Posts Tagged With: field guide

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

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

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

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

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

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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