A Can of Worms

When the white Corolla stopped behind his Land Cruiser on the outskirts of Harare, in Zimbabwe, bré J Steyn bought the most expensive earthworms he’d ever seen.
Issue date : 28 November 2008

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Abré J Steyn

When the white Corolla stopped behind his Land Cruiser on the outskirts of Harare, in Zimbabwe, bré J Steyn bought the most expensive earthworms he’d ever seen.
There was a movement in my rear-view mirror. The white Corolla sedan, which I had noticed twice before, stopped behind me again. Its doors swung open and its occupants jumped out. took us totally by surprise. turned the ignition and shouted to my wife to get back into our Land Cruiser.

She was too slow, however, and one of the attackers caught her, pushed her to the ground and dived through the open door on her side. When he grabbed her handbag between the seats, so did and a tug of war began. had the bag only by its shoulder strap and as leaned forward to get a better grip on the bag, two of the robbers’ gang-members came up behind me. One of them reached over the back rest of my seat and grabbed my brown leather briefcase with all our documents, while his comrade snatched the ignition keys and jerked them lock and all right out of the steering-column, stalling the engine.

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 At that moment the handbag-strap snapped and all could do was watch helplessly as the robbers ran back to their car with their loot and with screeching tyres, made their getaway. As they did, they threw the lock and keys out the window. It was of no use to me though, as all the little tumblers that work the mechanism were lost. T his had all happened after we had stopped to refuel in Harare. At the filling station noticed a white Corolla with South Africa number plates for the first time. Its occupants discussed and paid far too much attention for my liking to my car, trailer and my three-wheeled Honda motorbike.

But as it happened we were to meet again, because fuel was unfortunately not all that we wanted to stop for. t the last traffic circle on the outskirts of Harare, a young local guy held up a rusted tin and a hand-scribbled Fishin’ Wims sign. Being on our way to the Zambezi without any worms, had stopped to buy some. They were, however, not the thick black ones was used to. Instead the tin contained a few, small, pale-pinkish, anaemic looking worms which he assured me were the famous new Kariba-worms. t that point the same Corolla had seen at the filling station, stopped next to us. driver spoke in Zulu to the young worm-seller with whom was negotiating. The worm-guy told me the other man had asked if wanted to buy fishing nets, which didn’t. He then said that he got worms from a nearby nursery where he could get me any quantity, but had to take him there.

Suspecting no foul play, foolishly agreed. his was a renewed lesson that in Africa distance has no meaning. He led us through a maze of streets until we got to a large, bamboo-enclosed premises in a very quiet area. was uneasy and told him to be quick. Because the lock of the Cruiser’s rear door was jammed and couldn’t be opened from inside, my wife had to get out to open the door. he worm-guy had hardly disappeared through large wooden gates, when the by now familiar white Corolla pulled in behind us. When they jumped out immediately realised it was a trap, but it was too late. An elderly couple, the Allers, taking their dogs for a walk, witnessed the whole incident.

They rushed to our aid, but the attack was executed with such speed and precision, none of us stood a chance. more disastrous start on the first day of a three-month trip through Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Caprivi could hardly have been imagined. Not only did my wife’s handbag contain about everything that couldn’t fit into the trailer, but also almost half our money. O ur ID documents, passports and vehicle registration papers were all in my leather briefcase, as well as our driver’s licences, accommodation documents, maps and by accident also all our firearm licences, which of course should have been left at home.

 We were literally up to our ears in big problems. fter hot-wired the Cruiser and got it going again, the Allers invited us to leave our vehicles at their house, while Mr took us to the South African embassy to apply for temporary passports. lthough this happened almost 12 years ago, still feel my anger and frustration as vowed not to allow those cowardly lowlives to ruin our trip. We would continue with most of our plans on a reduced budget, excluding the R10 000 for the most expensive can of earthworms had tried to buy in my life.

The noble earthworm
After that, one would expect me to hate earthworms, but don’t. Instead find them interesting. Not only for the fact that they are super fish bait, but because there are so many things about them most people, even fishermen, don’t know. Unlike caterpillars or the wormlike larvae of many insects, they are true hermaphrodite worms that produce eggs, but also sperm used to fertilise other worms. More importantly, earthworms fertilise the earth, which would be a very infertile, sterile place without them. Earthworms are most numerous in grassland, where there is plenty of food and no soil disturbance.

The population declines drastically where the ground is cultivated, unless no pesticides and little nitrogen fertiliser is applied, but abundant compost is used. Where its tolerance of soil acidity is exceeded, vegetation residue accumulates as a mat on the surface and eventually becomes peat. n healthy grassland the population can be as high as 7,5 million or 1 800kg of earthworms per hectare.

Not only do they increase drainage and aeration and convert dead plant material into new plant food, contributing to the formation of topsoil, they also contribute to shaping the landscape. They continually churn up soil and their familiar casts left on the surface slowly bury the past. From daily collections of worm casts it has been established that depending on locality, earthworms can bring between 18t/ha and 45t/ha of soil to the surface annually. Without taking the effect of erosion into account this can be as much as 10cm of new soil on the surface per decade, eventually covering stones and everything else.

This is one reason archaeological sites and artefacts always have to be dug up and why some of the outer stones of the famous Stonehenge have already started to disappear. Only in very dry environments, with little or no earthworms, are artefacts sometimes found on the surface. It’s not easy to identify earthworms, but there may be as many as 6 000 species, divided into three groups. The endogeists live in permanent burrows as deep as 3m to 4m underground.

The familiar anageists live in shallower soil and a few epigeic species live above ground, under leaf litter on the forest-floor. Some of the deep-dwellers grow very large, like Microchaetus rappi from the Eastern Cape, growing to over 50cm, but that’s nothing compared to a giant earthworm found at Vernon Crooks Nature Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, of which very little is known and which has been measured at 2,6m and over 10mm in diameter. Only about 20 species have been well-researched worldwide. One of the most well-known and -propagated is Eisenia fetida, known under various common names, including redworms, tiger worms and red Kariba worms.

These were the buggers I bought in Harare and actually they don’t come from Kariba, but from the temperate forests of Europe. They were brought from Germany to South Africa shortly after the Second World War for research purposes by Potchefstroom University, which had intellectual rights to them until the early 1990s. Except in forests, they pose no danger of becoming established under our conditions and can be bought in most fishing tackle shops.

They are kept and bred all over the world because despite being small, they are super fishing worms. When handled they produce a yellow fluid with a pungent odour, which to a fish spells food. In the US they even breed them especially for this secretion to flavour artificial plastic worms. This is an epigeic species that in nature is rarely found in soil, preferring conditions where other worms can’t survive. It thrives in an environment of decaying organic material and, unlike indigenous species, it’s very hardy in captivity and breeds well under the right conditions. If you start with 1kg of worms, it can double in about 90 days, but most people trying to breed them don’t understand their requirements.

They don’t need deep soil, but a large surface and plenty of food, at least three times their weight a week, just enough moisture and a mild temperature of 16°C to 28°C. Fruit peels, vegetable peels and mealie meal make good food, and you could add dead leaves, compost and even manure. Cover the food with a few layers of wet newspaper. Old hessian bags are even better. The best container I ever had was an old bath, covered with corrugated iron in a shady spot in the garden, where they bred like mad. Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822 or e-mail [email protected]. |fw