©Larry Winger, 2021
It started with the mongoose. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. Thanks Rudyard, for nothing. If you can keep your head while others round you? Yeah, right, but the thing with Hetty was that, though she was calm-headed most of the time, she would lose her head while others round her didn’t.
Now fair enough, formative years in sub-equatorial Africa aren’t anything to be scoffed at, and if you start out with a friendly mongoose, it’s all going to be an anti-climax thereafter. Hetty’s mongoose was carried into the house by William, the Boxer-Ridgeback cross, after he’d frightened the baby’s mother away. That dog, Hetty remembers, had such a soft mouth.
It always seemed to Hetty that fortune smiled on her and her sister that day, because their cat, Princess, had just produced a litter of kittens, and there was a spare teat. The girls’ mother placed Rikki-Tikki-Tavi gently in with the nursing kittens, and that was that.
With what glee the little girls, all of seven and five, watched as the baby mongoose thrived. True to its namesake, it was a friendly little thing. Two nascent maternal instincts competed for its affections.
Nearly a year later, so the story goes, little Rikki was almost fully grown. The girls’ father insisted it must be returned to the wild from whence it had come. In fact, Rikki had started to get a bit wild, too much to handle, and the girls were stoical in their restraint as they walked away from the house with their foundling. Rikki obeyed its instincts and vanished into the bush. Bye-bye Rikki. The memory remained.
Turn the clock ahead sixty years, and Hetty’s a grandmother, happily retired and enjoying twirling around the Scottish countryside, the Highlands and Islands on prolonged touring holidays, and she’s besotted with the idea of watching otters gamboling in the surf. Any story of wild creatures that she could bring to her grandsons would be a delight, a treasure, a love offering. Ever noticed the resemblance between otters and mongooses? Okay, for the pedants among us, and especially for the Scrabble enthusiast that Hetty is, more than one Rikki-Tikki-Tavi could also be ‘mongeese.’
I’ve given up playing Scrabble with Hetty. She always wins and so it’s not much fun, really, playing the game in earnest while realising that losing is inevitable. So she satisfies her word play compulsion by taking on the computer challenge and usually vanquishing the machine. She doesn’t think, really, that she’s an obsessive, but you should see her on the knitting front! Well.
But I’m distracted. We were talking about Hetty’s otter quest. We enjoy our capacity to travel around in our ancient motorhome, and especially from our smallholding in Northumberland, Border Reiver country, we make regular forays north. I hadn’t clocked it until I began to think about it, but these journeys have tended to be to places where otters are regularly spotted. Campsite mentions otters? It goes on the destination list.
We’d made it to Gruinard Bay, far up on the north coast of the mainland, but west of John O’Groats, nearly at the point where the land bends back southwards. The campsite manager greeted us with genuine warmth, which perhaps wasn’t too surprising considering we were the only visitors that day, at the back end of October.
‘You have to be sure to look out for the otters, mind,’ he smiled, ‘They love to play around that spit of rock out there we call the crocodile.’
‘Really!’ Hetty was entranced. ‘And what time’s the best to watch for them?’
‘It depends on the tide, really, but lately it’s about 8:00 in the mornings.’
Well, that seemed civilised, and we parked up with a clear view of the crocodile. We decided that if we got up as normal, had our coffee, and dropped the blind, we could scan the beach with our binoculars.
Sure enough, by the time I emerged, Hetty had already watched the otters at play.
‘I haven’t seen them for a while, but they were scampering all over the rocks!’
I got a bit bored trying to see anything other than wet, glistening black rocks, after half an hour of peering through the lenses, and our stomachs were growling, so we decided to have a delicious breakfast. Perhaps we might catch them again next morning.
Now Hetty insists that I saw them at some point during our brief stay, but for the life of me I can’t remember it.
The next otter destination was on the Isle of Arran. We pitched up right beside the row of palm trees, would you believe, at Seal Cove campsite. Thank you Gulf Stream! The campsite manageress said that the otters often played on the rocky beach, but they were early risers, and they didn’t like dogs. So she suggested, if we could get out with our camera and telephoto lens before the dog walkers emerged, we’d have a good chance of capturing a photo.
I wasn’t best pleased at the idea of waking at 5:00am to try to capture a fuzzy shot of an otter laughing at me, but we were out on the beach, behind a rock wall, at the break of dawn. Too late! A dog walker called his bloody dog back from the water’s edge.
We got lots of nice photos of basking seals, the afternoon we walked along the path to their special hangout, but no otters on any subsequent foray. I think I began to get just a bit disgruntled by the fourth early morning rise to no avail. Hetty was probably disappointed, but she’s a stoical soul, and I’d shown lots of willing, in my earnest attempts to keep her happy. We drove home in cheerful mood, our restful holiday at the end of the season setting us up for a cold Northumbrian winter.
Our long rural track takes a lot of regular maintenance. It’s something I try to ignore, and I managed to do just that during the whole lockdown year, since visitors were few and deliveries were expedited to the post box at the bottom. But when this year rolled around, and auguries for normality seemed auspicious, we decided to proceed with our offerings of Hetty’s breadmaking courses again. Talk about compulsions, man!
We’ve got sourdough cultures that are dozens of years old — carefully maintained with Hetty’s weekly attention. I roll my eyes when the routine is trotted out yet again, but I love her compulsions, really.
Sorry, I’ve lost track of where I was — oh yes, the track. Well, with the breadmaking courses scheduled, we’d have to attend to the serious erosion challenges on the track, if we wanted to get the participants up to the bakery in safe fettle. And that meant concrete, lots of it, and labour like the chain gangs. A big digger, and a cement mixer, and lots of deliveries of gravel and sand. Logistics are kinda my thing, and so everything was scheduled in neat order.
By the time we got to the final concrete effort, filling in the last pothole, we were that tired, I can hardly tell you. But I’d been looking at the little bridge that goes across the small burn, at the bottom of the track, and realising that the missing stock gate was a kind of annoying glitch in my subconscious. A flood had torn it off its mooring, years and years ago, and now it lay semi-buried in the mud beneath the bridge.
I prevailed on our helper to assist me in recovering the gate. Bemused, he agreed, but I’d have to be the one to get my feet wet in the burn. We pulled and pulled, and eventually with the right leverage we got the stock gate back into position across the burn, suspended from up near the roadway across the gap. Our helper happened to mention the footprints in the mud bank.
‘Them’s otters, you know.’
‘Wha — what?!’
‘Yeah, I’ve seen ‘em several times, when I get back from the night shift in the early morning.’
Hetty had an immediate plan, when I told her the story. ‘If you set up your field monitor camera, the one I got specially for your birthday, you might capture a photo, mightn’t you!’
‘Yeah, sure, but it’s behind my new sound studio and I’ll have to rummage around and . . . ‘
Several days later, I relented and did the rummaging. Of course the camera was within easy reach — I’d just been a bit lazy is all. The batteries were okay still; our early monitoring attempts in the garden had revealed a few rabbits and more than a few rats, pheasants, even an inquisitive pea cock, but nothing extraordinary. I’d kind of abandoned the quest for exciting creatures.
But the newly re-installed stock gate was positioned in such an engaging spot, right behind the mud bank that was littered with footprints, that I couldn’t resist the challenge.
‘We’ll put it up for a week, right, and leave it alone, no disturbing it or anything, and then we’ll see what we can see.’
I clambered down to the stock gate, and proceeded to finesse the mounting of the field camera with all its canvas straps. Bending over like that, head nearly in the water, I felt rather old, but then again, I am. It took a lot of effort to get back upright again, but eventually I got myself safely to Hetty’s side, and we resumed our gentle perambulation along the long track.
The days dragged along, and I let it be a week of 8 days before I decided to harvest the disk and see what we might have captured.
As we clicked through the images, a few birds came into the flowing stream, and once our helper and his dog stood on the other side of the bridge and checked out the camera. A rat trundled back and forth on the shore.
In one image, a larger something suddenly appeared just into the water, and in another, a creature about five times the size of a rat flashed into view. I had a devil of a time getting the images onto the computer so we could see them in a window bigger than one inch square.
‘There! Look at that!’
It was an otter, sure enough, fossicking about with something in the water just at the camera’s perfect focal point.
Hetty wants me to put the camera back down again, try for some more images. But it’s raining today and it’s a bit mizzy really. Maybe when the sun is shining, I can try. For now, the images distributed to family near and far, to the great delight of our grandson who’s besotted with wild animals, it’s enough.
And anyway, Hetty is really very happy.