Entry #029: Saturday,August 17 2013 (Pidwa Wilderness Reserve, South Africa)

So, I think I can safely say at this point that my whole "let's post a short blog every night" plan for my time at Askari has been a sound failure. Honestly, if we didn't have as much time as we do on weekends, I don't know if I'd be able to even give you the weekly updates. But that's good, because it means the days (and nights) are full. And Lord Almighty, was that true this week. In some ways, it seems like the week rushed by, and yet still managed to be really long. Lots of things happening, so let's get to it!

So, I'm actually going to talk about Saturday night a bit, because we did some stuff after I finished my last entry. It wasn't, like, really exciting stuff, mostly just games for people to play while they drank. Not so much drinking games, though (I always come out on top for those, seeing as you don't become inebriated when you're just drinking a bottle of soda). We first did one where you write a collective story. Everyone writes down a first part on a sheet of paper, then covers it and passes it, and then this repeats with a second part, then a third. To be perfectly honest, I'd never heard of it before, but I found it quite enjoyable. The English boy and myself seemed to have a penchant for writing long, elaborate sections; I think we should have just passed a sheet between ourselves and see where it got us. Then we played the ultimate slumber party game: Truth or Dare. Funnily enough, while a good half of the people were completely "unwilling" to play (I use quotation marks because they ended up playing), I was completely up for it. The thing is, so long as you're not doing anything dangerous or illegal, I'm game to do most dares, and as far as truth goes, I have almost no issue telling the truth. And when most of the questions are sex-related (as can be the case for a group comprised of 18-23-year-olds), it was especially simple. Example of a Truth I got: Have you ever been in a gay bar or strip club? "Nope." I also got a Dare: Lick the television five times. How simple is that? Five quite pronounced licks later, I was done. Honestly, even though we took turns picking out items (well, kinda - we did this system where we're count [with one, two, or three number clumps] to 21, and whoever hit 21 would pick a slip out of a hat. I did nothing to prevent it from coming to me, but it only happened a couple of times), I would have been fine going through every single one of the items. But hey, that's just me.

Oh, and in case you were wondering what my contributions were: the Dare was pretty straightforward - Pour a glass of water over your head. I thought it was pretty fair; I didn't even specify what temperature the water had to be. The Truth, though, was a bit less standard - Who are you? We had little in the way of anonymity when it came to the slips, so when the Northampton girl got the Truth and asked what it meant, I explained. "Who are you? Not 'what is your name?', not 'what is your occupation?' but 'who are you?'" It had the intended effect of making her question herself and dig a bit deeper than she had planned. I don't even think there was a final answer given all night, but that was hardly the point anyway.

Sunday was, as you might expect at this point, uneventful by its nature, but it seemed like I was the only one who didn't mind this. Everyone else kept going on about how bored they were. See, they were originally thinking of going to Blyde Canyon over the weekend to go kloofing (that's jumping from high distances into rivers). But this and that and the other thing happened, and they ended up having to push it back to this weekend (which, as it turns out, is even better for the guy staying home [that is, me] because everyone is going, so I have the whole house to myself. Ahhh....). But because they were stuck home instead of doing adventuorous things, I guess it seemed even more boring for them. I was fine for my part; I always had things to do. Uploading my Weeks 5-6 pictures to Facebook, for one. (And you can see them now, if you so choose.) I was also following up with folks in Cape Town to get my obsidian piece put into jewelry. The main problem I've been finding with custom jewelers is that they seem to mostly work with precious metals, which drives the price higher than I'm honestly willing to pay.

Oh, but I did manage to get the last murder of our "Murder" game in on Sunday. My final target was the Czech boy, with our pool net, in Katie and Joe's house. Fortune seemed to smile on me, because sometime in the afternoon, I was called out to see a very large sac spider in the pool. As we were all out there, someone said that we should let Katie and Joe know. The Czech boy volunteered to go into their house. I saw my chance, so followed shortly thereafter with the net. I went inside the house with them and said I had the spider with me, and to take a look. I told the Czech boy to hold the net for me for a second, and after briefly pretending I lost the spider, told him he'd been murdered. With that, I had five victims under my belt (which, being out of nine folks total, is pretty good I'd say) and was the Highlander of the group. But yeah, otherwise another lazy Sunday, ending with a beautiful sunset to bid Taiwanese Girl 1 adieu on her final night.

This bittersweet feeling continued into the next day when we were going back into Langalanga to check on the boma and the hyenas. We had last been there on Thursday, and I now genuinely forget if we had left the gate open or closed. Open, I think. But either way, we found the bait impala still on the ground...or, at least, a few portions. There was the head, and the legs, and...yeah, that's about it. I had had my eye on the head for quite some time, and so called dibs to grab it when this was said and done to get it down to a skull and send it home, similar to what the Canadian girl had done with an impala skull of her own. I think most people figured I was joking. But anyway, the camera traps showed Jaggedy, replete with collar, coming in and out of the boma several times during the weekend (which, I guess, would mean we did leave the gate open). This meant she was used to it, and so odds were good she'd be back that night.

The town trip was fairly humdrum. After saying goodbye to Taiwanese Girl 1 (during which I noticed her goodbye to me was surprisingly short, seeing as she had known me the longest; I figured it was because I wasn't that kind of emotional guy), we just kind of...meandered for some time. I'd been to this same shopping center five times now, and I wasn't buying souvenirs, so...yeah. Not much for me to do except waddle around like an idiot. I had tried to convince everyone to eat at a new place for lunch (since I'd been at the same restaurant for the past three Hoedspruit trips), but I was quite handily outvoted. After finishing our meal (in which everyone except me got desserts, despite having claimed to be stuffed), we walked back to the main center, where we...eventually...saw the van come in with the new folks. We said our hellos and how-ya-dos, got some groceries, and headed home.

I don't have any real take on the new folks yet. They're a couple from Ohio (so I'll refer to them as "American Guy" and "American Girl"), but I haven't seen any part of them that stands out yet. I have yet to determine if this is because they're naturally like that, or if it's because they're coming into a new, already established group. See, I think doing this for the latter two weeks in a month is a big disadvantage, because - normally - most of the people at the beginning of a month are new (though, oddly enough, this wasn't the case when I first arrived). Coming in afterward means you're a newbie not with one or two vets, but with eight vets. So I think the intimidation can work to make people act a little differently than they would otherwise. That said, they seem to be getting along with everyone fine, including me. They seem really interested in my trip, and since I love talking about it, that's a plus.

Oh, and they seem to be good luck, most definitely. As we were driving back to the house, we saw a group of vultures on a tree just near our driveway. A potential kill in the area. Sure enough, within an hour, we got a call saying there was a lion just down the driveway. We all hop in the Game Viewer, and find one of the Askari Pride males (which only I had seen previously) was sitting on the ground, belly protruding quite jollily. That's a good start to your time here, I'd say.

After an early dinner (it was my turn, and the meal was chili con carne, which I don't like cooking, because I have to resist every urge in my body to kick up the heat about 20 times; seriously, all my chili recipies are better), it was time again to wait outside the boma for Jaggedy. Since my group had done the late shift last time, we got to do the early shift this time. We also had the American couple join us. We bundled up, hopped in the Game Viewer, and made our way to Langalanga. Along the way, Katie and I got to talking. "I hope we see her tonight," she said. I replied, "I bet you she'll be there when we arrive, waiting for us to close her in." We got to the boma at 7pm, and after getting a false alarm with a duiker in the bushes, we waited. But, um, not long. Within five, at most ten, minutes, we hear the crunching of bones. We drive up a bit closer to the gate and, sure enough, there's a hyena inside, happily gnawing on the remaining impala leg, trying to get at the marrow inside. And what'd'ya know, she's wearing a collar. Somehow, my optimistic throwaway statement on the way there proved accurate; she had indeed been in the boma, ready for us to capture her. We spent some time just watching her (and listening to Katie borderline ogle her favorite creature), locked up the gate, make sure the electric fences were set (though, disconcertingly, it was at the very low 0.3 kV), and then drove back home to tell everyone of our success. You could tell the second group's emotion was a mix of disappointment for not catching her, and relief for being able to stay home. All in all, a successful night, and another notch in the belts of our new good luck charm volunteers.

The next morning, we checked the boma to make sure that Jaggedy was still inside. To our initial concern, all we found at first were some diggings around the fence, and no hyena. We were horrified at the thought that she might have escaped, after all the effort put into catching her. However, as we did some more investigation, we found that none of the diggings were big enough for a hyena to get through, and after some thorough ground treading, we finally spotted her. Our confidence boosted yet again, we locked the gate and drove home, to make plans for the vet to come in that night. Not that I did that part - that was all Katie and Joe. I just enjoyed a long midmorning break and showed the new folks some of the ropes around the house until we were called to do some tree protection.

I think I may have mentioned it before, but tree protection is probably my favorite activity here. Just hauling rocks from here to there is quite cathartic, and having a clear idea of how it will benefit the area makes it even more satisfying. That said, the most exciting part of the tree protection came when someone said they saw a lion not but a hundred meters from us. We dropped what we were doing (in the cases of people holding rocks, quite literally), jumped in the Game Viewer, and followed. Turns out, there were three lionesses making their way down to the river for a drink. Assuming they were all from the Askari Pride - and really, there's no reason they wouldn't be - that meant that Azana, the errant lioness we were chasing around Langalanga for my first month, was finally back out into the open system, confirmed 100%. So that's good. In any case, after drinking, the lionesses (all of which looked super fat, so they probably had eaten recently), lied down in the shade, and stayed there for at least the next several hours.

Meanwhile, we finished up our tree protection (during which we finally completed the ring of rocks around one leadwood tree, and began work on a second, but not before having to move a large fallen tree. When setting this down, a delinquent branch that I hadn't seen scraped me on my face, taking off a decent amount of skin. Not quite the cool scar I was hoping for, but it may have to do), had lunch, did as much of a check of the numbers in the sable breeding camps as we could manage, and then headed out to the boma before sunset. There, we met up with Pete, the same veterinarian that darted and treated El Diablo the Sable (and is apparently the best - and most expensive - wildlife vet in the whole of South Africa). He had a mostly new team of volunteers with him, thankfully not including the girl who had dropped the sable's head on the back of a pickup truck, re-opening its wounds. The plans was to try to walk up to the hyena and dart it; Jaggedy was one of the more relaxed hyenas, so she may have been down for it. Should that not work, a fresh impala carcass was brought along to act as bait.

Thankfully, Jaggedy was acting quite agreeably for the procedure, and was darted before she began freaking out. However, she was a resilient one, as she needed an additional two doses of the sedative before she was clonked out. When the vet was satisfied that she was sedated, we came in, put her on a blanket, and carried her out of the boma. There, her collar was removed, and then we weighed her, which was an awkward process involving a block-and-tackle, an enormous tripod, and a blanket that kept ripping. A few more shots from the vet (who noted that she was producing milk, which could be an indicator of pregnancy), and then he gave her a sedative reversal dosage. We set her back inside the boma and waited. When she didn't move for some time, the vet gave another, stronger dose of the reversal agent, and in a couple minutes, she was up and about, though quite groggy-looking. Even so, she managed to find her way to the carcass quite easily.

Having been completely successful with that entire procedure, we went home. I was starving, but dinner (a Moroccan Sausage Bake which is 100% nothing like any meal you'd find in Morocco) was delayed, as some of the folks saw an elephant outside. This was a bit humdrum to me, but seeing as nobody else had seen elephants here, they were all flipping their lids. So much so, in fact, that they called Joe, who got the Game Viewer out and took us on an impromptu drive to find them. We drove for about a half an hour, and though we could hear several (and I could smell them, to boot), we ended up only seeing one, an adult male in musth, his face covered in sweat and his legs covered in urine. Again, our good luck charms seemed to serve us well. And, having successfully seen the somehow-elusive elephant, we went home, had a late dinner, and went to bed.

The next morning, we went back to the boma to check on Jaggedy. All we could find on initial inspection was a half-eaten impala carcass, but no hyena. While most of the group went through the boma to look for any signs, the Czech boy and I walked around the perimeter, looking for potential diggings under the fence. We found two - one near the back (which I dismissed because the only tracks nearby were of a warthog) and one at the front gate, which seemed pretty small. I decided to check the camera traps set up around the area. One on the outside showed a hyena in front of the gate at 7:45 (about half an hour after we left), and one on the inside showed Jaggedy taking pieces of impala meat to the gate at 8:05. I had two theories: First, one of Jaggedy's cubs had arrived, and she was passing meat out to it. Second, the hyena was Jaggedy in both cases, and she had escaped, but the camera trap clocks were off. Looking closer at the pictures on the outside, the hyena did seem to have compressed fur on the neck area, and then we found some fur strands caught on the underside of the front gate. When we told Katie our findings, she checked the traps, and sure enough, the one on the inside was a half-hour slow, meaning that within half an hour of waking up, Jaggedy had torn up half of the impala and escaped. Pretty impressive! It also meant that this whole endeavor was done!

Before leaving, I noted that I wanted the head of the original impala that we had used to lure Jaggedy, which was still sitting in a tree. It was a great specimen, and I wanted to skeletonize it and send the skull home. Joe noted that doing this within two weeks is a really tight turnaround, but I said I'd rather try and fail than never try at all. So, I took it out of the tree, put it in a garbage bag that I had the foresight to bring with me, and - sitting in the tracker seat - held the bag at arm's distance to keep the smell as far from everyone as possible. When we got back home, I put the head in an unoccupied aviary, and put some water to keep it from drying out. I've since been adding water everyday, and watching the thing get eaten by beetles and maggots. It's not a pretty procedure - and it smells, quite literally, like death - but that's how these things work. I really wish those beetles and maggots would speed up, though; I'm running out of time. (If I don't make it, I'm considering just paying Katie and Joe to send it for me when they get back in September. But let's hope it doesn't come to that.)

Later in the day, we split up into two teams. The other team went out to do some lantana spraying, whilst my team went out to clean up a small patch of barbed wire that I had found a couple weeks back on a different spraying mission. Or, at least, I thought it was a small patch. Turns out, it went on...and on...and on. For at least a football field, we just kept finding this stuff. We ran out of time before running out of barbed wire, and there was no signs of it ending. That's one of the things I find amazing. They've been driving past this area for six, seven years, and the only way this wire was found is because I literally tripped over it. Had I not, it could have stayed there for years more. Makes me wonder how much other trash the farmers left here. Anyway, after lunch, our last trip of the day was a research route through Buffalo Camp (the camp with no buffalo). For the most part, it was pretty uneventful, but we did manage to see another case of giraffes necking/fighting. Well, kinda. It was almost like they were only doing it for show, because it was the most halfhearted, limp-wristed fighting I'd ever seen. And I managed to get it on film, which I'll put up at some point.

Also, I really like duikers. I'll just note that here. The common duiker is like what would happen if you mixed a deer, a dog, and a rabbit. They're not as physically impressive as kudu or sable, but when they move, they move. Anyway, just wanted to make that point.

We also found out on Wednesday (because, with the hyena chapter finished, we could finally get a normal schedule printed out) that we were going to have our sleepout a week early. (The rationale being that we will be doing fire work next week, which is as unpredictable in timing as anything.) By that they meant Thursday, so the sleepout was here before we knew it. We had to earn it, though, with hours upon hours of physical labor. Interstingly, it involved both my favorite activity - tree protection - and my least favorite - road clearing. I dunno, it has nothing to do with the fact that we're killing plants instead of protecting them (we're mostly killing jerk plants), it just is that cutting and sawing and pulling branches involves all of the strain of hauling rocks around, but none of the catharsis. Also, thorns. It's probably the activity you get the most cut up in.

Anyway, after doing those two things, everyone took a shower and prepped for the sleepout before heading out. We went to a different place than last time; instead of being on the river, we stayed in an erosion zone off Flakeythorn Road. It also had a bunch of rounded-off tree stumps, meaning it was a preferred rubbing spot for rhinos. We set up camp, played some frisbee (during which I slightly rolled my ankle stepping into a snake hole), and then sat around and talked. After the sun went down and dinner was being prepared, we began playing some games, which seems to be big in this group. There were a number of guessing games (figure out the profession, guess the rule for allowing objects at a party) as well as a memory game of going around the circle, forming a (run-on) sentence one word at a time. It was all quite fun, and along with making s'mores (something I hope they keep up after I'm gone) kept us up until, maybe, 10pm or so (as opposed to the last sleepout, where everyone - despite saying they'd be up until midnight - dozed off at 8:30). Unfortunately, I didn't get a good night watch shift this time. I knew I wouldn't. We got to choose numbers, and I was the last one to pick, so I got the leftover number: 1. I knew that 1 wouldn't be chosen for either the first or last shifts - that wouldn't be "random" enough. As such, I was stuck with a 2:30-3:30 shift. Thankfully, I know how to stay comfortable and asleep on these sleepouts. The trick is not to sleep with just your head near the side, but with your whole body facing it, so everything stays nice and toasty.

Anyway, my watch was...uninteresting, at least compared to what it was like last time. No elephants walking by, no lions roaring, no inter-species fights. Just a few warning calls from a bushbuck (it sounds like a dog barking) and nothing else. There was also fewer people snoring, and the worst of the bunch (the British boy) was a snore I was familiar with, so it didn't phase me. I guess it was good, because I wasn't on edge the whole time. It did take me a bit of time getting back to sleep when the shift was done, but once I did, I didn't get up until dawn. People again told me I looked like I was dead, I was so peaceful. After a quick breakfast (mainly consisting of leftover digestive biscuits and hot chocolate), we packed up everything and went home.

Throughout Friday, you could tell most people had their minds set on two things - first, how tired they were (considering I was feeling pretty exhausted after a relatively good sleep, I can only imagine what it was like for the folks who didn't have it as good), and how excited they were to be going out for the weekend. I got a bunch of questions of "what are you going to be doing by yourself all weekend?" Not in any sort of suspicious or accusatory way, but seemingly and genuinely curious. Almost like they couldn't imagine me not being bored out of my mind, since they get bored on weekends, even when they're all together. I dunno, maybe it's just easier for me because I've been alone so much that I always have something I could do while alone. And in any case, having the place to myself for a good 24+ hours seems like heaven to me. I love the folks I'm working with, but damn if I don't like my "me" time.

Anyway, we did a couple of activities on Friday (which turned out to be a super hot day, which was exacerbated by the fact that I hadn't removed my long johns from the sleepout), including taking the camera traps at the boma and placing them at some of the known brown hyena dens in the area. Should Jaggedy actually be having cubs, there is an argument to be made that she may return to one of her previous successful dens, so we want to be able to keep an eye on them. Finding them was like looking for needles in a haystack, as it was all based on GPS coordinates, and involved us trudging through all sorts of painful bushes while following an arrow on a positioning unit. Once finishing that and having lunch, the rest of the group picked up their cats for the weekend, and we did some more fence painting using that lovely caustic black paint. And then immediately afterward, we had to clean all that paint off to go for a night on the "town". I use quotation marks because, as far as I could tell (and I couldn't see anything, as I was lying in the trunk of the full van), we were nowhere near any town.

We had dinner and drinks at a hunting reserve that had no clients that night, and thus invited all the volunteer groups in the area to join up. In theory, this would have been a great way to meet up with people from other reserves (some of whom were Askari graduates), but it ended up with groups mostly keeping to themselves. We were there for several hours, playing pool, talking, doing shots (well, everyone else did shots; I just filmed them), and some more talking. By midnight, though, I was thoroughly ready for bed, as were some other folks. Katie said we'd be leaving, but then got caught up talking to one of the other groups (you know how it goes). The only way I got us leaving for real was to flat-out walk outside (ostensibly to look at the stars). Everyone got home and clonked out.

Today was a pretty smooth day. We got up and went on a research route on Pidwa South. I hate doing research routes on Pidwa South, because there's seemingly nothing down there, but it takes about 80 minutes to drive to the starting point of the route. And even though it was really cold when we began (45 degrees, roughly), the temperature got to 92 degrees by the time the route was done. And in four hours, we had three animal sightings. So yeah, Pidwa South isn't my favorite. We did kind of make up for it close to home by running across a breeding herd of elephants, one of which got within three feet of being able to touch me with his trunk. And this got everyone excited because, again, they were really looking for elephants.

After getting home and having lunch, everyone packed their things, and then drove off, leaving me on my lonesome. They also took a good portion of the food, as they didn't have any intention of going out to eat for dinner. Thankfully, they left me with some of the basic stuff, so I didn't starve. I decided against going with the recipe book meals - why cook a ornate chicken "pot roast" for just one person when I can just bake a couple of potatoes and pan fry the chicken breasts? So I just did that, and right before digging in, Katie came in to the house and asked if I saw the elephants outside. We went out and there were at least three elephants right on the other side of the fence. They were a bit skittish - one got the hell out of dodge when he heard the sound of us stepping on leaves, but we still got a few good looks at them. We appreciated the irony of the situation - the group has been waiting for weeks to see elephants, and as soon as they leave, the elephants literally just stand at the fence.

All in all, an involved week, I'd say. A good one to have the weekend to yourself afterward. But it's hard to believe that it's my last normal weekend here. Next weekend we have the going-away party, then a pack-up day, and then I'm heading out of here. Has it really been 7 weeks? I know it sounds trite, but man does time fly. I'm curious to see what the last week brings - controlled burning is one of the activities I've been interested in since I first heard about it last month. We'll see.

For now, I'm just going to enjoy my home-alone weekend!

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