Entry #021: Thursday, July 4, 2013 (Pidwa Wilderness Reserve, South Africa)

Well, we've come to the start of a new major chapter - that is to say, a new significant length of time where the location on the blog entries all reads the same thing. This time, it's going to be the Pidwa Wilderness Reserve. And lemme tell ya, it's been an interesting start. Let's just straight in.

Actually, no, first, let me give a big "Happy Independence Day!" to all my fellow Americans. Enjoy those barbecues and fireworks extra hard for me. Unless you're reading this after the Fourth, in which case...I dunno, light a few matches and eat a burger?

Anyway, I'll begin by giving a bit more of an overview of the reserve, and the Askari Conservation Program that I'm participating in, because despite all the research I've done for this, I haven't had a true understanding of it until seeing it in person. Basically, Askari is the program I'm participating in, and it takes place on the Pidwa Wilderness Reserve. Pidwa is a privately-owned reserve, about 15,000 hectares (that's 37,000 acres). The land used to be used for farming things like cotton, tobacco, and other antebellum-style crops, and later used as a hunting reserve ("Pidwa" is a word for waterbuck, which was the marquee animal to hunt there) but was bought a little under a decade ago by a guy named Jon. Now, I haven't met Jon, but he sounds like a stand-up guy. He's a Johannesburg-based businessman who made his fortune in the anti-apartheid era when he purchased land in the sticks (where the black population was forced to live), and built economic centers (stores and such) there so that the local community didn't have to commute. He then got rent from this until he basically gave the land to the communities, so all rental profits go towards municipal improvement. He apparently does other real estate work, and he's apparently really good at it, because he's rich enough to own the entirety of this land to himself. He bought it because he has a passion for conservation (both plant and animal), and wanted to create a game reserve that focused around the concept. He also bought a number of animals which would have been endemic to the area to reintroduce, and a bunch of staff, and the place has been running under its current administration for 7 years.

It's an interesting situation, because there's only two sources of funding to the reserve and to the program - our program fees, and Jon. And when you take into account food, housing, etc, the program fee is not very high (it's about the equivalent of an upper-scale 8-day safari program). So this guy is loaded. And it's not a commercial reserve - there are no lodges or anything that exist on the plot of land. For the most part, the only non-staff people who venture onto this reserve are the volunteers.

Basically, it's a two-month safari in a completely isolated reserve. Or as I like to term it, a big kids' summer camp.

I actually think this latter description is a more accurate one, because we're not just being shuttled around from camp to camp, having animals pointed out at us. There's plenty of that, to be sure - I'll get to it later - but we're actually doing work here. Just like in a summer camp, we have to wake up early (well, early for me), because activities being at 7am. Being our orientation week, we haven't done much of the kinds of stuff we'll be doing for most of the time here, but even after that, it's somewhat difficult to list them down, because the idea of the program is one of those "something new every day" things. There are some daily chores, of course, and the person who does rotates day by day. It includes everything from cooking meals, to being in charge of logging animal sightings on game drives, to checking that the electric fence is working, to feeding a wounded owl his daily chick carcass. After that, however, it goes into the projects du joir. There's been research projects, like a big one that finished recently studying the migration habits of brown hyenas. There's been environmental projects, like reclaiming eroded soil areas. And there's been construction projects, like one that the group immediately before mine did, where they built a large observation tower (which I want to put  pirate flag on top of). I have no idea what kind of projects I'll be working on over the next two months, but I do know I'll be spending the next week listening to orientation lectures. And seeing animals. Lots and lots of animals.

I'm not going to go much into what happened prior to reaching the reserve, because truth be told, there's not much. I woke up, had breakfast, was given a ride to the train station, where I took a train to the airport, flew for some 45 minutes, was greeted by the two program heads, went to a store to get some last-minute supplies for the week, and then went to the reserve, arriving at, maybe 3-4pm. That's about it.

I'll be jumping around a bit from topic to topic for this entry. First off, the living conditions are quite nice, considering this place is almost quite literally in the middle of nowhere. First of all, as you can probably tell, there's Internet. It's not the fastest, but it's existent, and it's constant. Better than anything I got in Tanzania. They say that rainstorms sometimes knock out the tower, but then, it's the dry season. So barring some freak weather patterns, or an elephant running amok (in which case we'd have bigger issues), it's not that bad. Second, there are hot showers. Now, I don't think there's a time in my life I haven't loved a hot shower. Even at home, I would literally stay in the shower until the hot water ran out, as long as a full 25 minutes. Wasteful, sure, but oh-so-satisfying. But being on the road, and having stayed for lengthy periods of time in places with no hot water (or hell, no water at all), it seems like I appreciate it all the more. And every bedroom has its own hot water heater, which seems like an amazingly farsighted plan for a setup like this. Third, there's laundry service twice a week, which makes me feel like the most spoiled person on Earth, considering how used to sink-washing I've become. Fourth, we're in the middle of the African bush and you can see wild animals walking by. We were just sitting in the living room, getting a lecture, when one of the program directors said, "Oh, there's a giraffe." We looked out the glass door, and sure enough, there was a giraffe lazily walking along the fence. That's pretty neat. Sunsets are also nice around here.

Second topic: coming in Winter. Good gravy, it seems like every time we're told anything, it makes it seem like coming this time of year was a stroke of genius. If you remember your geography lessons, Summer in the northern hemisphere is Winter in the southern hemisphere, and here, that means we're in the colder, dry season. We've been told this means we'll have significantly fewer mosquitoes, ticks, spiders, scorpions, snakes, ants, rats, torrential downpours, wild weather variations, humid days, muddy working conditions, and other generally unpleasant things than we would have probably had six months before or after now. On the flip side, this is wildfire season. So that could be a thing. But coming from California, this is hardly a change for me, so I'll live with it.

Okay, let's talk people. This part is really a mixed bag. There are two program leaders - Katie and Joe - and seven volunteers, including myself. And the first thing that was brought to my attention was the fact that I was the only guy in the group. While some people may see the prospect of six-to-one female-to-male ratio as an exciting one, I have no real desire to turn this into a love shack, so eh. At least I get my own room for the next two weeks (when two more guys will be coming in). It was also brought to my attention that, for the moment, I am the oldest volunteer, which shocked the hell out of me. I realize I'm not exactly fresh out of high school, but the minimum age to start the program is 18, with the maximum age being, I dunno, infinite? I just turned 26, and I was called "ancient" by one of the girls. This I actually see as more of an challenge than the gender one. I've been outnumbered by girls all my life, so that's not unusual. But I often find myself getting along much better with people older than me, regularly twice my age. That's not to say I can't get along with people my age or younger (I have plenty of such friends from school and work), it just doesn't come as naturally.

So, how am I getting along with these folks? I'd say it depends who you're asking about. I'll go step by step.

  1. Katie and Joe are absolutely great, and all my interactions with them have been wonderful. I suppose this should be expected of program leaders, but it's not always the case, so it's good that it is here.
  2. In our seven, there are three veterans, one half-veteran, and three newbies (including me). Of everyone, I easily get along with the half-veteran the best. She is Taiwanese, but went to American schools, so speaks perfect (American) English, and has an understanding of American culture. She is the most similar to me in that she enjoys learning things for the sake of learning, and I've definitely enjoyed my conversations with her. She also seems quite willing to accept me for who I am (you'll understand what I mean by this in a second).
  3. Of the two other newbies, one of them is from England, and was actually the first person I met (while waiting for the plane). My relationship with her thus far is friendly but limited. She's very nice and sweet, but to be completely blunt, she's not especially smart (for example, she admitted to me in the airport that she thought that Nelson Mandela was the man who brought peace to India). I should note this is not a character flaw in any regards. All I'm saying is that, for me, it's more difficult to have meaningful conversations with her, which is my primary way of building rapport.
  4. The other newbie is an American from Vermont, and she seems quite normal in many regards. Our relationship is one, I'd say, of mutual background; I'm usually the only one who gets a lot of her references, and I can translate Britishisms and Metric measurements into familiar terms for her.
  5. Then there's the three veterans: a Canadian and two Scots (well, one Scot and a Swede who's been living in Scotland and has a brogue). I think I got kinda screwed on timing in this regard. Apparently, the Monday I arrived was the same day that a group of five English guys left. These five got exceptionally close to the three girls - apparently a romance bloomed in one case - and it was extremely hard on them when they left. All three were talking about crying that entire day, and I mean, like, genuinely. Apparently, they were also a bunch of "wild and crazy" guys, getting drunk, pulling down their pants for whatever reason, and treating the place like a frat house. Being one who enjoys tea and high-concept conversation, I am a far cry from this. But, I was their replacement. And I really, truly think I'm resented because of it, as though I had forced them to leave or something. Personally, this smacks to me of emotional immaturity, but I won't make any specific accusations of such because, really, we've all been there at some point. And there's varying levels for each.
  6. Ironically, the Scot, who actually formed an official relationship with one of the departing boys (and, to my logic, should be taking their leaving the hardest) is actually the warmest to me. She seems like a genuinely kind person in general, so that may just be par for the course, but I thought it was nice of her to defend me a tad when the Swede got offended (for some reason) when I said I didn't drink and didn't enjoy the taste of alcohol.
  7. As for the Swede, she seems to be generally rough-around-the-edges by nature, as I noticed she'll often lash out at people who aren't me. For the first few days, what got me the most was just her mannerisms towards me. Very direct, very undiplomatic. Example: when trying to get past me, instead of saying, "Excuse me," I was sharply told, "Would you please get out of my way." It wasn't like I was actively blocking her path, nor had I been in her way multiple times or anything like that. 
  8. Then there's the Canadian. Interestingly enough, she was the first (and really, only) person to respond to my initial intro email. But upon meeting me in person, I've nearly been getting frostbite from all the cold shoulders. No responses to my "Good mornings," no smiles, no nothing. It's enough to give a guy a complex.
  9. However, as of today, both of the latter two have been considerably nicer - or, at the very least, more polite - to me, so maybe they just needed a couple days to get it out of their system before they realize I'm my own person, and I'm not here to replace their soulmates. Hopefully.
Honestly, I think my group climbing Mount Kilimanjaro spoiled me. It was actually stated at some point on the climb how it was strange that all 11 of us got along so well, despite our disparate backgrounds, and that there were no cliques or pariahs. Yes, there were some quirks here or there, but there was a general sense of belonging we all shared. There were no defined cliques or anything. And the conversations were excellent, spanning the gamut between idle chit-chat and talks of theoretical physics and the divinity of Christ. That doesn't really seem to be the case here. Here, it's more like a sorority. There does seem to be some partitioning happening, and most of the conversations revolve around how fun and crazy it is to get drunk, and some of the past fun, crazy drunk things that have happened.  I don't begrudge them their interests, but I am genuinely interested to see how this all plays out. I'm hopeful, but worse comes to worst, there's trade in the middle of the month, and I can deal with anything for two weeks.

But enough about humans, you say! What about the animals? Well, I've definitely seen my share of animals. In fact, on our first drive out to watch the sunset, not but three hours after arriving at the reserve, we came across a breeding herd of elephant, including a enormous one which towered above us. It actually came up to within three feet of our game viewer (which is nothing more than a large Land Rover with absolutely no top). It was both thrilling and terrifying at the same time. We learned after driving away that this was a large, aggressive bull elephant who's been in must (i.e. ready to mate) for six months, but hasn't found a mate, and so was full of testosterone and getting too close for comfort to the volunteers in the weeks and months leading up to our arrival. It was a pretty exciting way to start off our stay. And we've since seen elephants twice more, once in a huge group (well over 20, so the thought was that it was two breeding herds) and just a few more during our night drive tonight. We've also learned quite a bit about how damn destructive elephants are to trees - the telltale sign that they're nearby is the cracking and toppling sounds - and how they're actually doing too well, especially in South Africa; because of some mismanagement, Kruger Park now has twice the number of elephants it should for a space that size, which is in the realm of 16,000. How to deal with this is one of their ongoing issues.

I also saw my first lion this morning. Well, lions. We were driving early, on the lookout for a lioness that had gone into a section of the preserve she wasn't supposed to (perhaps to have cubs). We didn't find her, but we did see the members of her pride - two male and two female - walking up and down along the fence separating the two sections, calling out for her. She answered, but never came by. I can understand this; sometimes at work, it's easier to ask someone a question by phone rather than walking across the room to their cube. But they occasionally got really close to the game viewer - like, within two feet - which really makes you appreciate how large they really are.

We've also seen loads of impala, a number of zebra, several groups of giraffes, and then some wildebeest, waterbuck, kudu, nyala, sable, warthogs, a crocodile, monkeys, and a bunch of birds. Then, on a nocturnal mammal search we did today, I was able to spot a civet, which is kind of like a raccoon with a spotted, cheetah-like body. And I found it using only my headlamp, and only by seeing the reflection in its eyes for a split-second. Who knows, maybe LASIK did give me bionic vision.

So, yeah, lots of animals, with plenty more on the way, I'm sure. And there's plenty more topics to cover, but I really want to publish this entry today, and besides, we have two months to go through everything. Except about my health. I'll go through that now. I think I picked up a cold in Johannesburg. That then ran it's course, but turned into a chest cold, which felt like the world's tiniest cat was trying to claw its way out of my lungs and throat. It made me have to stop doing some clean-up work at a garbage heap, which made me feel quite guilty, but what can you do. I was able to get a cocktail of pills to be brought in from town (I seriously thought they were Resse's Pieces at first, there was such a variety of colors). I have no idea what they are, but they seem to be doing the job, as I felt much better today (rest also probably helped). I think in a couple days, I'll be back in 100%. Still, don't you hate it when you get sick so early on in something like this? Bad first impression.

Oh, and before I go, a quick:
Kilimanjaro Blog Entry Update: I'm currently uploading the video to YouTube. It's at 27% complete, with 8,626 minutes remaining. You read that correctly. It's actually been going since Tuesday. It may take a week more, but hey, it'll get there!


  1. Very cool on doing this and seeing all the different kinds of animals they have there. Seems like a cool place.
    love, Meghan

  2. Wellp Mr. Schnorr, I've done the research, and it seems you've got yourself an Unwanted Harem. Good luck, don't let those fine specimens get away ;)