The rain had begun in earnest. I was loaded up for the hike, with my bright turquoise Rab parka on, my backpack secured with a borrowed rain cover. I had on a pair of Goretex Splash pants snugged at the ankle, tight Goretex gaiters and two pairs of socks, along with a pair of waterproof Merrell lightweight hikers. Underneath, NorthFace zip off pants.
I felt impenetrable. Everything locked up tightly. I was ready for bear.
We were barely a mile up the access road to the beginning of our Mount Kenya summit. The van, supposedly a four by four, had its nearly slick wheels defeated by the viscous, red, African mud. It was time to get out. Ben Jennings, my E-Trip Africa safari leader (http://etripafrica.com/), followed his three top Tanzanian guides out the side door into the pouring rain. Caspar, Davis and Bosco shrugged on their gear and waited for Ben and me to finish buckling up.
As I tightened my waistband in preparation for departure, I heard Ben yelp.
“SHIT!!!” He shouted, slapping at his bare neck. “ANT.”
I laughed, looking for any strays that I could help remove from his rain hat. I looked into the branches near where he stood, but couldn’t see the source. I figured, single ant on a branch. He brushed the branch with his neck. No worries. End of story. Hahahahahaha. Just a stray ant avoiding the downpour. No big deal.
Suddenly my legs were on fire. I felt bites all over my ankles, up my legs, onto my thighs.
For anyone wondering about the vertical leap potential of a nearly-66 year old woman, well. I wasn’t aware that I possessed the capacity for the kind of gravity-defying vault that puts most folks squarely in NBA territory. However I went skyward multiple times, coming within inches of the best Michael Jordan has ever done in his lengthy career, but with vastly more motivation.
I then engaged in a dance routine that would have rivaled anything that Simon Cowell has ever witnessed on Britain’s Got Talent, or for that matter, America’s Got Talent. I’d definitely have earned the Golden Buzzer. In fact, I’d have outdone Jenny Darren (if you haven’t seen this, treat yourself, I watch it every time I think I’m too old to rock a crowd https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LO6OaR5PK_w).
African ants can kill in a matter of minutes, depending on what kind, and also depending on how fast you can get the hell out of the way. I had no clue which species was making its way up my person but they were determined to do harm. Apparently my leaping around did little more than annoy them further, to which they responded with gusto.
I felt them all the way up onto my back and on my neck, but couldn’t see a single one of the black bastards. I looked on my pants, boots, gaiters, not a single ant.
“OW OW OW SHIT!!” I yelled, grabbing at the invisible biters. The porters backed away, Ben had retreated. I’d been swarmed. Inside my clothing.
Holy Christ. People die this way in Africa. Even short of that, they can damage the goodies, and that’s precisely where they were headed. I may be nearly 66, but I still like my goodies intact, thankyouverymuch, as does my much younger boyfriend, and I had no intention of giving them up to the Ant Gods.
I started laughing.
Now look, you may think I’m mad, and you’d likely be right. I’ve conked my coconut enough times to know that whatever eggs are left in there are seriously scrambled, but here’s the piece: when you get gripped by fear, you panic. When people panic, they die. I’ve learned to laugh. When I laugh, my endorphins flood my brain, I am full of creative energy and I find solutions. The crazier the situation, the more I laugh, the faster I’m out of it. Works like a charm.
If you’d like some great movie examples of extreme stress broken by humor, look no further than the wonderful Inglourious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino. Brad Pitt is a masterpiece of understated humor, and despite the gore it remains one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. That’s what I mean- in part. Laughter is one of the most powerful tools against fear, and especially against panic. Top NFL quarterbacks (Elway, The Drive, Montana, “Look there’s John Candy!” ) use it to loosen up their guys for the winning last second push.
Back to my pants on fire. The Assault on the Goodies.
I had no idea where they’d come from, but now I was carpeted and they were busy making additional inroads into all my various nooks and crannies (the older you are, the more you have. They’re called wrinkles). Apparently I’d stood in their supply chain and I was either a removable-or movable-feast.
There was no choice whatsoever. I tore off my backpack and tossed it aside, where one of Ben’s guides caught it. In seconds I had my Rab off and was tearing at my Columbia shirt, where some enterprising little bastard had begun to bite my tender lady parts. In seconds I had stripped my gaiters, pants, shoes and socks, and I was in the back of the van down to my bright yellow Patagonia quick-dry undies. Really bright yellow, like a flashing neon sign yellow. The only thing that saved my unmentionables from a full frontal assault was really good elastic.
Thank you, Patagonia. No small favor. Saved by a good quality rubber, but then that’s another topic entirely.
One of Ben’s senior guides had leapt to my rescue and was helping me back into the van where we threw my clothing in all directions, trying to dislodge my attackers.
Covered in ants. I was laughing my ass off. What a way to start an eight-day hike. I hadn’t taken a single step up the mountain and already I had an emergency.
Bosco, who is forty, married and with three kids, was protecting my privacy by blocking the van door. At the same time he and I were diligently removing the offending army and throwing their carcasses back on the wet ground. Completely nude but for my bra and panties, I grabbed each garment and shook the crap out of it, sending more ants flying out the door. We stomped the ones that landed on the carpet. Ants continued to crawl into every crevice and wrinkle, biting like banshees.
We were both giggling- there wasn’t much choice. You can scream, you can yell, but either way you’d better get busy. African ants are no joke.
I found out later that yellow happens to be Bosco’s favorite color, but that’s beside the point.
I had red bites in all directions. Finally we got most of them eradicated from the obvious and not-so-obvious hiding holes, and I could sit still long enough to give both my body and my clothing a careful check. We’d had to turn all my duds inside out to get to the soldiers who were hanging on for dear life along all the seams. There were still hard-core holdouts in the folds of my shirt, just waiting for another opportunity. The light fabric of my tan safari shirt made them easy to find- not so much the black liner socks, the black insides of my boots. Bosco checked my back, the backs of my legs. (Porters later offered to do the same thing for me but I demurred, having gotten the ants under control by then).
I still have no clue how they got past the tight gaiters, the thick socks, the velcroed pants. I guess if you’re a determined, pissed-off ant, you’re going to go guerrilla.
Ants 1, Hubbel 0.
Outside, the guides and porters politely looked the other way, while Ben was studiously double-checking his gear for any unwanted stowaways. Given that we had a limited time frame before the sun went down and it was already overcast, and we had lost our partial transport, Bosco helped me gear back up — with a double check inside every sleeve and sock — in no time. I would discover a few that had settled in for the long haul a few hours later when one bit my neck and another lodged in my scalp, but for now the emergency was under control.
There are African ants whose jaws are so large that they are useful for closing wounds (the scene out of the recent Tarzan movie made good use of them after the gorilla fight). There is evidence of this (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EK65_PpEVzA). They are tough bastards. These types of African Driver Ants (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dorylus) can move in huge groups and swarm their prey, reducing them to bones in a matter of minutes. That includes humans which are immobile, such as old people, the young or those sleeping off a bender. In some cases you can stand on an anthill and ants will swarm but not bite, but when you move or brush at them in fear an instantaneous message goes throughout the entire colony to attack. They use pheromones to communicate, and it’s swift and potentially deadly.
I’ve seen ant colonies at least twelve feet high in southern Tanzania. Some build such savvy air conditioning into their structures that architects have studied them and replicated their design. As a toddler I sat down in a red ant hill and got swarmed, an experience anyone from the Deep South can attest to. The bite of a Costa Rican bullet ant is enough to make you want to slice off whatever part got bitten. The pain is at the very top of the scale, so kindly don’t sit down on one of their nests at the base of a big tree to look for monkeys. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paraponera_clavata)
Ants are pretty amazing creatures.
Unless of course they’re biting your lady parts. At that point, it’s all out war, and I intend to win.
Growing up in the Florida tropics, I’m no stranger to things that crawl, bite, attack and otherwise make life miserable. However I’ll be damned if I let a few ants ruin my summit hike. I dug around for ammo.
My left hand backpack pocket had a spray bottle of bug spray. It was supposed to be for mosquitoes. It got called to early duty, and everyone’s boots and legs got a dose. Like closing the barn door after the horse gets out, but at least I had a chance to prevent another foray.
Bosco took up position behind me, tall quiet Caspar in front. We left the offending ant hill behind us, with casualties on both sides. We laughed for an hour about it, and Ben never let me hear the end of yellow underwear. After a while the stings wore off and my body was back to normal. We squished into the deep mud, the rain pattering on our heads.
The ants did indeed change my day. As I found out several hours later, not only did they leave me with a trail of bites, in my hurry to get my clothing back on joint the team, I had put my pants back on inside-out. It’s remarkably difficult to button and zip your clothing that way. Given that they were beneath my Goretex shell, I just said the hell with it. That night in the warmth of my sleeping bag, I switched everything back right side out.
Expensive gear. Yah.
The whole episode reminded me of one of the best lines out of Jurassic Park, uttered by actor Jeff Goldblum.
“Life finds a way.”
Sure as hell does.
This was trip number five to Africa. She tends to extract a tax from those of us nuts enough to brave her, what’s left of what is wild (and not much is, trust me on this, trying flying into Nairobi someday). Most of us don’t understand what wild really is ( a line I stole from E-Trip’s Ben Jennings, because he’s right), and how to prepare for it. I prepared for it and wild still nearly got me.
However, something interesting did come out of this episode. The guides respected my humor in the face of this issue (I was the only woman on the trip) and they went out of their way to protect my safety and make sure I reached the summit, assuming it was safe. It was. And we all did. Such events have a way of bringing people together and in every way, demonstrating character in the face of, well, the less-than-fun. E-Trip’s guides do that for everyone, as I have discovered (this is my third excursion with them, and another is in the planning). However, it helps when the client has a good sense of the absurd, for it will happen.
The yellow undies became something of a motif for my trip. I’m wearing them now.
No ants. But just wait til you hear about the size of the spider in my Madagascar camp toilet.