Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Quick update after the Kalahari

So much has happened since my last update, I'm not sure where to begin! If you've heard about the riots in Johannesburg and Cape Town, don't worry about them - it hasn't affected us and we won't be in the townships where they are happening.

Since Kruger National Park, we've been to Pilanesberg National Park, a beautiful place in an ancient, collapsed volcano, where we saw more amazing wildlife, including more than 40 white rhinos, lots of hippos, hartebeest, tsessebe, and lots of cool birds.

Then, we headed off to the Kalahari Desert, and on our first night, saw a huge thunderstorm that brought more than 1/4 of their average annual rainfall. We had some spectacular stargazing, and we watched the moon rise over Botswana - we also officially entered Botswana when we weaved through the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Our second night in the park, we were sitting in a wildlife blind/hide when the moon came up and a lion was roaring in the distance. We've been cooking for ourself in the Kalahari and managing to scrounge up some pretty good meals.

On the way out this morning, we stopped and bought some really neat things from a San bushman, including a bow and arrow, a carved ostrich egg, and a carved stone. The bow was probably a bad purchase, since it's a pain to get back, but one of my friends is taking it back for me, since he bought two himself. I've also managed to try lots of game meat, including eland, impala, ostrich, kudu, crocodile, gemsbok, and springbok.

Tomorrow, we head to Cape Town! Only about a week left in South Africa before I head to Tanzania. This trip has gone so fast! I can't believe this study abroad is nearly over. Our days have been jam-packed with activity, so maybe things will take a slower pace when I'm traveling on my own schedule and I have time to relax.

This internet cafe is expensive, and there are people waiting, so more updates later!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Back to Pretoria

I don't have much time to update, but I'm back in Pretoria tonight after leaving the Southern African Wildlife College and the Kruger area this morning - bittersweet since I loved it there but now we move on to new experiences. Tomorrow, we head west towards Pilanesberg National Park, then to the Kalahari Desert, and finally the Cape Town area for the last segment of my study abroad program. I probably won't have internet access for the next week or so, but the next time I update, I should have some great stories to tell! I'll make sure all my photos from this trip go online at the end of the summer, but a few snapshots here and there will have to do for now.

Friday, May 16, 2008

First Week in Africa

Since I can't update every day, I'll just post on here some journal entries I had and extra thoughts along with the correct date.

5/10/08 (on the plane, 2 hours from landing in South Africa)
I just woke up to my first view of Africa. The rest of the plane is still asleep, but I turned on the channel that shows the view from a camera mounted on the plane's tail looking down (so cool!), and just beyond a blanket of clouds was the clear, beige Skeleton Coast of Namibia. That's when the reality of this trip set in - when I realized I really am just 2 hours from landing in Johannesburg and starting this whole adventure. If I wasn't surrounded by a tightly-packed motley of sleeping passengers, I would probably be crying with amazement right now. After months of planning and a lifetime of dreaming, I'm finally here - AFRICA!

I can already tell our study abroad group will have so much fun. We've already managed to take silly pictures at the airport with cardboard cut-outs of the presidential candidates, mess around with the sleeping masks they gave us on the plane... and we haven't even technically started the trip yet.

The airline service is amazing. They bring around refreshments all the time, probably every hour, and with our sleeping masks we got socks so we can walk around the plane without putting our shoes back on or ruining our own socks.

Back to the textbook - I don't think anyone has finished the required reading yet.

(later in the flight): Apparently, the reason the entertainment system kept malfunctioning last night was that we were STRUCK BY LIGHTNING just past the U.S. coast. I'm glad the pilot waited to tell us until we were over land and just about to arrive. Sheesh.

I've only been in this country for a day but I'm already having the time of my life. After arriving in Pretoria, we all went out to Hatfield Square, a big courtyard of bars and pubs where all the local young people hang out. After ordering drinks - legally! - and trying Castle, the South African beer, we ate at an Irish pub. We migrated to another bar, then we somehow met these people who took us to a club called Good4. Apparently, South Africans really like American music because that's all they played. One of the South Africans girls we were with had the
DJ give us a shout-out. We migrated (eventually) to the bar upstairs with one of the girl's friends. At this point, it was me, Jordan, Kaye, Lindsay, and Teresa, who wasn't really there as she had the tendancy to meet people and wander off. Also, South Africans don't bump and grind. To pop music, the girls dance in a circle, the guys in their own circle. But to rock music, the ballroom dance! The South African guy, Christi (short for Christian?) asked me to dance, and we did. I was horrible, but he kept asking me to dance! And he's a cute surfer boy from Cape Town - kind of the epitome of an attractive foreigner.

Today (May 11) we had a a beautiful drive to Kruger in the northeast corner of South Africa. We passed through the Drakensburg Mountains and eventually reached the lowveld. Form the road, looking into private game reserves, we saw giraffe, zebra, eland, warthogs, and baboons!

The Southern African Wildlife College is beautiful. I didn't expect phones or internet, but they have both. Our room has a screen door that faces the bush so we can listen to the sounds all night. I finally feel like I'm in Africa.

Before dinner, we tried walking the perimeter fence in the dark to look for game. We saw bush babies in the trees in the compound, and thought we heard warthogs calling. After a half hour of looking for them, we were told the sound was male impala. Still, game tracking on foot at night, even through a fence, is still a "Wow, I'm in Africa!" moment.

At the start of our braai (barbeque), we were treated to dancing and singing from local children. I tried pap at dinner, which is the local staple made from maize. Tastes halfway between rice and potatoes, and it's pretty good. Met some students here, found the Southern Cross constellation, and tried to watch if the toilet flushes the other way.

South African is beautiful, but the scars of apartheid are still raw. There were no blacks at the club in Pretoria, except in the kitchen, and there seems to be little intermingling. I haven't seen anyone other than blacks serving food or cleaning bathrooms. I find I like talking to black South Africans more than whites sometimes - a different experience, accent, and perspective.

Surprised Mom with a Mother's Day phone call. I didn't think they'd have phones out here, so she was happy to hear my voice a week earlier than expected.

They also call traffic lights "robots", and my ears are ringing, it's so quiet out here. I can't believe the names of all the places I'll be - so exotic, yet so familiar. Today, I've reached the first of these places - the Timbavati and Kruger.

Today we started with a talk about Peace Parks, which is a brilliant idea. Then we went to Moholoholo Rehab Center where I got to hold a cape vulture! The handler asked if I'd done it before, and when I said no, he told me I was a natural. We also saw lots of big mammals up close, including a hyena. I didn't know they were so big!

Afterwards, we headed to the Khamai Reptile Park, where we learned about all of Africa's major venomous snakes, most of which can be found right in the camp at the Wildlife College where we're staying - boomslangs ("tree snakes", one drop of venom will make you bleed to death over a course of seven days), puff adders (one of the quickest strikers and the one that kills the most people in Africa), black mambas, and cobras. This trip is intense! We could probably die at any given moment, so it's a wonder people can live in villages out in the bush. It seems there is nowhere else on Earth with such a high concentration of deadly animals. Quite a comforting thought.

At the reptile park, I also held (get this!) a scorpion and a baboon spider (aka a tarantula)! Who'd have ever thought I could with my arachnophobia? It seems this trip is all about pushing my limits, facing my fears, and living to the fullest. However, I won't promise I'll be happy if I find a scorpion or a big hairy spider in my room.

Tomorrow we enter Kruger National Park proper! (though I discovered the Timbavati, where we are, is one of the private reserves adjacent to Kruger with no fences between).

This morning, we left at 5:30 am for Kruger and saw our first African sunrise on the way. Along the road were 3 hyenas just before we reached the gate. On our way into the park, we were talking to a Kruger staff member, Willie, who is apparently Robert Mugabe's cousin! (Robert Mugabe being the president of Zimbabwe, and has been for 28 years). Even though he's a terrible president, meeting his cousin was cool. Willie, when I asked if he liked Mugabe, said yes as family, but no as anything else. Zimbabwe's preparing for a second round of voting soon, and I hope the country is in decent, non-turbulent shape when I'm there in July.

The morning was spent on a great game drive - jackals, giraffes (including a young male), elephants, baboons, kudu, waterbuck, crocodiles, hippos, hornbills... and of course, impala around every bend. We drove out to the bush to look at fire and herbivore research sites and talk to a scientist about these things.

Satara is a beautiful camp in the heart of Kruger. Our "huts" are very nice, there's a great gift shop (though naturally overpriced), and we cooked our own dinner tonight outside our hut with a braai for everybody.

The crowning piece of the day was the night game drive. Not only is going out at night seemingly more exciting and adventurous, we spotted four of the Big Five in just two hours - elephant, buffalo, lion, and leopard. The lionesses had young cubs, and we saw one nursing, but they seemed sickly, so they probably have TB, a big problem here. A big male lion was just up the road, and we got within 15 feet of him. The leopard was wonderful, especially since I wasn't sure I would see any, they are so elusive. We also saw a giraffe, waterbuck, wildebeest, a few hares, and more impala.

Yesterday we were supposed to help with a giraffe capture (!) but helicopter problems forced them to reschedule, which means we weren't able to participate. It would've been soooo cool. Despite the disappointment, we had a good day of drives, seeing a lioness and cubs as well as a secretary bird, among other game. We watched hippos from a blind for a while, and saw lots of cool birds.

Later, by pure luck, we saw the burn team start a fire in the open savanna. It was very cool to watch. Though Smokey the Bear would have us believe fire is bad, it's actually an integral part of the ecosystem, so there were quite a few prescribed burns today - on an annual basis, about 1/3 of Kruger burns, which is a huge area. The smoke from the extensive fires gave us a brilliant sunset and I got lots of gorgeous photos.

I was put in charge of dinner, so I delegated tasks, and apparently dinner went well. We tried some South African wine, and most of us, on Roger's suggestion (one of the South African instructors) tried Amarula. Great stuff! Tastes like a blend of chocolate milk and fruit. Mmmm! We all hung out in our hut last night so we didn't keep the neighbors up,. I've only known these people for six days, but we already seem so close.

This morning we finished off our Big Five sightings with four white rhino! It was really cool to see all the Big Five within 36 hours. In the afternoon, we had a lecture on bovine TB in lions from Dr. Keet, one of the Kruger vets. It was really interesting, but a little disheartening - not much can be done for the animals. That's one reason I'm not sure wildlife/conservation medicine is for me - despite my medical abilities, there will be nothing I can do for many animals.

I learned how to sex elephants by looking at their head - adult females have an angular forehead, while males have a domed head. Also, an elephant nearly ran into our van, or we nearly ran into it, when our cards startled it as it was about to cross the road.

After driving through the last beautiful stretch of Kruger, we re-emerged to "civilization". It seemed like it had been ages since we had seen real roads, houses, business, buses, and hordes of people, even though it had been only a few days. We all fell asleep as soon as the last excitement of our Kruger safari was over, and woke up to see the sun setting behind the gorgeous Drakensburg Mountains.

Dinner was at the Wildebeest Lapa, and was excellent. We all ordered drinks on a group tab which, although the money comes out of our program fee, felt like Jim was buying everyone alcohol. I went with amarula on the rocks and two Hunter's dry ciders. For dinner, I had "venison" pie, made from impala, and tried a bit of someone's eland filet. Both were quite different from any meat I'd tried before, but I really like them, they were delicious. After a great time sharing laughs, we headed back to the wildlife college and enjoyed each others company before getting to bed.


This morning we headed out to Manyeleti, a provincially-owned park that borders Kruger. The park was originally established during apartheid for blacks, since they couldn't go into Kruger. The main camp is in a state of disrepair and felt like a ghost town - a stark contrast to the well-maintained camps inside Kruger.

An even great contrast came when we visited Tintswalo, a luxury safari lodge in Manyeleti. Wow, what a gorgeous place! There were elephants and buffalo just feet away from the fence surrounding the Manor House, where we had a lecture on ecotourism. We also got a tour of the Presidential Suite, one of the nicest hotel "rooms" I will ever enter - it was practically its own luxury lodge set off by itself in the bush. Just beautiful - I think I found my honeymoon spot. :)

Despite the smiles of awe the fancy rooms and perfect atmosphere brought, the stark contrast between this fantasy world and the true Africa, where just a few miles away people live in abject poverty, did not escape me. Our guide to Tintswalo mentioned he even gets uncomfortable when a staff member from a nearby village has to take a client's expensive steak back to the kitchen because it isn't prepared just right, yet the server eats simple pap/maize every night. But he also said the workers are proud to work in an upscale resort. Some things - actually most things - in this world are just backwards and unfair.

I'm also realizing that white conquest has created inequality and ruined lives all over the world, from Africa to the Americas, and as far as the South Pacific. What did we think gave us the right to come and take what was never ours? And why have things still failed to change?

Later, we got a lecture on wildlife diseases and the human/livestock/wildlife interface from a vet. Then, we did a postmortem on an impala! I definitely jumped right in, from feeling the shattered mandible from the bullet when it was shot to cracking the ribs open with hedge trimmers! While I've done dissections before, hearing the perspective of a vet, and the procedures of a necropsy and pathology investigation, was really cool.

Basically, I'm having the time of my life.