My school, the South African College School or SACS as it is universally known, is the oldest in the country. When, in the 1950s, it moved from the centre of Cape Town to the old, green, leafy suburb of Newlands, a lot of the original pupils moved as well, although the majority were us boys from the more affluent suburbs in and around Newlands. There was never a distinct us and them but the Cape Town boys did seem to have a bond they never quite shared with the rest of us.
It did not bother me until my second year in high school when, at the grand old age of 14, one or two of these boys, for reasons I have never understood, took a disliking to me. One, without provocation, tripped me up as I walked by and simultaneously pushed me into the corridor wall. I suffered a compound fracture of my thumb. I was so angry, as it meant I would miss the Saturday school cricket match, that, when they asked me how I had done it, I broke the school boys’ unwritten rule of ‘omerta’ and told the truth. The boy in question was caned by our sadistic bully of a headmaster and I was forever ear marked for special attention by this small group of boys.
One was a very large, overweight, ungainly boy who could never resist a verbal jibe or insult whenever I walked by or vice versa. I ignored him at first but eventually realised this was not going to make him stop. Things went from bad to worst and reached a head when, on the station where we caught our respective trains home, he walked past behind me and slapped my hat off my head.
The next morning, I reached school early before most boys arrived and confronted the bully. One thing quickly led to another. He took a swipe at me, missed and my return punch hit home, although I missed his solar plexus which had been my mark. He stumbled backward but that was not the end the fight. Just as I was congratulating myself, he turned back, punched me hard in the mouth and floored me. With that, possibly worried he might have gone too far, he simply walked away leaving me on the ground with a bloody mouth.
Later, in class that morning, our teacher asked me what had happened to my mouth. “A mosquito bit me in my sleep last night, Sir” I replied. I could see by his sceptical look he did not believe me as it must have been a humongous insect to have done that amount of damage but what could he say?
At any rate, that was the end of the bullying and I have always remembered the lesson. Unless you stand up to bullies, whoever or whatever they might be and as tough as it may be, matters will only become worse. They thrive on getting away with their bullying tactics and each success only leads to an escalation of their efforts until, in the worst cases, the target commits suicide.
But this is not the kind of pest I want to write about. What I do want to write about is mosquitoes and other African winged pests.
Two things I always remember when dealing with the African bush and mosquitoes is, firstly, the army sergeant in charge of our basic training in the South African Defence Force telling us more than once that, “Any &^%$#@^ idiot can be uncomfortable in the bush.” Only he didn’t use the word ‘idiot’.
The second is that ridiculous series of jokes that start with, “Knock, knock” accompanied by a knocking on a door gesture with your raised fist. This requires the listener to respond with, “Who’s there? In which case, the reply is, “Amos”. The listener then responds, “Amos who?” To which the answer is, “a mosquito”. The real joke, however, is what happens in the next two reiterations which are “Anna” – anudder mosquito. And, lastly, “Summer” – some more mosquitoes. Corny I know but hilarious if you are only 14 and don’t know many jokes.
I suffer terribly from mosquito bites. The bite spot becomes red, swollen and so itchy it is impossible to ignore. Before I discovered Anthisan, an anti-itch ointment, I could not resist scratching which, of course, only makes it worse until the area bleeds and pain replaces the insufferable itch.
So, apart from helping to prevent malaria, until I had confidence in the safari outfitter, I always took my own mosquito net with me on a hunt and many was the time, especially in fly camps when netting was often forgotten or so full of holes it served no purpose, that I was pleased I had brought my own, particularly as I have never been able to sleep with my head under the blanket. In fact, I found the whine of mozzies trying without success to find their way through my netting strangely soporific.
As I hunted further afield, I eventually met two of my worst African winged pests – tsetse flies (of which there are 31 species and subspecies) and sweat bees (of which there are over 2 000 species found on every continent except Antarctica). I remember driving with Joe Wright, my PH, into the Zambezi Valley for the first time. The pain was intense and immediate. It felt as if someone or something had driven a red hot needle into my right temple. Involuntarily, and before I could stop myself, I flat handed the site of the burn so hard and fast I knocked my Ray Ban aviators off my head. They flew through the open Land Cruiser window and into the track side bush where we eventually found them minus one lens. Later, I found out that the burning, electric shock occurred when a tsetse fly slid its proboscis down one of your hair follicles penetrating the nerve ending at its base.
While I react badly to their bites, I am nowhere near as allergic to them as one of my past hunting friends. He accompanied me to the Moyowasi region of Tanzania on a buffalo hunt and arrived wearing shorts. He was bitten innumerable times on both legs that first day. They swelled up so badly he was unable to hunt for a few days until the swelling reduced and he recovered from all the poisons in his system, which had left him feeling weak, nauseous and ill. I never saw him wearing shorts again on a hunt and, usually the first question he asked when we discussed a new hunting area was, “How bad are the tsetses?”
I have never counted the number of these tough and persistent flies I have caught and rolled between forefinger and thumb before pulling their heads off. The only way, in my humble opinion, of making sure you have killed these monumentally tough, winged assassins.
There have been times in Africa that I have been unable to walk around waterholes looking for fresh tracks without a spray can of Doom to ward off the swarms of tsetse flies that have attacked me and yet I am forever grateful to the great conservation role they have played in Africa in keeping wildlife habitat free of domestic livestock and people.
The small, black sweat bees might make delicious honey and neither bite nor sting but their kamikaze attacks to extract fluid from every orifice a human possesses lends new meaning to the word, “persistence” and has driven more than one grown man into a frenzy.
Before I invested in a fly jacket, I can remember many instances when I needed both hands for my binos or to aim. Both actions became almost impossible given the attacking waves of these bees trying to crawl into every available orifice in my body, while others queued up buzzing impatiently to take the place of those before them. And the worst mistake you could make was to squash one or more as, somehow, that seemed to attract even more of the bloody menaces until you looked like Pig Pen in a Charlie Brown comic strip.
I cannot remember how many of the fly jackets I have bought through Paragon Sports in New York as, at the end of each safari where they were needed, I ended up donating mine to my guide. They were compact, light yet hardy, well designed, easily attachable to a belt and could be deployed and repacked within seconds. Best of all, I have yet to see a singly sweat bee find its way into the jacket, something that could not be said for the head nets that many mistakenly seemed to think might be the answer to sweat bee invasions.
I remember sighting in my rifle for the first time in the CAR. Sweat bees were having a field day creating a blurry stormy around my head. Seconds later, wearing my fly jacket, I could focus on the target and my shot while the little bees knocked themselves out trying to figure out a way to their targets. Just like sleeping under a mosquito net became almost a relaxing experience, so shooting or glassing with my fly jacket on became the same when beset by bees.
Yes, I know the trick of burning elephant dung on the back of a vehicle and it does tend to diminish fly and bee attacks just as any smoky fire does but, to state the obvious, you cannot take the fire with you on a walk and stalk hunt.
The tension that these winged predators create when you are open to and unprotected from their attacks and the attempts you inevitably make to shoo them away – waving your arms and hands or swishing at them with a leafy branch, fly whisk or hat – are not conducive to either accurate shooting or remaining unseen.
And the bonus is that the jacket works almost as well on tsetse flies. I say “almost” because they are a much hardier, smarter and more devious opponent as they attack any exposed surface from hands to ankles, head to feet and, in one case, crawled unnoticed up my trouser leg to bite me on my kneecap!
Sweat bees have another invisible weapon that not many people know about – their honey. Their honey? I can hear you say with a hint of surprise as you may know that, for locals, it is the most highly prized honey. And that is true but only if eaten in moderation. Taken in excess, it acts as a powerful laxative as my good friend, the highly experienced, amateur hunter, Harry Katrikilis, found out in CAR on a Western roan. But let him explain in his own words:
“After removing the honey, the trackers … presented some to me. This was honey of a sort I’d never seen before. It was literally black in colour and super sweet … I ignored Francois’s warning not to eat too much and over-indulged …
It was quite a challenging stalk as we found ourselves on an open plain scattered with sparse bushes and the occasional big tree. Eventually, we managed to approach within 200 metres of the herd and, after glassing them for a good 20 minutes, I spotted the bull lying down in long grass behind a thicket. It was immediately clear that this was a superb, old bull.
But now I realise I have a slight problem. The honey is starting to talk to my intestines and I break out in a cold sweat with intense stomach cramps. I tell Francois we need to make a plan very quickly as the enemy is at the gate and I am bursting. I become so desperate I cannot wait any longer for the old bull to rise, so I shout out loudly, ‘Hey!’
The roan immediately jumps to its feet. I fire and, lo and behold, pull my shot hitting him in the back leg. Now I’m literally and figuratively $%^&# myself. Luckily, the herd starts running and quartering back in our direction. This gives me a chance at a running shot at the old bull and I put him down. At the same moment, without thinking, I run and disappear behind the nearest bush where the most almighty explosion of explosions takes place. It feels as if my intestines have exploded.
This movie carries on for at least 20 minutes. Eventually, I appear out from behind the bush and walk over to inspect my roan only to discover my party laughing their heads off. Anyway, it is worth it. The old bull turns out to be a monster. He is extremely old with super thick horns measuring 34 inches.”
I have previously written about the Big Five Ps and how preparation plus opportunity equals luck. Having a fly jacket can be the difference between a careful, correctly placed, one shot kill and one made under an unnatural pressure for which it is impossible to practice and which can easily lead to a missed shot or, much worse, a wounded animal.