This blog is especially for all the people, like me (prior to Mar Azul), who could never understand the internet’s obsession with cats. I’ve bundled up all the kitten stories and cyoot pics together so they can scoot right over this one.
Before we set off Africa Clockwise, the Sampson family lived happily in Cape Town with two rescue dogs, Pollyanna and Spud, who scampered about on a walk with me across Noordhoek beach every morning and with the kids on the common at weekends. We thought long and hard about bringing them with us but decided that, although calm Polly would cope fine, Spud was just too excitable to live without such guaranteed exercise, and it would be too cruel to split them up. It was very sad for us to have to leave them behind, but wonderful for them as they are now living in our old house with the darling Eckley family, being loved by Bjorn and Tariq and eating far better than they ever did with us.
On the second day the kittens were with us, gamboling around inside the truck parked on the baking pavement outside the SA Embassy in Guinea-Bissau, Ruby was doing the washing up and all at once caught her breath, then sighed happily: “That’s what was missing – it was animals. Now I feel at home.”
A Day in the Life of Tiger and Cleo
Our day now begins with the scrabbling of claws against the catproofing® sometime around 7am. Sampson makes milk from powder and puts it down before releasing the kittens, so they can get their noses straight in it – if he doesn’t, Tiger starts caterwauling with a level of indignation more akin to an outrageous wrongdoing.
After breakfast, it’s exercise time in the corridor i.e. the 4m long space we have between the cab and the toilet. Jousting is the cats’ favourite pastime. They begin by standing at either end on tip toes with arched backs and freeze, checking each other out for half a minute. At a silent signal they fling themselves towards each other, claws out, skittering kittens under our feet as we’re trying to get washed and dressed.
Standing on their hind legs with paws up and claws splayed, they sometimes look like they’re kung-fu fighting – those cats ARE fast as lightening. It can be a little bit frightening…
(Sadly, there are no action pics. Too blurred.)
Their second favourite game is wrestling. While Tiger is undoubtedly stronger, Cleo is quicker and often uses her superior speed to outwit him and get on top. Yay for girl power.
School time signals pre-nap cuddling. Tiger has an unerring instinct for going straight to the page of Maths we’re discussing and sitting on it.
Their morning doze requires them to circle the truck to check where the sun is today – then they park off, flat out in the corridor or curled up in the cab. If they wake upstairs, they might have a quick game of chase-me-round-the-curtains.
They’re quite used to the roar of the engine by now, though Tiger will still run to Ruby for reassurance. If we’re driving, Cleo likes to use me as an escalator: she comes up onto my lap, over the cushions onto my shoulder and then steps off my head into the net above the passenger seat. She snuggles down there, taking comfort in the swinging as we rattle along. Sometimes I forget she’s there and she scares me when she decides to hop back down.
If we pass a market, they may be lucky enough to get fresh fish. Then all sibling fondness is off the agenda as Tiger, with a stiff tail and hair standing up on his back, lives up to his name and snarls at his sister if she dares to come near his portion. They both love fish, but he wolfs it down, practically choking in his enthusiasm to get the lion’s share. He reminds me of Ruby at birthday parties when she was 3 or 4, standing at the cake table and eating until she was sick. I had to stop taking her in the end.
It is quite disconcerting how often the attributes of the kittens mirror those of the kids.
We regularly feed Cleo an extra portion to stop her brother hogging the nourishment. Now he’s only 20% bigger than her, as opposed to the 50% he was threatening to be. One day Ruby impressed me by displaying an unprecedented enthusiasm for sewing, making three kitten toys including this fetching mouse from cotton wool and old pyjamas.
When we eat lunch, cats must be off the table, but are usually under it, playing with string, a plastic bag or a leaf. Cleo is incredibly quick and nimble. Tiger is quite dof, and often ends up watching like he’s stoned. He’s very clumsy, the only cat I’ve ever seen who falls off things. He’s had some hilarious tumbles, one particularly spectacular one off the indoor ladder, backwards, that had Sampson choking on his cornflakes.
Tiger loves cucumber. He treats it as if it were fresh fish, guarding every morsel jealously. Cleo is as bemused by this as we are. The other day I caught him on the table with his jaws in half a cucumber, trying to pull it out of a bowl and battering it into submission with his paws. Is he even a cat?
We haven’t stopped laughing since they arrived.
My brother will be delighted to know that the advent of cats has allowed me to tap into my inner Johnny Morris: as kids we used to love his voiceovers for anthropomorphic antics on Animal Magic. I’m quite proud my improvising can have Zola crying in silent hysterics.
Heartfelt thanks to our cat mentor Sean Pike for teaching us the usefulness of a water spray to preserve curtains – or mossie screens in our case. Also to threaten incessant mewlers!
Afternoon naps are the best, when they curl up on my bed or in the washing bowl. Tiger might come for a cuddle, pushing his head under your hand to be stroked. Cleo plays much more hard to get but is far more rewarding when she choses to grace you with her presence. She is the softest being alive.
It has been a revelation to me how fastidious cats are, and how tiny kittens instinctively use a litter tray (or in our case, the bottom of an oil container full of sand) and kick over the traces. Still, cat poo is the worst. In the confined space of the truck, in a hot place with no breeze, it could be considered torture. I don’t know how the kids cope overnight crammed in the nosecone with the upstairs tray at their feet…
Tiger and Cleo are usually given their supper before ours so they can have a play and get the energy out of their systems before we settle down for the evening. Someone might swing a knotted string for them to have a good sprint round. If we’re watching something on the ‘laptop cinema’ (Sampson’s Mac Book suspended from the clothes cupboard on bungee cords) they will usually come to join in the snuggling. You may be fooled into thinking they’re very fond of you especially – Cleo has a divine way of poking her nose into yours like she wants to kiss you – but this myth is quickly dispelled when she suddenly runs up and over your face in response to a call to play from Tigger.
It is amazing how they pick up on our tension. During the last but one episode of Broadchurch, the kittens suddenly started racing up and down from one end of the truck to the other, leaping over an obstacle course of beds, from nose cone to book box to mattress to headboard onto Sampson’s stomach and back again. We all felt like cats on a hot tin roof at that point.
Finally it’s time for bed, and all the bairns clamber up into the nosecone. Cleo likes to spend at least part of the night on Ruby’s head, though they alternate sleeping on each of the children. They always have one wrestling bout in the middle of the night, which may or may not involved hanging off the nets, and usually end up fast asleep in her clothes cupboard.
One morning, Sampson and I were lying in bed having a cuddle in the peace before the kids woke up, watching the kittens tumble at our feet. He was repeatedly dragging his big toe along the wood and they were staring at it in fascination as it kept coming back to get them. “Cats really are peanut-brained” he said “They would sit here and watch my toe for hours”. We chatted a while, as Tiger and Cleo scampered about, then stopped and lay in silence once more, marveling at their antics. “You do realise” I said “that we are the peanut brains: cats are God’s Big Toe.”
Parental lie-ins became a problem in week four of our new cat-life when Tiger started getting up earlier and earlier to demand food. After a couple of pre-dawn landings on his head, haggard Sampson started experimenting with cat proofing the nosecone to keep the kittens locked in with the kids. Wedged-in curtains didn’t work… but believe it or not he then discovered the spare seat cushion left over from his bed fit like it was designed for the space!
This new catproof ‘wall’ has the added bonus of providing a bit more privacy that we’re used to… It’s a sad indictment that Sampson’s first thought on realising this was: “Hooray, I can sneak an extra pack of Biskrem without the kids noticing!” Sigh.
Tiger and Cleo are not quite old enough to want to venture outside the truck, and we’re not sure what will happen when they do. Tiger the tom is definitely a more intrepid explorer than his sister, but so far, the constantly changing scenery of Outside The Door has been confusing enough to dissuade him from crossing the threshold.
Things I Have Learned From Cats
- I am a cat person. Who knew?
- Humans are not top of the food chain.
- There is always time to stroke a kitten or cuddle a cat.
This final point goes for children as well as cats, but all too often we forget to indulge in that impulse. During the Ebola pandemic, when we were forced to return home and the kids were back at school, I found I missed them physically during the day. I resented the fact that their teachers and peers got the best of their energy, and that they only got back to me hungry and tired with a pile of homework. There was so little time to play or just lounge about cuddling. The cats have reminded us all to revel in the freedom of Being not Doing, while we can.
Now, to the tune of Hanna Barbera’s classic cartoon Top Cat:
Truck Cats, the most delectable
Truck Cats, whose intellectual
Close friends get to call’em TCeees
Providing they’re giving a feeeeeed
The indisputable leaders of the gang
She’s the boss, he’s a wimp
They’re the jousting kings
They’re the most tip top