You might not know that Londolozi has a tennis court, but if you have been a guest here and arrived by plane then you’ve almost certainly stepped on our version of centre court. It’s at the parking bay, nearly a kilometre down the length of the airstrip, where the Beechcraft 1900’s do their pirouettes in and out of Londolozi. It was marked out, net and all, for a tennis starlet in the 90’s and whilst not the most level of playing surfaces and with tram lines that hippos have scuffed out with their clumsy feet, it’s appropriate that we have one because it was at a tennis game in Johannesburg in the 1920’s that Londolozi was bought. I sometimes joke with guests that I’m put out that my grandfather didn’t play tennis or at least not with the gentlemen that bought game farms after post-match gin and tonics… Anyhow that’s just as well because I’m not sure my family would have had the 5 set staying power that has been needed to stave off the wilderness bashing forces at play here over the last century.
The irony is that while the Vartys and Taylors defend Londolozi against the macro forces at play in the world i fend for my own patch of wilderness: Fort Imrie. I was nervous to have left it for two weeks undefended whilst we holidayed on the sun-filled KZN Southcoast because it’s not just the lock and go that we used to have. No – now it’s a house with a pantry equipped for children’s growing appetites, a vegetable garden with some tomatoes, onions, chillies and runner beans coming on-line and a garden with a lawn that needs persistent love and care. The assailants are baboons, monkeys, warthogs, bushbuck and nyala. I call them terrorists: low tech, high impact. I’m not complaining – it’s a privilege to live amongst them – but when the wildlife is keeping a closer eye on the ripening tomatoes than we are – then our security measures have had to rival those of any high end Johannesburg home… double locks and bolts even on the veggie garden….
I feel the surveillance on me as I lock the house on the way up to the rangers’ room and then when on drive I’ve occasionally had the feeling of being followed by the animal that we are meant to be tracking. Believe it or not there is actually some science behind that. Scientists (or sceptics) have exhausted every avenue of experiment and it falls vaguely under the ESP phenomenon (or non-phenomenon), but the way they’ve arrived at their conclusions is by having people around the globe sit behind one another and then alternately stare at the nape of the neck in front of them or off into space. The watcher needs to guess when he or she has been watched. Children are best at guessing correctly and soldiers and celebrities have learnt to shrug off the awkward feeling. After millions of experiments some conclusions concur that humans have the ability, 55% of the time to know, when they are being observed. The question remains as to whether 5% is statistically significant?
ESP or not, according to some, humans have evolved an ability to determine when we are being observed by each other and it’s not necessarily a sixth sense – it’s simply in the eyes. The great sea of white around our pupils, called the sclera, has made it very obvious to see whether the pupils are centre, left or right in the eye. That helps quickly determine in which direction someone else’s gaze lies. Most of our co-inhabitants in the other animal kingdoms have disguised this with dark sclera which makes it difficult to assess in which direction the eyes are focused. For predators like leopards and owls this is an important part of being able to look disinterested whilst apparently keenly observing a potential meal.
Perhaps this explains why a lilac breasted roller is so quick to take to flight when the land rover stops and everybody turns to look at it. All eyes and some camera lenses turn directly to the bird who in turn works out that it’s the centre of attention, knowing that’s not a good thing when trying to avoid being eaten – it takes flight. Next time you want to photograph a roller, make sure you are wearing dark glasses and keep your camera hidden till the last minute whilst staring off at a slight angle. Well try it anyway!
That also suggests an explanation as to why when photographing zebra you will more often than not get some fabulous shots of their rear ends. They are masters at reading body language which is an evolutionary adaption to living in a herd and the moment the cameras are up and the eyes are intent more often than not they’ll turn away. Some interesting proof of this was Clever Hans, a horse that toured Germany in the first few years of the 1900’s showing off his remarkable mathematical abilities. Asked for the answer to something like 4 * 7, he would brilliantly stamp his foot 28 times. Square roots, division and days of the week: he could do it all. Unsurprisingly Clever Hans was tested endlessly to discover whether there was trickery involved or he was a genuine equine genius. He passed all of his tests with flying colours until a determined psychologist figured that the horse was incredibly perceptive at determining the change in the demeanor of the questioner when he had tapped the right answer. Hans could sense the rise in stress levels as he tapped towards the number and then notice the minutest changes in a persons’ body language as he arrived at the answer. It helped that there were sugar treats for correct answers no doubt. Nevertheless Clever Hans remained a celebrity and serves as a reminder that members of the horse family can read body language better than we can and if you remember that it might help you photograph them!
Where I’m all headed with this is that I’m going to spend 2014 employing these lessons at home. I’m going to come to terms with the fact that the other animal residents of camp are watching me closely as I enter and leave home. As a result I’m going to make a big show of locking up when I feel the eyes boring into me and my body language is going to suggest that the Cheerios are under lock and key. I’m also going to take a lesson from Washoe the chimpanzee who learnt sign language and in turn taught it to her child. If the monkeys won’t take my veiled threats and curses seriously then I’m going to learn how to communicate with my fingers and hands. As long as I can do it better than the hapless fellow at the Mandela Memorial then maybe they’ll start to get the message.