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

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Feb 14th, 2010, 06:07 PM
  #81
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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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Feb 14th, 2010, 06:07 PM
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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#8221; 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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Feb 15th, 2010, 03:33 PM
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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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Feb 15th, 2010, 04:32 PM
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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?!?

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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Feb 15th, 2010, 04:58 PM
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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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Feb 17th, 2010, 02:21 PM
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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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Feb 17th, 2010, 02:34 PM
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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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Feb 17th, 2010, 03:36 PM
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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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Feb 17th, 2010, 03:59 PM
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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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Feb 17th, 2010, 04:11 PM
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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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Feb 20th, 2010, 07:57 PM
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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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Feb 21st, 2010, 11:12 AM
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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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Feb 21st, 2010, 02:25 PM
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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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Feb 21st, 2010, 06:12 PM
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Great pictures, thanks!!
Did you find it easy to keep the camera around with you even while working?
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Feb 22nd, 2010, 09:50 AM
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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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Feb 22nd, 2010, 10:23 AM
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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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Feb 22nd, 2010, 10:34 AM
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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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Feb 22nd, 2010, 04:46 PM
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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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Feb 23rd, 2010, 01:31 PM
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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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Feb 23rd, 2010, 04:17 PM
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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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