Johannesburg newcomers often ask me about Parktown Prawns, Joburg’s most legendary insect. What do Parktown Prawns look like, people want to know. How big are they? Do Parktown Prawns really exist?
The answer to the last question is a definitive yes. You can read all about Parktown Prawns on Wikipedia. Definitely check it out because it’s a particularly entertaining Wiki entry. My favorite line is: “Accordingly they [Parktown Prawns] frighten nervous persons and they may chew carpets and fabrics.”
I’ve been wanting to write a Prawn post for years. Even though they are not actually indigenous to this area, Parktown Prawns have become a part of Joburg’s culture and folklore. Part cricket-on-steroids, part giant cockroach, park prehistoric monster, Parktown Prawns — much like this massive city that they have adapted to so well — are one-of-a-kind.
The problem is, I don’t like to write blog posts without pictures and I don’t like to download pictures from the internet. But there is no way in HELL that I will ever get close enough to a Parktown Prawn to properly photograph it. And even if I were brave enough to try, Parktown Prawns normally show up in my house at night, when good photography is impossible.
This morning though, I walked into my spare bedroom and found myself face to face with a large Prawn. As per usual, I screamed like a little girl and ran from the room.
Then I reconsidered. I fetched my phone and crept back into the room. I got within four feet of the Prawn. He moved one of his long tentacles, slightly. That hint of a movement was enough to send me screaming away again.
I went outside and found Lucky, who came in to remove the Prawn. I told Lucky how I’d tried and failed to photograph it.
“Do you want me to take a picture for you?” Lucky asked. My heart leapt. “Yes, please!” I gave Lucky the phone. He grabbed a plastic bag from the cupboard and went in.
Lucky returned a few minutes later, Prawn wrapped safely in the bag. And he brought me this.
Not bad for Lucky’s first iPhone photo. I know it’s not exactly my shot, but it was taken on my phone and I edited it. (Photo: Lucky Mashudu)
Unfortunately we didn’t think to put anything next to the Prawn for scale. But Wiki says Prawns grow to 7-8 centimeters (2.8 inches), which is approximately the length of a man’s thumb. I’d say that’s about right.
Parktown Prawns divide the people of Joburg into two distinct groups: 1) Prawn-lovers, who are fond of Parktown Prawns and praise their talent for controlling the population of snails in the garden; and 2) Prawn-haters, who fear and loathe Partown Prawns more than any other animal on earth. I obviously fall into the second group.
I’ll never forget the first time I encountered a Parktown Prawn. It was a rainy night and I was sitting on the sofa. I turned slightly to my left and saw a Prawn standing in the middle of the living room floor. I jumped up, shrieked, ran past the Prawn and into the kitchen, and leapt onto the counter. I sat up there, shaking with terror, for about 30 minutes. I texted Lucky, who wasn’t home. “Throw a towel over it,” he responded. “I’ll take it out when I come home.”
It took me another 10 minutes to venture down from the counter and sprint to the bathroom, slam the door shut behind me, and shove a towel under the door. I brushed my teeth. Then I grabbed the towel, slowly opened the bathroom door, and tiptoed out, towel held in front of me like a matador. My heart pounded.
The Prawn was gone.
I raced to the bedroom, slammed the door, pushed the towel under it, and quickly scanned the room for the Prawn. The room seemed clear. But just in case, I grabbed my wooden club and held it aloft, standing in the middle of the room for several minutes. When I finally felt confident the Prawn was not in the room with me, I settled in for a fitful night’s sleep. I never saw that Prawn again.
The purpose of this story is to convey just how petrifying a Parktown Prawn can be, even to a person like me who is relatively “brave”.
So there you have it. Parktown Prawns in a nutshell. Or rather, Parktown Prawns in an exoskeleton.
If you’re planning to move to Joburg and are worried about Prawns, I don’t have much good advice for you. But here are a few things to keep in mind:
1) Prawns are more prevalent in some areas than others. Melville is crawling with them, but I know someone who has lived in neighboring Westdene for ten years and never seen one. Ask around.
2) Prawns tend to come out during the rain. During heavy rainstorms, I sometimes shove towels under all the doors to block the Prawns’ potential entry points.
3) Don’t ever try to squash a Prawn. As explained on Wikipedia: “the insects can jump actively and often eject offensive black fecal liquids when threatened”.
If a Prawn gets into your house, you must either find a Prawn-lover who knows how to safely remove it, or run screaming from the room and just hope it’s gone when you come back. (I use the latter option.)
Did I mention that Prawns have obscenely long tentacles? (Photo: Lucky Mashudu)
This post is dedicated to Martina in Jozi. Martina, you will always be the queen of the Parktown Prawn blog. I miss you.