Posts Tagged With: camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

My 2nd morning alarm clock, Mr. Woody Kingfisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

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

South African Adventure #58 – A Loo With A View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

View from the loo, aka the toilet

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


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

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

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From sand to sea, South African style

Yes, I realize there is sand IN the sea, and usually sand backs up TO the sea as well, but in this case, I’m referring to going from the sandy soil of our camp in Limpopo to the southern seas around Cape Town. I’ve spent the last week down south in the Western Cape, escaping the heat and oppressive humidity that has come to settle in our canvas home up country. Unfortunately, I haven’t fully escaped the mosquitoes, though there are infinitely fewer here than there. I will admit, though, that I killed a mosquito the other night here that had enough blood in her system to start a small blood bank. It was disturbing, really.  The splatter of blood that shot out of her abdomen made the tile floor look a bit like a crime scene, albeit a tiny one.

By the way, I say ‘her’ because it is only the females who bite. Just as an fyi. The males are pleasantly content to mill around the flower patch. I’m sure many people could come up with pithy one-liners about how females are often the deadlier of all the species. And you know what? I think I’d be inclined to agree. Females of all species seem to kick ass across the board, whether it be in small, microscopic levels as in mosquitoes (who, by the way, are also the biggest pawner of malaria and lots of other fun little parasites, once again proving that size doesn’t really matter), or massive levels (elephant breeding herd, which are led by equally massive matriarchs).

But back to the sand and the sea.  My life in the reserve can be compared to a primal storm of heat, humidity and dirt, lacking in all creature comforts and akin, in many ways, to quicksand in its ability to swallow you whole.  Getting back to nature in the reserve isn’t all that great, to be honest, and this is coming from someone who loves nature in all its forms (sorry, all forms but mosquitoes).  Life by the sea has more of a nurturing, tranquil, soul-saving element to it, though it can be equally difficult and violent.  So if you have a choice, do I go down in quicksand, or will it be in rough waters?  This is the predicament I face in South Africa.  I can quite literally sink or swim.  And if I swim, am I swimming in the right waters, or am I wasting my energy in the wrong pond?

When I moved to South Africa, I was met with much trepidation from my family, and much excitement from my friends, who insist they live vicariously through me.  Which is probably best for them, as I can’t imagine too many of them would be happy living in the conditions I’ve subjected myself to by uprooting to the other side of the world.  Sure, it’s cool to wake up to a gazillion birds tweeting away as opposed to a gazillion self-obsessed people tweeting away, but still, I prefer to not be woken up at 4am, and that’s the bird population’s fave time to croon.  When your walls are so thin you could push through them, the sound is a force, not just a lovely, muted plethora of white noise.  Sometimes the birds even come into the house and perch up on the rafters.  I should let them know there are mambas that frequent those heights, but as of yet, I haven’t learned to speak bird.  And they don’t understand Spanglish.  I know.  I’ve tried communicating in it.  They do, however, speak broom, and unhappily vacate the premises when I show them business end of the latest model of household sweepers.

For the record, I don’t make a habit of beating the animals out here.  In fact, I’m thus far only responsible for a few understandable casualties.  The majority are mosquitoes; one is a squirrel.  Yes, I know.  Squirrels are cute and fuzzy.  They also eat through everything, leave a mess wherever they go, and attract many a venomous snake.  They aren’t allowed to stay.  I defend my turf just like they defend theirs.  Other than that, I leave the wilderness intact.  I do give it a boost  to relocate sometimes, though, when it starts leaving trails of poo on my clothes.  Hence me ushering the birds out with the broom.  The frogs and geckos stay.  They eat the bugs, they earn their keep.  Bargains can be struck in any situation, I’ve found.

So after a bit of digression, I’m back to why I started this post – appreciating the differences in life, and accepting when it’s time to make a change.  I came to Africa because I was the cliche.  I needed a change of pace, a new headspace, and a way to get back to my creative roots.  I honestly believed it was a good idea to uproot my life and move it 13,000 miles away with no set job or home.  And I knew all of five people.  Nice odds for an easy transition, right?  But to me, it was important to get out of my comfort zone (which people who know me would laugh to hear, since when have I lived in any comfort zone in the last ten years?).

To me, the definition of ‘comfort zone’ is not simply the safety net of financial security, familial security, or the security of being somewhere (mentally, emotionally, physically) you know.  To me, the definition of ‘comfort zone’ is being in a space where you are no longer challenged on any level.   I need to constantly be learning, pushing myself physically, mentally and emotionally.  Ok, well maybe not emotionally.  I think I’ve pushed that far enough.  Definitely the other two, though.  I spent many years on the road as a touring singer/songwriter.  I know what it’s like to spend lots of time alone, introspectively ‘learning about myself.’  I’ve pushed myself on so many levels, and hit a plateau.  Not only that, but I found that while there is always room to grow, I wasn’t interested in growing in the directions available, which meant I needed to change direction and head down a new path.  There’s always Africa, right?  The continent has a (well-founded) reputation of being behind the rest of the world, and whether the people here want to hear it or not, South Africa still has a lot of work to do.  Plenty of natural resources and money, but not enough structure or accountability.  To call it frustrating for someone who grew up in a highly developed country would be the understatement of the year.

The challenges I thought I would face are a bit different to the ones I’m actually facing, leaving me to wonder every day that I’m here if perhaps I made a mistake.  Not because I don’t love it here.  I do. Well, I have a love-hate thing with the place, yet I am drawn to it, to its irrefutable beauty and its rawness, and to its inherent possibilities and opportunities.  So here I am, floating in a sea of wonder, unsure of how to keep afloat and whether the life raft I’ve tied on to is really a life raft or yet another safety net.  Each day I tell myself that the universe conspires to help you, to give you what you need at the time that you need it.  I question that incessantly, and yet still firmly believe in it.  I have to, or I will sink, and do so thousands of miles from my family, my friends, and my comfort zone.   It’s certainly a growth opportunity, and definitely one I promise my friends and family would not trade their comfortable lives for.  I have to admit, however, that I always feel alive.  Every day I am aware, aware of my surroundings, of my senses and emotions, and of my abilities (and lack thereof in some cases).  Never does a day go by where my mind is not buzzing, and you know what?  I wouldn’t want it any other way.  South Africa, I love you.  Well, most of the time…

All rights reserved. ©2010 Jennifer Vitanzo

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The lion sleeps tonight…

In this case, there are three lions.  Sub-adults.  One female, two male.  And they liked the patch of short grass right outside my chalet.  I was truly convinced they would one day be waiting for me on my balcony, drinks in hand, ready to play a game of cards.  Or they’d eat me.  I’d obviously prefer the former.

I used to work at a private game reserve in KawZulu Natal, South Africa, as a priority species monitor.  What that means is I followed animals around and recorded their behavior.  In some cases, we had to pull them out of snares (bad days) and in others we got to see moments like wild dog puppies on their first day out of the den (good day).  It was a world of ups and downs.  Nature, red in tooth and claw, has no mercy, and yet has all the compassion the world can offer.  I challenge you to watch a herd of elephants when one of their group has gone down, sick, injured or whatever else may have dropped it, and not see the incredible sense of community, love and devotion these creatures possess.  Same for a pack of wild dogs traveling with an injured animal.  One will stay behind to make sure the lagging one stays with the pack and is never alone.  Attributing human behavior to animals is rampant out here, and not simply because I want to make them all cute and cuddly.  It happens because these animals behave with more than just a sense of intuition and instinct.  They have codes of conduct that they follow.  They have family bonds.  They get angry and happy.  If it wasn’t so fascinating, I might say it was eerie, especially when it comes to watching the primates.

On a normal day, I’d roll out of bed before dawn to the sound of a horrible alarm clock that might actually start giving me nightmares, suit up in my dull colored “uniform” of browns, beiges and greens (and sometimes, when I was feeling very adventurous, dark blues), put in my contacts, brush my teeth, and walk out into the coming dawn, still half asleep in some ways and yet overly alert to the presence of deadly animals.  Showering in the morning isn’t an option when you rise at 4am.  Plus, considering I would spend the better part of the day sweating in the hot sun, and didn’t often have hot water, it’s sort of a useless exercise until I got back for the afternoon break when the cold water would be refreshing as opposed to heart attack-inducing.

I would amble over to the kitchen for toast, peanut butter and jelly, then walk to the requisite Land Cruiser and hop onboard.  Off we’d go, into the wild blue yonder.  Some mornings we’d see wildlife right off the bat.  One day, in fact, we had a journey (or kaleidoscope, depending on who you ask) of giraffe (and yes, a group of giraffe is actually called one of these two things; I’m not making this up) all around us as we headed out of camp, giant totem poles slowly drifting through the morning fog.  Then there were days when we’d drive for hours on end and see not much more than a few birds.  Once we were joined by a baby praying mantis who took up residency on my leg, and was then delicately moved to the dashboard to give it a better view and to avoid me from inadvertently squishing it.  I’m including a picture of him, because, as insects go, he was awfully cute.  And he (or she – I don’t know) is probably the only insect in this country that hasn’t bitten me.  So points for the mantid.    Now I work in an entirely different part of the country.  Still in the bush, but not monitoring animals anymore, per se.  Now I monitor students who study at the camp I run, which, on any given day, can be the same thing.  I’m starting to think the students are more difficult to work with…


All rights reserved. ©2010 Jennifer Vitanzo

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Life in the bush…

I drive a Land Rover with no power steering, an aversion to second gear, a passenger side door that doesn’t stay closed, and the reverse gear in the opposite place to where it should be. My home is a building about 20×15 with no solid walls. My roof is thatch and also happens to be home to some wildlife like squirrels and mice who get in through the eaves and take up residency, often leaving small presents of little brown pellets sporadically scattered on the screed concrete floor. I do have hot water and water pressure, but my bathroom doesn’t have a door. Every night, a door mouse comes to visit my waste bin, munching on whatever it can find. It also has a liking for bars of soap, my eye cream, and vitamins.

Two nights ago, a leopard walked through camp. It was so close its breathing shook the canvas on our tent. There was a huge male on our side, and a female on the other side of camp. Didn’t see them, but sure heard them, and found the tracks the next morning.

My boyfriend and I run a camp where they train the field guides for safaris. I am pretty much camp mom, and he is an assistant instructor. We are both babysitters to an extent as well. Living in the bush with no modern conveniences (no electricity in our tents, and the only power coming from a generator that is on for just a few hours a day) means having to plan everything. To keep a charged phone and laptop, you need to make sure you always have the appropriate plugs and adaptors with you constantly.

A snouted cobra with a head the size of my fist and a body the width of my forearm visited me in my office (my office being a large tent with an aerial on top for better internet signal). There were three of us inside talking when we heard what sounded a bit like the wind picking up, swooshing. We looked up and less than a meter away was this massive snake. His head was up, he was checking out the scene, and then he quickly pulled a 180 and cruised away. I saw his tracks later along the pathway to the students’ tents. It was a first. My only other snake encounters out here have been mostly from a car, although I did come face to face with a baby forest cobra by accident on a quiet day in Hluhluwe iMfolozi’s research camp. This was the first time I was up close and personal with a dangerous and HUGE snake. It was a little unnerving and exciting at the same time. That night after the visit, all I did was dream about snakes.

The other night I found the resident mouse in my toilet, drinking from it. Because of the tank system, the actual toilet bowl only fills up a tiny bit after each flush, so the mouse was essentially sitting in about three centimeters of water. I guess he dropped into the bowl for a sip and was happily playing away in his private plunge pool when I woke up to the sound of water splashing behind me. The river being in FRONT of me, I was at first confused, especially since I’d heard the same sound from the same direction a few nights before and knew there wasn’t any nearby water source (besides the toilet) in that direction.  I walked over to the toilet and shined the light. Imagine my surprise to see the tiny grey mouse looking back up at me, its huge black eyes confused, frightened, and probably thinking, “shit, they caught me”. My boyfriend was convinced he was terrified, but since I had heard the mouse splashing around in there before (although I didn’t realize it was a mouse and thought it must’ve been outside our house last time), I knew the little guy was more than capable of getting out on his own. There was clearly no threat of him drowning either. But we couldn’t really just leave him there. It was a moment of to flush or not to flush. The mouse had, after all, had a habit of chewing through our stuff and waking me almost every night when he got into the trash bin. But he was so cute. I couldn’t bring myself to push the handle.

I admit I had a fleeting thought of reaching into the bowl and picking up the mouse, although a split second later I realized that would be a dumb idea, with diseases and all that lovely little meeses carry. So my boyfriend, rugged ranger that he is, managed to get the mouse to crawl up on the toilet cleaner brush and carried him out into the night, tossing him gently into the outside brush where the mouse quickly ran off into the night. He hasn’t been back since, so we’ll see what happens. Of course, since his last visit, I have been fortifying the house as best as possible, given that I have canvas and shade cloth walls that meet a concrete slab floor and is held up by termite-infested poles holding up a thatched roof. My home is a standing lightening rod. And now we have an aluminum solar panel latched onto the side of the roof. Nothing like having a small semi-conductor of electricity tied to an already fire-hazard roof. Can’t wait for the rains to come…

By the way, above is a picture of one of my neighbors. We shared a sundowner together the other day. He drinks the water out of the river. I choose not to do so. I’m fairly sure by choosing not to do so saves my internal organs.


All rights reserved. ©2011 Jennifer Vitanzo

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Hello world!

I live in the South African bush.  Seriously, I do not belong here, not because I don’t love it, but because  I spent the last 15 years of my life in giant cities.  My childhood was spent growing up on a small barrier island no wider than a mile at it’s biggest.  To say I’ve spent most of my life very isolated from nature would be a vast understatement, unless you are referring to squirrels, chipmunks and various other Disney woodland creatures.  Deer are about as big as it gets, and deer don’t eat humans.  Of course, things change once you get in the ocean.  Then, well, then there are rather large fish that can eat you.  But that I can handle, because I grew up with it.  Lions walking by my room at night?  Well, that would be a bit outside my comfort zone.  And yet I can’t get enough of it!!!!

Why am I writing this?  Well, when you live a few thousand miles (and several continents) away from your friends and family and home country, people want you to keep them updated on what you’re doing.  Hence the blog.  Via the beauty of the world wide web, I can keep everyone updated about my experiences in the wilds of Africa.  And c’mon.  Don’t tell me you don’t think it’s hilarious to read about how a city girl deals with her first snake encounter (not the man, the actual reptile) or a drain that hasn’t been unclogged since the Nixon administration.  You can all get a giggle from my mishaps and frustrations.

I would love the opportunity to share with you how amazing this place is.  So come on.  Jump in to my adventure!

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