Chapter 26 – Road Trip

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” – Neale Donald Walsch

Austin Stevens on location with a feral Burmese python in the Florida Everglades. Copyright Tigress Productions & Cineflix

Austin Stevens on location with a feral Burmese python in the Florida Everglades. Copyright Tigress Productions & Cineflix

Austin and I enjoyed a total of four weeks together in Namibia before Austin flew to USA in January to shoot the next episode in the new series, which was to focus on the Burmese python invasion of the Florida Everglades. I coped better when shopping in Swakopmund alone now that the staff of the local supermarket had become familiar with me. I was on a first-name basis with many of them and exchanging products for payment had become much easier once they had grown used to hearing my strange Australian accent. After Austin had spent three weeks up to his waist in mud and swamp water in search of pythons in Florida, I flew to meet him in Johannesburg where we celebrated our reunion.

We had decided to pick up the Fiat Uno that Austin kept in South Africa and drive it back to Namibia for use around Swakopmund, but before driving us home Austin took me to Hartebeespoort Dam Snake and Animal Park, where he once worked as Curator of Reptiles. He completed his Guinness World Record snake sit-in there and it was wonderful to see some of the animals I read about in Austin’s first book, ‘Snakes In My Bed,’ in the flesh. An old Capuchin monkey from Austin’s time still lived at the Park, and as soon as he saw Austin and I walk around the corner to his enclosure from a distance of almost fifteen metres, he started screaming and shaking the bars, calling Austin the way he always did when Austin used to work there. The monkey was reddish-brown with large teeth for his size, and he was adorable. Austin and I jumped the fence surrounding the enclosure and the monkey pressed his whole body against the bars and stuck his arms and legs through. He grabbed both of Austin’s hands in his and chattered away at him, as though he was telling him all that happened at the park since Austin was last there. Then Austin told the monkey who I was, and the monkey released one of Austin’s hands and took mine instead, tilting his head to one side as though forming an opinion of me. Then he let go of Austin completely and clung onto my arms, while grasping my shirt with his feet. I tickled his tummy and listened as he continued his unintelligible conversation with me. Another monkey who shared the enclosure had been watching us with a disapproving expression. Suddenly, he swung down from a high branch, reached one arm through the bars of the enclosure and thumped me hard on the top of my head, sending my sunglasses flying! As I laughed in surprise, Austin explained that he was jealous of the attention that we were giving the older monkey.

Amy Stevens with capuchin monkey at Hartebeespoort Dam Snake and Animal Park. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Amy Stevens with capuchin monkey at Hartebeespoort Dam Snake and Animal Park. Photo by Austin J Stevens

A giant spotted hyena also recognised Austin, and chased us like an oversized puppy as we walked past his enclosure. Opposite the hyena, a lion lived with his pride of two lionesses that were lounging on rocks in their enclosure, yawning and looking rather bored. Lions are enormous, the largest cats in Africa, and these stood about one metre high at the shoulders. As we passed close to the bars, Austin gestured for me to crouch down, and we ran almost on all fours along the length of the enclosure. The response from the nearest lioness was immediate. She began to stalk us! Her pupils dilated and she crept towards us as quietly as she could. We made another run for it back the other way, and this time the lioness took off after us at speed and slid to a stop just as we did. She was excited to have something to play with, but I have no doubt we could have been in serious trouble if it were not for the bars between us! Later, the lion called the lioness back to him with a series of roars that made my whole body vibrate. The roars ended in normal lion vocalisation, ‘uuuuh-huumph’ sounds that began high and then grew lower in tone, repeated at intervals and becoming softer until they ended in a few groans.

Hartebeespoort Dam Snake and Animal Park was also home to honey badgers, vervet monkeys, wild painted dogs that were breeding successfully, jackals, a grey wolf, a North American brown bear, otters, meerkats, mongoose, leopards, caracals, servals, African wild cats, tigers, chimpanzees and many other creatures. The reptile collection was the most extensive of all, with venomous and non-venomous snakes, as well as many different types of lizards, geckos and turtles from all over the world. I was lucky enough to be able to sit next to a very old Aldabra tortoise that shared an enclosure with several others beside the Dam. The gigantic, ponderous creatures appeared to be ineffably good-natured and had attained their great age at their own slow pace while the modern world sped by outside the boundaries of the Park.

The staff left Austin and me in the Park after closing to enable us to watch the animals being fed, a spectacle best left until the public have departed due to its potentially upsetting nature. We observed several fluffy yellow chicks being put into the enclosure of a large rock monitor lizard. Not realising the danger, many of the cheeping chicks perched on the monitor’s back, from where they were swallowed, one by one.

‘There must be some special hell for herpetologists,’ Austin remarked in a tone somewhere between seriousness and jest. ‘Instead of fire and brimstone we will be eaten over and over again by enormous reptiles.’

I smiled at the mental imagery invoked by this suggestion but I did not believe in such perfect justice, and nor did Austin. I had yet to encounter the stereotypical herpetologist madly feeding small furry animals to reptiles in an unfeeling manner because in order to love and admire predatory animals as a part of nature, one inevitably comes to an understanding of each animal’s part in the system and cannot help but feel something for each and every creature no matter their place in the food chain. There is always a degree of sympathy that some must die so that others can live, even if we are not the direct cause of it.

As we continued to move around the Park, we saw pre-killed chicks being fed to two large black mambas. I watched helplessly as both highly venomous snakes fastened onto the same prey item with lightning speed and swallowed until they were nose to nose. Knowing that this could end badly for one of the snakes, Austin alerted the nearest keeper who found himself saddled with the unenviable task of entering the enclosure and carefully separating the two frustrated mambas with a pair of snake handling tongs. The keeper accomplished this slowly and gingerly and gave the now deprived mamba a dead chick of its own. Once this dangerous task was completed to the satisfaction of both mambas, Austin and I went to watch the big cats consuming large chunks of raw meat. Two stunningly beautiful jaguars plucked the fur from their share before devouring it with obvious enjoyment. Austin also took me to see the lion cubs that were born recently but were not yet on display to the public. The grey-eyed babies gazed at us and then clambered to reach us as we spoke encouragingly to them. There were four cubs, born after a gestation period of approximately three-and-a-half months. They all possessed the faint spots and rosettes that are typical of lion cubs but that would eventually be replaced with the tawny yellow fur of adulthood as they reached maturity.

Upon leaving the cubs, we encountered another staff member who showed me a baby scarlet macaw, who was already as large as some adult Australian cockatoos, but who did not yet have all his feathers. He was being hand-fed and cared for around the clock and proved to be a noisy and demanding baby.

Before we left the park, we went to see the baboons. A large male baboon noticed that one of the two padlocks that held the door of their enclosure shut had been left open. He reached through the bars, lifted off the padlock, and then deftly twisted the door handle and lifted it. This would certainly have opened the door and freed the baboons if it were not for the other locked padlock! The baboon quickly realised his escape plan had been foiled by the remaining padlock, and instead settled for taking the open padlock with him back to his log perch. He sat there, twisting the padlock in his hands and chewing on it, and he would not allow any of the other baboons to examine it.

The drive to Hartebeespoort itself had been scenic and beautiful, unlike the South African cities, but on the way to the Park we had come across the body of an African man partially hidden under the front wheel of a car by the side of the road. He was lying motionless, covered in blood, and had obviously been run over. The horribly unnatural position and utter stillness of the body made it appear impossible that the man could still be alive and the very real danger of car hijacking at gunpoint if we stopped was enough to prevent me from trying to render first aid. Six African men stood around nearby, discussing the situation and gesturing towards the body. Twenty minutes later, an ambulance passed Austin and me on the same road, heading back the way we had come. I wondered about the difficulties medical staff must face when treating patients in a country in which it was estimated that 5.6 million people were living with HIV/AIDS, more than in any other country, and I hoped the drive home would be less eventful.

Amy and Austin Stevens at Augrabies Falls National Park, South Africa. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Amy and Austin Stevens at Augrabies Falls National Park, South Africa. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Austin and I left South Africa a couple of days later and undertook the 2500km road trip back to Namibia, which took us three days to complete. After twelve hours of driving, we stopped for the night at Augrabies Falls in the Northern Cape of South Africa, a spectacular gorge with a waterfall pounding down one side. The surrounding rocks were home to a family of hyrax, known as ‘dassies’ in Southern Africa. These cute and inquisitive little mammals were identical to those we had encountered previously in Namibia, brown in colour and perfectly camouflaged against the rocks. They possess a sharp warning call but talked to each other in series of clicks and chirps. Flat lizards approximately fifteen centimetres long also lived on the rocks. The females were a drab brown in colour, but the males sported bright blue heads, green necks, yellow legs, red backs and striped tails. They looked as though they had been spray-painted! They were everywhere, and they were not at all shy about approaching us. The flat lizards gathered in large numbers on the rocks by the waterfall, periodically leaping into the air to catch the small flies swarming above them. The nearby camp where we stayed overnight was home to many baboons and vervet monkeys that conspired to make driving out early the next morning hazardous!

Male flat lizard at Augrabies Falls, South Africa. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Male flat lizard at Augrabies Falls, South Africa. Photo by Austin J Stevens

The second day of the road trip found us crossing beautiful desert areas. Giant nests of sociable weaverbirds filled the few large trees we saw and some of the nests were as large as the bathroom in our home! The nests were made from countless individual blades of dried grass and sticks that the birds had laboriously woven together. The nests weighed down the trees until the branches broke, but the birds then carried on building up another section. Some of the weavers had struck out on their own and were beginning to build new nests nearby. I wondered what made certain birds decide to start a new colony while the majority of others seemed happy adding to existing ones. Sunset that evening was exquisite, turning the sky to varying shades of pink and gold. The breeze blowing softly across the desert was the only audible sound.

Amy Stevens examines sociable weaverbird nest. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Amy Stevens examines sociable weaverbird nest. Photo by Austin J Stevens

By nightfall, we had crossed from South Africa into Namibia, covering 900 km. We reached Hardap Dam with a splattering of locusts and dragonflies caught in the windscreen wipers. We were given a map to a broken down old bungalow and left to fend for ourselves amongst the swarms of insects. Shaking grasshoppers out of our hair, we realised in total dismay that the air-conditioner in the bungalow did not work, so we covered our beds with wet towels and prepared to spend the night in temperatures nearing forty degrees Celsius. When I finally fought my way through the swarms of moths and wasps hovering around the light near the bathroom, I was chased out of the shower by a diurnal solifuge while scattering large cockroaches underfoot. Solifuges are called ‘chase spiders’ or ‘hunting spiders’ in Afrikaans and have a reputation for following people. These bizarre arachnids chase down and eat almost anything they can catch and have allegedly been known to bite people’s feet after becoming attracted by movement. When I walked in a circle to avoid the solifuge, it followed. When I backed away towards the toilet, it came too! The diurnal species is small at only five centimetres long, but the nocturnal solifuges can grow to more than twice that length. Solifuges are not true spiders but hairy arachnids with segmented abdomens. Their shiny heads have two eyes, and are dominated by large sawing jaws that allow them to take down scorpions, tarantulas, and each other.

After a rather difficult night in the extreme heat, we explored the dam and found the facility to be in a state of total disrepair. To my layman’s eye, the dam wall seemed to have shifted and it appeared that it could have been in danger of giving way had the water levels not been so low. The wall seemed to have been glued to the adjoining fixtures using silicone, which made me glad we wouldn’t be there in time for the rains. On returning to our car, we found that hundreds of butterflies around the dam had taken a liking to our white Uno and I was able to gently pick them up and have a good look at them before they flew away.

That day we drove around Windhoek, the capital city of Namibia. There had been recent rain in that area and the sides of the main road were lined with families of baboons, happily stuffing their mouths with grass and waiting for gaps in the traffic before crossing the road. We managed to complete the next 400 km home to Swakopmund before dark, where we found in ourselves a new appreciation for our clean shower and comfortable bed.

To be continued in Chapter 27, when I accompany Austin on a promotional trip to Canada…

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