Excitement in the Delta

It has been an absolutely tremendous week out here on Chiefs Island in the Okavango Delta. From leopard sightings to hyenas killing antelope, and then to top it off, a threesome of lions killed a massive buffalo just outside one of the tents here in camp. The buffalo managed to run into the water just before the lions finished it off, making for a hectic battle between the crocodiles and lions. Not only that, but an elephant wandered by and, curiously enough, filled his trunk with water and started spraying the lions! He scared them off for a while, then another elephant came and started fighting with the first, just in front of the lions who were nervously eating the buffalo not fifteen feet from the sparring giants. After they moved off, about five or six crocs moved in and began to eat nose to nose with the lions (literally – their faces were less than a foot away at times as they chewed through the carcass) which was quite a spectacle. Both the lions and crocs nervously chewed, keeping an eye on the other, and every once in a while one would make a sudden move giving the other a fright and starting a clash. It was undoubtedly the coolest thing I’ve seen in my nine months over here in Africa, and I ended up spending the entire day sitting in front of that kill and just watching the action. Ahhh what a day, who needs television when you can just prop a chair up and watch lions fighting crocodiles over a buffalo carcass? Only in Africa…

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Elephant spraying the lions

 

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Scaring off the lions from the kill

 

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Then the elephants started fighting, right in front of the lions! Look how skeptical those three look…it was as if they were thinking ‘do I dare look away from these angry giants to take a bite of my tasty meal’

 

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Next the crocs moved in

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Then the lions came back, literally eating face to face with the crocs

 

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One of the lions tried to pull the carcass out of the water to avoid the crocs, but no such luck.

 

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Confrontation between  croc and lion – that’s one angry cat!

 

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All that remains of the 2000 pound buffalo in just 24 hours. It’s amazing how efficient African predators are, and how dangerous this place really is!

 

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Out on drive, we spotted a leopard and followed it around. She hardly even noticed the vehicles.

 

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This leopard is a movie star – she’s been the star of practically every documentary that’s been done on leopards

 

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Sizing up the tree

 

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Finally she found a nice place to rest

 

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Later we bumped into a pride of lions with this young cub

 

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Cub drinking milk from its mother

 

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lets play a little game… who's mouth is this???

 

 

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Ahh..tis the mouth of this young fellow!

Tis the season for a chargin’

After last weeks close encounter with Sargent, the big male rhino, I had another close encounter – this time with a huge bull elephant. As I was walking to the research vehicle, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a huge grey mass heading my direction. I quickly glanced over, only to find a massive elephant charging right at me. Luckily elephants are masters of the ‘mock charge’ and rarely strike their targets, so I stayed pretty calm and just waved my arms up and made some noise to slow his approach. Despite knowing (assuming) he was only mock charging, it still got my blood pumping! Seeing a two ton animal racing towards you with its two sharp tusks, stopping only within about five feet, is a pretty frightening and exhilarating experience! It’s really only those last few feet of his charge that you start praying that this guy is just trying to intimidate you and will soon stop, and yes it sure does get the adrenaline going! But I suppose I’m quite used to it by now, after all its almost four or five times a week that I’m charged by the elephants around here. I’ll just keep my fingers crossed that they stick with the mock and forget about charging me for real!

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Big elephant bull starting his charge

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When they charge, elephants flair out their ears to make them look more intimidating. I must admit… when you’re standing only a few feet away from them, it works!

On a separate note, this morning as I was eating my bowl of cereal around 5:30am, I remembered that I had left my water bottle in my room. I started walking back, and about 20 feet from my tent I saw several female lions dash out of the bushes next to me and run directly under where I was standing (on a boardwalk, only about three feet off the ground) and off towards the field just behind my tent. A moment later a huge male lion came charging through the bushes that the females had just darted out of, and sprinted after them. He was roaring like mad and must have been chasing them out of his territory, but I must say it was definitely the closest encounter I’ve had with lions while I was not inside a vehicle. To say the least, I was glad they were pre-occupied with running away from the big male (and he too busy chasing them) otherwise they may have taken the second to look up and see me walking right over their path. All in all, it was a pretty exciting way to start the day…

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lions darting out of the bushes, and running within a few feet of me!

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Here’s a short clip I took just yesterday morning–lions were feeding on a buffalo that they had killed the night before when some crocodiles came in and took over. You can hear the baboons yelping just as the lions take off

Caught between a rhino and a hard place

We had a great morning of rhino tracking, with a little added excitement. Our goal was to check up on a female with her calf, and after an hour of searching through the bush we heard a loud rustling through the bushes. Usually, if anything, the rhinos will run away from the vehicle, so it is unusual to hear a rustling sound – meaning the rhino is nearby and scraping his feat on the ground to mark its territory. As we slowly made our way around the bush, we found our girl with her calf. But to our surprise, she was with Sargent, the large, cheeky male from last weeks post. Rarely do we find the female rhinos spending time with the males (they meet once a month or so, and finding them together is a rare sight). As if Sargent didn’t have enough testosterone on his own, let alone when he was with a female, he could think of only one thing to do: charge the vehicle. He made it pretty obvious that he didn't want us hanging around his woman...It’s a bit nerve-wracking being on the receiving end of a charging rhino, but its all in a days work I suppose. Anyways, it added some definite excitement to the day, and on top of that we stumbled upon three different prides of lions, got nice and stuck in a giant mud hole, snuck up on a massive herd of buffalo, and managed to track another four rhino. Quite a day!

 

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A short clip of Sargent charging us this morning

 

 

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Just another day tracking rhino. Behind me is Bogale and her calf

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A nice place to rest

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Giraffes on the move

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Desperate in a land with no rocks

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Stuck in the mud, using sticks to get us out

Out and about with a rhino or two

Poaching has taken a severe toll on rhino populations throughout Africa, and today only a few thousand of these majestic animals remain. It is no wonder, then, that Botswana’s government has gone to great lengths in keeping their remaining rhinos – about 100 and rising – safe and out of reach from poachers. In doing so, they have employed the leading rhino tracker in the world, a Motswana man named Poster, to track and monitor the rhinos on a daily basis. Poster is based out of Chiefs Island in the central Delta, a vast and fertile island where many of the rhinos can be found within a few days drive.

I am very fortunate in that the company I am working with at the moment owns the only safari camp on the island, and I was lucky enough to be sent here for two weeks. This camp is the company’s flagship premier lodge, boasting the greatest game viewing in the whole of the entire Delta, and ranking in at the number one luxury safari camp in all of Africa. In an average week, the guides here will often spot over 80 different (not total..different) lions, 8 different leopards, thousands of buffalo, zebra, wildebeest, impala, lechwe...etc.... its known as the 'land of plenty' and for good reason. Needless to say, it’s a spectacular place! Anyways, since I’ve arrived, I’ve spent a great deal of time chatting with the legendary rhino tracker, and today he took me out for an exciting day of…you guessed it, rhino tracking!

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Max on the left, Rhino skull in the middle, Lion skull on the far right

There’s no denying that this humble and amazingly kind man deserves all the hype – he can literally spot a rhino footprint underneath a bush from the back of a vehicle moving 20 mph nearly 30 feet away. It’s unbelievable. And not only that, he’s spent so much time with these animals that he can even talk to them and get through to them. It sounds strange, but what I witnessed today was truly shocking. Once we approached our first rhino, a young male named Sergeant who was concealed in thick bushes, we stepped out of the vehicle to get a better look and check on his condition. A bit anxious, sergeant swooped his head around towards us and began to charge. Now, I’ve heard horror stories about rhinos – they may look big and innocent but they are actually incredibly dangerous animals… and at seeing this two ton armored horn charging right at me, I could literally feel adrenaline rush through my veins as my heart shot into panic mode. But Poster stood there and in his deep, calm voice he said ‘Sergeant, that enough! Calm down boy, that’s enough!’ and low and behold, that rhino stopped in its tracks. I was stunned, but whatever relationship Poster has with these animals, it’s out of this world.

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Poster stopping to record the coordinates of one of the rhinos

Then the two of us I casually got back on to the vehicle and drove off, spending the rest of the day tracking another four rhinos. On the way back to camp we got caught in a massive thunderstorm and got absolutely soaked from head to toe (we sit on the back of the land rover while another guy drives), but we were loving every minute of it. The rains arrived much too late this year – usually coming in September, but this was the first big shower of the year – so we reveled in the storm like kids playing in the sprinkler, literally shouting out and laughing as lighting crackled around us and thunder deafened our ears. I admire Poster, he lives a beautiful lifestyle, with nature being his office and his playground, and I hope to learn as much as I can from him before moving on to whatever’s next.

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Poster and I, soaked on the back of the truck after driving through the massive thunderstorm for nearly two hours!

Just before arriving at camp we saw a pride of lions stalking a herd of zebra so we quickly turned around and followed their pursuit. We watched as eight lions fanned through the trees, spreading out to maximize their effectiveness and chances of catching their prey. Silently, they crept ever closer to the treeline, until they made one final push and charged the waters edge where the zebra were drinking. Alarmed at the sight, the zebras frantically shot up and flew with lightning speed (almost like they were running for their lives…) away from the threat, leaving the disgruntled lions at their rear (though one female managed to catch a baby warthog in the process). Although this hunt was unsuccessful, it made the absolute perfect ending to our spectacular day, and look forward to more to come!

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this lucky lady walked away from the hunt with a tasty, albeit small, morsel – a baby warthog.

This rhino's name is Mogale, and she's quite a shy girl! or maybe she's just used to running away from men...

Living the Okavango Delta

I have been very fortunate over the past few months in that I have met a number of researchers here in the Okavango Delta, all of whom are happy to have me helping them out with their projects. Consequently I have been able to help track and collar one of the most charismatic and fascinating species of African carnivore –wild dogs. Not only that, but I have helped a researcher collect lion DNA using biopsy darts, collected samples from the waterways of the delta looking at micro-invertebrate biodiversity in relationship to land usage, studied population dynamics of roan antelope (a very rare species), and assess the impact of elephants on the surrounding vegetation. To say the least, I have had my hands full – there hasn’t been so much as a dull moment here in Botswana.

Tomorrow I’m being flown out to another premier camp located on a small island in the heart of the Okavango to assist with ongoing biology projects in the area, and I couldn’t be more excited! This island is the hotspot of biodiversity in the delta – it is the place to be if one is looking for wildlife. With an abundance of leopard, lion, buffalo, elephants…. there is no shortage of excitement. Basically it is a dream come true living in the thick of the bush, no doubt an addicting lifestyle!

 

 

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A view from above – flying to one of the camps in the delta. You can easily make out the animal tracks in the vegetation heading towards water (or in this case, a dried up waterhole), often referred to as the ‘veins of life’

 

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This is why elephants cause such a ruckus on the surrounding vegetation – they scrape off the bark with their tusks and chew on it like gum. They will often remove an entire ring of bark around the tree, thus disabling the tree from transporting liquids and nutrients through its bark, inevitably killing the entire tree.

 

 

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Elephant using its tusk and trunk to remove the bark

 

 

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The lounge area in one of the camps

 

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Elephant wandering through camp

 

 

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A leopard on it’s kill – a female impala. Incidentally she was pregnant and only days away from calving.

 

 

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Leopard in a tree – lazy in the mid-day heat.

funny story before bedtime..

Four guests arrived in camp the other day, all excited to be here in Botswana. After talking for a while, it was mentioned that farming is very popular here and cattle ranchers own some 60% of the countries land. The guests were intrigued by this statistic as they told us that they hadn't yet eaten any meat on their entire trip. We looked at the information sheet about the four guests, and it mentioned that they were all vegetarians..... That's when they told us that they were, in fact, all veterinarians...

haha funny story! and now a few pictures from this morning

A leopard we stumbled upon just after it had eaten an impala.

Fish eagle taking off

This bird spent most of its afternoon riding this prime example of an 'african taxi'

Car trouble in Africa (and other cool photos too!)

It’s been a very exciting two weeks here in Botswana, action packed could easily be an understatement. Whether its been chasing wild dog, stalking leopard, tromping through the marsh to find the rarest species of African owl, flying around the Delta to help with animal surveys or running into car problems when you are four hours away from town in the middle of the bush, the excitement here never seems to cease. Having said that, I am having the time of my life out here… there’s not a dull moment to be found!

If there’s one thing that Africa teaches you, it’s how to deal with your vehicle. I must admit, when I left the states, I hardly knew how to change a tire..but since I’ve been out here, I must have learned how to take apart an engine and redesign an entire land rover. Firstly, the research vehicles we are dealing with are easily twenty years old so they are quite prone to breakdowns. The second problem – we use land rovers as opposed to land cruisers (land rovers are notorious for being unreliable vehicles). And lastly, I cannot stress how important it is to know how to make a quick fix when your vehicle brakes down 10 miles outside camp and you are surrounded by lions, elephants and hippos. Not a situation you would likely face back in the states, which is likely why I was completely car-ignorant before arriving here, but wow do you pick up quick when you live in the bush. I’ve probably changed a tire a day out here, hoisted an entire land rover back onto a bridge two jacks and some bricks, driven through water over four feet deep while praying not to get stuck, plugged a diff casing with a modified stick, and driven nearly three hours back to camp at a drooling 10mph after needing to remove the drive shaft from a misfit of a truck. One things for sure out here in Africa, never does a day go by when you don’t get your hands dirty.

the water began to flood some of the roads at the camp we were staying at, maximum driving depth 4 feet in some places!

Two particular circumstances come into mind when discussing some of the issues I’ve had with these land rovers in the past two weeks. First was when a few of us had just done an environmental inspection at a new camp about four hours away from town and were heading back home. While we were at the camp, one of the mechanics replaced the oil in the diff housing, but apparently screwed the plug on a bit too tight. As we left camp, the plug actually fell into the diff and was swimming around in the oil, but unfortunately this meant no way to keep the oil from spilling out. None of us knew it had happened of course, and we were driving along merrily about an hour outside of camp when all of the sudden we heard a loud cracking noise and the car came to a sudden jerk. We looked under the car only to notice that the diff had no plug (it had fallen inside, but we didn’t know this at the time). Not only that, but the oil had completely drained so now it was bone dry inside the diff housing. This is a major problem because the gears that spin the wheels would start to catch on each other and completely stall the tires from spinning.

To our surprise, there was an old road maintenance truck abandoned on the side of the road a few hundred meters ahead so we figured we could drain some oil from it and use it in our own car. The oil wasn’t by any means diff oil - it was jet black and very soupy - but it would make for a quick fix that would (hopefully) get us back into town. After a very messy exchange of oil from that ancient machine into our broken machine, we chopped down some branches to improvise a plug for the housing. We stripped the bark off and jammed the tree limb into the hole, crossed our fingers that it would stay in, then headed off again.

Next problem: the diff plug had fallen inside the housing and was now bouncing around, so it snagged on the cogs only a few minutes later causing us to lurch into another screeching halt. Time to get creative…so we removed the entire drive shaft from the bottom of the vehicle and drove at a depressing 10 miles per hour for the remainder of what should have been a three hour drive, but instead took about eight hours. I have to admit though, despite the breaking down and slow going, I was fairly amused throughout the entire situation simply because it was such an unusual experience. Quite funny how you manage to work your way out of problems like that.

The old truck that we syphoned oil from to put into our own beat down land rover

dirty job

The stick plug! coming soon to usa!

here's the stick plug in action, jammed in there and hammered in with yet another large stick

removing the drive shaft altogether, thus disabling the four wheel drive and reducing strain on the rear wheels to minimize the chance of the diff plug getting caught in the cogs

The second car issue I’ve had in the last few weeks was when my land rover’s tires were completely dislodged from a log bridge. Apparently my one of my rear tires had not been completely aligned with the bridge when approaching it, and it threw the entire vehicle sideways and off the track. This was quite a sticky situation because the car was literally resting on the front CV joint and the rear diff, not the tires, which I thought was sure to do some serious damage. I was also worried that we would have to cut some of the log poles on the bridge to get the car off, something that the company would not be particularly happy about. We were, however, able to hoist the car up and over the edge of the bridge and back on it properly with a few jacks and some ingenuity. Amazingly it was completely undamaged, but ironically as we were just about to back it up off the bridge, the steering rod snapped when we turned the wheels and one got caught between two logs. Oh well, for such a dramatic incident, a broken steering rod was the least of my worries.

Despite the occasional serious issue with the car and the daily tire changing/field fixes for random breakdowns, everything around camp has been fantastic. Really quite an adventure, and to say the least the car problems do add to the drama of living out in the bush. I guess it wouldn’t be quite an adventure if we were driving around in brand new 4x4s that could topple trees and float across lakes now would it

This is clearly not how one is supposed to drive over the bridge - here the land rover is resting on the rear diff and the front left CV joint --- not pretty!

getting creative with jacks and hoisting the vehicle back onto the bridge

OK, enough talk, now time for some other neat photos of the things I've been seeing. Presenting....Max's back yard!!!
an unusual sighting... an elephant on all fours crawling out of a mud bath!

baboon with baby

flying into one of the camps, this is the view from the air. Can you spot the elephants??

a view of what the water looks like from above

elephants having a tissy fit

A big yawn! this is about 20 minutes after sunset, not a very nice shot but still kind of neat

blue wildebeest with baby! very cute watching it prance around

Lunch

Barred owl outside my tent

cape buffalo

Living and working in the Okavango Delta

11/3/2010
Collaring wild dogs

The other day I ran into my first pack of African wild dog and it was an experience I won’t forget. These highly endangered species are extremely rare, but we are fortunate to have a pack of 14 near camp at the moment and they are amazingly entertaining to watch. They behave exactly like any dog would (very playful, always running around and jumping on each other) but what intrigued me most was how they work in a team, especially when hunting. The group dynamics were almost hypnotizing as I stared and watched them run through the thick bush and trees, fanning out strategically and surrounding the impala that they would soon catch. It was an amazing sight, and once they had made the kill the excitement of the pack was baffling. The pups were throwing chunks of meat around and wrestling each other for scraps, the adults were playfully chasing each other around, jumping over one another and having what looked like a grand time. That was by far one of the most spectacular sights I’ve seen thus far in Africa, and I spent several hours afterwards following the dogs and watching their behavior as they moved around and finally found a place to rest.

There is currently an ongoing research project studying population dynamics and home ranges of wild dogs, and once the supervisor got word that this pack was found near our camp, we made arrangements for him and a vet to come up and radio-collar two of the dogs. This was great news for me because it meant I was in charge of finding the pack and following them all morning until the researcher and vet were able to fly up and meet me. I was lucky in that a few minutes after driving out of camp, the pack of dogs ran feverishly through the woods and right in front of my car, before disappearing on the other side. Great, now I would have to drive through the thick bush to keep an eye on them, but at least I knew where they were and wouldn’t spend hours searching for them. I was able to keep up with them until ten, at which point the heat of the day is an unbearable 110 degrees and the dogs finally calm down and rest until evening when it cools down again. I radioed in the position and waited (aka cooked) in the car for about three hours until the other two finally arrived.

Once we figured out which two dogs were the best candidates for the collars, we darted them with a dart gun and got to work. Blood samples were collected, various measurements were taken on the dogs and their overall health was analyzed, then lastly we fitted each one with a collar. As we were working, a few elephants were curious as to what we were doing and wandered towards us. Unfortunately this posed a serious risk to the sedated dogs (elephants hate wild dogs and may try to trample them, especially if they are unconscious) so it was my job to jump in the car and ‘push’ the elephants away. One may think that elephants are friendly giants, but let me tell you – wild elephants are not something to be messed with. They are actually extremely dangerous animals - mainly because of their size - and although they look big and slow, they are actually very fast when they want to be and can easily squash a car, and the person inside. In other words, knowing it was my job so approach some curious elephants in the landrover and try to move them back where they came from wasn’t exactly the most comforting feeling. As I got within five feet of the leading big bull who dwarfed the vehicle (he must have been four times the size of the landrover), my heart was racing as I eased ever so slightly on the gas. He shook his head and violently shook his ears as made his threat display. I took a big gulp and could only hope he wouldn’t crush the car with one step as I continued on. Finally he had enough of my big metal box moving just feet away from him as he turned around and walked off, the others following behind. Few, what a relief that was. I headed back to the researcher and vet and we continued working on the dogs. Overall the process took about three hours, and once the two were awake we followed them for another hour or so to make sure there were no problems, then headed back to camp. What an exciting day, there’s nothing more exciting than trying to follow a pack of wild dogs through the African bush for a mornings work then scaring off elephants in the afternoon!

two pups fighting over a piece of stomach that one of the older dogs regurgitated - eeeww

play play play!

the dogs used the vehicle as a play obsticle and would run around it in circles as they chased each other

one of the older males carrying the impalas head. note his bloody coat just after feeding.

you wouldnt want to be on the recieving end of these bad boys.

working with one of the sedated dogs

fitting the collar


dart in the rump

10/26/2010
Living and working in the Okavango Delta

I have been in the Delta for a little over a week now and it has been hands down one of the most amazing weeks of my life. Every moment has been absolutely unforgettable. I am volunteering with the environmental division of a safari company and basically we fly out between camps in the Delta and assess the environmental impact of each concession, as well as make suggestions for improving the sustainability of each camp. Not only that, but we are also responsible for assessing the amount of game that surrounds each camp, therefore part of the job is to go out and run a number of transects where we identify and quantify the animals in each area.

Living in the Delta is not like living in the city. In fact, it’s not even like living in the woods… It’s like entering a world where man has not conquered and nature still has the final say. There are literally things that could kill you around every corner, whether it be the venom of a snake, the poison of a spider, the claws of a lion or even the jaws of a hippo. And believe me, there is no lack of diversity up here. If anybody ever dreamed of a place as wild, exciting, and dangerous as imaginable, the Okavango Delta surely fits the description. Just now I hear two hippos fighting not ten meters from my tent. I fall asleep to the distant sound of roaring lions and barking wild dog (and the funny part is that I’m not even exaggerating). There is a pack of warthog that live under my room at the moment, and boy can they make a fuss when a leopard walks past. It truly is unbelievable, there is nothing more that I can say about this place. I am incredibly excited to continue working with this company over the next few months as I will get to see more and more of the Delta while we move from one camp to another, and I am even more excited to say that even though this past week has been one of the best of my life, that this is only the beginning of my stay here! What an exciting journey to come!

And now, some pictures from my back yard!

prancing zebras

elephant femur

remains of an elephant that was eaten some six months ago

african sunset

when you do research for a luxery safari company, the living is nice! this is a standard room, but when I move from one camp to the next some can be much more 'luxurious' (as hard as it may be to imagine...)

hippo outside my back door. these guys make some very strange sounds throughout the night as they chomp on grass outside the rooms.

this was the first leopard I saw, watching it as it stalked some guinnea fowl was unbelievable as it jumped five feet in the air to catch one that tried to fly away.

one of our resident dominant male lions

a big yawn

mommy and cub

baby elephant - very cute to watch these guys

elephants link trunk to tail when they cross the waters around here.

a big herd of elephants passing by camp

the main deck area of one of the camps I stay at. pretty spectacular views from here, especially of hippo and elephant that wander by throughout the day

the main deck of another camp, also overlooking the water

Heading North

After helping out with the Caracal research in the Winterberg, I spent a good three days traveling by bus to get to my next destination, northern Botswana. I had been in contact with a safari company in the Okavango Delta that has an environmental division which conducts a number of research projects in the Delta, and I finally had the opportunity to come up and volunteer with them. The bus ride was grueling, but the thought of working in the Delta was too good to pass up. After about three bus transfers and 30 hours of cruising, things were going pretty smooth, but it was really that last 10 hour stretch from Gabarone to Maun (southern to northern Botswana) that were killer. The temperature rose immensely from a cool 28 degrees C to a blazing 42 degrees C as we crossed through the Kalahari desert on a bus packed with twice as many people as it was certified to carry. Not only that, but farmers in this region regularly graze their cattle, sheep, and donkeys on the side of highways thus making the journey take twice as long as it should because we constantly stopped for the lazy animals that would take their mid-day siesta in the middle of the road. Despite the heat and slow going, it was a very interesting experience for me. First of all, it was the first time I felt that I was in 'real' Africa. Despite being a third world country, South Africa is very modern and industrialized while Botswana is still very much what I would consider a true third world country. People still live in mud-huts, water is very scarce so the populations are very low, and overall there is little in the way of industrialization in the country. I was amazed and pleased, however, to discover that everyone is extremely friendly around here and that Botswana is actually one of the safest African countries. It was also fascinating to see the landscape in Botswana, which is much drier and hotter than in South Africa. In fact, we passed through one region where tornado-like cyclones are absolutely everywhere and stretch up to 500 feet in the air. It was fascinating to see five or ten of these giant dust cyclones off in the distance, and a few times our bus even drove through them! It was amazing when we hit them, the entire bus shook violently and it was almost like smashing into a wall of water for a brief second as we rattled and jangled around. Admittedly my heart was racing pretty fast as we passed through these, but others around me were pretty nonchalant about the whole situation, obviously having travelled this road before...

So far I have had a great experience here and am really looking forward to spending more time in this amazing country. I just arrived so unfortunately I don't have any terribly exciting news as of now, but I will make sure to provide updates as often as I can.

Tracking Caracal in the Winterberg

I felt the bones in my hand being crushed as I reached out and introduced myself as Max. The farmer, with his vice-grip handshake, told me his name was Roan and showed Emma and myself into his house. As he walked through the door, I quickly shook my hand out of view as if the pain would magically go away. We followed him to the sun-room, the only corner in 150 year-old farmhouse with enough windows to provide natural lighting, and any sort of warmth for that matter. At 1,500 meters elevation and tucked away in the mountains of the Winterberg, the cement walls surrounding us have little effect in keeping out the cold so we bask in the sunlight in this beautifully old room. Ceramic plates and bowls from the first settlers are scattered on ancient wooden tables and cupboards, tools from the early days are hung up on the walls, and pictures of relatives stare back at you from their displays as I stepped into the past.

Entering the Winterberg

After a cup of tea and a quick chat with the farmer, Emma and I set out to check the traps that had been set a few days earlier. Caracal run freely around these hills, and our task for the next two weeks is to catch them and fit them with radio-collars. The cages are baited with Caracal urine, a known attractant for the cats, and are scattered around the rocky canyons that make up the farm. With only a few hours of daylight left after the four hour drive and meeting with the farmer, we decided to check six of the twelve cages on the farm. These animals are extremely difficult to catch, and over the last three months of trapping, Emma has only been able to collar one individual. Knowing the chances would be slim that there were any Caracal in the cages, we remained hopeful as we scrambled over the loose terrain for several kilometers to check each cage. As we expected, nothing was waiting for us in the cages, but the next morning when we went back out we found a large-spotted genet in one of the cages – a rare find and definitely an exciting one for me. Still no caracal though, so after the morning of checking the remainder of traps on this farm, we visited another nearby farm where another six traps are set.

Caracal country

Baiting the traps - using urine covered fur as an attractant

The trap once it's baited and covered

Large-spotted genet jumping to freedom!

Amazingly, the nearby farm has drastically different landscape despite being less than 30 kilometers down the road. The land changes from rolling, grassy hills to tall rocky cliffs with plenty of nearby trees. The elevation must be slightly different as well because this farm is nearly always covered in a cloud of mist while the other farm is often sunny. Despite another set of empty traps, it was neat to see a change in scenery as we toured around this other farm. And we also stumbled upon some bush-man paintings on a nearby cliff when we were walking to the traps. These drawings are about 350 years old, what a neat find!

350 year-old bushman paintings

The weather up here in the Winterberg nothing like the rest of South Africa. It rains constantly, and is much cooler for most of the year than the lowlands. In fact, the entire time I spent on the farms I was bundled up in my down jacket and still chilly because of the icy wind that blows through the hills. Nearly half the time we spent in the mountains was under heavy clouds or rain, and one night in particular we were struck by an incredible thunder storm. The farmers had invited Emma and I over to their main house where they cooked mutton for dinner (delicious!) and during the meal we heard intense rainfall starting to pick up as it hammered on the roof. After dinner, however, the real storm picked up. I remember lying in my bed and watching as my room would light up for seconds as a time as massive lightning bolts lit up the sky. Twice that night lightning struck within a few hundred meters of the farmhouse, the freightening blast shaking the ancient farmhouse and even knocking over some furniture. For a few minutes there I was wondering just how safe it was to stay in these buildings with their metal roofs, but I guess I was slightly comforted by the fact that they have been around for a hundred years, so must have endured worse in their time.

The rain smashed against the roof with all its might with brief bouts of hail to add to the commotion, successfully keeping me awake for the majority of the night, but nevertheless it was one of those exciting experiences I won’t forget – what a night it was! The next day we carried on with baiting and checking traps, still with no success. We would spend the chilly evenings huddled around the fire, gossip about the other strange farmers we ran into (one guy practically had a petting zoo at his farmhouse – seven dogs, a meerkat, parrots, pigeons, other strange birds, a piglet, cats any practically anything else you could image) and basically living the farm life.

One day the farmer took me up to his upper ranch while Emma checked the traps in the morning. The upper ranch is another farm he owns where he keeps a number of his cattle, but it is about 75 kilometers up the road on the peak of one of the nearby mountains. There is one tiny farmhouse where one of his workers lives year round to keep an eye on the cattle – a small 10 foot by 10 foot square brick house with no electricity and no running water – yes this place is in the boonies! The temperature is significantly colder up here with daily rain or snow coming around noon, and a constant wind that makes the crisp, cool air practically unbearable. We spent a few hours up there ear-tagging some of the cattle, and that’s all it took for me to freeze and look forward to the drive back down to the main farmhouse where a warm fire awaited. I couldn’t believe somebody lived up there in those conditions year round though, and apparently it’s not uncommon for snow to pile up to five feet in the winter! Yikes, that sounds like rough living. And to think that this worker is alone up there is even more incredible… I don’t know how he does it.

The workers house in the upper farm, tiny! Can you imagine spending about 15 hours each day in this tiny one-room house? Surviving winters with 5+ feet of snow and temperatures below freezing, or summers when it gets to 115 degrees? Not sure I would make it...

Well, despite the lack of Caracal, it was still a very interesting trip. I learned a lot about the research Emma is conducting and the methods/procedures she uses for collecting her data, and I also learned a lot about the farm life up here in the mountains. What a beautiful place to do field work - I made sure to emphasize this to Emma as I reminded her how many people spend their days in the lab while she is out here in these stunningly beautiful mountains catching Caracal. What a neat trip it was, one that I would love to do again sometime. But I must move on, life’s short and so I’ve got to keep the ball rolling. Next stop: Botswana!

A caracal peers through the bushes.

Looking out the back window of the farmhouse

Panoramic shot of the farmers land

Monkeyland!

With a three week gap in my schedule between arriving in Cape Town by boat and heading out to radio-collar Caracal in the Eastern Cape, I decided to volunteer at Monkeyland. What a great experience it has been working here and meeting people from all over the world. Not only are the tourists who visit very diverse, but the staff also represent some 10 African countries. Getting to know my fellow colleagues has been a real treat – listening to stories about their lives back home is fascinating. But the best part of working here, as you may have guessed, is working with all kinds of monkeys! What enthralling little buggers, I could easily spend an entire day watching one monkey and remain entertained the entire time. It’s amazing how intelligent these little guys are, and I think it is the humanness (which is actually a word) in them that make them so alluring. Almost like watching another person, or a child, these animals are capable of doing amazing feats. They will steal your keys and open locks, snatch something from your pocket without you ever knowing, and even grab cell phones that are lying around and put them to their ear, mimicking a human. But it is not only their intelligence that makes them such characters; it is the way they move, the way they look at you, the way you can almost understand what they are thinking…all very humanlike traits and that is why I can sit there and stare at one monkey for hours on end, studying it as if I were studying a fellow human. Unlike a cat or dog, monkeys also show a range of human-like facial expressions. It is easy to connect with them because they show emotions – you know when they are happy, sad, hungry, angry etc. simply because they behave the same way a human would.

These are things I’ve picked up over the past few weeks here, something I could never have really learned in a zoo where the animals are practically lifeless in boredom with the lives given to them. In our forest here the monkeys are all free roaming, so I often find myself wandering lost through the forest looking for one of the rare species, or simply following a group of individuals that have caught my eye. It’s quite an experience to see how these animals behave in the wild, and I am grateful for the time I have spent here to learn more about such fascinating creatures.

Feeding the squirrel monkeys in the forest

The entrance to Monkeyland

Black and white lemur, one of our laziest primates

Ring-tailed Lemur - the star of Madagascar

Posing for the camera, Capuchin monkey in front of a Gibbon

Nearby Monkeyland is another attraction called Birds of Eden, which is basically a giant aviary 12 hectares in size with over 300 species of birds inside, most of which were donated pets. Both companies are run by the same owners, so I have also been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time helping out with the birds. Watching parrots that have been caged up their entire lives fly free is very gratifying, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know many of the different personalities of the different birds. For example, whenever Eric, one of the workers, goes in, one particular bird will always land on his shoulder. This bird will not land on anybody else, just Eric. Another parrot will sit on a branch above you and say ‘hello,’ then fly down to your shoulder where it says ‘what are you doing?’ Obviously something it learned from its previous owners. Another bird that is found in South Africa called a Dickop (translates to dumb-head) was trained to follow its owner around before coming to Birds of Eden. His name is Douglass and now that we have him, he simply follows anyone and everyone around the aviary. It’s quite funny to see this big, strange looking bird walk behind somebody the entire time they are inside…

Scarlet Ibis

Anyways, all in all it has been a great experience working at Monkeyland and Birds of Eden. I have learned a lot about the species we have, and have met a lot of great people along the way. So if anybody out there is ever in South Africa, I suggest you head down to Pletternberg bay where you can watch monkeys all day and see hundreds of species of cool birds!

There is also a cat rehabilitation center a few kilometers down the road from Monkeyland, so on my day off I walked down to have a look. They have about six different species of African cats, so it was neat to see all these amazing animals. And apparently cheetahs are as tame as house cats if raised from birth, and because I had worked with black-footed cats earlier, the keepers let me in to the cheetahs’ enclosure. It was a very humbling experience standing next to a 120 pound cat that could easily take my life, especially considering the number of times my cat at home ‘playfully’ scratches and bites me. Not only that, but I used to think my housecat would keep me up at night with its loud purr, but boy does listening to the purring of a cheetah put things into perspective. It’s almost like the dull muttering of a chainsaw, it’s incredibly loud! Fascinating….

My new buddy

A small corner of Birds of Eden just after putting out their morning breakfast

A month at sea!

Life on the boat has been great. What an experience it has been to spend a month out at sea doing coastal research with Rhodes University, and definitely something I would love to do again sometime. It’s absolutely beautiful out in the ocean, with stunning sunrises and sunsets, birds everywhere, and seals, whales and dolphins swimming around the ship. What a magical experience.

Being on the water is like living a different life on a different world, nothing about it resembles anything I’ve ever experienced before. Time loses meaning and days mush together, especially when working the midnight to noon shift, and it is nearly impossible to remember when you did what because you no longer have a regular night’s sleep to separate one day from the other. Instead, it is a constant struggle for an hour of sleep here or two hours there, with no regular schedule whatsoever to keep track of when you’ve done what or what day it is, or even what time it is. Waking up at 2am on the boat feels no different than waking up at 2pm, and rather than living day by day, I think the trip could best be summed up as a thirty day push during which time you have no idea when it is. This is not a bad thing by any means, but it does take some getting used to. We live our entire lives by the clock, waking up in the morning for school or work, going from one appointment to another, then sleeping at night, but that lifestyle does not apply at sea. It is therefore a complete shift from what I’ve been accustomed to for my entire life, and it’s not easy to jump right in to.

Not only do you rarely know when it is, but you often don’t know where you are either. Whether you’re 200 miles off-shore or 10 miles from the coast, there’s no way of knowing where you might be in this vast ocean. Only once was I slightly concerned by this notion, and it was when we were hit with a massive storm near the end of the cruise. With winds raging at 50 mph and 20 foot waves crashing down on us, I began to wonder just how far off the coast we were, hoping for closer rather than farther. What a crazy night that was though, even the windows up on the bridge (nearly 60 feet up) were getting sprayed by the vicious sea. The boat was literally smashing its way through the massive swells, with a twenty foot wave lifting the nose of the ship to nearly 45 degrees, then as it made its way to the back, the front end would smash down violently into the next oncoming wave. Everything was falling over, chairs in the mess, fire hydrants attached to the walls (one went off and sprayed the entire hallway white), dishes and silverware were everywhere, drawers came out flung equipment everywhere… it was mad! But for me, it was quite an exciting madness indeed. While it’s all fine and dandy being in calm waters, I must admit that life on the rough sea is where all the action’s at. That’s when you’re on edge, when you’re literally hanging on for dear life because if you let go of anything you will be thrown across the room or over the railing of the boat. Never is there a dull moment when the weather turns rough, not even if you have twelve hours of waiting around before your next shift starts. It was when we hit the storm that I enjoyed myself the most on the boat, not because it was dangerous (which I would not have enjoyed…in fact knowing that this boat can survive much worse is what kept me comforted) but because it was thrilling.

Sleeping on the boat also takes some serious getting used to. First of all, the walls creak like mad! Because the boat is always rocking, the walls are always creaking, and boy is it annoying. Right next to your head, all you hear is the incessantly loud creaking that manages to keep you awake even after two days of hard work without so much as an hour of sleep. And worse, if you do manage to fall asleep, you are sure to wake up after an hour or so from the annoying sound. The creaky walls are my only complaint on this month long boat trip, it was the only thing that constantly drove me crazy. I’m not sure if other boats are the same, but sheesh that’s one thing I could have lived without. Another difficulty in falling asleep is the fact that you are always moving, rolling left and right in your bed. Sleeping on your side doesn’t work, so it’s either your back or your stomach. When you lie on your back though, your head rolls left and right which is pretty irritating and manages to keep you awake. And to make life even more frustrating, it’s as if the beds onboard were designed by midgets. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve found that everything in Africa runs a few sizes small. In fact, I havn’t been able to find shoes bigger than size 10 anywhere, beds have always been way too short, and even shower heads are never higher than chest height. But when sleeping is already as hard as it is on the ship, the last thing you need is a bed that’s only five feet long to make matters worse. Now I’m just lying flat on my stomach, arms and legs bent like a frog, trying to get one iota’s worth of sleep.

Anywho… what’s the strangest part of all about being out at sea you may ask? Funny as it may seem, I would have to say landsickness! Let me explain… when you first board the ship, the constant rocking back and forth takes a lot of getting used to, which is why people generally get sea sick for the first three days. It’s much like going on a ride at an amusement park. That thrill that you get, basically the head rush and butterflies in the stomach, come from the movement of the ride. But if you were to stay on that ride for hours and hours, or even days, eventually your body would begin to get used to the movement, and even compensate for it with subtle movements of its own. For example, here on board if you watch anybody you will see them moving back and forth ever so slightly to counter the movement of the ship. It comes naturally after a few days on board, it’s just the body’s reaction to the rocking of the boat. But it’s not actually the movement that makes you sick, it’s that head-rush/butterfly in the stomach feeling caused by moving up and down, back and forth - the same feeling that you experience on a ride. But once your body is accustomed to it, which usually takes one to three days, you lose those feelings altogether and are fine again. Yes you are still rocking and moving around with the boat, but your body has somehow countered the effects, and thus you no longer get sea sick. This is great when you are at sea, and best of all I have found that once you are used to the general movement of the boat, it no longer matters if the waves are three feet high or twenty feet high, you won’t get sea sick either way because your body knows the pattern of movement – the rocking motion. But this does cause problems when you get back to shore. This came as a shock to me because I had never been out to sea so I had no expectations, but I actually got land sick when we docked to refuel for a day. In fact, it was just as bad as when I boarded the ship and got sea sick for the first few hours and it actually made me anxious to get back on the boat and head out to sea where I would feel comfortable again! Funny huh!? Your body will get so used to the movement, that when you step off the boat onto solid ground, you actually feel unstable. You are still naturally trying to counteract the rocking motion (that no longer exists) and thus it makes you feel as if you are moving. It actually made me quite dizzy and nauseous because when I sat still, I knew I wasn’t moving and could even feel that I was sitting motionless, but my body still wanted to counteract the movement of the waves that I had gotten so used to, so my head felt like it was spinning (almost like how you would get dizzy after spinning around for a minute – only this was after being at sea for a month!). Quite an unexpected feeling, and a shocking one at that. Who knew you could get landsick right? It reminded me of a movie I watched as a kid – Waterworld with Kevin Costner. I thought it was so funny, and pretty ridiculous, when he finally found land and said he was heading back out to sea because it didn’t feel right and he was getting ‘landsick.’ Psh, I thought, something only Hollywood would make up for laughs. Well believe it or not, it’s true! Just as your first day out at sea can be quite miserable, so can your first day back on land!

Things to get used to at sea:

Constantly bumping your head on the 4-foot high steel ceiling

Everything falling over around you

Losing your balance as the boat rolls around in the sea, especially when you’re putting on clothes or shoes

Probably taking about 100 steps per day – after a month on a ship you’ve probably averaged the same number of steps as a typical day on land

Rolling in your sleep in a bed made for midgets

Getting soaked when you’re on deck and a rogue wave hits

Eating three times a day…and then another three times because you’re working the night shift

Averaging 2 hours of sleep a day

Losing all track of time

Long days stuck on board with absolutely nothing to do when you have to sit out bad weather

Drinking lots of coffee to keep you going

The incessantly loud creaking sounds the walls beside your bed make as the boat rocks in the water, nearly driving you mad as you try to get your two or so hours of sleep each day

The atrocious swampy smell wafting from the bathroom, which is always musky and damp from people showering

Listening to the sound of your food bounce around inside your stomach as you lay down and roll side to side with the boat

Getting sea sick (at first) and then land sick (later)

Big waves hit us as the storm was approaching. Many of which soaked us if you were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time!

The storm is coming!!

This is a typical sample from the zooplankton net. All kinds of crazy little buggers, many are clear and glassy, it's quite interesting! A lot of the fish we pull up are bioluminescent as well (they have little spots on them that light up in the dark depths of the ocean) which is very cool!

A morning visitor

Sunrise - looking back from the bridge

This is what the CTD scans looks like. They are very informative, giving you info like temp, salinity, flourescence, oxygen etc.. at different depths. This is handy when we need to take a sample at a specific depth, forexample at the thermocline layer or f-max.

Sea birds flying around the ship. Lots of albatross, one of the biggest species of birds on the planet!

Sunset, quite nice isnt it?

Sunrise out at sea

Another sunrise, this time we were close to land on one of our nearshore transects.

First days at sea

Having never been on ship before, I had no idea what to expect when I boarded the Algoa. For the next thirty days I would be out at sea doing research with 18 other scientists from around South Africa. We left port three days ago on our course from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town. We a running a series of transects along the coast ranging from 200 miles off shore to 20 miles off shore. Our first day out was a bit unnerving as the seas out here are quite rough, especially for a first timer like myself. But after the initial bout of seasickness that lasted for about a day, I started to get comfortable with the rocking motion of the boat. In fact, I rather enjoy it now – it’s quite soothing, especially when going to bed. We finished a near-shore transect and are currently close enough to get internet signal, however for the remainder of the cruise the boat will be too far off the coast to pick up signal, thus I will try to post as many details as I’ve got now.

There are two shifts on the boat – both being 12-12. I opted for the midnight-noon shift, I would rather be sleepy early on in my shift, then awake when the sun comes up instead of being awake during the day part of my shift, then sleepy as night falls. And plus, sunrise at sea is absolutely lovely so this way I get to witness it every day I’m out here! Needless to say the hours are very long and can be quite tiring, but the work we are doing is fascinating and the other researchers are all really interesting to talk with.
The weather so far has been quite tame with waves averaging about 10 feet, but I’ve been told to expect some major wind tonight and some serious storms next week. Starting on Monday we will be ranging farther south to latitudes of 37°, just shy of the ‘roaring fourties’ where wind forces are known to be extreme and storms are practically guaranteed. I’m a bit curious to see what life is like on the rough seas so I’m kind of excited for next week. All I have in my mind at the moment are scenes from the movie ‘The Perfect Storm’ so hopefully things to get quite so out of control, but I still think it should be quite an adventure!

Studies of coastal seas off southern Africa have to a large extent been dominated by the use of satellite remote sensing, however the vertical structure of the water column, organisms being carried by the water, and local ecosystems can only be studied in situ on research cruises, such as this one on the Algoa. I am helping out with a number of studies while on board the cruise, namely projects that are being carried out by Rhodes University, but when other researchers need an extra hand I am available for them as well. There are a number of biological objectives that we are looking at through this research: investigating the spatial dynamic of planktonic communities, determining trophic relations between different escosystems, characterizing the SPM (suspended particulate material) component using stable isotope ratios and fatty acid profiles along the coastline, and finally collecting larvae of the indigenous mussel Perna perna to investigate the pelagic distribution of the species and profile larval densities and distribution as well as examine near-shore densities of larvae with respect to coastline topography, specifically of bays and capes. There are other researchers on board who are collecting distribution and abundance data on seabirds and cetaceans (whales), but I am not involved in their projects.

We have access to some remarkable scientific equipment on board the ship, and most of the work I am involved with requires the use of a CTD, larvae pump, and bongo tow. There are a number of stations along each transect line, and at each station we gather samples using those devices. The CTD is basically a series of bottles mounted on a frame that can be remotely triggered to close and collect water samples at any depth up to 1000m. Water is often collected and compared at various depths including deep (1000m or bottom if shallower), F-Max (a vertical layer with the highest composition of chlorophyll) and shallow. Once collected, the water is tested for various parameters including dissolved oxygen, nutrients, phytoplankton and chlorophyll. A bongo is basically a large net of a certain mesh size (we use two, with mesh sizes of 300 micrometers and 200 micrometers). The bongo is used for zooplankton sampling and is towed from the rear of the boat at various depths to compare planktonic communities throughout the water column. A submersible plankton pump with 60 micrometer mesh is used to collect mussel larvae, and at each station we sample three depths – surface, thermocline, and deep (200m max). Micro-organisms are sampled by collecting water samples at various depths (using the CTD) in cryovials prepared with glutaraldehyde and paraformaldehyde and place them in liquid nitrogen on deck for further analysis when we get back to shore. Finally, we sample SPM for isotopes and fatty acids by filtering water from various depths and store the samples in an onboard freezer set to -80° C.

Well, that’s basically the rundown of the research I am involved with onboard the ship. It can take anywhere from two to three hours to collect all the required samples at each station along the transect (with two of us working per shift). After all the samples have been collected, we move forward to the next station, often a 30 minute - 1 hour steam at 10 knots. The work is tough but it is very interesting and therefore goes by rather quickly. In fact, I think the hardest part of the day is trying to go to bed at 2pm to prepare for my midnight shift. Yes I am often tired from the night before, but still, it’s the middle of the day and my body isn’t used to going to bed so early. Mealtime is also very strange when working from midnight to noon. The standard meals on the boat are normal breakfast lunch and dinner, but when working through the night I often eat two or three times during my shift as well. Then I still eat breakfast, and because I get off at noon I end up eating lunch as well. And if I try to go to bed in the middle of the day, I end up hungry around 6pm because I’m so used to eating dinner, so I often end up eating dinner as well, bringing my total meal count for the day up to 6! Yikes, not good, especially considering the fact that we don’t get any exercise when stuck on a boat for a month. By the time the bad weather hits next week, maybe I’ll have put on so much blubber that it wouldn’t even matter if I tip overboard, I would simply float back to shore effortlessly! Speaking of which, last night around 3am the other researcher and I were pulling in the bongo near the edge of the boat when a rogue wave hit the ship and nearly sent both of us overboard. We were both bent over, pressed against the side holding on for dear life with the sea about two feet from our faces. We laughed it off, although I’m not sure we would have done the same had we actually fallen off… Makes me wonder what next week will be like when the real weather hits!

Well, life on the boat is great. In fact, I love it so much that I will strongly consider looking for more research cruises – it’s a fun experience and I quite like being out at sea. The hours are long, living spaces are small and take some getting used to, and the work is hard - but the reward is spectacular…every morning I am on deck at sun-rise, whales breach in the distance, seals swim up to the boat in curiosity, sea birds fly around us in every direction – it’s unlike anything one could experience on land. Well, I’d better get to bed, my shift starts in a few hours and it’s supposed to be a windy night tonight, which means the work will be that much harder as all our equipment flaps around in the wind. Out to sea we go!

This shows the stations and transects we will be running along the coast.

The bongo being lifted out of the sea

Keeping records of what we do at each station

Cryovial tubes ready to be put into liquid nitrogen

Another view of the bongo

The other two researchers from Rhodes, both doing post-docs

Preping the CTD

Lifting the CTD after a 1000m dip

The larvae pump

Here's the mess room where we eat breakfast lunch and dinner! (and everything in between in my case)

Aboard the Algoa

This morning three researchers from Rhodes University and I drove down to Port Elizabeth where we boarded the Algoa – our home for the next month. The ship is just over 53 meters long and holds 12 scientists and 23 crew members. It is designated as a marine and coastal research vessel, and is thus fully equipped with both a wet lab and a dry lab, a computer station, along with several other facilities for various projects.

Because I have never been on a boat of this scale before I don’t really know how my first impressions compare with those of people who are used to spending their days at sea, but I must say that claustrophobic people would not have a good time on a ship. Every hallway is short and thin and one walks down several flights of stairs just to get to the cabins. And everything is made of steel so one must be very careful when walking through the four foot high hallways not to hit their head! Once we boarded and walked down to our rooms, I was a bit overwhelmed by the tininess of everything and I felt a brief wave of nausea hit me, almost like my body was making me sea sick before we even went out to sea! But after going through the boat a number of times as we loaded our stuff I began to get used to the tight spaces and now I’m completely comfortable with the ship. This is a good sign as I didn’t want to be the one throwing up over the side the entire time we were out at sea. We are currently docked in the harbor scheduled to head out at 7am, and although we are sheltered from the brunt of the waves, the rocking of the boat is still very noticeable when one is sitting still. I can only imagine what it is going to be like once we’ve left the calm harbor, but in a way I’m kind of excited to head out to the rough waters along the coast. At least I say that now while we’re still stationary and close to land…

Our course will take us from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town – a distance of about 700km – in just over 26 days. There are several research projects going on (with 12 researchers on board) including one on sea birds, another studying whales, and one on general oceanography, but I will mainly be helping out with three projects that are being carried out by Rhodes post-docs here on the boat. The first is looking at suspended particulate matter (SPM) along transects and at different depths, another is looking at the distribution of mussel larvae throughout the coastline, and the third is measuring the abundance and structure of the microbial communities in the bay areas.

Although we have yet to start collecting samples and gathering data, I have already been told that the work is quite difficult, especially in rough seas. The shifts are from 12pm-12am so the hours are a bit odd and my sleep schedule might be thrown off for the next month, but nevertheless I am still very excited to head out and start with the research. The crew seems very nice and most of the scientists on board have already been on several research cruises so I am the newby here, but eager to learn how things on a boat are operated and what life is like out at sea. Should be quite an adventure! Oh and apparently they feed us like mad because we are working such long hard hours, so maybe the ocean is where I was meant to be all along!

Scientist Max Seigal - sounds pretty offical eh?

There she is in all her glory - the Algoa, home for the next month!
The Algoa is a marine research vessel - quite cool that boats like these even exist!

Algoa's backside

Another view - it was hard to get a true perspective on how big (or small) she really is because nearby boats towered over her..but many of them were those megatankers from other continents so I didnt think it was fair to include them in the shot...

A short video - this thing makes you claustrophobic!

A change of pace...

After spending the last three months on a farm in the middle of the Kalahari desert, it was a wonderful change of pace traveling down south to the coast. The scenery changed drastically from dry brown savannah to green and mountainous with a beautiful ocean backdrop. I had no idea just how beautiful this country really is when I was working up in the desert, but I must say that South Africa’s coast may be one of the most gorgeous spots I’ve ever been. It almost feels European in a sense; small towns tucked away in between adjacent mountains, vineyards scattered around the most beautiful of locations, and spectacular old architecture remains from the early settlers. But most impressive, in my opinion, is the remarkable contrast I’ve found in this country. To drive a few hours and go from Kalahari desert, through grass field and savannah, rolling hills to mountains, past forests and sand dunes – it is just unbelievable how diverse this country is. Someone could spend years traveling through South Africa and still not see all it has to offer – it’s almost overwhelming!

When I was working on the farm I met a brother and sister who lived in the nearby town but went to school in a town called Stellenbosch, about 30km outside of Cape Town. Because I needed to head in this direction to renew my visa, I went to visit them for a week. I had been corresponding with a professor from Rhodes University in Grahamstown about helping with a research project starting once my visa was renewed, so the plan was to hang out with my two friends until my visa paperwork came through, and then head off to help the university as a field assistant. Stellenbosch was absolutely fantastic, so I had no quarrels with this plan. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, the view from the town is spectacular. The region is also well known for its wineries, so it greatly resembled Napa Valley in that one could drive only a few kilometers and pass by several vineyards. One day all of us drove around on a wine tasting tour, checking out several of these amazing wineries. The vast majority of them remain in the original structures – over three hundred years old – and boast several acres of grapes as well as stunning views of the surrounding mountains. It was my first time on a wine tour and I must say it was a magnificent time.

After being away from the mountains for so long when I was on the farm up north, it was quite a luxery being in Stellenbosch where I was surrounded with huge peaks on all sides. I tried to find my way up a different mountain each day, despite the lack of hiking trails in the area. It meant a little extra scramble and a little less casual, but it was quite entertaining trying to find my way up the rocky hillsides with slopes as steep as 70 degrees. It also made me realize how out of shape I was after sitting around for three months on the farm as I struggled for breath and had trouble moving one foot in front of the next on something that I probably would have had little issue with back in Boulder.

After my week in Stellenbosch, my paperwork had come through on my visa and it was time to head to Grahamstown to help Rhodes out with their coastal research. A few students were making the 12 hour trek back from Cape Town and I had made arrangements to catch a ride with them. Luckily the entire drive hugs the shoreline so the scenery is breathtaking the entire way. Not only that, but every year during August there are hundreds of whales that come to the region to calve, so as we drove along I would look out my window and see whales jumping out of the water. Quite a marvelous sight! And there are also a few scattered beaches with wild penguins (weird right?? Penguins in Africa?) so we stopped at one to check them out. Cute little buggers, a little stinky…but still cute.

A view of Stellenbosch from one of the peaks

Another view of Stellenbosch, surrounded by mountains

This is what it looked like hiking up the surrounding mountains - very steep and very rocky

Driving along the coast

Another view of Stellenbosch

A penguin we saw on one of the beaches

I arrived in Grahamstown about a week ago and have been helping a master’s student with her field work, which I must say is no easy task. She is studying the invertebrate communities along sandy beaches so every day we go to a new beach (cool!!) to collect data. It takes about 8 hours to collect all the samples she needs, and the works is very laborious and back breaking. The work revolves around the tides, so often we are out the door by 6am to make it to the site in time for low tide. Once we get to the sampling site, we spend the entire time coring out sand with a big tube then sifting through it with a small mesh net and bagging the contents. Very tedious indeed! Before this trip I would have thought it would be impossible to find a research project on the beach that was not enjoyable…I mean, you’re on the beach for crying out loud! Well, turns out I found a non-enjoyable activity while on the beach…coring and sifting sand for eight hours a day. Then on top of that we have to carry all the samples out, usually a mile or so to the car. The extra 75 pounds doesn’t make for a very pleasant walk back. That’s field work though, and despite its unpleasantness, I’m still glad to be out here and having the experience.

On Monday (Aug. 30th) I am heading down to Port Elizabeth where I will be helping out with a different project – a month long ‘research cruise’ to Cape Town collecting mussel larvae samples. This should be quite an interesting experience as I have never spent more than a few hours on a boat before, and here I am about to embark on a thirty day voyage, but nevertheless I am very excited (and a bit nervous…my mom gets very seasick and I can only hope that she didn’t pass those genes on to me). Should be a great time though, as long as the weather doesn’t act up. I must say, the waves in South Africa put those in America to shame. I’ve paid particular attention to the waves while I’ve been helping out with the beach project because I will soon be out there on the water, and noticed that they are extremely big! In fact, it is not uncommon for 15 foot waves to come crashing to shore. A bit unnerving when I’m about to ship out, but hopefully nothing too overwhelming. Anyways, should be a good time!

Walking to our sample site along the beach
The samples we are collecting

Lesotho visa-run

With my visa expiring in just over a week and hopes of staying in South Africa for a few more months, I began to worry about how I would remain legal in the country. Apparently the process of extending a pre-existing visa takes anywhere between 30-60 days. In other words, little Max Seigal would be walking around South Africa as an illegal alien for nearly two months, and if the visa application was not accepted it would be nearly impossible to leave the country without some kind of major penalty trying to exit on a visa that expired several months prior. So I did my research and scanned the internet for any information people could offer.

Apparently it used to be common practice for someone with an expiring visa to cross the border into a neighboring country, thus being stamped out on their existing visa, and simply cross back into the country and receive yet another 90 day visa from border control – a sneaky technique known as a visa run. My eyes lit up as I read the numerous accounts of people successfully renewing their visas this way, but then I began looking at the date of their internet postings and realized that most of these were written over five years ago. As I continued to read, it looked like border regulations were now more stringent and people were no longer given new visas when they re-entered the country.

Well, with six days remaining on my own visa I was ready to try anything. Even my scheduled flight out of the country left after my visa expired, so if anything I still had to find a way to extend my visa until then.

The next few days became a painstaking struggle of trying to figure out the best way to exit the country, considering I was carless and had some serious luggage to haul around with me. Looking back at all the people I had met in the last three months, I hoped that someone was close enough to call for help in some way, but it turned out the farm I was at was completely isolated from all the friends I had made. Next I called rental car companies, and for $50 a day I figured it might be the cheapest and best option to simply rent a car and drive myself. Then I read the fine print and that option quickly flew out the window. Cross border fee: $200, under the age of 23 fee: $100, Millage allowed: 200km – every km thereafter costs 50 cents (I would travel about 700km to the nearest border which would have added another $250). Well, I wasn’t about to blow $700 on a one day car rental simply to attempt a visa-run that I didn’t have confidence in working, so I would have to figure something else out. I looked at busses, trains, anything and everything, but there just wasn’t much in this part of the country. The next bus that went even remotely close to the border was in five days, and the return bus another five days later, so public transportation wasn’t even an option.

The only real option left was hitchhiking, at least for a good portion of the trip. Because I didn’t want to bring all my stuff with me (hitchhiking with two big suitcases doesn’t exactly say ‘low profile’) I would have to make it there and back – nearly 750km. I think I wrote in an earlier post about how hitchhiking is common practice in South Africa, playing a major role in how the majority of the population gets around cheaply. Usually someone will hitch 10-15km for a fee of about $2, so it’s not only a good way to get where you’re going, but it helps out the driver as well. Despite nearly every white person in South Africa claiming hitchhiking is dangerous and they would never be found doing it, I would actually argue that, if done correctly, it can be a quick and somewhat safe way to get around. That being said, there are obviously some ground rules to follow: don’t get into a sketchy looking car, always carry some sort of protection on you (knife, pepper spray…), and preferably try to go with a friend so that you are not alone. Unfortunately for me, I was thinking I would have to make this long journey by myself.

There was one other student with me on the research farm, and I was trying to explain the stress of the situation and how I had no way to get to the border and my soon-to-be illegal status. Despite his pity (he was on a student visa – they are good for two stinkin’ years!), there wasn’t really much he could do to help – so that afternoon I gathered up my courage and packed a sleeping back into my backpack and waved goodbye to Josh as I headed out the door. He said he wished he could come with me, that the journey might actually be kind of fun and interesting. Without really giving him time to think about what he just said, I jumped on his remark and told him that it would be extremely helpful if he did come along. I considered the possibility for a second, and thought it might actually be possible. His truck had a flat tire so he wasn’t able to go out and track the animals that night anyways, and because it happened to be a national holiday he wasn’t able to get a new tire until tomorrow. I told him that, if all worked to plan, we would be back by tomorrow evening and I would be his slave for the next few days (the work he does is much much easier with two people, in fact it’s hardly even possible with just one, so I knew that if I offered myself as a slave for a few days I might temp him even further into joining me). He thought for a second, then told me he didn’t have his passport with him; it was at his uncles house nearly 600km away. I quickly rebutted his remark by telling him that I would quickly walk across the border then cross back in while he waited for me on the South African side – trying to work any angle that I could to get him to come. I wasn’t comfortable hitchhiking 750km on my own and the thought of having him with me made the whole situation sound like a much better idea. Offering to pay for his entire way, including the night I was expecting we would spend at some backpackers along the way, I somehow talked him into grabbing his sleeping bag and running out to join me. A huge wave of relief ran though me now, and I felt much safer knowing there would be two of us in this journey. And what a journey it would be!

It started out with a 3km walk to the main road from the research house. The farm entrance, however, was pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so it spat us out about 20km out of town on some random stretch of highway. Thinking this might actually benefit us because people would feel sorry for us when they saw how far away from any kind of civilization we were, we figured it wouldn’t take long before someone stopped to pick us up. We started to walk, thumbs up, and waited for our fate. Lucky for us, the next car that drove by was a ‘taxi’ minivan that drove the stretch between Kimberley and Bloemfontein – 160km and halfway to our destination. For $8 each, we eagerly hopped on. My first observation on the van: holy freaking moly it was hot, it must have been at least 110 degrees in that thing. Packed with people, there was not the slightest bit of wiggle room either, and everybody was sitting there swimming in their own sweat and rubbing up against each other. Miserable. For nearly two hours we would have to cook, probably stepping out medium rare when we got to Bloem. Second thing I noticed: this car had some serious steering issue. As we drove the completely straight highway, the van seemed to swerve all over the road. I sat in my seat wide-eyed in fear as I stared at the straight road ahead as we weaved left and right along it, praying that no oncoming traffic would sandwich us as we flew 130km/hr down the one lane freeway loaded with cars and trucks.

Halfway to Bloem, about 90km down the road from the farm, the van stopped by a nearby parked car on the side of the highway. Our driver got out and collected all the fares from us passengers, then handed a big wad of cash over to the driver of the car. Wondering if I was witnessing some kind of drug deal taking place in the middle of my cab ride, I stared intently at the interaction between the two men, but just then our driver jumped in the car and drove off. The other man must have been a replacement driver because he hopped into the van and drove us the remainder of the way.

When we arrived in Bloem the driver asked us where we wanted to be dropped off. I knew a bus departed at 6am every day going to the border and had originally planned on sleeping at some backpacker and heading out early in the morning, but Josh suggested that we just continue with the taxi van route we started and head to Lesotho that night. While I agreed it would be quicker and easier, I was not comforted by the fact that it was already 2:30pm. A little worried that we would be hit with nightfall somewhere where we didn’t want to be – like in the ghetto taxi ring area in Bloem or along the border of Lesotho – I thought twice about his suggestion, but then figured what the heck, might as well give it a shot. We bought our tickets from the taxi-man pimp – a guy behind a glass counter with hundreds of bills in his hand and what looked like no form of organization – and jumped on the ride that would take us all the way to the border. We were the last two people on the bus as it was already [over] full. People were crammed into seats like sardines in a can – literally 25 of us were smashed into a van made to fit 18, along with each person’s suitcase piled up along the aisle, the stack nearly touching the ceiling.

Let me start off by saying you would never ever find a white South African using these taxi vans as a form of transport. After speaking with many people who visited the farm previously, none of them would ever have taken one of these taxis, claiming they are too dangerous, sketchy, black, etc… so it goes without saying that Josh and I were the only white people within a thousand meter radius at the taxi ring, and of course we were the only whites on the van. This didn’t bother me though, and I like to think of myself as an exception to the typical white person these blacks are used to meeting; coming from the states I am accepting and don’t hold a racist stigma. I started to chat with the old man next to me, and what an interesting story he could tell. Not only does he speak something like five languages (including this really cool language spoken by bush-men where they make clicking sounds with their mouth mid-speech), but he was also very friendly and we had a wonderful talk along the ride.

Despite being hot and stuffy on the bus, I think it was one of the most amazing rides I’ve taken. Having been stuck in one area for the last two months, a relatively flat place without much scenery, this bus ride was absolutely stunning. The landscape changed from Kalahari flatland savannah to rocky, mountainous hills covered with trees and boulders. And spectacular it was; the view was amazing and the land was absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me – one more thing to lose if I got mugged on this crazy adventure.

When we were rounding the final mountainous corner, about 2km from the border, we were pulled over by the police for a random vehicle check. The officers came in and started checking everybody’s passports, at which point my heart nearly jumped out of my chest. Josh didn’t have a passport on him, and I couldn’t even fathom what the police might do when they found out. With nothing but the border ahead, there was no reason anybody would be traveling this road other than to cross the border. Not only that, but if he tried to explain the truth of our story – how he is just accompanying me as I try to pull off a visa-run by crossing the border for five minutes – I thought we would get in even more trouble! My head was nearly spinning as the officer checked each and every persons passport, and I saw that Josh had gotten off the van and was standing outside. I thought he had been caught, and had no idea what they were going to do with him. Even the driver receive a fine for breaking safety codes – first for shoving way more people into the van and also for clogging the aisle with endless amounts of luggage, immobilizing everybody inside. He handed the driver a piece of paper, then walked away. Half expecting him to cuff Josh and throw him in the back of the police car, I was shocked when Josh simply slid back onto the van and we drove off.

Clueless as to what just happened, I had to wait until we got to the border before I could ask Josh, who was at the front of the bus, how he managed to sneak by the passport check. When we finally arrived at the border, I ran up to Josh and asked him what had just happened. He told me that he simply got off the van when they were pulled over, and for some reason he was completely overlooked when they were searching passports. Sheesh I thought, that was a one in a million shot - what a lucky boy this one was.

Next I told him to wait just outside the tunnel as I headed into the entrance to the Lesotho border control. The last thing I wanted was to lose each other in the mass of people that surrounded the border. It was chaos – people selling food and gifts, people trying to exit the country, taxi vans everywhere, swarms of people entering the country – so I made sure we had a meeting point when I returned.

I walked through the long corridor to exit South Africa, got my passport stamped as I left, then walked out on the Lesotho side. I turned around, walked back up to a different counter (hmm it might be a bit conspicuous if some guy you just stamped out one minute ago shows up to be stamped back in…), crossed my fingers, then handed over my passport. Being the only white person for miles, it didn’t help with the whole blending into the crowd plan. The lady glanced at my passport, and I asked her for a 90 day visa (as I was told to do by home affairs in Kimberley). She looked shocked when I asked her this, then told me she would have to speak with her supervisor. He came over and had a look at my passport, then gazed at my skeptically while I tried to explain my situation. I told him how I was helping with research, how the office of home affairs in Kimberley told me that I should try this, and even showed him a note from a professor at Rhodes University describing how they needed my help on a project for the next few months, but he didn’t seem to care. Without giving me the slightest pity, he told the border lady to stamp me for six days – exactly what I had left on my visa before I even crossed the border. Arguing was futile, this guy wouldn’t budge.
Shucks… my only real plan hadn’t worked. My visa would expire in a few days, and now I couldn’t even fly out on my original ticket because I had purchased it for the week after my visa expired. Now I thought I was really screwed, and would have to find my way to Namibia or Batswana for the next week. Ugh, and after all that traveling and stress and hoping, all of it for ten seconds of rejection at the border. Well, at least I got to go to a new country eh?

We took the first taxi-van we could find to Bloem, but it was already 4:30pm. That meant it would be dark when we arrived, and I wasn’t sure if there would be another taxi headed towards Kimberley at that hour. Not only that, but I didn’t know where we could sleep for the night or how dangerous the sketchy taxi neighborhood got once darkness fell. Oh well, we figured that we could deal with the situation once we got there. Anything beat staying there at the chaotic border.

We arrived in Bloem at 6:30, an hour after sunset. The taxi dropped us off at some random street corner, so we ran the couple of blocks to the taxi rink in hope of catching a late ride to our final destination. Turns out we were in luck! There was one last taxi, almost full at this point, and it’s destination was Kimberley! I paid the taxi pimp for the two of us, crammed inside the over-packed vehicle, and we were off! The plan was to ask the driver to stop when we drove past the farm, which was about 20km outside of Kimberley city and on the road we were supposed to take to Bloem. This, of course, would be all too easy. Turns out the driver took some back road to drop off one of the passengers along the way, so we never ended up driving past the farm.

The two of us were left at the bus station in the center of Kimberley, about 25km from where we were staying. ‘It could be worse’ I told Josh…I mean, we had already made it this far in one day, and we hadn’t even been mugged yet! So we started walking, and after about thirty minutes we made it to the edge of town. At this point, we had a twenty kilometer stretch of highway between us and the entrance of the farm, so we figured we might as well try hitching one last time and really try our luck. This time, however, it would be much more frightening as it was about 10pm and there were no taxi vans to rely on. Of course, we would still try to be as safe as possible by avoiding any sketchy looking vehicles and keeping a hand on our dinky little pocket knives, but this hardly eased the fear.

The second car that drove past us pulled over just ahead, two black guys in their thirties with a nice-ish looking SUV. Hmmm we thought, but after we told them where we were headed, they assured us that it wouldn’t be a problem dropping us off there. We nervously stepped in the car, and we were off. I tried to make small talk with the guys to make it seem like we were nice guys and not worthy of being mugged, and they came off as being quite friendly as well. A bit of relief, but I still had no idea what to expect down the road. Well, after about 15 minutes we pulled up to the farm entrance and they let us out. Still a little surprised with how easy that was, and by the fact that we were still alive, we paid them a couple bucks and thanked them for their generosity. We marched our way down the dirt road back to the safety of our little research house, and ranted about the sketchiness of that last car and how lucky we were that the guys who picked us up were actually decent people. What a day, what a day… and I couldn’t believe we had done it all in just that! I expected this whole process to take at least a week, especially after looking at bus schedules, but it turns out we made the entire 750km trek to the Lesotho border and back in a little over 10 hours. Not bad for a couple of Americans wandering around in Africa. Not sure I’d want to do it again, but nevertheless it was quite an experience!

Long story short, I thought that after my visa-run had failed I would somehow have to leave the country for the next week until my plane flew out, but after speaking with somebody at home affairs I learned of yet another way to extend my visa. This time, not only was it legal, but it was almost guaranteed to work. So I took a bus down to Cape Town where I would apply for a student visa extension with paperwork from that professor at Rhodes University asking that my visa be extended so I can help them work on research projects. This didn’t mean that things would go 100% smoothly however, as my 12 hour bus ride ended up taking about 18 hours after it broke down for five hours. Besides that though, I was surprised by how easy the process was. I went to home affairs and filled out the stack of paperwork, and after a few hours I was stamped back in the country for another few months! No more worries about being an illegal alien, woohoo! And best of all, the scenery changed from the somewhat boring flatlands to absolutely stunning mountains hugging the coastline. It’s amazing what I’ve been missing out on down here! The south is gorgeous, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

Tracking aardwolfs and banding weavers

Last night I went out tracking aardwolfs with a fellow student (Josh) who is staying here at the research house. A little behind schedule, Josh needed to track as many of the 11 collard aardwolfs as he could, so we left for the field around 4pm. Each animal must be followed for at least one hour, and it takes nearly that long just to find the dang things, so the plan was to track five or so animals and (hopefully) return to the house before 3am. Unfortunately, these animals tend to be skittish around the vehicle and usually take off at first sight of us. Occasionally, however, one will behave and carry on with its own business as we track it, but this is typically only true of females. The males, on the other hand, spend the majority of the hour running. We started the day off by tracking one of the temperamental males, and boy did he live up to his reputation. It was a non-stop chase through the field – and to make matters worse we constantly had to turn off the truck and scan the field with the telemetry receiver, allowing the bugger to gain more distance.

After about twenty minutes, the aardwolf ran into a patch of thick grass where, not only was he impossible to see, but neither were the termite mounds or aardvark holes that littered the field. As we smashed termite mound after termite mound, continually taking two foot plunges into deep holes in the ground smashing both the car and our backs, we nearly gave up on the chase entirely. Just before calling it quits, the grass suddenly cleared and we saw the animal a couple hundred meters ahead. We continued to follow him as he ran for the remainder of the hour, then sighed with relief when the time was up. Surprised that the truck survived the wild chase, I suggested we follow a female next to give the vehicle some recovery time.

As the night went on, we were doing quite well. We had tracked four animals by midnight, and were going to try for two more. By this time, my eyes were already getting droopy and I all could think about was my nice cozy bed back at the house. We had to push on though, so we began the search for the fifth aardwolf of the night, another male. After finding him around 12:45, the real fun began. We began to track him through the thick grass we found him in, and although he wasn’t galloping full speed away from the vehicle (thankfully), he wasn’t exactly walking at a leisurely pace either. Things were going fine for the first thirty minutes as we swiftly chased after him in the field before we heard a terrible screeching sound of metal on metal come from underneath the truck.

I stepped out to look at what had happened, and somehow we had managed to drive through a massive coil of barbed wire that was, for some odd reason, simply left out in the middle of the field. Things didn’t look good as it had coiled around the drive shaft thing under the car, that long tube that spins as you rev the engine (pardon my lack of knowledge when it comes to car parts). In other words, it looked bad. Real bad. And of course neither of us had thought to bring wire cutters with us into the field, so we had a nice 6 kilometer walk though back to the house. At 2 am, I could have thought of a few other things I’d rather be doing that walking nearly four miles through the prickly long grass back home, but luckily it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting.

This morning we started up the ancient land cruiser that probably hasn’t been driven in ages (the thing doesn’t even have breaks for crying out loud!) to head back out to the truck and free it from the web of barbed wire. Armed with wire cutters, we snipped and snapped through the tangle of metal beneath the truck and finally managed to liberate it from the grasp of the barbed wire. We drove both cars back to the house, checked for any further damage that may have occurred underneath the truck from the treacherous terrain we had been driving through the night before, and finally prepped it for tonight’s tracking session. This time I’m leaving the sandals at home and bringing a pair of real shoes!

The old land-cruiser we drove to pick up the tangled up truck

The mess of barbed wire underneath the vehicle - note how it wrapped around the drive shaft
More barbed wire...
The clump of barbed wire we got stuck in the night before.
This is a view of the walk home. See those tall trees straight ahead, way in the distance? Yep...that's our camp...

On a separate note, a crew of French bird researchers came to the house for a few weeks to study sociable weavers. Our schedules didn’t match as I often stay in the field until 1am and they typically leave the house around 4am, but one afternoon I asked them if I could tag along with them the next day. Having done some bird-banding back in Ohio, I was familiar with the process and they told me it would be fine if I joined. Eager to gain as much experience as I can down here, I was excited to watch and help them net and band the birds.

The next morning we left the house at 4:30 and drove to the border of the farm where there are large weaver nests bundled up in the majority of trees. The particular nest that we would work on only had about twenty birds so it would be a relatively quick morning of banding. Even the kids came along (there were three kids with this group of researchers). We surrounded the tree with mist nets, a process that takes nearly an hour, then set up a little table where we ate our morning breakfast. After the meal we walked back to the nest in preparation to catch the birds. With about thirty minutes left before sunrise, we roused the birds with loud noises and a stick to shake the tree’s branches. This way we are sure that all the birds leave the nest rather than letting them exit on their own, in which case several may remain inside.
Once the birds fly out of their nest they get caught in the net and we go to work carefully removing each individual and placing them into little cloth sacks where we can keep them until we are ready to work on each bird. The process of removing a bird from the mist net can be daunting as these fragile creatures are so easily damaged, so it is imperative to be very gentle when handling them – a difficult task when they nip at your fingers and flap around, only tangling themselves further.
Only 17 birds were currently living in this nest, a small number compared to the 120 caught in a nearby nest the day before. Once all the birds were in their sacks, we took them back to the car where the crew kept their supplies for measuring various features of the birds, as well as the banding kit. Each bird takes about 10 minutes to work on, and once all the data is gathered from that individual we let it go and watch it fly away. We finished up around 10am, a very quick morning compared to most days they had spent in the field. It was a great experience; very neat to get to handle these African birds and I had fantastic time learning about the research they were conducting.

Pre-sunrise breakfast in the field

The mist nets set up around the tree - the big dark blob in the middle is the weaver nest

A red-headed finch that also managed to get stuck in the nets
Carefully removing the birds from the nets is a difficult task!
Sociable weaver in hand
Sociable weaver - not the bands on his legs
First time excitement of touching one of these birds

Greedy groundsquirrels,pooping peacocks, and fifty thousand flamingos

There are four peacocks that run freely around the research house, three females and one male. Each day they wait patiently outside the front door for me to come out and give them some of my morning bread, which may explain the slight weight gain I’ve noticed in them since I’ve been here…Anyways, they are very funny creatures, each has a very different personality. One of the females is quite bossy and likes to get her way, knocking away any of the other peacocks that may get in between her and a bread crumb. I have named her Vanessa. The other two inferior peacocks (Valmerie and Stephanie) keep their distance, knowing that if they want to walk away from breakfast with the same number of feathers that they came in with, then they don’t mess with Vanessa. The male, Frankie (in memory of my explored companion back at the farm), is a bit of a klutz. He trips over this and that, and I think it’s due to the massive bouquet of tail feathers he struts around with. The peacocks add to the character of the house, but there is a definite downside to their presence. If anybody has seen – or better yet smelled – fresh peacock poo, then they know what I am talking about. I’m talking about a stinking, steamy pile of goo the size of a tennis ball and holy moley does this thing smell horrid. I used to think my cat Katy had smelly poo’s, but they were nothing in comparison to this. Worst part of all – these birdies are not potty trained. Not in the least…in fact not only do I wake up to find four hungry peacocks staring at me through the front door every morning, but I also wake up to four fresh peacock poops laying right there in the doorway. Talk about a nasty cleanup job. And just when you thought that was bad, they go around pooping in the little grassy patch out front where everybody walks through to get to the house. It’s not uncommon to walk inside, trailing that one brown footprint all through the house before you stop long enough to get a good whiff, then turn around to see the lovely brown smears you’ve just dragged all over the floor. Just one of the pleasant consequences of living amongst the peacocks I guess…

Morning Visitor - you better not poop on that rug Frankie!

Feeding Frankie

Chomp chomp chomp...Frankie loves my old bread!
Peacocks flock for their morning breakfast. As usual, Vanessa leads the pack (in front)

How nice of them to leave behind a little treat

The ground squirrels that live around the research house are very curious little buggers. They are constantly running around the lawn using their nose as a guide, nibbling on anything they can get those squirrely little hands on. In fact, if you walk out with a piece of bread and sit down for just a few minutes, you may very well be mobbed by those hungry little creatures. Even more fun, I’ve noticed, is to place the bread somewhere on your lap and wait for them to crawl up and start munching right there on your leg. I’ve been tempted to reach out and pet the little guy as he sits on my lap eating my bread, but something tells me he’d react something like my cat does – by turning around and biting me. My goal on this trip was to leave Africa the way I came in, and that means sans rabies or parasites, so I’ll do my best to avoid being nibbled by a wild animal. In spite of this, however, I’m quite surprised how delicately the squirrels end up taking the food from your hand. Unlike the peacocks who just peck at whatever is in front of them (I’ve learned to keep my thumb pressed against my other fingers when feeding the peacocks by hand because they end up just pecking anything and everything, including fingers that might be out in the open), the squirrels on the other hand are almost graceful when they take food from your hand. They will gently sniff the piece of bread for a second, then carefully grasp it with their fingers before slowly putting it in their mouth. It’s quite cute actually, unlike those stinking peacocks who just slam their beaks into whatever looks like food. And best of all, these little guys don’t leave huge piles of gooey poo all over the place!

Ground squirrel on the lap

Feeding the ground squirrel

About two months ago a guy who was visiting the farm decided to take a day trip to the city of Kimberly about 200km away. Kimberly is location where diamond mining in South Africa really took off in the early 1900s, and today holds tourist attractions like “The Big Hole” – the original diamond mine. I anxiously asked if I could tag along for the ride, eager to get off the farm and explore more of this country I was visiting, and he told me he’d be happy if I come with. “The Big Hole” was nothing short of a big hole…basically it was a 100 meter hole in the ground with some water on the bottom, about 300 meters wide. ‘Not too spectacular’ I thought to myself as we walked around it, but then again I am no diamond mining connoisseur. We looked around, walked through the museum, then grabbed a bite to eat before heading back to the farm. Just as we were leaving Kimberly he turned to me and asked if I brought my big camera lens. I told him I hadn’t (expecting we were just going to visit some big mining hole, I had no intentions of lugging around 30 pounds of camera equipment). He looked slightly disappointed and said ‘bummer – there is a lake with some flamingos just down this road coming up.’ Never having seen flamingos in the wild, I was not only shocked to hear that they were there in Kimberly, but a little upset he hadn’t told me about the lake before we left! I would have loved to visit the lake, but then again I was thinking to myself ‘yeaaah yeah what are the chances the flamingos would be there right now anyways…’ Knowing how birding works, whenever there is a species you’d like to see and you go looking for it, it is often not where it is supposed to be. Instead, you accidentally run into it in a Costco parking lot or some random guys back yard. Anyways, I justified not bringing my big lens with me by telling myself that the chance that flamingos were actually on that lake right now were minimal.

Well, this Black Footed Cat project is on a nature reserve right outside Kimberly. When I first arrived here, I had forgotten all about that day with the guy and the hole and the flamingos, so I didn’t have anything in particular on my mind. The last day the Germans were here though, they wanted to visit a nearby farm that had Sable and Rhino and other neat animals as their day off from all the hard work they had been doing in the last two weeks. On the way to the farm, we pulled off the highway onto this random dirt road that led up to some railroad tracks. They got out of the car, and I thought to myself ‘what is this…some kind of pee break or something?’ But then they told me to grab my camera and follow them. We jumped a barbed wire fence that read “Railway Property – Trespassers will be Prosecuted” which got me thinkin’ ‘hmmmm…I wonder what ‘prosecuted’ means in Africa. Does this mean I lose a hand? Or maybe just a finger? Do they stick me in jail or do they just shoot me on sight? I’m not sure I like the sound of trespassing in Africa…’ so I asked the guys where we were headed. They said there were some flamingos just across the railroad tracks, and at that the spark went off in my head. This must be the lake that guy was talking about! I was thrilled because I had wanted so bad to come here in the first place nearly two months ago, and now I had the chance to see it! I just hope there are flamingos here right now, they probably all buggered off because they knew I was coming.
Sure enough there were flamingos. Lots of flamingos... Never before had I seen so many birds in my life, and yet every single one was a flamingo! ‘Amazing!’ I thought to myself. The Germans then went on about telling me how this is the largest breeding ground of flamingos in the world and that there were no less than 50,000 flamingos on this particular lake. I believe it. What an incredible sight. We spent about 15 minutes watching the birds, then drove off to the wildlife reserve.
A week later, when everybody from the project had left, I drove back to the lake for an evening and sunset. This was by far one of the most gorgeous sights I had ever seen. The water light up orange, and in contrast with the pink flamingos the entire lake was set aflame in a stunning bout magnificence. It truly was an unbelievable and once in a lifetime sight, as I will never again see a sight like it anywhere else in the world.
Oh yeah and I thought I might add - as I was watching the sunset, a train slowly drove by. Thinking about that ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’ sign I quickly jumped down into the thorn bushes below to hide from the unexpected visitor before he got a glimpse at me. I waited there for a few minutes, then crawled out covered in thorns, barbs, stickers, burs and whatever else nature’s most vicious vegetation could throw at me. It took days just to get all the plant junk out of my socks, pants and shirt! I’ve crawled through bushes in Colorado, no big deal. I’ve crawled through bushed in Costa Rica, no harm done. Now I’ve crawled through bushes in Africa…not recommended!!!!

Flamingo chaos

Flamingo Sunset

A Soft Landing

Landing in the Sunset

Black Footed Cats

The Black Footed Cat (BFC) research team consists of five researchers: two Germans, two Americans, and one South African. The goal of the project is to gather as much data as possible about these endangered species in an effort to better understand its habitat needs and population dynamics. The Black Footed Cat is highly elusive and very little is known about its habits in the wild. The BFC is the smallest species of cat in the world, slightly smaller than the typical house cat. It lives in Southern Africa, but its range has largely been devastated by the increase in human settlement in the region. The effort of this project is thus to preserve the species through a better understanding of its lifestyle and habitat requirements.
It is Thursday afternoon and Beryl, the South African researcher on the team, picked me up and drove me to the reserve where we would be staying for the weekend. About 200k away from the farm I’ve been staying on, the scenery is not drastically different, however this habitat is ideal for Black Footed Cats and is where most of the research on this animal has taken place. The Benfontien Reserve, spanning nearly 30,000 acres, is estimated to provide refuge to somewhere between 10 and 15 of these cats. I would only be staying until Sunday because the German crew was flying out Monday and this stint of the research project would be over until September when the American team flies in. Bummed that I would only be able to spend three days on the project but excited, nevertheless, to be a part of it, I gladly accepted Beryl’s offer just two weeks ago when she asked me if I’d like to join them. Once we arrived at the research station (basically a bunk house with a kitchen and a room with internet access) I threw my backpack on the bed and looked out the window, only to see a small pond with ostrich drinking from it. I excitedly headed out back to have a closer look, and I was happy to see that there was much more bird life around this pond than had been on the other farm altogether. It was the first time I had seen water birds since I’ve been in Africa (there were none on the farm) so it a pleasant surprise to have them right outside the house.

“There are two parts to tonight’s work,” Beryl told me. “The first portion of the night will be ‘chasing’ and the second will be ‘following.’ Just make sure to dress warm.” As I’ve said in my previous posts, once the sun goes down around here, the temperature drops dramatically – it may be Africa, but this is Southern Africa and it is winter time down here. All of work we would be doing takes place at night, so we made dinner as we waited for the sun to go down and I had a better chance to mingle with the Germans. Funny guys those two – just because they are PhD scientists doesn’t mean they are all business - we sat around and joked and had a good time as dinner cooked, and they ended up being a lot of fun. After dinner the sun inched behind the hills and darkness slowly crept in. Everybody quickly went off to their rooms to grab their warm clothes – which for me just meant throwing on layers and layers of shirts, socks, pants etc. under the single jacket that I brought with me on the trip. The Germans came out of their room in full-body polar suits, and that’s when I thought to myself ‘wow…these guys don’t mess around..” But when they explained to me what they would be doing, I understood the need for such outfits. While Beryl drove around the farm, the two of them and myself would be standing on the back of the land cruiser with spotlights searching for cats. ‘Ok’ I thought, ‘Standing on the back of a moving truck in freezing cold temperatures at night… I guess that warrants having full body polar suits…’ And boy did I envy them once we started moving. Even through all my layers – two shirts, a long sleeve, a down jacket, a borrowed coat over the down jacket, two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, two pairs of gloves, two hats and a scarf – I could still feel the bitter sting of the cold air as it wisped by us on the back of the vehicle.

The first portion of the night – chasing – usually runs about four hours long, from 8 to midnight. It consists of two (in this case three) people standing in the back of the truck with spotlights actively searching for a new cat. It’s amazing how talented the Germans were at differentiating species based on eye color and height of eyes off the ground. All they needed was a half second sweep past a group of gleaming eyes and they could tell you, for example, that they saw two springhare, one springbuck, and a black wildebeest. I could have told you that there were four pairs of shiny green balls about two hundred meters away… so you get my drift. It takes years of practice to discern between the different shades of green reflecting back at you, the head that stands six inches off the ground versus one at ten inches, the way the eyes move as the animal moves, etc. It was, however, a treat to ride in the back with these two and see/identify the diversity of animals at night. It’s remarkable how drastic the change is in animal life during the night. All the sudden the field is alive with animals you’d never seen before – jackals, hares, cats, porcupines – all sleeping in their dens during the day as if they didn’t even exist. It goes without saying then that the terrain, like a minefield, is littered with holes and dens every few meters that must be carefully avoided when driving off the dirt road. But for the chasing portion of the night, we simply drive up and down different roads on the reserve with our spotlights in hope of seeing those two small reddish-green eyes. The cats, a little smarter than the other animals, only look at the spotlight for a second before turning their heads away and blending back into the night. It’s important, therefore, to keep the spotlight pinned on the cat while yelling at the driver through the window (warmer with them closed) to chase it down. Now comes the exciting part.

Once we saw the cat, one of the Germans quickly says to me ‘hold on tight,’ and boy was he right. I grabbed on to the railing just as Beryl floored the car, shooting me backwards with a sharp yank on my shoulders. She began turning this way and that to avoid termite mounds and aardvark holes all while accelerating as fast as the land cruiser could manage. The two Germans, somehow held on with one arm (I was struggling despite having two free arms to hold onto the railing) while the other held the spotlight fixed on the cat – now in full sprint running away from the speeding car. When we finally trailed the cat by just a few meters it jolted to the left, as did we only half a second later, nearly sending me over the side railing and into a termite mound below. I held fast, bouncing up and down nearly a couple feet as the car sped over the rocky, rough terrain. The cat now started to run in big circles trying to out-maneuver the land cruiser, but after a few minutes it finally started to tire and slow down. Once the cat was exhausted and stopped running, one of the Germans jumped off the back of the truck with a large net and threw it over the cat. The other German, a veterinarian, quickly came over to sedate the cat. A blanket was put over the cat to reduce its stress level until it fell asleep, at which point we took it back to the research station. From here she was sexed, radio-collared, blood and fat samples were taken, hair collected, measurements recorded, and various other tests were done that would help them in their studies. The sedative lasted about 90 minutes so we had to work quickly to ensure the cat remained asleep during the entire process. Once finished gathering samples we named the cat (Erica), took a few pictures of her, then drove back to the exact spot where she was caught to release her. The time was now 11pm, and this concluded the ‘chasing’ portion of the night.
After dropping Erica off where she was caught we drove back to the house where we would drink some hot tea, grab a quick snack – basically recharge our batteries before going back out for the remainder of the night. Spirits were high at this point because catching a cat was a rare occurrence (the last week was spent searching for cats but none were found) so despite it being close to midnight, and despite the fact that we still had another four hours or so to go out in the field, everybody seemed cheerful. We went back to the car and attached a large antenna receiver to the back which we would use to detect the frequencies of the radio collars when we were in the field – a technique called radio telemetry. The receiver only picked up the signal within about 500 meters however, and thus we had to be quite close to the cat to detect it considering the farm is so large. Erica had been the fourth cat that was collared on this farm, so our objective for the rest of the night was to go out and locate/follow the other three cats. Luckily their ranges only span a couple of kilometers, so once you know the general area where each cat lives, it is not terribly hard to locate it with the receiver. Once the faint signal of a cat gets picked up (a soft, slow beep in a sea of static) we could use the directionality of the receiver on the car to point us in the right direction. Then as we would get closer and closer, the signal strength would increase, giving us a much better idea of where the cat was. One person stood on the back of the truck with a spotlight sweeping the field in front of the car until those two beady eyes glimpsed at us for that split second, thus revealing the cat’s position. From that point it could be either very difficult or only moderately difficult to keep the spotlight on the cat, depending on how thick and tall the grass was in that area. The cat itself is very dark (and of course small) and therefore hard to see in the night, especially as it weaves through the grassy fields it lives in. This makes it very difficult to maintain visual contact with the cat for more than a minute at a time. We try to follow the cat for about thirty minutes or so, plotting a few waypoints on the GPS as we go to keep track of its location and range, then move on to find the next cat and repeat the process.

The next two nights were very similar; however no new cats were found so the chasing portion of the night simply meant driving around the reserve chattering your teeth like an icebox as we scanned up and down the field with our spotlights. We’d come back to the farm around eleven, drink our hot tea, tell a few jokes to lighten the mood before heading back out in the cold, then spend the rest of the night tracking and following the cats. We’d get back around 4 am, head straight to bed, then wake up as the sun came up and lit up the house. Needless to say, there’s not much sleep going on around here.

On Saturday night, the day before I was scheduled to leave, I was telling the Germans about life back on the farm and how much I enjoyed this trip and working with them, and they mentioned the possibility of me staying on the reserve for a few more weeks to gather data after they had left. They are in need of as much data as possible and told me it would be extremely helpful for their project if I continued to go out and track the cats every day, and to this I couldn’t possibly say no! So now I’m here on the Benfontien reserve for a few weeks going out two or three times a day (morning, afternoon, night) to track the cats and record their locations for this research project, and what a great time it is. I must say though, this job is not for the faint of heart. The work is hard and tiresome, especially with the long hours and little room for sleep, and one must be a master of multitasking to get it all done. Let me explain what I mean by this… At night, I must be able to navigate myself to the location of the cats, then pick up its signal with the receiver (a switch near the passenger seat switches between the left and right receiver on top of the car to determine what direction the signal is coming from). I must constantly flick the switch to keep myself moving in the correct direction even when the cat is moving, drive the vehicle while avoiding the numerous termite mounds and holes in the ground, hold the spotlight out the window to see in front of me, operate the telemetry receiver unit to adjust the volume and gain dials, all while trying to look out in front of me and to the sides for that tiny black cat running around through the field. No simple task… but one thing is for sure, I'm one of the very few people who can say they've ever seen one of these cats in the wild. And one of only a handful who've been lucky enough to touch it!

Moments after sedating Erica, taking her out of the net

Examining Erica

A good example of why these are called "Black Footed Cats"

Taking measurements

Taking measurements

Drawing blood

Still a little groggy from being sedated...

Radio telemetry tracking

Tidbits of the farm life

The old truck: built sometime in the 1950s this bad boy makes for quite an adventurous ride. Firstly, the door handles are broken off so just to get in the car you need pliars and some patience while you work the latch just right so that the door slips open. Next, just to get the thing started, we tie a chain to the frame and then attach the other side of the chain to a tractor or truck. Very carefully we pull the old truck via the chain while holding down the clutch and pushing the gas half way down in an attempt to jump start the ancient engine. After a minute or so the truck jumps to life and shoots forward. This is where precision driving is a must, otherwise we would shoot forward and launch into the car pulling us. The two cars must then be coordinated to slow down and stop at the exact same speed. If the old truck goes too fast, it will crash into the car in front, but if it goes too slow and gets jerked by the chain the engine will stop and we must repeat the whole process again. Once we finally get the vehicle going, driving it is another escapade in itself. Take the thing on a perfectly straight road and if you were only to watch the driver and not the road ahead, you’d think you were on a twisty curvy mountain road. Nope, that’s just the horrible steering of the truck. The workers compete to see who can drive the straightest, because to do so you are spinning the steering wheel this way and that at a hundred miles an hour just to keep the truck moving in a straight line. Once the vehicle starts moving faster than 30 mph you notice that the floor under your feet is simply a scrap sheet of metal just a few millimeters thick. A hard stomp and your foot would probably break right on through and hit the earth speeding by below. Driving over the rocky terrain and bouncing up and down, you begin to wonder how many months – or days – the thin floor will remain. And just when you thought five seats means five people can ride in a car, somehow we manage to cram ten or twelve in the old truck as we’re off go work in the field.

The old truck getting a jump start from one of the newer safari toyotas

Harvesting corn: All I can say is that we’ve got it good in America. Those massive tractors that can chop ten rows of corn moving at 20mph with the comfy air conditioned cab – not how things work down here. The farm equipment is probably 50 years behind what we use in America here in South Africa (in some other African countries it is as far as 300 years behind – people still working the fields by hand). The corn harvester is attached to the back of the tractor, then we inch through the field at a grueling 3mph and chop one line of corn at a time. The process is so slow that the workers who are not needed to operate the tractor go out into the field and pick the corn by hand. Every five sweeps of the field, the harvester needs to be emptied into a trailer. After two dumps, the trailer is full and we drive back to the farmhouse where we empty it into the silos. As we pull the trailer back to the farm the kids jump and play in the four foot deep load of corn. They make corn angels (much like our Coloradoan snow angels) and bury themselves in corn (like with sand at the beach). Once we arrive at the silo, however, the real work begins. All of the corn has to be scooped off the trailer with buckets and thrown into a machine that pours it into the silo. That means we scoop about two tons of corn off the trailer with dinky paint buckets. With five of us working, it probably takes about forty five minutes to unload all the corn. Then we take the trailer back out to the field to do it all over again!

Dumping corn into the trailer

Sifting the corn as we harvest it

Dumping the corn off the trailer using buckets

I’m really beginning to get in the rhythm of life here on the farm. I’m becoming good friends with the workers, learning the daily tasks and chores of living on such a large farm, and simply getting a better idea of what life is like in South Africa. Yesterday I went with some workers into town to visit one of their homes, which was an eye opening experience. First of all, everybody travels via hitchhiking. Nobody on the farm has a car of their own, so everybody walks out to the road and thumbs a ride into town for about one dollar per person (it’s a 20k trip one way). Unlike the US, stopping to pick somebody up on the side of the road is common practice around here, its how most people get around. So the first car that we saw stopped and picked us up, just a man driving to a town 50k up to road from where we were going. He dropped us off, then we walked another mile or so to the ‘black’ section of town. This is, in essence, similar to the poor neighborhood of any town in America but much more primitive. These people live in tin shacks ten feet by ten feet. There is no furniture, no electricity, no water, just an old bed frame with a piece of raggedy foam on top and a pile of clothes in the corner. The sad truth is that this is all these people can afford. These workers on the farm who do backbreaking work eight hours a day six days a week earn a monthly wage of about $45, plus whatever tips are left by guests. While they are supplied with food and water here on the farm, you can still see how difficult it would be to raise their standards of living or escape the poverty they are caught in when they make less per month than many Americans make in an hour. Nobody thinks twice about it though, because this is the way life is out here. I was shocked when I heard how little they earn, so I’ve been talking with a few workers trying to get a better idea of what the economic situation in South Africa is like as a whole. Apparently it is common practice to earn 45$ a month for the black workers, and some even said they were well paid compared to other farm workers which is why they stay on this particular farm. I asked one what he does with the money he earns each month and he told me that half goes to his family while the other half he spends on new clothes. Needless to say, there isn’t much else they could do with so little money let alone put in any into savings. Anyways, just something for everyone back home to think about – we always hear the statistic that something like 50% of the world’s population live on less than one dollar per day, but it means little unless you are exposed to that way of life which is exactly what life is like here for the majority of blacks.

But of course there are two sides to every story, and for that reason I have talked with a lot of the local white people as well discussing the economic situation down here in South Africa. They of course have their own explanations for why most black are in the situations that they are in, but it’s hard to take everything I hear from the white’s without a grain of salt… I would say that in nine cases out of ten they are racist and in my opinion that clouds their judgment and thus the answers to the questions that I ask them. Such is life, however, especially in a country like South Africa where Apartheid took place less than twenty years ago and they are still adapting to this way of life.

On a separate note, I met a zoologist down here who is currently working on a project studying the Black Footed Cat (among others) who wants me to help work on the project. This Thursday we are heading out for a week to gather info and band as many cats as we can find, so it should be a super duper time! Other future projects of hers that she said I could help her work on include climbing trees to band baby vultures, tracking and following lion herds, finding alternative solutions to problematic jackals on farmers property etc… so I am excited to see if this goes anywhere and if I can start working on some of these projects!

Other fun side notes: The other day Darin (my program leader) stopped by to check in on me and see how things were going. We went out to the sinkhole, and I’d told him that it was something like 300 meters deep and that it looked great for climbing because you can simply fall into the deep water. Well, the first thing he said to me is “no better day to climb and jump in than today” then he took off his shirt and leaped in! All I could think was, heck yeah this guy’s got the right attitude. So I climbed up the wall that I had been staring at for the past two months and had a great time. It was a bit similar to the trip Joby and I took last summer to Croatia where we went deep water soloing, except the water here is much colder and is covered in green pond slime. Mmmmm. But besides that, what fun! That day I also found a porcupine when I was walking around the farm, and Franky (dog) was with me and started chasing it. This must prove that dogs don’t have much intelligence because he kept trying to bite the thing and sticking his head near its huge quills. Unfortunately in the midst of running and trying not to trip over termite mounds, rocks, and aardvark holes, I could only get one picture before the porcupine ran down its hole in the ground. It was a really neat find though because I have been running into quills here and there when I’ve been hiking around, but never seen the actual porcupine itself. I have also been checking up on the barn owl nest that I found a few weeks ago and those little guys are growing up quick! They already have what looks like their adult plumage, so I wonder how much longer they will be in the nest before flying off for good!

The last day the kids could play on the farm before going back to school (they come back on weekends now)

Frankie vs. Porcupine


Barn Owl chicks - growing up so fast!

Milking the cows every morning

Climbing in the big sinkhole

Jumping in!