August 1998     Mbweni, Tanzania

My NYC girlfriend Pia and I had just abandoned a failed expedition through Zambia and Tanzania, and set off backpacking on our own for a couple more months.  After a great safari through Ngorongoro crater, and a Kilimanjaro summit that got pretty dangerous, we made our way to the coast to indulge in a  few weeks of things we could not find inland, such as fresh fish, fruit, beach time, a break from the tsetse flies.

During the previous three months of camping out in the bush, we had run-ins and paw-prints outside the tent from the usual suspects:  hyenas, lions, hippos, a cobra, parasites, scorpions and thieves, but the one that commanded the most attention was the army ants, known in Swahili as “siafu.”  Pia reacted with cartoonish fear to any African ants, but this kind in particular are not to be trifled with.  Ah, but I rolled the dice.

Siafu are homeless.  They camp in a massive red ball of themselves, a seething mass of millions, arrayed with the queen inside and all jaws facing outward.  They send forth columns of small workers and huge guards, marching towards whatever insect or animal that is too old, weak, slow or dead to get out of the way.  The overpowered prey is quickly cut into manageable bits and carried back to the mothership.  This goes on for days, until they have scoured all points of the compass within their range of travel.  Then they break camp and move out, in a column maybe four inches wide and over a mile long.  I have sat mesmerized  for hours, watching workers carry dead insects, dismembered prey, their own larvae and even the queen herself, guarded by sickle-jawed warriors who leave bite marks on boot leather.

Anything that senses them coming makes a break for it, including snakes, rodents and ground birds.  Woe to any poor fool that dives into a burrow to escape:  the Apocalypse is upon them.  Common local knowledge says that any livestock tied within a stable is at risk and they are said to strip a live horse down to a smooth skeleton within 24 hours.  Fortunately they move mostly by day, which makes sleeping a little easier.  When siafu are on the move towards a village, the locals protect their mud huts by laying down a line of blazing kerosene.  Nothing else stops them.

We camped over a clean and vacant white-sand beach north of Dar-Es-Salaam, snorkeling and dhow sailing.   I regained weight lost while down with giardiasis and we considered a side-trip to Zanzibar.  Instead, Al Qaeda blew up the two nearest US embassies, so we laid low and stayed out of town.  One night Pia had already retired and I stayed up late reading under a lantern hanging from a mango tree.  There was an electric light up on the corner of a shed nearby, surrounded by moths, bats and geckoes.  I went over and captured a few insects to feed to the lizards and a toad, and then started hand-feeding the bats as they flew past.  That was amazing – I had never thought it possible, but maybe it would have been smarter to wear gloves.  Duh.

I looked down to my toad and saw that he was battling army ants and losing, which was my cue to back the hell up.  Yes, indeed, here they were on the move, night-time even.  I guess it is hot enough for that down by the coast.  Any other ants and I would have done a toad-rescue, but I had more on my mind because the column was moving in the direction of our lone tent, all by itself about 50 yards away.  All by itself is right – even Thumbs the dog who had adopted us was nowhere in sight.  Goddamn orphan dog had run for the hills without warning me.

Well now what?  I could not leave my Shorty in there. Well yes I could, but what if she woke up?  What if they got in???  I could go and get her out now, but then we would have to go move into the pricey hotel nearby for the rest of the trip.  I really did not think these ants could cut nylon, so I bet on that ticket, sneaked inside, played dumb and waited it out.  I kept my boots on and the bayonet in my hand in the remote case that the ants cut through the mesh door and started getting in.  Then I could just slit the back wall of the tent wide open, scoop up my lovely nude smooth brown specimen and run for it.

I laid still inside the tiny white translucent backpacker tent, listening to the hiss of the approaching column for awhile.  It sounded relaxing, like sea-foam on the beach, but I was sweating diesel fuel.  I felt like I had pasted on a beard and was trying to tiptoe past Osama and his barbarians. This could get bad really quickly.

Suddenly, dozens and then hundreds were upon the tent, quickly prowling the seams and zippers and everywhere in between, silhouetted black by the moonlight against the thin white fabric and the mesh screens.   They sensed warm bodies just inches away. Imagine for a moment if Pia had woken up to that sight.  I sensed a need to not wake her up, and a failure of responsibility.   After a few minutes of probing for weak spots and failing to cut in, they all somehow communicated, moved off and that was it, though I heard the millions flow past for a long time after.  How do they communicate and mark a target as already searched, not repeating their labor?  This was a fine example of why an ant colony is classified as a macro-organism.  I never did tell her about this incident.

I watched best of Discovery channel recently, a whole hour dedicated to army ants.  They even filmed an ant column as it chanced upon a freshwater crab:  it was a guerrilla war against a vast armored enemy, like kids with pliers attacking a tank.   They swarmed and probed it, then started cutting through the joints, and sent the smallest ants in to strip this live crab from the inside out, passing out meat through the holes they cut. Watching that creeped me out, considering the similarities.  I could not stop watching, and my trigger-finger was itching for a flame-thrower, flashing back to childhood and country afternoons with a magnifying glass, wreaking havoc upon harmless household ants.

Photo taken from “Them”, a 1954 classic big-bug movie.


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