Sunday, February 27, 2011

Weekend in Jeffrey's Bay

On Saturday, they took anyone whose interested on a weekend trip to Jeffrey's Bay, about an hour and a half from Kwantu and right on the ocean, west of Port Elizabeth. Kwantu pays for our hostel and the bus to take us there, and all we have to cover is food and drink and whatever purchases we wanted to make once in town.

Unfortunately, both Saturday and Sunday were kind of misty and not beach weather, so we mostly hung out at the hostel and, as you can probably see, relish in the presence of working internet. However, it was an excellent move for me to come into town because I was able to go to the mall and buy a new digital camera; FINALLY I'll be able to start taking pictures of all the incredible things I've been seeing and doing. Furthermore, it was good to have a couple beers for the first time since Cape Town. With all the physical work we're doing at Kwantu, with the summer sun beating down on us the entire time, a good beer at the end of the day or dinner would be a Godsend. However, Kwantu is owned and managed by a devout Muslim family, and alcohol is completely prohibited at camp.

The hostel here is really neat, right on the beach, and is a hippie backpackers / tent camp. About all 25 of us came in, so we've just had a relaxing 24 hours hanging out and enjoying each other's company. Now, it's back to Kwantu and another week of work on the reserve and in camp. Hopefully the internet that's been down for awhile will come back online so that I can continue writing posts (maybe even upload pictures) as they happen and not just all at once when I get back. Stay tuned!

Elephant Reserve

Today, Friday the 25th, we began with an early-morning walk of the camp and the exterior roads. It was a misty and wet morning, so in addition to picking up litter where we saw it, we were checking the voltage of the electric fences to make sure they're still strong. After breakfast, though, we packed our bags and grabbed some sack lunches in order to spend the entire late morning and afternoon at Kwantu's elephant reserve a little ways away. Just recently, Kwantu opened up an elephant reserve on a nearby plot of land to take in elephants that would otherwise be culled in national parks like Kruger where elephants are actually overpopulated. They can't reintroduce many of these into the bush because they're accustomed to humans helping to provide for them and take care of them. For instance, the four recently arrived from Kruger National Park actually sleep in a massive barn every night.

We started our work at the elephant reserve by fixing some wire fences that were in disarray. We spent our morning doing that and cleaning up excess barbed wire left over from when the property was a farm. After lunch, we got the barn ready for the elephants by fixing their food, water, and baling hay for them to sleep on. Once we had that all figured out, however, we were free to go find the elephants in the bush and interact with them. We walked about a mile across the plain to a massive cactus forest. It really surprised me that the prickly pears look really similar to Texas ones, except they grow up mostly more than they grow outwards. These cacti were up to 15 feet tall it seemed. All of the sudden, four of the elephants appeared from within the cactus and came over to us. It was incredible how such a huge animal could still be concealed rather easily out in the wild.

The four that we met were the ones from Kruger National Park and were all female. The oldest was 18, two were 11, and the last was 9. The size difference between the eldest, Amarula, and the 9 year old, Ngdevo, was still pretty substantial even though Ngdevo isn't a baby by any means anymore. They came right over to us and were just grazing along as if we weren't there. The only difference was that if you offered them a big tuft of grass or shrub, their trunk would come over to grab it from your hands.

We walked along with the elephants as they grazed for a good hour or two, as these four were slowly processed back toward the barn by their handlers. They were really majestic creatures and obviously very intelligent; they're capable of expressing emotions like depression or bashfulness in addition to normal ones like rage. They preferred pats or scratches on the head, between the eyes, or right in front of their ears. Their texture was really course, and felt like sandpaper with millions of little hairs sticking out from the wrinkles. We got them back in the paddock near the barn and at that point, we got offered to ride them around. Even if a trainer was leading them from the ground, I definitely wanted to get on one just to say that I've ridden an elephant.

We got back to Kwantu around 5 and had just enough time to shower and get cleaned up before we had a Friday night braai, or South African barbecue, up at the mess hall. Myself and the five other guys (all Brits) helped Avance, our coordinator, cook the meat and before long we had a feast prepared. It was more food than we normally have so everyone thoroughly stuffed themselves. After dinner, we went back to the Cub's Corner, the lodge were the majority of the volunteers are staying, to light a campfire and enjoy snacks and drinks purchased in town specifically for the braai. We had all sorts of chocolate, chips, candy etc.

The highlight of the day, however, wasn't the elephant interaction but the night drive myself and 11 others took out on the reserve. Night and early morning drives are supposedly the best time to see game, and we definitely saw more than I had at any earlier time put together. Over the course of two hours, we saw the sole bull elephant, cape buffalo, and massive herds of springbok, blesbok, waterbok, and wildebeest. We even saw an anteater from afar, a jackal, and some spring hares, which are these crazy rabbits that look like they have a squirrel tail. At one point, we drove into a clearing and there were blesbok and wildebeest completely surrounding us; probably 200 sets of eyes reflecting the lights from the car and our spotlights. It was pretty incredible. Overall, a really really great day and the best one so far, even if we had missed the lion, rhino, and some other notable animals on our night drive.

Day 2 at Kwantu

This morning we started with some more predator interaction before it got too hot, when all the animals start getting lazy and sleep all day. Some of the workers were about to feed a freshly-cut up cow to the lions, tigers, and cheetah, so we weren't going inside the pens this time (they're apparently too aggressive when its near or during feeding time). Instead, we just got a mini-lecture about the various traits and behaviors of the animals.

After breakfast was another manual labor stint, this time chopping down trees in the wilderness to make poles for game capture. We needed about 100 in order to set up another location in the bush from which to hang the nets to ensnare some of the plains game. There was nothing glorious about the job, but while we were en route we got pretty close to three giraffes that continued to watch us while we worked.

After lunch, were supposed to go on a game count, where you drive around the reserve and just count how many animals you spot. They use these numbers to monitor what the lions are eating, births occurring, and the possibility of poachers. However, we only got a few minutes into the reserve before our Land Rover broke down. We were able to drive back to the camp, so it's not like we were completely stranded, but it made our game count end prematurely. All we saw was a group of six waterbok. However, as a form of compensation, William the game warden let us go inside the tiger toddler cage and play with Hobbes (after the tiger cartoon). Hobbes thinks he's still just a tiny cub, but he's getting to be a pretty big and powerful animal. He liked putting his arms around William the most, but at his encouragement Hobbes would jump into all of our laps in time.

After dinner, it was just the same as last night and I spent my time after a movie reading on the patio before bed. We have earl grey tea brewing 24 hours a day, so I enjoy sitting outside before it gets too dark and have a cup of tea with my book. Once the sun goes down, the bugs get pretty intense and I head inside.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Day 1: Wednesday, Feb. 23

Woke up this morning eager to start and get out into the bush. I was exceptionally lucky to start today, as this morning was scheduled for a game capture. I was told these only happen once every week or two, so I was excited to be doing something rare on the first day. We got into some of those open air Land Rovers (the stereotypical safari vehicles) and headed out of the camp toward the reservation. After going through a two-layered fence reminiscent of Jurassic Park, we were onto the wilderness reservation and the bush. We drove around for a bit until we got to an open field for the game capture. We set up a series of nets on fence posts in a crescent shape between two thick patches of trees and shrubbery, and the idea was for William, the game warden, to ride his motorbike around and herd animals toward our net trap. Once the animals got close to the nets (and thus able to see them, I suppose) we were to emerge from cover in the tree clumps and scare them back toward the nets to entangle them. Once trapped in the nets, they would have blood drawn for samples, have a collar checked or attached, etc.

We divided into two groups and hid in the undergrowth on either end of our crescent shape of nets, waiting for William to herd something back on his motorbike. On his first run, he brought in a group of springbok and blesbok - two types of antelope - but they are incredible jumpers. All but one saw the nets and were able to leap over them. The one that ran straight into the nets was quickly subdued by the volunteers, and William was able to extract blood from it and then released it again. On the second run, he brought in a whole herd of blue wildebeest, but they swung wide and missed the nets completely, going around the backside of them instead. We had time for one more run before going back for breakfast, so William headed out again. Several minutes later, when we heard the noise from the motorbike approaching, we got ready to spring out once again. We came out of the trees and bushes and there was an ostrich in full stride, being chased by William on the motorbike. Everyone (but me) had been told how dangerous a pissed-off ostrich can be (long middle claw on the foot like a velociraptor - another Jurassic Park parallel) and I was the one person that didn't turn around and run. The ostrich ended up cutting back from where it came, though. After we were done and circled up talking to the game warden, William said: "Everyone else is running away from it and then I see the bloody Texan running toward it."

After we went back to the camp to have breakfast, my group went out to do some manual labor in the predator camp. This shift, we had the unglorious task of weeding around the electric fence around one of the two tiger enclosures. If the grass and weeds grow too talk, they can intertwine with the electric wires and, if it rains, decrease the voltage running through them. We spent around two hours weeding before we got our side clear and were allowed to go play with the cubs before lunch. As I mentioned in the last post, there are 2 lion cubs with 2 tiger cubs in the "Cubs Crib," with a tiger toddler in the next cage over. The cubs are all separated from their mothers after about 6 weeks so that they can be raised carefully by the wardens. All four of the cubs, but especially the Bengal tigers, are adorable. They're aggressive because they're wild animals, but they're still babies and like to come up and play with you. They'll slide past you and hop into your lap like normal house cats would though, and they'll bite and scratch the same if you make them angry. We played with them for a little while before it was time for lunch.

After lunch, my group went back to the predator enclosures to meet all the various grown-up tigers. The two tiger parents, Jasmine and the male, have an enclosure to themselves. Their three adolescent cubs have a separate enclosure next door. There are also four lion enclosures (one for the pair of white lions, then a male one and a female one, to prevent interbreeding, and then a third one for toddlers that aren't old enough to breed yet) and a cheetah enclosure. We went into the lion toddler enclosure to play with them first. They are like the cubs in that they are still anxious to be played with and like human interaction. However, you have to give them a lot more respect than the cubs, because by this stage they're already 100+ pounds and very forceful animals. Next, we went into the white lions enclosure with William, the game warden, as he is the only one able to instill the discipline needed to interact with the grown-up animals. The white lions, Simba and Nala, are fully grown but are kept to themselves because of their unique breed. Thanks to William's presence, they were able to lounge around and let us pet them and take pictures. It's ironic how, with a single jab, they could take off an arm, but if they open their mouth as if to bite, William just smacks them on the forehead and they back off, whimpering. After the white lions, we went into the adolescent Bengal cages and met the three tigers born on the reserve. William warned us that letting a tiger get you on your knees or back is a death warrant, so we kept having to kind of shove them off if they wrapped an arm around your ankle as if to pull you down. But once again, William instilled a discipline in them and they were all very well-behaved.

After dinner, we settled in at the volunteer lodge to watch a movie and sit around and chat. It was a pretty uneventful evening of reading out on the porch and stargazing. A very quiet evening, until, while I was watching soccer with some of the British guys, we heard a ruckus amongst some of the geese out in the camp. Spice, one of the bengal cubs, had apparently climbed out of the "Cubs Crib" enclosure and was trying to play with the terrified geese. None of them were hurt, however, and they had Spice returned to his cage in no time. Went to bed around 11 to get ready for another early start the next morning.

Arriving at Kwantu

I spent one night at the i-to-i volunteer house in Fish Hoek before we took a 12-hour bus from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth the following morning. We got into Port Elizabeth around dusk and had a truck waiting to transport us to the Kwantu Private Game Reserve in Sidbury, about an hour northeast of Port Elizabeth. As it was late, we pretty much got straight to bed that night to be ready for an early 7am start on Wednesday morning. But here are some details on the game itself as a background:

Kwantu is small (for a game reserve) but very beautiful. It has a 3600 acre wilderness that hosts the Big 5 (elephant, leopard, lion, rhino, & cape buffalo) in addition to all sorts of other plains game like springbok, blue & black wildebeast, red hartebeast, eland, kudu, impala, etc. In addition to the reserve, there is a predator sanctuary that is home to 22 additional lions and 5 bengal tigers that are not kept in the wild. Apparently, that amount of predators would devour all of the plains game before too long if they were all released into the wild. Furthermore, some of the animals are rescues that were born in captivity and can not survive in the wild. Bengal tigers aren't even native to Africa, actually, but Kwantu participates in a breeding program for eventual relocation back to India and Southeast Asia. The reservation is home to the first bengal tiger born in South Africa, Jasmnie, and since her birth several years ago she has yielded 5 additional cubs. Three of these are now adolescents that are in the predator sanctuary, and 2 are relative new-borns that, along with 2 lion cubs, are in the "Cubs Crib" in a different part of the camp.

We get up around 6:45-7 to be ready for the morning work shift from 7:30 to 9. Breakfast is at 9:30 and then the late-morning shift is from 10-12:30. Lunch is at 1, and then the afternoon shift goes from 2-4:30. From there, we have dinner at 6 and then have the evening to ourselves. There's not awhole lot to do, so we might watch a movie, read, or just sit around the campfire. There's about 25 other volunteers here, which is apparently the largest group they've ever had, so there's plenty of people to talk to.

Cape Town Pt. 2

This morning I woke up early enough to have a proper English breakfast at the restaurant inside the Tulip Hotel. From there, I high-tailed it toward the Victoria & Albert Waterfront for my 9am ferry to Robben Island. The island tours operate exclusively through the Robben Island Museum so, unfortunately, I was stuck in a rather large tourist group as opposed to being left to explore things on my own, which I typically prefer.

The ferry to Robben Island was about 30 minutes and provided for some spectacular views of Table Mountain and Cape Town from the sea. Right before we got to Robben Island, we could see almost the entire Cape Peninsula extending down to the right-hand side, with all the various suburbs and environs of Cape Town merging together under the various crags making up Table Mountain National Park. The island itself was very desolate, with a lot of scrubby bushes making up all the indigenous vegation. There are now a variety of imported trees growing there from when the island was used by various nations as a way-station for trade with India (the Australian eucalyptus tree, especially). The tour groups were all led by former political prisoners, partly because South Africa's employment is so high that they are happy to have a job earmarked for them for as long as they're alive and willing. Our guide took us around the exterior of the island, showing us the various perimeter defenses, old governor's mansion, and old WW2 guns (not completed until 1946, ironically) before making our way to the prison. Unlike some of the Nazi prison camps I'd visited in Europe, the Robben Island prison was surprisingly small. There were only a cluster of buildings making up the complex, including the D Block where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years. We went through that building last, with the long line of tourists taking photos of Mandela's Cell #7 as we shuffled past. From there, I walked around near the harbor to see some Cape penguins and then went back to the ferry.

Robben Island took the entire morning, so upon getting back to the V&A Waterfront I just got some fish and chips before going back to check out of my hotel. I got a cab to take me to Fish Hoek, a village 40 minutes south on the Cape Peninsula, where I was to begin the next stint of my trip.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cape Town Pt. 1

After a good 27 hours in the air and four different airports, late last night I finally made it to Cape Town via Atlanta and Johannesburg. I cabbed it into the city center and checked in at the Tulip Hotel on the Strand.

This morning, I got an early start to my day as a super tourist. Having only 1 1/2 days in Cape Town, there was a lot to see and do. I left the Tulip around 9 this morning in order to walk around the city center and check out some of the Victorian architecture before it got too hot. After walking around the Grand Parade, City Hall, and the adjacent streets, I made for the Dutch East Indies Company Garden. The Garden stretches several blocks through the old city center and it lined with pieces of Dutch and English colonial history. I spent around an hour and half walking around before arriving at the South African National History Museum at the southern end of the DEIC gardens. For 15 rand (slightly over $2) I went in to look at some of the anthropological and ethnological history of South Africa, as well as some of the natural history surrounding the animals that used to and currently dwell here.

Afterwards, I had lunch at the restaurant inside the DEIC gardens and had a few cups of earl grey. From there, I walked to the Castle of Good Hope and spent nearly two hours wandering the grounds there. The Castle was the Dutch's first attempt at a permanent defense mechanism for repelling potential British incursions into the Cape Peninsula. It was built in the traditional Dutch and Prussian style where, from a bird's eye view, it resembles a five-pointed star with five gun battlements sticking out into the frontier. All the architecture looked like something out of Pirates of the Caribbean, with the colonial and colorful architecture very prominent.

After the Castle of Good Hope, I hopped on one of the cheesy red sightseeing buses to go to the cable car station for Table Mountain. Cape Town, outside the historic Victorian center, is not much of a walking town, and the sightseeing buses were drastically cheaper at 120R than taking a cab. We took a breathtaking ride up 1,067 meters to the top of Table Mountain, where I took more than a few pictures and enjoyed a half bottle of South African wine (my first sample). I spent about an hour and half there watching the fog roll in from the Eastern side of the peninsula and slowly engulf the mountains south of Table Mountain. Luckily, when we first got up there there wasn't a cloud in sight and so I got plenty of pictures. After the ocean winds came in more strongly closer to 5 o'clock, however, the air condensed into the "tablecloth" said to constantly grace Table Mountain.

I went back down via cable car around 6 and took the sightseeing bus along the Western side of the peninsula, stopping at Camps Bay to sit on the white sand beach for awhile and dip my toes in the Atlantic. Much to my surprise, the Atlantic is cold in the middle of summer. Apparently the summer winds that come off the mountains sweep west and take all of the warm surface waters out to see; the cold waters underneath the surface then rise up to take their place. The result was a very frigid surfline even while the sand part of the beach was thronging with people.

After leaving Camps Bay on the sightseeing bus, I came back to the hotel to charge my camera and get a shower before dinner. Once I was cleaned up, I headed back Northwest toward the Victoria & Albert waterfront to find somewhere to eat dinner. I settled on a place called Karibu for South African food; I didn't really have a clue as to where I was going to eat beforehand, so I figured I should just go with the local cuisine. Now I'm back at the hotel and ready for Robben Island tomorrow! The Third World could sure use better internet, but I guess that just shows me how good we have it in the West.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Into Africa

Hello again everyone! After some agonizing waiting (and school), I am finally getting back to one of my biggest passions and traveling the world. After an amazing spring last year hopping around Europe, I decided to use Spring 2011 to have some adventures rather than being a straight-up tourist. This trip, I'm leaving the beaten path and headed to South Africa to work as a ranchhand on a Big 5 game preserve (the Big 5 is lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and cape buffalo, but the preserve has everything else as well). I'll be doing everything from tracking the predator herds with telometry, keeping tabs on the plains game, patrolling the fence for poachers, manual labor, and feeding the orphaned and injured animals within the sanctuary.

I'll be flying DFW-Atlanta-Johannesburg-Cape Town over the course of a good 24 hour period. The kicker is the 15 1/2 hour flight from ATL-JNB that turns into 17 1/2 on the way back. I'll get into Cape Town on Saturday evening and then have two full days by myself in Cape Town before meeting up with my project group on Monday afternoon. For the two days that I'm by myself, I'll be staying with all my stuff at the Tulip Hotel near the V&A waterfront, right in the vicinity of most of the touristy stuff around Cape Town.

Come Monday afternoon, I'll go south to Fish Hoek, a suburb of Cape Town closer to the Cape of Good Hope, to meet up with my project group and have orientation. We'll all stay there in Cape Town at the project house for Monday night before packing up and taking a bus to our project on Tuesday morning. From there, I'll be in Sidbury Village (85 km outside of Port Elizabeth in East Cape) for the rest of my stay. I won't have my laptop like I did in Paris, but there's internet and a shared computer in one of the lodges so I will do my best to keep the blog updated as regularly as possible. I'll have my ipod touch at least, so I'll be able to do quick updates via Twitter or Facebook and then keep notes for lengthier blog posts if I can't write them on site.

Once again, thank you everyone for your support! Stay tuned for more stories!