Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Here comes the rain again

The first night was horrible – I've never been so hot in my life. I
could hardly breathe let alone sleep and was finally forced to abandon
my hut and spend the night sitting at the picnic table while Mansonia
(a mosquito roughly the size of a 747) treated my back as an alfresco
buffet. I was a little worried about being eaten by crocodiles, but
reasoned that they were at least cold blooded so maybe I'd be cooler
in there. I spent most of Sunday drifting around the lower values of
the Glasgow coma scale.

On Sunday night the storm broke. In theory this meant that it was
cool enough to sleep, in practice the torrent of rain water (and for
all I know dissolved rat and gecko droppings) cascading through the
thatch onto my right shoulder made sleep impossible. I tried to drag
the bed out of the way, quickly discovering that Gambian furniture is
incredibly heavy, made from solid wood and apparently depleted
uranium. Gambian flooring on the other hand is incredibly flimsy;
what I'd taken for linoleum was in fact sticky back plastic ("Today on
Blue Peter, Yvette will show you how to build your very own
entomological research station") and I realised to my horror that in
dragging the monstrous bed I'd managed to tear two massive holes in
it. As icing on the cake I'd also managed to trap my thumb between
bed and table and was now sweating as much as I had on the previous
night. As if on cue the rain stopped, the cascade shrank to a trickle
and I collapsed onto the bed, cursing and praying for sleep, a
blizzard or a teleporter.

The next day was beautiful, as close as this place gets to cool and
with the heaviness washed from the air by the storm. We breakfasted
watching the river while a fairy-like swarm of winged ants issued from
the roots of a nearby tree. "They call them flood-flies in Belize"
said Shivonne, who has visited more countries than I've had hot
nights. A lovely name for lovely creatures. Later that day discarded
wings littered the compound like confetti. Large vermilion red mites
have emerged from their hiding places too, "the sons of the rain" they
call them locally. They stride purposefully across the earth, going
about whatever urgent business it is that brings them to the surface.
And a graceful, slender potter wasp is building a nest beneath the
toilet cistern, skilfully navigating the narrow crack between door and
frame with her burden again and again.

The lizards and geckos must think it's Christmas. I watched one
station herself next to the mouth of an ants' nest, busy tongue
flicking in and out to catch the little fairies as they emerged as
though from a snack dispenser. The feast has made the ubiquitous blue
and yellow lizards randy – the males circle each other, do pressups to
intimidate their rivals then begin a bout of tail-flick jousting that
usually culminates in a high speed chase across the compound.

The nightshift is something else though. Bats swoop low around the
research centre chasing the myriad flying things brought out by the
rains, each one a sinister little potential rabies vector. And we had
been warned about the scorpions and poisonous snakes that come out to
feast on this bounty after the lean dry season.

Shivonne and I were both very keen not to be stung or bitten by either
scorpions or snakes, and for once Michelle shared our caution.
Instead of eating out at the picnic table as usual (this would have
been impractical in any case because of the kamikaze ants dive-bombing the
candles) we decided to dine in the mess room – hot and stifling but,
we hoped, scorpion free.

Michelle stepped through the door first, carrying three plates of the
surprisingly palatable Indian MREs. I followed bearing assorted mugs,
cutlery and condiments. As Michelle headed for the table something
large, brown and extremely well endowed in the articulated legs
department scuttled out from under the sofa and stopped between her
feet. Hardened fieldworker that I am (hah!) I screamed, then gasped
"Michelle. Do. Not. Move". Amazingly not only did she follow
instructions she managed not to drop any of the food she was carrying.
Whatever-it-was then scurried on its merry way under the bookshelf.
"What's happening?" asked Shivonne, materialising behind me with a
large bottle of water and a puzzled expression. I waited until
everyone was safely out of the mess room before telling them what I'd
seen (Michelle looked rather ill), then went to find a night watchman
to hunt it down with extreme prejudice.

We decided to finish eating in my hut, which I was fairly certain
hadn't contained a scorpion half an hour ago at any rate. Halfway
through a rather nervous meal something came under the door and made a
high speed dash under the bed. At this point I invited one of the
nightwatchmen into my room (apparently as a woman you are really not
supposed to do this as the man will assume you want to sleep with him,
but I think he got the message from our terrified expressions and the
discarded food on the bed that this was not what we were looking for.
He flushed out something of approximately the dimensions and
colouration of an Alien face-hugger and trod on it. It burst quite

"Just a spider! Not dangerous!" he said, laughing. We leaned forward
to inspect the mangled mess of legs, mandibles and ichor. "Of course
it's a spider, it's got eight legs and no sting!" exclaimed Shivonne,
accusingly. ("I'd like to see you differentiate a patient with
pancreatitis and one with a burst appendix if they were moving past
you at 60 miles an hour" I thought of responding, two hours too late.)

Afterwards as we finished our meals we became quite blasé about the
facehuggers. I killed the next one myself with a surgical strike from
a sandal, not quite trusting it not to bite. Shivonne took photos of
its twitching corpse so that people would believe her about its size –
at least three people reading this will be very grateful that I can't
upload them. When the fourth and fifth came in we ignored them and
hoped they would eat the mosquitoes. We toasted snakes and scorpions
with ice-cold water and decided that Wali Kunda wasn't as dangerous as
we'd been told.

The next morning Michelle saw a real scorpion in the bathroom, which
the watchmen had to kill, and was very relieved to head back to the
coast. That evening the watchmen killed another scorpion and two
snakes. I'm wearing my jungle boots after dark now, and getting some
practice in with the sandal.

No comments: