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

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Oct 18th, 2009, 12:28 AM
  #21
 
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Enjoying your writing very much, as usual. What a wonderful start to a safari.
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Oct 18th, 2009, 04:56 AM
  #22
 
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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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Oct 18th, 2009, 07:25 AM
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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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Oct 18th, 2009, 12:50 PM
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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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Oct 19th, 2009, 09:31 AM
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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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Oct 19th, 2009, 05:46 PM
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MDK

Keep on typing, every word is worth reading. Oh the pups sound so adorable, can't wait for the photos.

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Oct 19th, 2009, 06:00 PM
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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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Oct 20th, 2009, 08:30 AM
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WONDERFUL, WONDERFUL report. Thank you!

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Oct 20th, 2009, 09:33 PM
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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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Oct 20th, 2009, 09:35 PM
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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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Oct 21st, 2009, 10:16 AM
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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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Oct 21st, 2009, 02:54 PM
  #32
 
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MDK, I just found this....I can't wait to read it! You know that I'm a big fan of your writing! BTW....T minus 14 days and counting!
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Oct 21st, 2009, 07:17 PM
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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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Oct 23rd, 2009, 03:08 AM
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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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Oct 23rd, 2009, 09:03 AM
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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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Oct 23rd, 2009, 05:21 PM
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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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Oct 28th, 2009, 11:54 AM
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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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Oct 28th, 2009, 11:55 AM
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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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Oct 28th, 2009, 11:57 AM
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(Fourwheelinit, are you all packed and ready to go?? Less than 2 weeks now, how can you stand the excitement?!)
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Oct 28th, 2009, 12:38 PM
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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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