So the book has a name, and in celebration, I’m excited to post an entire chapter from ‘Dung Beetle Soap Opera.’ Happy reading, and feel free to leave any feedback, here on out there on Twitter…
Welcome to Your Room. Mind the Flatties.
A safari means different things to different people. For some, it means a long, solitary drive out to the middle of nowhere, pitching a tent and cooking cans of corn on a gas cooker while listening to hyenas whooping in the distance. For others a safari means staying in a stately home in the African bush and being waited on by a large staff who also know how to orchestrate postcard perfect animal sightings. For most, a safari is somewhere in between these two examples. Depending on what you want out of the experience, you can spend R200 a night to be on safari or you can spend R100,000 a night to be on safari. The primary leveling factor is that the animals don’t care what you’ve spent. The budget camper will witness the same wild spectacles as the tycoon who arrived at their lodge in their own helicopter. There’s another leveling factor between classes of safari that a lot of people don’t think about. There seems to be this idea that money can buy a totally sterile pocket of tranquility to return to after a game drive spent at the mercy of Africa and its creatures great and small. Surely the corn camper has to deal with hoards of creepy crawlies, but if I stay at a an expensive lodge with sliding glass doors and indoor pools, there must be some protocol in place to protect me from cockroaches, right? Nope. Let’s talk about that great safari equalizer – bugs in rooms.
The cheapest of safari accommodations are actually the most ‘critter proof.’ Didn’t expect that, did you? But think about it. What is a tent, if not a tiny glorified mosquito net? You can be completely sheltered if you want to be. Whatever gets in a tent is usually due to user error. You just have to forget about the things that are underneath you. I’ve packed up my tent to find that massive colonies of termites and ants have taken up residence under my ground sheet. As have centipedes and scorpions on occasion. I was once woken up in the night by a squirmy movement by my pillow to find that a dozen giant millipedes had used my tent as shelter from a light rain. It’s yet to happen to me, but snakes also love to snuggle up to the warmth created by a body in a tent. I once had to remove a puff adder from under the tent of some fellow campers. It happens. But whatever occurs outside your tent, occurs outside your tent. Inside, you are cocooned from all that. If you’re squeamish, camp in a tent. The smaller the better.
But what about the bigger animals? Surely lying on the ground under two bamboo sticks and a thin strip of polyester doesn’t provide much protection from things like hippos and elephants. Yet strangely it seems to. Over the years, I’ve slept in my flimsiest of tents while elephants and hippos have tiptoed quietly past. White rhinos have grazed inches from my face while I lay safely in my tent savouring the moment. I’m sure that there have been less peaceful instances involving small tents and large mammals, but for the most part, tiny tents work. Or at least they work until you fall asleep with your tent flaps opens. Hyenas are famous for dragging people from open tents. Keep the tent closed and all is well.
Most of the time.
When I was still working in the kalahari, our local ground squirrels had figured out that in order to access the food that silly people left in their tents, they simply had to eat their way through a little bit of unpalatable fabric. Jackals soon learned the same thing. And elsewhere, baboons and monkeys don’t need to chew their way into your tent. They simply have to unzip the zippers. Unless you’re cunning and put locks or cable ties on your zippers. Then the baboons and monkeys will chew their way through your tent. Nothing is safe. Not even cars. We definitely aren’t the only primates who know how door handles work. Which brings me neatly to the next grade of safari accommodation.
The safari tent. If I wasn’t so poor, I’d opt to spend most of my safaris in structured safari tents. These are robust, permanent tents usually erected on small platforms. They range in luxury from completely basic to extreme ‘Out of Africa style’ opulence. In my opinion, a safari experience doesn’t get much more authentic. These tents are usually open to the elements in some place, whether it be a bathroom under the stars or a front door with a big gap underneath it. You can forget about keeping bugs and snakes and things out of your safari tent, but it shouldn’t matter. If you chose to stay in a safari tent, you’ve chosen to stay in the wild and intertwine yourself with it. If you wake up with a genet on your pillow, it’s a bonus. Whatever wanders or slithers into your room, is just as likely to wander or slither out before you even notice it.
The final category of accommodation I’m going to discuss is the ‘luxury chalet.’ The lodges I’ve worked at, including Salasentle, have been comprised of luxury chalets. A ‘luxury chalet’ covers any number of closed up house-like structures. I’ve stayed in ‘luxury chalets’ which have been little more than dank shacks with indoor bathrooms. At the other end of the scale, I once did some freelance guiding at a giant modern mansion on the banks of the Crocodile River where a week’s stay ran effortlessly into six figures. But I’m going to talk about the luxury chalets at Salasentle, which are typical of the five star chalets that luxury safari guests are most likely to come across on their African adventures.
Ironically, the more cash you spend on a safari, the more likely you are to share your sleeping space with things you might not like. You love your fancy little house in the African bush? Do you like that it’s always perfectly warm in the winter and cool in the summer? You’re not the only one. Do you find that you don’t want to leave? Well, your room’s ‘permanent residents’ don’t want to leave either. And unlike you, they don’t have to. Ever.
It’s a scenario that repeats itself over and over on almost every safari. Upon being shown around their luxury chalets for the first time, new guests usually dart their eyes around, paying only the briefest of notice to the perks their room affords. Plunge pool? Fine. Outdoor shower? Yeah, whatever. Twenty-four hour butler service? Okay. By the time you’re showing them how the complicated lighting system works and how to access the fifteen million channels on their flat screen TV, it’s obvious they haven’t heard a word you’ve said since walking into the room. Without fail, their eyes are frantically scanning the walls the entire time. And again without fail, they always seem to find what they’re looking for.
“What’s THAT?” They’ll interrupt as they point to a spot somewhere up near the roof. Inevitably, their finger is outstretched towards one of two things: a gecko or a ‘flattie.’ (Okay, not so inevitably. Once, I discovered that a horrified guest was pointing up at a two meter long rock monitor lizard in the roof beams. And there was the time a dassie was looking down at us from the top of the wardrobe. Oh yeah, and that time when the guest noticed a particularly large spotted bush snake wound around the base of their lamp. And those are only my personal experiences. You’ll find plenty of guides who have walked into a chalet with new guests only to come face to face with a black mamba. But we aren’t talking about those things. We’re talking about the things you’re most likely to find in your safari dwelling. And those are geckos. And flatties.)
What on earth is a flattie? Say it out loud right now. “Flattie.” What comes to mind? Probably a few things. The dictionary says that a flattie can refer to shoes, fish, boats, housemates, police officers and ‘ahem’ certain women – like me. Oh dear. But ask any safari guide what a flattie is and they’ll all start rattling on about spiders. Ask me specifically, and I’ll start jumping up and down and telling you all about the cutest spiders ever.
I love flatties. They’re spiders belonging to the family Selenopidae. It’s a beautiful name derived from the greek goddess of the moon. Her name was Selene. Why the link? Apparently flatties have eyes that look like half-moons. I like that. In spider books, flatties are properly called crab wall spiders. But ‘flatties’ are easier to bond with than a ‘crab wall spider’ is. What’s to love about a spider? To begin with, they’re completely harmless. Completely. Just like 99.99% of the spiders that we share our planet with. Like their slang name infers, they sit completely flat on whatever surface they’re on. They love to squash themselves under rocks, flatten themselves up against trees and most of all, cling to bedroom walls. Of all the spider species that live in your luxury chalet, the crab wall spider is by far the most ubiquitous. You’re far less likely to see the potentially dangerous violin, sac and button spiders that are definitely living in the curtains, under the chairs and in the cracks in your bed frame. So naturally, the flatties get the most attention. They can be big too, with the biggest I’ve seen almost as wide as my outstretched hand. But big is good. The bigger a spider is, the more the prey it can take. The more a flattie eats, the less you’ll have running across your floor or flying into your face while you try and sleep. They’re specialist bug eaters. And they tend to respect your personal space too. A flattie wants to stay on its wall. It doesn’t want to sleep next to you on your pillow or nestle itself between your toes. It’s not interested in wrapping itself up in your hair and yet it eats the things that do. Flatties in your room are a win-win scenario, but try explaining that to the panicked wide eyed tourist taking stock of how many spiders they can see from just one vantage point in their room.
Almost every safari lodge will have stories to tell about guests who have noticed their arachnid housemates and refused to stay in a particular chalet, or worse, refused to stay at the lodge altogether. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people who have boarded planes back to their home countries upon meeting rooms full of crab wall spiders. As a guide, it’s common to be summoned to rooms to ‘remove’ the flatties. Can’t be done. The dudes can move. So quickly do they scurry across their walls, that they’re virtually uncatchable. And while a guest may insist that we spray them to death with Doom or hairspray or shaving foam, I hope no guides ever give in. A crab wall spider is an asset to any room. Because mosquitos are one of their favourite foods, you can see a flattie as a sort of free anti-malarial device. You’re welcome.
Instead of freaking out about the crab wall spiders in your room, try getting a good look at one instead. You’ll see one of the most beautiful and intricate patterns in nature plastered across its body. Look closer and you’ll see eight incredibly advanced eyes staring back at you. And no, it’s not going to ‘bite you.’ One thing most safari guests seem to have in common is their total fascination with anything they think has the potential to bite them.
The geckos in your luxury chalet aren’t going to bite you either. If you have dozens of geckos dotted all over the walls, count yourself as blessed. Do you know how much money people pay in other parts of the world to keep pet geckos? You have free ones. Enjoy it. If your chalet doesn’t have a television or wifi, use the geckos for entertainment instead. Lots of geckos in a confined space usually results in lots of gecko drama. If you’re lucky, you can end up watching something more gripping than Game of Thrones. And because your geckos are running about in your rooms, they’re gobbling up the other things you don’t want to see (that are there), like moths, mosquitos, flies, cockroaches and yes, even flatties. We won’t talk about the things that the presence of geckos in a room attract.
…Like arboreal snakes. I couldn’t resist. Sorry. Geckos = boomslangs.
What I’m trying to say, is that on safari you’re extremely unlikely to be hurt by animals in your sleep, no matter what accommodation you’re in and what you’re sharing that accommodation with. In my time as a safari guide, I’ve had guests seriously hurt by slipping in the shower, tripping down the step in their room that I meticulously warned them about and banging their head on the low beam by their bed – that I also warned them about. Everyone has survived unscathed from the dassie on the wardrobe, the scorpion in the bath and the puff adder by the door.
I love that even if you’re on safari alone (like I usually am), you’re never alone. There’s the snake using you for warmth if you’re camping and the squirrels sheltering from the storm in your safari tent. Honestly, skip a game drive, lie back on your bed and experience the whole complex ecosystem of prey and predator that lives in each and every luxury chalet in Africa.
Hoofnote: Back when I wrote this, I mentioned that monkeys don’t have to rip through your tent because they use the zippers. Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Not long ago, I was camping solo at Punda Maria in the far north of Kruger. I’m a fairly smart camper (after years of trial and serious error) and I don’t make silly mistakes like leaving food in my tent. One morning, whilst I was enjoying the much needed air-conditioner in the camp’s coffee shop, a whole troop of vervet monkeys took it upon themselves to enter my tent. Not via the zippers, but simply through the mesh. And not by ‘chewing through’ as I mentioned the could in their chapter. No, they entered by ripping the walls open with their sticky little fingers. And while monkeys can no doubt pass through some very small holes, these ones made sure they had the luxury of entering my tent through a very large hole indeed. To get to… absolutely nothing. My entire roll of emergency duct tape wasn’t enough to keep the gaping hole shut. So dearest monkeys, I’d encourage you in the future to use the opposable thumbs that evolution gifted you with and please just use the zippers next time you wish to enter my tent for no reason. Cheaper for me, less energy expended for you. We both win. Sort of.