Barking Geckos

Digby and I, as usual, unarmed (which always settles on me with a mixture of relief and unease),   set off at about four yesterday August afternoon, sans the usual lively cavalcade of accompanying hounds, to an infrequently-visited valley in the red sandstone hills of Sentinel.  He had a mission, he had said - there something that he wanted me to see. 

We parked the Land Rover just off the rocky road to Tobwane, right before the grey, volcanic sands of the streambed that leads to the gorge of the same name (so often visited by elephants for water and mud baths).  I put on my backpack and we turned towards the rows of red-orange boulder-like hills to the south. 

Elephant tracks were everywhere - fresh ones.  Their round, cracked pads had left clearly defined prints in the soft soil - big ones, small ones, lots! 

We followed a well-used elephant path over a rocky ridge leading to an expansive painted plateau of red Kalahari sand, brushed lightly with pale sweeping grasses and studded with the odd marula tree, baobab and ever-ubiquitous thorn bush.  In the distance, another vast ridge of sandstone hills reached across the landscape. 

The squeaky, sinking sand gave way under our feet and made for a heavy, uncomfortable walk.  Digby coped better than I and it was a struggle to keep up with him.  We’d had an unseasonably warm winter, and the valley had absorbed the midday heat with alacrity which even now warmed the ground under us as we walked.  A small breeze lifted a veil of fine dust and sand from his boots as he trudged in front of me, blowing it into my now sweat-beaded face, which forced me to walk upwind of him, out of its reach.

The sun was on our right, glancing over the valley with its luscious light enveloping everything in that crisp late-afternoon glow.  We walked quietly, not talking, trying not to step on dry sticks and loose stones tossed nonchalantly by wind and elephants that had swept over this seemingly desolate land.

He pointed at a nearby baobab and said, “That’s the tree with the big hole in it. Want to have a look?”  We’d been here before, many years ago.  He cut across through the leaning dry grass from our well-used game trail, stopping momentarily as an invisible herd of startled zebra galloped away, hooves clattering on small scattered rocks as they went.

The leafless baobab, bulbous and swooning, rose out of the sand on spread feet. Its fleshy womb gaped open, and Digby climbed up and into it, dwarfed.  On the sun side, the tree’s surface was smooth and warm, giving limited purchase to his hands and feet.  In the shadows behind, however, drought-hungry elephants had gouged and stripped the tree of bark, leaving ragged torn flesh and fibrous mayhem in their wake.

We headed for a low saddle of rock in the next ridge – a wall-like barrier of ancient solid sandstone, once magnificent Triassic sand-dune now hard, daubed in ochre and red,  textured with sharp quartzite intrusions bearing witness to ancient geological processes, and topped by leafy rock-splitting figs with their white flowing caramel roots pushing into the fissures and cracks.

 

As we came over and down the kopjie that flattened to a smooth sheet of rock under our feet, I noticed a few slashes, ladders and even animals tracks that had been engraved in its weathered surface – signs of past peoples who’d lived and hunted in these hills, the San.  Their symbols had no discernible meaning to us – just puzzling, arbitrary, man-made marks, abandoned, worn by rain and wind, lonely in their history.    A broken grinding stone lay haphazardly nearby, its lengthening shadow telling us that sundown was nigh. “We’ve got to be there by dusk,” Digby urged.

 

Our shadows too, stretched out before us, beckoning to the hills, streaking the sunlit valley in long narrow belts of darkness.  We walked on in silence. 

 

On a sandy rise two towering marula trees, fully dressed in leaves but offering no fruit, marked halfway point to the kopjies ahead. From there we viewed a strange belt of thick green vegetation interrupting the stark winter landscape between us and the next ridge, and the baobab it surrounded was in full leaf, completely out of sync with all the other bare ones.  “There must be underground water ,” Digby remarked.  “I bet the Bushmen dug wells there.”

 

The sun was lower now, and the valley had turned to red. 

 

At the next sandstone ridge, Digby led me to the top of an outcrop where we perched high on tilting, flat slabs of rock to watch the sun dip below the horizon. The frozen water I had carried in my pack had melted, but the bottle dripped with dew and the water was still cold and refreshing.  Digby peeled orange, fresh from the neighbour’s orchards.

 

We scanned the magnificent valley and hills.  High in the sky, where it was already a dark blue, a three-quarter moon waited for nightfall.  Far away, nearly out of sight, a herd of wildebeest grazed peacefully in the descending darkness.

 

“Tik Tik Tik!”

 

“Listen!” Digby instructed. 

 

Again, but louder, distinct:  “TIK TIK TIK!” and another, further away - “tik-tik-tik!”

 

“Do you hear it?” he asked.  My head spun one way and the other, trying to see what was making the noise.  We were surrounded.

 

“Tik-tik-tik!”

“TIK-TIK-TIK!”

Tik-Tik-Tik!”

 

“Barking geckos,” he whispered, smiling.“  They’re in the sand. Wait.  They’re only just beginning.”

 

Like an afternoon shower that begins with a few distinct raindrops on a metal roof to become a thundering storm, so the valley filled with loquacious gecko chatter. 

 

I scrambled down the kopjie in the fading light.  I had to see what was making those calls! I cupped my hand over my ears to zero-in on the nearest “TIK,TIK,TIK!”  Was it coming from a bush?  I crept closer, treading as quietly as I could.  Three times I stood and listened, and edged closer.

 

“TIK,TIK,TIK!”

“Tik-tik-tik!”

“Tik,Tik,Tik!” 

 

There were hundreds of them at varying distances.   Sure enough,  the loudest  was coming from low down.   Squinting to see by the very last light of day, I could just discern a few narrow burrows in the soft sand.  From one of them, at the base of a coppice of dry grass, a pale little creature with big black eyes protruded.  A gecko!   “TIK, TIK,TIK!” it shouted at me,  “TIK,TIK,TIK!!”

 

Camera in hand, I bent slowly towards it, and tried in vain to focus in the dying light.  The flash burst, and the animal that I was looking at disappeared in an instant -  but the blurred image of a richly yellow-throated gecko luminated the back of my camera.  I sat down in the grass, mesmerised by the chorus of calls rising around me.

 

Digby’s late brother, Colin, had introduced us to this place years ago, but at least 20 years had passed since then, and I don’t remember that we had stayed long to hear the geckos.  Known as barking geckos (Ptenopus garrulus), these little reptiles are endemic to red Kalahari sands.  At dusk and en masse, the males pop their heads and flashy yellow throats out of their burrows  to emit loud vocalised advertisements  to attract females. 

 

Soon, we found ourselves drenched in the blue moonlight, amidst a cacophony of gecko calls near and far.  Shutting my eyes, I was reminded of a far-off land where a busy tinker’s market had echoed with the tink,tink,tink of hammers-meeting-metal to shape buckets, oil lamps and whatever else can be fashioned from tin. 

 

It was, at long last, the magical sawing of a leopard echoing in the nearby hills that reminded us that we had to be back in camp for dinner.  Stepping lightly over the loose sand so as not to damage any of the fragile little gecko burrows and still ever watchful for elephants, we wended our way back to the Land Rover by the bright light of the moon, thoroughly charmed by the ways of the bush once again.