Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Weekend in Port Elizabeth

As usual, Kwantu took us into town on Saturday morning. This time, we were bound for Port Elizabeth, which was especially convenient for me because of my Monday morning flight out of P.E. Kwantu's bus dropped us off at a hostel near the water, within walking distance of the boardwalk area with bars, restaurants, and an internet cafe. First thing, though, we went en masse to the mall, for people to load up on whatever they needed. A few people that were leaving P.E. to go on the Garden Route (P.E. to Cape Town) were buying groceries to last them for the week. Most of us, however, just bought a few beers at the liquor store to take back to the hostel. After the mall, we unloaded our stuff at the hostel and headed to the boardwalk to grab lunch and use the internet cafe. Due to the slow connection I was once again thwarted in uploading any pictures, but was at least able to validate my flights home and such.

We spent an hour or so at the internet cafe before heading back to the hostel to shower, get ready to go out, and have happy hour by the pool. After a few hours of that, we walked back to the boardwalk to have dinner at a restaurant called News Cafe that a bunch of kids had tried on a previous weekend there. We had drinks and food at News Cafe and then headed to Barney's Tavern for beers afterward before retiring back to the hostel for the night.

Unlike the majority of people, I wasn't returning to Kwantu the following day, so I hung out by the pool of the hostel with four others. One of which was flying directly out of P.E. the next day like myself, and three were leaving together to go on the Garden Route. So we laid out, swam a little bit, and watched some of the cricket World Cup. Eventually, myself and the girl flying to Namibia got a shuttle to a bed and breakfast owned by Kwantu that would be our home for the night. There was absolutely nothing to do there other than watch TV (once again...no internet!) and so I just sat in the common room with a cup of tea reading my book for several hours. Myself and Naomi, the other girl, had a very quiet evening in and the next morning were picked up to go to Port Elizabeth's airport. My 33-hour commute back home via Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg, and Atlanta had begun!

Last day at Kwantu

This Friday we managed to completely avoid work altogether, for the most part, and to really concentrate on interacting with our favorite animals. We went to the elephant sanctuary again, spending the morning gathering wild grass for the four rescues' beds. We would go and rake up this thick, wild bushy material into giant piles for tractors to later come pick up and take to the elephant barn. While we were out in the field, we took a fair amount of pictures with our hilly background.

After gathering enough wild hay for a few days' worth, we headed back to the barns to get their beds ready (with the hay remaining) and make their evening meals. We mixed these pellets, made mostly of grass, with this other dirt-like substance, made up of molasses and sugars, and also water to get their food. All of this took only twenty or so minutes, so then we sat down to have our lunch before going to find the elephants on the reserve.

After lunch and a nap on the barn floor, we walked back out onto the reserve to find the elephants. As usual, they were skirting the edge of the prickly pear forest, eating away. We took a bunch more pictures (I was glad to have my own camera, this time!) and fed them for awhile.

Afterward, we hurried back to Kwantu so that we could see off a few of our friends who were leaving that afternoon. Some people, like the Scottish guy Bruce, were off to other exotic locales and weren't bothering to stick around for a weekend in Port Elizabeth. So once we got back to Kwantu, we said our goodbyes, and then spent our evening playing with the cubs and lounging around the lodge. Once the sun went down, I packed my bags for the weekend in Port Elizabeth and my impending departure from South Africa.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Thursday: Morning Drive & Game Capture

Thursday started bright and early at 4:30am. Moses picked us up at our quarters at 5 o'clock prompt, and we headed out onto the reserve for our early morning drive. It was pretty chilly out at the time, and when we started off it was still pitch black (other than the stars) and we had to use the spotlight. The morning drives, however, are supposedly amazing for seeing game, so I was pretty excited. I was not to be disappointed! Right off the bat we saw Xhulu and Shiesta near the front water hole. My camera didn't do a fantastic job in pitch black, but I gave it my best show. In addition to all of the plains game, we saw a black-backed jackal, the herd of cape buffalo, nine elephants (including two of the babies), and - my favorite - a pair of rhinos.

After the drive, the whole group went back onto the reserve for another game capture. We figured that it would be another productive capture day, because the skies were overcast and the temperatures were way down compared to the days before; William can't push the herds very long distances when it's that hot out. However, it was a pretty quiet day as the majority of the big herds were on distant plains on other parts of the reserve. The first run we had, four blesbok came through, but two of them wriggled and jumped their way out of the nets and escaped. I was hiding with two others in a central patch of bushes in the middle of the trap, as to be one of the first to the animals once they came through. Myself and Bruce, a middle-aged Scottish guy, were the first ones of one of these two blesbok. I ripped the blesbok's back to legs to the ground while Bruce went for the horns. However, he didn't get a good enough grip and the animal bucked, sending one of its horns through Bruce's pant leg! Luckily for him, it just barely broke the skin and produced a massive bruise more than anything else.

During our late morning shift after breakfast, we went back out to see if our game capture could get any more successful. It didn't really, with only one more group of animals coming our way. This time, it was a group of four springbok. Two of them saw the nets ahead of time, though, and leapt clear over our nets. The other two were wrestled to the ground and given their anti-tick booster. William got a herd of zebra to come close but they kept swinging wide, so we eventually gave up. I was a little bit antsy for zebra just because they don't have a vulnerable point like horns from which it's easy to grab them and pull them down. William says that with a zebra you just have to go for the legs, hope you don't get stomped on, and pull it down that way.

After lunch we did more weeding around the cheetah pen, while the hungry lionnesses that hadn't been fed in a couple days walked back and forth along the fenceline surveying us. It started raining, so Pelile our coordinator let us quit and go play with the lion and tiger cubs. We went in their enclosure and they were all riled up; we played with them by letting them chase us around (play for us but kind of instinctual hunting for them) or by holding our hats out for them to jump and attack. They are certainly cute now, but for how ferocious they already are I would never play those games with a bigger one.

It rained until dinner, which was perfect weather for sitting on the patio with a book. I happened to have my camera ready and snapped a picture of one of the vervet monkeys that hang around the camp. After dinner we just hung around and played Twister for lack of anything else to do.

Uneventful Wednesday

Today was pretty low-key, mainly due to the fact that it felt like it was a million degrees outside. In the morning, we went out into the reserve to cut down a patch of alien blackwattle trees. This invasive species of tree takes up an abnormal amount of water every day, serving to kill the plant life around it from thirst. It is also a very hard wood (the reason for its introduction to South Africa) and thus the bigger trees can be used in construction efforts around camp.

During the late morning, we went on a splendidly hot game drive. We saw the majority of the plains game but nothing else that was particularly interesting. After lunch, while the majority of the people (mostly the girls) stayed on the porch and napped or watched TV, the boys and a few girls went into the predator encampment to weed around the cheetah fence. It was miserably hot, but since we were willing to work when no one else would, Moses - one of the game coordinators and people in charge of us volunteers - told us he would take us on an early-morning drive the next day. It would by far make up for the heat of Wednesday afternoon.

Later we went inside with the cubs, as usual after our afternoon work is done, and took some photos with them. I would take off my hat and shake it in the grass to attract the tigers attention, then move it around while they prowled around it. Right when they'd get ready to lunge, I'll pull the hat up and they'd have to jump to grab it. More than once, though, they were able to rip the hat clear out of my hands - strong little guys!

Tuesday Game Capture

The monkeys woke me up early again this morning. I guess I should just be thankful that they haven't got into our room yet. The girls had their room ransacked because they left chocolate and biscuits out everywhere so a pack of monkeys just came in through the windows and went through all of their belongings. Occasionally I'll come into our common rooms and see one hanging around the kitchen waiting for someone to leave or drop something, but other than that they haven't posed a real problem for me.

The morning we spent feeding some of the animals in the predator encampment. A horse was brought in, shot, and then cut up with a machete and distributed to the white lions, Shemba and Nala, the cheetah, the tiger parents, and the lion/tiger cubs. It was smelly but entertaining work and I got a couple good pictures and videos of the animals going crazy once they get the meat. For some reason, they still think that it's a live animal and they take the measures to strangle or ensure that it's dead before they start actually eating it.

The late morning shift was a lot of fun. We went out for another game capture, in order to give any animals we caught an anti-tick booster. Over the course of the two hours we were out there, we had four rounds of animals rounded up and come through our nets. As always, William the game warden would ride around on his motorbike and "push" herds toward our trap, which was a semi-circle of nets surrounded by dense thickets on either side. The first two rounds were two blesbok in each, and I would run in and grab either the horns or the back two legs while other people held the animal down from other places. The third round was an adult blue wildebeast and a calf, but the adult one plowed through all three walls of nets and got away, unfortunately. She stayed there and watched from afar as we held the calf down to give it the injection, but then the calf was reunited shortly thereafter. The last of the four rounds was an additional three blesboks. Every time, the animals would run down and plow into the nets unaware, usually ripping the net poles out of the ground and dragging them a little ways until they got tangled and stuck. I kept having to use my bowie knife to re-sharpen these stakes so that we could more easily drive them into the ground over and over. William tried to get a pack of five giraffes to come down the hill into our trap, but they didn't come close enough.

After lunch, we had more predator interaction and went into the enclosure with the now-stuffed white lions, Shemba and Nala. We hung out with them for a little while while William de-ticked them, and then we moved on to held feed the bachelor male lions (kept separate to prevent inbreeding, since most of the lions at Kwantu are related). We were going to go interact with the three tiger adolescents, but because of the meat stench in the air they were too rowdy to go in with. Instead, we went and played with Hobbes, the not-cub-not-adolescent tiger in the enclosure next to the cubs. After dinner, I tried once again to unsuccessfully use the internet at the Kwantu hotel, but when it wasn't working a few of us just went for a swim instead. It was a colder evening, so I just comfortably read and hung out on the patio instead of trying to escape the heat inside.

Monday, Feb. 28th

This morning the vervet monkeys that live around the camp woke me up early. They live in the trees around the buildings but come around 6am they jump onto the roof and start running back and forth across the roof, making a whole lot of thumping noise in the process. Our morning work shift was relatively uneventful; we weeded around the exterior electric fence until breakfast. The views of the reserve were pretty good though, and I took some time to get a couple panorama shots with some blesbok and wildebeest in the background.

After breakfast, we did a game drive for our late morning shift. This time, we saw a whole lot of zebra, springbok, blesbok, blue wildebeest, eland, and waterbok. Some of the animals, like the eland and waterbok, are just massive for antelopes and can somehow jump clear over our Jeep if they wanted to. We got pretty close to several herds near the reserve's various water holes and I was able to get some pretty good pictures.

We were supposed to go and chop more alien trees down in the afternoon, but our Jeep got a flat tire and we had to wait for the guys in the camp to bring us a new car. We had the telemetry equipment with us, and when we turned it on we got a signal coming from Shiesta, the dominant lion female in the reserve. It was funny and unnerving at the same time to be stranded without a vehicle with her on the loose. By that time we got a new vehicle, it didn't make sense to go and start tree-chopping so we just drove around with the telemetry equipment to try and find Zulu and Shiesta. Both of them wear tracking collars for this purpose. Zulu we couldn't pick up a signal on to save our life, but Shiesta we cornered in a deep valley where the Jeep couldn't really go. During this process, we saw a few animals that I hadn't seen yet, like the kudu, meerkat, and an Egyptian goose.

Our night was relatively uneventful, though, and we just watched a horror movie. Later in the night, a new group of five older Brits showed up as volunteers. It will be interesting to see how older people adapt to a youth-oriented environment that is anything but a 5 star hotel.