Entry #025: Wednesday, July 24, 2013 (Pidwa Wilderness Reserve, South Africa)

You want to know where the most annoying place to get a splinter is? Well, I don't know for sure, but I'd wager one of the top contender is just on the top knuckle of one of your index fingers. I would know, as I have one right now, and every slight movement with that finger is an annoyance, even after digging out most of the wood. I'm telling you this because...um...

Anyway, this weekend went...differently than I had anticipated. Not in a bad way necessarily, although I don't know if I'd call our activities adventures or misadventures. I'll tell you one thing, though - I've been involved with vehicle incidents three times in as many days. But we'll get to that.
So, the big thing on the weekend was the fact that I, along with four of the other volunteers, were heading out for a sightseeing trip in the nearby (well, "nearby" in the sense of only 160km away) Blyde Canyon area. I was only marginally involved in the planning of this - basically, every time someone asked me "Do you want to do [INSERT ACTIVITY HERE]?" my response would be "I don't care; your choice." It's not that I was being lazy; I really didn't care for one thing over another, and would let the younger kids worry about what to do. I would just be along for the ride. Well, except that I'd be the one driving, being the only person with a driver's license who brought a credit card. As such, the rental car would be under my name, and as such, I wouldn't let anyone else drive it.

However, Saturday still began normally (as normally as a day can begin in a place like this). Apparently, Jon the Owner's wife was none too pleased about their prize sable's carcass being hung up from a tree, so we had to drive into Langalanga to cut it down. This was a fairly simple affair, and then we pulled it under some bush to prevent the vultures from finding it (this apparently proved completely ineffectual, as we were told that the vultures stripped the carcass nearly clean within 24 hours. Effecient little buggers, aren't they?). Then, on the way back, the Game Viewer (which was a replacement one, as the normal one had a broken clutch) got too close to the small poles holding up the electric wires, and with a loud burst, the wheel blew out. Thankfully, we were able to jack up the car and replace the tire, but not without calling someone in first, as whoever stocked that vehicle didn't see it worthwhile to include a wheel spanner in the toolbox. All in all, this wasn't a huge disaster, but it did take up a chunk of our already-short morning.

Almost immediately after we got back to the house, it was time to pick up the rental car. Well, the arranged time. I spent a good 40 minutes sitting at the main gate to the reserve, waiting. Once the car (a small, white hatchback - remind me never to buy a white car) arrived, I drove back to the house for the others, and after packing up some of our stuff, we were on our way.

On the whole, the trip turned out fairly well. I won't go into the play-by-plays, but here are some random thoughts and highlights (and lowlights?):
  • Our music selection was quite limited during our driving portions. We didn't have any sort of auxilary cable to plug in an MP3 player, so we were limited to a small selection of CDs that we borrowed from Joe and Katie. This included a "classic rock" CD (which would be better described as a series of synthesizer covers of classic rock songs), Bob Marley's Legend, a greatest hits album of Oasis, and a Maroon 5 album. We did try the radio at one point on Sunday, but it only came up with this horrific sound, which I thought at first was some sort of dubstep buildup, but never stopped. It's difficult to describe ("BRAWGH, BRAWGH, BRAWGH, BRAWAGH..."), but you could liken it to a CD skipping, if that CD belonged to Satan himself. So, we were limited to the non-Satanic CDs we had, and somehow this ended up being hours and hours of Maroon 5 (who I used to like before this weekend) and Oasis (who I always thought just had a couple good songs, and after hearing their "best of", have been proven right). God Almighty, if I ever hear "This Love" or "Don't Look Back in Anger" again, I will [want to] jump off a bridge.
  • Because I was the one doing the driving, I was quite adamant that we get an automatic. I'm okay driving on the wrong side of the road (...most of the time), and I think I'd be okay with driving a manual transmission, buuuuut I don't know how comfortable I'd be with both at once. Also, I haven't driven in three months. Lemme tell ya, if you can afford renting an automatic, do it, because it made other parts of this trip much less stressful (as you'll see below).
  • Just for the record, the overall trip was 465 kilometers. That's about 289 miles. So it was like going from Santa Cruz to Sacramento and back, if that helps paint a picture.
  • Our first stop was a place called "The Potholes", which was a small canyon (with a river flowing through) and a lot of eroded holes everywhere. It was nice enough to look at, but I was honestly more interested - in an ironic way - with a "lichen trail" that preceded the entrance. This was just a path that had some rocks placed alongside it, some of which had lichens, and signs with lichen facts and jokes. It made me legitimately wonder, "What must your life be like when the passion of your life is lichens?"
  • Our base for the night was a town called Graskop. Apparently, this city was known for pancakes, because besides a few dedicated pancake shops, it seemed like every restaurant in the area had at least some kind of pancake dish, and all the convenience stores sold syrups. It reminded me quite a bit of Morocco, in the sense of having a "Town of Hats", except here it was a town of pancakes.
  • We checked out a couple of different lodges to stay at. The first was a complete disaster of a visit. First, we had to go down this super-steep ramp to get inside, which scratched the bumper. Then we were shown around the dorms, which looked completely dirty and sketchy. When we made our way to leave, I tried to back up and turn around, but the receptionist told us to just drive around the whole place. So I tried that...and came up to a custodian filling in new cement on this pavement. With nowhere forward to go and no space to turn around, I had to back up for a good 30 feet along a narrow, winding path with wet cement on either side. No fun. The second place was much better, and seemed to have a bit more charm, as their dorm rooms were just train compartments in an actual decommissioned train car. However, I got an actual hut for myself, because I wanted a shower, and I figured we could use the room as a general meeting place for games and for the girls to do their drinking and all that without being in a train compartment. Besides, I've already slept in trains (and will sleep in more), so it wasn't as much of a novelty for me.
  • Since I mentioned the shower, I'll explain why I needed it. I hadn't completely gotten paint off of me from when we worked on the sable station. Unfortunately, this is a special type of paint. I don't know what its actual purpose is, but I do know one of it's side effects - if on skin and exposed to sunlight, it will give you a nasty chemical burn. The most annoying of these was on the top of my ear, but I got plenty of grief on my arms too.
  • After checking into the lodge, we went out to a place called "God's Window" (and for the record, I love, love any place that has "God's" or "The Devil's" in the name. There's just something about it that makes the place seem legit). It was a pretty tall cliff with a view of the valley. It was nice, but to be perfectly honest, after some of the sights I've seen on Mount Kilimanjaro, I think its going to be difficult for these high-up views to impress me any more.
  • After finishing with God's Window, we went to another viewpoint and saw...pretty much the same thing as at God's Window, just a kilometer or so down the road. Same thing with the next several ones. We ended up just going across the street to an empty field to watch a beautiful sunset.
  • We ate dinner at the lodge's bar, and to my complete surprise, the bartender didn't know what a Shirley Temple was. She was so intrigued by the concept that she actually tried one herself as we were leaving. I also taught her how to make a Roy Rodgers. I told her she could make it the next big South African thing. I don't know why it's not one already - is there nobody who doesn't drink alcohol?
  • Also at the bar, we played some pool (with really small billiard balls), and I remembered how decent at pool I am. I was also getting ready to whack some of the other bar patrons upside the head with my cue for giving lascivious glances at my companions, but it thankfully never came to that.
  • After dinner - and this was only 8:30, mind you - the girls told me they were ready to go to bed. I was shocked and a tad disappointed. I had no interest in the having a drinking party in my room, but I was at least looking forward to some games, if even just a few card games. But no, nothing. They all went to sleep, and I stayed up for another three to four hours playing some games on my phone. What a dull turn of events.
  • Overall, I think this trip was good for my relationship with the girls involved. If nothing else, they saw me in a slightly different environment, and I was in situations where my style of humor (which is almost completely reactive to external stimuli) works best. Even the American girl, who was part of that sorority clique, seemed to genuinely enjoy my presence most of the time. And somehow, we ended up being dubbed "Mom and Dad", mainly because we were the two most responsible ones of the group. This led to some...interesting conversations, which I won't delve into.
  • After an alright complimentary breakfast, we set off for the nearby town of Sabie, where the bartender told us to see some waterfalls. We ended up seeing three, and they were all quite nice. That's about that.
  • We also drove by a sign advertising horseback trails. "Ooo," I said, and my copilot - who rides horses so much that she actually leases them - asked if everyone was interested. The responses were neutral to positive, so we found the place (no small feat) and after risking arrest by opening their closed gate and driving inside the property, asked for a ride. We ended up going on a two-hour ride. When everyone was choosing their horses, I just let all the girls choose, and then went to the poor guy who was left, named Luca. I liked this horse. Even though I started in the back (because I wanted to let the girls go ahead), he didn't want to be behind walking slowly. Multiple times I tried passing the horse in front of me (names Samar), but that horse was downright ornery. Even though it was walking quite slowly, it would speed up and move in my way when I tried to pass. The third time, he kicked Luca in the neck. Later, he kicked Luca again for no discernible reason. What a jerk! Thankfully, I was able to trot past when it stopped to get some food to eat, and stayed most of the time near the front. Of everyone there, I was having the second-easiest time with my horse (after the girl with all the experience, of course). We did have one person, the English girl, who came into the whole thing with no confidence, and never calmed down during the whole thing, causing the exasperated instructor to tether her horse to the lead. But overall, even though it put us way off-schedule, it was a fun piece of happenstance, and getting two hours of riding time for $30 is pretty good.
  • After riding, we realized we needed to hurry to make it home before it got too dark, so we quickly got some lunch in Graskop (pancakes - I kinda wanted to try some savory fillings, but ended up going with the much more dessert-y filling of seasonal fruit...and vanilla ice cream), and then headed back, deciding not to stop at any other viewing points (we were about two hours behind schedule). Interestingly, we were bemoaning this whole time how we never really got to see the canyon, but on this drive, we saw lots of canyon. Tons of it, in fact. We could only shake our heads and say, "How could we possibly have missed that on the drive up?" Maybe we were too distracted by the forests of non-indigenous pine trees used for the lumber industry in the area.
  • As if we hadn't had enough car troubles for the week, one of my tires blew out on the freeway (the left front tire, in case you're wondering). I definitely take responsibility for it, because I drove over a pothole near the side of the road, and I know exactly why. You know when you drive, you use the painted lines as guides to keep you perfectly aligned in the center of the road. Well, I was doing that here, but the problem was, I was on the right side of the vehicle, and so those same positions don't work quite correctly, so I was closer to the left side of the road than I should have been most of the time. In any case, once we drove over it, it was immediately obvious that the tire was flat. I pulled over at the first possible shoulder, and the American girl and I ("Mom and Dad") immediately got to work changing the tire, while the "kids" were going on about being worried about this turning into a horror movie (one of them was quite seriously disturbed by the prospect). This never came to pass, as we got the tire changed within 15 minutes, and were on our way again. Unfortunately, the spare only allowed us to drive up to 80kph (50mph), so it was slow-going for the rest of the return.
  • Because of the blowout and subsequent slowdown, and equally because of the horse trail time, we entered into the reserve area well after sundown. We were warned that we should not drive there during the dark, but we didn't have much of a choice in the matter at this point. Truth be told, it wasn't all that bad, except that the dirt roads we had to drive on for 15km were built for 4x4s, which left huge treads in the gravel which acted as thousands of tiny speed bumps, making this section of the drive quite annoying. We also had about four inches of clearance from the ground, so we couldn't go ten seconds without hearing a rock slam up against the undercarriage. We were just waiting for a leopard to appear from nowhere, slash at the spare tire we were driving on, and run off.
  • When "Mom" was opening the main gate to Pidwa reserve (something I had offered to do, since everyone seemed to be worried about lions and leopards hanging out at the very entrance of a 25,000 hectare reserve), I told the others, "How pissed off do you think she'll get about this?" When they asked what I meant, I told them to wait. Then, as she closed the gate and ran to the car, I locked the doors, ever so briefly. I got exactly the "laughing/angry" reaction I was looking for.
  • Thankfully, we made it back safe and sound, albeit much later than expected. We all agreed that it was a fun weekend, partially because it nothing went according to plan. Not that we'd repeat it exactly, but it was a good experience.
  • Everyone offered to pay for the tire (because I was the credit card holding money master that everyone owed anyway), but I tried to take the high road and say that because I was driving, it was my responsibility to pay. Because you know what, that's true. It was my fault, and I should pay the piper. Turns out, I didn't even need to, as the spare tire was covered in the included insurance. What luck!
So that was the trip to the Blyde Canyon region in a nutshell. (A big nutshell.) But there were also some days between then and now. So let's briefly cover those, shall we?

Monday began with more manual labor, as we had to do additional work on the sable viewing station steps. We had already gotten the sides of the stairs finished, and over the weekend, the first two steps had been put up (those took about two hours to get right, or so I heard). We just had about...twelve more to go. We got about ten of those in. Because of the weird angle involved, we had to cut crossbars at slants, put additional wood blocks in for stability, and generally treat the thing as an inexact science. It didn't help that the English boy - who, to his absolute credit, is a hardworking and driven lad - has "angled vision" as we dubbed it. (I had to redrill every hole he drilled, because every single one of his was more angled than the last.) But it was some honest work that lasted a good five hours. It's also how I got that splinter in my knuckle.

Though I will note something. I haven't really gotten terribly much exercise here, as the majority of our work involves sitting on our rumps in a game viewer. You'd think that these manual labor projects would count as exercise, but they're only occasional, and most of the stuff I do is strength building. So if I'm not careful, I'm going to get into Cape Town with super muscular arms and a mighty paunch.

There are some ways I get exercise, though. When people ask me to play some sport/game outside, I am one of the people who almost always says yes. So I was asked if I wanted to play some Frisbee (though we only had enough people to throw it around), and I accepted. Like with pool (and also with darts, for that matter), I found that I'm better with throwing a Frisbee than I remember (though, to be fair, the Berkeley campus has got to be one of the most Frisbee-throwing in the country). Take note of this observation, because I have a theory about it.

Also, two of the other volunteers - the American girl and the British boy, seem to be getting very close. Which I find delicious, because she's practically a cougar relative to him (22 to 16). And I'm not the only one to notice, so don't think I'm seeing things where none exist. I am morbidly curious to see what happens at our end-of-the-month party this Saturday, the time of month when inhibitions are generally low and BAC levels high.

Anyway, after an hour or so of Frisbee playing (during which I kept on trying to teach the British girl how to properly throw the damn thing), it was time for a research drive. While the drive itself was uneventful, we did have some extra time before dinner, so we continued puttering around the area. Unfortunately, at one point, when we stopped to look at some birds, we couldn't start again. So, we go from Game Viewer 1 having its clutch pedal break, to having Game Viewer 2 blow a tire, to rental car blowing a tire, to Game Viewer 2 just not starting. What a week to be a mechanic! In any case, the engine wouldn't turn, leading us to believe that there was a problem with the coils. We tried pushing the car in order to get it going, but couldn't get enough speed/distance on the uneven terrain. As such, we had to radio for one of the other employees to come with a truck and a strap. They tied one end onto the hitch of their truck, the other end on to the front axle of the Game Viewer, and I asked, "Don't you think we should double the strap around? I don't think it'll have enough tensile strength as-is." Not paying me any heed, everyone got into their respective cars, and the truck started driving, with much more acceleration than should have been applied. To my complete lack of surprise, the strap broke. I tied it myself this time, and the truck pulled forward again. It kept going and going, until both the truck and the Gae Viewer reached the nearby airstrip. Unfortunately, they left me (and the other two guys) behind, so we had to make our way by foot until the Game Viewer's engine began working. It wasn't exactly the safest of situations - had a lion come out, I'd have no choice but to fight it by hand - nothing bad happened, and we had a beautiful full moonrise to look at. After getting picked back up, we made sure to get back home as soon as possible.

Tuesday was town day, so we got to sleep in an extra hour or two, which is always nice. We were going to a new town this time, though. Instead of traveling to the normal destination of Hoedspruit, we were going to one in the opposite direction, called Tzaneen. To, um, I dunno, change things up? I guess one of the reasons we did this was to visit a local attraction, the Giant Baobab, which, as the name implies, is a very large baobab tree. Not the biggest tree in the world (that's good ol' General Sherman), nor even the largest baobab tree in the world. Just a big one. And admittedly, it was pretty big and impressive. However, all the signs nearby made it seemed like the neediest little baby ever. I'm assuming they were written by the lady who manages the area (and gets the $1 entrance fees), but these things said stuff along the lines of "Tell your friends to visit me. I'm lonely," and "Giant Baobab this way. Please give me some company." A bit too clingy for my tastes, particularly for a tree. Also, while you can climb up via a ladder, the bark is super slippery, and trying to maneuver myself at the top, I almost slipped off. Didn't, though. That's probably for the best.

We later got to Tzaneen, and went straight into the local mall. Unlike the little curio stand on the roadside in Hoedspruit, all the roadside vendors in this town were more akin to what you'd find in Nairobi - cheap watches, cell phone cases, and other things you couldn't imagine the vendors making a living off of. The mall worked better for me anyway, because I had some things I actually wanted/needed to buy (new razor blades, new scissors to replace what was taken away from me before, some pajamas so that I didn't have to wear normal pants to bed [or go nude with roommates], and some other stuff). I also took the time to visit every place I could find with video games, just to see a) how they were arranged/marketed, and b)what the prices were. I guess some habits just die hard.

We later went to the slowest-served lunch in history, but I got some pretty good food out of the deal. While I didn't order it myself, I was offered a piece of bruschetta with springbok carpaccio. Springbok, in case you're not aware, is the smallest antelope species in this region. So yeah, it's about the most highfalutin way to serve game meat possible. Pretty good, though for a non-foodie like myself, the taste wasn't different enough to merit paying a higher price than normal bruschetta. Speaking of being a non-foodie, I got a chicken, because chicken always tastes good, and it was relatively cheap here. In fact, I was surprised at the price structure. Their half-chicken had a price in the menu - 79 rand. A full chicken price needed to be written on a nearby blackboard. What was it this day? 85 rand. Literally, sixty cents more to go from a half-chicken to a whole one. Needless to say, I had some leftovers. Meanwhile, the old British guy was complaining that his T-bone steak wasn't the best he's had, when not but a half-hour earlier, he was marveling at how it only cost him about $11. I tried to make him think if it was good for the price, but he wasn't having any of it. Like I said before, he's quite nice to me, but he can be a bit on the crumudgeonly side.

After going grocery shopping - where I got ingredients for smores for our Thursday night sleepout (though graham crackers don't exist in South Africa, so I got a package of digestive biscuits, which are...kinda the same...?) - we went back home. While waiting for dinner to be cooked, I was invited to go outside to play something. I agreed, and immediately got excited when I saw a volleyball. My hopes were quickly dashed, though, when I was told we'd be using it to play soccer. I don't dislike soccer, mind you, I just like volleyball better. Also, I'm not really good at soccer, and our two-on-two competition proved this. I can run, and I can (occasionally) kick, but I can't run and kick. I began to realize something - the activities I found I'm relatively good at - archery, Frisbee, pool, darts - are all ones that utilize hand-eye coordination. Soccer needs foot-eye coordination, which I would determine I'm terrible at. That being said, I am good at pressuring people, as my best plays came from me charging at my opponent, 'Murican Football-style. In any case, it didn't really matter, because whatever team the British boy was on (and we swapped around halfway through) would be the winning side. Not even that that mattered, because the whole thing was just an excuse for the American girl and British boy to run into each other constantly. (Wink wink, nudge nudge, say-no-more.)

After dinner, it was time to go on a night drive. I like these, not only because it's a chance to see some of the rarest animals, but because I get to use my super-powerful flashlights. Unfortunately, this one was a disappointingly short drive. After stopping to look at a bush baby, the Game Viewer wouldn't start again. Exact same issue as before - the engine wouldn't turn. After about 15 minutes of fiddling with it, we finally managed to get it working again, and drove straight home. After all, having a Game Viewer break down in the middle of the bush in the darkness is not the most ideal of situations. So put another tic on our "Car Troubles" list. I just decided to use the extra time to make some calls to California 

Today was a pretty straightforward day. It began with another round of work on the sable station stairs. This time, we only had to get two stairs in, an yet somehow it took longer than almost any of the other stairs, mainly because they were near the top, awkward angles were involved (more so), and the distribution of labor was changed around. Still, done is done, and we got it done...well, except for some varnishing and final detailing, but let's not get caught up on semantics. We then drove out (in the reserve's third Game Viewer, this one belonging to John the Owner himself) to do some tree protection, which involved gathering even more sharp, pointy rocks and putting them around the leadwood tree. At this point, we've put three batches of rocks around that tree, and we still have about six more to adequately protect it.

After lunch, we went out to do some alien plant control. I won't go into the details again (otherwise this blog would start to get really repetitive), but I have to admit, I enjoy wearing herbicide spray backpack. It's just so satisfying to make it rain liquid death on all these unwanted plants. That went on for a couple hours, and then we went back home, put some finishing touches on the sable station, and then everyone - volunteers, other reserve employees, about 14 people in total, went on top to drink, watch the sunset, and celebrate the pretty-much-for-all-intents-and-purposes-completion of the station.

I unfortunately had to head down a bit early to cook dinner, which had to be the most fake chicken parmegiana I've ever seen (the chicken was just boxed schnitzel, and in lieu of Parmesan or mozzarella, we used grated cheddar cheese! Still turned out fine, though). Then a bunch of folks went up to sit at the top of the sable station. I passed, as I wanted to write this instead of sitting out in the cold air. The only other folks not going up there were the Canadian girl and the old British guy, and he used the opportunity to complain to no end about the young British girl volunteer for being dumb and incompetent at everything. Like, tearing into her. While I'll agree that she has difficulty with most things, is not the brightest bulb in the pack (I have a difficult time really maintaining a high-level conversation with her) I at least can appreciate that she's a nice person and it's in large part due to a lack of confidence, something I have been trying to build up in her where possible. Both myself and the Canadian girl later confided in each other how over the top and unnecessarily hostile his comments were.

So, that as it is, let's end with a lesson - even if a person is not necessarily a paragon of intelligence and efficiency, they are still a person, and there's no reason to tear them down. Not necessarily the most original lesson you'll learn today, but still a good one to know.

Next big thing for me is the sleepout tomorrow night. So in case you don't see this blog get updated at all in the future, know that it's because I got eaten. I can only hope it's by a leopard, because I haven't seen one of those yet.

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