Camp

Field guide training camp in South Africa

Five days, three tyres, a set of shocks, a flock of birds, and about 10,000 burned calories later… the whirlwind Namibia extravaganza

Sooo we decided to take a trip to Namibia. Driving. In a little VW Golf. In defense of the car, it was unfair to drag it over such roads. In defense of me, a 4×4 was simply not in the budget, so as with most things in life, we improvised and rolled with what we had. Here is a bulleted blow-by-blow account of our whirlwind tour.

  • Cape Town to Fish River Canyon in one day. This is 977km (607 miles). It is lovely for a few hours outside of Cape Town, then it gets dry. Then drier. Then it’s just dust everywhere. And a few sheep. (Saw my first actual black sheep!) And some odd-looking trees called quiver trees. And lots of rocks. Then no more trees at all. Just rocks. And finally nothing but tan-coloured dirt.
  • A very slow and unwelcoming border post. But they did eventually let us through. (To their credit, they were much nicer and faster on the way out – though not sure if I should read into that or not.)
  • welcome-to-namibia-jvitanzo

    Arriving at the border between South Africa and Namibia

  • One blowout on the empty dirt roads from Ai-Ais to Hobas camp. I also would like to add that we sadly took out more than a few birds on our travels. Unfortunately, it is virtually impossible to slam on brakes on loose sand. Birds that decide to sit in the middle of the sand/dirt road seem to be simply asking for a quick death via grill.
  • broken-car-jvitanzo

    our sad little VW Golf loses a shoe on the rough roads in southern Namibia

  • No restaurant on-site once we arrived at Fish River Canyon (and we’d packed nothing but some nonperishable goods), so food and drink options are limited to the small shop at the reception area, which had little more than tinned beef, bread, and milk.
  • A beautiful sunset spent sitting – sundowners in hand, because though we couldn’t get food, we could get alcohol – at the edge of a massive and empty canyon, lulled by the shushing of a warm wind, the gentle cries from a pair of Verreaux’s Eagles somersaulting like acrobats through the air, and pretty much nothing else. There was not another human for miles.
  • A night venturing out into the empty space behind our camp, startling a dazzle of zebra (no joke, that’s what a group of zebra is called), tracking down frogs, and practicing our star photography. Stumbled upon an old car that looked like it had been abandoned there a few decades ago. Briefly made me wonder if, given the roads we’d arrived on, and the fact that we still had a long way on more dirt roads to go to Sossusvlei, our car would be joining it in this desert graveyard.
  • Waking up to a chorus of what sounded like a million different species of bird. Watching a lone baboon make his way through camp, checking every bin he passed in a search for tasty morsels. A morning spent lazing about, bird watching, followed by a full day in Fish River Canyon, walking in extreme temperatures amongst shale, some limestone and quartz, and not much else. The only mammals we saw, other than the baboon at camp, were a hare and a klipspringer. Even the birds and the reptiles were quiet. The afternoon was spent in the pool in a vain attempt to cool down. A minor disruption of gunfire as someone shot towards the troop of baboons coming down the hillside towards the camp. The baboons tucked tail and did a 180 out of there. Then silence.
  • Evening braaing with a can of beans, a can of bully beef, and some potatoes. And a big slab of chocolate. Because I will always find a way to make sure chocolate is somehow involved in any activities.
  • Twelve hours driving from Fish River Canyon to Sesriem Camp, after a rough road incident along the way that set us back many hours and possibly even more years of life, given the stress levels it induced. (Be forewarned – paved roads in Namibia aren’t actually paved in the sense of being sealed like tarmac, and locals have no qualms about running into the road – and into your car, though I’ve found this in South Africa as well.)
  • Set up camp and scouted out the neighbours, which included about a thousand sociable weavers, a horned adder, a few dozen barking geckos, a Bibron’s thick-toed gecko, and a striped pole cat (of which I actually only saw the butt-end as it ran away from me). And a house cat that apparently lives in the tree above our tent. We named him Frisky. He got a can of tuna fish.
  • Walked into springbok on my way back from the ablutions.
  • Five am wake-up call, one-hour drive to the dunes, six hours trekking in 40-degree heat (Celsius, not Fahrenheit), through mid-calf-deep sand, to climb massive dunes, find some web-footed geckos, look at dead trees, and avoid being pummeled by surprised oryx and ostrich. Much water consumed. Made friends with a few European swallows and a random beetle that fully appreciated the bits of apple tossed their way.

    As a note: it’s 65-km trip from the entrance of the park to Sossusvlei and Deadvlei, so best to stay in the camp at Sesriem (where we stayed), which is right at the entrance. Or you can stay at the 5-star lodge (where we would’ve liked to have stayed, but could not even come close to affording).

I should add that a dune is a lot like a body of water –it’s hard to gauge distances, and everything seems a lot closer than it actually is. Our little dune seemed like a trifle until we actually started climbing. It didn’t take long until it was all burning calves and thighs, with us eventually crawling on hands and feet the last few dozen meters (no joke, at one point I was literally trying grab the sand in hopes that I could pull myself up), and then collapsing at the top, where we sat for a good 15 minutes just taking in the view. And letting our heart rate settle back down to a reasonable pulse.

On the return to the bottom, we attempted initially to slide down. Sand is not like snow, unfortunately. We slid about three meters and then stopped dead, sinking into the deep drifts. We had no choice but to walk down on our rubber legs. Along the way, we met a few web-footed geckos hiding out underneath or near the dune grass.

Once we reached the bottom, we headed onwards to Sossusvlei and Deadvlei.

Because we didn’t have a 4×4 we had to walk to the main area of Sossusvlei/BigDaddy/Deadlvei from the 2×4 parking lot, a distance of 10 km roundtrip. Apparently, there is a shuttle, though I don’t recall ever seeing it, and for whatever reason we decided not to take it. I’m not sure what we were thinking. Deadvlei is another 1km once you get to the 4×4 parking lot.

When we finally got close to Deadvlei, I took off my shoes and walked in my socks. The shoes were making it harder to walk in the thick sand, and the sand was way too hot for bare feet. The socks were the perfect happy medium.

I have to say, I try to stay in good shape. I exercise pretty much every day. And I almost didn’t make it. My legs have never felt more like soggy noodles in my entire life. 

  • Afternoon spent passed out in the tent, sleeping off what was probably heatstroke.
  • Early evening meeting the local sociable weaver population, which converged at our camp in search of crumbs (see photos below). We had many to contribute to the cause since our rolls had gone stale. Ecstatic birds flocked all around, squeaking happily, popping off to tell their friends about the buffet at Campsite 10, and bringing back reinforcements. Birds met the otters, Seaweed and Barnacle; birds harassed horned adder; birds gorged on every morsel of carb they could find; birds dispersed. Quiet resumes.
  • Delicious braai, night walk that culminated in finding one lone scorpion and a rather befuddled oryx. Last night of sleep under the brilliance of the Milky Way before heading back to South Africa. I don’t recall my head even hitting the pillow that night.
  • scorpion-namib_desert-jvitanzo

    Scorpion under UV light, Sesriem, Namibia

  • Early morning wake-up. Pack up the car. Sixteen hours driving from Sesriem to Cape Town. A very friendly border patroller who offered to buy our car as we hit the South African side.
  • Saw more snakes and scorpions passing through the Cederberg roadworks than we did in the actual desert. One scorpion looked to be the size of my hand. Ces’t la vie.
  • A trip to the garage gets us four new rims, three new tyres, a total realignment, new shocks, many gallons of water and plenty of elbow grease to clean off the dust.
  • Sleep for 24 hours straight.

Namibia was beautiful. I’m glad I went. But I don’t think I will be returning unless someone else is driving their car, and it’s a luxury 4×4 kitted out with a packed fridge and cooler.

 

TRAVEL TIPS

If you are keen to go on an adventure and would like to follow in our footsteps (in which case I would HIGHLY recommend you bring more supplies and make use of that shuttle at Sossusvlei…), here are a few useful links:

Sossusvlei (and Deadvlei and Fish River Canyon) – general information

The Cardboard Box (travel tips for all locales we visited)

Sesriem Camping (http://www.nwrnamibia.com/sesriem.htm)

If you’re averse to camping, try the Sossus Dune Lodge

And if you want to step it up about 40 notches, &Beyond has a lodge there as well: the Sossusvlei Desert Lodge

Hobas Camping (http://www.nwrnamibia.com/hobas.htm)

I also highly recommend going no later than November and no earlier than March. Unless you REALLY love excruciatingly hot and dry weather. I was there at the end of October (I know, I’m a little late with my recap), and it was already scorching.

Also, if you’re keen to hike in Fish River (which looks stunning, but which wasn’t open for hiking when we were there), you need to go between May 1 and September 15. That is the only time the trail is open (and for good reason, given the chance of drowning in flash floods and/or dying of heatstroke at other times). If you’re keen, read this article first on how to survive the hike, courtesy of Getaway Magazine.

 

All rights reserved. ©2016 Jennifer Vitanzo

 

 

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Categories: Africa, Animal, Baboon, Bush, Camp, gecko, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

South African Adventure #303 – Reality, check please!

Mmmm, Wisconsin people are delicious!

Mmmm, Wisconsin people are delicious!

First, an apology for my lapse in writing.  A small family of insects made a personal empire in my laptop, and I needed to get a new one. And then I had to get it set up and get internet sorted and blah blah blah. This does make a good segue for this post, however. Coincidence? Or just bad luck? You decide.

Let me take a moment to wax poetic about nature and how these days we are completely ill-equipped to deal with it on just about every level.  Let me discuss how we’ve rendered ourselves useless in the natural world by erecting walls, fences, and boundaries of any kind, and built up our reliance on weapons rather than on our brains to defend ourselves.  Oh wait, am I talking about man in relation to the wild, or man in relation to anything in general?  Hmm, guess it could really fit both scenarios if you think about it.  But let’s stick to the ‘man in relation to the wild’ situation here since that’s what I’m dealing with these days. When I’m not in Jo-hazardous-berg, of course.

Living in the wild humbles you on multiple sensory fronts.  We’ve spent so much time honing our sense of sight that we’ve neglected all the other senses, to our own detriment.  Problem is, you can’t see shit (and I mean that literally as well as figuratively) out here.  Every single living creature is camouflaged and has made a killing (again, literally and figuratively) out of being impossible to see.  I realize I, with my dark hair and olive skin, probably blend in a bit more with my surroundings than the fellow gingers and blondies of English and Dutch lineage around me, but that isn’t exactly saying much, since I’m still so dangerously unaware of all the potential pitfalls that surround me on a daily basis.  Grab a tree for balance while walking through the bush and you may unwittingly lay your hand on a boomslang or other deadly arboreal snake, and possibly not live to tell the tale of your rendezvous.  Walk through the bush with earphones in your ears and I promise you, you will not hear the ‘pff’ of a puff adder underfoot before he strikes, or the soft whisper of the grass as a lion stalks you from behind.  And yes, I HAVE seen tourists walking through the bush with headphones on, or typing on their phones, or doing some other thing that renders them completely oblivious to their surroundings.  I’ve decided either they are too dumb to realize the dangers surrounding them, have a death wish, or are seriously that out of touch with reality.  It’s possible it’s all of the above.

I admit I may have a slight advantage over other city folks who venture into the bush, and I can attribute that to my unhealthy fascination with all things that can potentially eat me, many of which can be traced to a childhood ingesting Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel, and National Geographic.  I’ve spent a lifetime studying these creatures and locales on paper, so now I’m finally putting to good use the random facts I’ve learned about elephant behavior, hyena feeding habits, and Worst Case Scenario Guidebook-type info that has proven useless while traipsing around NYC and LA. I’m still out of my element.  I think the most stealth thing I’ve had stalk me was a pigeon in Central Park who was hell bent on snatching a french fry from my lunch.  While I admit it was a sneaky little bastard, it was still a pigeon.

Out here, lion and leopard are very real dangers, and they have a habit of creeping about camp at night, doing annoying things like nibbling on fire hydrants hung outside your door and scaring the crap out of you when you open said door to walk to the bathroom at 2am.

They say the most dangerous leopard is the one you don’t see.  Well, considering I’d been here for almost 6 months before actually seeing one at all, yet I’ve heard and seen spoor (tracks) and scat (poop) for many more, there have been PLENTY I clearly haven’t seen.  And that’s a little scary since I admit I’m always looking.  In fact, having literally been standing next to an ELEPHANT that I couldn’t see, it still unnerves me how often sight is a useless sense out here.  Unfortunately, as I said before, this is the exact sense we’ve spent millennium fine-tuning at the expense of our other senses.  Well, I can safely say that in the bush, you will learn to use your nose and your ears.  Otherwise, you will end up looking like something that saw the wrong side of an airplane propeller. If there’s even that much of you left.

They don’t let you carry firearms out here unless you have the training, and to be honest, when an animal moves at 22km a second or faster, the gun probably won’t do a whole hell of a lot anyway, since you won’t be able to get off a round in time before the animal is literally on top of you.  A knife won’t help you a whole lot either, at least not when it comes to killing anything.  While it’s nice to be able to hack away some of the rather sticky foliage in your way, it won’t do a damn thing against a pissed off mama anything, or a bull elephant in musth, or a buffalo that is simply having a bad day (which is most days in the buffalo world).  Females protecting their young out here do so with a life or death mentality because that’s exactly what it is – either they beat the life out of you, or you take their baby.  Of course they are going to attempt to pummel you!  So don’t think you will have access to bullets (unless you want to carry around the shells and ping the animal in the head as it charges you, hoping maybe that might confuse them into stopping their attack, although more likely it will only act to further piss them off).  And don’t think you’ll go all Chuck Norris on the wildlife either.  I’ve seen people get f*&ked up by Bambi out here.  Imagine what the animals with claws and fangs will do.

In the wild, you take away all your creature comforts and replace them with bugs, humidity, isolation, etc.  Once you strip it all away, all the soft blankets, the heated floors, the screens to keep out the mosquitoes, the refrigerators that actually seal so the cockroaches can’t get inside, you find out what you’re made of.  And I will be honest, for the first month or two, you realize you are made of Jell-O.  You have no backbone.  You whine and get angry at how inept you feel.  You curse the local people because they are clearly the reason your phone doesn’t work.  You curse EVERYONE and EVERYTHING because you are well out of the comfort zone and instead stuck having to rely on yourself to literally survive.  Yeah, that teeny tiny MagLite torch (sorry, flashlight for us Americans) isn’t gonna cut it when you need to venture out into the blackest night to take a leak in the bathroom a good 300 feet from the ‘safety’ of your room’s four (semi-) sealed walls.  And those high-tech boots and Gore Tex pants will do nothing against an infestation of pepper ticks, those itty bitty tick nymphs the size of a grain of pepper (hence the name, of course) who LOVE LOVE LOVE to suck you dry while a few try to infect you with tick bite fever.  In short, you just have to accept the fact that you are not king of the jungle when it comes to the jungle, savanna, thicket, or really any biome in Africa.  You are simply part of the food chain.

Now before I go any further, and since I’m now guessing most of you are crossing Africa off your bucket list, please keep in mind two things.  One, this is all in reference to life in the bush, NOT life in the rest of the country.  South Africa is not all wildlife.  In fact, much of the country is agriculture and mining, and there are cosmopolitan cities that will certainly suit any gourmand’s or social butterfly’s needs.  Two, that which does not kill us….you know the rest. But honestly, stick with me here. I promise you this place is worth the humbling experience.

So back to the bush.  The other luxury you don’t have out here is time. Nothing happens for hours on end, but when something does happen, it happens in a blink. You barely have enough time to register what just occurred, let alone have the reaction time or presence of mind to catch it on film.  Your mind simply cannot process that quickly, which is ironic, since we make a life out of snap judgments.  But when it comes to anticipating the natural world, we are at a loss.  Eventually, you slow down, but it takes effort and time, and until you do, you will inevitably miss that cheetah kill, the fish eagle swooping down on its lunch, the leopard who slipped past your car without your even slightest detection.   People argue with me on this point often.  They can’t fathom how you could possibly not see a lion sitting in the grass next to your vehicle.  How can you not see a multi-ton elephant in the bushes beside the road?  Well, the reality is, unless you know how to look (and even then sometimes you have no luck), you will miss it entirely.

Understanding animal behavior is one key to being able to follow their movements and finding them in the abyss of the greens, tans, and grays of the bush.  If you watch a lion as it stalks, you start to learn how its body moves in the grass, how the grass shifts and whispers with each gliding muscle movement, and what it means when the grass stops moving and speaking entirely. You will hear things you didn’t hear before, like the shrieking of the francolins and the bark of baboons, when a threat is nearby.  You will learn to identify and follow the spoor, and eventually even be able to detect whether the animal whose spoor you’ve come across is walking, running, or stalking.  But that takes time, and as I said, time is a luxury out here that few people have.  So if you can’t dedicate years, or even months, of your life to studying this stuff, do what the rest of the world does and bow down to the people who DO know it.  Learn from them.  They have much to teach, young Jedi, and you have much to learn. And tip them well. To say this industry pays peanuts is giving it credit.

Lastly, remember: while you should keep your eyes open at all times, take a moment to close them now and again and let your other senses in on the fun.  But make sure you have someone else with you to watch your back when you do it.  Just in case.

Song of the day: “Wild World” by Cat Stevens

Of course, the theme song from The Pink Panther fits as well…



King in the brush

 

All rights reserved. ©2010 Jennifer Vitanzo

 

Categories: Africa, Animal, Big 5, Bush, Camp, Conservation, Education, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: | 3 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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