WHAT A TANGLED WEB WE WEAVE

While the quotation Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive! (Sir Walter Scott) uses the imagery of a spider’s web, it often springs to mind when I walk past this enormous Natal fig (Ficus natalensis) growing next to the road around the corner from where we live. Look at the intricacy of the large trunk and the air roots that have become so entwined over the years – much as that ‘small white lie’ might grow and twist until one can become completely ensnared by it.

No, this isn’t a moral tale – merely an analogy. We too have a magnificent Natal fig in our garden, the base of which is somewhat hidden by a number of clivia plants.

It was big thirty years ago and now has a very wide drooping canopy of shade, with branches that stretch right over the street!

While the figs are not edible to humans, they attract a wide variety birds which relish them.

The broad branches provide adequate roosting spots for several Hadeda Ibises that come in to land during the late afternoon and generally start waking up the neighbourhood about half an hour before sunrise every morning. Here two of them are perched on a branch.

Other birds commonly seen in this tree are Red-eyed Doves, Red-winged Starlings, Speckled Mousebirds, Cape White-eyes, Black-collared Barbets, and Olive Thrushes.

We are always delighted when a flock of African Green Pigeons settle in to devour the fruit.

We have seen Olive Thrushes and Speckled Mousebirds nesting in the tree, as well as Fork-tailed Drongos. Here a parent has just brought food to its youngster.

A thick layer of mulch has gathered underneath the tree, so thick that one can sink into it. One has to step through it with care – this puff adder emerged from it into our neighbour’s garden three years ago.

NO TAIL

Most of us are used to seeing enormous trucks driving along the main roads, carrying various loads from one place to another. The mechanical horse and trailer fit together like a cup and saucer – until one comes across a mechanical horse sans trailer, then it looks odd: too big to have what appears to be such a short wheel-base; the cab set far too high … the same applies to a gecko or a lizard that has lost its tail. Look at this one:

These marvellous creatures can sever their tails as a form of self-defence as the wriggling tail is quite likely to distract its predator. This self-amputation is known as autotomy (from the Greek ‘self’ and ‘sever’). There is no blood loss, and the tail regrows over several months. I have seen some with forked tails or rather skew tails too – possibly because they have not regrown properly.

CAPE DWARF GECKO

The speckled body of this tiny Cape Dwarf Gecko (Lygodactylus capensis) helps it to camouflage itself well – although these days I cannot miss them when they come out of their hiding places to enjoy the sunshine. Although they may look a little drab at first, closer observation shows they have a beautiful colouration – including an orange tint to the tail – and patterns. This one is on an ivy leaf.

I watch them daily as they move about the flower pots or the steps near to where I am sitting. While they catch the odd unwary fly, they mostly seem to eat ants.

These agile creatures climb everywhere and are not afraid to jump from considerable heights or across what must be for them vast chasms between flower pots or bricks. I have seen them scuttle up and down tree trunks and work their way along downpipes at speed for they have specialised toes that aid their grip on surfaces such as tree trunks and rocks.

I often see these geckos indoors at night, sheltering in the fold of a curtain or hiding behind a picture frame. On more than one occasion I have found one in the boot of my car when I open it to deposit my bags of groceries!

A CLOSE ENCOUNTER …

… NOT to be repeated!

It is a myth that only cobras spit venom – Black Mambas (Dendroaspis polylepis) do too. I know, because one spat at me!

I am getting ahead of myself.

You must know that the Black Mamba is one of the most feared snakes in Africa – with good reason: its venom is highly toxic for it contains both neurotoxins and cardio toxins. The first affects the nervous system, while the latter attacks the heart.

Another fact worth bearing in mind is that a Black Mamba is not black, rather it is named for the black colour of the inside of its mouth – I doubt if you would wish to be that close to one for a good look. The body tends to be a uniform brownish-grey or olive colour that helps it to blend into its surroundings very easily – except when it happens to be inside the toilet at a picnic spot in a game reserve!

Despite the fearsome reputation the Black Mamba has garnered, it is apparently not an aggressive snake and – like many other snakes – would rather head away from humans than choose to attack them. Of course, if the snake is cornered in a toilet then it would naturally feel threatened and raise its front and head off the ground to deter the perceived threat – and it will spit, injecting large quantities of venom in a spray!

Don’t expect a clear picture – I had to snap and turn away in a hurry.

This is what happened: I was photographing butterflies when I heard my sister-in-law call out that there was a snake in the toilet. Being the curious one that I am, and with a camera in hand, I thought I would take a closer look. There was this innocuous looking snake just inside the door of the rustic toilet … I raised my camera to photograph it … and it raised itself off the floor … I turned away and jumped back just in time as I saw the spray of venom in the sunlight, some landing on my trouser leg.

Fortunately, it was not aggressive but simply wanted to get away. Instead of heading out of the door, it turned back towards the toilet – had it been resting from the heat there? I hastily took one more photograph and left it in peace.

What a clottish thing to do, you are bound to think. Believe me, I have been given a flea in my ear from more than one member of my family. The thing is, at the time it was simply a snake – it was only after consulting the field guide that I realised what I had been up against. This was truly a case of ignorance is bliss.