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My Africa

Six-Sentence Observations by Mike Handley

Mike Handley delved into his journals from three trips to South Africa to pluck entries that didn’t make it into the numerous magazine stories he wrote upon returning to Montgomery, Ala. A member of the 6S

( community of writers, he wrote these sixsentence tales for the entertainment of the regulars there. The paintings are his as well (

Bath Time for Bag Ladies Mma Precious Ramotswe, proprietor of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana, was on the verge of solving a most baffling case when a commotion stole my attention from the novel in my lap. Where nothing had been moments earlier stood a pair of dwarfish bag ladies, draped in taupe-colored overcoats festooned with dirty white, faux fur collars. Side by side, they waddled to the lake’s edge, drank deeply, and then slipped into the water to bathe, as if brazenly throwing legs over a public fountain to splash their undersides. Seems even carrion eaters have a sense of hygiene. Before taking their leave, which required a running start, one of the gals bent over to pluck a tick from her own butt as I scribbled madly in my journal. Hydrated, as clean as they’d likely be all week, the pair of white-backed vultures disappeared into a red South African sunset.

A Day at the Opera You’d think the four horsemen of the apocalypse had burst into the best little whorehouse in Texas, what with all the screaming, beak gnashing, feathers flying and general chaos that ensued when the giant winged creature’s shadow slid across the open ground. Moments earlier, 60 or so helmeted guineafowl and differently feathered others had been feeding, drinking, preening, and bathing in the dust. Now their playground was an empty stage, though not without an unholy chorus emanating from the thorny orchestra pit. Soon, an enormous martial eagle lit in an arthritic tree beside the water hole. The predator with the 6-foot wingspan surveyed the area like a theater critic with a clipboard, while the guineas, sandgrouse and francolin shouted catcalls. When the chastised raptor left hungry, the lesser birds raced in to take their bows.

La Cage Aux Folles I might have been a decade and the full length of the Indian Ocean away from Terence Stamp’s closet on the set of “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” but I surely gazed upon his Bernadette’s wardrobe while wandering the South African Bushveld. “Sheer spectacle” is how one reviewer lovingly characterized the acclaimed 1994 film about drag queens in the outback, and no finer description exists for the Limpopo Province’s birdlife. I’m neither bird watcher nor cross-dresser, but I’ve never blinked less than when these amazingly gorgeous creatures flitted onstage in silk, sequins and saffron. The lilac-breasted roller was up first (if I don’t include the ostrich that left me slack-jawed), and I’d have swallowed my choppers if they’d been false. Next came swallow-tailed bee-eaters -- winged pixies in emerald gowns topped with yellow-and-blue chokers -- following the Land Rover like dolphins escort ships. Later, when greater blue-eared starlings, crimson-breasted shrikes and namaqua doves came to drink, I longed for the power to stop time, as there were too many canvases on my internal easel and not enough paint.

Unforgettable Balls Like a troupe of G-men closing in on John Dillinger’s lair, faces painted black to ward off sunbeams, the whatchamacallits scampered through the long grass toward the pond slick with algae. Only when the scouts advanced did the rest of the group surge forward, bush by bush and rock by rock. Ever watchful for lions, leopards, caracals and eagles, the clan of diminutive primates took the measure of the water hole’s visitors before daring to come drink. If one member of the family spots a predator, it alerts all others to the very specific threat. They’re somehow born with this knowledge and ability, though a leopard cry at a mongoose’s approach will likely earn a juvenile a bitch slap ... just to make sure he gets it right the next time. They blend well with the bushveld, except for the males’ pendulous, robin’s-egg-blue scrotums, which beholders will remember long after they’ve forgotten the monkeys are called vervets.

Not Funny Har Har The sleeves of his houndstooth coat were empty, pinned at the shoulders because he had no arms to fill them. His disheveled, slicked-back gray hair lay in contrast to red-rimmed eyes and a jaundiced beak of a schnoz. With no rudders, so to speak, he hopped and staggered around almost clownlike, searching for whatever meal he could make, bugs included. I felt guilty for smiling, though I stifled outright laughter at the bizarre fashion ensemble: speckled coat over a black, tailed tuxedo; puffy white pantalones; and dirty patent leather shoes. Strangely silent in a world of squawkers and hawkers, he kept one eye on my hiding spot the whole time, as if he knew I was taking notes and wanted me to know he didn’t give a rip. He and his kin -- yellow-billed hornbills -- were my constant companions whenever I spent a day in the bush.

My Africa  

A career journalist plays Audubon in the land that inspired him to purchase paints, brushes and canvases.

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