Posts Tagged With: adventure

South African Pearl of Wisdom: “Age Does Not Define You” (Another Jane Goodall-ism)

Age does not define you.

Sjoe, this is a big one for me. It’s particularly pertinent when you work in an industry where it feels like the median age is 22. For the longest time, I was always the youngest. I was the youngest child, the youngest kid in my grade, the youngest this, the youngest that. Now suddenly I’m the ‘older’ one. And it’s not seen positively.

It’s taken me a long time to be okay with the idea that my age doesn’t define who I am. Sadly, many people (woman in particular) are seen as less useful once they hit some subjective sell-by date, which is ridiculous. Some of the most brilliant work done in the world was (and continues to be) achieved by people well beyond the energetic youth stage. In fact, some were quite deep into their wrinkles.

I started touring as a musician at 25, which was practically grandma age for most of the people I encountered. I tackled welding for the first time at 32. I also faced down my first elephant, mamba, and lion at that same age. To be honest, the best and most challenging experiences of my life only happened once I was past my first quarter century. And that wasn’t for lack of trying. Yet I was always ‘past expiration date’ according to the norm for the industries I was in.

welding

The most challenging part of this is the way our society shames people not only for their age but also for their attitude about that age. Especially if society sees someone who they feel is not acting their age (though your guess is as good as mine as to what is acceptable and what isn’t and why at any age). It would appear, though, that anyone who travels more in squiggles than in straight lines and are thus perceived as ‘lacking direction,’ fall into the category of people who never grew up. They live forever in this negative spotlight, ever on the receiving end of a barrage of whispers and smirks. “Aw, they had such potential. Now, look. They’ve wasted their life.” Or “When is that person going to grow up and get their sh*t together?” The perpetual Peter Pans are beloved until they turn 30. Then they are a menace to society for some reason.

Let’s be honest – I have yet to meet ANYONE who really has it all together at any age, and who isn’t just saying it to make themselves feel better. In fact, I’ve started to think that having it all together is actually a myth. Kind of like the pursuit of perfection. It drives us, but it isn’t a realistic goal that anyone can actually attain. And that stems from many reasons, one of the biggest of which is that everyone’s definition of having it all together seems to be different.

Fact is, many of us do not have a straight path to follow in life, and age has nothing to do with it. At least not in the sense that it seems society THINKS it does. Ever heard the quote, “Not all those who wander are lost”? Actually, in many cases, age is the main reason many of us wander. It is the impetus that propels us to keep exploring, to keep pushing ourselves. We realize there is something amiss in our current life. And we act on that. As we gain more knowledge, we realise there is always more to know. Thus we push onward, collecting more stories, notching experiences on our proverbial belt. But this doesn’t age us. In many ways, it keeps us connected to the childlike fearlessness we lost somewhere between a bad experience at a grade school dance and our first failure on our first job. Age, if looked at in this way, can actually act to keep us ageless.

Cliché as it is, age brings us wisdom. It brings us a better understanding of who we are and what our true purpose is. And it gives us the wherewithal to follow our star instead of hitching it to someone else’s. Instead of clinging desperately to something someone else told we us we should do – but that we desperately hate – or forcing ourselves into a box of what is expected of us by people who aren’t living our life (and in many cases know nothing about us), we do our own thing. We experiment. We try different roads. Oh, the audacity, right? Heaven forbid we be ourselves and let our hearts guide us!

From the time I was a child, I was told I must choose a career; I must climb some ladder; I must stick with one thing; I must focus. Focus, focus, focus. On what?!? The answer to what, exactly, I was supposed to focus on changed with every person I spoke to. For someone like me, who is utterly enthralled with the process of learning, telling me to stick with one thing was like trying to herd 100 cats while being chased over ice by a pack of wolves. And it was a slap in the face to who I was. I know I am not alone in that.

I was also told I must grow up. I must stop being silly. This admonition I got when I was apparently using my imagination too much and thinking of outlandish things like making up an entire series of stories about a family of lint balls. Who draws the line between what is silly and what is not?

I don’t know. The lint tales were pretty damn entertaining. And my English teacher loved them! Too bad they got thrown away one day when someone in my family tossed out a bunch of my things without asking me. Ah well.

Anyway…

For years I have been told I must change. I must fit this mould. I must pick one thing and stick with it. Well, for me, who loves several what are considered completely divergent things (music, wildlife, science, writing, photography, education, to name a few), that’s an impossible proposition. Why must I choose ONE thing? The world is not made up of one thing. It is made up of many things that all work together and depend on each other. And to assume that a person can only do one thing is also a slap in the face to the beauty of humanity’s amazing complexity.

Not a single one of us excels only at ONE thing. Not a single one of us is interested only in ONE thing. The WORLD does not exist on the back of ONE thing. So why do we beat ourselves into a rigid submission, telling each other that we MUST follow ONE path? It’s illogical, impractical, and soul-destroying. Not surprisingly, I’ve been in revolt of that system ever since I was a child. And this is where someone like Jane Goodall stands as an inspiration to me.

Jane started out studying to be a secretary. But her mentor, Dr. Leakey, pulled her out of that role. Instead of her fighting and saying, “Oh, but this is what I studied; this is what I have to stick with,” she rolled with it. She quickly moved into an industry that she had no prior experience in, doing a job she knew not a whit about doing, at a time when women were pushed AWAY from the science field (and in many cases are still pushed away from today). Now in her 80s, she is still going strong. And guess what? She does more than ONE thing. And if she had stuck with one thing those many years ago, what would her life be like? Would we even know who she is? And what would be the fate of all the wildlife she’s devoted her life to saving? And all the people she’s educated and enlightened along the way?

In addition to any research work she does, Jane lobbies, she educates, she motivates, she fundraises. She gets stuff done, and not just in conservation. At 80 years old, she still jets all over the world to make a positive impact on the planet. If she let her age define her, imagine how different the world would be.

Dreams come at any age. And life happens. It doesn’t follow some prescribed plan; it doesn’t fit neatly into some preordained script. It is messy, unpredictable and often scary. It is exhilarating, exhausting and ever changing. If we let our age stop us from doing something, we miss out on all the fun. We essentially die before we are dead.

It’s a pity so many of us tell ourselves our time for dreaming ends the day we hit puberty. Or the day we graduate college. Or whatever other arbitrary date that gets picked for us by someone else. Age is a number, a simple way for us to count the seasons we’ve lived through and to keep a mental library of our own history. Don’t let a simple counting system get in the way of you living your life to the fullest.

If I wanted to depress myself, I could look at where I am in life and compare it to where other people my age are. I could think about all the vacations I had to forego, all the fun nights out with friends I missed, all the houses I would never buy, the new cars, the new clothes, the list goes on and on. I have not had those things, because I have chosen another path, one that is not about things and the acquisition of them.

What I do have, though, is a multitude of amazing experiences and a lot of cool memories. I have lived the kind of life people say they dream about when they gaze out their office window. And I will continue to live that life. And it will never be glamourous. And it will never be easy or stable. I will likely always struggle with the things so many of my peers take for granted, like buying a car that isn’t 5+ years old and laden with a hundred thousand kilometers on the clock; ordering a latte; getting a new pair of jeans when mine have seen the end of their days; having health insurance; being able to see my family (or even talk to them) whenever I want. I have given up a lot to be where I am. I have struggled massively. I have lived through dark times where I have been utterly alone, literally and figuratively. I have taken chances other people have been afraid to take. And I have paid for those chances, for better or for worse.

I stepped outside the lines when I was colouring my storybook. And I will continue to step outside those lines, forever refusing to live within the boundaries someone else has drawn for me. I draw my own pictures. I write my own story. And because of that, my age doesn’t matter. It never will.

And neither does yours. Get out there. Live your life.

 

20160531_092238All rights reserved. ©2016 Jennifer Vitanzo

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Categories: adventure, Africa, Jane Goodall, Life Lessons, South Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

 

 

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

South African Adventure #41: Life with Monkeys

baboon bosom buddies

sticking together

I’m skipping my life lessons because today I just want to tell a story. So much has been going on in my life that I need some space from thinking and theorising, and instead I want to relay a day in the life. You can extrapolate any profoundness you may find, or you can just read it for what it is. For me, it is simply a funny memory.

I spend a lot of time with monkeys, and not always by choice. They tend to go where humans are, because humans mean easy access to food. Easy pickings. I don’t blame them. I would opportunistically scour human campsites and lodges for ready-made meals rather than spend days on end picking through dirt and grass, hoping to scrounge up enough calories to get me through to the next day. When the options are between a buttery croissant and a prickly, stubborn pine cone, can you blame them for going for the croissant?

Unlike so many other species out in the bush, monkeys aren’t easily contained by fences and perimeters. They figure out ways to circumvent the electrical wiring, though on occasion one does get caught in the current. Then you hear a scream and a thud as it hits the ground, shakes off the shock, and hurls itself off into the cover of trees.

Monkeys are a challenge mainly because they are clever. Well, and they are naughty. Often both at the same time. You can’t leave anything unattended when a troop is about. Even a single vervet (standing probably less than ½ a meter high) can create a tornado’s worth of damage in minutes.

When I worked in northern Zululand, we had a standing order that you locked the kitchen and kept the windows and doors shut tight whenever you left camp. Eventually we had to up the ante and order mandatory lockdown unless we were actually PRESENT in the kitchen. This after a volunteer left the door unlocked one day and then took off on a game drive to monitor the wild dogs. While I was left behind at camp, I was in my room and nowhere near the kitchen. Less than ten minutes passed before I heard clanking and crashing.

I looked across the lawn to see puffs of white powder billowing out the kitchen door like exploding cumulous clouds. Unsure of what I would find when I got close enough to see inside the doorway, I clapped my hands and yelled as I made my approach. A wave of ghostly shapes came pouring out of the kitchen and into the sunshine. Covered in flour, the barking dervishes shook their coats and scattered in every direction of the compass, leaving a haze of white in their wake.

If I didn’t know any better, I would say the kitchen had been ransacked by a marauding group of starving plunderers. These baboons were clearly on a mission, as though searching for Blackbeard’s treasure and fully convinced it MUST be hidden in the deepest recesses of the cupboards, specifically INSIDE the bags of booty (aka the flour, pasta, coffee, etc). Spaghetti, condiments, bread, fruit (or what was left of it, since they managed to carry off a large portion of the produce; and what they didn’t take they still made sure they tasted), it was strewn about in every direction. Some was even on the ceiling, no small a feat, since the thatched roof was a good 4-5 meters high).

It took two hours to clean it all up.

I was not amused when the volunteer sauntered back into camp, like the king returning to his castle. When I approached him and told him what happened, he shrugged it off, promptly put on his headphones and walked away. For a moment, I admit I secretly hoped a leopard would pop up and carry him off. But it didn’t happen.

Despite their mischievous ways, I still love monkeys. The jury’s out about how I feel about humans on any given day, though…

 

All rights reserved. ©2016 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: adventure, Africa, Baboon, monkey | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jane Goodall-ism and South African lesson for today: enter Santiago

mantid photo shoot

mantid photo shoot

In keeping with 15 Life Lessons of Jane Goodall, here’s another nugget of wisdom Dr Goodall drops on us, and one that is very relevant in my current situation – there are many teachers in life. My latest teacher has six legs and thousands of eyes. And his name is Santiago.

I love animals, but I can’t really have any pets in the bush. And to be honest, the longer I work with animals, the less I feel okay about having pets in general. However, I inadvertently became the ‘mom’ of a praying mantis several months ago when a stowaway nymph (baby mantid) came into my home tucked away on a flower. He was so small and well camouflaged, I didn’t even discover him for a whole week.

Not knowing where the flower came from, I had no idea where the mantid came from either, so I decided to keep the little guy. This was a very big step for me, as I have never been a fan of insects. Nor had I a clue how to raise one. Things did not look promising for the teeny invertebrate.

As a little girl, I spent a lot of time outside. But I was always told to NOT dig in the dirt, to NOT play with bugs. Bugs were dirty and gross.

And then I saw nature documentaries with really awful bugs that did really awful things to people. These bugs (which I later understood were actually parasites) were pretty much my worst nightmare.

So I stayed away from the insect world.

Then I spent a few months in Costa Rica as a university student. And I saw some REALLY big bugs. ‘Size of my hand’ big. Every morning I had to shake out my shoes, lest I put my foot into a dark, cosy space that had become home to a scorpion or tarantula overnight. Every evening I battled it out with my biggest nemesis, the mosquito. But having people around me who appreciated bugs (okay, not the mosquitoes – I’ve YET to meet anyone who appreciates mozzies) made me more tolerant. Also, being in such a wild place sort of weened me off of bug-free living. It was my initiation into what was to come many years later on the other side of the world.

Enter Africa. The insects here are not just plentiful in number. They are also plentiful EVERYWHERE. My initial reaction was to gently usher them out of my clothes, bags, shoes, house, wherever they might be congregating, and back into open spaces where we’d be less likely to conflict. I was happy to let them live, but I drew the line at having them share my space like miniature roommates.

However, when you live in the bush, you simply cannot avoid them getting into your stuff. So you can either learn to live with them, you can learn to live with them AND appreciate them, or you can be miserable. I chose the middle option, mostly because when I finally stopped and watched insects, I was hooked. They are fascinating, so completely alien to us (green blood, funky eyes, lots of legs, and all that), they could hold my attention for hours at a time. That in itself is impressive.

You know when people talk about watching grass grow? Watching insects is not like that (except in the case of watching a cocoon, since nothing happens there for a long time). Insects are alert. They are a whirring world of activity: little bulldozer spiders clearing out dens, little ant armies marching in formation, little artistic dung beetles rolling the most perfect ball of poo imaginable.

(I guess I should note that technically a spider is not an insect. While it IS an invertebrate, just like other insects, it falls into a different group called the arachnids. Scorpions are also part of that group. But for the purposes of this blog, all the creepy crawly invertebrates get lumped together as bugs.)

mantid and his grape

Santiago and dessert

And then there are the mantids.

Praying mantises get their names from their habit of sitting with their front arms folded, almost like they are in prayer. These ambush predators can sit still for hours, and the extreme patience with which they stalk their prey makes a person who DOES watch grass grow seem impatient.

When my little mantid arrived, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Mantids eat live prey. Where was I going to get food? Believe it or not, my home does not teem with bugs, even though there are plenty outside of it. I would have to learn to wrangle crickets, flies and grasshoppers and lure them to their unpleasant death at the hands of my tiny ninja. So I was not only living with a bug, I also had to catch MORE bugs to feed him.

Praying mantises are also in the same family as cockroaches. So you KNOW I would have to have a serious change of heart about insects to be happily sharing my home with a roach’s cousin. It did not sound like a good plan. But I was up for the challenge; I was ready to start a new chapter of growth in my life – learning to love a bug.

Plus, I have to admit I felt an immense amount of guilt over displacing him. How could I not take care of him?

I shouldn’t have worried. He grew on me very quickly.

It was hard NOT to like him, honestly. He was so entertaining. When he was a baby, he hopped around on my hand, his little legs tickling like weightless feathers dancing over my skin. His little head would swivel around and watch the world, snapping to lock eyes on me whenever he heard my voice.

When I took him outside, he would get as low as possible on my hand and nuzzle his little face in my palm. And when I put him in the grass, he would freeze and look up at me, waiting for me to put my hand back to within bolting distance, and as soon as it was close enough, he’d come scurrying back into my palm. It was adorable.

It’s amazing, seven months later, how attached I have become to the mantid we eventually named Santiago (for no other reason than we liked the name). He sits on my computer when I work. At night he sleeps on the curtain in my room.

These days he only eats from my hand and is quite the discerning gourmand. He no longer hunts, refuses bugs, and instead insists on fish, chicken or some type of fruit. I worry if he hasn’t eaten in a while. And I make sure he doesn’t get too far out of my reach (because if I can’t get to him to feed him now, he will likely starve). And I have to make sure none of the other predators (birds, spiders, lizards) get to him, especially the female mantid that lives in the bush just outside my door. I’ve caught her checking him out now and again, and she has been informed that my ‘child’ is off limits; no eating him. She keeps her distance, but on occasion she does pop up on the window to say hello. He freaks out, rears up on his back legs, opens up his wings (the ONLY time I’ve even seen his wings since they sprouted, fyi) and puts on his best threat display. She is not phased in the slightest. He looks ridiculous, but he thinks he is protecting his family, so he gets points for trying.

mantises eyeing each other up

I hope that one day Santiago becomes a household name, an ambassador for the smaller, less attractive members of the animal kingdom that often get overlooked or demonised because they are so foreign to humans. A beacon for the creatures that aren’t traditionally cute and cuddly. (Santiago does NOT like to cuddle, fyi. You wouldn’t either if cuddling reminded you of being caught and eaten…)

So in going back to Jane’s life lesson, Santiago has shown me that teachers come in all shapes and sizes. And they don’t always teach you the lessons you think they will teach you. With Santiago, I have learned not just about bugs (particularly how to care for a mantid), but about my ability to see everything as valuable in the world. I have been reminded that we all must be more tolerant of what is so vastly different from ourselves. I have also been reminded that beauty is a feeling, not a face. And even the smallest, most unlikely bits in this world can steal your heart and make a lasting and profound impact in your life. And that’s today’s #buzzfromthebush.

#vivasantiago #onlyinafrica

Here are some choice shots of the little guy doing what he does, which is mostly preening, eating, and pretending to be a mantid model.

 

All rights reserved. ©2014-2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Conservation, Education, praying mantis, South Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Practicing Compassion, Even When You Want to Slap Someone Silly

monkeysinaction18
Life, while fascinating and different every day, is never easy. So, in light of a recent post about one of my heroes (the inimitable Jane Goodall), I just couldn’t resist sharing some of her words of wisdom with you. I’m going to do a series of posts, one for each of the 15 life lessons she speaks of in the link I’ve provided near the bottom of this post. I’m going to start with practicing compassion, as that is one of the lessons that stands out the most to me.

I find myself questioning my level of compassion often, which some people may find odd, considering how much I love wildlife. Yes, I am clearly compassionate about wildlife, but often I’m not as compassionate about humans, and that doesn’t make much sense since we are ALL wildlife. And while I certainly feel empathy for many people, I think that because I am a human and I understand what it is to be a human (or at least I’m pretty sure I do, though some days I’m not positive I have it right), I am less tolerant of the things we humans do to ourselves, each other, and the world around us. We always have a choice to make good decisions, and when I see people choosing poorly, I find myself losing compassion. And that’s not necessarily fair of me, as I’m not the judge, jury, and executioner here. But I also realise that I am human and fallible, and even people like Gandhi and Mother Theresa had their detractors and deficiencies.

I don’t expect myself to be perfect, and I don’t expect others to be either. But I do expect us all to be decent to one another and to our home, the planet. Some days I wonder if that’s too much to ask.

At any rate, living in the bush has tested my compassion for people on a huge scale. One woman I worked with stole compulsively, using as her excuse the reasoning that her employer didn’t pay her enough, so she was entitled. While I agree she was paid poorly, I certainly didn’t agree with her stealing OR her reasoning for it. Entitlement is a scary thing. It blinds us to what’s real and what’s a dream. And feeling you are entitled to anything is a lot like living in a dream. Having self-esteem and believing in yourself is fine. Feeling like the world owes you? Not so much.

I’ve also watched an assortment of wealthy people pass through the camps, some of whom walked around like they lived on a permanently forward-moving pedestal, looking down their noses at everyone and everything else around them. They thought the world existed to serve them. And I had to wonder what they were doing in the bush, some of them training to be customer service agents (which is in many ways what a field guide does) for others.

I’ve seen guests who won’t even make eye contact with people of a different colour. And I’ve seen employees do the same to each other. While there are some cultural differences there (in some tribes it is actually considered rude to look someone in the eye), 90% of the interactions I saw were flagrant examples of people purposefully turning their backs on others.

I’ve seen people who are paid to protect wildlife go out and poach it. And I’ve seen people who say they are conservationists go out and shoot endangered species (all under the auspices of a ‘legal permit to hunt’).

Often I am confused, which isn’t surprising since humans are such complex creatures. But it doesn’t make me any less frustrated by the situation. So every day I have to remind myself to practice compassion. Compassion because there is a man who has to run home because his daughters have been left alone and he is petrified that they will be raped. Compassion because there is the woman who works 14-hour shifts on the reserve doing hard labour and still manages to get home to raise chickens so that she and her family have enough food. Compassion because there is a man who sneaks over barbed-wire electrified fences, walks 12 kilometres in the middle of the night through a reserve stocked with lion, leopard and hyena, to see his girlfriend, because the reserve does not allow anyone who doesn’t work there to enter the property (which is an understandable rule, given the poaching problem). Compassion because there are rangers who spend their days and nights taking care of the orphaned baby rhinos whose mothers have been poached and who can’t survive on their own. I have to have compassion because if I didn’t, I would not be able to continue doing the work that I do. I would lose heart and hope. And then what would be the reason to be alive?

Anyway, here’s the link to the list. Don’t say I never gave you anything 🙂 Oh, and because I haven’t included a song in a while (and practicing compassion definitely deserves a song), here’s an oldie but a goodie. And that’s today’s #buzzfromthebush.

 

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Jane Goodall, Life Lessons, South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why I came to Africa – It all comes back to one of my heroes

a fly on the wall

a fly on the wall

We cannot live through a single day without making an impact on the world around us — and we have a choice as to what sort of difference we make… Children are motivated when they can see the positive results their hard work can have.  – Jane Goodall

When I was a little girl, I was fascinated by Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. At the time, the show was only on on Sunday nights, so if you missed it, you missed out. There was no DVR, and episodes weren’t replayed twelve times a week. You were basically just SOL (shit outta luck). I would plan my days to make sure I didn’t miss an episode, and I was broken up if I did (especially if the episode was about animals I loved most, like sharks, apes, big cats, or elephants).

What I recall most vividly about those documentaries were two things: 1. they were so much less sensationalised (nay, they weren’t even REMOTELY sensationalised) than much of the crap that Nat Geo and Discovery air now – Shark Week, for example, has devolved into a joke, much to my dismay; and 2. there were women involved who were doing things other than painting their nails and shopping. They were tromping through mud and swamps and desert, bundu bashing, 4-x4ing their way around remote locales and hidden paradises. They were living in and among the natural world, connected to something I felt so separated from in my little NJ home by the sea.

My little heart yearned to join these women, to step away from what everyone thought was my pre-determined life, to flee the shackles of what was expected of me. My body ached with the desire to breathe the air at the top of Kilimanjaro, or to swim with whale sharks in Madagascar, or to stealthily slip through the dense brush as I searched for some new species, or to climb the steep ravines and hillside tracking gorillas in the mist like Dian Fossey. I wanted out. And I wanted outside.

I met Jane Goodall through those documentaries, and she changed my life.

Now, the reality is, I’ve never ACTUALLY met Jane Goodall. I would love to meet her one day, but I haven’t yet. I HAVE read so much of her work, and I’ve learned tremendous amounts about animal behaviour from her. But more importantly, I learned that I, as a female, could go hang out in the bush with the animals and IT WAS OKAY. Not only was it okay, it was awesome!

Thanks, Jane, for inspiring me to toss behind my life in America and drop myself into the colourful madness of South Africa, with nary a job in sight, doing the kinds of things I wanted to be doing. But it all worked out in the end.

I’d like to think everyone in this world has their own Jane to push them, to remind them to live out their dreams, to inspire them to care about more than just themselves. I hope that maybe I am a Jane to some people, that I’ve done something or been someone who has inspired others to live their best life. One can only hope.

I doubt I will ever achieve even an iota of what this remarkable woman has achieved. But that will never stop me from trying.

Thanks, Jane. Though we may never meet, know that you have touched another life profoundly. By the way, how cool is this book? Me…Jane

And that’s today’s #buzzfromthebush.monkeys at play

 

All rights reserved. ©2015 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, American, Bush, Conservation, Education, Expat, nature | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Many Faces of Insomnia, in South Africa and Elsewhere

eye shine, and not much else

eye shine, and not much else

I’ve battled bouts of insomnia since I was little. Bleary eyed and befuddled, I would drag myself from bed in the morning, fumbling through days I barely remembered, and collapse into bed that night, only to find myself staring at the ceiling for hours. I must’ve counted millions of sheep (and whatever other species I could think of) in my lifetime. Note: counting animals does not work.

Reading, music, meditation. I tried them all. Nothing works. My mind is a permanent hamster wheel, and on more occasions than I’d like, the hamster is in and churning furiously. These days I just accept it and adapt accordingly.

Insomnia in the bush is very different for me than insomnia anywhere else. When I am in the city, in the country, wherever, I simply can’t sleep, and not for lack of trying or desire to get some decent shut-eye. Civilisation rattles me. It throws dark thoughts in my head: doubts about whether I’m ever going to accomplish anything of meaning, questions about why I am on such a different path from my friends and family, stresses about whether I zigged when I maybe should’ve zagged. I find myself frustrated, angry, sad, confused, and anxious. Even though I make it a point to try to see the silver lining, when evening falls my mind unconsciously chooses to focus on the black clouds.

Civilisation reminds me that I don’t fit into it very well. I don’t buy into a lot of what makes society what it is. I’m not interested in a consumer culture. I do not buy into divisiveness and partisanism (if that’s even a word). I prefer to see people, not race, gender, culture or creed. I am, admittedly, intolerant of two things: intolerance (which is hypocritical and a bit of an oxymoron, I know, and so very Goldmember), and ignorance (especially when people CHOOSE to remain ignorant). And when I am back in civilisation, I find myself surrounded by a lot of this. It is anathema to me and what I care about and believe in.

This isn’t to say I think I know everything. Far from it. But I choose to educate myself and learn. Many people, I find, choose not to. They choose to ingest celebrity trash instead. You know, because that’s so useful and productive not only for themselves, but for the bigger picture.

Civilisation also reminds me that many people don’t care about the world outside of their teeny tiny sphere (unless it pertains to aforementioned topic of celebs). Nor do they know (or even care to know) anything about it. And though I am told I shouldn’t care, I do. And every time I meet someone who doesn’t care, I feel like a part of my heart and soul wither away.

                                                                                          Because: 

The interrelatedness of it all

The interrelatedness of it all

I don’t know how many people I’ve met who didn’t even know that South Africa was a country. I’ve also have to explain to many people that Africa is a continent. And that no, I am nowhere near Somalia. Or Nigeria. Or Yemen (which isn’t even on the same continent anyway!). That gets me upset, because this world is all interconnected. We all SHOULD care about stuff outside of our miniature microcosm. Because the bigger world is certainly being affected by our little microcosms. Incidentally, this also keeps me awake – worrying about the state of the world, something over which I know I have little control, but regardless, I still don’t want to give up on helping. It is exhausting and draining, and not in a good way.

The stress from all of this then manifests itself in my inability to find a peaceful-enough place in my mind to drop off into sleepy time. And even though I am in the zombie state of exhaustion, the more tired I am, the more I can’t sleep. I walk around as glazed as a donut, and about as sharp.

I’m not trying to put the blame on everyone else. I am simply stating my experience. I’ve been told time and again that I should stop caring. But I can’t. And I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. So for those of us who DO choose to care, please stop telling us not to.

In the bush, I WANT to stay up. I love hearing the night sounds that surround you out there. I strain to hear hyena whooping. I get chills when a leopard chuffs and saws nearby. I play out mini battles between Scops owls and nightjars, counting to see who calls the most often. And I listen to the chorus of frogs and toads rising to crescendo and then falling to silence again and again throughout the evening hours. Some nights I could swear I hear the planet breathing.

And the smells – the raw earthiness of dirt and trees, the peaty-ness of puddles and ponds, the various musty odours trailing behind animals as they pass you by – fill my nose with happiness.

In the bush, I don’t want to sleep. I don’t want to miss anything. I just become a sponge, letting my other senses take over from my normally overused eyes. I feel like I come alive. Unfortunately especially when I should be sleeping. Some days I think I should’ve been a researcher of nocturnal creatures…

So in terms of insomnia, though both situations – bush and civilisation – mean less sleep for me, I eagerly fall into the insomnia of the bush and flee from the insomnia of life outside the bush. Funny how one condition has such different effects on the same person in different circumstances .

I had a few videos of the night sounds of the bush, but they seem to have disappeared when my hard drive crashed. I tried to improvise by recording some stuff this weekend, but I can’t seem to upload video to the blog. So I will simply have to give you links to other people’s videos. Ah well.

The first one is a cacophony of frogs:

This next one features a hyena calling for her mom:

Here’s another constant in the bush – the nightjar (this is a fiery-necked nightjar), a little bird that has a penchant for hanging out in the middle of the road and flying out of the way just in time to not get hit, but not in enough time as to not produce heart palpitations in the driver trying to avoid hitting it.

And a male lion calling:

This last clip features a leopard I’ve actually met before. His name is Maxabeni (pronounced Masha BEH Nee), and he’s wookin pah nub in this clip.

Oh, and the photo at the top of the page? That’s eye shine from a lion munching on a carcass in the dark. I can only guess at what he’s eating, because I could see next to nothing. In fact, if someone hadn’t caught his eyes with a torch, I wouldn’t have even known he was there. Such is the mystery, magic and excitement of the bush, and a main reason I am happy not to sleep when I am there.

 

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Categories: adventure, Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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

South African Adventure #43 – Clogged Drains and Noncommittal Communications

Bush vehicles

Roads I frequent in South Africalocal rules of the road

Convenience is about as far from my world’s vocabulary as fresh sushi and pedicures. Phone service goes down on a weekly basis, which doesn’t matter much to me since I usually don’t have reception anyway. This is the first place I’ve ever been where you can literally stand still and go from full signal to none without doing so much as emitting a breath. Even in the cities, signal just plain sucks.  Not surprisingly, internet access is even worse.  Hence why I don’t update this blog as much as I’d like.

Depending on who you ask, there are either eleven or twelve official languages in South Africa. Luckily for me, English is one of them.  However, the majority of the local people around me speak Zulu or Shangaan, languages I cannot hope to comprehend in the near future, if at all.  They click when they speak, something my tongue simply refuses to do.  It isn’t nearly as difficult as Xhosa, another South African language, but that isn’t saying a whole lot.  Attempting to wrap my tongue around their pronunciations is akin to me doing the vocal equivalent of Rachmaninov.  I speak English and Spanish (poorly), with a smattering of French (even more poorly).  My languages pretty much all stem from the same source.  Zulu does not, nor does Afrikaans, another major language here.

Afrikaans is very similar to Dutch and German (neither language of which I comprehend, so it doesn’t matter anyway), and to me, it sounds and looks like a language I made up as a child. No offense, Afrikaaners, but it does. For example, ‘please’ in Afrikaans is ‘asseblief,’ pronounced hassa bleef. Readers, you draw your own conclusions.

At any rate, unless people speak English, I am screwed in the communications department here unless I gesticulate wildly and/or learn mime.

Things break on a daily, if not hourly, basis where I live.  Take the bathroom situation in one of the camps at which I worked.  The bathroom sink drained into the shower, which was supposed to then drain into the septic tank, ‘supposed’ being the operative word here.  That’s how it’s ‘supposed’ to work, anyway.  It didn’t.  Instead, the shower didn’t drain at all because the piping hadn’t been cleared since the Nixon Administration, and instead it filled up backwards with water from the septic tank, which also hadn’t been cleaned or cleared since around the same time.  You showered in sludge and toothpaste scum and who the hell knows what else.  For the first few visits to this camp, I opted to shower with the hose outside while wearing flip flops and a bathing suit.  But I love me a shower, so I knew I was eventually going to have to take matters into my own hands.

I’m fine with a lot of things most people would cringe at – sleeping in rooms (or tents) where geckos often fall on my head and snakes often sleep in the dark corners; going for days sweating in temperatures topping 40 celsius without being able to shower (of course, people here also don’t care if you smell a bit because so do they); constantly slathering myself in a barrage of bug repellants (of which the chemical component has probably shortened my lifespan by ten years); cooking and eating in kitchens that look like a cockroach convention when you turn on the light at night; the list goes on and on.  But this shower managed to test my patience and my ability to roll with it in a way nothing else has.  Because I work in conservation, I am not allowed to pour Drano or its South African equivalent down any drains, nor am I allowed to drop a nuclear bug-killing bomb on the kitchen or bathroom in an attempt to rid it of my nighttime multi-legged army.  I’m stuck with hand-to-hand combat, which has already landed me in the doctor’s office once for an allergic reaction to the potion I had to concoct.  It isn’t pretty.

Not one to be deterred by small trifles like ambulance visits, I finally decided one day to take the garden hose and snake it down the shower drain in an attempt to dislodge the mass tangle of hair and other crap that had taken residency in the drainpipe. What came out looked like something from Swamp Thing, and smelled worse.  I scrubbed my hands for almost an hour with bleach afterward. To this day, I am convinced some parasite managed to lodge itself in my skin during the battle, and my intestines are probably a host to the Aztec empire of nasties. I have to deworm here on a bi-yearly basis. I’m not kidding.

I knew moving here wouldn’t be easy. I knew there would be adjustments and differences, some subtle and some apparent.  Most of this has been fine.  But being cut off from everything is hard in so many ways.  I cannot speak to my friends and family whenever I want.  In fact, I can barely speak to them at all.  I’m lucky if I get in a phone call a week to someone outside this country.  I cannot reach them online because most of the time I have zero access to the internet.  I can’t even mail them a letter because I’m nowhere near a post office.  There is one in town, but that presents a whole slew of other problems, like adding driving and the local population of people and farm animals into the mix.

I’m still learning how to drive my manual diesel with the steering wheel on the other side of the car, so I don’t always feel comfortable going out on my own to town, and I often need to drive another 20k or so on dirt roads littered with roaming agriculture and potholes the size of a small country before reaching tarred roads. Those tarred roads have equally massive potholes and roaming livestock.  And then there’s town.

If I were to make an assumption about people’s regard for life here, and had to base that assumption on how said people interact with traffic, I could easily assume the locals all have a death wish and aren’t interested in living til tomorrow.  Everyone ducks and dodges within a hair’s breath of you and your very heavy vehicle. They don’t bother moving out of the road for oncoming traffic. They don’t move out of the way for anything. You can literally hit them with your car and PUSH them and they still don’t move out of the way. It stretches all the boundaries of patience, not to mention hand-eye coordination. I’m getting there, though.

I haven’t hit any trees or animals yet, though I did take out a few millipedes, which is understandable since they are only about 6 inches long. Luckily, nature seems to understand these types of things, making allowances for idiots behind the wheel by ensuring that creatures like millipedes reproduce in vast numbers, so a few run over here and there don’t make much of a dent in their population. As usual, nature is always one step ahead.

Driving poorly becomes an issue when the larger animals, particularly the endangered ones like wild dogs, are getting run over due to reckless driving – going too fast, texting while driving, or performing some other distracting task that shouldn’t be done while behind the wheel of a car at any point EVER. Unfortunately, I imagine nature assumed we all had brains and would use them whilst handling a vehicle. Sadly, in this case, nature is one step behind technology and underestimates mankind’s overall level of unwillingness to take responsibility for its actions. Like everywhere else in the world these days, South Africans are more interested in playing with their gadgets while driving irresponsibly than avoiding killing the local wildlife, which is interesting, since it’s that same wildlife which fuels a significant portion of the economy here. Yet another reason I cannot quite wrap my head around something like poaching.  But that’s another post for another day.

 

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: South Africa, Wildlife | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

South African Adventure #27 – Mambas in the Rafters

The other day, I walked into my bathroom, turned on the water to wash my hands, and – out of the corner of my eye – saw a rope fall from the ceiling. Rope? There was no rope in the bathroom. I swear my lizard brain kicked into gear a split second later because I very quickly stepped back against the canvas walls, somehow knowing I had to get out of the way. The rope was actually a snake. Had I stayed in place, I would have been blocking its only escape route (which was, unfortunately, right past my legs, no matter where I stood).

At first, the snake literally bounced around the floor, a potentially venomous jumping bean, unable to get any traction on the screed concrete. Eventually, it wriggled enough and threw itself past me, around the corner, and behind my bed.

I had to keep an eye on the snake (or in this case, pay attention to where it went and make sure I kept tabs on where it might go next), so I calmly walked past the bed, grabbed my cell, and called my fiancé, who has been handling snakes almost all his life. “Snake,” I said. “What kind?” he asked. Strangely, though I hadn’t gotten a good look at it and wasn’t particularly familiar with snakes to begin with, instinct told me what it was. “I think it’s a mamba,” I replied.

He quickly made his way down to our tent with snake tongs in hand, checked the snake’s whereabouts and confirmed that yes, it was indeed what is often considered the most feared and deadly snake in the world.  Apparently, the color (which, contrary to logic, is not black but gray), the size (thin and long), and the shape of the head, which is coffin-shaped, give it away.  Easier to identify when it’s curled up behind the bed, but when a snake is writhing about at top speeds in a dark room, it’s hard to tell what it is, except that it’s either a live wire (and since we have no electricity, that was ruled out immediately) or a snake.

After a bit of a struggle (the snake was happily ensconced in our mosquito netting and really didn’t want to leave), my fiance managed to get a good grip on it, get it out of the tent, and take it a few kilometers away to release it into the bush.  Valiant ranger saves the day.  The only problem is, mambas are territorial and arboreal.  And we have a bit of a squirrel problem in our roof.

A week later, I heard scuffling above my head, and what was looking down on me?  A little, gray, coffin-shaped head.  Mamba.  Guessing it’s probably the same one.  However, since it’s almost impossible to get up to the eaves of the roof to find it, we can’t really get it out.  In my book, though this is not good, I’m okay with it.  As long as it stays in the roof and gets rid of the squirrels, it can stay.  If it drops back in on me while I’m in the bathroom, we might need to relocate it to different pastures.  We’ll see.  At the moment, mamba and I seem to have reached an understanding.

I have many of these types of understandings out here. The geckos can hang in my house because they eat insects. Same with the frogs. But if the frogs are the really noisy kind, they get relocated as well.  You’d be amazed how loud a single frog can be. And frogs are kept to a minimum because they are a favored treat of spitting cobras and other terrestrial snakes. Arboreal is ok.  Terrestrial is not. They end up under your bed by choice, not default (as was the case with the mamba).  Not good.

I even tolerate some spiders, as they too eat insects. Some, however, cannot stay for reasons of personal safety. Black and brown button spiders cause much pain and illness, so they get the boot by way of Doom. I know, not exactly very conservation-minded of me, but my house is my kingdom. You invade and you get war. They do the same to me.

Baboon spiders get kicked out, though not through death by insecticide. They just get gently moved back outdoors by way of notebooks, brooms, or being nudged along by an article of clothing. Scorpions have to go as well, as many can very easily land you in the hospital. And they don’t eat the mosquitoes, so they don’t provide any necessary service to me. They don’t pay rent, so to speak, they don’t get to stay.

The nyala family that calls our camp home can stay as long as they want, though. They trim the hedges and mow the lawn on a regular basis, keeping the grass short and helping to keep hiding places for snakes to a minimum. And, shallow though it may be, they are awfully cute. They decorate the lawn nicely.

I’d like to add one note about this whole experience. Mambas are often labeled as aggressive snakes. I did not find that at all with this one, or any other snakes I’ve encountered since arriving in Africa, except for one baby Mozambican Spitting Cobra that we almost ran over (which I think probably entitles it to be aggressive). Snakes strike when they are threatened, or to kill food, and I promise you, for the vast majority of snakes in the world, you are WAY too big for their menu and biting you is a waste of their precious resources. Usually, they make a point to avoid you, and with the exception of puff adders, who have a habit of just sitting lazily, will hear the vibration from your footsteps and flee before you ever spot them.

Like pretty much everything else in the animal kingdom, snakes have learned that their best defense against humans is to avoid them.  Our mamba did everything in its power to avoid me and my fiancé, and never once did it lunge at us or show off the reason behind its name – the midnight black inside of its mouth. What you see on TV, even those ‘wildlife documentaries,’ is not always reality. Snakes are NOT around every corner, and also not always aggressive, and they should only be handled by professionals, as it is very easy to misidentify and mishandle them. Please keep that in mind the next time someone yells ‘SNAKE.’ The venomous monster they’re pointing at might actually be a harmless little brown house snake. Or the harmless little black snake in the corner you try to pick up might be a highly venomous baby forest cobra. Point is, leave them alone, and if you don’t want them around, get a professional to remove them for you.

Below are some images of our local snake population, including the mamba from my bathroom.

Black Mamba Removal

Puff Adder Bathing

 

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

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