I’d never seen a scorpion alive in the wild. I am beginning to think they are mythical creatures, like griffins or dragons. There are certainly some animals around which match up to them in size and shape – the claws of crabs, the bodies of woodlice and the tails of countless insects. But the only scorpions I have seen have been in zoos or stuffed in several museums. And who knows whether their owners have set me up with a flea circus.
It’s not for want of trying. Ever since I started travelling abroad, I have tried to find these creatures. I purposefully turn stones over with my feet. Nothing. I pick up long sticks and poke around in wall crevices. Nothing. I look for quiet cool corners in buildings in hot countries. Nothing. I’m not in the wrong place, either, because I hear countless tales from other people. I remember one time I was with other students surveying a village in the Minho region of Portugal and we decided to climb a hill behind the village to get a clear overview of the valley. We started walking into this scrub and two women, one old, one young, came out of their house and warned us off. They were making all sorts of noises in Portuguese, which I never understood (I always thought it sounded more Eastern European than Iberian, but couldn’t understand more than one or two words). We realised they were distressed about us being up there, but weren’t sure why. We probably thought it was private land. Then the elder one started hissing at us and we realised there were snakes. Then they said Esco-something. I remember making a strange action with my arms. I held one elbow in the cup of my hand and made curling movements with my other hand. “Scorpions?” I said and they nodded. I was half tempted to go back up into the scrub and find one, but my other colleagues were now in quite a hurry to get back to the safety of the set streets.
Later on on that trip we were in the Port vineyards owned by Taylor’s, and the owner, Bruce Guimaraens, was regaling us with stories of the scorpions he had seen in his villa. One time he had splatted a male with his shovel in the front room. He knew that it wouldn’t be long before his mate came looking and sure enough a couple of hours later there was the female hauling herself over the main steps in to the house and tap tap tapping her feet across the stone floor. She got splatted too. Such stories amazed me and countless scenarios would go through my mind about how that first encounter might happen.
Where this fascination for these animals stem from I am uncertain, but I have always found the Invertebrates far less spineless than their Chordata cousins. They seem to put up with far more pain in life without complaining, they are totally under control and single minded, and incredibly more fascinating than your cuddly furry beast.
The most proliferous, and therefore the ones I have studied most, are of course the Insects, but the other orders are interesting because they don’t occur as often. And working not directly with insects, but with people who spend half their lives looking down microscopes at them, drawing them, gluing bits of wire to their backs, dissecting, breeding and killing them, I have learnt a lot more than I might have ordinarily done.
Perhaps the most fascinating time with entomologists was a trip to the wild bush of the ZambeziValley in Zimbabwe in 1995. My own reason for being there was to ground truth, or verify, the data we had on some satellite imagery of the region. I was supposed to be trying to see what types of vegetation existed and how the land use had changed over the last twenty years. This entailed running around the ZambeziValley countryside stopping off every few miles, recording the soils, vegetation types, landforms and any human activity. There were three of us to do this; myself, Joe Rother, who was a biologist from NRI who was short of work so was dragged in to do soil analysis, and Bob Drummond, a white Zimbabwean who had run the National Herbarium many years before but now did occasional botanical consultancy in his semi-retirement. Mentally, our job was easy once you got into it. Physically it was shattering. Our first three weeks in Zimbabwe were to be spent at a tsetse camp. The study area was one that had been cleared of tsetse fly over the last twenty years. Tsetse are thought of as a serious scourge of cattle. They carry the Trypanosomiasis bacteria and during their blood-sucking of cattle or humans, they transmit this sleeping sickness to the farmers and their livestock (it can kill cattle). Most African countries have some sort of Tsetse Control unit, and in areas of Zimbabwe where tsetse have been or are in the process of being cleared, the Tsetse control board holds almost military power. They ban cattle in tsetse infested areas because they attract the fly, and although the flies themselves do not migrate very far, they are also attracted to vehicle wheel arches and can be transported miles by Land Rovers and cotton lorries.
To stop people from carrying tsetse into cleared areas, it was a ritual every time we exited the tsetse controlled region at the foot of the Zambezi Escarpment to have our wheel arches sprayed. The small town of Mahuwe; a rather disjointed group of farmsteads, a bar or two and a store, was jammed up against the side of the steep escarpment which cuts straight through the countryside. The escarpment is particularly impressive here, an almost sheer wall which, even from a distance, dominates everywhere in the valley. You can tell from one glance to the south how far you are from the edge and from the shape of the different hills along its course, how far to the east or west you are. At a few select places; Muzurabani, Mahuwe, for example, there were chances to scale up into the Middle Veldt lands, the commercial farm lands of the south and the tarred roads to Harare. In fact the tarred road started in Mahuwe just at the beginning of the incline. And here was the tsetse gate. I’d seen these on maps the last time I was in the country, but never seen one in operation. I wondered how a tsetse fly would know to stop at the gate and make sure it had its papers ready for inspection. But the guys at the gate always had a serious job to do. As I have said, the tsetse could be attracted to the dark areas inside wheel arches, and hide in there for many miles. They could be easily transported into the cattle areas and start re-infesting these regions. To counteract this, every vehicle is bound to stop at one of these gates; there are armed guards and woe betide the ones who try to drive straight through. OK, they didn’t have armed rifles, they were armed with shush guns. I kid you not; two rather dishevelled men in their ill-fitting blue overalls would come out with an old-fashioned, brass shush gun. At first they would not speak to us. They would look intently at the Land Rover, gun poised in case one of the little blighters decided to make a run for it. They would cower down into the wheel arches and shush, then round the other three wheels, shush, shush, shush, and a quick shush under the radiator in case there was a crafty one there. Then they would retreat, gun still aimed at the vehicle. Only when they were about twenty paces off, would they suddenly lower their gun and smile at us, lift up the gate and wave us through. After all, we were driving a tsetse vehicle loaned from their bosses in Harare. That grin always got me. One of the guys was particularly wiry, probably no more than his late twenties but incredibly badly kept, and the smile was grotesque, four teeth pointing in different directions, and ranging from off-white through yellow and green to black. However, one couldn’t fault them on their dedication to this important job. The conditions were OK during the dry season – lots of sun and heat, long periods between different vehicles. Since the thirty or forty cotton lorries and buses which passed through every day on their way to Market had to stop, they never got the facefuls of dust which the rest of us received at other places on the roadside. We were travelling through here every couple of days, and evidently they eventually thought that we had enough shush on us to last a life time and they would wave us straight through with a decent salute.
The tsetse camp we were staying at was a research station for another project (called SEMG but don’t ask me what that stood for) looking at the effect of tsetse insecticide on freshwater invertebrates. Our first night in the SEMG was slightly unnerving. We had spent the last few days travelling around the middle of Zimbabwe – Harare and Mutare, staying in the usual standard of hotel. We needed to get used to country living in the Zambezi Valley. In tents in the middle of the bush, you could get lots of creatures turn up for a night time chat. Even a scorpion. I went to bed that night very tired, but with all the unusual surroundings it was quite difficult to get any rest. I had left my suitcase on one side of the tent, and undressed and put my clothes on top of it. I then placed my alarm clock on the ground and sat reading my novel (Mosquito Coast I think it was) from torchlight. I soon tired of this and put both book and torch on the floor and dozed off to sleep.
About an hour later, I awoke with a bit of a start. There was a fumbling noise at the bottom end of the tent. Was a mouse trying to get in, or, perhaps a frog or, gulp, snake or, aha, a scorpion? My nerve at finding out was edged by the cowardice that I might not want to find out what it was. I heard it scramble in and then its patter as it moved across the plastic groundsheet. It was difficult to tell in the dark how far away this creature was, so the only thing to do was to get the torch and shine it around the tent. It was then to my horror that I remembered that I had put the torch on the ground, and the noise was rather close to where I had left it. I didn’t want to put my hand out and receive a scorpion sting or snakebite, or even feel the warty back of some toad. But there was nothing to be done about it. My curiosity at finding out what was making all this noise was killing me. I tried hard to remember where exactly I had left the torch and gently lowered my hand down out of the side of the camp bed. I reached the plastic groundsheet but found no torch. My heart raced. I felt cautiously around the first spot I had touched, still nothing. Then I felt the edge of something metal; there it was. I tried to reach round it but misjudged the angle and felt the torch roll out of my grasp under the bed. The pattering noise of the creature was still going on somewhere in the tent.
I had to take the plunge and grab the torch. I scrambled my fingers along the plastic groundsheet, found the torch and lifted it high against the underneath of the camp bed. Then I fumbled it around the edge of the bed and grasped hold of it with two hands. It is one of those torches you have to swivel the barrel to turn on. This I did and a light shone up against the roof of the tent. I lowered the beam to the side of my bed and stared at something I wasn’t expecting at all. It was an invertebrate, but not a scorpion or a spider, nor a cockroach. Its body was flat and segmented and about three inches in length, but it had long legs which made it about 5 inches and two incredibly long antennae which curved backwards over its body and twitched un-nervingly when it sensed the light. I saw two black beady eyes staring up at me, and even though it is supposedly such a low form of life, I could tell it was looking at the torch saying “Where the hell did that light come from”. But rather than bolt back into the dark, it just stood there rooted for a couple of seconds and then continued in the same direction as it had started. I watched it purposefully head for the edge of the tent, shuffle under the canvas and disappear out of my evening.