Thursday morning, 8:00 am, November 26, 2009; Thanksgiving. Outside Maun, north of the Kgaligadi Central Reserve.
I took a shower this morning with several fat, slow-moving beetles. Maneuvering carefully as I could around them on the floor in my flip-flops, I struck up a conversation.
“So, beetles, how do you like it around here?”
“Oh, it’s lovely,” rhapsodized one, as she dreamily swam in the water running from my leg. “Nearly every day we get a warm bath, and this is a great place to hide from birds.” She shook her head, clicking sadly. “There are so many of them!”
“I noticed,” I agreed. “It sounded like some of them were having a party outside my tent this morning. Or maybe it was a fight?”
“Nasty brutes,” sniffed a huge, horny-legged beetle who sat in unmoving dignity in the corner.
“Those birds are raucous, but at least they aren’t out all night,” opined another, considering me from atop the concrete shower wall. “The noise coming from the bar last night was kind of obnoxious, considering most everyone had a long day in the car or were on safari in the evening.” With that, he took a 6-foot swan-dive and landed with a crack on the shower floor, self-consciously scrambling to right himself before trundling away.
“Sadly, in my case, it was the former,” I sighed, gently shaking a smaller one from the edge of my flip-flop. “We didn’t get in to the Reserve last night – it would have taken us too long to get through it. I’m getting anxious to see some animals. We have yet to see much of anything at all – everything so far has been domesticated! Cows, donkeys, horses, even some ostriches. All kinds of crazy birdlife, of course, some of which are spectacularly beautiful….er, meaning no offense to you guys, of course,” I added awkwardly, nodding to the large gentleman in the corner, whom I’d mentally dubbed Churchill.
“Quite,” he replied, acidly.
“..But,” I hurridly continued, “no big game, nothing really wild, definitely nothing from the wildlife section of our guidebook. And now here we are on a crocodile farm! Is there any wildlife even left anymore?”
There was a pause, as I conditioned my hair contemplatively. The only sound was the patter of water on the painted concrete, and the nervous flutter of a moth who apparently couldn’t figure out how to fly high enough to get out of the stall.
“Have you considered…small game?” timidly questioned one bright green specimen, who had been swimming slow figure eights around a friend of hers.
“How do you mean?” I wondered, taking a last rinse, trying not to spatter the beetles directly with phosphates.
“Well, I mean, we’re all wild, really, when you get right down to it. Beetles are 25% of all known lifeforms worldwide, you know.” She seemed a bit flustered, but with approving nods from her friends, she took a breath and continued. “And I bet you we’re not even in your guidebook, are we?”
“Well, no, you aren’t, actually. What are you exactly, if I may ask?”
She drew herself up proudly. “Rhabdotis Semipunctata F., as it happens, but everyone just calls me Dottie. We are distantly related to the Jewel Beetle, and they put them on some Botswanan stamps in 2003!” She signed rapturously at the glamour of it all.
“And I am her distant cousin, on the water beetle side: Cybisture Tripunctatus, at your service,” seconded the bold diver, who had taken shelter in the lee of my shampoo bottle. “Call me Cy.”
“Kheper Prodiiosus,” Churchill coughed superciliously. “I am not even of the genus of those two, though we share a distant order relationship, of course. We have functional wings and make a loud clacking sound with our mandibles, like this...”, and he demonstrated with some asperity. “I am related to the scarab beetles ennobled so long ago in ancient Egypt, venerated for centuries.”
“Uh, that’d be dung beetle, to you and me,” Cy stage-whispered. “Guess that means you share a distant ordure relationship with the ancients, eh?” The other beetles erupted in titters, and considering Churchill’s offended glare, I stepped in diplomatically.
“Very nice,” I ventured, eyeing the large horns on the side of Churchill’s forelegs, which he was waving in outrage. “Perhaps some of you are poisonous? Should I be careful?"
“Oh no, none of us in here,” Dottie was quick to assure me. “Some of the Chrysomelidae are bad news, but they don’t hang out in the water.” She gestured to a largish spider above me. “Roger up there, he has a nasty bite, but he’s already eaten this morning, and you’re not very threatening.” Roger waved three of his legs apologetically.
“Well thank you for the insight, everybody. I will definitely keep my eyes peeled for small game from now on.” I paused, peering down at the unmoving beetle that Dottie was still circling.
“Is your friend okay?” I asked her solicitously.
“He’s dead,” she responded matter-of-factly. “You stepped on him when you came in. But don’t worry,” she added politely at my horrified, contrite gasp. “There are millions of us around, just in this campsite alone. We aren’t endangered, we don’t need a reserve to protect us, and we aren’t going anywhere. Like Kheper said, some of us are thousands of years old.” She concluded with a satisfied air, and I realized they were all watching me, waiting.
So mumbling my good byes, I hurried out, leaving the beetles moving restlessly in the sudden shaft of sunlight that illuminated their stall, before the corrugated tin door clanged shut, leaving them in peace.