Monthly Archives: July 2012

South African Adventure #58 – A Loo With A View

It isn’t every day that your toilet looks out on, and is open to, a game reserve.  No door, walls made of thin sticks clumped together – a lovely white porcelain throne overlooking the tranquil wilds of Africa.  Perfect for when you’re alone on the bowl and pondering life; not so perfect when there are other people around who can hear every little splash.  It’s humbling on multiple fronts, and the concept of ‘getting back to nature’ takes on new meaning. When nothing but some skinny strands of metal separate you, in your (quite literally) vulnerable position, from multiple possible death-inducing scenarios, and there is nothing to shield others from the less savory of your bodily functions, ego gets flushed down the pipes with the rest of the toilet’s contents.

The toilet I speak of (and there IS only a single toilet) sits quite literally at the edge of the fenced-in area in our campsite, about three feet (or around a meter for our metrically-obsessed) from a wire fence that doesn’t look like it could keep out a chicken, let alone lion and elephant.  I’m not even sure if it’s electrified, and am not volunteering to test it out regardless.  If the opportunity arises, I’ll just have to leave it to fate and put my survival skills to the test.  Would be kind of interesting to see how well, or not so well, I fared without a gun or other man-made defense accoutrement against true apex predators, but again, not going to make the effort unless I have no other choice.  Again, not volunteering.

I learned what I was made of on a recent sleep-out in Tembe Elephant Park, where I parked my vanity on the back of the Land Cruiser and embraced the rustic little village of pre-fab houses that made up our camp. Solid walls? Check. Bed? Check. Sheets? Nope. Curtains? Nope. Privacy? Zilch. I was glad I brought plenty of layers of clothing.  They might at the very least deter some of the vast array of insects inside the house from snuggling up in my armpits or in other areas I’d prefer not to think about.

While the accommodations were spartan, the campsite itself was full of life, courtesy of seven very happy people celebrating being able to let loose for an evening in a place where letting loose often means the possibility of losing limbs.  Letting loose here doesn’t happen often, and when it does, you cherish it.  You do what any self-respecting South African does.  You buy a whole bunch of meat and throw it on a grid set over a mass of burning coals, crack a beer or a cider, and braai.

Braaing is the SA equivalent to bbq-ing.  Sometimes lion, leopard and hyena come to the party, though, giving it a uniquely African element you simply cannot recreate anywhere else.  A pit is dug, filled with the appropriate type of wood – appropriate because the wrong wood being burned could land you in the hospital here because of the toxins it releases – and a small fire is lit.  Over a few hours, you sit around this ember-inducing circle, drinking, sharing stories, and waiting for the coals to heat up enough for the big event.

Once enough suitable coals are available, any remaining wood is pushed out of the way and a large metal grid goes over the coals, followed by multiple types of meat – steak, boerewoers (literally translates from Afrikaans to ‘farmer sausage’), burgers, whatever your fancy.  Meat comes from cows, ostrich, warthog, and just about every type of local antelope large enough to provide a decent cut.  A braai master is declared who is responsible for ensuring the meat is properly cooked.

Veggies aren’t really necessary.  Meat and alcohol are the only important elements here, but since we had a vegetarian with us, we needed at least one veggie option.  We opted for ever-popular corn (‘on the cob’ to Americans).  South Africans call corn mieles (pronounced ‘meelies’).  Why, I have no idea, and neither does any South African I’ve asked.

At any rate, corn is never a good thing for open bathrooms.  The first night wasn’t an issue, but the next morning, mieles were making waves.  Thankfully, we all ate the corn, so everyone was on the same embarrassing level.  It’s amazing how strongly you bond with people when you don’t have the luxury of shame or ego…

After a relatively early rise and a thorough clean-up of the camp, we packed up every last morsel, bit of rubbish and ounce of pride, and headed back to main camp.  We all observed each other’s need for silence on the trip back, hangover etiquette intact in reaction to the combined result of too many drinks, a bumpy drive on an open vehicle in very cold temperatures, and the need to pay attention because of the possibility of running into wildlife at any point.  Once we disembarked, we all fell into couches, chairs and beds, miserably clinging to pillows and covering our heads in an attempt to make the day-after pain subside.  By noon, we were all human again.

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

View from the loo, aka the toilet

camp toilet giving new meaning to going au naturale in the bush

 

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Categories: Africa, Animal, Bush, Camp, Conservation, Education, Field Guide, South Africa, Training, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #2 – The Topic of Poo

So the question is, if a bear poops in the woods and there’s no one to step in it, does he really poop?  Or how do you know if it was a bear?  While you chew on that philosophical piece of literary magic, we will move on to discuss the validity and necessity of knowing how to identify animal poo.  This is a very useful skill to possess in the bush, especially when you come across still-steaming scat from a predator and you’re a kilometer from the closest car, building with solid walls, or even large tree.  You need to know what animal is nearby so you can accurately assess your situation.  If it’s a porcupine who made the tracks, you’re probably not going to run into a problem.  If it’s a lion, you might. You might run into several problems, in fact.

You also learn that predator poo is called scat.  Herbivore poo is called dung.  BUT omnivore poo is simply called, well, poo.  I don’t know why.  And I promise you, I’ve actually asked.

Spoor, which is another term you learn, has NOTHING to do with poo, though to me it sounds like it should.  Spoor is animal footprints or tracks.  There are trackers here who can read spoor like the Sunday paper and can tell you not only which animal walked by the spot in which you are standing, he can tell you when the animal walked by, whether it was actually walking, strolling, galloping, or bolting, and what the weather was like on that day at that particular moment.  I’ve honestly questioned some of them simply because I could not see where they were getting their information from when all I could see was the following: two tiny indentations, a small skid mark, and what looked like a dragging string that intermittently disappeared.  These trackers looked at that same abstract combination and said, ‘monitor lizard, female, moving east towards the river to get out of the midday sun’.  What???

I admit, I’ve gotten better, and now I can even spot the spoor, scat or dung AND correctly identify all of it from a car.  I don’t even have to be standing on top of it (and ideally am not standing on top of it anyway) to do so.  I can tell you that cat spoor (aside from cheetah) does not have the tiny indentations from claws because cats draw their claws in when they move about.  Cheetahs are the feline exception to this – they have semi-retractable claws because their preferred method of hunting depends on their running, and they need those claws for traction at top speeds.  Cats also have three lobe marks at the back of the heel pad – two bigger lobes on the outsides and one smaller middle lobe.  Don’t know why.  Sorry.

Members of the dog family have two lobes at the back of the heel pad AND claw marks.  Hyena also have the same set-up, adding to the confusion as to which animal species they fit into.  However, hyena are NOT a dog OR a cat – they are a species all their own.  And they are probably one of the coolest and most interesting animals out here.

Elephant spoor looks a bit like someone bounced a really large ball on the ground.   Each print of a full-grown adult is about twice the length of an adult human male’s, and about three times as wide.  And though the tracks do differ slightly according to species, both black and white rhino spoor looks like something from the Rorschach ink blot test.

Antelope spoor is dainty and pointed, like an arrow.  Level of pointiness is based on the species.  Zebra and giraffe spoor looks like varying degree of horse hoof.  Warthog spoor looks like the ‘track’ of a woman’s stiletto heel.  Interestingly, that’s also what they resemble when walking – a woman wearing stilettos.

Baboon and monkey spoor, not surprisingly, looks eerily similar to human hands and feet.  Otters, oddly enough, does a bit as well.  Then you get porcupine, polecat, mongoose, honey badger, monitor, and all other manner of small mammal and reptile.  Their spoor all has its own identifying features.  Porcupine in particular is interesting because it looks like a puzzle of varying- shaped splotches.

And then you have snakes.  Those tracks are VERY helpful to know.  Some resemble an ‘S’, which is the kind of a track you would probably assume a serpentine creature would create.  However, some snakes, such as pythons, move more like a caterpillar, picking their bodies up and sort of throwing themselves forward a bit at a time.  It’s called rectilinear movement.

Spoor I have a handle on.  Scat and dung, not so much.  The good thing is, I can at least tell you if it’s a predator’s poo based on whether there are hairs in the droppings, though I still can’t necessarily tell you WHICH predator left the present.  All of it stinks, regardless.  There’s nothing quite like the smell of half-digested meat, especially when some predators will happily feed on a decomposing carcass.  Of course, when you’re a lion and your kill rate can be less than 50%, plus your prey runs away from you, you can’t afford to be particularly choosy about what you’ll eat.

As for dung, I can tell if it’s an elephant (size is an easy indicator here – think small piles of oversized, brown softballs), or which type of rhino dung it is based on what the dung consists of.  Black rhinos are browsers with a prehensile upper lip.  They break off bits of their favorite munchies by tearing pieces off the branches, creating sharp, 45-degree angular spears, and since they don’t digest particularly well, their dung has plenty of these little daggers in it.  White rhinos are grazers and eat primarily grass, so their dung is fairly uniform and stringy.  Buffalo leave the equivalent of cow patties, and the smell is just as potent.

With antelope, I’m a lost cause.  Giraffe dung is about the same size as an animal half its size.  Duiker, springbok, nyala, impala – their dung is all almost the same size and shape, which is interesting since the animals themselves range in size significantly.

So many amazing ways to ‘read’ the local newspaper of who’s been in and about camp each day.  I will get it all figured out some day.  For now, the fact that I can distinguish between potentially dangerous game and Bambi is enough.  I’ll get there.

I’ve included some spoor/actual animal feet to help you understand a bit about this topic.  Unfortunately, through poor labeling, I can’t seem to find all the tracks I took pictures of over the months I’ve been in the bush.  So I hope you don’t mind that the picture pickings are slim.  I elected to NOT include scat/dung, just because.

On a completely unrelated note, because I’m not really sure if the term ‘spoor’ is technically a plural or singular, I’m not quite sure which tense should be used in many of these sentences.  Please bear with me on this editorial conundrum.  Sadly, I have actually given this a lot of thought.  You’d think I had nothing better to do….

Song of the day: “I Want to Be Like You” from Disney’s The Jungle Book

 

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Conservation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

South African Adventure #1 – Bush Education

This post is numero uno in terms of my adventures here because to me, education is the beginning of everything.  With the exception of the bloody hand, which is simply an example of the types of wounds I’ve seen out here, these photos above are some of the animals that remind me of school and education, Africa-style – a mongoose, an owl (owlet, in this case), and a tortoise.

There is something fascinating about teaching people, especially people who come from vastly different backgrounds than yours.  We have students come and go, traveling from all over the world to train to become field rangers.  Some have no interest in actually pursuing it as a career, but instead just want to enjoy living in an entirely new environment, challenged by new and foreign surroundings.  Even many South Africans who pass through our training camp feel themselves in a completely alien world when they come to the bush.  If you come from the suburbs or the city, or even the countryside, you aren’t prepared for the bush.  You might have knowledge of it, you might have visited it, but you have no idea what you’re doing out there.  I get that.

I have now been in the bush for about two years, and I’m still a newbie.  I still look over my shoulder whenever I’m walking.  Hell, I am constantly looking the full 360 degrees, to the point where I get dizzy sometimes.  I doubt I’ll ever stop doing that.  I may gain years of information and experiences that are valuable for surviving in these wilds, but I will never feel too comfortable.  And that’s a good thing.  Comfort can get you killed.  This also means I’m always trying to educate myself.  If I can educate others as well? Two birds, one stone.

However, the type of educating that I’ve found the most rewarding is the haphazard, completely unexpected kind, like the kind I found myself doing with the staff at our camp.  One of the women (I’ll call her Linda) has been with the company for almost fifteen years, in the same role.  Fifteen years of doing the same thing over and over, year after year, with no change but the endless carousel of employees and students passing through.  While there is quite a bit of employee turnover here (and I certainly understand why, but no need to get into that), nothing else really changes but the seasons, and even those come round again every year.  As such, I asked my bosses if I could help with getting this woman some credentials behind her name.  Options, I thought, are at least something to get excited about, and would give her something to change up the monotony.    Plus they might enable her to get out of this kilometer-deep rut she was in.

Linda got pregnant in tenth grade and dropped out of matric (high school).  She never graduated.  She can read, but not particularly well.  She knows her way around a kitchen and a laundry, but not much else.  She doesn’t know how to drive and she certainly doesn’t possess a driver’s license.  I know this for sure, as I tried to teach her to drive one day.  We took a quick run up to the main gate to pick up deliveries, and I let her get behind the wheel on a straight patch of road on the way back to camp.

Driving a manual Land Rover in the bush as your first driving foray is probably not ideal.  We managed to not hit anything, though we did stop within a hair’s breath of a rather large Knob Thorn tree. Shaking, she turned to me and said, “Ok, enough,” and quickly got out of the car and ran back to the passenger seat. End of driving lesson.

If you want opportunities in this world, you need to be able to access them.  People say you make your own opportunities. Yes, but you have to have access to knowledge, and Linda did not have that.  She was stuck.  She was bored.  The most excitement she got was the weekly food order we did together, as it gave her a small bit of creative input to put together a menu plan. Yet because of how limited I was with budget, even that had ridiculous limitations. And with only one small fridge and one small freezer, and a large rodent population constantly finding its way into the cupboards, it’s hard to get creative.  You tend to stick to the same things over and over. Any time you try and go out of the norm, you get shot down by the powers that be who tell you that you are spending too much money on food for the people who are paying the salary of these same people. This is why I don’t do well working for other people, by the way. I point stuff like this out, which often doesn’t get received particularly well, especially when you work with people who want the pay without the responsibility. I’ve run into more than a few of those in my lifetime.

Anyway, I decided that, since we offer a First Aid course as part of our training, there was no reason why we couldn’t add Linda to the list. Makes perfect sense, right? I mean, if something happens to me or any of the trainers, there is no one else here who can administer basic life support. Most of the students aren’t trained. And what if it’s just Linda and her counterpart at camp? I proposed this to one of my bosses, and he thought it was a great idea. Problem is, there isn’t another First Aid course for another few months.  Linda asked if I could show her some foundational First Aid in the meantime.

I’m certified as a level two responder with First Aid, so at the very least, I could show her basic life support stuff like CPR, and how to administer first aid and bandaging for specific wounds. I bit off more than I bargained for when I said yes.

I’d like to think I have good communication skills. I’d like to think I’m great at explaining things, and at teaching and inspiring people. Of course, however much I’d ‘like’ to do those things, I may not actually be capable. I haven’t had to ever teach something like CPR to someone who didn’t even have a basic understanding of human anatomy. When I mentioned digestion, I got blank stares. What was digestion? What do the lungs do?  Wow. Back up.

Linda, the other woman who worked with her (we’ll call her Thandi), and I set up a table in the middle of the kitchen. I gave them two drawing pads and a copy of the First Aid manual we had at the camp. Then I set about going through the entire human body, drawing diagrams and explaining what each and every part of the body did, and how they all linked together. Imagine how this was received by two women who believe in beings like Pinky Pinky, who lives in toilets and sucks bad children down the drain, and the Tokoloshe, who is an evil spirit sent to haunt people and give them indigestion. I had to extricate theology, spiritualism, and tribalism from the concept of heartburn.

These women aren’t stupid by any stretch of the imagination. But they are ignorant of modern biology, a fact they willingly admitted to me. They plainly explained that I would have to change perceptions set in stone for hundreds of years by tribalism and lack of formal education. They voiced concern at the initially overwhelming amount of material presented to them, material so fundamentally different from what they had been raised to believe; they had every reason to think this might be a futile attempt. So did I. Among other issues, I’m no bio teacher, nor a philosopher, nor a socio-economics professor.   What I knew of these women and their culture came from them telling me about it. I could sit and watch all day and make incorrect assumptions, which wouldn’t help anyone, so I found it best to simply ask. And they did the same with me. Most of our lessons were about what I was taught, followed by what they were taught, and then concluding with any cross-over, and explanations of both sides of the same educational coin as we tried to find common ground where my information made sense to them, and theirs made sense to me.

Expecting anyone to ingest this much fresh information that directly opposed much of what they had been raised to believe was challenging in so many capacities. I was asking them to delete what they knew and start over. They were asking me to learn their history and inject it into what I was teaching them. But they didn’t blink an eyelid, just kept on absorbing whatever info I could possibly remember about how a gall bladder works, and I kept at it, determined to give them a fighting chance at learning and understanding basic life support, if only so they could explain to an EMT over the phone what was going on in the event of an emergency. Slowly, slowly, progress came about, one heartbeat at a time.

In addition to our health lessons, we tackled computers from the bottom up – complete with diagrams of what the different computer components, like screen, desktop, mouse, and keyboard, are. It was slow and meticulous, and we often had to go over the same material several days in a row, but like everything else you learn, you need repetition and practice for it to sink in. These women didn’t have access to a computer.  They didn’t have access to the first aid equipment. They had to rely on me to provide everything for them, and to then show them even the most fundamental elements, such as turning a computer on, or how to properly bandage a protrusion (and what a protrusion was and how you pronounce it, for that matter). In the back of my mind, I thought of all the times I spent teaching my mom how to use the internet, or email, or the answering machine, or the television remote. That was infinitely easier than this. And it reminded me of how lucky I am to have been born into a time when technology is de rigeur. I can’t remember NOT having a computer.

We laughed. A lot. We giggled over my terrible drawings.  But they loved it, and so did I.  Seeing their faces when something sunk in, when a light went on in their heads and eyes – it was tremendous.  I’m not sure if anything I’ve done has really made a difference for them. I do know it meant a lot to have someone take time for them and try to help them in a positive way. I know they felt a bit marginalized and were excited for even the slightest bit of exposure to new things. I’d like to think that if nothing else, I’ve expanded their worlds. They’ve certainly expanded mine.

Song of the day: ‘Learning to Fly’ – Tom Petty

….and for cheese factor and inspirational ability – ‘I Hope You Dance’ – Leann Womack

 

All rights reserved. ©2012 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Conservation, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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