Saturday, July 6, 2013

Communiqué from a hermit


That’s an apology for my appalling lack of posts.

Yes relatives, I am still alive.

The problem is (okay, one of the problems is) I’m now living in a spot unsullied by modern communications.
Yet hope’s recently arrived in the form of a laptop. If I drive half a dozen kilometres, clamber to the top of a wind-whipped kopje and sit numb-bottomed and squint-eyed (playing spot the cursor), I can communicate with the outside world.
But not very much.
You see my funding ran out last year so I’m trying to survive on... well, nothing at all really. And petrol and internet access are costly. Nevertheless, despite these adversities, I bring you a blog post! 

My latest domicile is tucked away beside the river in the reserve in which I potter with mongooses work. I moved in last March and have fallen in love with the place because my neighbours are all non-human.

Uninhabited (theoretically) for the last seven years, the house harbours an impressive assemblage of fauna. Fortunately the hippos and hyenas - whose dawn chorus ushers in my days - tend to stay outside, but others are less reticent. Jealously I guard my dogs from the leopards who stamp their pugmarks on my driveway nightly, and struggle (vainly) to oust the bloom-devouring porcupines from the garden. Ah, bliss...


Chez Mongoose (mainly)

The charming Oliphants River as viewed from my veranda.

Of course, adjusting to the idiosyncrasies of new housemates can be challenging. And some are far from pleased to see me. The incumbent geckos, for example, are the least friendly I’ve ever encountered. They lurk furtively in crevices and crannies, secretly plotting my downfall. Only if I arrive home after nightfall and unexpectedly snap on the light, do I get to see them, frozen guiltily and bristling with insurgency, up there on the walls.

The most welcoming of my new roomies spends much of her time in the kitchen (and sadly has a figure to match). You can usually find her lounging on the bench top beneath the window. Dressed with classic elegance in umber, bistre and pearl, she emanates a proprietorial air but graciously lets me share the facilities. Admittedly she’s only six inches (15 cm) long, but for a striped skink (Tachylepsis striata) this is not to be sniffed at. I have presumptuously christened her Algernon. (I should point out at this stage that although my zoological expertise is profound (naturally), it does not extend to sexing small lizards (well, any lizards at all really); hence the gender-related ambiguity.) 

Embarking on a staring contest with a striped skink (Trachylepis striata) is ill advised. Okay, unlike some reptiles, they do actually blink. But their lower eye lids have a transparent window so that glare never falters.

As might be expected, there was a little friction between us at first. Algernon’s insistence on spending the night tucked up in the egg carton led to heart-stopping encounters every morning. After ten days I finally realised that – in my early morning daze - I was incapable of remembering she was there, and so I hid the eggs away in a cupboard. She ruefully shifted into the washing machine. Of course now I can’t launder my clothes before 11 am (she’s a late riser on these chilly mornings) but we all have to make compromises.

As a striped skink (Trachylepis striata), Algernon is meant to live in trees. The soles of her feet have built-in cleats (special spiny scales) and each absurdly elongated toe sports a bark-catching keel. Unfortunately, these nifty adaptations are less well suited to kitchen fly screens. You see striped skinks are active hunters and - according to the books – they seize their insect prey after a short, fast dash. However, when Algernon is hunting flies on the window screen, her dashes - back and forth, up and down, round and round - are annoyingly protracted. With each step, her impressive grappling-iron toes snare the mesh, so she has to fling her limbs into the air like she’s practising semaphore. As inconvenient as this may be for Algernon, it’s worse for me: each unplucked toe produces a dreadful reverberating clatter that’s audible throughout the house.
Still a girl has to eat; I show forbearance.

Algernon showing off her fine toes and svelte figure.

Our relationship has grown considerably more cordial since Algernon discovered the delights of mealworms. Each day she greets me upon my return from the field, skittering across the counter top to stand gazing up at me in the hopes of cadging any leftover worms. (Yes, that soft susurrus was a gasp of outrage by my mongooses.) After hours basking on the window sill, Algernon moves quicker than the eye can see. I find this unexpectedly disturbing. I mean we’re all used to small critters flitting out of sight in the blink of an eye, but when one flits AT you, it’s a different story entirely. One moment she’s sitting peaceably on the counter top and the next she’s crouched on my wrist, glaring at me fiercely for failing to unhand the mealworm. As far as I’m concerned, teleporting lizards should stay firmly in the realm of science fiction.

I was wondering whether to teach Algernon tricks (is this demeaning?). But what’s the point of a lizard that jumps through a hoop if you can’t see it do it??

Now the advantage of living on the window sill (apart from the whole fly-catching business) is that Algernon can zip back and forth through the gap in the screen whenever danger threatens. The down side - at least from my perspective - is that those with an appetite for striped skinks sometimes pursue her right into the house. So far I’ve discovered a brown-headed kingfisher lurking behind the stove and a little sparrow hawk circling the light fitting in my bedroom. Considering that the hole in the screen is only the size of my fist (or, more accurately, the fist of a bygone burglar), this is impressive.

Striped skinks are modern, up-to-date lizards who have no time for all that primitive egg-laying stuff. Mums heroically bear a litter of 3 to 9 mini-skinks each summer (something to look forward to...  hmm).

Now if you’re reading this post, it means:
(a) I still have at least one gallant and faithful reader (I'll add you to my Xmas card list);
(b) I can upload posts despite my wonky internet connection.
Taken together, these suggest that I have no excuse for not resuming blogging. 
Of course, I do have a wide selection of half-written posts on my computer...
Hmm, all I need now is to overcome my self-loathing.... 
Please stay tuned!


  1. Welcome back!

    That mooching skink probably thinks you're made of mealworms.

    1. Snail,
      My edible composition is the one perception that's shared by all the local residents. I've come to accept the licking of lips as a universal greeting.

  2. There you go, making strangers unreasonably happy by popping up out of the blue with your excellent notes from nature! Thank you

    1. Thank you for such a charming compliment. May you forever remain unreasonably happy!

  3. The most awesome communiqué about how to live (with almost nothing but) in paradise I’ve read lately and I’m very glad you’re alive and kicking! Oh I adore Algernon and Striped Skink, and where else does a lizard come on a wrist to beg for food than on yours. Stunning beautiful new place so far, and hope all the dwarfs are doing great as well. Lynda is there anything we can help with funding? Doing a fundraiser or so, or do you have a proposal we could help finding sponsors???? Please let us know…

    1. Thanks very much for your offer of help. I have been eyeing those websites that assist researchers find citizen-funding for their projects, but I haven't yet been brave enough to give it a go. I'll let you know if I take the plunge!

  4. I second Anonymous' comment. Really made me smile this morning! Please, please give us more... We'll be ever so grateful!

    1. How can I resist such gracious begging? I'll try my best...

  5. Its so good to see that you are alive and at least reasonably well, (don't understand that self loathing bit). Another wonderful post. I hope you do get adequate funding for your work. Write on!

    1. Yes, I'm still kicking (or at least stomping a lot (in an effort to remove ticks)). Money is always such a bother; I seriously envy my mongooses' complete financial independence.

  6. Oh what a lovely surprise on a chilly Highveld morning! Glad to see you're back

    1. Thank you for the warm welcome back but, as a resident of the lowveld, I feel that highvelders need more than blog posts to get them through winter mornings!

  7. Best Skink-related blog post ever!

    1. A lovely compliment, but I'm saddened that your access to skink-related literature has been so limited!

  8. Hi Lynda

    Glad to hear you are alive and kicking

    Sue (in Oz)


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