Entry #026: Sunday, July 28, 2013 (Pidwa Wilderness Reserve, South Africa)

Well, the sleepout I mentioned before has come and gone, and I'm still here to write about it, so it's fairly safe, I'd say, to assume that it went off at least partially successfully (in the sense that we weren't eaten in our sleep). While that was the main crux of activity the last couple days, there has actually been quite a bit of interesting things going on, the kind of stuff you can only get at a place like this.
Thursday began with a fairly standard herbivore count research route. We were also being prepped for our upcoming BIRD WARS, which is just an overblown name of an activity where we try to identify birds. I had the distinct feeling I'm going to do terrible at said game, because I can barely remember any of the birds. I don't know why, really. Maybe it's because I don't have much affinity for them? A good number of the people who were here before me have said something to the effect of "I wasn't a bird person before, but now I have a real appreciation/love for them." I haven't gotten that, yet. Really, the birds I like most are all in the Corvidae family, and they're not really present here. Still, having all these birds to talk about made up for the fact that this was the most uneventful drive ever - we saw about three herbivores in two hours.

However, this was made up for near the end of the route, when we passed by some elephants heading for a local dam. We decided to follow them and watch them drink. At first there were just maybe half-a-dozen, but soon another came, and then another, and before all was said and done, there were well over two dozen that had come through and taken a drink. Of all shapes and sizes, from huge bull elephants to little Dumbo-sized ones. Some came for quick drinks, others for long ones. There was one in particular, an adult female (perhaps a young adult) that I had noticed seemed agitated, shaking around and such. She decided that she was going to have a feud with the pair of Egyptian geese that were residing in the dam. And so she started charging at them. Of course, being birds, they were able to safely fly away before in any danger. But then they'd circle back and land on the other side of the dam. The elephant would stamp her feet, and charged them again. Once more, they'd fly away and circle back. This kept happening, no joke, for at least fifteen minutes, with the elephant getting more frustrated each time. Honestly, I think that by the end, the geese were just trolling her. Eventually, some of the other elephants came up to the nutso one, calmed her down a bit, and then she back away, still staring at the geese as she disappeared into the forest. I know it may sound like I'm making these elephants sound overly human, but this is literally how it happened.

After breakfast, we split up into two groups to go on bus walks. My group didn't see all that much (the main highlights were trolling some antlion larvae by pretending to be ants and seeing our mascot warthog, Kevin). The other group, though, apparently saw a hippo, which isn't necessarily what you're looking for when you're on foot. (Joe's apparently reaction was a deadpan "S#!+, hippo.")

But really, who cares about that. The day was all about the sleepout. After lunch, we all packed up our bags and headed out to the banks of the currently dry Selati River. Along the way, we ran into elephants again (though we think it was the same two breeding herds) feeding alongside the road. A couple of them got pretty close to us. In fact, we also ran into the Colonel, which was the infamous agressive elephant that had gotten uncomfortably close to us on our first night. However, he was no longer in musth (meaning either one of the other males knocked him down a peg, or one of the lady elephants finally gave in), and so with less testosterone pumping through his veins (and urine on his legs), he seemed much more agreeable, letting us pass with almost no issue. However, all of this was right next to the river spot where we'd be spending the night, meaning that these elephants might pose a bit of a concern throughout the night.

While I had heard some horror stories about previous sleepouts (mainly revolving around creepy-crawlies getting into people's sleeping bags), this one seemed to start off well enough. We got a nice fire going, and sat around while we waited for dinner. I was a little disappointed that I had forgotten to bring my harmonica. Not that I'm great at playing or anything, but playing harmonica at a campfire at night just seems like the right thing to do, doncha think?

After dinner (which consisted of grilled sausage sandwiches and pap, which is the South African equivalent of ugali), we made preparations for dessert. Katie was showing everyone how to prepare banana boats, which I suppose is the British campfire treat. Basically, you cut a slit in a banana, stuff chocolate inside, wrap the thing in tin foil, and then put it over your hot wood coals. I, meanwhile, brought out the ingredients I had gotten for s'mores. Marshmallows, various types of chocolate, and digestive biscuits (as I mentioned last time, graham crackers don't exist here, so this is the closest thing I could think of). I taught every non-North American the proper way to make them, and then briefly discussed the etymology (one person joked that it was like you were asking for "some more", which I then said was what I believed the actual meaning was, and it turns out, we were right). I'm not sure why, but hearing one of the British folks say, "I really, really like those s'mores" filled me with all sorts of pride.

(Though I'm not too proud to admit that I did, in fact, try the banana boat treat myself, and while I still think s'mores are the superior item, it was very good in its own right, and probably a better alternative for people who can't eat wheat.)

Almost immediately after dessert was finished, it was time to begin our night watches. In order to keep everyone safe, at least one person had to be up at any point all night, keeping an ear out for any animal sounds, walking around the perimeter of our camp with a flashlight, and if need be, putting another log on the fire to keep it from going out. We all chose numbers at random to see who would get what slots. I was quite lucky, as I ended up with the 9:45-11pm shift, the second one in the night, and fairly close to my normal hours anyway. I didn't even bother going to bed during the first shift, opting instead to take some more star photos (not nearly as good as my previous attempts, due to the almost-full moon providing a lot of extra light) and keeping the first shifter company. I found it a bit funny that after everyone talked up a big game bout staying up late, we were the only two not sleeping after 8:30. And then, at 9:45, it was just me.

Working the watch was...stressful. Fun, but stressful nonetheless. In some regards, it actually did begin when I was waiting with the first shifter, as twice we saw elephants walking by our camp, maybe twenty feet away from our lantern perimeter. Now, elephants are very cool creatures, and we've seen lots of them (I think Katie said that this was one of their most elephant-filled months ever). However, they are also probably the most intimidating animal of all. Lions and cheetahs, you never feel unsafe when you're in the vehicle. With elephants, though, you can never be off your guard, because one wrong move (like standing up in the Game Viewer), and all bets are off. When you're on foot, the elephants seem even bigger, and while they are mostly quite peaceful (they are usually just curious about what we funny creatures are doing over here), you definitely want to avoid doing anything that could startle them.

Anyway, when my shift begun, the first shifter scuttled off to bed, and I sat alone at the fire. Every ten minutes or so, I was supposed to get up to walk the lantern perimeter with my super-powerful flashlight, checking to make sure there weren't any elephants, lions, or hyenas in sight (all three of which have been at previous sleepouts). Truth be told, I ended scouting considerably more often than that, because I would go check every time I heard a tree cracking (elephant), a distant roar (lion), or general rustling of grass (anything). And I heard those things quite a bit. I also had an elephant sighting twice more during my shift (though I think it was the same elephant as before, just going back and forth along the river bank). There was one particular moment which got my adrenaline running, which was when it sounded like a baboon was moving around and vocalizing, then there was some rustling, then an elephant vocalizing and some bigger rustling, then a full out screaming fit between the elephant and baboon (at first I thought there might have been a lion involved too, but it might have just been a baboon making a roar-like sound). This lasted for a good second, and then silence for another second, followed by the loudest elephant trumpet I've ever heard. I looked around at the rest of the camp, but to my complete and genuine surprise, they all slept through the whole ordeal. I have no idea how, because those noises gave a new meaning to the phrase "Rumble in the Jungle" (or rather, they would, if we were in a jungle and not the bushveld).

Honestly, though, the most nerve-wracking part was sitting in the middle of all the other people. When walking the perimeter, when you hear something, you know what it is, and you know it is what it is. But when you're surrounded by people, whose mouths/noses emit a panoply of different-sounding snores, you don't know what's what. Sometimes I'd hear a heavy breath and think it was an elephant. Other times I'd hear the flapping of someone's uvula and think it was a malicious growl. And heaven forbid someone moved around in the their sleeping bag. Honestly, it would have been easier on the nerves to simply walk the perimeter the whole time. Of course, then I wouldn't be near the fire. You can see my predicament.

Snorers aside, the watch went without anything big enough for me to wake up Katie and Joe (had the elephant actually come down to where we were, I might have changed my tune), so at 11pm, I woke up the next person on watch, gave them my flashlight (because it had proven to be the best light we had available to us), and within two minutes, we had another elephant sighting. (Again, I think it was the same one.) Once he walked away, I cozied up into my sleeping bag and drifted off to sleep.

Despite it being a chilly night, and despite being in a sleeping bag with no tent and the world's thinnest mattress pad, and despite being surrounded by snorers and in an area with wild animals, I slept like a baby, or like a like, or like a baby hit by a log. Really, I don't take for granted my ability to sleep soundly. When I woke up the next morning and everyone was talking about their watches, I overheard some people saying along the lines of, "Yeah, everyone was making noise...except Andrew." Apparently, I was sleeping so still and peacefully that they practically thought I was dead. So I basically now have numerous eyewitness accounts that I don't snore.

After a quick breakfast (during which some people had s'mores, which seemed somehow wrong as a morning thing to me), we packed up everything from our campsite and drove home, where we wiped down everything, and got ready for the rest of the day. We started by going back to the section of the river where we had previously cleaned up a bunch of barbed wire to continue the job. I found myself occupied the entire time by a single fencepost that had found its way into the ground. This thing was like my Professor Moriarty - not only was there about 8 feet of rebar stuck in the ground, but there were wires every two inches, most of which had also been stuck into the ground through years of flooding and vegetation growth. Finally, with the assistance of a couple other people and some wire cutters, I finally got the son-of-a-gun out just as everyone else was getting ready to go.

We put all the stuff in the truck, and then headed to our scrap metal collection area, when we got a call on the radio that Brian, the reserve manager, had spotted a python in one of the ponds in our Buffalo Camp area. Almost without hesitation, everything we were doing was dropped, and we raced out to the pond to find the python, which had gone into the water. Joe and Garth, both of whom apparently love wrestling snakes, decided to go in and pull it out. And man, what a monster. The thing was about four meters (13 feet) long, and at least six inches in diameter. I was able to capture the whole thing on video, but the python was none too happy about being pulled out from its resting spot, and so they decided to let it go before I had the chance to take hold of it. It stayed where it was for a bit, just staring at us. I swear, this thing was the kind you'd expect to be fighting Ice Cube and J-Lo. Very cool!

After that excitement, we got back to the normal humdrum of putting the scrap metal away, and then went home for lunch. After the meal, I was asked to play Frisbee with the American girl and the British boy (who, from this point on, I'll refer to as the lovebirds when talking about them collectively). Of course I accepted, and I immediately felt like a third wheel. A third wheel who was better at the activity than either of the two proper wheels, but a third wheel nonetheless. Still, I made the most out of it - it's Frisbee, after all. When they both said they were finished and walked to...I dunno, somewhere, together, I threw the Frisbee to myself a few times - surprisingly both challenging and fun, if you've never tried it yourself - and then went back in.

Later that day, we drove out to the same scenic view overlooking the reserve that I'd been to on my first week. As I've said multiple times already, I think I'm becoming a little numb to scenic views unless they are really something, but that doesn't diminish how nice it is. Also, we were able to see elephants again from here, albeit only with binoculars (it was the same two breeding herds we'd been seeing the last few days). It was decided that our team name (there's one every month) had to involve elephants in it. Quick tangent - I had already come up with a team name that I thought was pretty clever: the "LangaLangoliers". The idea being in reference to the Stephen King story "The Langoliers" which was about these gremlins that basically ate time, and the fact that so much of our time was spent in the LangaLanga section of the park. I eventually came up with a compromise that combined the two things we dealt with lots in our month (and rhymed, to boot) - "Langaliers and Elephant Ears". After a decidedly unspirited debate at that night's dinner (mainly because there weren't any other options provided), that was chosen as the name.

Not much else happened that night, though I will note that the British boy never went to his bed that night. Neither did the American girl. Hmmmmmm..............

The next morning, we had a research route, but the real event was our BIRD WARS competition. I actually managed to do better than I thought I would - and by that, I mean getting on the board at all - but I was absolutely no competition for the Canadian girl, who was a) a six month vet, and b) interested in birds. She blew us all away. My only points were for correctly identifying the call of a Cape Turtle Dove, but even that was difficult, because the doves were trolling me (and I am aware I've used the word "trolling" three times in this entry). First, they were calling right before BIRD WARS began, but stopped right as soon as we did begin, so it didn't count. Then when I heard one calling later, it stopped as soon as I called it out, so nobody could here it. It was only by God's grace that I finally managed to get it on the third try before someone else did (which would have been terrible). But yeah, I still suck at birds.

After getting back home and having a quick second breakfast, it was time for a drive through the sable breeding camps for number-checking. The sun had come out in full force, so I decided to take my shirt off for the duration of the drive; while my face and arms have tanned up quite nicely in the African sun, my torso is still as pallid as ever, so I tried evening it out, if only slightly. The drive itself was fairly, but - and I don't think most people realized this - it was the last time in the Game Viewer for all but two of us. Quite bittersweet.

After lunch (a bacon/avocado salad which I helped make, and during the process realized that I'm a complete avocado snob...as any good Californian should be), we had plenty of time to just do our own thing before the end-of-the-month party began. I mainly used the time to sort through all the photos I had taken in the last two weeks. I managed to narrow it down to 335 pictures. That may not sound narrow at all, but I started with 1,400 (again, just of the last two weeks), so I was pretty pleased with myself.

I also used the opportunity to think about all the folks leaving, and where I stood with them. Of them all, I think I was going to miss the Canadian girl the most, which I would have never thought would be the case when I implied she was some sort of ice queen a month ago. I don't know if it had to do with the two girls leaving in the middle of the month, or a "I'm-about-to-start-a-new-adventure" euphoria, but the last two weeks, it's like she's been a completely new person, and one that I really enjoyed. Even-tempered, but fun and kind. Makes me wish her six-month stay was actually a seven-month one. I'm super slow at making friends, but I think given enough time, she definitely could have become one. The American girl, I think, I also made great strides with in the last two weeks, primarily, I'd say, from our experiences going to Blyde Canyon last week. She definitely can't hold her liquor as well as she thinks she can, though. The British girl, I have pretty much the same relationship I've always had with her - completely amicable, but also fairly shallow, as I can't, for example, have deep conversations with her. The British boy I had the platonic ideal of a two-week male roommate relationship with, so no complaints about him. The older British guy has become increasingly curmudgeonly with each passing day, so much so that I think he's gotten on the nerves of the program leaders. He also practically openly mocked the British girl in front of everyone one morning (he had heard a story about a former guest asking if zebra eggs were striped, and so told her to be on the lookout for one), which I didn't think was very cool. While he's been completely civil to me, there's more than just myself here, so it may be for the best that he's not staying for any more weeks. The Dutch girl...she's basically been a non-entity to me since she arrived (mainly because she's very quiet and meek), so I don't know if I'll even notice she's gone, as horrible as that sounds.

Anyway, reflection time finished - it was time to party! Earlier in the day, when the topic of drinking came up, one of the others asked me if I was planning on joining in. "Nope," I replied flatly. "Oh, so you're not going to dance and be doing things?" she asked. I quickly gave a puzzled look, and then laughed. "What does one have to do with the other?" Though I did recognize that nobody here has seen me at a party before. If you've never seen me yourself, here's a quick primer - I don't drink, but I dance. Actually, I dance. I've alternatively referred to my dancing as "The Oscilloscope" in reference to how it gets jumpier with more intense music or just "Crazy Legs". You know how they say, "Dance like nobody's watching"? Well, I dance like there's nobody in the immediate vicinity, which often turns out to be the case, or else I'd end up just smacking them with one of my limbs. True story - when I was at a Playboy party at a Comic-Con a while back (not as risque as you'd think, by the by), I went on their dance floor and did my thing. One of the guards actually came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and asked, "Are you alright, son? Have you had too much to drink?"

So yeah, I dance.

Anyhoo, the evening began with a end-of-the-month ceremony. Well, "ceremony" might be too formal a name for it. Remember that merit/demerit board I was talking about previously. Well, apparently, it's all just a big drinking game. If you got a merit for something, you'd take a shot from a green (apple-infused) alcohol (vodka, maybe?), and if you got a demerit, you'd take a shot from a red (berry-infused) alcohol. Thankfully, everyone respected my non-drinking ways, and so I was able to volunteer other folks to take my shots for me (and I had a lot, because people kept giving me merits, even when I told them not to). In some ways, this was almost more fun, and I ended up trolling (again!) some of the others. That said, when the American girl and I got a last-minute merit for being the "mom" and "dad" of our trip, I decided I'd go for it. The stuff was absolutely nasty - the sickeningly sweet fruit syrup mixed with alcohol - but I'm willing to indulge people the pleasures of watching me shudder while swallowing the stuff. Also during this time, we had a slideshow of our "highlight reel" - set to Johnny Clegg's "Scatterlings of Africa", which I think my mom would appreciate. Additionally, all the people who were leaving got their certificates.

And after having a delicious braai meal, the living room was cleared, and the first music was put on. The first song was another Johnny Clegg one - I guess it makes sense that he'd be well-known in South Africa - and then it got more mainstream from there. And then I started dancing. I always love watching people react to seeing me dance for the first time; they are completely flabbergasted that I could possibly have that much energy. (Note, this is one of the reasons that I don't drink at parties [aside from the fact that I just don't drink]; I know from experience that I'm a sleepy drunk, and I'd never be able to pull off my moves while anything but sober.) The thing about my dancing, though, is that when you're doing a lot of energetic stuff, it takes a lot of energy (thesis statement of the year, that). So when I do one dance, I have to sit down and take some water for one or two of them, usually ones that I don't feel have enough "flow" in them. I'm like a venomous snake - producing venom takes a lot of energy, and so they are very particular about what they bite and inject into. Same for me: my dancing takes a lot out, and so I choose my "strikes" carefully.

There were also a few songs ("Bohemian Rhapsody", "Country Roads") that didn't really merit dancing, but rather sing-alongs with added choreography. I really should become a coach for choreographed lip-syncing. All in all, through strategic decisions of when to dance and when not to, I managed to outlast most everyone else, until the generally collective decision to go to bed at 3am. On the whole, it wasn't the craziest or most awesome party I've been to in my life, but then, I work in the video game industry, and seeing as we're out in the middle of nowhere, I thought it was quite fun.

I got up for breakfast at about 9am today, and saw that most of the folks were awake, mostly none the worse for wear. The two lovebirds, though, who I think drank a bit beyond their capacity, actually never came inside to sleep, choosing instead one of the outdoor couches. Whether any shenanigans were involved (which, incidentally, would technically be considered illegal in the US), I can't say, but I have my theories (Theory 1 = "Yes"). They were in for a quite literally rude awakening, though, when the sprinklers were aimed directly at them and turned on. I also heard there was some regurgitation involved between the two of them (though hopefully not between them), but I didn't really have any interest in further investigation on the subject. Needless to say, they got quite hammered, and as of my writing this, they are both seemingly out of commission for the day. Probably not the best position to be in when you need to pack to leave, but who am I to judge.

As for my condition...well, my feet are still quite sore. Jumping barefoot on ceramic tile for five hours will do that to ya. And I've been using the day to relax, doing pretty much nothing. Which is nice.

It's hard to believe I've been here for a month already; it's passed so quickly. And as of tomorrow, everything will be shifting up again. Six people leaving, seven people arriving, and a whole host of new adventures...or possibly differently-tinted versions of the adventures we had this month, with the occasional serendipitous event. Who knows? Well, you will, eventually, because I'll tell you. So there.

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