and was skilled at achieving this) and I didn’t want to meet it. All in all, I daresay we could get by.

I didn’t meet our unwelcome tenant again, and you’ll be relieved to know (or at least I was) that all my wild acquaintances have now moved back in. I’m presuming this means that the cobra's made tracks.

Has it gone? I've never been so pleased to see a bushveld gerbil (Gerbilliscus leucogaster) peeping from my cupboard.

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