The first rays of light are just peeking over the horizon. It is six in the morning and I am cozy in bed when suddenly my alarm goes off. I quickly push the blankets off and hop over to the desk where the alarm vibrates and buzzes against the glass counter. I learned in high school that an alarm clock next to the bed is a recipe for a long bout of ‘snoozing’ so I leave it on the table across the room. The floor is cold on my feet and I can see my breath as I stand, shivering – that first shock of cold right after jumping out of my warm bed is probably the worst part of the day. The temperature outside drops to about 15 degrees F during the night, but has gone down to zero on a few occasions. I am thankful I brought my coat having almost left it behind thinking ‘Africa must be warm, even in the winter!’ but boy was I wrong. I would say that my down jacket has been on for over fifty percent of my stay here, just to give you a clue of how chilly the weather can get. Once I’m bundled up, I tiptoe my way into the kitchen trying to make as little noise as possible – this house is about a hundred years old and the wooden floors would creak if a mouse walked over them, so it can be quite a struggle trying not to wake up the farmer in the next room. I make myself a bowl of cereal (or three) and then quietly sneak back into my own room where I pack up my camera, water, snacks etc for the day to come. At about 6:30 there is just enough light to see without the aid of a headlamp, and this is usually when I head out to the field. I remember one of the first days I was here in Africa I headed out the door at 6am with my headlamp on only to get about one hundred meters from the farm before turning around. Why you might ask? Once you step into the field at night with your light, you will see hundreds of pairs of eyes glowing back at you. Red eyes, green eyes, bluish eyes – different species with different color reflections, and boy is it intimidating heading into the dark unknown alone with the eyes of a hundred animals looking straight back at you. At that point, I figured twenty extra minutes wouldn’t hurt.
As I step through the door at 6:30, I am jumped by my two explorer companions Libby and Frankie. They are just as excited as I am to start the day off, and for about five minutes or so they leap up as high as they can almost in an attempt to tackle me. I play with them for a minute in an attempt to move and get warm, but the clock is ticking at this point and so we quickly head out to the field. 45 minutes until sunrise, a couple miles of hiking; no time to waste. We jump fences, open gates, walk through a field of sheep, and finally make it to the edge of the farm where the open field begins. The grass is frozen solid, the metal gates are covered in a layer of frost, and for a moment I forget that I am in Africa. The field is in a slight depression so the elevation drops off from the farm, and the air temperature is noticeably cooler. Despite the frozen fingers, numb face and full body shivers, the dogs and I push on. Another two miles or so to go, and we will make it to a spot where herds of wildebeest and springbok often spend the night. On especially cold nights, I have found the animals themselves to be covered in a layer of frost. At this point, I pull out my camera and follow the animals around taking pictures as I go. The dogs stand about one foot off the ground and can barely see over the tall grass, so when they hear a rabbit or bird take off they chase after it jumping every other step in an effort to see where they are going. It’s quite entertaining watching them run off and disappear into the grass, then every second or so jump up just high enough where their head pops above the grass. It’s almost like watching a bopping head move through the long grass. While they keep busy chasing small critters, I stalk the larger animals with my camera until about 8:30 or so when my grumbling tummy tells me it’s time to go back to the farm.
The sunrise itself is quite a spectacular sight on the farm, especially out in the field surrounded by animals. The sky burns bright red before the sun creeps over the horizon, illuminating the grass and outlining the silhouettes of the animals around me. The sun finally makes its appearance, a glowing orb rising over the horizon, and for one breathtaking minute all the animals stop what they are doing, lift their heads, and look out at the sun. It’s as if they are relieved they have survived another freezing night outside, and at that moment when the life-giving sun shines its light on the land and its warmth instantly felt, they are reassured that they have lived another day. As the sun arcs higher in the sky, the ice begins to melt and the entire field bursts with life – both on land and in the air. I take off my down jacket and make sure to put it directly into my backpack (the first few times I took it off and put it on the ground next to me and turned around to take pictures, then Frankie took a few sniffs of the jacket and peed on it. He tends to pee on everything with my scent on it, and holy cow his pee is stinky…it took two weeks of heavy washing to get the smell out of my jacket!).
Once we’re back on the farm, real breakfast is served. The kitchen ladies make grits, eggs, bacon, sausage and toast every morning, and after having spent the morning freezing in the field I am dying to get some hot food in my stomach. I eat as much as I can and then some, usually about three times more than anyone else at the table (the farmer or his guests) even after having eaten cereal before I went out in the morning. Ahhh, there’s nothing more satisfying than eating so much that you can barely move afterwards…
After breakfast the day could go anywhere. Sometimes there’s plenty of work to be done on the farm whether it be chopping firewood, checking the perimeter fencing for holes, rounding the sheep, etc. and sometimes there is not much work to be done and I have the day to do whatever I want. When I have the day off, I usually go out and hike around the farm, exploring new places I’ve never been. It is not uncommon to run into the skeleton of an animal that fell victim to the jackals, porcupine quils scattered on the ground, clumps of feathers where a bird was eaten by a hawk, or anything else you could imagine running into in the desert. For this reason I try to walk somewhere different every day because it’s always neat stumbling upon some desert artifact.
Sometimes I also go out on the safari jeep rides with the tourists/guests who visit the farm. These are fun as well because we drive all around the 10,000 acre farm looking for animals so I am able to see quite a bit of diversity, but unfortunately the bumpy ride is no place to bring a big camera so I usually just go out and enjoy the scenery. I ride on the back of the jeep, and one thing I have learned is that you must always watch the road ahead. Whether there is a 2 foot hole in the middle of the road where an aardvark decided to dig its home the night before or a thorn bush that branches high out into the road, there is always something that could catch you off guard and leave you in pain. Acacia trees are common around the farm, and with their two inch thorns as sharp as razor blades, it almost seems possible to lose a limb to one of these trees if you don’t pay attention from the back of the truck. I often feel like Neo from the Matrix when he’s dodging bullets, because that’s what it can be like if we are driving in a bushy area and I’m standing in back dodging thorns both left and right. It adds to the adventure of the ride though, there’s no doubt about that.
The sun goes down at 5:30 and it is amazing how fast the temperature drops when the light disappears. If the jeeps are not back on the farm by the time the sun goes down, I often go from riding in the back with a t-shirt to shivering with a down jacket in the span of five minutes when the sun crests beyond the horizon. We usually try to make it back before sunset, but occasionally you do get caught out later than expected and when that happens, boy is it a cold ride back to the farm. Once we’re back, we start the fire out in the fire pit and huddle around it to keep warm. Almost every night we have a brai (similar to a barbeque) and cook out on the fire. The food, of course, is amazing. The meat is always fresh, usually caught either that day or the day before, and it’s game meat which is much leaner than beef and much more delicious. We each eat foot long fillets, entire racks of lamb, warthog ribs, or anything else the farmer feels like eating that night. Once we’ve stuffed ourselves to satisfaction, we sit by the fire and digest the tasty meal. I often sit back and zone out while the farmer talks to his guests in Afrikaans, daydreaming about what I should do the next day. At around eight I wander back to my room and I get ready for bed (much like when you go camping, there is not much to do when the sun goes down so it makes for very early nights, especially when the sun goes down at 5:30 like it does here). I sit back, read some, then fall asleep with a big smile on my face as I think to myself just how lucky I am to be here.