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  • Grant Nel

Blarn#8 - 'Who Killed Cock Robin?' and Other Confessions of a Serial Killer

Updated: Apr 19

I hate killing things!


It’s not that I’m by any means innocent of deadly crimes against living beings, I just loathe committing them, and as the years pass it becomes increasingly difficult for me to snuff out any form of life. I’m no shrinking violet when the unfortunate need arises to end suffering or deal with a problem animal, but in such instances, a ‘before’ calm is replaced by the ‘after’ shakes as an unbidden, and unwelcome, sense of guilt washes over me. The finality of the act that ‘switches off the light’ literally churns my innards. Conversely, I find myself performing ridiculous rescue missions for all manner of two, four, six, eight, and hundred legged creatures; and sometimes even for the legless ones. It is not uncommon for me to stop traffic in our little town as I rush into the road to help a ‘little old’ chameleon get safely to the other side. This past week, Lucy, our ever suffering maid (you spend your day cleaning up as much dog hair as she does and you’ll know what suffering is), called me to save her from a ‘baby’ snake. Like nearly all Africans, Lucy has an all-encompassing fear of snakes. Her unique squeal is the alarm that tells me her sweeping, dusting, mopping, and other hair gathering practices, have unearthed an ‘evil noga’ in our midst. To date, she has still not happened upon anything venomous, but that means nothing when her phobia is rooted in ancient legends not dissimilar to our own parable of serpents in the Garden of Eden. The ‘baby snake’ was in fact a rarely seen Worm Lizard and all of five centimetres long (that’s two inches for the metrically challenged). After getting some halfway decent macro photos of it wrapped up in dog hair, I released it in the garden to continue hunting termites.


Our house is a haven for all things great and small. Bushbuck poke their heads through the back door in search of stray bananas; mongoose, warthogs, and occasionally hippos, terrorise the dogs through the garden fence. There is even refuge for any geckos, skinks, millipedes, and spiders that can evade and escape Lucy’s and the dogs’ attentions. Frogs come and go, birds and bats occasionally drop in, and yes we’ve had a few snakes. At certain times of the year carnivorous ants will take over the kitchen, and instead of fighting an endless chemical war with one of Nature’s best housemaids, we leave them to clean up whatever Lucy has missed. Still haven’t found an ant that has any use for dog hair though.


So I hate killing things, but it wasn’t always like that. Shrinks still debate at length, and with great passion, the psychological mechanism that creates a Ted Bundy or a Charles Manson. Whether it is Nature or Nurture, or a bit of both, perhaps my own adult psyche was moulded by two of my most vivid childhood experiences.


I couldn’t have been more than seven or eight when I joined my old man on an afternoon jaunt to visit a favourite uncle at his smallholding on the outskirts of Harare (known as Salisbury back in those days of Zimbabwe’s civil war). Even then I was always exploring the natural world and Uncle Louis’ farm (more of a scrapyard than a farmyard) was nirvana for my curiosities – plus my siblings weren’t interested in coming, so I got all the attentions of a spoiling uncle. Whilst Dad and Uncle Lou were talking their way through a case of ice-cold lagers on the stoop, I was digging and probing in the dirt nearby looking for.… well looking for anything of interest. Noticing something moving alongside a large rock, I turned it over and found a wildlife bonanza. Before my eyes was a seething mass of fat ‘worms’. I sat on my barefoot haunches, my face less than a foot (that’s thirty centimetres for the imperially challenged) away from the squirming nest, studying the delicately patterned worms as they seemed to study me. The delight I felt back then still raises goosebumps today when I think about it. Turning to my two patriarchs I implored them to have a look at my newfound pets.


“Dad, please can I take some home with us, plleeaasse!”


My kind and gentle ‘C’Lou’, as he was known to me, sauntered over casually, glanced at my discovery, and instantly turned into Mr. Hyde. In one simultaneous movement, he pushed me to the side, grabbed the rock I had turned over, and pulverised the nest – over and over again, until there was nothing left but a muddy, bloody, gory mess. Guess I wasn’t taking any of them home! The shock of such instant, murderous violence left me inconsolable, and I cried a river that day. It didn’t matter that what I had uncovered was a recently hatched clutch of puff adders – one of Africa’s most dangerous snakes and that those snake-lings’ venom was just as powerful as an adult’s. Nor did it matter that my uncle’s actions were solely out of fear and concern for my life. It took me a while to forgive C’Lou – maybe a whole week until he once again pitched up at our house with his usual treats and tolerant humour.


Of course, I came around and was not scarred for life – far from it in fact. Frying ants, and bigger bugs if they sat still long enough, with a magnifying glass was ‘fun’, as was asphyxiating butterflies with Mom’s nail polish remover so I could collect them. Despite strict instructions from my parents that “…it is only for target practice..” as a regular teenage boy with an air rifle, I plinked away at birds, lizards, snakes, and rodents, building up a shameful trophy list. By the time I was a high school senior I had graduated to using a shotgun and small calibre rifle for my assassinations. Then one day I was invited to tag along on a springbok ‘hunt’ and that changed everything.


The springbok is a delicate desert gazelle that Mother Nature chose to dress in caramel and white with bold, black side stripes and an elegant lyre-shaped tiara for horns. Their soulful eyes and a repertoire of quirky behaviours only enhance their stylish beauty. To call the mass slaughter I witnessed that day a ‘hunt’ is grossly offensive. A bunch of (mostly drunk) middle- aged men, puffed up with high calibre rifles and booze sat in shooting lines whilst the farm owner drove herds of terrified, panicked springbok in front of the firing squad. There was no escape. The lucky ones went down quick, but too many were wounded in the most horrific manner – descriptions of which shall be left at the door of this Blarn. I was a spectator on the ‘clean-up truck’, meaning that the shooter on the back was tasked with putting the wounded down. Consequently I witnessed the absolute worst victims of alcohol soaked marksmanship. The look, indeed plea, in the eyes of the wounded before they were dispatched pretty much reformed me there and then. I still love shooting, but targets can just as easily test your skill level without anything having to die for the ‘fun of it’.


[My editor, slash parole officer, in his infinite wisdom, redacted most of this paragraph about that massacre. This is supposed to be a light-hearted Blarn, so it is suffice to say I was adequately reformed and there’s no need to drag you through the sordid details of that day.]


So where is this rambling introduction leading to?


Well, throughout my (reformed) career as a wildlife guide, I have had to commit more lethal crimes against the wildlife I purport to love and cherish than I wish to confess to, but none have been more heinous than the day I killed Cock Robin.


* * * * * *


I really didn’t want to do it, I promise, but a voice in my bed told me to.


Sharon and I had made our move to Botswana. We had lucked into a wonderful job managing the old Chobe Chilwero Lodge just outside Kasane on the boundary of the famous Chobe National Park. ‘Chilwero’ means ‘view’, or probably more accurately ‘panorama’, in the local BaSubiya dialect, and perched high above the Chobe River, looking down on the floodplains of the national park and its myriad wildlife, the view was, and still is, superb.


The Botswana safari scene has changed a lot since the mid ’90’s. For one, you could count the number of accommodation facilities in town without having to take off your shoes. Today you’ll run out of toes before you reach the halfway point. Chilwero was considered ‘exclusive luxury’ then, but its quaint style would sadly turn up noses in the modern safari era of feng shui, private plunge pools, and personal butlers. However, we loved the place from the start, and more importantly, we loved our bosses (still do – Brian & Jan are amongst our dearest friends), but man we were worked to the bone. 1995 turned into THE busiest year Chilwero had ever had, or would ever have before it changed ownership. The turnover of guests was a Piccadilly Circus, and each day’s routine was a constant race against the clock. 5.00 wake up the guests; 5.30 serve a light breakfast, tea and coffee; 6 head out on a game drive; 6-9 clean all the rooms and prepare a hearty breakfast; 9-10 serve breakfast; 10.30 head out on boat cruise; 10.30-1 pick-up and drop-off arrivals/departures, and prepare lunch; 1-2 serve lunch; 2-3 do maintenance and admin; 3 serve tea; 3.30-6.30 game drive/prepare dinner; 7.30 till late, dinner and ‘entertainment’. The next day we’d hit ‘repeat’, and hope that nothing came along to upset the finely tuned machine – which of course was the norm rather than the exception. Sleep became the most important thing in our lives and we treasured every minute of shut-eye we could grab. I would sleep standing up in the storeroom whilst claiming to be doing ‘stock take’, and Sharon would doze in the souvenir shop hoping no one would come in for some retail therapy. Seven days a week, for nine months straight – that’s what we signed up for. Ahhh, the energy of youth.


Well even as twenty-somethings Sharon and I were dead on our feet by October, with two months still to go before we would get some hard-earned time off. Then we saw the latest booking sheets, and there, slap bang in the middle of the month, were two whole days with no guests. We looked at those two days like a five-year-old anticipating Christmas. It became our goal; like exhausted marathon runners, we just had to put one foot in front of the other. Each daily task completed was another pitiful stride towards the finish line – we just had to keep going.


Enter the White-browed Scrub Robin!


This delightful bird is a bush favourite, and every twitcher gets a kick out of spotting the little fella. They skulk around thick bushes giving the watcher fleeting glimpses but will then pop out into the open to show off. Not that they have a lot to show off. As far as Robins go they were at the back of the queue when the flashiest plumes were being handed out, but what they lack in colour they make up for with song and attitude. My trusty Roberts’ Birds of Southern Africa tells me that they have ‘…a loud and pleasant song, somewhat plaintive and penetrating of variable and repetitive phrases..’. It further describes the various songs as ‘who-ARE-you….who-ARE-you..’. and ‘a-pretty-girl….a-pretty-girl…and-is-she-rich...and-is-she-rich’. Now you might think birders are a little cuckoo when it comes to describing calls, but trust me this is what sticks in your head when you hear them. What Roberts’ neglects to mention is that some individuals may have nocturnal tendencies and are poor students when it comes to learning their species entire songbook.

White-browed Scrub Robin asking that all important question.... 'who-ARE-you'

(Copyright Derek Keats)


It was two in the morning when Sharon elbowed me in the ribs, rousing me from a deep, pleasant, and much treasured slumber.


“Grant, can you hear that bird?”


Up until the moment of rude awakening, the answer was ‘No’, but now I could hear it loud and clear. It was just as Roberts’ described it – penetrating and repetitive.


who-ARE-you” – four-second pause – “who-ARE-you” – four-second pause – “who-ARE-you”. Not five seconds, not three seconds, but a consistent, metronomic, four bloody seconds. And he didn’t stop! If the medieval Chinese had known about this bird they needn’t have gone to such extraordinary lengths of making just the right size hole in a water bucket.


“Do something about it Grant, I have to sleep!” Sharon instructed as if I had purposefully placed the bird outside our bedroom window to serenade our dreams. Closing the window wasn’t an option. Our windows were gauze screens stretched over a wooden frame cut into the clapboard walls of the prefab cottage we called home. I grumbled out of bed, grabbed the Maglite, and put on my vellies (pronounced fellies) – those popular, timelessly fashionable, leather bush shoes worn by anybody who spends even a little bit of time outdoors. Now it’s probably worth noting that in an effort to maximise my time in bed in the morning, I had taken to sleeping in the peejays that my creator had given me. It made the act of getting up and getting dressed in the morning so much more efficient if I didn’t have to get undressed first, thereby saving at least ninety seconds that could be sleep banked. So butt-naked, bar my vellies, I went traipsing amongst the bushes outside in search of the little torturer.


As soon as I got out of bed the Robin went radio silent (the little shhh…!), but I wasn’t going to be deceived by his evasion tactics, so I persevered until I found him, and find him I did. There he was, sitting as still as John Cleese’s dead parrot, in the middle of a Moselesele bush. Moselesele, or Sicklebush, is a dense, spiny fortress that is the perfect place for any bird to take refuge at night, but is especially impenetrable when you are trying to avoid a sleep-deprived, irate human being. It didn’t matter what I did; clap hands, shake the bush (ouch), throw things into the bush, shower the bush with pebbles, nothing would move that Robin out of his panic room. Giving up, I went back to bed, put an ineffectual pillow over my head, and somehow managed to claw back a few minutes of REM. Sharon on the other hand….. Her tossing, turning, elbowing, wall-banging, and profanities continued till the break of dawn. Then, just as we were getting up to start another long day, the Robin uttered his final ‘who-ARE-you’ and shut up. Do you have any idea what that does to your psychological well-being?


The October temperatures were hitting the 40’s (that’s 104 Fahrenheit for the Celsius challenged) and even under normal circumstances, people run on a shorter than usual fuse at this time of year, yet we still had a week of being nice to guests before the lodge was thankfully empty. For those seven, red-eyed days, the Robin asked us who we were every single night from two until dawn without fail. Just about every unsecured item in the cottage had been hurled into the Moselesele without any impact on the bird or its infuriating melody. Sharon’s torment was the call; my torment was the elbow in the ribs to drag me from the depths of beautiful sleep to share in her torment. The madness festering and brewing in our minds made Jack Torrance’s ordeal in The Shining seem like a Sunday picnic. Something had to snap.


That blessed day arrived. The last guests had left by lunchtime, there were no guests to wake up the next morning, and there were no guests arriving to make any preparations for. We planned to sleep in way past sunrise. The Robin had other plans though…. but then so did I.


True to form, the infernal Robin started querying our identity at two ay em. True to form, I got out of bed and waged a naked battle with him at the elbowed behest of my beloved. True to form, the level of angst in our cottage was sky-high, perhaps more than ever because our special day was going to be ruined. Amid this anguish, that voice in my bed reached into the depths of my consciousness and awakened the beast I keep under psychological lock and key. Dawn was approaching and the red I was seeing was not a beautiful African sunrise. Tossing the summer sheet aside I climbed out of bed, laced up my vellies, yanked open the gun safe, and grabbed the old single-shot 12-gauge that was mostly used to dispatch unwanted mambas and the like. Striding purposefully outside I waited for the sun to peek over the horizon, the morning breeze pleasantly cool on all my exposed bits. As I predicted, our tormentor, now confident in the brightening light of a new day, flitted happily out of his nocturnal citadel and perched on the electric fence strand that surrounded the lodge. There, beautifully silhouetted by the crimson hues of the eastern sky, he turned to look at me, as if to say, ‘who-ARE-you?’.


BAM!


I picked up his tiny limp carcass without a smidgeon of guilt or remorse – the red mist only just beginning to subside. Marching back into the cottage I secured the shotgun, slammed the gun safe closed, and threw the vanquished foe down on the dresser.


“There, problem solved, now get some damned sleep!”


That was the day I killed Cock Robin.


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