Entry #024: Friday, July 19, 2013 (Pidwa Wilderness Reserve, South Africa)

Well, it's been an interestingweek. New people, new experiences, decapitation. I tell ya, you never know what's gonna happen. But I might as well start from the beginning. Or at least from Monday. That works too.
Since I'll be heading out to a local scenic spot this weekend, I won't really have the time to work on writing. As such, if I'm going to talk about this week, I gotta do it now, and I gotta do it fast, or else I'll have to wait until Monday, and then I'll have even more I'll have to write, and it's just all a vicious cycle. So let's blaze through what happened this week.

We went to town on Monday, and I brought with me an obsidian rock that I had picked up from Mount Kilimanjaro. I took this in to a jewelry store, gave it to the owner, and told him to see what he could do with shaping/polishing it. Not sure what's going to come out of that, but hey, it'll turn out as something, and I'm interested to see what it will be.

But the big news of the day was that we got three new people coming into the reserve. Two of them were together from England. One of them was a sixteen(!)-year-old boy, and the other was a 51-year-old man who used to be his geography and P.E. teacher, and is now just a family friend. Apparently, the older man was here very briefly last year, though not as a volunteer, but as a family friend to Joe. This time, he wanted to accompany his former student and have the full volunteer experience. I get along with these two quite well. The man, while bristling with that unique brand of crassness you can only get from Brits, is nevertheless quite polite, especially to me (I think likes my general work ethic and general tempered attitude). The boy, meanwhile, seems quite intelligent for his age (more intelligent than some of the other volunteers here), but is also quite respectful. I like it. The third new person was a girl from Holland, who I still haven't gotten enough of a bead on to really come to a conclusion about. But she seems nice enough, though I swear she's malnourished.

Not much else of particular note happened.

You know what, let's just get to the meat of this week. Let's get to...

So, Wednesday was a busy day. It started off fairly normally, with a reserve clean-up. This involved us going to a riverside area and tearing out some barbed wire fences from the ground. While I did get a bit cut up in this process, I must say I got less cut up than a lot of other people. This is not because I wasn't doing my fair share - it's because I was pretty much covered from head-to-toe with clothing. Whereas other people were in t-shirts and shorts, I was in a jacket and pants. Was it hot doing physical labor dressed like that? You bet! I was sweating like nobody's business. But the majority of the barbed wire - and barbed plants, for that matter - were scraping against the clothing than against my skin. In conclusion, I feel sweat is preferable to tetanus.

But anyway, during this activity, we were given an update on the sable antelope that was darted on Saturday. Basically, it was determined that it was going to be killed, because its jaw was basically unfixable, and it had just been lying pathetically on the ground for days. Rather than let it die a slow, torturous death, it was decided to euthanize it. Because El Diablo was still the prize sable on the reserve, John (the owner) wanted to keep the skin and the skull, while the rest could be used as bait to draw out the errant lioness wandering around Langalanga. Everyone had the option to stay in for this particular activity, as it wasn't going to necessarily be the most pleasant one we'd do here. But I didn't even consider that. I paid money for this, dammit, and I wanted to get every experience I could. So after a late lunch, it was time to head out.

When we finally reached the sable, which practically looked dead already, we found Garth, the assistant reserve manager, standing next to it. I was expecting to see some sort of syringes around to inject a poison into the sable, but the only thing I saw was Garth's pistol in its holster. This was going to be an Old Yeller-style euthanizing. Sure enough, after some explanation about the process, and a warning to cover our ears, Garth pulled out his pistol and shot El Diablo twice - once in the heart, once in the neck. The sable was dead; now we just had to move it. When they asked for help to roll it up on its stomach, I volunteered first (something I found myself doing an awful lot that day). We then got a couple poles underneath the body, and with some mighty heaving, lifted it up and carried it to a pickup truck, where it was taken to Pidwa headquarters.

At HQ, it was time to skin the sable. After cutting off some of the skin on it's leg, and hooking the exposed tendon for the body to hang freely, Garth took out his knife and showed us the proper skinning methodology. He then asked for a volunteer. After confirming that he was serious, I went up. I was working on the thing for a good amount of time while others just watched. (Eventually, I think everyone took a shot at it, however brief, but it took a while and a bit of goading.) I think I skinned its entire left hind leg and most of its rear torso. It was definitely not a pleasant job by any stretch of the imagination, but nor was it as disgusting as I thought it was going to be.

(Seeing its stomach cut out, though, was quite disgusting.)

After my turn on the skinning - which was almost cut short every time the sable's fleshless tail nearly poked me in the eyes - we got ready to cut off the head. This was as graphic as you'd imagine. It began with Joe holding the sable's head while Garth took a knife to its neck. Blood everywhere. Once Garth got to a point where his knife wouldn't go anymore, he took out a hacksaw and began sawing off the sable's head. Once he got about halfway through, he asked for a volunteer to finish the job. Can you guess who went up? Yep, after again confirming that he was being serious, I took the tool and began, quite literally, sawing off this animal's head. Now, I don't normally go for this type of thing - I participated in this program because I like animals - but I wanted to get as much of the experience as I could, so I sawed away. Eventually, I got the last few pieces of muscle, and the sable's head came off. It was surreal seeing it on the ground eyes glazed over, tongue slightly sticking out. I ended up taking some pictures with it, not because I wanted to be disrespectful or anything, but because really, when will I be in a situation like this again?

After spreading the skin on the ground and filling it with salt for preservation prior to sending it to the taxidermist, it was time to move the skinned carcass to Langalanga, where the plan was to hang it up on a tree for the lioness to feed upon it, where she'd be either baited back out into her appropriate side or be darted and moved. So, we put it in the back of the pickup truck and drove out to Langalanga. After finding a branch that seemed likely to support the carcass, we got a call from Garth, who had seen the lioness himself. This was our opportunity! So, Joe took out his knife and cut off one of the sable's legs, tying it up with a rope. He needed a volunteer to sit in the back of the pickup truck with the leg and toss it out to act as a lure. Again, I volunteered. Again, when would I ever be doing something like this again? Unfortunately, it all ended up a bit anticlimactic, because when we finally found the lioness, it was determined from her physiology that she was suckling, which meant that she had cubs, which meant that she couldn't be moved until the cubs were old enough to go with here. So, with that bit of partial closure, we drove back to the carcass, finished hoisting it onto the branch, stuffed the leg into whatever open spot we could find, set up a camera trap, and drove off for the night to a well-earned dinner. Whew!

As a spoiler, as of this posting, nothing has touched the carcass. Maybe all the tranquilizers and painkillers pumped into it tainted the meat? In any case, Thursday morning was spent going to the far side of the reserve (in fact, it's not even technically Pidwa, it's Makalali, a reserve which shares some of the same land as Pidwa) to see some hippo. This turned out to be a bit of a letdown, but we also went out searching for a collared cheetah, and while we didn't find her, we were able to use some radio tracking equipment, which was pretty cool.

After lunch, we had to do some tree protection, which basically involves taking a bunch of pointing rocks and making a little rock moat around a tree to keep animals - in particular elephants, who destroy trees and have sensitive feet - from getting to it. In this case, we had to protect a leadwood tree, which actually needed to be protected by South African law. So for basically three or four hours, we were just moving rocks from one place to another.

When driving back from that activity, we came across a large bull elephant in must who was getting too aggressive towards my favorite tree on the entire reserve (yes, it's possible to have a favorite tree). However, it was also getting pretty annoyed with us, and came pretty close for comfort several times. Finally, when we tried to drive away, it actually gave chase. We were never in any real danger of being caught, and before too long it got tired and walked into the bushes, but damn was that tense!

I'm getting tired now, so I'll just note that we were continuing to build stairs for our sable-viewing station (which mainly involved me drilling holes and holding up heavy planks of wood), and that I cooked a mean English-style cottage pie for dinner, which got a bunch of compliments. It was pretty good. Oh, and on Thursday night, a number of folks stayed up until 3am playing drinking games. Today, a couple of them were paying dearly for their decisions, being out-of-commission for most of the day. I'm just surprised they thought they could get away with that on a Thursday.

So, tomorrow after the normal daily activities, I'll be driving with four of the girls to a place called Blyde Canyon for the night and most of Sunday. They have every intention of getting drunk - hell, I think "wasted" is the appropriate word here - while we're staying at the backpacker's lodge. I'm interested to see how this goes...

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