Aidan Hartley

Wild Life

Uninvited guests

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With a concussive ‘thunk’, another bird flies against our new farm house on the African plains. This happens a dozen times daily. They must be following flight paths established long before a human home went up. I designed our place to be solid. Construction used up 555 tonnes of sand, 1,476 bags of cement, 688 kilos of nails, 1,235 cedar poles, 16,500 running feet of timber, 1,833 wheelbarrow loads of rock ballast and 47 wheelbarrows (since it was all built by hand). An atom bomb could not destroy it.

But Nature rudely ignores our claim over home. Tap! goes the bedroom window at dawn. Taptaptap! Pull back the curtains. It’s a male hornbill attacking its own reflection in the glass. ‘How charming,’ I say. Tappetytaptaptap! Many dawns later this becomes an ornithological version of Chinese water torture. The only solution: Tappetytappetytappety BANG!

After the rains come swarming bees. While outside you become aware of a distant hum. This rises to an intimidating roar coming right at you. You duck just as the blue sky darkens, you look up, and a black rope of insects coils away after their queen. Into a hole next to the chimney she goes and makes her home there alongside you. Bees are strange lodgers. I am roused from sleep at the dead of night by the sound of a million beating wings suddenly starting up. The only way to evict them is to smoke them out by burning dried elephant dung: two turds will suffice.

I never thought I would miss elephant raids on our garden. For a while they vanished from our area, chased away by poachers. Several bulls were shot and their tusks hacked out. Last night three huge beasts appeared back on the lawn. They mock-charged me until I fell back on to the tennis court. Armed only with a torch, I was up all night trying to prevent them from devouring the herbaceous border.

We grow enough fruit and vegetables to feed 30 people on the farm. But getting the supply right does not always work. There are never any potatoes, oranges or red onions, because everybody likes them. Artichokes, beetroot, lemons, radishes and rocket are abundant because the workers loathe them, while we avoid the African staples of kale and white maize. One day every single lettuce vanished. I was fuming. It could not have been nicked, for as a rule lettuce is shunned in this corner of Africa. I stamped around with smoke coming out of my ears. My manager Celestina shrugged. An hour later he came up to me laughing. ‘Come,’ he said, and led me to a shady spot beneath a yellow-blossomed acacia tree. Here, a leopard tortoise, the size of a wastepaper basket, was dozing after his large salad breakfast.

We recently endured a drought, which heralded a plague of rodents around the house. Not rats, but quite sweet mice, with bushy tails. On a walk in the garden you might see ten at a time. I don’t mind, except mice bring snakes. Not long ago I was at my neighbour’s house where Hector, their brave Staffordshire terrier, was blinded in one eye by a spitting cobra. As everybody knows, a cobra grieves for its mate. One evening a short time later we were drinking Tuskers on the veranda when there was a terrible rumpus at the kitchen door. I went to investigate and saw Hector barking at a cobra standing straight, as high as a walking stick. Its head was flattened out and it spat furiously. Coward that I am, I left Hector to his fate and fled into the kitchen. But the cobra left off the dog and pursued me. To my horror the snake wriggled across the floor between my legs. This made me jump into the air several feet, like a dancing Cossack. The cobra turned and rose up again, its hooded head dancing before me. Hector came to the rescue in the nick of time before it struck me, and he chased it back outside. Somehow the terrier cornered the cobra and bit it several times. This slowed it down. I then plucked up sufficient courage to emerge from the kitchen gingerly wielding a mop, with which I was able to beat the wounded snake to death. Hector bounced up to nuzzle me and when I stroked his head it was sticky with fluid poison that felt hot to the touch. His remaining good eye was swollen shut with poison. I massaged milk into it for an hour and I am glad to say he regained his sight. The snake was more than six feet and as thick as my forearm.