Once the shower was over we raided the freezer for frozen tonic water, opened the gin and made our mixers. Gin is a drink which suits the sub-tropics perfectly. It is a thirst quencher, it is a reviver and it has a nasty little kick which reminds you that life is the same everywhere in the world. Particularly in the tropics, life stops for sun-downers. It is always a shock to people who haven’t visited the tropics before, how early it goes dark. The image of night-time in Africa is one of people sitting up late to watch the sun-set and sitting around till all hours in their T-shirts and shorts. Well they do all that, but it happens a lot earlier than you expect. The sun sinks with alarming rapidity. To time a sundowner just right, you have to be ready as soon as the sun shows the first signs of dropping. If you leave it any longer then the sun is racing down before you get the top off the tonic.
Dinner would come next, and was better than anything I can get in many hotels in Zimbabwe. And then we would settle down to write up the day’s events till ten or eleven at night.
We were able to work as we used a line of electric lights that ran from the generator, passed the loos and in the dining room. It then extended past the kitchens and labs to the outside of the guest tents. Between the guest tents and lab, a single light marked the footpath. Sasha and Jane, the two girls who ran the project, had set up the television set here. They hung a large white sheet from the wire next to this bulb and weighed it down with large stones. When the lights were turned on, every forest creature was attracted to it. We would go and look at this thing for hours, totally peaceful apart from the little ching ching ching of thousands of insects’ feet and wings.
Moths would flock to the light itself, many were instant casualties as they burnt their wings on the 40 watt bulb. Others circled continuously, dazzled by the light. You could see some trying to force against their instincts and fly away, but they would be urged back by those same instincts. Sausage flies would circle aimlessly around. These strange insects are the short-lived adult phase of the more famous ant lion. They have no mouth parts, so only have a day or so to mate and lay their eggs, before they are consigned to the DNA scrap heap. And they haven’t really been dealt a very fair card. They have large sausage shaped bodies with wide wings which they don’t really get time to learn how to use. They buzz annoyingly around in circles, bumping in to anything that gets in the way. On the TV they would bang against the sheet hundreds of times. How they ever get to meet a mate and reproduce, I am not certain, but they seem to thrive.
Beetles too turned up in all shapes and sizes. My knowledge of invertebrates is so small it could be counted on the segments of my thorax. But Sasha would identify at least a few of them. Some she could tell were water beetles, by the paddle-shaped legs. The nearest standing water was about fifteen miles away in one of the river valleys but we still got water beetles. Others were large dung beetles, who would crawl around the bottom of the sheet, not really interested in anything going on there, but having stumbled across the riot on their usual travels.
Preying on the smaller insects were a host of mantis. Some were small and would gently stalk up the sheet and then snap out with one of their powerful front legs, grab the beetle or moth and start chewing. The mantis revolves its head around as it eats the best bite, then spits out the indigestible bits. The bits would float down the sheet, sometimes to be picked up by a scavenger further down.
One of the mantises became a special creature who I always looked for when I went to watch TV. He was enormous, about two-and-a-half to three inches long, and had a wide smooth wing case, which looked like the little wooden spatulas that school nurses once used. It covered the entire back and beyond. He had a large green head, but he had been in the wars. Instead of the pair of front legs, he only had one, which seriously curtailed his ability to hunt. He would still gamely try, a mantis has to eat. But he would stalk up on a moth and lash out with the same ferocity, but the lack of a leg on the other side of his body gave a ready escape route to the quick-witted insects. I would stand there willing him on to overcome his disability, and he would occasionally get some food before humming off into the dark bush.
One night when I was staring there, he didn’t turn up, and I thought, something has got him. A bird has grabbed him unawares, or a lizard found him dozing on a leaf. Or a scorpion had a fight over some food and his lack of fighting tackle was his defeat. I found myself mourning an insect. Then, towards the last night we were there, I was watching TV when in comes spatula man, still the same, still obviously surviving with his one good leg. I left Dande knowing he was OK. Still, he never writes to me anymore.
The law of the jungle was being played out in miniature on this sheet. Prey and predator. And most macabre of all were the scavengers. Instead of vultures and hyenas there were ants and lizards. Little geckos would come onto the sheet and lick up everything in reach. It was like all their Christmas’s had come at once, and they would physically bloat from the excess of insects at their mercy.
But the ants were the worst. The debris of the TV ended up on the bottom of the sheet; moths burnt from the light, bits of wing case from messy mantis meals, or flies which had come to the end of their natural life. Out of the gloom a trail of tiny ants would emerge as soon as the light went on, and they would pick up anything left on the floor. The line of ants would carry the dead carcasses back into the gloom, never to be seen again. And worst of all, they would attack tired or half dead insects up to about a third of the way up the sheet, and I would see small beetles being dragged down by three or four ants, the last life throes being used to struggle against these tiny conquerors. If they could scream it would have been agony for any onlooker. As it was, it was all rather cheerless.
In the morning, as I passed the sheet on the way for a wash, I would take a quick glance. A few tell tale traces of wing, a couple of very small flies smattered across the material, but apart from that, nothing. It had all been cleared away.
There were other ants that became part of our lives. All sweet things in the dining room were the jurisdiction of these wonderful honey coloured ants, who could prise themselves under most gaps between jars and lids. They moved with such grace, and their almost transparent bodies with the dark orange eyes made them look sculpted out of coloured glass.
The black ants outside were of a different nature. On a couple of occasions, I would be heading back to my tent, and I would be stopped in my tracks by a trail of large black ants marching across the footpath. This was frightening, again not so much for us, although I could have received a nasty nip from several of them if I had caused them irritation. It would start with a thin continuous line, but at its height would be nearly a foot wide of black ants. They would be clearly visible on the footpaths but then they would hide under the grass and all you knew that they were there was by the continuous drum-beat hissing, as though they were war chanting all the way to their fight. Here and there the trail would split into two, and sentinels would be standing at these nodes to guide ants one way or another.
Out in the field, there was rarely much time to watch the wildlife, but my surveys seemed to take less long than Jo and Bob’s so I often had a few moments by the Land Rover while they tidied up. It was here that I had my first encounter with bay sausage flies, the ant lions. I had seen film footage of these creatures, but it never really gave me a sense of scale or location for these animals. The ant lions liked sandy, relatively undisturbed and bare soil. The sides of roads were ideal locations and almost everywhere you went were these perfect conical shaped pits, sometimes hundreds of them close together. I would scout around for an unsuspecting ant and gently drop it into the pit. The ant would look around somewhat bemused and then start to find that it couldn’t climb up the sides of the pit. The ant lions leave a slippy secretion on the sides, which keeps the prey in. Then, like the creatures from Dune, there would be a violent flick of sand which destabilises the ant, and a pair of claws would appear out of the sand, grab the ant and pull it down below the surface. If I was lucky I would catch a glimpse of the blobby grey body of the ant lion, but more often than not, the whole action was over before I could really take it in.