Training

South African adventure follows me wherever I go!

I think my parents aren’t sure if I’m their child anymore. On Saturday night, my cousin and her husband came down to visit my mom and dad (and by extension, me). Tuckered out and ready for their hour-long drive home, they said their goodbyes, got in their car, and (we thought) drove off. Then the doorbell rang, and there they were. They had a flat.

Now, I’m not sure if any of the other females in my family have ever changed a tire (and by the way, it’s spelled ‘tyre’ in South Africa), or would even have the first clue how to do it, but I’m pretty positive they would’ve never done what I did next. There I was, wearing raggedy old jeans with more holes in them than a sieve, a t-shirt with Toilet Duck swimming across the chest and sitting barefoot on the asphalt at 11pm in the pouring rain, jacking up the car, loosening bolts and taking off the tire.

As part of the field guide training my fiance and I used to do, we had to teach the proper way to change tires. Flats and blowouts are common occurrences in the bush, and if you can’t change a tire on a Land Rover or Land Cruiser or other behemoth safari vehicle you’ll likely be driving around, you probably won’t have much luck finding a guiding job. It’s not like you can really ask your guests, who are paying a quarter of their year’s salary to stay at your lodge, to help.

Of course, in the bush you have to be able to do this with ginormous SUVs, under the watchful  eyes of half a dozen guests or more, and with the threat of large, toothy wildlife at your back. And you have to be able to use a high-lift jack, which makes these puny little jacks that come with your car look like metal toothpicks. If the high-lift jack breaks, it can kill you. Not only do you have to worry about a several-ton vehicle dropping on you like an elephant sitting on a flea, you have to steer clear of the jack itself, the likes of which have dismembered people on a good day. It’s a little more high-pressure.

Though I was indeed changing a tire for an SUV on Saturday night, the only eyes I had watching me were my family’s, and I’m sure they were in varying states of disbelief seeing me fearlessly brandishing a wrench and sublimely focused on the task at hand, completely oblivious to the dirt and grease smeared on my cheeks. My fiance would’ve been proud. After getting over their initial shock, I think my family was as well.

My cousin called the next day and said she was going to rename me Jake, the mechanic.

I wish I had a photo for you to accompany this, but alas, no one had the foresight to produce a camera, and my parents sure as hell do not know how to operate a smart phone (or even know what one is, for that matter). If I can set the stage for you to use your imagination….start by picturing a woman barefoot, in torn jeans and a sopping gray t-shirt with a graphic of Toilet Duck swimming across it, sitting Zen-like next to an SUV,  a wrench in one hand and balancing a tire with the other. Then expand your image out to encompass the bedlam surrounding her in the form of four adults in their 60s/70s bobbing and weaving in circles like confused chickens. You’ll be on the right track.

So many songs come to mind for this one, but this time around I’ll let you choose your own soundtrack.  Until next time….

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Categories: Africa, American, Education, New Jersey, Training, United States | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

South African Adventure #100 – The Rise of the Cheetah Chick

cheetah up close

cheetah in watercolor

Soooo it looks like I’ll be hanging up my camp boots and strapping on my rehabilitation scrubs – I’m trading the savannah for the fynbos and the karoo, saying ‘sayonara’ to students and ‘sawubona’ to the fuzzy, spotty Ferraris of the veld. Starting this weekend, I will be heading to a private reserve further south to work in cheetah conservation. Not kidding, part of my daily routine will be walking cheetah. On a leash. I’d love to take them for a run, but really, who am I kidding? I’d have to tie them to the back of the Land Cruiser and let them cruise alongside the car for them to even break stride. They’d laugh at me in some bizarre, hissy, cheetah way if I even hinted at a jog.

So farewell to no electricity and hello solid walls, an actual plug and my own kitchen. Um, my own stove top and mini-fridge, as the case may be. While the fiance is keeping the baboons from raiding local dustbins, I’ll be chopping up game meat for 14 very large puddy tats. And that’s the way I like it, uh-huh uh-huh.  The new job will mean working with them all day long, doing such ridiculous things as taking them out for daily exercise, feeding and brushing and entertaining those that can’t be released back into the wild, monitoring their behavior, reintroducing them to other cheetah, and hopefully eventually helping to set up a breeding program to assist in repopulating the world with these incredible felines.

I don’t think I’d be off the mark if I predicted that the following blog installations will probably include quite a few messy moments from what is soon to become a human scratching post. Wish me luck!!!

Notes:

‘Sawubona’ (pronounced ‘sau bow na’) means ‘hello’ here
‘Veld’ (pronounced ‘feld’) is a field
‘fynbos’ (pronounced ‘feign boss’) and ‘karoo’ (pronounced ‘kah roo’) are two biomes (also known as vegetation types or ecological
areas) in South Africa
‘cheetah’, for anyone born and raised under a rock, is the fastest land mammal on
earth. These cats are elegant, beautiful and highly endangered. And they are about to kick my butt.

cheetah brothers in South Africa

 

All rights reserved. ©2010 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Bush, cheetah, Conservation, Education, rehabilitation, South Africa, Training, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

South African Adventure #49 – Neuroses and Why They Need to Be Kept in Check in the Bush (Or, A Day in the Life)

Sorry for the delayed posting.  My laptop’s battery exploded.  For the third time since I got the computer.  With no power source, I can’t post.  Anyway, I’ve been asked from many people to describe my typical day.  Well, there aren’t any ‘typical’ days, per se, so keep that grain of salt handy.

Every day out here is different.  That’s one of the perks of living in the bush.  You never know what animal may make an appearance and cause havoc in camp, what piece of equipment will fall apart, what personal drama one of the staff, or any of the students will thrust upon you to fix (and we’ve had everything from quickly flourishing to even more quickly broken romances, thievery, drug possession, injury from seriously bizarre accidents, family deaths, a false alarm mamba ‘bite’ – the excitement never ends).   Even with strict rules, it seems humans can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to getting into trouble and doing exactly what they know they shouldn’t be doing.  My job is, as much as I hate to admit it, essentially the camp mom for a large group of people who often don’t think rules apply to them because they paid to be here.  Patience isn’t just a virtue out here; it’s a survival technique.

So as far as ‘normal’ goes, my normal day consists of an early wake-up (‘at sparrows’, as we say here) to what sounds like a chicken getting its head cut off.  That lovely noise can be attributed to our resident francolins and spurfowls, also known as heart-attack birds for their habit of rustling in the bush hidden from view, grabbing your attention through an invisible scuffle and a shudder of underbrush, and then bursting out at you, screaming at the top of their lungs.  You may remember I rescued a baby one of these a few posts back.  The little ones don’t scream, they whistle.  The big ones scream.  And they usually start screaming at 4am, which is well before my wake-up call.

After initially bolting upright from the shock and reminding myself what is making that awful sound, I usually fall back to sleep for another two hours before waking to the more palatable sound of every bird within a ten-kilometer radius singing blithely.  Funny, many birds make it a point to not be seen, but they ALL want to be heard.  Except for the woodland kingfisher.  When he’s around, he makes sure you know it on all fronts.

This brilliantly blue, white, and black bird has a bright orange beak and loves to sit on a tree branch just in front of my house, trilling away as loudly and as visibly as possible.  He’s only around for half the year, though, so while I welcome him when he arrives, after a few days I almost can’t wait for him to migrate his ass on out of here.

My 2nd morning alarm clock, Mr. Woody Kingfisher

The only sound louder than the birds stem from my insect nemesis, which rolls into camp in summer and never fails to provide me with at least one or two migraines.  When it’s summer, every other sound is drowned out by the cicadas, which are eardrum-destroying and always leave a horrible ringing noise in your ears for hours on end.  I have very sensitive ears; I do not like the cicadas.

Anyway, I drag myself out of bed (yes, drag – sadly, I have never been a morning person, no matter how hard I’ve tried), turn on the shower, rinse off, assess the weather outside and dress myself in a few layers (knowing I will probably peel most of them off in a hour or so, so better to be prepared).  I pack up my bag: keys, phone, eye drops for my ever-dry and dusty contacts, gum for my odd clean-tooth obsession, notebook, pen and camera – because you never know what you’ll see on the walk between my tent and camp.  Oh, and sunglasses.  Unless it’s actually raining, I never leave without the sunglasses.  They are my best friend out here.  The trifecta of my survival pack – sunglasses, suntan lotion and a mosquito net for the bed.

I always check the sand on the path outside my tent and on the way into camp for evidence of last night’s and this morning’s visitors, and spend most of the walk to camp with my head down, glued to signs on the ground.  Usually all I see are the frantic circles of manic francolins, spurfowls, and pigeons, and often there are mongoose and monitor tracks, but every once in a while I see porcupine, hyena, and on good days, leopard.  And of course snakes.  Thankfully those are usually closer to camp.  Except for the mamba, we actually don’t get snakes by our place very often, at least not that I know of, which is fine by me.

Once I get to camp, I set down the bag, hit the kitchen to say hello to the cook and cleaner, then go and tally up the previous day’s drinks.  This is always a challenge, as they never seem to add up to the number of drinks actually missing from the fridge.  Why and how people can’t count is beyond me.  After some mathematical gymnastics, I refill the drinks, go to my ‘office’ and start up the camp laptop.  Which usually won’t start because the generator isn’t on yet, and the computer battery doesn’t hold a charge.  If I’m lucky, it has enough life to last until staff and students get back from their morning walk/drive.  When that happens, I quickly say a prayer to the technology gods that the internet will ALSO actually work as I attempt to get online and pull up emails.  Usually I lose that battle, which then prompts me to utter any combination of four-letter words under my breath, turn the machine off, and go back to the kitchen to help with breakfast.

Twice I week I sit down with the cook, plan a menu and put together food orders.  Because of limited budgets, this often means getting creative, lest we eat the exact same thing every day, easy to do when you don’t have much money to work with and have to get permission to order things like yogurt because it’s ‘too expensive.’  I also help with cooking, always somewhat painful, since I really don’t enjoy cooking (probably due to my ‘need for approval’ complex and my desire to do things well, neither of which is ever satisfied when you stick me in a kitchen), nor am I any good at it, despite my best efforts.  Our cook is a bit heavy-handed with things like oil and butter, so to prolong my life, and the lives of the people at camp, I often intervene to try and keep the artery clogging to a minimum.  I usually get stuck with cutting up fruit, not so much of a challenge with apples and pears, but more of a mission when you add in mango and pineapple, particularly when the knives in camp are about as sharp as a baseball.

My normal cooking skills go towards satisfying the vegetarian/vegan/halal/kosher/gluten-free/every-other-allergen contingency, of which there are more than you would ever imagine.  I’m always surprised that people with strict food issues choose to go to a bush camp in the middle of Africa and expect to have their dietary needs/choices satisfied in a place where white bread, fake cheese, potatoes and meat are all about the only things affordable AND available.  Perhaps our marketing team sells them fairytales about what to expect?  The conditions here seem pretty difficult to miss if you look at the brochures and read the marketing material, but whatever.  All I know is I have to field the complaints about food all the time, even though there is almost nothing I can actually do about the situation.  I can only limit the oil/butter/mayo added to dishes.  With a fridge the size of a suitcase to house enough food to feed a few dozen people at any given time, two cabinets very easily accessible by rodents and insects, and the proclivity of our stocks to ‘grow feet’ anytime there is a staff changeover, I have to do what I can with what I have.  Gourmet meals are NOT an option, not that people, especially the Americans and the Brits, don’t still expect them.  The South Africans usually just want more meat, especially the South African guys.   Again, I do what I can.

Anyway, breakfast is prepared, everyone returns to camp, breakfast is eaten, dishes are cleared, washed and put away, and I go back to do battle with the computer again, this time with a more positive attitude, since at least the generator is now on.  If I still can’t get the internet to work, which is quite often, I will run errands, such as bringing the trash to the dump, washing laundry, reading up on some of the study materials, or sitting in on a lecture.  That lasts for about an hour, after which I’m back to the kitchen to make sure lunch is getting started, or to marinate something for dinner.  Three days a week our food orders arrive, so I recruit some students to come with me to the front gate, go through the food delivery and check it against our actual order, mark any errors, pack the food on the Land Rover and head back to camp, where we unload and put everything away.   I then have to send the head office a note documenting any errors in the food orders, and follow up with the suppliers to find out what went wrong and why certain things were missing when I was told they were available, etc.  Essentially all I do day in and day out is handle the problems in camp.  There is nothing glamorous about my job.  I’m the person everyone loves to hate.  It’s awesome, let me tell ya.  I’m the one responsible for making sure the wheels don’t fall off the bus, and I do it, despite the challenges, set-backs, and annoyances.  But people being people, they complain about it.  Some groups are worse than others.  Some groups you’d like to see walk off into the sunset and get eaten by the local wildlife.  Some groups are cool and make my job if not fun, at least tolerable.

My afternoon is spent sorting out lunch, any other myriad problems that come up (and the list for these is just endless), and getting dinner going.  Then I try and duck away for an hour or so, go back to my room, turn on my iPod and attempt to get in a little exercise.  My yoga mat is a sanity- and ass-saver out here.  Or, if there isn’t an afternoon activity for the students, and it isn’t raining or the river isn’t flowing, we play volleyball in the riverbed.   Actually, we do that sometimes when it’s raining too, depending on how heavily it’s coming down.  That is my break for the day.  Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I can sneak onto one of the afternoon game drives, my only opportunity to get out of camp.

If I don’t get to go out on a drive, at about 6pm, I shower and head back down to camp for dinner. Or I shower earlier and then head back to the kitchen to help COOK dinner (and yes, we DO have a cook we employ, but she feigns incompetence when students have strict dietary requirements and she has to make more of an effort).   Mind you, she used to cook at a 5-star resort in one of the most exclusive bush camps in South Africa.  I know better, and so does she, but to be honest, there isn’t much else to do, so I help.

After dinner, my fiancé and I sit at the table talking to some students, or we sit with them at the fire pit, but usually we just head back to the tent and go to sleep.  It’s often the norm to be in bed by 9pm.  When you have no electricity, you don’t have many other options.   I don’t usually fall asleep until later, as I love listening to all the sounds at night.  But eventually I drift off, and the next day starts the same way.  On occasion, we get the excitement of a storm blowing through, which entails us (well, my fiancé, because I’m allergic to the canvas) running outside, pulling the canvas down over the shadecloth to close the tent up, and then frantically making sure we get everything off the floor as to avoid the inevitable floods that customarily inundate our home in the rains.  Otherwise, everyone is snoring by 10pm.  Exciting, I know.   Welcome to the glamorous life of the bush.

 

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

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

 

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

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