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Trip Report Wild Dog Pups and Brown Hyenas: A Volunteer Adventure in South Africa

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An overview for those who don’t like long trip reports…

What? A volunteer trip to northern South Africa with Earthwatch, to participate in Project Phiri (brown hyena research) for 12 days at Mankwe Reserve and Pilanesberg National Park… plus a 3-night safari to Madikwe Reserve beforehand, in the hope of seeing wild dogs.

When? August 13-30, 2009

Who are we? We’re both in our late 30s, avid travelers who also spend a lot of time volunteering with the behavioral observation team for African elephants at our local zoo.
This was our third trip to Africa, our first time in southern Africa.

Planning: The Madikwe extension and Johannesburg arrangements were booked by Gareth at Rhino Africa. He was very helpful, everything went without a hitch, and we felt it was a good value—I would definitely use Rhino Africa again if we are ever lucky enough to return to South Africa. Some other companies we contacted would not book such a short safari for us, but this was never an issue with Rhino.

The volunteer project was arranged through Earthwatch, an organization that links volunteers with wildlife and conservation research projects worldwide. This was our first experience with Earthwatch, and we would recommend them very highly. The name of our expedition was “South Africa’s Brown Hyenas” [see Earthwatch.org for more information]. An unexpected bonus of participating in a volunteer project was that we were able to get discounted airfare from SFO to Joburg through Earthwatch and Fly for Good. Overall, it saved us about $600 per ticket! If you are heading off on a volunteer project of your own, be sure to look into this.

Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.



PART 1: The Long Haul to Southern Africa

When my husband J and I decided to take this trip—our third journey to Africa in as many years—we got a predictable reaction from friends and family: Africa, again? How do you explain this passion for the African continent (the animals, the people, the landscapes, the excitement of a game drive, the mystery of nature, the thrill of never knowing what each day will bring) to someone who hasn’t experienced it, or at least dreamed about it? And, I’ll admit, it rankled just a bit to get the “Africa, again?” question from people who had returned to Europe over and over… as though “Africa” is one place, all the same. I can honestly say that even after three trips to Africa, we have yet to scratch the surface of this vast and marvelous place. I’m just so grateful that J and I both were bitten by this bug—that neither of us was satisfied with crossing “Africa” off our life lists after a single trip. Because it would take more than a lifetime to explore everything the continent has to offer.

So instead of trying to explain, we just emphasized what would be different about this trip—it would be our first time in southern Africa, and more importantly, the main focus of our travels this time would be to participate in a volunteer project with brown hyena researchers. This would be our chance, hopefully, to give a little bit back (our time, our energy, our enthusiasm and hard work) to this incredible continent that we love so much. Plus, this would be a first for us: only a few destinations on our itinerary, hardly any long drives, and 11 nights in one place! We’ve never stayed that long anywhere, other than our own home. So this would be our chance to dive deeply into one place, rather than snorkeling around an entire country. In every way, it promised to be a different adventure than the ones we’ve had before.

We boarded that familiar evening flight from SFO to London (hard to believe it’s been a little less than a year since we stepped onto this same flight en route to Uganda!). We helped kill the long layover at Heathrow by having breakfast at Giraffe (last visited on our return from Rwanda), and noticed to our delight that the music of our favorite South African singer, Vusi Mahlasela, was playing in the restaurant. The boarding process for our flight to Joburg on South African Airways was a mystery (even to the people who worked for the airline, it seemed!), but once on board the plane it was one of our nicest flights ever—lots of legroom (admittedly, we’re both pretty short), good food, free South African wine, and a “tail cam” so we could watch the plane flying. Vusi’s music welcomed us onto the flight too, and we took that as a good sign.

As we flew over Botswana and into Johannesburg, we were greeted by a brilliant red sunrise. The airport was decorated everywhere with World Cup banners and signs: “Welcome to South Africa, Home of the Big 5 and the Other Big Game!” There was a great deal of construction going on all around the airport, and the woman from Federal Air who greeted us in the shiny arrivals hall said everyone here is really gearing up for next winter: “Only 300 more days until the World Cup!” she exclaimed.

We exchanged dollars for rands at the airport, since we wouldn’t have much chance to do that during our trip. As usual, this country has much more attractive money than our own. A lion on the 50, a buffalo on the 100, and a kudu on the 2. Maybe this bodes well for our wildlife encounters? We noticed a distinct lack of wild dogs, cheetahs, or brown hyenas, though, the animals we were most hoping to see this time around. In fact, we didn’t hold out much hope for seeing cheetahs at all. During the planning stages when we’d been trying to decide which place to go for our 3-night safari before the Earthwatch project began, several safari planners had told us the same thing: there are no reliable places in South Africa to see both wild dogs and cheetahs on a regular basis (even though several reserves do have small populations of both, these are notoriously hard-to-find animals). Since we’ve been fortunate enough to see cheetahs in the Masai Mara, we opted for Madikwe, which was supposed to give us a decent shot at seeing wild dogs. And as for those brown hyenas, well… we’d been warned that even as part of Project Phiri, volunteers didn’t always get to see these elusive creatures in the flesh.
We had a few hours to while away in the posh little lounge at Federal Air’s local terminal (free snacks! clean bathrooms! snazzy lodge brochures! Animal Planet on TV!), and I reflected on how different this was compared with our experiences in East Africa and those colorful, sometimes chaotic little airports in Arusha and Zanzibar. South Africa certainly felt tamer on the surface (or at least more organized). But like Rwanda, it’s impossible to be here and not have somewhere in your mind the complicated history of this place. Before long we boarded the little Cessna Caravan and took to the sky, on our way to the Madikwe Reserve near the Botswana border. I still felt a bit like I was in a dream—but this time, it also felt a little bit like coming home, too.

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    MDK,

    goody, an Earthwatch report. I've often wondered what the programs were like and have looked at the Tsavo lion project. Look forward to hearing about the brown hyenas.

    Cheers,


    Pol

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    I know what you mean about people questioning your desire to return to Africa, especially from people that return to Europe over and over again. We are off to Egypt (my husband's dream) in March and Kenya and Tanzania in 2011. We started going to Africa a lot later in life than you, so our motto is "do it now as you don't know what tomorrow will bring."

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    Thanks, everybody! I hope I have time to get this trip report posted a bit faster than I've done in the past. I guess it would be a less time-consuming task if I didn't write my journals in longhand, but I still enjoy doing that.

    Don't worry, Leely, many photos will eventually be posted. We are still editing. :)

    Raelond, I think that's an excellent motto to have, no matter what your age. A dear friend of mine (who is the same age as I am) is fighting her third round of cancer... so none of us know how much time we have. You have to seize experiences whenever you get the chance! For us, this desire to travel means that we have to drive cheap cars and live with the same 20-year-old garage sale furniture, but that's fine with me.

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    You have the same attitude we do about travel: do it now. My husband's parents planned to travel after he retired, but by then he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Your trip sounds great. We are planning our second trip to Africa--this time to Botswana--in February. And as I recall, we made our first trip around the same time, in September 2007. Can't wait to hear about the rest of your trip.

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    Hi Kmania! Yes, I do remember we were heading off on our trips around the same time in 2007. From SFO too, if I'm not mistaken? Lucky you, going to Botswana! That's definitely on my dream list.

    I went back to the Earthwatch website recently and noticed that they are still filling teams for the Brown Hyenas project in 2010, if anyone is so inclined. I was disappointed to see the price has gone up since we went, though. Still worth it for the experience, I think.

    I'm hoping to post my next installment either tonight or tomorrow. (Sneak Preview: here's where the wild dogs come into the picture)

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    Correction: Since I do not know of a way to edit my last post, I want to add that I looked at Earthwatch again this morning to see what the 2010 expeditions are, and I was mistaken about the price going up. The Brown Hyenas project is $2950 for 12 days (all-inclusive except for international air) for the adult teams. I must have glanced at the teen team listing, which is more expensive.

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    PART 2: Beyond Our Wildest (Dog) Dreams

    The flight from Johannesburg to Madikwe took just over an hour, whisking us over the city, then suburbs with enormous houses surrounded by high walls, and farmland with elaborate crop circles in green, gold and brown… and finally over open bush, past a high, jagged ridge that looked from the air like a deep wrinkle in gold-green cloth. As soon as we landed at the Madikwe airstrip, I promptly got my sleeve snagged by a thorn bush. I have a whole new respect for animals that can push their faces and bodies into these spiky bushes! Our land cruiser from Madikwe Safari Lodge was waiting, and as we climbed in we met A and M for the first time, a young couple who would be sharing the vehicle with us during our stay. Our positive first impression would turn out to be correct—the four of us very quickly became friends, and my misgivings about this whole southern African practice of sharing vehicles with strangers assigned by the lodge were laid to rest. On our trips to East Africa, we had traveled from place to place in our own vehicles with our own guides throughout the trip, so I didn’t know what to expect with having game drive companions and guides change at each destination. I imagine the experience can really vary depending on the luck of the draw… but we had a marvelous time with these two (we’ve stayed in touch since—we live half a world apart, but we’re hoping to visit each other someday). To make it even more fun, this was their first safari, so we got to share in their excitement about everything being new.

    If you’ve read my other trip reports, you know that I like to keep track of our welcome animal and farewell animal for each journey. Our welcome animals for South Africa greeted us by running across the end of the airstrip just as we were stepping off the plane: a group of female kudu. My husband was really thrilled, because this was an animal high on his wish list and something we’d never seen before. We also saw a few giraffe heads poking out of the trees on the short drive up to the lodge.

    Madikwe Safari Lodge is absolutely stunning, one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever stayed. To my mind, it’s made even more beautiful by its low profile: it is nestled into the hillside in such a way that you can’t really even see it as you approach, rather than sitting high on a hill and standing out in the landscape. The lodge architecture was supposedly inspired by termite mounds, and it’s easy to see that influence—the overall look is a hybrid of African and hobbit hole. Every wall seems to have a curve, the roof is broad sloped thatch, doors are decorated with carved figures in place of handles, there’s a huge clay fireplace in the open-sided dining room with birds flying in and out, and trees grow right up through the building. We were completely enchanted by this place at first sight. Then we saw our room and were ready to move in for good. It was an “anthill” cottage with a little fireplace and curvy built-in couch, a giant copper bathtub, and a private deck with a view of the bush, an outdoor shower, loungers, and a little plunge pool. Now, I have never been one to desire a plunge pool on safari. But I will admit I stuck my feet into its icy cold water, just because I could. If it weren’t the dead of winter, we probably would have taken a dip. Our ranger told us later that they used to regularly have elephants come drink out of the plunge pools (which, being the ele lover that I am, I would love to see), but that it was becoming unsafe for both elephants and guests, so they recently put up a fence to keep elephants out of the lodge. The fence was designed to be really low and porous, though—an obstacle to the elephants for sure, but not anything that would keep lions, leopards, wild dogs, porcupines, or other animal visitors out.

    Lunch was served by the slightly stern chef, a big Afrikaner guy who cooked up fabulous impala kebabs (“venison” is impala here), beet salad and risotto. We overheard some other guests ask if he was German, and he sounded insulted, “Of course I am not German, I am Afrikaner!” And he was a marvelous cook, too. We were joined at the table by yellow-billed hornbills, glossy starlings, francolins, and a squirrel. After lunch we had just enough time to shower away 2 days’ worth of air travel weariness and unpack our bags, getting our daypack ready for our first game drive.

    One thing about the whole South African lodge routine is that there is a LOT of eating. We’d hardly had lunch when 3:00 tea time rolled around. This was our first chance to meet our ranger, Greg Smith, and our other vehicle mates. In addition to our new buddies A and M, there were two couples from Joburg who were old safari hands. I still marvel a bit at the thought that they can come to a place like this for a weekend getaway, the same way we might go to Lake Tahoe or Yosemite.

    Greg asked all of us what we were most interested in looking for on our game drives, and he lit up when we said we were dreaming of seeing wild dogs. “You’re in luck!” he exclaimed. “Right now one pack of dogs is denning, and they have six pups. They’ve moved the den several times and they aren’t always there, but this morning they’ve been spotted so we can go take a look.” Now, J and I had been thinking more in terms of “if we see even one wild dog, even if it’s really, really far away—and we can’t even get a picture of it—we’ll still be ecstatic.” That’s how much we love dogs, and how very much we wanted to see African wild dogs. So you can imagine my excitement at this news.

    We all bounded into the land cruiser and headed off. The first animals we saw were zebras and impalas. The zebras here have different stripes than the Burchell’s in East Africa—instead of sharp black and white stripes, they’ve also got pale brown shadow stripes in between the broader striping on their rumps. Very pretty. We followed some waxbills down the road (discovering in the process that there were some intense birders in our vehicle), and then spotted a little steenbok resting under a tree. Then more impalas, mixed in with big, hearty-looking wildebeest and dark red warthogs colored by the orange dust. A big, calm male waterbuck with impressive horns eyed us, and a slender mongoose ran across the road. Not too bad for the first 5 minutes out of the lodge.

    We had to wait a little bit before approaching the dogs’ den, because only one vehicle at a time is allowed to view it. When we arrived, several adorable little puppies were sitting by the entrance to the den, looking at us with frank curiosity. They were born in June, so just a few months old—big enough to be getting those fabulous markings on their legs, but small enough to still have the downy fur of babyhood. Before long all six of them had tumbled out into the open, emerging from patches of dried grass and the various holes into the den. It became a happy jumble of pups—chasing in circles, biting each other’s tails, wrestling, rolling, pouncing, sniffing. They reminded us so much of domestic puppies in their behavior, except for the near-silence with which they did these things. We could hear little snuffles and grunts, but no barking or yapping—they’re much quieter than domestic dogs. They explored all around our vehicle, and at one point a pup crossed right behind where I was sitting in the back seat and looked straight up at me, meeting me eye to eye. We’ve seen a lot of cute wildlife babies, but these guys really took the prize, with their giant round ears and spotty legs and inquisitive doggy behavior. Of course I thought of my dog, Kyle, and what I’d read about domesticated dogs being essentially “eternal puppies” in their behavior.

    Things got even more incredible when two adult dogs arrived, whisking into the jumble of puppies and starting up a chorus of high-pitched yittering. A moment before the adults made their appearance, we saw all the puppies freeze in the act of wrestling, lift their heads in alarm, and bolt for the closest den opening (you’ll see that moment when I post a link to our photos). But as soon as they realized it was their own pack returning, they flashed back out into the open. The babies ran up to their mother and surrounded her, a few trying to nurse and others jumping up toward her mouth to beg for food, hoping she’d regurgitate something tasty for them. The adult dogs were as gorgeous as I’d dreamed, some of the most beautiful animals I’ve ever seen. We stayed and watched them for a long time. I loved their lanky motion as they trotted up and down the road patrolling the den area, circling back toward our vehicle and then cruising around it, so graceful and quick it was like they were floating over the ground. Several times the dogs looked up at us, and the fierce intelligence in their eyes was such a contrast to the pups’ wide-eyed curiosity. One of the adult dogs trotted right behind the land cruiser, so close below me I could hear the low growl in her throat. Don’t worry, I thought, I’m not getting out of this vehicle!

    We’ve been fortunate to have some amazing wildlife sightings before, in Africa and India and Alaska and the Rockies, but I can safely say this was one of our very best ever (not quite at the level of the mountain gorillas, but right up there in our Top 5). Even ranger Greg was wildly snapping photos and exclaiming in amazement, “It doesn’t get better then this!” More than once I felt my eyes fill with tears, I was so overwhelmed and happy. We felt so lucky that our visit coincided with these dogs’ babyhood.

    [Note: I’ve been following the progress of this dog pack on &Beyond’s “Wild Watch” webpage, and the pups have moved out of the den since our visit. But anyone planning a visit to Madikwe has a chance for some great wild dog sightings—recent posts on the site have mentioned the pack hunting and killing impala inside the lodge grounds, taking up residence on the hillside above the lodge, having conflicts over their kills with brown hyenas, and just a few days ago they had a sighting of a pack of 15 dogs making an impala kill. I want to go back!]

    At last it was time to leave the dogs and let someone else have the chance to enjoy them. I know the main purpose of limiting it to one vehicle at the den is for the benefit of the dogs, but the practice made a great experience even better for the humans, too. As we drove off up the road, the pups broke off their wrestling matches and stick-tugging and came bounding along the road after us, chasing the car with their tails up and wagging. They scampered after us for a short distance, and then we heard a sharp yap from back near the den and all the pups turned tail and raced back to their mom.

    From the wild dog den, we drove over to the fence that marks the border between Madikwe Reserve and Botswana. Greg told us that the dog packs have taken to using this fence for hunting, running their prey straight into it at high speed. (From a recent post on the lodge website, it seems as though they’ve also used the door of a guest’s room the same way!) This is a good example of the mixed blessings of fencing a reserve. Obviously, without the fence the impala might have a fighting chance. But the fence has also contributed not only to the dogs safety (keeping them in an area where they are protected from all the hazards that come with living near humans, such as traffic and poachers and angry farmers and canine distemper from domestic dogs), it has even helped increased their success rate in hunting. We had many conversations with Greg and, later, the Mankwe staff about the wildlife management issues that arise when a reserve is fenced—everything from water sources to migration paths to adjustments in animals’ behavior. It’s a fascinating and complicated subject, and definitely not as simple a question as “is it better to fence a reserve or leave it unfenced?” As soon as humans get involved with wildlife (and we have done so everywhere, all over the globe, like it or not), conservation answers are never simple.

    Anyway, here we were at the fence, where we could see a lilac-breasted roller (in Botswana) and a crimson-breasted shrike (in South Africa). We had to break the news to our friends on their first game drive that, no, you don’t always have such an incredible sighting in your first half hour of safari ever! They were still hoping to see lions, too, and Greg was the one to point out that lions might seem a bit “boring” after those dogs. We continued back into the reserve away from the fence line, passing zebras, impalas, and a big male ostrich in breeding plumage, very impressive as he flounced away from us.

    Greg stopped for sundowners and whipped out a little metal folding table, a bunch of drinks, and tins full of biltong, nuts, and dried mango. In East Africa our sundowners had generally been bottles of beer in the car or sipping something back at camp, so this was a treat for us. We had our first gin and tonics and watched the sun sink slowly behind the acacias. Just as it got dark a jackal arrived to sniff around the edge of our clearing. After we got back in the car we watched him follow his nose over to where our impromptu bar had been, searching in vain for dropped bits of biltong.

    We didn’t see much on our night drive back to the lodge—some cape hares, impalas, and a bat—but no worries. I love just being out in the Africa night, looking up at those southern stars, and this drive had already been incredible enough to make the whole stay in Madikwe worth it. This was also our first experience of winter in Africa—did I mention that it was freezing? Dinner tonight was tender medallions of impala, washed down with Windhoek beer. We were joined by our new friends, and when the staff asked if the four of us wanted to always set up our table together, we cheerfully agreed. This was such a terrific and unexpected joy of our stay at Madikwe Safari Lodge. Beautiful lodge, great service, a wonderful guide… but add wild dogs and great new friends to that, and you couldn’t ask for a better safari experience.

    When we returned late to our room for some much-needed sleep, we found a cozy fire blazing. I stepped out onto our deck and looked up to see a ceiling of bright stars overhead, and the blur of the Milky Way. It was so frosty I could see the plume of my breath. Was it really possible that we’d only arrived in South Africa this morning? I don’t think we could have imagined a more perfect first day.

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    "The Brown Hyenas project is $2950 for 12 days." Now that's a real bargain!

    Your wild dog account is wonderful. Your enthusiasm about this magnificent species is in sharp contrast to the remarks from one vehicle-mate I recall from the past when we approached a den. "Those dogs do nothing for me. If we don't see them it won't bother me."

    Maybe if she had read your account first, she'd have a different attitude.

    The pups seemed to be as enthused about you as you were about them, chasing after your vehicle.

    You timed your trip perfectly. Were you told anything about the wild dog population and situation in the last couple of years? On the incline/decline? I thought I read where a pack had left the park by escaping through the enclosure.

    When convenient, could you email about your India trip? If there is a report anywhere you can just give a link.

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    Did you fly over District 9 while you were there?

    /kidding.

    Greg's "You're in luck"--understatement of the year! I hope I get to see dogs to someday.

    How cold is winter in SA? What did you need to wear to stay warm?

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    Oh what luck with the dogs! I'm enjoying this report immensely!

    I'm going to check out the Eartwatch site again. It's been years since I've looked into it. My impression years ago was that it was waaaaay to expensive. I'm going to have to re think that and take a new look at their trips.

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    On that Earthwatch site, I see three trips in 2010. The Aug departure would be best from a weather/wildife standpoint.

    In 09 and 11 there was just one trip I think and not such great timing. I'm thinking of asking about another Aug departure in the future.

    MDK, Did Earthwatch give any inidcation why 2010 had more trips? Some big initiative getting launched? Or maybe they'll post more 2011 trips as the time grows closer if there's interest. You're only a few posts into your report, but I would be interested in the Earthwatch Madikwe maybe 2012 or beyond.

    The EW Samburu trip seems interesting too. I think some form of that trip has been in existence for at least a decade.

    Like Lillipets, I thought the EW trips were much more expensive too in the past. Maybe our own definition of "expensive" has changed as Africa prices have escalated.

    Your description of the Fed Air lounge brings back fond memories. The staff was very nice too. Those were some tasty complimentary snacks provided! I still remember. Come for the snacks, stay for the brown hyenas!

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    Wow, I go away for one night and come back to so many nice comments and questions! Thanks, you guys. :)

    Let's see if I can answer all the questions...

    Lynn, from what they told us the wild dog population is doing pretty well in Madikwe, but Greg did talk about that smaller pack that dissolved due to several dogs leaving the reserve and others being absorbed into a larger pack. I'm not sure what the total number of dogs in the reserve is now. A recent sighting I read about had a group of 15 dogs (from a different pack than the one we saw) involved in a hunt. "Our" dog family had, I believe, four adults and the six pups. Evidently they have been hunting very successfully and (obviously) having pups, so those are good signs. The dogs we saw are the one who have been using the Madikwe Safari Lodge architecture (doors, walkways) as part of their hunting technique lately. I wish I knew population numbers, but I'm not sure.

    The cheetah population in Madikwe is another story. We were told that there is only one cheetah (a male) left in the reserve, because the lion population there is booming and they've just wiped out the cheetahs over time. I'll get into that a bit more as my report goes along.

    Tom, we were told that elephants are doing well there, and we had some great ele sightings (coming up in the next few installments of my report) - a bull in musth, as well as several large groups of females and babies. I had read that the elephants in Madikwe were more skittish and/or hostile toward vehicles than elephants in other areas, but that wasn't our experience. Nobody even bothered to mock-charge us. They seemed generally calm... or as calm as any mother elephants are with a safari vehicle sitting there. I'm not sure what the total population is in the reserve (sorry I didn't ask about this, because I would be interested to know--for both eles and dogs), but at dinner one night our ranger and the South African couples got into a discussion about culling large populations on fenced reserves (both pro and con), and Greg said he was grateful that wasn't an issue for Madikwe at this point. I'll write more about this discussion later, too.

    Lynn, I will be happy to e-mail you about our India trip. No trip report for that one -- this was before our Fodor's days (2005-06). I think I have your e-mail at work, so I will check this week and if I can't find it I'll let you know.

    Leely, we did see that spaceship hovering over Joburg, but didn't have time to check it out. ;) As for winter temps in Madikwe/Mankwe/Pilanesberg, it was as cold as the high 30s or low 40s F at night and early morning (of course even colder if you're driving around in an open vehicle!) and as warm as low 70s during the day. Most of the time we were wearing layers: long underwear, long sleeved shirt, fleece pullover, heavy fleece coat, ski hats and gloves. I brought 2 pairs of shorts and wore 1 pair on 1 day. During the day I could usually get by without the long underwear layer (and sometimes even short sleeves), but at night it was essential. A lot of our work with the Earthwatch project was driving around at night, so most of us ended up buying extra sweatshirts while we were there. If I was packing for this trip again, I would have skipped bringing shorts altogether and brought a few more fleece pullovers.

    Earthwatch: Funny that you guys mention the cost of the Earthwatch trips, because for years we've been looking at their catalog and thinking we could never afford these trips! Yes, I do think some of it is adjusting your idea of what's a "bargain" after planning safari trips to Africa. But the Brown Hyenas project is one of the less expensive ones in Africa. I believe the cheetah, meerkat, and elephant projects are all about $1000 per person more, for a few days' longer trip. The cost was part of the reason we chose this particular project, as well as an interest in the subject animal. We also liked that this was a 12-day trip (many of them are 15 days long), which allowed us to add on a few days of safari time on our own beforehand. We could only take a couple of weeks off work this time, so it worked out well.

    In case I wasn't totally clear, the Earthwatch Brown Hyenas project work actually takes place in the Mankwe Reserve (which is where we stayed), Pilanesberg National Park (about 15 minutes away), and Kgaswane Mountain Reserve (about 1 hour away), not in Madikwe. Although Project Phiri does have a researcher collecting data in Madikwe, too, the Earthwatch teams don't go there. Our 3-night stay in Madikwe was something we added on for fun (and wild dogs), and it was an additional cost, as was an extra night we spent in Joburg and touring Soweto.

    The hyena project usually fields teams of volunteers in January (wet season), August (dry season) and November, and each team has slightly different types of data collection tasks and methods, depending on what the scientists leading the research need. From what they told us, our experience was typical of an August team. Looking at the site, it does look like they are having pretty much the same schedule for 2010. But I don't think all the other 2010 projects are posted yet (I've noticed some new ones pop up on the website this past week), and we did not get our 2010 catalog yet. I'm positive 2011 teams are not all posted yet. If you want I can ask the woman who runs the project in SA whether she knows about 2011 yet. Interesting that the site shows a change to February for 2011 (this could have something to do with the researchers' schedules). It also can't hurt to contact Earthwatch and let them know you're interested in 2011, just in case they have information that's not posted on the website yet.

    One very valuable thing we learned about Earthwatch on this trip is that they do not run the same volunteer projects indefinitely -- so if you see one you really want to participate in, jump on it as soon as possible. Some projects will only run once, others go on for several years. But these really are data-gathering projects linked to specific scientific studies, so if funding is limited or enough data has been gathered for the scientists' purposes, the project will not longer be offered. This especially seems to be the case with some of the archaeological projects, which might only field teams a few times. Others like Laurie Marker's cheetah project in Namibia and some of the turtle projects seem to be ongoing, year after year.

    Several people on our team had participated in many different Earthwatch projects, and we heard good feedback on the meerkats project (South Africa), cheetahs (Namibia), rhinos (Sweetwaters in Kenya), and Carnivores of Madagascar (although on this last one, evidently, the volunteers really, really rough it!). I thought the Tsavo lions one sounded good, but it's not posted for 2010 at this point. And the Samburu projects sounds really interesting, too.

    As you'll see when I get into describing the Earthwatch part of the trip, these projects are not safaris, really, although we did see lots of wildlife and essentially did game drives every day. What you're paying for the is the chance to see what field work and wildlife research looks like from the ground level, and to really get to know a project and species well. If (like me) you want to nurture your childhood dreams of being like Jane Goodall, it's a great way to spend a vacation, but they do put you to work! I have a few more days of "pure safari" in Madikwe to write about, and then I will get to the Earthwatch part. But I'm happy to answer any other questions about the project as we go along, too.

    Thanks so much to everyone who's reading! It makes all the typing worth it, and I hope to have some photos ready to share soon, too.

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    Great, great trip report. Thank you so much for all the detail. The first time I ever really saw the Milky Way was that trip to Tanzania. It was so amazing to look up and realize exactly what it was.

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    Thanks for all the enlightening. So there must be healthy brown hyena populations in Mankwe Reserve, Pilanesberg National Park, nd Kgaswane Mountain Reserve in addition to Madikwe. You probably were clear about that.

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    Thank you, everybody! :)

    Lynn, we hope they all have healthy populations. That's exactly what Project Phiri is working on -- trying to determine how the populations of brown hyenas are faring in several different kinds of conservation environments: national park (Pilanesberg), private reserve (Mankwe) and semi-protected area (Kgaswane Mountain). Graduate students (but not the volunteers) are also expanding the study to include the hyena populations in Madikwe and in totally unprotected areas like farmland. Even in a short time and with the limits of a 12-day participation, we were able to see a striking difference in things like hyena vs. jackal latrine areas (which helps determine distribution and density of the populations) between our three study areas. The project is also trying to raise awareness of hyenas as a charismatic and conservation-worthy animal... sadly, not an easy task, as the local farmers and village residents think they are vermin.

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    PART 3: You Don’t Mess With an Elephant in Musth

    First thing out on our early morning game drive today, we saw our friends the makanyane (wild dogs) again. This time it was three adults, trotting up the road with dark red, blood-stained faces. They skirted the vehicles on the lodge road and loped right past us at a good clip, and so Greg and the other drivers quickly turned around as soon as they were safely past and followed. The dogs were heading straight for the lodge kitchen! They got almost there before they veered away and went up the steep hillside behind the lodge, following the elephant fence. For a long while we were able to follow their progress with our eyes, by watching for the white flashes of their tails, but finally they melted away into the scrub and vanished. We sat there for a moment after they’d gone, still a bit stunned and happily surprised. This was the first time we’d gone out on a game drive and had the animals come to us before we’d even really left the lodge driveway—and what gorgeous animals! I think these wild dogs will always be one of my most precious memories of South Africa.

    Still, there was more of Madikwe to explore and other wildlife to seek out. We continued onward and saw zebras with a tiny newborn foal and giraffes with oxpeckers clinging to their long necks. We stopped at a dam to see what was going on waterside, and in addition to numerous beautiful birds we watched two jackals greeting each other with lots of bowing and scraping and chin-licking. Farther along, Greg pointed out a gigantic, incongruous palm tree (not a native here), which once marked the site of a farmhouse. It was a reminder of one of the special things about Madikwe—this whole area used to be farmland, and after an enormous effort and the relocation of thousands of animals, it’s been given back to Nature (or at least as much as it’s possible to do such a thing). The whole giant production was called “Operation Phoenix,” and it’s a fascinating example of one approach to wildlife conservation. It was especially interesting for us to hear the history of this place and compare it to the national parks and conservation areas we’ve visited in East Africa.

    One example of the complications that can arise with this kind of wildlife relocation project is provided by our buddies the brown hyenas, who we would be learning much more about in the coming weeks. Brown hyenas had been surviving in this area all throughout the farming era, living around the edges of human settlements. Since they are scavengers, they were able to adapt to this type of “unnatural” environment better than many predators can. Then, with Operation Phoenix, spotted hyenas were brought into Madikwe. The larger, stronger, more aggressive spotties (who are both hunters and scavengers) have actually made life a great deal harder for their smaller brown cousins, who had not been competing with these differently-adapted hyenas for generations. Interestingly, Madikwe has become one of the best places to see interactions between these two types of hyenas (usually the spotties will run the browns off a carcass), as well as interaction between brown hyenas and wild dogs. (Tragically for us, we didn’t get to witness any of this interaction ourselves. We looked in vain for brown hyenas in Madikwe… but would later have good evidence of their presence here, thanks to camera trapping. I’ll talk about that more when I get to the Earthwatch Project.)

    We followed some rhino tracks, but they only led us to guinea fowl, so Greg decided to stop for morning tea. Or in our case, hot chocolate spiked with Amarula (Greg’s suggestion for “what’s best on a cold morning”). Impalas and wildebeest joined us for our stretch break.

    Not long after we got back into the vehicle, we had one of our most thrilling elephant encounters ever. As we came around a bend in the road between walls of dense, thorny thickets, a bull elephant in musth came strolling up the dirt track right toward us. He was very close, and showing all the signs: dark, wet streaks down his hind legs, temporal glands oozing, huge ears flapping, and his trunk making bizarre, twisting shapes in the air as though he was painting with a brush, then dragging on the ground for a bit before he flopped it up to one side and hooked it over his tusk. We had just attended a lecture on current research about bull elephant behavior in Namibia a few weeks before coming on this trip, so it was incredible to see in action some of the things we’d been shown in photos, especially his trunk motion. It was also kind of scary, the way he kept coming steadily toward us with nearly silent, determined steps. There was no stopping this guy, he was on the move. And with the vegetation all around us, there was nowhere to go but backwards.

    Greg turned the vehicle around so we could make a quick getaway if necessary, and waited until the bull had almost caught up with us before moving farther down the road. Each time he shut off the land cruiser’s engine I thought about our vehicle problems in Tanzania and Uganda, and how our guide at Oliver’s Camp in Tarangire said he would never turn off the engine when an elephant nearby. I kept my eyes glued to the elephant, fascinated (and willing him to stay calm). This went on for about 15 minutes – the ele approaching, our vehicle moving a little farther down the road to stay out of his way, and him still coming straight for us with that slightly menacing, ear-flapping walk. I trusted that Greg knew what he was doing, but my heart was pounding hard. It felt a bit like “Jurassic Park” when we looked back behind us as he drove and saw that gigantic animal strolling along after us, suddenly quicker and with his head lowered over his long, quiet stride. At last he veered off into the bush and made his own trail away toward the hills. Greg decided it was best not to continue on that road in the direction we’d been going when we encountered him though, just in case there were other elephants farther ahead.

    Just up the road we had a fleeting glimpse of buffalo, far away in the scrub. Some of the buffalo brought in during Operation Phoenix were actually born in zoos in the United States, but they quickly adjusted to life in the wild… which says a lot about this underrated animal. On our way back to the lodge for breakfast we saw tiny ground squirrels popping in and out of their network of holes (an amazing thing to see when juxtaposed with a gigantic bull elephant—how better to illustrate the diversity of life among mammals?).

    We were joined by the usual bird crew in the dining room—hornbills, glossy starlings, francolins, and crimson-breasted shrikes. (This would not be a good lodge for the bird-phobic.) We had a few hours of down time this afternoon, for visiting the gift shop to pick up little puppets for our nieces, and then hanging out on our deck with trusty journal (me) and staff paper for writing music (my husband). At one point I heard a soft snap of twigs and looked out into the bush, amazed to see a herd of kudu with several little babies passing by.

    Our afternoon game drive began with lots of birds: acacia pied somethingorother and golden-breasted whatshisname and a finch that the birders in the group got so excited about I thought they might jump out of the car. All joking aside, the birds were showing up so thick and fast my notes could not keep up with them. All I know for sure is, they were beautiful, and the people who knew their birds certainly seemed to think this was a great place to see some special ones. Amidst all this bird excitement, Greg noticed a track on the red dirt road and stared at it for a long time before finally saying (in a slightly amazed tone of voice), “I believe that’s a cheetah.” He then told us that cheetahs had been brought into Madikwe along with everything else, but they have fared very poorly here. It is difficult for cheetahs to thrive in the best of circumstances, but they have been especially hurt in this reserve by the booming lion population. Greg told us there is now, tragically, only one cheetah left in Madikwe, a very lonely male. They are hoping to get some females but evidently it involves a lot of government red tape and expense, so he wasn’t sure if or when that might happen. One of the South African guys leaned out of the vehicle to squint down at the track—shallow, but definitely a cat’s, and with faint pips of claws on the end of each toe—and said, “No, I don’t think cheetah.” But Greg stuck to his guns. “We’re very lucky even to see this fellow’s track,” he said.

    Lots of our old favorites on this drive, hoofed and horned, and one new one: the adorable little springbok, South Africa’s national animal and soccer team mascot. We asked why the springbok was chosen for the honor of being the national animal, but all the South Africans were stumped, even our very knowledgeable ranger!

    Everyone was excited to see a big male lion sleeping under a tree, but it was clear that he wasn’t going to get up and do anything any time soon. Like his Kalahari cousins, he had an impressive black mane. He looked at us through one cracked-open eye and then yawned and went back into a snooze. (Our friends agreed that sleepy lions are not as entertaining as wild dogs.) Greg promised we’d come back to him after dark and see what he was up to, but first he wanted to check out a fresh carcass for any possible activity.

    The carcass was a juvenile white rhino that had died from a gore wound to its side—maybe from an elephant, or more likely another rhino. The rangers had already removed its horn, and they’d also cut open several flaps in the thick hide to “get it started.” There were a number of vultures hanging around in the treetops nearby, but nothing working on the carcass yet. Several adult white rhinos were hovering not far away, possibly standing guard over the poor little guy. We also saw some very relaxed wildebeest in the area, so it looked like the carnivores had yet to discover the site. “We’ll come back tomorrow and check it out,” Greg suggested.

    We had a very close-up view of a white rhino on our way to sundowners, after first stopping at a waterhole to watch two jackals grooming each other, and three wildebeest trotting down to drink and buck around in the dusky light. During our night drive we revisited the lion, and here’s what he was up to: he’d moved about ten feet closer to the road, no longer beneath a tree, now sleeping out under the stars. When we drove up he cracked that one eye open again to see who it was, and then promptly went back to sleep. Okay, not the most thrilling lion sighting ever, but he sure was beautiful. The most impressive part of the night drive was when Greg managed to spot a tiny chameleon deep inside a leafy tree, just from the flash of reflection in the spotlight. What an incredible little creature, and a delightful display of night-time spotting skills. We teased him that it was a rubber chameleon he’d planted there, just to show off. We ended the drive by stopping to stargaze in a place called “Leopard Lane.”

    Dinner tonight was outdoors in the boma, a magical place lit by hanging lanterns and fires blazing in big drums, with a canopy of stars overhead. Boer-style sausages, local beer and amarula tiramisu were among the treats tonight. The only downside was that the South Africans in our group got into a heated debate with Greg about wildlife management issues, particularly elephant culling and the ivory trade. Some people believe that culling is the answer to overpopulation in certain reserves and parks—“just shoot the big ones and take the ivory,” one guy insisted. “If ivory was legal it could help pay for conservation.” But as Greg pointed out, the trouble with culling (aside from purely moral objections) is that if you kill the big tusker elephants then you’ve got to kill the entire herd, or else you will leave behind severely traumatized elephants in the aftermath of the slaughter. It’s a grim way of thinking, but it’s true. And a traumatized elephant, especially one cut loose from the moorings of its adult family members and herd culture, is a very dangerous, destructive thing indeed. Personally, I side with those folks that one of the South African guys was disdainfully calling “bunny huggers”—I don’t think culling elephants is the answer. We humans have done enough to the animals that share this planet with us, I think we owe it to them to find better solutions than that.

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    I loved your account of the wild dog den! As usual I felt like I was right there with you.

    We met a woman years ago who went on an EW trip and like you, I remember thinking at the time that I'd never be able to afford a trip like that! Funny how our perceptions have changed.

    Looking forward to more!

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    WHO UNDERRATES THE MIGHTY BUFFALO? WHO???

    How can our lonely cheetah thrive? What will become of the beautiful brownies in Madkiwe if the spotties continue to dominate?

    I love this report. Thanks, MDK.

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    MDK, I've enjoyed what I've managed to make time to read, in between w**k. Just a small correction. The Springbok is the emblem of the S.A. national rugby ("Rugby Football") team, not soccer ("Association Football").

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    Hi everyone,

    Yikes! Arthur, thanks for setting me straight. Sports are not my strong point, I'm a musician. :)

    Leely, I've heard my share of (clueless) safari-goers diss the Mighty Buffalo, calling them "boring," "big cows," or "not worth taking pictures of." Of course, I do not agree! Here's a good buffalo story: When we were doing our hot air balloon flight over the Masai Mara several years ago, every animal we flew over turned tail and ran... except the buffalo. When we flew over a big herd of buffalo, they actually turned and stared defiantly up at the balloon like they were going to kick our a**. Mighty, indeed! I love those guys. I think anyone who underrates buffalo just doesn't know much about them.

    Thanks again for all the nice comments. You guys made my day. I hope to post another installment this weekend...

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    A great variety from big to small. That trick of spotting a chameleon in the dark never fails to impress.

    Interesting how the brown hyena are hassled more by their bigger cousins than humans.

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    Hi Lynn,

    Yes, the interspecies hyena harrassment is common in the reserve... but outside of it, the poor little brownies are still plenty harrassed by humans, too. Just doing a quick internet search for "brown hyenas," I found several very disturbing (and gleeful) accounts of farmers "exterminating" brown hyenas for supposedly hunting and killing their livestock. Which is rich, considering they're scavengers, not hunters. There is still definitely the perception among certain humans that brown hyenas are pests that don't deserve sympathy.

    Just in case I haven't put in a plug for this book yet, anyone who's interested in brown hyenas should definitely read Mark and Delia Owens' "Cry of the Kalahari." (Lynn, I'd be very surprised if you haven't read this one already! :) )

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    PART 4: The Most Popular Cat in Madikwe

    Straight off this morning we saw a juvenile fish eagle, one of my favorite African birds. I realized to my (slight) dismay that I can now identify many more African birds than North American ones, which makes me think I should be paying more attention to the wildlife at home, too. (I’m good on my North American mammals, though!) We stopped to watch a little tree squirrel, who sat on a branch and yelled at us with all his chattering might. Greg said, “Poor little fellow, he’s really mad at us but no one takes him seriously.” I wondered if the squirrel was thinking, “If only I was a lion!”

    As we drove past Baboon Baboon Mountain (no, that’s not a typo), we heard a Pel’s owlet cry out but didn’t see him, and saw some giraffes high up on the hillside, their necks like popsicle sticks in silhouette. Birds everywhere: purple roller, black-shouldered kites, thorny sickle bushes dotted with glossy starlings and yellow-fronted canaries and the bright flashes of crimson-breasted shrikes. We had a spectacular coffee break this morning in an orangey-red dirt pan, with a herd of 15 to 20 giraffes literally galloping past us, the young ones bucking and playing with each other. This was one of the coolest sights I’ve ever seen—so many of them, looking like they were running in slow motion with those long, loping strides. Zebras ambled between the giraffes as they settled down to browse not far from where we were sipping our hot chocolate, and were later joined (at a safe distance) by two white rhinos.

    We got back in the car and met the same group of giraffes farther down the road. A pale chanting goshawk flew over our heads carrying a fresh francolin kill and landed on a treetop near us to dine. A slender mongoose scampered by on the road below, probably grateful the bird was otherwise occupied. Later, to our delight, we came upon a group of elephant moms and babies—the smallest one only a few months old. They were deep in the thorny brush browsing and hard to photograph, but eles are always fun to watch. It did strike me that viewing animals here in the green season, when all this shrubbery is leafed out, might be really hard (even though the reserve would look very pretty that way). Between this first elephant group and the next, it was a parade of impressive horns: two huge male kudu, waterbucks, impalas. Then another large elephant family with little babies, this time out on a flat open area where we could see them much better. They crossed the road behind us, giving us a great view of the littlest ones. It’s so cute how the tiny elephants hurry across roads as fast as they can, tails straight out and trunks wobbling, trying to keep up with their bigger siblings and cousins.

    At this point Greg had kept us out on the drive longer than any of the other vehicles and it was breakfast time back at the lodge, but we were still a good distance away. “Anyone hungry?” he asked, and a moment later we rounded a curve in the road and saw a surprise waiting for us: a pancake station set up in the bush. We had a delicious snack of crepe-like pancakes spread with butterscotch and rolled up like finger food. Getting out of the vehicles enabled us to spot some smaller creatures, too—a colorful little skink on a log, and a bizarre-looking stick bug who’d been hitching a ride on the front grill of our vehicle. We set him free, and marveled at how he instantly blended in with the straw-like blades of grass against the red earth.

    Our afternoon drive today was really something special. The big event started when Greg again noticed cheetah tracks alongside the road in the soft dirt. This time instead of a single footprint there was a line of them. “They looked relatively recent,” he told us, sounding surprised. We drove slowly along the road, not more than a few minutes more, and suddenly a cheetah—THE cheetah, the one-and-only cheetah of Madikwe—stepped out into the road and crossed in front of us! We all gasped, our mouths hanging open in wonder as we watched him walk over to a fallen tree and turn his rump to it to spray his mark. Then he jumped up on the log and posed for a long time in full view: digging his claws into the tree like a kitty on a scratching post, stretching his long spine in a graceful arc, turning to face us and sitting down to give us a good, long look at his face, the dark streak of “tear” marks and his glowing pumpkin-colored eyes. What a magnificent cat! We had never had a cheetah sighting like this one. And once again, we were the only vehicle there. Greg was grinning from ear to ear, whispering that nobody had seen this cat for months, and his radio collar was not working… so they hadn’t even been sure he was still alive.

    The cheetah jumped down from the tree and began a leisurely stroll through the grass, with us following at a distance so we could keep an eye on him. Greg put a message out to the other rangers on the radio, and became the hero of the day. He told us that they would want to try to have someone watching the cheetah as long as they could today, so other cars would arrive to take over from us at some point… but that, like the wild dogs, they would only allow one car at a time, and could not get too close. We were very fortunate to have been the first vehicle, because the cheetah crossed the road and chose a tree perch so near to where we already were—normally they would not approach him that close. The cheetah seemed very relaxed about all of this and it was easy to keep him in sight as he walked through the grass. Every now and then he’d turn back to check us out, keeping an eye on us, too. Before long he chose a shady spot under a tree and flopped down for a nap, and that’s the point at which we made way for another vehicle to have a look. We heard later that night that the rangers were able to watch the cheetah until dark, and at one point a group of lions stalked him (which scared everyone), but ultimately they left him alone.

    We headed onward from the cheetah sighting with happy hearts, and even the more stoic South African guys in our vehicle were giddy with excitement. None of us ever expected to see this cat, so to not only see him but also get to watch him do so much (none of the lazy-cat syndrome this time) was a real gift. Thinking of him, though, breaks my heart too. How tragic that there is only this one cheetah in Madikwe (and yet, I still see it advertised as a place to see cheetahs!). What will become of him? Poor lonely guy. Knowing how tough survival is for cheetahs everywhere in Africa, I’m worried for him.
    Our first post-cheetah sighting (because at this point, everything became known as “post-cheetah”) was a banded mongoose, followed by two white rhinos hiding in the brambles. What a wealth of rhinos they have here! Everywhere we turn, we see white rhinos—an especially welcome sight after our last trip to Uganda and Rwanda, where we saw none. As we drove around searching in vain for a pride of lions that had been spotted near the river earlier, Greg showed us two new trees (well, new for us—they’d obviously been here for a long time): a stinking (stinky?) shepherd’s tree, and a gorgeous 1,000-year-old leadwood that towered over the river bank. He also pointed out a half-finished lodge on the hillside across the river, which had been built illegally. Apparently the reserve is at lodging capacity and no new lodges are supposed to be built, but somebody greased the right government palms and started this project, only to have it halted mid-construction. So now there are a number of empty, half-built cottages with conical roofs dotting the hill. Ugly sight. A white van was parked near to one of these cottages, with its doors open and radio blasting, “We Built This City.” (I’m not joking!) It was surreal, and very funny, to hear that out in the African bush.

    Greg found us a nice sundowner spot by the river, and on her way to the “ladies’ room” behind a bush one of the women in our car discovered a big pile of porcupine quills (pretty much everything else of the porcupine had been eaten). We were all enjoying our drinks and biltong and conversation when suddenly Greg hushed everyone and motioned us over to the land cruiser. A huge white rhino had come down the path on its way to the river and was standing on the opposite side of our vehicle, just a short way up the path. He stood there swiveling his ears cautiously (probably thinking, “Darn it! What do I do now?”), and after a few minutes he turned tail and hurried back up the path to the cover of the scrub. We could still see him there, waiting for us to leave. We packed up quickly and drove slowly off in the other direction, making way for him to reach the water, and in the gathering dusk we saw him make his way down to the river’s edge. That’s definitely a first for us—a rhino joining us for drinks!

    On our night drive tonight we saw a mother rhino with the tiniest baby rhino I’ve ever seen, probably a newborn. Greg found another chameleon for us, and then we stopped for a long stargazing session. I was happy that everyone in our vehicle enjoyed star-watching so much, and that Greg was a good sky guide, too. The Southern Cross blazed overhead in a sea of bright stars, with Antares and the sweeping arc of Scorpio. So beautiful, this crisp winter air making our noses tingle. It’s so gratifying to see the night sky as it really is, not dulled by light pollution. I really love it here, I thought, and I can’t believe it’s our last night in Madikwe already.

    Greg suggested we all gather in the bar for a beer tonight, and we hung out by the blazing fireplace for a long time talking. I was looking forward to starting our volunteer project in a few days, but it was sad to think about saying goodbye to our new friends, especially. Once again we lingered late over dinner with them, talking about movies and wildlife and politics and travel and our lives in our respective countries halfway across the world. I really want to believe this won’t be the last time we see them… but how great, too, that we got to share these days with them here. When we finally returned to our room, we found a goody tray on our bed with tiny bottles of Amarula, marshmallows, cherries and chocolate sauce. We decided to save the Amarula for our last night in South Africa, and packed up the wine to take with us to the Earthwatch camp. One adventure coming to an end, but another just about to begin.

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    Actually just t minus 8 days and counting!!!! Everything is in one room, just need to put it in the suitcase, weigh it and keep my fingers crossed! It's so tough being at work for the next week. My friend and I are calling each other everyday asking about what to take.
    I know that I wouldn't have known 1/2 of the stuff that I know now if it wasn't for this website. Everyone on it is sooo awesome.

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    This is a wonderful report -- brings back some memories (wild dogs and eles) and makes me ready to go again (maybe the brown hyenas)! Thanks for sharing. I'll be watching for the EW installments.

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    Your cheetah sighting was the needle in the haystack. Is his future likely bachelorhood?

    Butterscotch pancakes in the bush, what a surprise.

    I first learned there were such things as brown hyenas from Cry of the Kalahari.

    Looking forward to the PC report, which will continue from this point, and that's not politically correct.

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    PART 5: The Many Sides of South Africa

    We had one last game drive at Madikwe this morning, extra early so that everyone in our vehicle could catch the late-morning flight or head off on the long drive back to Johannesburg. The usual suspects came out to greet us in the chilly morning air—zebras, a large group of giraffes with babies, kudu, steenbok and springbok, wildebeest and guinea fowl. I never get tired of seeing these beautiful animals.

    We encountered four white rhinos this morning, two of them very close and inquisitive about our vehicle. Then it was time to visit the rhino carcass again, where the scene was starting to get more active. Greg told us that brown hyenas had been seen there earlier, but now the bigger, stronger spotted hyenas had run them off and were having their turn. When we arrived, a large spottie was working hard at the carcass, with a little jackal darting in and out for his share. The hyena was a stunner—a real glamour girl, by far the most beautiful hyena I’ve ever seen. Her coat was golden and shiny with lovely markings, as fluffy as if she’d just been shampooed (aside from the blood on her face, of course). It was so impressive to watch her tear into the tough rhino hide, and to hear the crunching of her powerful teeth. An audience of vultures and pied crows had gathered around to watch, too. We had a nice long viewing, during which another spotted hyena arrived and circled cautiously around in the distance, too nervous to come in to the carcass.

    That would have been an outstanding morning in and of itself, but on our way back to the lodge we added a nice coda to it by encountering a group of juvenile lions sleeping on the road. They were calling for their moms with a low moan every now and then, but they didn’t seem too concerned overall as they lounged around on the sun-warmed earth. A “go-away” bird sat in a tree across the road, scolding them.

    We had our last delicious meal at the lodge, packed up our bags, and said our goodbyes to our South African vehicle-mates, who were driving back home to Joburg. We had lots of thanks and big hugs for Greg, who was a terrific guide and a lot of fun. He drove us over to the airstrip with our friends, and we joked on the way about how a leopard should walk out into the road and give us our feline triple play… but it was not to be. The four of us boarded the little plane, and it was a quick and uneventful flight back to the city. Then, sadly, it was time to say goodbye to our new friends, too, as we headed off in different directions to explore more of South Africa. Hopefully we will meet up again someday.

    At the airport we were met by Patrick, our guide from RNS tours who would be taking us to visit Soweto this afternoon. Patrick was great, and he really made our half-day tour more than just a quick survey of famous sites. He was extremely candid—and often very funny—as he shared his views on everything from current South African politics to the World Cup to religion to crime and South Africa’s future. Most significantly, he told us a lot about what it was like to be a black man growing up under apartheid, and what things were like for him in the “new” South Africa. We appreciated so much having a chance to talk with someone who was willing to share his views, both positive and negative.

    Soweto was very much what we’d expected from reading about its history and seeing photos of the anti-apartheid struggle. In some ways, this historic corner of Johannesburg seems very much like numerous other places in poor, densely-populated corners of the developing world—the outskirts of Nairobi or Delhi, for instance. It’s the reasons for this place and its original purpose that are shocking and different: this was not a slum that grew organically from poor people migrating into the city, but a place to house black workers who were not allowed to live elsewhere under apartheid. One of the first things Patrick showed us was the old police observation area, complete with high towers overlooking the township. (Like most stops on this afternoon’s tour, we were only able to view it from the car. I think if you are interested in having a less rushed and more intimate exploration of the place, you really need to take a full-day tour and ask to do at least some of it on foot. But still, this half-day driving tour was very interesting and gave us a good overview and history lesson, at least.)

    Inside Soweto itself, we drove past the squalid long buildings which once served as hostels for workers brought in from the tribal areas, usually men who had to leave their families back in the village. These buildings are gradually being torn down to make way for pastel-colored multifamily homes. Next we drove into the posh section of Soweto, where middle class families who own businesses have built large homes out of brick and stucco, with high walls and metal gates around them for security. Patrick pointed out the first house in Soweto to have an in-ground swimming pool—we even caught a glimpse of it through the house’s front window. Some of these homes also serve as B&B’s for tourists, and other have tuck shops in their garages. We saw these little impromptu shops all over Soweto.

    We drove past a primary school where some friendly kids ran alongside our van waving and calling “Hello!”, which made me think back fondly to our driving trips through East Africa and miss those long, crazy days of driving, despite their hardships. You really do see a country differently when you travel that way instead by small plane. We noticed a group of children in their school uniforms gathered in a huddle around a big gate at one of the fancy houses, where a sign proclaimed, “A Pedigree Dog Lives Here!” (they were all trying to reach in and pet that “Pedigree” dog), and other kids having fun in a brand-new playground. Other than the security walls, this area didn’t look too different from a suburb back home.

    Next we drove down the hill to the “lower class” (Patrick’s term) area of the township, where block houses with tin roofs and many families living crammed in together replaced things like private yards and swimming pools and security fencing. Here we saw lots more people out and about—tending to stalls selling fruit or household goods or car parts, standing in line for goat’s head stew under a tarp tent, or just wandering aimlessly. We stopped and got out of the van to visit Freedom Square, where a memorial stands to commemorate the Freedom Charter. Across the way from this tall tower, a vendor was selling t-shirts with Obama’s and Mandela’s faces. There were lots of small goods vendors crowding the square, and several people smiled and said hello to us. One man commented, “We like to see people like you here, welcome!” (and then he asked Patrick, unsuccessfully, for beer money). There’s also a large hotel here, overlooking the square. “Next time you come to Joburg, you stay here,” Patrick insisted, and then immediately laughed, “No, no, don’t do it, I am joking! They say it’s 4-star, but I say it’s NO star!”

    We drove onward past a hospital, where big signs read, “Are you HIV+? Do you need a CD4 count?” and “AIDS is Real!” We talked with Patrick about the grim health statistics in this area, and the 30% unemployment, which he told us many people blame on the influx of refugees from Zimbabwe. He said there is so much hostility toward Zimbabwean workers that people in the townships often beat them up or even kill them. He also told us that while Soweto is the most famous township and now the most visited one, too, it is in some ways less representative of what township life is like today than some of the others, simply because it is more famous and “historic” (and, we suspect, they don’t take tourists to the poorest areas). Tembisa is, he said, “up and coming,” while Alexandra is “definitely not for visitors—if I went there, they would kill me.” Of downtown Joburg, he said, “Everything is there: if you want drugs, you will find them… if you want crime, you will find it there too. The police do not even bother to arrest these guys anymore, they just shoot them.”

    After lunch at a little pub we visited some of the landmarks of the anti-apartheid movement, including Orlando West school, where the student protests of the 1970s started, and the Hector Pietersen Museum, which documents the events in photos, videos, and audio interviews, and also memorializes the first child killed by police during the protests. It was a very moving and interesting place. Finally, back in the van, Patrick drove us past the huge new stadium that’s being built in Soweto for next year’s World Cup, and the shiny new transportation hub nearby. He said that the shacks on the hillside below the stadium would be torn down before the games, because “that’s not the image South Africa wants the world to see.” We also got a glimpse of the Mandela house museum, nearly hidden by all the road construction as they get ready for next year’s influx of tourists, but we didn’t have time to go inside. We drove past Soweto’s TV station, which triggered a fun discussion with Patrick about South African jazz musicians.

    On our drive from Soweto to the Emperor’s Palace casino complex, we got stuck in rush hour traffic. Patrick whiled away the time by entertaining us with stories of his life, and some of the crazy things he’s had to do for demanding clients. He proudly pointed out the gigantic main stadium for the World Cup, before admitting that while he hopes South Africa plays well, he’s really going to be rooting for “his team”—Brazil.

    We said goodbye to Patrick at the Mondior Concorde Hotel, where we were whisked inside by uniformed doormen. This place was quite a contrast, both to Soweto and to Madikwe—a big, polished (and somewhat generic) business hotel attached to a complex of Las Vegas-y casino, food court, and other hotels. This wasn’t the type of place we’d usually want to stay, but Rhino Africa had recommended it as a safe, simple place to get a bite to eat and a good night’s sleep, with a free airport shuttle to get us to our rendezvous with the Earthwatch team tomorrow morning. We got our things settled in the room and plugged in our battery chargers, then headed downstairs to wander around and find some dinner. We had to walk down a long corridor from the hotel and pass through a metal detector to get to the casino area, where we passed some very cheesy “Roman villa”-style frescoes on the walls and ceiling, and then ended up in an indoor “Italian piazza,” complete with a painted sky overhead and a replica of Michelangelo’s David, wearing a hard hat and tool belt. He held a sign that said, “Under Construction: The Empire is Expanding!” Um… okay. Where are we, again?

    Trying to feel like we were indeed in South Africa still, we chose to eat at Tribe’s African Grill. We tried a number of small plates that sounded interesting, and made a pretty good dinner of it: ostrich sausages with mielie pap (boiled maize meal), Cape spring rolls with bobotie and sweet chutney, “Congo black mushrooms,” and South African wine. The casino itself was not at all our scene, so we walked around a bit more and found nothing interesting except an odd little shop called Mr. Biltong. It looked like a candy store, but with glass-fronted cabinets filled with South Africa’s famous jerky and—inexplicably—a bunch of stuffed animals and giant teddy bears hanging on the opposite wall, like the kind of stuff you’d win at a carnival. (Come to think of it, this would probably be our dog Kyle’s dream store: dried meat and stuffed toys!) I pondered all the biltong choices: beef, warthog, kudu, wildebeest, eland, impala… We finally chose springbok, and also picked up some local snack food, like we always like to do in other countries: Simba chips, and some weird little candies called “Sour Mini Enerjelly Babies” (they looked like tiny gummy versions of the Easter Island moai—who could resist?). By then our brains were fatigued by all the crazy contrasts of the day—from a hyena tearing at a rhino carcass to the extremes of wealth and poverty in the township, and finally this nutty casino full of light and noise and African antelope jerky. It was time to go back to our room and get some sleep before we met up with our fellow brown hyena volunteers.

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    Why yes I would like to see some dog pics on a Fri. night. You have the whole spectrum of dog activity too. The pups with the mom are some of my favorites. What a fortunate find.

    When there are spotted and brown hyenas together are the spotted ones referred to as "Spotties"? I read where you used that term.

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    Thanks, Lynn -- I was feeling like my posts get buried before anyone sees them.

    I think "spotties" may be just a fond term used by one of the researchers we worked with on the hyena project, but we picked it up, too. :) We often heard the rangers and the researchers refer to them as "browns" and "spotties"/"spotteds" rather than "hyenas."

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    I still think of those dogs when I'm having a bad day. Never fails to cheer me up!

    Sorry for the delay (no free time for typing lately). Here's the beginning installment of our Earthwatch project...

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    PART 6: Home Sweet Mankwe

    We slept in this morning until about 8:30, knowing it would be the last time for a while that we’d be able to do such a thing, and had what we thought might very well might be our last hot showers for more than a week. (We were really expecting to rough it at the volunteer camp.) We had an uninspired-but-free breakfast buffet downstairs in the hotel and checked out. The Mondior Concorde was a perfectly nice hotel and provided exactly what we’d needed (a place to sleep, a place to eat, a quick shuttle ride to the airport), but looking out the windows at the parking lot and the freeway, we understood how business travelers get burnt out on this sort of thing—this hotel could be anywhere, in any city. We were excited to hop on the shuttle and head off toward something more adventurous. And I felt a tiny bit of apprehension about meeting the rest of our Earthwatch crew, too. What would they be like? What kind of people spend their vacation studying brown hyenas?

    Well, at this point I’m going to edit my personal journal a bit, because I don’t think it’s fair to write too much about the other volunteers on our team and this is our version of events, after all. Suffice it to say, my apprehension was for nothing. We had a fantastic team, a bunch of really nice, hardworking and fun people who helped make this great experience even better. Of course, we didn’t know this the moment we met them at the airport—all we knew was that there would be 11 of us (including my husband and myself), with volunteers from various parts of the USA and the UK, ranging in age from 18 to 65+, a few couples and lots of solo travelers. The travel experience in the group ranged from one person who was on her very first trip away from home, to a woman who’d been to Africa nine times, and several guys who had done more than 15 Earthwatch projects each. Many people were on their first trip to Africa. It was a diverse group in terms of life experiences and careers, and overall I was quite impressed, even in the first few minutes of talking to each of them. What we all had in common, of course, was a passion for conservation, a fascination with African wildlife in particular, and a desire to jump in and do something useful here.

    Our transfer drivers arrived a bit late, but it gave us all time to hang around in the airport and start to get to know one another. When the drivers showed up, they apologized profusely for getting stuck in traffic, then quickly loaded up luggage and people for the 2-hour drive to the Mankwe Wildlife Reserve, near Pilanesberg National Park. We split into two different vans for the trip; ours was driven by a tall, charismatic Zimbabwean guy named Aaron, who chatted with us, told stories about his life, and answered questions all the way to Mankwe. One of Aaron’s best stories was about how he’d come to South Africa for a job (“There are no jobs in Zimbabwe,” he’d said, “And that is an understatement!”) and fallen in love with a girl in Joburg, who later became his wife... instead of doing the traditional thing and marrying a girl from his village back home. Evidently he had a LOT of explaining to do with his parents, and the story was quite funny and sweet the way he told it. I thought about what Patrick had told us, how South Africans are often hostile toward people who come from Zimbabwe looking for jobs here, and it was an especially sobering thought after having met one of those people—especially someone as delightful, kind and capable as Aaron.

    I did a lot of looking out the window, too, mentally comparing South Africa with other countries I’ve visited. Frankly, a lot of what I saw reminded me of California, particularly the central valley and I-5. Our drive took us past rolling farmland with long irrigation pipes and purplish mountains in the distance. The high electric fences topped with razor wire were something we don’t see around the farms back home, though. Gradually farms gave way to a more dusty, arid region, and platinum mines replaced green fields. Each time our car slowed down, guys would run up to us and try to sell us tangerines, sunglasses, bottled water, newspapers. The houses were smaller and scrappier out here than near the city, but it still looked a great deal more developed than what we’d seen in East Africa. The roads were paved and well-maintained the entire way, and people had glass in their windows, power lines, big school buildings, fences (with that ubiquitous barbed wire). Not to diminish the problems with poverty that South Africa definitely faces, especially in the divide between the very rich and the very poor, but overall this felt like a very different Africa than the ones we’d visited before. (And of course, it wasn’t a surprise – there is not an “Africa,” any more than there is an “Asia” or “Europe.”) But just to mention a few of things that were remarkably different between the East Africa I visited and the part of South Africa I saw: there were so many fewer people out and about here, not nearly as many folks walking alongside the roads, and lots more cars. We also saw very few of the colorful little businesses and shops with their clever signs that I’d loved so much in countries like Kenya and Uganda.

    When we arrived at Mankwe, our home for the next 12 days, we were a bit surprised. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Aaron turned the car into the gates of an old mining explosives factory and drove past a parking lot and some low brick buildings. Was this where our brown hyena project was located?? Thankfully, no—we drove on past it and down a series of dirt roads that took us far from the factory, past several kudu-crossing signs and into open grassland dotted with acacia trees and scrub. We would learn later that this whole wildlife reserve exists because of the explosives factory, though. It’s now closed, with the factory operations moved closer to Johannesburg, but the area that is now the reserve was originally set up as a mandatory buffer zone for safety when the factory was still in operation. Wildlife moved into the buffer zone (as wildlife tends to do), and some of the company’s employees took an interest in it. The land still belongs to the explosives company but it is now a fenced wildlife reserve, and in addition to the wildlife that “volunteered” here, a number of other species have been introduced to the area. Dougal MacTavish, a former employee of the explosives company, manages the reserve, and Project Phiri (our brown hyena study) has been based here for some time. If all this sounds dreadful to some of you who love wide-open spaces, I do have to mention that once you’ve passed inside the gates of the reserve, you’d hardly know there was ever a factory nearby. The reserve is small enough that we did regularly see the border fences, but overall it felt a world away from the developed South Africa we’d driven through to get here. It is quite a lovely, scenic place, and you can walk and drive for miles without seeing anything but wildlife.

    When we drove through the reserve’s gate for the first time, we were immediately greeted by a waterbuck mom and baby, then a pair of warthogs and a herd of impala. We got a good view of the double line of fencing, with a mowed fire break in between. Certain animals like jackals, brown hyenas, honey badgers, porcupines, and caracals can easily get in and out under these fences (and in fact we saw some crafty warthogs slipping in and out through their network of trenches nearly every day we were here). But the bigger animals like antelope, zebra, rhino and giraffe are contained by them. Even if the agile antelope species manage to leap over the first fence, they don’t have enough space to get up the speed to clear the second fence line. We’d learn, too, that while these fences helped keep the animals from wandering off into developed areas, they didn’t manage to deter poachers much more than they deterred warthogs.

    As we drove through the reserve toward our camp we saw a large herd of blesbok, one of the southern antelope varieties and a new animal for us. They look very much like dark chestnut hartebeests, with bright white blazes down their faces that give them their name—a striking sight when all those faces suddenly turn your way. A few minutes later, we spotted a huge male ostrich in breeding plumage running away through the tall golden grass. We pulled into camp and got our first glimpse of our new home. This would be the longest we’d ever stayed in one place during our travels: 11 nights, 12 days. And lucky for us, it was a little piece of paradise. The camp is in a gorgeous spot, right at the edge of a small lake (which the locals all just called “the dam”) teeming with birdlife and ringed with tall, reedbuck-friendly grasses and reeds. On the dry side of the dam wall is a small pool with warm red rocks, where monitor lizards like to bask in the sun. A grassy area with a large fallen log (perfect for journaling and bird watching), a fire pit, and a volleyball net separates the few camp buildings from the water’s edge. (I noticed that the grass was dotted with the small dark pellets of antelope poop, indicating that there were frequent night-time visitors.) There is a large wooden dining hall with a kitchen in the back, and a smaller building that houses the classroom and field equipment tables, decked out with identification samples (skulls and bones, a caracal skin, lots of impressive horns) and a small field library. Our training and meetings would take place here.

    The women in our volunteer group (who outnumbered the men 7 to 4, in case you’re wondering about that sort of thing) were housed in the “chalet,” a cinder block building with a small patio, communal bathrooms, and a boma to one side. Behind that was a similar building for staff and some visiting college students from the UK, who were also working on Project Phiri. The couples and single guys lucked out and got big walk-in safari tents of our own, with attached private bathrooms and showers. My husband and I got really lucky and were assigned to the tent furthest away from the main camp, up a winding little path on a small hill. From the chairs in front of our tent we had a stunning view of the lake. (But really, all the tents and buildings had a darn nice view of it.) Inside, the tents were simple and very comfortable, with shelves for our duffle bags and a rack to hang some clothes, bamboo walls around the bathroom, and three single beds. We pushed two together to put our sleeping bags on, and used the third as storage for our backpacks and gear. We had a generator for light at night until 10pm, and hot water for showers from a crazy old “donkey boiler” into which Alfred, the camp’s handyman, fed wood every morning (or on request at other times of day). In addition to its nice location, our tent was distinguished by a zebra-skin rug on the floor. I felt bad (and startled!) every time I walked across it and felt its shaggy forelock on my bare feet or under my boots, but I’ll admit it was impossible not to appreciate its beauty up close. (Those stripes! I still prefer to see them on a live animal, though.) At some point or other everyone on our team would come by our tent to meet “our” zebra.

    Overall, we were pleasantly surprised by how good the accommodations were at the camp – other than the winter cold, this was not “roughing it” at all. We absolutely loved our tent, the camp’s location, the delicious meals, and everything about our stay here. We’ve heard that Earthwatch projects can really vary from one to the next in terms of the quality of housing and food, but Mankwe was outstanding. This was not “luxury” in the tourist-safari sense, but it was a really lovely, comfortable place to call home and a far step above what we’d been expecting as volunteers.

    In addition to seeing the camp for the first time, this first afternoon was also our chance to meet our team leaders, or P.I.’s (principal investigators, in Earthwatch-speak). The British scientists who lead Project Phiri were not in residence during our stay, but Lynne MacTavish is the resident P.I. at Mankwe (she’s Dougal’s daughter and is Operations Manager of the reserve). Lynne was assisted during our stay by another team leader, Lauren, who has a background as a safari guide (and a wicked sense of humor), and several British students, including Louisa, a Ph.D. candidate who is doing an extensive study of brown and spotted hyenas and Louis, a graduate student who is studying vultures and coordinates research at the reserve. There’s also an excellent staff at the camp, including Makhosi and Hilda (extraordinary cooks), Alfred (master of the donkey boiler and an expert snake-catcher), and a group of trackers who assisted with various projects. There are multiple Earthwatch groups contributing to Project Phiri at different times of the year so the project leaders change depending on who is in residence, but since Lynne lives at Mankwe she is an important and very positive influence on the project. As we got to know her, I would be constantly amazed and impressed by her wealth of knowledge about wildlife and her bush skills.

    After lunch and a short break to settle into our rooms and tents, we all climbed up into the back of a (very high!) open truck and headed out into the reserve for an orientation game drive with Lynne and Lauren. Right at the edge of camp, we startled two reedbucks out of the brush. We saw quite a lot on this drive, and learned more about the animals who live here. One of the noteworthy things about this reserve is that they do not have any resident large predators, other than the occasional passing leopard, and they also do not have elephants. These things have a significant impact on on the way the reserve is managed, on the landscape, and on the behavior and success of animals like jackals and brown hyenas (who will often scavenge off the kills of lions and spotted hyenas in other parks and reserves, like nearby Pilanesberg or Madikwe). What they do have at Mankwe is a huge variety of antelopes, small mammals, birds, reptiles, and smaller predators like jackals and caracals, plus the white rhinos, giraffes, and zebras. There are also nocturnal creatures like genets, honey badgers, bush babies, and porcupines. On our first drive we encountered waterbucks, tsessebe (another new type of antelope for us), vervet monkeys, kudus, a tiny steenbok bolting away in surprise, a herd of galloping wildebeest, impalas, and elands. We also saw one of the two male rhinos, and were introduced to him by name. This one was Patrol, who is notorious for knocking down every sign he finds—Lynne said they have to hang road signs in the trees to foil him in this little game. We also drove past Louis’ “vulture restaurant,” where he puts out carcasses and camera traps, and studies the huge birds from a hide. On our way back to camp, we spotted a jackal trotting through the grass. It was good to get this initial overview of the reserve and its wildlife, as it would be one of three different places where we’d be gathering data for brown hyena research (the other two being Pilanesberg National Park, which is also fenced but does have large predators including lions, leopards, wild dogs and cheetahs; and Kgaswane Mountain Reserve, which does not have the predators or the variety of animals found at Mankwe).

    Before dinner, my husband helped to shoo a bat out of the chalet, where it had decided to take up residence in the ceiling and completely freak out our youngest volunteer. He was able to use a badminton racket to block the bat’s path as it was flying around the room, eventually steering it out the door and into the night sky. This little game of “bat-minton” was a funny was to kick off our stay here (and don’t worry, no bats were hurt in the process).

    Dinner was the first of many delicious feasts involving local game (although we did have a few vegetarians in the bunch, this is definitely not your project if you aren’t okay with the concept of game meat)—in this case, it was wildebeest stew. We brought our bottles of Madikwe wine to share, and after dinner we all lingered around the table and each person talked a little bit about themselves and why they’d chosen to work on this project. Eventually the conversation moved outside to the campfire, a bright spot of warmth in a bitterly cold winter night. The sky was a riot of stars over our heads, and I was already feeling like I was beginning to have friends here. I couldn’t wait to jump right in and start working tomorrow—to start experiencing Africa in a whole new way.

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    PART 7: Mankwe by Foot and Spotlight

    My husband started a new habit this morning—asking the ladies in the kitchen for some words in Tswana. (As it turns out, some of the guys on the staff speak Zulu too, so he learned a bit of both.) Today’s most useful words were “ke a leboga” (thank you).

    The first thing we did (after breakfast) was a large mammal transect on foot across the reserve, to collect data on any wildlife we saw. This kind of survey work, combined with aerial surveys from a helicopter, helps them manage the reserve by providing rough population and density information for the larger animals (it obviously doesn’t work well for the nocturnal creatures and underground critters… but is surprisingly useful as a data-collection tool for things like antelopes, zebras, etc.). We set off in two teams toward opposite sides of the reserve, each with a leader (either Lynne or Lauren) and two trackers who knew the area well. First we had a briefing on what to do if we encountered white rhinos, the only dangerous large animal in the reserve (basically, what you do if you encounter a rhino is this: stay put and do whatever you guide/tracker tells you to do). Then we hopped down out of the vehicles and set off into the bush. Even though I knew we weren’t going to encounter lions or elephants, I was still thrilled to be walking in Africa again. I quickly relaxed and began to focus on all the tiny details of the bush that you never really get from a vehicle, loving the feel of the dirt under my boots.

    We each had a job to do for data collection, and as the days went on we would all take turns so that eventually everyone got a chance to do all the different jobs. This time, I was the “scribe” who recorded everything on the data sheets, while my husband was responsible for using the rangefinder to determine how far away the animals were from our GPS coordinates. Another person counted our strides, and still others were engaged as spotters. It was trickier than it sounds to keep moving forward at a useful pace, while still sweeping our eyes over the grasslands and patches of scrub to watch for animals (who usually didn’t want to hang around when they saw people approaching on foot). On our drive out to the start of the walking transect, we’d spotted waterbucks and tsessebes, ostriches, warthogs, a steenbok, and wildebeest from the high vantage point of the vehicle. But it was a very different thing to see the wildlife on foot, and we marveled at the spotting abilities of our tracker, John. Someone in the group would point to the horizon and say, “Something, there…” and all the binoculars would go up as we attempted to ID the animals and count numbers. More than once, before we even had our binoculars focused, John would say something like, “Two elands and nine impala,” while looking with just his naked eye – and he was always right.

    Our official transect data animals (since we couldn’t count those that we’d seen on the drive in) included a jackal, ostriches, warthogs, and lots of hoof stock. These were the most challenging, as they were often far away and on the move. We needed to do some quick thinking and fast binocular work to be sure we counted them all… and didn’t count the same animals twice! Altogether, we collected data on tsessebe, elands, zebras, wildies, blesboks, impalas, waterbucks, gemsboks (oryx), and kudus. Some of these were in huge herds, and others in smaller groups of 3 or 4. Our data ran onto multiple pages.

    Despite the challenges of the work, the time flew by. We loved walking in the bush—the warmth of the African sun after a chilly winter morning, the thorns that reached out occasionally to lift hats off heads or snag our pant legs, the crunch of dried grass beneath our boots, the fresh, wild scent of the air. No trails here, just hoof prints, dried scat, tiny wildflowers showing the first hint of spring coming. It was the dry season, so the branches on the trees were bare and everything was silvery and golden brown—the better to see animals, even far away. We didn’t see any rhinos this morning, and though we diligently watched our steps we didn’t see any snakes, either.

    All too soon we reached the road and the transect ended. We’d walked for about 2 hours, but it felt like 10 minutes. If this is “work,” sign me up for more! On the drive back to camp we saw even more large mammals (which we couldn’t count for data, darn it), including a breeding herd of giraffes with 5 juveniles, galloping blesboks, a tsessebe very close to the road, and two fuzzy baby waterbucks. A group of 3 female ostriches were watching a big black male do his mating dance, spreading his wings and hopping madly around before hunkering down low to the ground. As we pulled in to camp, we startled the mountain reedbucks who like to hang out nearby.

    After lunch we had an afternoon of training for the project, learning how to do various things like estimating distance in kilometers, working the GPS and rangefinder, and different data collection strategies. Broadly speaking, the basic goal of Project Phiri is to study brown hyena behavior and distribution in several different types of places: a fully protected national park (Pilanesberg), a fenced private reserve with no large predators (Mankwe), and unprotected or partially-protected areas like farmland or the nearby Kgaswane Mountain Reserve. While our main purpose as volunteers was to gather data for the brown hyena study, we also assisted with various wildlife-management projects for Mankwe. And since the brown hyenas are such an important part of Mankwe’s ecosystem, there were many instances where the data gathered would be useful to both the scientific study and the management of the reserve.

    The data collection methods we used included latrine surveys (recording GPS coordinates of hyena and jackal latrines, and collecting scat samples for DNA analysis at the University of Pretoria); spotlight transects at night from an open vehicle (recording all nocturnal animals, not just hyenas); baited call-ins from a vehicle at night, at different sites in Mankwe and Pilanesberg (this only happens at certain times of year, so we were lucky to get to do this); camera trapping with drag bait; and den searches. Project Phiri also has radio collars on three hyenas in Pilanesberg, but our group did not do anything with that aspect of the project.

    After the hands-on training with data collection gadgets and methods, we gathered in the classroom for Lynne to give a talk on brown hyenas. She explained all the objectives for our group and what our daily schedule and workload would be like. It sounds like a lot for 11 days (and it was): den searches with vehicles and on foot, more than 80kms of latrine surveys in the 3 different reserves, 12 spotlight transects at Mankwe, 14 call-ins at Mankwe and Pilanesberg, 6 camera trap sites with a total of 12 cameras to set up, putting up hyena awareness posters at all the gates and visitor centers in the national park, an anti-poaching patrol, a course in tracking and bush skills, and (optional) participation in a controlled burn. By the end of our trip we would accomplished all this, and learn so much along the way… and yet, we were amazed by how much fun we had, too, and how much time we had each day for watching wildlife above and beyond the research projects. The group leaders did a great job of balancing fun and exploration with the tasks we had to do for the project.

    Fortunately, we got to start right away with some of the most enjoyable tasks. After the morning’s walking transect and the afternoon of training, we had some time to kick back at camp before dinner. And then around 8pm it was time to head out into the reserve for our first spotlighting adventure. We were all bundled up in layers against the freezing cold night air—driving around in an open vehicle on a winter night is definitely not for the faint of heart. Long johns, sweaters, fleece, jackets, gloves, boots, ski hats, scarves pulled up over our faces… and still we were shivering. Lynne appointed my husband and me to be the spotlighters, standing up behind the cab of the truck and swinging the lights in slow, steady arcs alongside the moving vehicle. When we saw something, we were supposed to thump on the roof so Lynne would stop and the team could record it. I was really excited, until my spotlight’s bulb burned out only 10 minutes or so into the drive. My husband ended up being the Spotlight Champion and doing both sides for the rest of drive, while I helped the others as a spotter, looking for the tell-tale eyeshine in the darkness.

    Off-transect (as we were driving to our starting point), we spotted a number of animals. But since they were not nocturnal they didn’t count for our data, anyway: impalas, duikers, zebras, kudus, and rhino with her tiny baby. Thanks to the cold, most sensible nocturnals were tucked away in their dens. The only animals we spotted that were on our official transect route and could be counted as part of our data set were two scrub hares. We dutifully recorded their GPS location, distance and angle from the vehicle, species, number, and activity. Then, far too soon for me despite the chill, we’d reached the end of the transect route and it was time to head home. No brown hyenas tonight, but there were still many more night drives to look forward to.

    Back at our freezing cold tent, now past 11pm, the generator was already off for the night. We got ready for bed by headlamp, checked the sleeping bags for snakes (seriously), and crawled in. It had been a full, exciting day, and we fell asleep under layers of goosedown and blankets, to a chorus of jackal calls somewhere out in the darkness.

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    A multilingual spotlight champion, who has attended to the health needs of visitors in the past--what a guy you have to take on safari!

    So your duties continued into the night drive.

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    Hi MDK,
    I'm so glad to see new chapters. I'll catch up next weekend or if I'm lucky sometime this week. Hope you and DH had a great Thanksgiving. Weather has been beautiful!

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    Thanks, everybody! As always, I apologize for taking so long to do this. (Too bad I can't just scan in my hand-written journal and be done with it.)

    Anita, you're so sweet. Glad it's entertaining. Just wait until I start talking about the latrine surveys! ;)

    Lynn, it's so true -- I couldn't ask for a better travel companion. (And you made Mr. MyDogKyle's day by writing that.)

    Leely and Patty, hi! We did have a very nice Thanksgiving (2 of them, actually). Kyle got to run on the beach in Santa Cruz with his doggy friends after the turkey dinner. Hopefully you guys had a good holiday weekend, too!

    I'll try to add another chapter to the saga in the next few days...

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    Hi to anyone who's still interested... Sorry for the long (holiday- and work-related) delay. Back to my story, and I promise to get this thing finished before I head off on my next adventure. :)

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    PART 8: Hyena PR, Guts in a Bucket, and Pig Squeals in the Night

    This morning, like every morning at Mankwe, we were awakened around 6:30 by the loud calls of hadada ibis, followed by the piercing cry of a fish eagle arriving at his perch on the tree in the middle of our lake. It sure beats an alarm clock. But so far the hardest part of any day had been getting out of our toasty warm sleeping bags when the thermometer says it’s 40 degrees F inside our tent.

    We had breakfast at 8, and set off for nearby Pilanesberg National Park an hour later. This morning’s mission was to post awareness posters about Project Phiri at all the park’s entrance gates. We’d also give cards to the guides in the park (to hand out to their safari clients), asking for people to contribute their photos or any information they had about hyena sightings to the project.

    On our drive out of the reserve to the main road, we passed a large herd of blesboks, and another tiny steenbok bounded away through the grass in surprise. By this point we were starting to quickly recognize all these new (for us) southern species in our home reserve. But everyone was excited for our first visit to Pilanesberg, where we might see a larger range of animals, especially predators. The national park is so scenic, and strikingly different from the grassy plains and rolling hills of Mankwe. Pilanesberg is located in a series of volcanic craters, so the scenery is very dramatic: high peaks, deep valleys, and a variety of types of landscapes. The Big 5 all live here, as do hippos, wild dogs, cheetahs, and other big critters. And, of course, brown hyenas! Our mission today was just to put up the posters and get a good look around the park—later in the week we’d be returning to do latrine surveys, night call-ins, and camera trapping here, too.

    At first, Pilanesberg didn’t yield up much that was different from our drives around Mankwe, other than the more dramatic scenery. We saw lots of impala, zebra, and kudu, a few wildebeest and giraffes, a jackal trotting nonchalantly up the road in front of our van, and a few vervet monkeys playing along the shoulder. (Since this is a national park, we rode in closed vans here, rather than the open trucks.) The animals were noticeably less skittish about vehicles here than they were at Mankwe. A long line of zebras with tiny foals kept pace with us for a while, and we joked that they were researchers doing a “tourist transect.”

    We drove past one of the dams and saw a group of hippos basking far away, and then a white rhino mother resting with her baby, much closer. Some very svelte guinea fowl ran past, and we got a close look at a couple of warthogs right beside the road. Altogether, we visited three entrance gates plus the Pilanesberg Centre to put up posters, and also stopped at the nature center at Thakadu Lodge. At the center, we were gratified to see two gentlemen walk over and start reading the brown hyena poster right away (I’m sure it didn’t hurt that we’d hung it right underneath the “recent sightings” sign!).

    During our drives through the park, Lynne also pointed out some hyena latrines, as well as the former site of one of their dens, high in a red rock cliff where a deep fissure offered shelter and a ledge was perfect for sunning. We’d seen the photos of the baby hyenas at this den, back at camp, and I could picture them romping around up there. Unfortunately for our team, they hyenas weren’t using this den at the present time.

    We drove past some wildebeest and red hartebeest ruminating under a tree, and suddenly Lynne got really excited—she’d spotted a black rhino, high up on the side of the crater in the colorful foliage. With binoculars we would pick out occasional glimpses of his pointed lip, but the most noticeable difference between this fellow and all the white rhinos we’d been seeing was his smaller, sleeker size. We were excited to encounter a herd of elephants next—so many big females with babies of all sizes, browsing in the thick brush, dusting themselves, drinking at the water’s edge. We watched several of them gently rouse a tiny baby from sleep and help her to her feet. Oh, how I love elephants! And for many people in the van, this was their first chance to see them—how I also love getting to share that moment with somebody on their first safari. We were able to visit this same family twice today as we drove back and forth between the center of the park and the Bakgatla gate.

    Finally we had to head back to Mankwe, already running an hour late for lunch thanks to all the stops we made to admire the wildlife. I was surprised by this, actually, and very grateful—even though we were here to work on the project, Lynne and Lauren always allowed time for us to enjoy the sights and the non-study animals, too. From what we heard from other volunteers, this is definitely not always the case on a conservation project. On the way out of Pilanesberg, we watched a wee baby zebra, probably only a day or two old, bolting after his mother to keep up, a bachelor herd of kudu, and a slender mongoose. These are animals that are probably rather common for native South Africans to see, but the rest of us were entranced. As we drove back into Mankwe, my husband was delighted to notice a “kudu crossing” sign near the old factory. We watched as two warthogs made a quick escape under the double barrier fence, and before long we were home.

    After a quick lunch of soup, sandwiches, and tart Savannah cider, we walked over to the rocks below the dam wall to watch Nile monitors sunning themselves. There was a dead terrapin floating among the lily pads, and a few of us had a brief debate about whether we could count that as a sighting. Something larger than a lizard was rustling around in the reeds at the water’s edge, but it never revealed itself.

    In the late afternoon we had a training session with the call-in equipment and went over the protocol. The equipment for Team A (our team) was having issues, with a short in the connection between the speakers and the playback equipment—our duct tape to the rescue! Tonight would be our only chance to try it out before our 2 nights of call-ins with the big predators at Pilanesberg.

    After training, we headed out into the reserve to set up a couple of camera traps. I helped with lashing the motion-sensitive cameras to the trees, while my husband got the enviable task of dragging a trail of offal around the site to obscure our human scent and lure in predators to the bait. The way a camera trap works is this: 2 cameras are positioned on either side of the bait, and an infrared sensor triggers them to take photos if something approaches the bait (which is staked to the ground to keep interested carnivores in sight of the cameras as long as possible). Somebody asked Lynne what the bait was, and she replied deadpan, “A student from the last team that I didn’t like.” Actually, the bait on this first camera trap was a juvenile wildebeest that had died of natural causes, and the second trap had a combo meal of waterbuck plus a blesbok's head and guts on the side. My husband also got the fun of dumping the guts and head out of a big, sloshy bucket. He had another volunteer, a professional zookeeper, to enthusiastically help him... but I swear, I would have done it if I was needed! (In case you’re wondering, the bait meat for the camera traps and the vulture restaurant comes from natural animal deaths or road kill.) We were sure that finding this would make some animal’s night.

    By the time we finished setting up the camera traps (and watching another lovely African sunset), we could feel the cold starting to cut through our daytime clothes. After dinner we hurried back to our tent to pile on all our layers for the call-in drive, and this time I thought to bring along a blanket for the open truck, too.

    We were very excited to try the call-in methodology, since it seemed like our best chance to see any carnivores, particularly hyenas. Here’s how it works: when we arrive at the designated call-in site, one person positions the speakers on the roof of the truck’s cab, facing to the right. We then play the call (in this case, the anguished sound of an injured pig squealing) for 3 minutes. After a minute of silence, we spotlight around the vehicle for 4 minutes with a red filter over the light, looking for eyeshine. If an animal comes in, we record its data, range, the GPS coordinates of the site, whether it takes the bait, etc. The call is repeated 3 more times, broadcasted in all directions around the truck, followed by another 15 minutes of silence with intermittent spotlighting, with and without the red filter so we can see a farther range. The bait is 4 to 5 meters away from the vehicle and not pinned down, so it can be a reward for any animal that makes the effort to come to the call.

    Well, the process of the call-in was quite thrilling… but unfortunately all that effort was for nothing tonight. The only thing we managed to call in on this freezing cold evening was a shooting star. We did spotlight lots of animals—kudu, eland, impala—and heard jackals calling all around us in the darkness, but no nocturnal critters made an appearance. Slightly disappointed, we returned to camp and warmed ourselves by the campfire before heading off to bed.

    This is the reality of a scientific research project, as opposed to a tourist’s safari: we needed to collect data on certain sites, rather than chasing after the best potential animal sightings… so even if the animals eluded us, that too might provide some useful information for the study. Lynne thought in this case it was probably due to the cold—it was not worth it for a predator to leave its warm den and expend all that energy on a night as chilly as this one. But it also might have indicated where the hyenas had their current dens in the reserve (or didn’t have them, as the case may be). Neither of our teams had success with carnivore sightings tonight at any of 4 call-in sites. At least we would have several more chances to try out our pig squeals at Pilanesberg in the coming nights…

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    No fair, your husband has all the fun--dragging offal and pouring blesbok head and guts out of a bucket. You spent how much to do this? :D

    I am actually a bit envious of the live blesbok herd that you saw. I've only seen them in photos and the first one I ever saw was white and I thought it was a goat.

    You were fortunate with the rhinos! And your accounts of the research/volunteer part of the trip, including the lack of sightings/interactions gives a good and accurate picture for prospective volunteers.

    Looking forward to Pig Squeals at Pilanesberg! Have you worked to maintain this talent, just in case it ever comes in handy in your future?

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    Thanks for sticking with me, guys. Seems like I only get an installment posted on here when I'm home sick from work.

    Lynn, I wish I was talented enough to do the pig squeals myself, but we used a recording. ;) (And yes, we brought home a recording of the pig squeal to play for our dog, who was unimpressed.) The study varies the types of calls they use for the night call-ins, and they've gotten the best hyena response when they play hyena calls (as opposed to pig squeals). So we were, selfishly, a bit disappointed to hear that, seeing that we were on a "pig squeal" team last August. But as you will see, the pig squeals did pay off once we got to Pilanesberg... (I don't want to give away the most exciting parts of my report!)

    Patty, thanks for being interested in our non-Africa plans. I hope to post our Mongolia itinerary on my thread over on the Asia board soon... but there doesn't seem to be too much interest there, other than from our trusty friend Lynn, who is everywhere at all times!

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    PART 9: Secrets of the Bush (Or, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Poop)

    We woke this morning at 4am to a chorus of jackal calls. A few hours later, our usual morning chorus of hadada ibis and fish eagle kicked in. At breakfast, my husband learned some more Tswana from the cooks, and we also heard the news that last night Louis had spotted a caracal sniffing along the drag line of our second camera trap.

    After breakfast, we set off into the reserve for a bush walk and tracking lesson. Our group was lucky enough to have Lynne as our guide, so we got to have the close-up guided tour of the reserve and its plants and animals from someone who’d spent most of her life here and knows the bush like the back of her hand. We saw and learned so much during the walk, it would be tough to describe it all here. Like any walking safari, it was so much fun to focus on the details: the granite rocks that provide evidence of the land’s volcanic past, the dramatic Queen of the Night cactus introduced by farmers which now provides a safe sleeping place for bush babies, the burnt shell of a leopard tortoise, scarred in a way that showed it survived the fire only to be later eaten by a brown hyena or small cat. But this was a walking safari with a difference, too—in addition to learning about the ecosystem of Mankwe, we were being taught things that would help us do our jobs for Project Phiri. And, we were learning about our home (even if it would just be our home for a few weeks).

    We got an extensive lesson in scatology, for one thing, learning to recognize who had passed by based on the poop they left behind: wildies’ “chocolate eggs,” pony-sized zebra manure, piled-up eland poop, tiny balls left by impala, the spread-out line of giraffe (who keep walking along as they relieve themselves). Rhino poop varies depending on the type of rhino, because their diet is so different. Black rhino poop is full of thorns, berries and twigs (they’re browsers), while white rhinos poop is pure grass. Female rhinos leave their poop in a pile, but males scatter theirs around with their feet to mark their territory. Baby rhino poop looks like the adults’, but in miniature. Lynne told us that dung beetles like white rhino poop best, because it’s easy to work with as they roll it up in a ball and lay their eggs.

    Let’s not forget the carnivores! Brown hyena poop is chalky white when dried out thanks to all the calcium in the bones they ingest (this is true of spotted hyena poop, too), but takes on a greenish tinge when fresh. This is very convenient when you are studying hyenas, since their scat really stands out! It’s not always that simple, though—ostrich scat, like others birds, is a mix of brown and white (thanks to uric acid), and because it is so large, it can sometimes be mistaken for hyena. Not surprisingly, jackal poop looks like a small dog’s, and it comes in a limited range of colors, from pale brown to black. The scat left by the cats in this reserve (leopard, caracal, serval, wild cat) is usually full of hair, and often in a curled shape.

    While all this detail might seem a bit gross to some people, it is amazing how much of a story you can “read” from the bush once you’ve learned to recognize these signs. For instance, impalas use their little poop latrines to mark the corners of their territories, leaving huge amounts of the tiny balls in piles at the corners, so you can tell how close competing impalas’ territories are located. Lynne tested us at one point, and we were able to look at the signs left in a clearing and tell that a mother and baby white rhino had passed through not very long before we arrived, as well as a group of wildebeest.

    We also learned to recognize the tracks left by many of these animals, which further added to the story—delicate little impala hooves and the wider split hooves of wildebeest, round little horse-like tracks of zebras and their foals, the flat round marks of big rhino feet, plus giraffe, kudu, and ostrich. It was so much fun to guess at who had made each set of tracks, and to (usually) be right!

    Lynne introduced us to a number of trees on the reserve, some native and others introduced back when this area was all settled as farmland. Our favorite was the lovely, sprawling marula tree, which is famously used for making amarula (and for getting elephants tipsy). These trees are valued for a number of other reasons, as well—the seeds are very high in vitamin C and protein; the bark is easily removed without harming the tree, and underneath you find a moisture that acts as an antihistamine and can be used to relive stings and bites; and the roots are rich in water and often grow above ground, providing a source of water during times of drought. Lynne told us that nobody cuts marula trees down—“Unless they are very foolish”—because they are so useful.

    In another tree we found an old hornbill nest and had a chance to look inside. The female hornbill uses mud and down to close up the nest entrance while raising her chicks, relying on the male to come back and feed them all through a tiny hole, until the chicks are big enough to survive outside the nest—at which point the male breaks through the mud and sets them free. When we were looking at a Splendid Thorn Acacia tree, we heard the call of a little Cape turtle dove, admonishing us to “work harder” (or, as Lauren later more optimistically translated, encouraging us to “drink lager”). The impressive thorns of this particular acacia are so long and sturdy, people used to use them as gramophone needles!

    We also came across the site of an old Boer homestead from the early 1900s. The graves of the family’s mother and two of her small children are still there with their carved headstones, as well as scattered foundation stones, and their water well and pump. We even found several green glass bottles nestled in the grass, with the date 1912 stamped on them.

    Much more recent was other kinds of evidence left behind by reserve’s animal residents: a spot where an aardvark had burrowed into a termite mound, the matted-down grass where warthogs had made their beds, and the polished smooth stump used as a rhino scratching post. One exciting find was a network of collapsed termite mounds, expanded and enlarged into a series of dens and interconnecting tunnels by other animals—aardvark, brown hyena, porcupine and warthog all make their burrows this way, and tamboti trees often grow in groves on top of these sites. Since the trees are poisonous (like euphorbia), browsing animals stay away and don’t trample the den. We couldn’t be certain is anyone was living in this den at the moment, but the presence of a few porcupine quills and the flies buzzing around one of the entrance holes suggested a strong possibility.

    From the burrow site, we walked across the dry, cracked expanse of Bullfrog Pan. These huge frogs were all hibernating beneath the dry pond for the winter, and would reemerge in the wet season to mate for 24 frantic hours straight, after which they would eat everything they could before going back under the mud to lay their eggs and wait out another dry season. Amazingly, they can survive for 2 to 3 years under there if they need to in times of drought. Rhinos are fond of rolling around in this dry pond, too, creating small waterholes beneath the heavy crush of their bodies. They then rub the mud off on nearby trees… so you can tell a rhino has been here if the surrounding trees have mud halfway up their trunks.

    We walked past one of last night’s call-in spots, where some pied crows were busy pecking at the untouched bait we’d left behind. So it wasn’t just our presence keeping the carnivores away—it was just too darn cold for them to bother expending the energy. But once you’ve learned to recognize some of the myriad signs of life in the bush the bush, you realize that wildlife is all around you and constantly in motion… even when you don’t see its furry, feathered, slimy, scaly, or rough-skinned presence.

    We did see lots of animals on our drive back to camp: blesboks, kudus, elands, banded mongoose, more warthogs escaping through the boundary fence, and a majestic one-horned male waterbuck named Bruno. After lunch we had a few hours to rest, kick our hiking boots off and stretch our toes in sandals for a change, do some laundry, and admire some of the wildlife around camp. Our little lake is home to a wealth of birds: African jacanas, white-faced ducks, pied kingfishers, ibis and fish eagle, plus monitor lizards sunning by the dam and tiny striped skinks on the rock path to our tent. We also have those reedbucks that like to linger around the fringes of camp, and the scatter of dung across the camp’s lawn by the lake shows evidence of night-time visitors, too. Not to mention our fabulous camp kitties, Simba, Tigger and Misty. This is such a great place to hang out.

    Our afternoon project was our first latrine survey, in Mankwe. This basically consists of driving a transect and hanging out the side of the truck looking for hyena (white) and jackal (brown) scat near the road. When we found some, we collected a sample and recorded data such as estimated age, number of latrines in the area, distance from the road, and GPS coordinates. This data was later used to map out territories, density, and distribution trends, and the samples themselves would be sent off to a lab for DNA analysis. Spotting poop is not as easy as it sounds, though, and watching the side of the road so closely from a moving vehicle really strains the eyes! The ground seems to whizz by so fast, even at slow driving speeds, and there are lots of other types of poop to confuse you. On this first latrine survey, my husband and I identified rhino, zebra, ostrich, baboon, korhaan, and wildebeest poop, but neither of us spotted the study poop. The professional zookeeper on our team, however, proved herself the Champion Scat Spotter, and picked out some hyena and LOTS of jackal poop. Lynne even spotted a very furry old leopard scat! Although we would become very good scat spotters in time (if I do say so myself), my husband and I made ourselves more useful doing other tasks on this round. He climbed up and down the truck to collect the samples, and I recorded the data. We also saw several rhinos on the transect (as opposed to just their poop)—but you know everyone is really invested in the work at hand when they’re more excited to find a hyena latrine than an actual rhino!

    This evening, I walked out of our tent at twilight and startled a kudu. As she turned and leaped off behind the tent into the darkness, a tiny steenbok bolted straight up and bounded off after her! I looked out at the glow of sunset on the lake, and just thought, Wow.

    Dinner was a delicious game stew with miele pap, followed by a spotlight transect. My zookeeper friend and I did the spotlights this time (and this time, I had a light that worked!). Again, we saw lots of animals in the cold darkness that couldn’t be a part of our nocturnal data—kudus, wildies, tsessebes, impalas. But tonight we also spotted some data-worthy critters, too: 5 jackals, 4 steenboks, and 3 scrub hares. The most exciting moment, however, was spotting the weirdly-undulating eyeshine of 3 little spring hares hopping along. We were thrilled, as this bizarre little animal was one we’d never seen before, and definitely on our wish list. They were so cool! We went back to camp full of energy and enthusiasm, and stayed up late at the campfire with everyone. Bottles of beer were shared, stories swapped, frozen hands and feet warmed over the fire. How lucky we are to be here, and to have this marvelous place reveal itself to us in surprising ways.

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    I am impressed with the commitment of the poop patrol--more interested in the calcified hyena droppings than a live rhino! Those spring hares are quite amazing and it's nice to know others appreciate this creature. I've gone out one night and seen far too many to count and the next night, none. Maybe something lunar.

    Your observation about traffic on the site is correct. Not only have report readers dwindled, but so have other posters. Yet another sign that we have a long way to go to recover economically.

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    PART 10: My Hyena Kyle

    This morning’s project was a den search—driving around to the various hyena den sites in the reserve with our trackers, to see if there were signs of any recent activity. We visited three different dens, but we didn’t find much to indicate they were actively being used: a few tracks, some old gnawed giraffe bones, and a several isolated hyena pastings on tall stalks of grass. It was enough to show that a couple of the dens may have been used as stopping points for a hyena on the move, but if any had been in regular use, there would have been a lot more of all these signs around them. (Not to mention tell-tale flies.) The most dramatic den site was an elaborate rocky outcrop with piles of dark red boulders strewn about and an amazing view out over the grassland. Someone dubbed it the “hyena castle,” but from the most recent evidence it appeared that baboons had taken over the place. It reminded me of a smaller version of the den site we’d seen in Pilanesberg.

    Even though we didn’t locate any new or very active dens in Mankwe this morning, it was still fun to see the older sites and watch the trackers in action. We headed back to camp for lunch, after which most of us spent the afternoon in the dining hall helping Louisa make ID cards for new hyenas she’d (camera) trapped for part of her study. The photos from camera traps set in Pilanesberg and Mankwe are compared with older photos, and individuals can be identified by their unique leg stripes. Each ID card has all the photos taken of the individual hyena (including dates, times and locations), plus a sketch of each front leg and any ear notches (depending on what is visible in the photos). My husband’s artistic talents were put to good use penciling in the leg markings, while I helped Louisa and another volunteer go through new photos from camera traps set at Madikwe, an area that is also part of her doctoral study. It was painstaking work trying to match up all those leg stripes and identify which were new hyenas and which already had previous photos taken, but in the end we were able to identify 8 new brown hyenas—and the best part was, we got to name them! I named the first one Kyle (of course). Then other folks on the team started chiming in, and we had hyenas named after dogs, girlfriends, grandchildren and favorite TV characters: in addition to Kyle, we added Miki, Cody, Mario, Akira, Xena, Sonya and Monge to the study. I love knowing that somewhere out there in Madikwe, there is a brown hyena named Kyle going about his hyena business.

    After the ID tasks were done, we headed out on another set of latrine surveys. This time, our team had such an incredible run that we didn’t have enough sample bags in the truck for all the scat we found—an astounding 9 hyena and 43 jackal samples! Lynne said it was definitely a record for the most sample collected in any one survey. We were all on fire this time, spotting poop like true experts… and it prompted a bunch of giddy, silly jokes on the drive home, with people saying things like, “We really know our sh**!” and “That was a job well dung!” (Staring at carnivore latrines will do that to you.) We saw a lot of wildlife during the drives, too: giraffe, kudu, red hartebeest, romping wildies, and (not too surprisingly) dung beetles. It’s still a bit cold for them, or I’m sure we would have seen a lot more.

    Tonight we had a rare night off from call-ins and spotlight surveys, so we made the most of it with a long, leisurely dinner of impala shepherd’s pie and pudding. After that we all gathered around the campfire to roast marshmallows, share Castle lagers, and watch the moon sink behind the horizon, making way for the riot of stars to come out against the pitch-dark sky. This place really feels like home now, and these people like family.

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    somewhere out there in Madikwe, there is a brown hyena named Kyle going about his hyena business.

    I'm still reading and still enjoying; work has been a little overhwelming lately so I save the longer posts for when I have some brainpower left over (no wisecracks, thank you very much). This sounds like such an amazing trip but I have to jump ahead and ask whether you were both exhausted when you got home?

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    Quite an honor to get to name the hyenas. What does Kyle think about his namesake?

    You earned that honor through your record setting dung collection! Have you been able to transfer those skills to tasks back home?

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    Hi guys!

    Yes, cleaning up Kyle's poop in the back yard has taken on a whole new meaning for me... and since part of our elephant observation work at the zoo involves recording data about their defecation habits, we've become real experts. :)

    We did show Kyle a photo of his namesake and told him all about it. I don't think he was as impressed as he should have been. But J does occasionally call him "brown hyena."

    Thanks for sticking with me, despite the extreme amount of time it's taking me to post this. I understand in every way about having no brainpower after work (part of the reason it is taking me so long to write my report). My goal is to finish before we go on our next trip! But yes, Leely, we were completely exhausted at the end of this trip. And very, very happy. I always figure I can sleep on the plane home.

    As you will see in the next few installments, all the hard work (sometimes to the detriment of safari-type animal watching) paid off with some great sightings of animals that we'd never seen before. Coming up soon...

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    PART 11: Camera Trapping As Extreme Sport

    Did I mention how much I love camera trapping? When successful, the results can be astounding—a who’s who of nocturnal predators and scavengers, caught in the moment of doing whatever it is they do when people aren’t watching. The camera trap photos on the walls of our camp dining room and in the batches we sorted through looking for study animals were just incredible: not only brown and spotted hyenas, but also lions, leopards, civets, genets, honey badgers, caracals. And even the occasional curious rhino, elephant, or giraffe! The images were beautiful, sometimes frightening, and even funny (like the close-up of a trunk inspecting the camera, with the image of another elephant far in the background, all lit by a dawn sky). Today we would discover another side of camera trapping when we set up a number of traps in Pilanesberg. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

    This morning Lynne’s dad, Dougal, gave us a talk in the classroom on game reserve management issues and the sometimes-harsh realities of conservation in today’s South Africa. It would take me hours to transcribe all my notes, but suffice it to say it was a very interesting conversation, and Dougal left room for us all to ask questions and chip in our own points of view about controversial issues such as tourism, hunting, conservation organizations, and reclaiming land for wildlife use. He also talked a lot about the history of Mankwe and his work in transitioning the land from business use to wildlife area over the past several decades. At this point, the main challenge for Mankwe (and many other places like it, including the national parks) is finding ways for the reserve to pay for itself and justify its existence. In a country that is struggling with economic issues, it can be a tough thing to argue that land should be left undeveloped, and that wildlife should be given any priority over human needs. The other main issues for the reserve are dealing with poaching (particularly since they have rhinos, but also with regard to the “bush meat” animals like warthogs and antelope), and managing the animal populations themselves to avoid overgrazing, soil erosion, and other problems in the ecological balance brought on by the presence of the fence. A fenced reserve—no matter how beautiful and well-cared-for—will never be a completely natural environment. Animals cannot migrate in and out to find natural water sources, or to move on to new territories when their populations grow too large for that area to sustain. Water sources have to be managed through the use of dams, and controlled burns are used when certain areas become overgrazed and the plant life is thrown out of balance. The most interesting part of the discussion was, for me, learning about how Mankwe deals with “excess” animals. When certain types of animals become too numerous for the reserve to sustain (antelopes or zebras, for instance), Dougal will negotiate with other reserves and parks to sell or trade animals. He does not sell animals at game auctions, because he feels it is too stressful for the animals to go through that process and have to be relocated multiple times. It was fascinating to hear about the logistics of rounding up and transporting animals between reserves, and I appreciated how much thought and planning goes into the process, with the animals’ welfare in mind. For example, when Dougal sells zebras he will never break up an existing herd, since these animals form such strong family ties.

    This afternoon we got ready for the drive to Pilanesberg, where our teams would be working for the rest of the day and long into the night. We had to bring along all the equipment needed for latrine surveys, setting camera traps, and night call-ins – several crates’ worth of equipment, speakers, data sheets, GPS units, rangefinders, etc. And of course, the pig squeal recordings.

    Once we made it to the national park, Group B went off to do a latrine survey. But our lucky Group A got to set up the camera traps at 4 new sites. The first was in an area of dry grassland and scrubby trees. We got out of the van (which you’re not allowed to do in Pilanesberg, by the way, unless you are with a research group) and unloaded the stinking bucket of hippo meat, but then Lynne realized that the cameras were in the other group’s van. We drove back to meet Lauren and retrieve them, then returned to the trap site. As soon as we got out of the van again Lynne commented, “I’ve the feeling there are lions nearby.” We all quickly snapped into action, tying 2 cameras to tree trunks and baiting them with the hippo meat. One girl on our team was too afraid to get out of the van at all, so Lynne told her to just stay put and “let us know if you see any animals coming,” which must have scared her even more. So here we were, rapidly setting up the traps in an area where (relatively) fresh hippo meat had been sitting unattended for about 10 or 15 minutes, stinking up the whole area. We managed to get everything ready and get back into the van before any predators arrived, but I had no doubt they would be here soon. We tied some wildebeest entrails to the rear bumper of the van and drove off to make a drag trail to the site, watching out the back window as the dusty ball of guts bounced along after us. A few tourists drove by in their cars while we were doing this, and I’m sure they wondered what the heck that was dragging behind our van!

    Next we went back to the front gate to pick up our ranger, Percy, an amiable guy with a big smile and an even bigger rifle. He would need to escort us for the night work in the park. The second camera trap site was an adventure in and of itself (and boy, were we glad to have Percy with us this time). First, we passed by a big herd of elephants with small babies just down the road from where we would be turning off into the brush to set our trap. “We will have to watch them carefully, in case they decide to come this way,” Percy warned. He was especially wary of elephants after having had several close calls with them (which he then told us about it frightening detail). Then, at the actual camera trap site deep inside a thicket, we startled a gigantic giraffe, who reared his big head up in surprise and lumbered away. An instant later, before we could turn the van into the site, we saw a mother white rhino with a little baby cross the road and disappear into the brush on the same side as out trap site! Fortunately she moved off away from us to graze, but there were some tense moments when we were not sure we’d be able to get out of the car at all… and Percy still kept a close eye on her while we set up the trap. I lashed one of the cameras to a tree trunk with bungee cords and set it, while my husband was (once again), the Bait Guy. The whole team worked so fast and efficiently together, Lynne later told us we’d set a new speed record for camera trap set-up. Everyone was relieved to get back in the van and head on to the next trap site, with all those big critters around.

    The third trap site was also in a small thicket, in an area where, Percy told us, one of the resident hippos liked to hang out. To out great relief, he was absent this afternoon. We passed more baby elephants on the way to the final camera trap site, enjoying some wonderful close-up views of them. But we couldn’t linger too long at any of these animal sightings, because we had a job to do and daylight was fading fast. The most painful example of this was when Percy’s radio crackled with the exciting news that another ranger had spotted wild dogs at a dam nearby. Unfortunately it was out of our way and we didn’t have time to go check it out. I looked over at one of my friends on the team and I thought she was about to cry. But we held in our disappointment and concentrated on what we were here for.

    Our fourth camera trap site was a short hike into the bush away from the safety of the van. I helped set the cameras up again (this was becoming my specialty), and my husband pounded a spike through a hunk of zebra meat to pin it to the ground in between the two cameras. Anyone who wanted a taste of that meat would have to stick around for a while and have his or her picture taken. By now it was dusk and the light was glowing a dim purple around us, the shadows were lengthening, and the air was taking on a sharp, cold bite. We worked fast and made a hasty retreat, relieved to have the out-of-the-van work behind us. Next up: night call-ins.

    But first, dinner. We had a picnic dinner in one of the park’s hides, overlooking a beautiful lake. The twilight view was a stunner and we could hear the grunt of hippos nearby, but we never saw them. It felt really special to be just get started with our work here, just as all the day visitors to the park were having to pack up their stuff and leave. Tonight it would be only us, the rangers, and the animals.

    As soon as it was fully dark, we readied the vans for call-in protocol and decided who on which team would be handling each task. Each team would do call-ins 3 times, at 3 separate assigned locations, for a total of 6 different sites throughout the park. For tonight, I was one of the spotlighters and rode up front with Lynne and Louis, while my husband was responsible for putting the speakers on the roof once we got to the call-in site. He would need to climb out there several times during the protocol to rotate the speakers around for 360-degree pig squeal coverage. This was much trickier to do in a closed van than an open truck (both our jobs required some serious leaning out of windows), but the presence of large predators in the park made the closed vans necessary… especially since we were broadcasting the sounds of an injured prey animal. And the protocol differed slightly, too, in that we would change things a bit if lions showed up (in that event, we would silence the pig squeal and close up all the windows).

    At our first call-in site, a sleepy wildebeest kept hanging around and trying to fool us with his low-to-the-ground eyeshine. Just his relaxed presence there was disappointing, because it seemed unlikely that there were any predators lurking nearby. A jackal made a brief appearance to steal the bait off the road (we didn’t stake it to the ground for call-ins like we did for camera traps), and then a scrub hare hopped in for a cautious look. The call-in ended uneventfully.

    On the drive to our second call-in site, scrub hares were zig-zagging crazily across the road right in front of our van like they had a death wish. “Oh!” Lynne cried out at one point, “it almost looks like you’re trying to hit them!” Louis replied, deadpan, “I was.” But then he laughed, to let us know he wasn’t serious. I still don’t know how he managed not to hit them, though, the way those rabbits were practically throwing themselves under our front tires. Our second site had shorter grass and much better visibility. Lynne, sitting beside me, told me a story about her very first night call-in near this spot—how she’d been staring at the tall grass with the spotlight pointed, and suddenly a lioness had burst out of the grass right at her and she screamed! “This is why we adjust the pig squeal procedure now when lions are around,” she said, laughing at the memory. “It gets them a bit too excited.” Well, no lions for us this time, but we did have 4 jackals arrive at the call-in site (2 individuals and a pair working together), so we got data on them. We also followed one set of eyeshine for a while that was, Lynne thought, “behaving like a hyena”… but which turned out to be just “another bloody impala.”

    Driving from our second site to our last site of the night, we saw two white rhinos strolling along, large ghostly-pale forms in the moonlight. Then suddenly, just up the road a bit, a big, muscular cat with sharply-pointed ears sauntered across the road right in front of us—a caracal! “Get the light on it!” Lynne gasped, and fortunately someone in the back seat had the right angle to point their light out the window and follow the cat’s progress, and fortunately too I had my video camera set up on “night shot” and was able to get some amazing footage of it. The caracal stalked off into the grass, turning back twice to look at our van and giving us a brilliant view of its beautiful face. I was more thrilled by this than I would have been if all the lions in the park showed up and did the rhumba in front of our van. Another animal from my dream sightings list!

    Our third call-in site was at Lynne’s favorite spot in Pilanesberg (she’d had a lot of luck with hyenas there in the past), but unfortunately this time absolutely nothing came in to the sound of our pig squeals. Still, we were all so happy about seeing the caracal that we were excited to drive back to the main gate and tell the other team about it. We waited a long time for their van to arrive, and when they finally did they listened politely, nodded, said, “A caracal, how great!”… and then proceeded to tell us about their night. They had seen 3 brown hyenas while driving between call-in sites (sadly, though, each time it was just a glimpse of the animal’s rear end as it ran off the road into the brush and they couldn’t gather any data). But their real excitement had come in the form of a hippo that showed up during the pig squeals and charged their van at one call-in site, and then a pride of 13 lions that had arrived just after they’d finished their last call-in and circled around their van! I have to admit, as much as I cherish that caracal sighting, I couldn’t help being a little envious of their experiences, too. Still, I was happy for them. Another unpredictable night in Africa! And tomorrow night, we’d have one more chance to do it again.

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    PART 12: Our Little Friend Under the Tree

    Last night my husband had a dream about spotting a brown hyena, so hopefully that would be a good omen for this last night of call-ins in Pilanesberg. This morning we had some lazy time around camp for resting after our late night out, entering data from our latrine surveys, camera traps, and call-ins into the computer, and bird watching by the dam.

    This afternoon we set off on latrine surveys in Pilanesberg, where our results were the reverse of what we’d been finding in Mankwe—lots of hyena scat right by the road, and hardly any jackal. We’re not sure if this is a reflection of their relative population sizes in the national park versus the private reserve, or if it’s just that the jackals have more room to roam in Pilanesberg and are less inclined to travel along the roads.

    As we were driving slowly along the road looking out the windows and down at the ground, stopping frequently to collect samples, other cars would pass by and slow down to stare at us, sometimes asking, “What are you looking at?” in the hopes that we’d spotted something wonderful. (This despite the big sticker on the back of our van: RESEARCH TEAM—DO NOT DISTURB) Lynne would always politely reply that we were doing research, but I couldn’t help wondering how people might have reacted if she’d said, “We’re looking at poop!”

    Along the latrine transect we passed by our dramatic elephant/rhino/giraffe camera trap site from yesterday. A pregnant tsessebe was hanging out there now with her herd—our best view yet of this lovely antelope. We encountered a pair of white rhinos close to the road, and then 2 more of them a ways farther on. Boy, this part of South Africa is just crawling with white rhinos! Total latrines for this survey: 38 hyena, and only 9 jackal. So we know those hyenas are here – why aren’t they coming to our call-ins?

    With our latrine transects done, we had a game drive on our way to pick up ranger Percy again. We stopped at the Molotse Dam hide, where we saw some frisky vervet monkeys (close those car windows!), hippos with a tiny infant sleeping on shore, and a lovely female bushbuck. Lynne was very enthusiastic about this last sighting, and told us that bushbucks are not often seen in this park.

    On the way from the dam to the entrance gate where we were meeting Percy, we had what Lynne would later describe as her highlight of our team’s 12-day expedition. We came around a bend in the road and I said, “Oh, a rhino—right there.” An instant later we all realized this one was a black rhino, less than 10 meters from our van. It was so amazing to see this smaller, more volatile rhino so close up: we could see every detail of her, from her pointy lip to her broad feet, and she remained calm and happily munching leaves long enough for us all to have a good look. Lynne said that’s the closest she has ever come to a black rhino in her life. Percy later told us this particular rhino was probably “Blondie,” a 3-year-old human who was atypically unafraid of humans.

    Dinner tonight was in a hide at an absolutely gorgeous spot, perhaps my favorite place in Pilanesberg—the Mankwe Dam. (“Mankwe” means “place of the leopard,” which is why this name occurs in several places.) We ate our picnic looking out on a broad, beautiful lake—a sunken meadow, actually, with dramatic dead trees poking up out of its silvery water. On the drive around this dam to the hide we’d seen crocodiles and hippos, with incredible close sightings of white rhino and elephants, too, in the golden light of sunset. From inside the hide, we saw giraffes, springboks and wildebeest, plus a very active population of birds: pied kingfishers, grey herons, darters, cormorants, and ducks. A barn owl had built its nest up inside the roof of the hide, and we could hear the baby owls hissing at us during our picnic. At one point the mother owl flew in and disappeared into the rafters in a flurry of feathers.

    For tonight’s call-ins, my husband was spotlighting from the front seat and I was in the middle backseat with the rangefinder. At our first site, the pig squeal broadcast out from our van’s roof and the typical jackals appeared. But then my husband craned out the window to swing the spotlight all the way around behind the van, and there he was—a brown hyena! He was sitting under a tree and watching us cautiously, much more shy and hesitant than those bold little jackals. At first he was not much more than a dark shadow of fuzzy fur, but the longer we watched him the more we could pick out his features: the pointed ears, the boxy muzzle, the faint striping on his legs, his eyes glowing bright. I started filming him and we watched, holding our breath, as he turned his head this way and that, clearly debating whether or not to come investigate the bait.

    Following protocol, we turned off the spotlight after a few minutes and played the pig squeal again, hoping he’d come closer. But when it was time to turn the spotlight back on, our little friend under the tree had vanished into the night. We saw a movement and thought at first it was the hyena, but no—it was another jackal running right below my window. I scrambled to get the rangefinder on him and record the distance. It was not quite as thrilling as the hyena would have been at close range, but I do have a fondness for jackals. We were all a bit sad when two jackals ran off with the bait, though, because that pretty much sealed the deal that the hyena wouldn’t come any closer to us. We never saw him again.

    Elated by finally having a good sighting of our study animal, we drove onward to our second call-in site when the time at our first site was up. This time, we played the pig squeal and heard in return the haunting sound of lions roaring, not far away. It went on and on… but still, only jackals came in to investigate our bait. Lynne thought, listening to the lions roaring, that they may have been communicating about a kill (and so would have no interest in our feeble bait and pig squeals). Oh, I wish we could have seen them, if nothing else because so many friends on our team had yet to see a lion! But given a choice between lions and brown hyena, I would take the hyena sighting.

    Our jackal data tonight was very good. In addition to the ones who came in to investigate the bait, we also spotlighted a jackal carrying a wildebeest tail (perhaps from that nearby lion kill?). At our last call-in site tonight, the only response we got was a lone jackal who trotted into the spotlight, grabbed the bait, and ran away. As Dougal described it, “The trouble with these call-ins is that jackals always pinch the bait!” And they do. But at least tonight they left one bit of bait lying around long enough to capture the (fleeting) interest of our little friend under the tree.

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    Oh my, I realized I accidentally referred to "Blondie" the rhino as a human... I assume anyone reading this knows I meant to write "a 3-year-old RHINO who's unafraid of humans." I guess that's what I get for being in a hurry and not proofreading. ;)

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    Actually on further reflection I thought I should have left it with no explanation -- you might have been very impressed if I said we saw a human rhino. ;)

    Here's another entry. I'll try to use the long weekend to type up as much as I can!

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    PART 12: Waterfalls and Shopping Malls

    This morning we visited Mankwe’s “vulture restaurant,” where Louis put out carcasses for the huge birds to feed on. Jackals and hyenas visit, too, so he has some very productive camera traps set up here to capture the action both day and night. (The carcasses Louis uses to attract the vultures come from natural attrition on the reserve and from roadkill—all the locals in the area know who to call if they need to clean up a carcass.) We sat in the hide across the waterhole from the “restaurant” and watched some pied crows picking at the remains of two unfortunate baboons who’d been hit on the highway. No vultures yet, but we could see several scattered skeletons that they’d already polished off. Louis told us all about the vulture research project, and promised to bring us back for another visit when the big birds arrived. From the hide, we could watch a lot of other bird life around the waterhole, too.

    Since there were no vultures to disturb at the moment, we walked across from the hide to the camera trap area. We had a chance to inspect the remains of cow and antelope carcasses that had clearly been gnawed on by hyenas, as well as bright white hyena latrines and several pastings (hyena markings on tall grass) scattered amongst the red earth and black “baboon tail” plants. Louis showed us the giant capture cage they use for vultures, and told us about the study’s tagging methods (and misadventures). Enormous vulture feathers were scattered here and there, and we learned to identify which type went with which variety of vulture—white-backed, cape griffin and lappet-faced vultures all make their home here. Back at camp during lunch break, Louis set up his telescope to show us a close-up view of the rock python that lives on the small island in the middle of our lake. The huge snake was coiled up in a patch of grass by the shore, sunning.

    This afternoon we drove about 45 minutes to our third research site, Kgaswane Mountain Reserve. On the way we stopped at a huge shopping mall in Rustenberg where everyone had a chance to use the ATMs, buy snacks and camera supplies, and feel a bit of culture shock after a week living at camp. The biggest difference between this mall and one at home in California was that Lynne had to pay a guy to guard our car in the parking lot. It felt almost overwhelmingly bright, crowded and noisy after the peaceful surroundings at Mankwe. When a friend and I went to use the restroom we had a bit of a shock seeing ourselves in the mirror—we were so tan and wind burnt from driving around in the winter cold. We did have small mirrors in our tents but not nearly so much light, so I’d really gotten used to not having to look at myself! J and I picked up some Stoney ginger sodas (our favorite African junk food) and a tray of funny meringue animals from a little bakery in the mall—they were meant to be farm animals, but if you used your imagination you could pretend they were brown hyenas, caracals, etc. We passed them around the car on the way to Kgaswane.

    This reserve was more like what we’d call a regional park, with popular hiking trails and roads, and a notable lack of dangerous predators. It’s considered a “semi-protected” area, in terms of wildlife conservation. Our two vans headed off in different directions to do latrine surveys. We found just a few hyena scat here, and not many jackals, either. At one point we drove past a large burned area, where we saw baboons searching the charred ground for dead reptiles and rodents. A gust of wind kicked up and blew stinking ash into our van, which mingled with the stench of the poop samples and made us all cough and gasp. The one saving grace of this drive was seeing eland and kudu along the way.

    After we finished our transect, Lynne drove to the top of a winding road that curved up the side of the mountain. From here we had a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape, made slightly hazy from the recent fires. We also spotted a big male sable far away on the hillside on our way up the mountain. Even at a distance he was impressive, with his glossy black coat and long, curving horns.

    We met up with Team B at a trailhead partway down the other side of the mountain, and from here took a short but very scenic hike out to a lovely waterfall that fell in several tiers down into a deep canyon. On the hike in, we saw another male sable very briefly—his head popped up out of the brush, startled, and he bounded away. The views at the falls were gorgeous, and also vertigo-inducing if you went too close to the edge of the cliff. My husband, who is a mountain goat by nature, walked near the edge to peek down into the canyon… but the rest of us got down on our bellies and crawled up to peer over the cliff. It was stunning, a deep cleft in striped red-and-orange rock, laced with the rush of clear water from the falls.

    On the drive back out of Kgaswane we saw zebras and impalas—overall, not a bad animal count for such a small park. (Team B had also seen a large herd of female sables on their drive.) We stopped to fuel up the car and everyone went into the mini-mart, sparking a frenzy of South African junk food in the van on the way home: biltong, “sour enerjelly babies,” candy bars with Afrikaans names like “P.S. Ek dink aan jou,” chips and candies being handed back and forth. We were all pretty punchy by the time we arrived back at camp.

    Tonight’s dinner was impala shepherd’s pie. Afterwards, we had a great time gathering around Louis’ computer to look at a slideshow of the results from our camera traps so far. Success! We caught some great images of brown hyenas at Mankwe. It was especially hilarious when he clicked through the pictures really fast, so that it looked like a stop-motion movie of a hyena: first the eyeshine in the distance, then multiple shots of the hyena itself climbing all over the carcass and trying to tear it loose from the spike anchoring it to the ground, and in the last shot everything disappeared—both hyena and carcass gone, and the camera recording just an empty spot. What fun to see the results of our work, and to get to enjoy them with our team. We stayed around the campfire late again, with no night work to do. Tomorrow would be our day off—an entire day of game drives in Pilanesberg.

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    I dont know, Lynn -- that's a species I see plenty of back at home, so I could have skipped it (the one in the mirror, that is, not the sable).

    One of the awesome things about this trip for us was seeing so many new and unusual species, even if we had to work harder for them than on a typical safari. I expected to have a totally new experience this time, but it was such a bonus to see all these new animals, too: wild dog, brown hyena, caracal, sable. All animals from my "wish list." :)

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    PART 14: Our Day of Cats

    I woke this morning to the sound of our alarm clock birds, and then J saying, “There’s something walking past the tent.” An instant later I saw a tall tail push through the unzipped opening between our bed and the bathroom, and I had a shocked second to think, “Monkey!” before Tigger the camp kitty hurled himself onto my sleeping bag. He walked all over us, rubbing his head against my face. Ah, another great thing about Mankwe—the surrogate pets. In addition to Tigger, we had Simba and Misty, who all took turns roaming from tent to tent and sleeping on the beds, and who joined us to beg at the dining room table during meal times or hang out with us when we were working on the computer. We loved all three of them, but after this morning, Tigger made himself our favorite.

    After cuddling for a while, Tigger jumped off the bed and slipped back out the tent flap. J played a recording he’d made of the hadada ibis, trying to “call him in” (we figured birds might work better with a kitty than pig squeals), but to no avail. The next thing we knew, Tigger was walking around on the roof of our tent—we could see his shadow, and the little dents of his paws. J reached up and scrabbled his fingers along the canvas and Tigger chased him, a tiny lion-shaped shadow pouncing above us. Little did he know, he was kicking off our Day of Cats.

    Today we had the day off from volunteer work, and we’d be spending the day sight-seeing in Pilanesberg. We drove up to the office where we met up with Dougal, who would be driving us around the park today while Lynne stayed behind to work. We also met Lynne’s cats there, as well as a number of peacocks (including one who was sitting on Dougal’s truck with his impressive tail feathers fanned out across the canvas tarp). Outside the Pilanesberg gate we stopped for some souvenir shopping and wandered from stall to stall looking at the rows and rows of wooden carvings, soapstone animals, masks, and Ndebele dolls. We picked up a few gifts (steering clear of anything that looked exactly like what we’d seen on our trips through East Africa—those same carved zebras and giraffes are everywhere!) and fended off the usual sales run-around from the vendors. As we climbed back into the van one of our friends was already lamenting her wild shopping spree, “I’ve bought all this stuff, and I don’t know WHY—what am I going to do with an egg cup??”

    Just up the road before we reached the park gate, we saw a group of about a dozen banded mongooses, scurrying all over the road and sitting up to stare at us. Lauren had suggested we play “safari bingo:” choose 6 animals and 3 birds, and see how fast you can find them all. We played it safe and chose zebra, impala, white rhino, elephant, warthog & wildebeest, plus crimson-breasted shrike, glossy starling and yellow hornbill… all of which we saw within the first 20 minutes or so. It’s fun to think about what your go-to bingo animals would be for various parks and reserves (for example, I would never choose white rhino as a bingo animal in any other African country I’ve visited!).

    After watching a bold little zebra stallion strutting around with his mares and a large group of springbok, we stopped to chat with another car of self-drivers who told us they’d seen lions up ahead. “They’re not too close to the road,” the man told us, “but look up on the kopje and you’ll see them.” Everyone in our van got really excited – most people had never seen lions, so this was big news! There was no mistaking the location of these lions when we got there: a dozen or so cars were parked all along the road, everyone jockeying for a view (and/or driving right in front of someone else’s view). It reminded me of the lion pride we’d seen in the Ngorongoro Crater… and also reminded me how wonderful it is to have a wildlife sighting without all the other spectators. Oh well. We waited until someone drove off and squeezed into their space, and with a little patience (and binoculars) we were able to pick out a group of lionesses on the hillside. A cluster of them were sleeping underneath a tree in deep shade, too jumbled up in a pile of paws and ears and bellies to count them clearly—4 of them? maybe 5? Farther up on the hill, under a different tree, another lioness was guarding a zebra kill. As we watched, yet another lion made her way down the steep hillside to the carcass and the two of them rubbed heads in greeting and flopped down together beside the kill. That was the best part of this sighting—watching that moment of greeting between two lovely big cats.

    At this point it was very hard to see them anymore due to the distance and the long grass, so we decided to move on and get away from the crowd. Dougal drove right past some hippos sleeping on the shore, despite several people calling to him from the back of the van to stop so they could get a look (I think he just didn’t hear them). One girl was grousing about this from the back seat when we rounded a corner and came upon a parked car. Dougal stopped to wait for them to pass us… and suddenly a cheetah strolled out of the brush and walked across the road right in front of our van! Dougal was so surprised he stammered, “Leopar—CHEETAH! That’s a cheetah!!” as the cat calmly headed down the slope to the river and crouched down to drink. Other than the original parked car and our group’s two vans, there was nobody else at this sighting. What a nice difference from the lion paparazzi. We were able to watch this beautiful cat for a long time as he drank his fill, looking cautiously around and sniffing at the wind, then finally walked off into the cover of the trees across the river. Dougal told us that he’d been to this park “a hundred times and never seen a cheetah.” After the cat had disappeared from view we drove onward. One woman in our van was beside herself with joy, repeating over and over, “I’m just gob-smacked!” and finally declaring, “That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life!” I was delighted too—I hadn’t expected to see any cheetahs on this trip, and now here was our second one.

    Not five minutes later we drove around another bend in the road and saw the same cheetah again. He’d made his way up a hillside into dense, thorny brush where he camouflaged almost perfectly. We watched him stalk some waterbucks for a bit, creeping slowly closer and closer. The youngest girl in our group was distressed by this and said, “Should we warn them?” Everybody laughed (and then reminded her that the poor skinny cheetah needed to eat, too). But ultimately he must have decided that those big antelope were too risky a gamble, because he gave up and flopped down in the shade for a nap.

    We were running a bit behind schedule at this point—Dougal wanted to get us up to the park’s highest viewpoint before lunch time, when it got most crowded—but we still stopped for some other excellent sightings: giraffe, a male steenbok who was busily marking his territory, and finally the charming sight of three juvenile white rhinos sleeping together under a tree. On the drive up the steep and winding road to the viewpoint, we had one of our best elephant sightings ever. A huge bull with massive tusks was standing very close to the road, calmly browsing. The only other times we’ve ever seen a bull elephant this close (once at Lake Manyara and again in Madikwe) they were in musth, so it was nice to have a good, long viewing of such a beautiful animal without the added tension of his moodiness. It was also interesting to see him at this high elevation. I thought about his long journey from the crater floor below and wondered what brought him up this far—solitude, or just good browse?

    As we pulled into the parking lot at the top of the peak, we saw an impressive male kudu and then two tiny klipspringers bounding away down the rocky cliff. Learning to recognize all the different types of African antelopes and gazelles has been a wonderfully fun sport—they may not be as famous as the Big 5, but they are so beautiful and diverse. From way up here, we had a stunning view of the volcanic peaks and valleys of Pilanesberg all around us. The deep craters were dotted with tiny blue lakes and carpeted with velvety golden stretches of grassland. (I can only imagine how beautiful this place must be in the green season.) Overhead, dark grey storm clouds were massing, making the light glow like something supernatural. And far away below us, we could hear the echoing bray of a zebra. This spot is one of the most lovely places I’ve ever stood. Even the outhouse had a knockout view.

    We had lunch at Pilanesberg Centre, right as those storm clouds broke and it began to pour rain. While we ate our sausages and sandwiches, we were entertained by a hippo walking slowly down to his waterhole just below the deck, some graceful giraffes lunching nearby, and a multitude of brightly-colored begging birds. The rain lasted about 10 minutes, just enough to clear out the air and make everything sparkle.

    After lunch we continued our game drive onward to the hide at Mankwe dam, where Dougal dropped us off. We had about 30 minutes at the hide, with fantastic bird watching again. I especially enjoyed the antics of the pied kingfishers squabbling in and around the dead trees rising from the water. A real treat was watching a large herd of wildebeest rolling and playing in the mud here—they were so cute! Louis and Lynne met us at the hide for the drive back to Mankwe as dusk started to set in. Lynne said she was feeling lucky about seeing another hyena tonight, so we drove slowly through the hinterlands of the park not far from the boundary fence, searching in an area where she’d often seen hyenas in the past. No hyenas this time, but we did find a nice cape vulture for Louis. Then, to everyone’s surprise, one more cat to round out this feline-oriented day: another caracal! It darted across the road in front of our van, so quickly that all I saw was its back half disappearing into the bushes—its hindquarters, feet, and long tail a surprising dark russet color. Our group couldn’t see it anymore after that, but the others in the van behind us got a pretty good view of it through the bushes. Definitely a caracal.

    Back at Mankwe tonight, we had another delicious dinner of hartebeest steaks, followed by a rambunctious game of spoons. Things got a bit out of hand with the card game (in a good way), and then there was more silliness around the campfire late into the night. I felt like I was at the best summer camp in the world. We only had a few more days here, and I was already dreading having to leave this place.

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    PART 15: Fire! Fire!

    We heard Lauren’s truck chugging to a start at 4am this morning, heading out into the reserve with several of the undergrad students who were hoping to see some porcupines. We’d considered joining them, but the dark and cold and the long, tough day ahead of us convinced us to stay in our cozy sleeping bags a few hours longer. Which was just as well, because despite their best efforts the intrepid group didn’t have any special sightings, porcupine or otherwise.

    Tigger came into our tent again around 6am, and seemed surprised to find us already out of bed and getting ready to leave for breakfast. Today was the controlled burn in Mankwe, and those of us who wanted to participate would be helping Dougal and his fire crew by spreading out along the burn area to watch for spots where the fire might try to jump across the road and into other sectors of grassland. I was excited to see this in action, and also a bit apprehensive. (In fact, several people in the group opted to just hang out at camp for the day and not work on the burn.) But where else can you have an experience like this on vacation?

    Just like at home in our national parks and forests, controlled burns are used here as part of an overall vegetation management program—to eliminate overgrowth of invasive species, and to generate new grass growth. Burning also aids in tick control, encourages the animal population to move to different areas of the reserve, helps promote greater diversity of plant life, and helps control the potential damage of wildfires caused by lightning strikes and/or human mistakes. Like with everything else (water and predation, especially), once you fence in an area you have to carefully manage it to mimic wherever possible the natural processes that no longer happen on their own. For instance, since there are no elephants in this reserve to clear out aggressively bushy areas, Mankwe is subject to “bush encroachment,” which leads to overgrazing in the limited grasslands that are available. A burn can help knock back some of the brush that would otherwise be take down by elephants in a truly wild area, opening that space up to new grassland for the grazers and allowing plant life (including scrub) to reestablish itself in the grazed areas. It’s not a perfect system, but it helps.

    We drove out to meet the fire crew in the crisp, cold morning, bundled up in layers that we could shed as the work got hotter. We met Dougal, Louis, Lynne, and the rest of the crew near the to-be-burnt area, and Dougal gave each of us a fire beater made of heavy canvas hose strips. He showed us how to beat out any random sparks that might jump into the road or refuse to burn down on their own. We would be burning an area boxed in by dirt roads, which would act as firebreaks. The wind was heading in the right direction, so Dougal gave the signal to start the fire. It took a long time to get going, since the grass was still damp from yesterday’s rain. One of the guys took a rake full of burning grass and walked slowly along the perimeter, setting fire to shrubs and patches of grass. Eventually the burn began to take off, orange flames rising up and greedily devouring the dry grass in an advancing line.

    At one point near the start of the burn, Lynne noticed a tortoise near the road and rushed over to rescue it. She held it until the fire had swept safely past, and then returned it to its territory unharmed. She told us that most tortoises would be able to survive a burn, because they could tuck into their shells and the flames moved very quickly over the grassland. But still, we were relieved to have spared this little guy that ordeal. We all began to spread out along the road to watch for fire jumps and beat out little errant sparks as needed. It wasn’t unpleasant at all, with the breeze blowing the smoke away from us, and it was fascinating to watch the neat progress of the fire across the open plain of grass and thorny scrub. Someone spotted another tortoise in an area of blackened grass, and Lynne quickly grabbed my water bottle and dumped it over the shell to cool him off, checking to be sure he wasn’t hurt.

    We strolled along the firebreak road, beating out sparks, and watched Louis use the homemade fire truck (a regular flatbed pickup truck with a big water tank on the back) to put out a tree that was burning in a big sheet of red flames, too near the road for comfort. This side of the sector had safely burned away, leaving only a smoldering black expanse dotted with thorn bush skeletons and steaming piles of smoked antelope manure. Lynne drove up in the fire truck and some of us hopped onto the back to be taken to another area for spark patrol. We rode with our legs braced around the water tank and hoses, watching the suddenly serene post-burn area flash by. We saw lilac-breasted rollers in the trees, diving down into the burned grass to snatch up toasted bugs, their vibrant turquoise and blue and purple feathers looking even more brilliant against the charred ground. Pied crows, too, had already moved in to search for dead rodents, insects and snakes left in the fire’s wake.

    All of a sudden, Lynne hit the accelerator and the fire truck was speeding full-tilt along the road, with us hanging on tight in the back. The wind had shifted, and the fire had leaped over the road up ahead! When we arrived on the scene, Louis started blasting the rogue fire with the hose, while the rest of us leaped off the back of the truck and began frantically beating at the flames alongside the crew. The flames were advancing quickly, some of them close to five feet tall, and I was amazed later at how we all just took action, putting fear aside to get the job done. Within minutes the fire was beaten and drenched to death, leaving just a long, black scar behind.

    We advanced up this new road and fanned out again to watch for jumping sparks. Now the wind had changed so that it was like walking through a war zone—smoke so thick and acrid that we could only see silhouettes walking along the road, our eyes streaming with tears, breath scorching our throats through our bandanas, and a surge of heat from the intense burn. It was scary, mesmerizing, and even strangely beautiful at times, like being inside a wild impressionist painting of Mankwe.

    Then the shout came: “Rhinos!” We saw two of the huge animals running at a brisk pace off into the open grassland, away from the fire. Everyone raced to jump into the fire truck for safety and watched them go by, and Lynne quickly radioed the team on the other firebreak road to be on the lookout for running rhinos. The rhinos were never actually in the danger zone, but they were clearly unhappy about the smoke and moving away as fast as they could. In addition to the rhinos there were, inexplicably, some guys working on the power lines. Nobody from the power company had contacted the folks at Mankwe to let them know these guys would be here today, so they had no idea they’d be working near a controlled burn… and in fact, nobody at the power company had even bothered to tell these guys that there were rhinos in the reserve, so they were understandably shocked to see not only an advancing wall of flames, but a couple of startled rhinos, too! Fortunately the work they had to do was not in the burn area, or in the rhinos’ destination of choice. Lynne said this kind of lack of communication was pretty much “standard for South Africa.”

    At last the fire had swept across the entire sector and burned itself out. We did one more check of the perimeter roads and looked in again on the tortoises (all animals, including the startled rhinos, were just fine), and then we piled into the trucks to head back to camp while the fire crew stayed to monitor the site for the rest of the day. All was calm now, with a herd of red hartebeest already moving onto the charred plain to eat and roll around in the burnt grass. Birds were flying everywhere and singing as if overjoyed by the scene, and little mongooses raced around looking for their own snack of BBQ insects. Back at camp, we washed off the stench with the most wonderful showers of our lives and hung our smoky clothes out to blow in the breeze. We were treated by Hilda and Makhosi to delicious burgers with peach chutney, and swapped heroic stories of the fire with the other team. I’m so glad we decided to help out with the burn—what an incredible experience that was! Truly a once-in-a-lifetime event.

    After a short rest break we set off for Pilanesberg one last time, to collect the camera traps we’d set up earlier in the week. We stopped at the 4 trap sites and were happy to see that all 8 cameras had shots on them and the bait had been taken from each site. Unfortunately these were film cameras, not digital, so unlike the cameras at Mankwe we would not have the chance to see what we “caught.” It takes too long to have film developed here, so they wouldn’t be ready until the following week and by then we would all be gone. Hopefully more hyenas, though! This afternoon also gave us one last look at the dramatic scenery in Pilanesberg, one of the prettiest places we’ve been in Africa. We saw zebras and impalas, a group of elephants walking by on the road while we were parked at one of the trap sites (I kept thinking as I watched them, “Please don’t let this be the last time I see elephants in the wild!”), and a pair of bratty juvenile white rhinos who seemed to be blocking the road on purpose, wandering along and holding up traffic.

    On our way back into Mankwe we stopped at Lynne’s house for a visit with her pet ostrich, Sukie, and her little dogs Miki and Splodge. Sukie had a particular fascination with wristwatches, and loved to snatch bits of bread out of people’s hands (taking a bit of J’s finger too, at one point). She stood and posed for pictures with us, fluffing her feathers and peering eagerly into our big camera lens. It was fun to pet an ostrich, after having seen so many wild ones running around the reserve.

    For dinner tonight we had what J described as “life-changing stir-fry” made to order in a giant free-standing wok. It had blesbok meat in it, which we were told is supposed to cause hallucinogenic dreams (but neither J nor I remembered what we dreamed that night, so I can’t say if that’s true). Tonight was our last spotlight drive, so hopes were high that we might see something special. And we did have a few little special sightings of animals we hadn’t seen before: two grass owls, one of which flew up right in front of our truck and over our heads, and a sprightly little bushbaby who executed a spectacular leap between two trees and made everyone in the truck gasp. Lynne was really happy to see him, since she hadn’t seen any bushbabies on the reserve for a long time. Other than that, it was the usual cast of nighttime characters: lots of sitting reedbucks fooling us momentarily into thinking they might be cats or hyenas, and ghostly herds of wildebeest and impala running in the moonlight. Common, yes, but still magical. Night is not like this anywhere else in the world.

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    For dinner tonight we had what J described as “life-changing stir-fry” made to order in a giant free-standing wok. It had blesbok meat in it, which we were told is supposed to cause hallucinogenic dreams (but neither J nor I remembered what we dreamed that night, so I can’t say if that’s true).

    Maybe the whole trip was a hallucination?!? 8-}

    Interesting about the controlled burn. Seems they're always a bit uncontrolled.

    I knew you meant rhino rhino not human rhino up above, too. If I am right, I think I saw another thread about you planning a trip to SA again very soon?

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    Hey Leely, is that why they call it "a trip to Africa"?! ;)

    If it was a hallucination, it was a really good one. Not like the ones I got from mefloquine years ago after 4 weeks in India...

    Oh, another trip? Well, hopefully. My mom and dad were inspired by our videos from Madikwe and want us to plan a trip together to South Africa and Victoria Falls (I'm trying to sell them on a little Botswana, too). They have some friends who might join us as well. We were originally thinking April 2011, but now it looks more like May 2012 would be the best time for everyone to go. So I have lots and lots of time to obsess about it (and, thank goodness, time to save up some $$). Hopefully they won't change their minds before then!

    In the meantime, J and I are going to Mongolia in July so I can spend my birthday with lots of horses, far, far away. :) (No crazy-long trip report is planned.)

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    No crazy-long report is PLANNED in Mongolia, but you might just be so inspired you end up writing one!

    I thought the cat day was going to be a tease with the domestic kind showing affection. Wrong! The gob-smacked woman has joined the ranks of the cheetah lovers. An advancing wall of flames plus rhinos registers so high on the scary scale it's almost funny.

    You've convinced me to start sticking the term "life-changing" in front of things, but it's hard to top life changing stir fry.

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    Hi Lynn,

    No doubt I'll be inspired enough! But I just don't know if anyone on the Asia board would read it (except maybe you). These trips reports take me so long to type they're starting to dovetail into my next trip, so I thought maybe I would take 2010 off... but you never know! ;) Of course I am going to keep a journal for J and me. I would never want to skip that. And fortunately for anyone who's still sticking with me, I only have 2 more days to go on this report!

    Yeah, "life-changing stir fry" is hard to top. It still makes me laugh to remember him saying that.

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    Hi,
    I just wanted to send a quick thanks for writing out this trip report! I'm thinking about doing this expedition, have had my finger over the "trigger button" a few times already :)
    I really appreciate your detailed write-ups. And just wanted to let you know that someone else is reading :)

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    Please write up your Mongolian trip report. I would love to read it!
    Just let us know here where we can find the report. I'm sure there are a number of us that would love to read it.

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    You guys are so nice! Thanks! It's really encouraging to know people are still reading this. :)

    Shenandoah, DO IT! Working with Project Phiri was such a fantastic experience, and the people involved are wonderful. We learned so much and had a really unusual, challenging and rewarding trip to South Africa this way. One of the nice things about this project, too, is that it is 12 days long... so if you can take a 2-week trip, you can also add on another destination just for safari time, like we did in Madikwe. I have 2 more entries to write, and then I will make an album with some pictures to post from the Earthwatch part of our trip. J and I are really hoping to do another Earthwatch project someday.

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    PART 16: In Which We Save a Few Animals from a Nasty Fate, Graduate on a Kopje, and Learn to Play the Drums

    Our last full day at Mankwe dawned clear and cold, with bright sun overhead. Although the cold was sometimes a curse (making us shiver on the night drives and keeping some animals tucked away in their dens), it was also a completely different type of experience than we had in Equatorial Africa on our last two trips, and we’re grateful for that difference. This whole trip was so unique and special in so many ways.

    After breakfast on this last day, Dougal gave a talk about the problems with poaching in the reserve, and showed us how the wire snares are made and set up between two trees. Some of this was familiar to J and me thanks to our visit to the Budongo Forest Research Station in Uganda last year, but it was interesting (and also depressing) to see the differences in snare techniques for people who are trying to catch larger, stronger antelopes and warthogs rather than small forest duikers. The primary type of snare used by poachers in Mankwe is a simple wire loop. Dougal told us a number of stories about animals that had been maimed and killed by these snares, as well as a few lucky ones they were able to rescue. In general, the poaching is done by people who intend to capture bush meat for their own use, but in one remarkable instance a poacher actually hired a helicopter to fly over the reserve and dart one of the rhinos so they could cut off her horn! The whole time Dougal was talking, Simba the kitty “assisted” him by climbing up a tree and playing with the wire loop hanging from it.

    We drove out into the reserve to do an anti-poaching patrol. This is not actually as scary as it sounds – basically, Dougal and trackers Mwezi and Stephen were showing us how to look for snares, and taking advantage of all the extra manpower to search a larger area of the reserve than they are usually able to do without the Earthwatch teams here. This was broad daylight, and the poachers in this reserve are local hunters who work on a small scale, under the cover of darkness. It was not as though we were likely to have any face-to-face confrontations.

    We were looking for any signs of human intrusion—snares, of course, but also footprints, garbage, or carcasses with only part of the meat taken away. As we walked through the thorny grassland, the sun warmed us up and I felt a deep appreciation for getting to know this one little spot in Africa… and perhaps contribute a little bit to its welfare. We focused on some areas of dense brush, since these were the places where poachers could easily hide snares large enough for antelope, suspended between the trunks of low-slung trees and shrubs. We found several carcasses along the way (a hartebeest and an eland), but they showed signs of natural death and scavenger activity, no evidence of snaring. And then, in one long thicket, we found 3 big wire loop snares, spaced far apart and secured to the trees with tiny bits of bright orange string. On either side of each snare, branches had been broken down and laid across the space to divert animals right into the path of the snare. In each case, we were able to find the snare itself by first noticing the broken branches, which tells you how well the wire loops blend into the foliage. There was also trash nearby—chip bags and tissues—to show where the poachers had paused for a snack.

    Dougal used his big hunting knife to cut down the snares and collect the wire, and we also picked up the trash. He was very pleased at our success in finding these, and pointed out that we may well have saved three animals’ lives. Somebody joked that Dougal must have come out here early in the morning and set the snares up himself, just to make us feel good. He laughed and said, “I was that was true!” All jokes aside, poaching is a serious problem here, as it is in many parts of Africa.

    After the anti-poaching patrol, we returned to the vulture hide to see what was going on at the restaurant. This visit, there was lots of excitement. The two baboon carcasses were almost entirely gone, and a new cow carcass that Louis had put out there since our last visit was nearly picked clean, too. White-backed and lappet-faced vultures were all over it, sometimes beating their wings at each other in possessive displays, while scores of other vultures hung out in the treetops and on the hillside nearby. Pied crows, too, made forays into the mob scene that was the cow carcass. And a brave little jackal darted in and out for his share, sometimes bolting away up the hill when the vultures turned on him and then creeping back down to the cow, and other times standing his ground against birds much bigger than he was. When he finally made it in far enough to get to the meat left on the bones, we could see his happy little tail wagging around in circles.

    This afternoon we just stayed at camp to finish the last bits of data entry for our teams and to organize all the equipment in our kits. One of the guys from Team A and I had the “enviable” task of sorting out the hyena and jackal scat sample envelopes and putting them in order—a smelly but weirdly satisfying job, seeing how much we’d managed to collect. Some of these samples would be sent to a lab in Pretoria for DNA analysis, in addition to the data they provided about distribution and behavior patterns, via GPS coordinates, aging the samples, and the volume found in various parts of the reserves.

    Our last night at camp was pretty magical. Lynne and Lauren took us on one last game drive through the reserve to a place called Sundowners Kopje, where we had a beautiful view from the highest point in Mankwe. On the way there we saw ostriches, zebras and tsessebes, and when we climbed the path up to the rocky kopje, one of the volunteers found the shed skin of a Mozambique spitting cobra! (I don’t think anyone was too disappointed not to find the actual cobra.)

    As we watched the sunset grow more and more gloriously orange beyond the treetops and rolling hills, we passed around drinks and enjoyed the chance for conversation with our new friends—everyone aware, I’m sure (but no one coming right and saying it), that our time together was drawing to a close. Better to just enjoy this moment and appreciate all of this: wildlife, friends, hard work, learning, and natural beauty all around us. We sang “Happy Birthday” to one of the volunteers… whose birthday would actually be the next day on the plane home, but we all agreed this was a much better place to celebrate it.

    Then Lynne and Lauren each spoke and thanked all of us, standing on a bouldery step with the view stretching out behind them. Lauren passed out cups of Amarula for a toast, and Lynne called each of us up to get a certificate from Earthwatch and a CD of photos. She told us that we were one of her favorite groups she’s ever had on the project, and when we laughed and said, “Yeah, yeah, I bet you say that to every group!” she protested and insisted, “No, it’s true! Believe me, when those vans come down the road into camp on the first day with a new team, I never know what’s going to get out of them! But you all worked together so well and were so much fun to be with, it’s been a real pleasure.”

    After the sun had sunk behind the horizon, we scrambled down the rocks in the gathering darkness and drove back to camp. There was lots of revelry in the vehicles on the way back, so I’m sure no self-respecting animal was going to come near us. For dinner we had a delicious wildebeest stew (I think of all the game meat we tried, wildebeest tasted the best—sorry, wildies), and then gave a big thank you and round of applause to Hilda and Makhosi, who had taken such good care of us. Alfred, too, who had to be coaxed into the dining room by all of us chanting his name. Then Lynne asked us to go around the table and talk about our highs and lows of the expedition. It was a funny, touching tribute to our time here together. The youngest member of our team, who was only 18 and had never been so far from home before, trumped everyone by giving a teary, heartfelt “thank you” to all of us for helping her survive her first big adventure away from her family—she said she felt stronger and braver now, and ready to face her next big adventure: university. We talked about our favorite moments and how they made us feel: lions surrounding the van and roaring in the darkness, the black rhino right by the road, the surprise of seeing the cheetah, and that brown hyena looking at us from his spot under the tree. Not to mention the thrill of working with the fire. And how much we loved our camp. And the “lows,” too: the bitter cold, and what it’s like to be trapped in a van during a night call-in when you desperately have to go to the bathroom, and the dead snake someone found in their shower. But mostly, there was a shared sense of gratitude for this experience, for this place, and for each other.

    After dinner, we all gathered around the campfire in the boma for an African drumming session with Aaron, our friendly (and very funny) Zimbabwean driver who first brought us here to Mankwe. He told us stories about African music and taught us some basics on the djembe drums… but there was also plenty of room for silliness, like when he coaxed the birthday girl into singing “like a rock star,” and then enthusiastically dubbed another pair of women, “The Howling Hyenas! South Africa’s Newest Number One Band!” and told them to take a solo. They were laughing too hard to play anything, and in fact one woman laughed so much she tumbled backward off the bench! Aaron asked me to play a drum pattern for the whole group to copy, and he said I was “a natural.” (I was sufficiently flattered, but I don’t believe it!) He also put my husband on the spot when he found out J was a composer, and asked Alfred to play a solo in his own Zulu style.

    After Aaron collected the drums and said good night many of us lingered around the fire, reluctant for the night to end. We shared stories of our most thrilling adventures (African and otherwise), and I especially enjoyed Lynne’s and Lauren’s stories of growing up in Africa… many of which involved misadventures with snakes. Lynne and Louis told us a story about a tranquilized lion who woke up prematurely and chased a group of researchers around his enclosure with a blindfold on – yikes! It was wonderful to be able to sit around the campfire with friends and hear such stories, and I contributed my own tale about our harrowing chimp experience in Kibale. At one point during the storytelling (by now we were all a bit spooked, I think), we heard the quiet crunch of footsteps just outside the boma and Lynne jumped up to investigate, alarmed. She came back to the fireside and switched off her flashlight, smiling, “Just a reedbuck,” she said.
    I had trouble sleeping that night—not because of snake and lion stories, but because I was so filled with dread about having to leave Mankwe tomorrow and return to my everyday life. I think I felt this more strongly that night than I ever have.

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    PART 17: Goodbye, Mankwe

    We had our hadada ibis and fish eagle wake-up call one more time this morning. (This inspired us to get a new alarm clock at home which we can program with our recordings of animal sounds.) Thankfully we weren’t leaving camp early, so we had time for a leisurely breakfast (they fed us enough too last until dinnertime!) and a chance to play with the camp kitties. It was nice to be able to go through everything and pack our bags in daylight, too, instead of having to do it the night before. I spent some time scoffing at the 2 unused pairs of shorts I’d brought. Really, never underestimate a South African winter!

    We knew we were going to miss our homey tent so much, and our view of the dam, and even the zebra rug with its shaggy forelock underfoot. The place looked so forlorn without our clothes hanging up and our gear scattered all over the extra bed. If we ever have a big enough backyard someday, we’re going to have to set up a safari tent to sleep in all summer. This one was nowhere as luxurious as the ones we’d stayed in at fancy camps in Kenya and Tanzania, but we didn’t care one bit. It was ours, and it’s our favorite.

    The gang gathered in the classroom one last time to review our research objectives and the reserve’s management projects, and for some final thank you’s from Dougal and the staff. Lynne assured us that we would all be kept posted on Project Phiri’s progress via e-mail and Earthwatch reports. Then, sadly, it was time for Aaron to pull the vans around and start loading our luggage for the drive back to Jo’burg. How strange to divide our group now—Lynne and Louis staying at Mankwe, of course, Lauren heading off for home in her own car, the rest of us going to the airport to fly back to the US or the UK, or going onward for more travel plans in SA and Zambia and Botswana (oh, those lucky ones!). It was so hard to say goodbye. I hid my tears behind my sunglasses, and as I hugged her I saw that Lynne had them, too. The whole staff had come out to say goodbye and wish us well, with hugs and handshakes all around. We climbed into the vans, and I turned around to watch out the back window at their waving figures until the camp disappeared around a bend in the road.

    As we drove out of the reserve we saw our farewell animal—kudu, the same creature that had welcomed us to South Africa at the Madikwe airstrip. Only a few weeks ago, but so much had happened since then to connect us to this beautiful, troubled, amazing country. I had wondered if I was going to love SA as much as I love East Africa. It is very different, but I do.

    On the drive to Jo’burg, we passed cattle crossing the road, vervet monkeys playing on the shoulder of the highway (yes, I suppose you could say THIS was our farewell animal, but we’re sticking with the kudu), a bus disabled by a blowout with all its unhappy passengers standing around in the dust. The time flew by as the small group in our van hashed over our feelings about the trip. Before we knew it, we were at the airport and everyone was unloading luggage and saying goodbye and hugging again, and finally dispersing into waiting cars and various airport terminals. One friend was heading to London like we were, so we were able to hang out with her for the 6-hour wait. As we walked into the airport together we saw a huge ad for Amarula that read: “This doesn’t have to be your last taste of Africa!” It made us smile, and gave us hope.

    The time at the airport passed quickly – lots of good shopping here, so we had no trouble at all finding gifts for friends and family and a few souvenirs for ourselves. It was also much, much easier to find a South Africa patch for our backpack than it had been to find a Uganda patch! But the best souvenir of all was a cheap little laminated bookmark with a South Africa flag and an unusual assortment of animals on it: instead of the predictable Big 5, this had a hippo, a zebra, a cheetah, a giraffe… and a BROWN HYENA! We couldn’t believe it—we were so overjoyed, we bought an extra one to send back to Lynne. This is the only thing we’ve ever seen with a brown hyena on it. In fact, when we’d been looking at the animal carvings in the souvenir stalls at Pilanesberg, I’d asked one of the guys if he had a carving of a hyena and he had just stared at me in disbelief. “What?” he’d said, “Hyena? No, you don’t want a hyena, you want this leopard! It is a much better animal!”

    We had dinner with our friend in the airport and then it was time for one last hug and goodbye, since we were on different London flights. Time to step onto the plane and off African soil. Hurts every time. I did enjoy finally having the time to read “Cry of the Kalahari” on the flight, since I’d had no down time for reading (and not nearly enough time even for journaling) during the trip. I highly recommend this book, not least of all because it prominently features brown hyenas. The downside is that it made me want to turn right around and go spend a few years in the bush. But instead it was on to Heathrow, where our pocket camera decided to die (at least it was considerate enough to wait until we were not in Africa anymore). Everything was too busy, too loud, too bright. A few hours here, then home to California and our own “wild dog,” Kyle.

    The trouble with Africa, really, is that it spoils you for other places. There is nowhere else in the world (at least in my experience so far) with the kind of gut-level pull and emotional power of this incredible continent. For us it’s become both a familiar home and an eternal mystery, a place that inspires us and breaks our hearts in turn. We can only think of when we will return… not if.



    A few final words about our experience with Earthwatch and Project Phiri in particular. We loved just about every moment of it, even the harder and duller parts of data-gathering. We really hope we can do another volunteer project in Africa again someday (and I’d even be willing to do this one again, especially at a different time of year). It was so interesting, such a great group of people, and we learned so much. Despite the amount of work we needed to accomplish in a short period of time, the people who planned and ran the project never forgot that this was our vacation—they left so much room and time for fun, and patiently stopped for every animal sighting unless we were really crunched for time, even if it was something the old Africa hands had seen 1,000 times. So, a huge thank you to Lynne, Lauren, Louis, Louisa, Dougal, Alfred, Makhosi, Hilda, John, Mwezi, Stephen and Aaron (not to mention Greg and Patrick), and everyone else who helped to make our first experience in southern Africa so special. Ke a leboga!! A little part of our hearts will always be in Mankwe.

    Would I recommend this as a first or only trip to Africa? It would depend on the individual. I think we enjoyed it even more because we’d already had our “big safari” trip in Kenya and Tanzania (not to mention our primate trip to Uganda and Rwanda and those few awesome days in Madikwe). Although there are many, many aspects of “safari” when you’re involved in an Earthwatch trip, that is not the primary purpose you’re there, and so anyone who signs up for a project needs to be aware of that. Having said that, there were people on our team for whom this was their first (and maybe only) trip to Africa, and they absolutely loved it. One guy has gone on 20+ Earthwatch teams, many of them in Africa, and I think this may be the only type of travel he does. He said that each project is very different and rewarding in different ways, and I think he has had a really well-rounded and deep experience of Africa in a way that not many people do. So, depending on who you are, this may very well be your perfect trip. And for others (like us), it makes an outstanding addition if you want to try to indulge your love of African wildlife in as many different ways as possible.

    Thanks to everyone who read this report. I hope it was entertaining… and I hope it inspires some of you to try an Earthwatch project on one of your future African adventures! I will post some photos for the EW part of our trip soon…

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    Here's a link to some of our photos from the Earthwatch Brown Hyenas project. We were often working (and consequently seeing wildlife) in the middle of the day, so the light is not always great for photography -- for that reason I tried to include more project-oriented photos than wildlife photos. Hopefully this will give you an overview of life at camp and what it's like to work on the project.

    http://tinyurl.com/ydmoh35

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    Hi Shenandoah, thanks. :)

    Yes, we had our cameras and video camera with us at all times and were encouraged to use them. But the work came first, and there were definitely certain types of work that didn't allow as much time for photography. For instance, we were allowed to take photos and video during the night spotlighting drives and call-ins but couldn't use flash, and depending on what your job was during the drive you may or may not have the time to use a camera (when I was spotlighting, for example, I could not take photos, but when I was taking GPS coordinates I could). We all traded off on who did which job each time, so that everyone had some photo time, too... and a lot of us shared pictures afterward.

    The other negative for this kind of trip in terms of photography is that we went out into the field whenever work needed to be done, so we weren't on a safari schedule which is geared toward the best light and the best animal activity. Our latrine surveys and other field work were often late morning and mid-afternoon, when the light is particularly bad and washed-out. The pictures we got from our brown hyena project are really special to us, but we definitely got better photos when we went on safari!

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    Thanks again for the info, detailed write-ups, and pictures.
    I'm much more concerned about the experience from it than the pictures from it, but I was just curious.

    I filled out the online form yesterday. Am waiting for a volunteer advisor to confirm!!

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    That's great! Oh, I'm happy for you! Hopefully your group will see tons of hyenas. And you can tell Lynne and Louis that Carol says hi. :)

    Yes, of course it's the experience that matters and I already figured that about you since you were considering this kind of trip in the first place... but I was curious about the fun & safari & photography aspects of it too before we committed. We saw LOTS of wildlife on this trip and took many more pictures than what I posted, but I figured it was more important to post the ones that are unique to an Earthwatch trip.

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    Congrats on the grand finale! Your explanation of the pull of Africa is perfect.

    When you were looking for snares was there any danger that you'd get hurt by one?

    I hope Amarula at home is not the only way you experience yet another taste of Africa.

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    Thanks, Lynn -- I hope so too! (Another plan is already in the works... but we have to see how it goes. :) )

    No, the snares didn't present any danger to us, since the poachers in this area are just using those big wire loop snares suspended between two trees. An animal could run through it and get its neck or abdomen or legs stuck (especially at high speed), but the worst that would happen to a person is that you'd bump into it. In the Budongo Forest on our Uganda trip, however, we saw instances where poachers were using "man trap" snares (big metal traps with teeth that snap shut) as well as tension snares (the kind you'd step into and it would release a branch under tension that would snap up and pull a loop tight around your limb), so those would definitely be more dangerous to people walking through the forest. In Budongo they showed us examples of these, but didn't have us actually going through the forest looking for snares -- perhaps that's why.

    Thanks, as always, for your nice feedback and for everything you've posted on the board. I'm already digging into your Simons Town/Cape Town report (again) and daydreaming about 2011!

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    Thanks so much for taking the time to write this fantastic report, I actually saved it to savour and read all in one go! I'm sure you've inspired more than one person to do something similar (including me). I share the Amarula toast with you!

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    And now the photos. That first brown hyena is a stunning shot. Way to go! That "wild" cat in the tree really is a lovely photo too and captures moment. I have not seen the inside of a hornbill's nest before. How did you get those night shots of the brown hyenas? The photos appeared to be from a scientific camera. Were you all given copies?

    I went on one safari with the drummer from Bryan Adam's earlier band, before he became famous. I still keep in contact with him and his wife about once a year.

    If anybody reads the above paragraph without looking at your photos they'll think I'm nuts.

    A fantastic adventure. Thanks for sharing it with us and spreading the good Earth Watch word.

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    tockoloshe, thank you so much! As a librarian, I'm toasting your reading fortitude. :)

    Lynn, I really wish I could take credit for that first brown hyena photo, but it's not mine -- it's Lynne's . I included it in my album because I love that photo, and because I know many people are not familiar with what brown hyenas look like. Unfortunately we didn't see any during the day (as you know that would be unusual anyway!), and we didn't get photos of the one we saw at night because we were trying to call him in and could not use flash.

    The night shots of brown hyenas are from the camera traps at Mankwe; Lynne and Louis e-mailed these to all of us who were interested in seeing them. I wish I had more of the camera trap shots, especially the ones from Louisa's study in Madikwe -- you can see parts of those on the hyena ID cards we're making, like the card for "Kyle" the hyena. We never saw the results of the camera traps we placed in Pilanesberg, since those were film cameras. I'll have to ask Lynne if those were ever digitized.

    You should tell the drummer about Bryan Adams the hyena! :) That hyena has since passed away, but his skull is still in the classroom at Mankwe. He sure was a beautiful animal. I'm one of those people who is completely mystified whenever somebody says that hyenas are "ugly." I adore them, and I think their babies are among the cutest baby animals in the world.

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    MDK,

    What a thoughtful and evocative report! I really enjoyed the pics of the pups, too.

    I had signed up for the November 2010 EW Brown Hyena trip and your account of the daily activities convinced me that that's trip I want to be going on. I had tried to get onto the Jan. trip but it was full!

    Shenandoah, which one did you join?

    You know, I had looked at EW a few years ago and also thought the trips were expensive. Nothing like spending money on a safari to make EW expeditions look less expensive! I set up an Expedition Fund and convinced my relatives to contribute instead of giving gifts at Christmas and that helped make it more affordable. "Elephants of Tsavo" looks very interesting; I hope the research project lasts a couple of more years so I can go on that one too.

    MDK, I'll be sure to say hello to everyone at Mankwe.

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    Yes, we have started the Mongolia countdown! We're trying to get some friends we made on our Africa travels to join us, and we're also stopping to visit a friend in Seoul en route (as well as family in Honolulu), so it promises to be a real party. :) (And -- shocking confession! -- we're already quite deep in the midst of planning a return to southern Africa in 2011, this time with my parents. Much more complicated than just signing up for an EW trip! Sometimes it hurts my head to try to think about both of these trips at once... but it's a good problem to have, right?)

    ccipups, thanks for your post (and your nice e-mail, too)! I can't even tell you guys how thrilled I am to see that my report ends with the news of 2 more Fodorites heading off to join Project Phiri in the field. That's fantastic. I'm sure you'll have an incredible experience, and hopefully you'll see lots and lots of our very special study animal. I hope you'll both post trip reports when you come back, so I can share in your fun!

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    It feels like Christmas! I stumbled on your post while searching the Net for trip reports and reviews on Earthwatch trips in South Africa. I hit the motherload with your mini book and stayed up late reveling in it. Thank you!

    I'm headed to Mankwe in a few months for Earthwatch too - my first volunteer trip with them and my third trip to Africa (I've been to Tunisia and Tanzania). It will be my second trip this year to Africa. Like you, I'm addicted - perhaps to the adrenaline of being surrounded by animals? Anyway, your report was hugely helpful. Now I know what to expect and have ideas for the few days I added to the end of the Earthwatch experience. I know you wrote this years ago - just know it continues to be inspirational.

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