We first met Betty and Bulldozer in a Kampala garden with my husband’s boss and her family for lunch…Holly and Robin had three children – two boys and a baby girl. We had 2 boys at that stage – both still in diapers. The other thing I remember well about that lunch was Holly taking me aside and showing me her collection of “How to make Sure your Next Baby is a Girl” books – with vivid picture of positions and other manoevers – I was rather impressed with her openness and I think I blushed….anyway it turned out that the sex and reproduction theme was to be one that accompanied Betty and Bulldozer when a few months later Holly and her family left Uganda for a new post and we happily adopted the two giant tortoises and they moved in to our garden.
Betty the smaller of the two was about the size of a couple of soccer balls if you imagine a tortoise taking up about the same amount of space. Bulldozer was perhaps not as tall but slightly longer than Betty. Giant tortoises can live for over a hundred years. There were still two that had been given to the Kabaka (King of Buganda) sometime in the nineteenth century, living in the king’s compound on the outskirts of Kampala – these at this advanced age were taller than my 4 year old. We were told that Betty was the girl and Bulldozer the boy. It didn’t take long to discover otherwise…
It is hot and humid in Uganda . We lived in an old colonial house on land grabbed by the colonizers – or in the case of Uganda – “protectors” (Uganda was never a Colony but a Protectorate) on top of a hill so we had a beautiful view of the sun setting over lake Victoria and best of all a constant fresh breeze. We left the windows open all day and night. The children never needed to wear any clothes or nappies and would run in and out of the house all day.
I was sitting at my desk. The boys’ voices in the distance as they chattered away in the sand pit reassured me I could quickly grab a minute to myself – but the peace and quiet was interrupted by a wheezing and gasping sound …it sounded as though someone was being rhythmically strangled – I looked out of the window but because of the bars I couldn’t see much. I went outside to investigate and it was then I discovered the Betty was the boy and was making all the wheezing noises, up on his hind legs, his shell propped against Buldozer, staggering along on his hind tip toes behind her as she grazed her way across the lawn – not showing any emotion in reaction to Betty’s noisy displays of passion….his scrawny, scaly neck fully extended his mouth wide open his eyes popping…wheeze, grunt wheeze wheeze.grunt….
We had Betty and Bulldozer for about 7 years. I went on to have two more children – both boys, probably because I couldn’t remember exactly what manoevers Holly had explained I should do at the moment of conception. We moved house twice more and of course the tortoises moved with us. It was only after we moved that I spotted Bulldozer laying eggs – it was so exciting as for all those years we had no sign that Betty’s lovemaking was in the least bit productive – just very noisy.
Bulldozer had dug a shallow hole in among the ginger plants and arum lilies and out of her back side popped little soft round eggs – a bit bigger than ping-pong balls with a faintly leathery skin. They never hatched – or if they did we never saw any babies. Later I saw she had given up digging holes. She would meander round the garden dropping her eggs as she ate the grass –- showing the same amount of concern (i.e. none) as during Betty’s energetic love making…
Until one day we found one of her eggs that had been left in a saucer on a sunny windowsill was hatching! Tortoise babies are not like hens’ or humans’ – born looking completely different from their adult form. Tortoises and crocodiles and other reptiles are born as perfectly formed tiny little versions of adults. Our baby tortoise was a fascinating living dolls-house version of his parents. By this time we had worked out that females tortoises have a flat bottom to their shell whereas the male ones have a sort of scooped out trough on the bottom so that they can get up close and mould themselves around the females’ shell in order to get access to all the right bits.
We made our perfect baby tortoise his own perfect baby tortoise hutch on the grass – just a wooden frame with chicken wire over it so that he couldn’t get played with and killed by the dogs or carried off by one of the hawks that circled over head…we loved his bright little green-flecked -with -gold eyes with their folds of fresh, shiny, scaly skin for eye-lids, his tiny little pointy claws and polished brown shell and his movements which were not baby steps but miniature adult steps.
It was the rainy season. One day after a particularly heavy fall I arrived home to find the garden swarming with soldier ants. Actually they don’t really swarm unless you pour the local insect repellant (called Doom) all over them. Then they freak out and run mad. They walk deliberately in a column about 4 inches wide and eat everything in their path – even human babies. I went to look at our baby. The ants had passed through the chicken wire – all that was left of him was the shell – everything else eaten.
Shortly afterwards we left Uganda and we gave the tortoises to another family . We told them all we knew about the failed reproduction and the one egg that had hatched – possibly because it was left on a sunny window sill. Their youngest daughter, who was about 10 at the time, had the genius idea to run around after Bulldozer, collect her eggs put them in an incubator – and within months she was breeding tens of baby tortoises. They have since been returning them to the wild. No doubt many come to a rough end – nature in Uganda is no controlled and ordered petting zoo, but a threatening, dark- green morass, seething with life – you can almost hear the trees growing. But thanks to Izzy, Betty’s ardent gasping was not in vain and no doubt in the forest along with the rustling of the foliage are the noises of the passion of tortoises.