Posts Tagged With: bush

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

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

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

Images from Varying States of Work in the South African Bush, or Yes, I Really Do Live in South Africa

I know; this is big. Two posts in one week. The world must be ending. So since I couldn’t include a picture with my last post, I thought I’d compile some silly pictures of me doing what I do best in the middle of the wilds of South Africa – which is look like an idiot. Between showering outside fully clothed because it was the only clean water available, and shoveling cheetah poo when the cats were focused on their morning meal, I certainly haven’t lacked in the ‘glamourous’ side of life out here. This post is specifically for the people convinced I don’t actually live in South Africa, and that what I really do is imagine these situations, cull images from the Internet that fit my tall tales and post it all as my own adventure, hoping no one ever notices. Well, though I prefer to keep pictures of myself to a minimum when there are much better things to look at here, I thought maybe it was time I revealed a little bit more of me to you. Which doesn’t sound right. Anyway, here is a gallery of me in various locations and doing various tasks. These are all family-friendly photos, I promise. There was also a video of me feeding goslings (no, not Ryan, sadly), but the file was too big and reducing it is currently well beyond my technological capacity and Internet bandwidth. Maybe someday you’ll get to see me doing my best Mother Goose impression. But I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.

 

All rights reserved. ©2014 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, American, Animal, Bush, cheetah, Education, Elephant, Expat, Lion, Rhino, South Africa, 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

South African Adventure #1 – Bush Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

All rights reserved. ©2012 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

Bush Parade…Right Outside My Door

The other night, I was quite literally living inside a parade.  A parade of elephants.  A breeding herd decided to come visit the camp at 10pm.  We had elephants of all sizes traipsing through the brush literally walking down the pathways and between the tents.

All I could do was stand in my doorway and watch them go by, as I didn’t dare try to get any photos.   Elephants weigh a few tons, have no problem throwing their weight around, and have an aversion to camera flashes, particularly at night.  I live in a canvas tent.  Picture of an elephant eating the tree next to my window and then me getting squooshed when I momentarily blind it and piss it off?  Or stay alive and contentedly watch them from my front stoop as they blithely puttered along down the pathway and stay intact?  I chose to stay intact, so I’m sorry, but I have no photos of the experience for you.  However, I do have plenty of photos of close encounters with elephants, which I’ve included, as a stand-in for our late-night visitors.

We knew the elephants were in the area.  One of the perks of living on a reserve is that there are many people constantly in the bush for some reason or another, whether it is field guides guiding guests, the anti-poaching unit patrolling the perimeters, the wildlife monitors tracking animals, or simply the reserve manager out for a late-afternoon jol.  All of them keep everyone else abreast of what is going on, and what animals are where.  All except the rhinos.  The rhinos’ whereabouts are on lock-down these days, and for good reason.  We even have to keep a tight lid on the rhino locations when we see them – we are only supposed to report them to certain people, and not over the radio.  Elephants, however, are fair game on any radio channel, and honestly, it’s a safety concern when it comes to elephants.  When they pass through, they cause all kinds of damage, and aren’t always the most pleasant of creatures when you surprise them in the bush.  Or when they surprise you when you’re walking out of the bathroom.  Which happens more often than you’d think.

Rarely do we get a chance to see them at night, though, so it was breathtaking to be standing in my doorway as several-ton beings ambled by, munching on my yard, clearing a view for us as they tore away branches (and even small trees).  While they, like any animal, are unpredictable, it wasn’t their behavior I was concerned with, though. It was my little white Golf sitting in their pathway that had me worried.  Though it would make no sense for them to intentionally squoosh the car, they were eating the trees all around the car, and elephants have a penchant for knocking trees over to get at the moist roots.  The car was right in the path of a few tall acacia trees.  Not only would the car suffer serious damage from the weight of a tree falling on top of it, but it would also sustain damage from the three-inch thorns populating the branches of said tree like a medieval torture device.

For two hours, my fiancé and i periodically got up and watched the elephants from my door, both of us wrapped in sleeping bags to ward off the night chill, and stock still so as to not disturb the company.  We saw an entire family, from little peanuts tripping through the brush to big brothers and sisters knocking their younger siblings about, to older matriarchs keeping the teenagers in line with occasional swats of their trunks.

When we weren’t at the door, we were in bed listening to them chewing the scenery all around our tent.  All night, we heard their low rumblings, occasional trumpeting, and more than a few fart bubbles.  The sounds reverberated through my body and eventually lulled me to sleep.

When we woke in the morning, the only reminders of our evening visitors where branches littering the pathways, a few less trees and shrubs, a better view of the river, and some rather large, smelly squares of dung.  Some of the students, whose tents were literally a foot from where the elephants walked, had not even woken up last night.  That’s one of the most amazing things about these creatures – while they may weight several tons and grow to a good 15 feet high, they can also move soundlessly, the fat pads on their feet enabling them to maneuver like ninjas through even the thickest leaf litter.  As always, nature manages to amaze me once again.

Song of the day: “Nellie the Elephant” by Toy Dolls

By the way, an elephant with its trunk up, like the one in this photo below, is supposed to be good luck.  While that’s nice to consider, really, they’re just sniffing you out…

 

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

A local ellie taking a sniff around

Ellies crossing the road
 

Elephants on parade

Ellie siblings
Baby and sister ndlovus giving love

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

South African Adventure #1000 – Flying Offices and Lucky Breaks

I went to bed to a raucous chorus of crickets and cicadas.  This morning, there’s a whole new sound – roaring water. We had a massive thunderstorm blow through last night.  Today, my office is in a tree.  It’s funny how big of a role geography plays in the ways storms affect things.  We’ve had several since I started working here.  They’ve made a muddy mess, but haven’t caused any real damage, which is lucky, since my thatch-roofed abode with the aluminum solar panel on top is a fire hazard from hell.  Last night’s was different.  Last night’s almost swept the entire camp away.

Had the storm blown in from any other direction, we would’ve gotten a proper soaking, but not much else.  Because it came in from the north, which is contrary to the direction the storms usually come from, much of the camp was exposed to the extremely high winds as well as the soaking rains.  Everything that wasn’t properly secured (which is most of the camp) suffered serious damage, from permanently mangled tent poles to irreparably torn canvas tents to an airborne office.

Because the storm system was quite severe upriver, we were literally ambushed by floodwaters that originated many, many miles from where we are. In fact, had we gotten no rain at all, we still would’ve gone from dry river bed, to a fully flowing Niagara deal.  Several water systems converge just slightly upriver from where we’re based.  Any water that fell there rushed downriver towards us and eventually pooled in the narrow channel right outside my door.  The waters filled the riverbed and rose about 20 feet in only a few hours.  Now I truly understand the potency and unpredictability of flash floods.

The image you see above is not a giant deflated balloon, but in fact my prior place of employment.  I still have a job, it’s just I no longer have an office in which to do said job.  Then again, it wasn’t much of an office to begin with, so maybe this destruction is for the best.  Okay, not maybe.  It is DEFINITELY for the best.

Bush Office

This is what happens when you work in a tent that isn’t properly secured…

That pathetic, drooping mess in the photo used to be an 8×10 foot canvas tent, sheltered from the blistering Limpopo heat by marula and jackalberry trees.  Small animals, birds, and insects regularly dropped by for some watercooler chat.  It was a nice, casual environment.  I was about 30 feet from the kitchen, about three feet from the lecture hall, and a short tumble down a riverbank to the dry riverbed below.  After last night, though, it isn’t a dry riverbed anymore.  In fact, it’s an actual flowing river now, complete with rip currents and small rapids.  It’s amazing that you can fall asleep to sand and wake up to water.  And it’s scary how destructive that water can be.

It took about 15 people to get my office down from where it was hanging in the tree.   Everyone in camp spent the day resetting up tents, cleaning, and rebuilding.  There was mud everywhere, including in my office laptop.  Again, another blessing, since that little dinosaur of technology was well past its use-by date.  Since my employers have no interest in bringing the camp up to the 21st century, but somehow expect me to work within the parameters of 21st century technology, I had to rely on luck to get the useless piece of history replaced.  Of course, this now leaves me with NO technology at all, but honestly, that isn’t all that far off from where I was a day ago. At least now I have what will be considered a viable excuse as to why I can’t do my work.  Without a computer, no one can tell me it’s my fault that the battery needs to be replaced, or that the internet doesn’t work (and yes, this stuff actually gets blamed on me, not on the lack of a working battery or almost nonexistent signal out here).  Of course, it also means I have no computer, plain and simple.  Luckily for me, I have a personal laptop that managed to avoid total destruction.  My employers don’t know that, though, and I’m not planning on telling them.  Sometimes I really feel you need to savor the moment and practice acts of self-preservation. This is one of those times when what they don’t know won’t hurt them, and will keep me sane.

I would like to add that the current flock of students did a tremendous job of putting the Humpty Dumpty camp back together again.  Everyone did his or her part, no matter how unpleasant, and we did eventually get the office out of the tree.  Of course, like the bedtime character, there was no way we were putting it back together again.

Now, until we get a new tent to replace my mutilated one, my office consists of a plastic chair, a notebook on my lap, and an unobstructed view of the new river.  Really, it could be a lot worse.  No rush on that office, guys, no rush at all.  Of course, as they say, this is Africa.  I’m pretty sure there would be no rush anyway.  And that’s fine with me.

 

Song of the day – as to be expected, ‘Africa’, by Toto.  Because today I am blessing the rains….

 

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

Categories: Africa, Animal, Conservation, South Africa, 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

South African Adventure #246 (One Guinea Rescues Another)

Because I can poke fun of myself and my culture, I feel I can use this title with impunity.  If the fowl language offends you, well, there are many other blogs out there.  For those of you who appreciate my sense of humor – read on, intrepid travelers!

Yesterday’s South African adventure was to rescue a helmeted guinea fowl chick (hence the title).  Well, I’m not sure that I really rescued it, but I’m going with that, because it was clearly confused and lost, and needed a bit of redirection, which I, ever-eager Patron of Lost Causes, was ready to supply.

For the record, I am still in Cape Town, hence the references to things like windows, which I don’t have in the bush.  I have shadecloth.  Windows, walls? Doors? Those are luxuries, my friend.

Anyway, I heard a chirping sound coming from the backyard that I was sure was a guinea fowl (they wander around all over here), but I didn’t see any, so I brushed it off.  Then I saw something cruise past the window and realized it was a guinea fowl chick gone astray.  Eager to get it back to the parents and family it clearly lost somewhere in the brush, my fiancé and I attempted to corner it, catch it, and re-release it with its family.  As with catching any wild animal (and even some domestic ones), catching birds, even terrestrial birds, is like greasing a pig and then trying to put a bow on it. They don’t want to be caught, and understandably so.  Most caught animals either end up missing limbs, or even worse, on a dinner plate.  I’d run like hell too.

There are two species of guinea fowl in South Africa – helmeted and crested – and you don’t only find them in the bush.  Guinea fowl traipse all over the neighborhoods in places like Johannesburg and Cape Town, whistling away like persistent pan flutes and dashing in sync from lawn to lawn like schools of fish.  While their body shape is essentially the same (apple-bottomed-jean-types with all their junk in the trunk, sporting giraffe-like necks, dark plumage, and the requisite wiry bird legs), their tiny heads are totally different. The crested species looks a bit like Elvis, complete with black bouffant of feathers sprouting on top of the head.  The helmeted ones resemble modern day dinosaurs, with baby-blue faces and crowns on their mantles akin to a hadrosaur (you remember them – the ones with the big, bony crest on their pates), and slight turkey-ish wattles on either side of their beak.  Watching them run around evading me is what I imagine it would’ve been like to watch herds of their prehistoric predecessors evading T-Rex.

Back to yesterday’s rescue.  Having heard adult guinea fowls calling from the front of the house, and hearing none at the back, I assumed this little chick somehow got seriously turned around, ended up on the wrong side of the building, and was now frantically searching for a route back to its bigger family members. However, once we caught the chick and released it to the flock out front, we went back behind the house and realized there were now three more brown fuzzballs pinging around from one bush to the next like wayward pinballs, and that we’d just introduced this other chick to a whole new family.  Luckily family dynamics in the guinea fowl world mean that the new family would take this little one in, either not knowing the difference or not caring.  Guinea fowl are precocial (meaning they can take care of themselves from birth), so all he really needed was safety in numbers anyway, which he now had.

The rest of our ‘rescued’ chick’s fluffy brown bundles of softly squeaking siblings might’ve noticed his absence, though, as they continued to chirp away for quite some time in the backyard, I’m assuming probably searching for their missing family member.  Though I doubt they can count, I’m pretty sure they instinctively know one was gone from the ranks.

I’d like to believe that guinea fowl have short memory spans, but apparently either they don’t, or they simply can’t break routine. The babies were all back today.  And there was another little one – possibly the same one, as it’s very hard to tell the difference between one cotton ball and the next at these speeds, sizes and juvenile colorations  – frantically trying to break into the house again.  Perhaps it’s been dared by less intrepid family members to enter human habitat.  Have I come across the Mikey of the helmeted guinea fowl world?

Once again, I found myself on guinea fowl chick patrol, catching and releasing, catching and releasing.  This one, though, I took a little time to snuggle with, in a pathetic attempt to calm its clearly frayed nerves.  Finding I was a poor stand-in for a guinea fowl mama, I reluctantly let the little guy go, ushering him under the bushes and out of view from potential predators sailing overhead.  Hopefully this time the little guy found its family before a local predator found IT.  We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Attempting to calm the nerves of this lost little peanut

Mom/Dad Helmeted Guinea Fow

What a helmeted guinea fowl chick looks like when not in a vise grip

 

ELVIS LIVES!!!!adult helmeted guinea fowl

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

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