The garage forecourt was lit by large spotlights, worthy of a football stadium. A generator hummed loudly in a far corner, local women filled buckets of water from a hand turned well and we camped opposite the well, along a wall and near to the road facing out in the event that we needed to flee in the night (a precaution which we practice routinely), but we did not feel unsafe. A thick jungle surrounded us and in the air hung smoke from countless palm oil boilers.
It was mid April and we were making our way across Guinea in West Africa. While my wife Luisa prepared a simple dinner I took photos of the million insects which spun in a frenzied hypnosis around the double spotlights two meters from and above the Land Rover. Suddenly the generator died and instantly the spotlights blackened, the only lights visible were those in our camper where Luisa and the children stood or sat. A scream broke the darkness. It was Luisa. “They are everywhere, they are climbing through the window frames, there are thousands”! The horde of insects had turned their attention to our lights in the dark night and by sheer volume were able to access a vehicle carefully constructed to not allow insects to enter.
“Turn the lights off”! I shouted.
“I can’t, they are everywhere”!
“Turn the lights off”!
Luisa and Keelan, my 19 year old son, swatted and swept and screamed and shouted and swatted and swept and screamed. From my calm vantage I could clearly see the solution and did not share a fear of being in the dark surrounded by two million wings and mandibles and thorax.
“Turn off the lights, now”!
“That won’t help”!
“Do it, now”!
Keelan reached over and killed the lights, I opened the rear door and placed a diversion solar light on the bumper of an old Toyota SUV parked behind the Defender.
“Now swat”, Luisa and Keelan, and eventually 14 year old Jessica, swatted and swept and screamed before exiting the vehicle, as did almost every insect.
As we stood in the moon lit dark, waiting for our unwanted occupants to evacuate, a large creature landed on my exposed neck. Quickly and gently with open fingers I scooped the insect off and flung it aside. It was a beautiful green Praying Mantis, 10 centimeters long. She landed gently on the concrete forecourt and looked around before flying up to land on Keelans arm. Keelan allowed the creature to clamber over him for a while before placing her on the drop down sand ladder table suspended on the side of the camper. With the red light of a head torch (insects are not attracted to red light) we finished our evening routine and went to bed, listening to the sounds of the jungle around us, the occasional insect flitting onto our faces as we fought the heat to sleep.
That morning we found the Praying Mantis clinging to the frame of the drop down table which we had folded closed before going to bed.
“We should move her Papa”, said Jessica.
“No, it’s ok, she will leave when she wants to”.
After fueling the Land Rover we left the garage and drove for eight hours on horrendous roads through sublime landscapes to reach the isolated border with Cote d’Ivoire. It was a gruelling day of mud, potholes and remote wild towns where murals of men wielding machetes standing over the bodies of their enemies decorated the lot opposite the police station and market. The rear axle of the Land Rover suffered a failure after so many years and days of hard work, but we managed to get the vehicle rolling with power to the front two wheels and with the sun setting reached the border and endured the procedures of importance which a uniform bestows with power. Twice. Parallel to the muddy corrugated track which we were forced to drive a perfect Chinese road waited to be marked with paint and transport resources for the glory of Beijing.
After a day of bouncing, shaking, splashing mud and wind we arrived before midnight at a small hotel in the town of Touba, exhausted but relieved and amazed to find that the Praying Mantis was still clinging to the side of the sand ladders.
“Tomorrow, if she is still here we will let her inside the camper”.
The next morning she was still with us, perfectly healthy. I reached out my arm and allowed her to climb up onto my shoulder before stepping into the camper with our new family member. She flew from my shoulder and settled on the gas strut which support the pop up roof. I never witnessed her fly again.
Praying Mantis are voracious predators with large appetites - they prey on grasshoppers, other insects, small birds and even snakes and to watch them hunt and eat is fascinating. As ambush predators they blend in with an environment and wait with eternal patience before striking an unsuspecting prey then feeding with glutinous efficiency. But our new “pet” was also incredibly fragile and we had to be careful not to sit on her or swat her or close the roof on her. While we drove she sat by the kids hanging from our Peruvian privacy curtain, or clung to the mattress above the children or clung to the handles suspended from the ceiling. She was not captive and when camped we would leave the windows and doors open until the sunset and we had to deploy the mosquito netting. We named her Ray (uncertain of her gender) but then changed her name to RayRay once we realised that she was indeed a she. In Greek mythology Praying Mantis are revered and believed to guide a lost traveler home, we were not lost but we were driving back to our birth country, South Africa.
RayRay was the perfect pet - fascinating to observe and self sufficient but Luisa was unsure that she was eating enough and in the evenings would have me search wherever we were to find bugs for our friend to eat.
“She is free to leave, when she is hungry she will hunt”.
“Maybe she is afraid to go outside, or maybe she can’t hunt, go catch a grasshopper”.
And so I found myself scouring trees and buildings and ant hills and bushes for bugs. Unlike the jungles of Guinea the mountainous grasslands of Cote d’Ivoire support far less insects and I found myself spending hours, Leatherman in hand, hunting. If I was lucky I would spear a grasshopper but most often I would return to the camper empty handed. What kind of man can’t even provide for an insect? We would certainly all perish in the wild.
“She is free to leave, when she is hungry she will hunt!”
To feed RayRay I would present her with the bug, held to her with the Leatherman. We discovered that she would not eat dead bugs and there had to be some kind of movement before she would strike with unnecessary exaggeration and devour her easy meal. Eventually I found my hunting niche, I would swat a fly softly, then pick it up with the Leatherman and feed her. She was insatiable and could eat twenty flies in a row, devouring the little black snacks entirely.
We had been trained by an insect.
At first we thought that RayRay would soon grow tired of us and her diet of flies, that one day she would simply fly out of the open window and never return. Camped in a Catholic mission among the hills of a chaotic town called Mann, RayRay would climb out of the camper and explore the surrounding areas, sometimes lying in the shade of the pop up roof, sometimes taking a walk in the long grass, sometimes hanging out in a pomegranate tree, but always returning to the camper in the evening and sleeping in her chosen nesting spot, above my bed, on the roof handle.
RayRay stayed with us for almost a month, travelling through Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Benin and Togo. She became part of the family and seemed to enjoy our company.
But nature has her own way. In Ghana another Praying Mantis joined us - a large male. Somehow he entered the camper without us noticing and as we slept a mating ritual took place, Luisa heard fluttering and a commotion in the dark night and we awoke to find RayRay missing a leg. At the Ghana border we made the decision to remove the male from the camper, to protect RayRay. The male attacked me as I removed him gently, scurrying up my forearm and biting down into my skin, a bite which was not very painful at all, but his intention was obvious. He refused to leave and kept returning to the camper until I forced him into a tree and drove off without him. His name was Jean Pierre and if you ever drive across the Ghana border into Togo you might find him in the tree near customs, cursing me.
In Benin RayRay became weak and would not eat even the juiciest flies or grasshopper and we awoke one hot morning to find her spinning a cocoon on the roof handle. She had chosen our home to have her babies and it seems that she had made a conscious decision. We had done our research and knew that once she had laid her eggs she would die. Weakly she ate her last fat, juicy grasshopper meal and lay down on a paper towel. In the morning she was lifeless.
RayRays eggs stayed with us for two weeks until we reached the border with Nigeria, we had hoped that the 400 babies would hatch and we would be able to keep one of her offspring with us. But a camper is no place for a swarm of Praying Mantis and we decided to un-stick the cocoon from the roof handle above the kitchen sink and to relocate it to a tree near a swimming pool, in the shade and away from potential predators where they could hatch and nature could take it’s course.
I never knew that it was possible to love a bug.
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