Entry #028: Saturday, August 10, 2013 (Pidwa Wilderness Reserve, South Africa)

I'm gonna level with ya, folks. I'm not much in the mood for doing much writing at the moment. I think it's been a combination of having multiple late nights waiting for a brown hyena to enter an enclosed are (which means long-hours, no talking or moving, and then coming back and needing to go to bed), uploading more of my travel pictures, and a general bit of lethargy. I guess you could say in some regards, I've just not been in the mood this week. So, apologies, but I'm going to cheat a little bit today by combining some quick what-we-do's with some metapost information. Yay!

So, we'll start with some pictures. I've mentioned multiple times on this blog that you can keep up to date on my photos by following me on Facebook (well, as up to date as I am, which until this week, was about three months behind).

Morocco 1  - Tetouan
Morocco 2 - Martil
Morocco 3 - The Road to Meknes
Morocco 4 - Meknes
Morocco 5 - Volubilis
Morocco 6 - Marrakech and Misc
Morocco 7 - Zagora
Morocco 8 - Camel Trek
Italy 1 - Florence
Italy 2 - Naples
Italy 3 - Amalfi Coast
Italy 4 - Rome
Kenya 1 - Nairobi
Kenya 2 - Mombasa
Tanzania 1 - Samaritan Village
Tanzania 2 - Mount Kilimanjaro
South Africa 1 - Johannesburg
South Africa 2 - Askari Weeks 1-2
South Africa 3 - Askari Weeks 3-4
And last but certainly not least, a collection of pictures of my traveling companion: Factoria, a little stuffed monkey that my sister gave me as I left - Factoria the Monkey Travels the World

And of course, there are plenty more coming. Check back soon to see my Askari Weeks 5-6 photos, and all that jazz.

Alright, now for some quick updates about what's been going on in the past week. I know I always say "I'm going to blaze through them" and then still spend paragraph after paragraph writing, but this time I really am gonna just go topline.

Overall, the week was centered around two different activities - the attempt to catch one of the reserve's brown hyenas in the Langalanga boma (a boma, again, being a smaller fenced-in area to keep track of an animal easier), and week-long reptile trap work. The reasoning behind the former is because the particular hyena we were trying to catch, Jaggedy (named as such because of her jagged ears), was part of the reserve's earlier research on brown hyenas, and as such, wore a tracking collar. When the research was finished, all of these collars were supposed to fall off, but Jaggedy's didn't. So, to make life more comfortable for her, she was to be drawn into the boma, where she'd be darted by a vet, have the collar removed, and then released with a freer neck. As for the reptile traps, that's apparently something that's done every couple of months to get a general sense of the reptiles and amphibians that are hanging out around the reserve. It involves, in a most basic sense, putting buckets in the ground and checking them once or twice a day. Any caught reptiles or amphibians are then recorded and released. Apparently, they've never done a set of traps in the middle of winter, as it's not really when they're at their most populous. Still, that meant that there was no status quo for future winter comparisons.

So that were the overall big projects for the week. In terms of a day-to-day, we'll skip Sunday, because nothing really worth talking about happened that day (which seems to be how Sunday's go around here...which isn't necessarily a bad thing). Monday began with a drive around a portion of the reserve to look for any signs of rhinos. This is just something that needs to be done when they aren't spotted for a couple of weeks, and especially when unexplained gunshots are heard - as happened over the weekend. Poaching is a very real consideration, and so having an understanding of where all the rhinos are is quite important. It was also a chance for many folks to sit in the tracker chair - the unprotected seat on the hood of the car meant for people to sit in while looking at tracks. It's also called the "bait chair", for what it's worth. Didn't end up seeing any rhinos in the flesh, but we did see some fresh tracks, which was enough to satisfy our purposes. Later in the day, we began clearing up the boma in preparation for the hyena to be lured in. This involved clearing up some of the boma's inner roads, setting up some temporary electric barriers, and checking the fence for any holes that warthogs have dug through (as a hyena could easily slip through). On the whole, the process was pretty straightforward and easy...except for the plants. I've said it before and I'll say it again - you're more likely to get hurt via plant than by animal here. And who knew grasses could be so painful. There's this one type that has a v-shaped...I dunno, I don't think it's a seed, but it's something...and it will always stick to your clothes, and brushing it away basically spears your fingers with a little point that hurts way more than it should for its size. And then there are these things called black-jacks, which have little clusters of spines that fall off at the slightest disturbance, like the tiniest porcupine, and lord help you if they somehow get on the inside of your clothing, because then you just feel poking and scratching, which makes you worried you have ticks on you. And then you have the normal thorny plants.

Seriously, plants are jerks.

Anyway, the only other major thing we did on Monday was set up the reptile traps, which actually had some clever elements to it. At it's most basic, you just dig a hole and put a bucket in the hole, along with a little moist dirt. But then you put up little mesh fences on either side of the hole to direct the creatures into the hole. Then you have a little overhang to protect from excess sun and rain. Then you have a little rope coming from this overhang, so any mammals that fall in can clamber their way out. Then you have some little tubes filled with cloth placed inside (for small mammals who can't climb out to stay warm) and a wet sponge (for amphibians to keep wet). It's all quite well thought-out.

And they work. The next morning, before leaving for town, I looked and found a frog in my bucket. So yay on that. I named him Commodus (as my personal rule for naming animals is to do so after Roman political figures). We put him in a little container with dirt and water, dropped him off at the house for identification later on, and then went to town. My only real highlights of the town trip were finally getting back my obsidian piece, both the remaining part of the original specimen and an fairly sizable oval-shaped piece. The jeweler told me not to be upset when he mentioned that it wasn't a great piece of obsidian, and so the polished gem had several flaws (including a small chip on one side). Truth be told, in some ways I prefer this, because then I know it's my stone, from my trip, and not some generic piece of obsidian he used. The next step on this is to find a different jeweler who can make some kind of accessory out of it, maybe a necklace or bracelet. I'm making some inquiries to some Cape Town jewelers, so I'll keep you informed. The other thing I got was a dozen passport photos to keep on my person, as I need some for my Chinese visa, and who knows, maybe I'll need more before the trip is done (most likely I will). When comparing them to my actual passport photo, I look a lot tanner, and also a little bit angrier. (And a little bit chunkier - uh oh.)

After doing grocery shopping and having lunch, most of the volunteers went to the local reptile park. However, since we'd already been there, Taiwanese Girl 1 and myself went back to the reserve to make some preparations for luring in the hyena. When we got to the house, we found a pickup truck with a recently-killed impala in the back (don't worry, there are plenty of impala). So, we drove it out to the Langalanga section of the reserve, where we dumped it out of the truck. Joe then took his knife and cut open the impala's stomach just a bit. We took some wire and tied the impala to the truck's hitch, and then, literally, dragged it around the entire section. This was to create a scent trail for the hyena to follow. I admit, it did get a bit awkward when we passed by some other animals; I can only imagine the kinds of monsters they thought us to be. But after hauling the carcass all around, we pulled it by hand into the boma, and closed the gate for the moment. Once we got back to the house, I had to start dinner in order for us to eat on time. As you can imagine, the people who were actually on call for dinner that night were quite happy that I had done most of the work for them. Then, after quickly eating, we all got in the Game Viewer and headed out to the boma to wait.

And wait we did. You see, this was a classic stakeout. We parked the car and watched the entrance to the boma. And listened. That's all we could do. We couldn't talk, we couldn't move about much, we couldn't eat anything noisy, we couldn't listen to music, we couldn't have any light source...we couldn't do much of anything. (We were told at dinner that "It's not as fun as it sounds.") We weren't even supposed to sleep, though that didn't stop some people. I even dozed in and out a couple of times, as my only defense against it was the slow, deliberate eating of a handful of crackers without making any noise. However, after about four hours, we finally got a hyena in there. Success! So, we start up the Game Viewer and rive the hyena further in. After checking, though, we realize that it's the wrong one. It's not Jaggedy, but her male equivalent, Smoothy, who didn't have any collar issues. However, one of the volunteers said that he thought he saw a second hyena, so we decided to leave the boma for the night, rather than risk having caught the right one and then letting it go. We headed home, arriving back at about midnight, groggy but with a sense of cautious optimism.

The optimism didn't last into the morning, however, as when we checked the boma, we only found a single, wrong hyena (and a half-eaten impala). So, the method worked! Just not for the hyena we were actively trying to get. Oh, well, at least we got to sleep in because of it. Unfortunately, this meant we'd be going back that night. This weighed on our mind for the rest of the day, which was mainly spent checking the reptile traps (nothing this time) and doing some more lantana plant spraying. Another early dinner, and we were back out at the boma by 7pm. We had hung up the remaining portions of the impala carcass to keep it from both Smoothy and any nearby vultures, and thankfully it was still there. So, we parked and waited. Again. Maybe it was the small sense of defeat from the night previous, but this night seemed even more difficult. However, I used the quiet time to the best of my ability. I looked up at the stars and began ruminating. And I had some good thoughts. So, here I'll take some more recycled Facebook content and post it here, rather than retyping:
While sitting out under a moonless, starry night for hours without being able to move or speak, I gave some thought to contemplation of the unknowable (that is to say, topics such as the existence of God or the nature of the soul). I wanted to write down something that came to mind. This might go on a bit; humor me. 
In many ways, contemplating the unknowable is much like trying to find the most beautiful star in the sky. The question may be easy to answer. Within five seconds, one could say "That is the most beautiful star because it is the brightest," or "That one is because it has a slightly reddish tint." Similarly, one could just as quickly answer, say, to the existence of God as "No, for religion is but a construct to control the masses," or "Yes, because the holy scripture of my choice says as such." But this approach, I feel, is neither thoughtful nor ultimately satisfying. There's no actual insight when you just look at the brightest star or at the prettiest-sounding scripture. 
The alternative approach, then, is to actually *search* for the most beautiful star. To give each star its proper consideration, from more viewpoints than just the ones we may originally think of. A star could be visually uninteresting, but sit in a position that gives it a certain sense of inspiring power. So, we search. We consider. We reflect. 
However, the longer we look at the sky, the more stars we begin to see. What may have started as a hundred stars in our view may become thousands, or even too many to count. At this point, we realize how daunting a task it is to find this most beautiful star - after all, if I can't even count all the stars, how can I pinpoint which is the most beautiful? And then there are the shooting stars - visible for just a fleeting moment, but beautiful all the same. How much more difficult things become when we must consider what we can no longer see? 
Such is the same with contemplating the unknowable - the more we think about these questions, the more impossible the task of answering them becomes, because every line of reasoning can – and should – bring up more ideas to consider. Does that mean that the exercise is, then, not worthwhile? Why spend time contemplating questions that cannot be answered? I suppose it’s dependent on your purpose. If you want an answer, then I guess you’d have to say no. But if a greater sense of understanding – or understanding that you *don’t* understand – is the goal, I would argue that it is most worthwhile, because it’s only when you spend the time considering all the stars that you see how truly vast and beautiful the night sky can be. Only by pursuing the answer is more of the universe revealed. Similarly, only by spending the time to contemplate the unknowable - even if we can never find definitive answers - can we have a better view of the our *inner* universe. Which can be just as vast and beautiful as any starscape.
Anyway, just a thought I had…

So, thinking about that lasted me a good several hours, but I still managed to clonk out about half an hour before we left. Not that I was fighting it at that point. After seeing everyone else, including Joe and Katie, fall asleep, I was just like, "Screw this noise," so let it come as it came. But I'd like to see you do better for five straight hours. Anyway, we left the boma at midnight and headed back home.

The next morning, we had a slightly less late start (only one hour extra sleep instead of two), but I made the most of that time by coming up with an ingenious food creation - toast with Nutella and strawberry slices. It was quite good! (My pride in the creation was a bit dampened when I discovered that I'm not the first person in history to ever think of it.) After again checking both the boma and the reptile traps in the morning (neither of which yielded anything new), we spent the rest of the day doing tree protection and fence painting. I am not sure why, but tree protection is one of my favorite activities. Maybe because it involves hauling big rocks around. I also like smashing rocks with sledgehammers, so there might be some theme here. As for the fence painting, this wasn't any sort of Tom Sawyer fence-painting; we were using that caustic black paint that had given me chemical burns to paint an electric fence. I partially want to avoid noting that the fence was turned off, because then it seems more negligent/badass. But it was all quite safely performed, and I made sure to get all the paint off of me ASAP, as it was quite the hot and sunny day (so much so that I even wore a tanktop).

We did another hyena watch that night, this time splitting the group up to work in shifts. I immediately volunteered for the late shift, for the same reason I always volunteer for less-than-ideal things - I can deal. In the end, I feel that splitting up the groups was a smart idea, though it was still tricky at times to stay awake (I did manage it though). Our group felt a little gypped, though, as the early group saw several brown hyenas - none of which were Jaggedy, unfortunately - and ours saw none. Once the shift was done, it was decided we'd leave the place be for the weekend and start fresh next week.

Friday was an odd one. It started out with an early morning trip to, of all places, a roadside market. Like, the ramshackle little curio shops you see on the sides of freeways in less-developed countries. We drove for, like, 45 minutes, to get to it. It was apparently to give the volunteers a chance to get some of those typical African souvenirs, the ones that look exactly the same in every roadside shop in Africa (probably because they're all mass-produced in Zimbabwe). So if you wanted me to get you a carved wooden giraffe salad spoon, you've missed your chance. It was pretty funny watching all the women at these shops fight for the different potential customers, using every trick in the book to get them to buy more (with "I need to feed my baby" being the most popular). For my part, I got out of it with the ol' I'm-a-bodyguard routine, which works wonders. Honestly, I don't know if they believe it (though wearing an outback hat and fingerless gloves could be bodyguard material), but they stopped trying to sell to me, so it's all good.

After that, we went to an animal orphanage that was just a few kilometers down the road from Pidwa, called the Darktari Bush School and Wildlife Orphanage. What separates it from other wildlife orphanages is the fact that it has a weekly program which brings in local (that is to say, black) children and teach them about protecting the environment and respecting animals (neither of which is really taught in the children's communities), as well as life lessons and practical tools, like resume writing. The children have to take care of the animals and learn about what makes them special, as well as learning about what makes them (that is, the children themselves) special. They then have to write ten promises before they "graduate" about how they'll make the world slightly better. (We heard that one of the children earlier this year had written "I promise not to beat my grandmother's dog anymore.") We also met some success stories - children who went through the program and decided to go into wildlife management. It seemed like a really awesome program, though not one I could see myself volunteering at, as doing the exact same thing every week with a new group of kids would begin to weigh on me.

After heading home (during which I had to lie in the trunk of the van because there were no more seats; again, I volunteered), we prepped for lunch. During this time, most of the people were out sunbathing, as it was roughly 85 degrees and quite sunny. Make note of this, as it's important. After lunch, we decided as a group to go on a herbivore research route, as the hyena shenanigans had really screwed with our planned schedule. We had a special guest, as one of Katie and Joe's friends had decided to visit for the weekend, so she decided to join us. What a drive to join. Most of the time was spent searching for elephants, which we hadn't seen in two weeks (I had suggested that Askari should have a guarantee: "Elephants in two weeks or your pizza's free"). And while we found evidence of elephants everywhere (tracks, dung, destroyed trees), we didn't see any of the creatures themselves. The prospect of elephants also brought out several carfuls of tourists from the Makalali reserve, all of which seemed to drive past us. All this time, the sky began darkening up, with a red, rainy horizon. Wind started blowing, and it was clear that a storm was coming in. Katie told us that we should probably end the route and go back before it got too wet, but by then it was too late, as the heavens opened up and let loose their waters. In the 5-10 minutes it took to get back, we were drenched, there was lightning flashing in every direction, and I was laughing my head off remembering that people were sunbathing not four hours earlier. Getting back to the house, we all changed into some dry clothes and just watched the insanity outside. The power went out a few times, though people seemed more concerned about the Internet. But within, maybe, two or possibly three hours, it all ended. I later checked the rain gauge - 17 milimeters! That's 0.67 inches in less than three hours! I guess Toto was on to something.

Oh, I also found a frog on our porch during the rain. It was a big'un. I was able to identify him as a Southern Foam Nest Frog, and he wasn't looking too hot - he had...something...on his back. I could only guess it was some sort of gross fungus. Whatever it was, it was gross enough to keep me from picking him up. In any case, I named him Caligula.

Everyone went to bed very early on Friday night (I guess as a result of going to bed late all the other nights on account of hyenas), so I got a good amount of sleep in myself. The morning began with yet another herbivore research route, and it ended up being one of the lowest-counting ones ever - two giraffe sightings and a single herd of impala in three and a half hours. However, that's somewhat normal for a kinda-cold morning after a heavy rainstorm. We did see a lot of birds, though, including the first white-faced vulture ever recorded on Pidwa (which got Joe amazingly excited). We later went to take down the reptile traps, and found three more frogs between all of them, thanks to the rain. (Unfortunately, not in my bucket, as the rain had gotten under it and pushed the rim above ground level.) And that was about it in terms of our duties for the week.

A quick note on people, I guess: still getting along with everyone just fine. It's Taiwanese Girl 1's last weekend (she's the one who's been here with me for six weeks), so I think there's going to be some goodbye mini festivities for her (though originally, most of the group was planning to go to Blyde Canyon this weekend - good thing that fell through, as it'd be pretty unpleasant in this weather. Still, they're going next weekend, which means I may have the place to myself). Of all the new folks, I think I'm getting along with the English folk and Irish girl the best, but everyone remains very nice. As for the Czech guy, I still can't get over how he reminds me of how I used to be. Don't get me wrong, I get along with him great, and he likes me as well, but he seems to love people thinking he knows everything, and so will have something to say about 100% of the time, when he only knows what he's talking about 60% of the time. The rest of the time he'll just flat-out make something up. Like, this one time, someone asked what tartrazine was (as it was on a food label). I make a quip that it's something you don't want in you, and then the Slovenian girl says "Oh, I bet the Czech boy knows." He then goes on to say how it's some chemical, and it's an artificial...what's the word...? "Coloring," I suggest. No, he says back to me, it's an artificial flavor. Everyone nods in understanding.

Take a minute to look up tartrazine. I'll wait.

Anyway, I don't call him out when he BS's stuff, because what will that really bring me? If that's what makes him happy, then whatever. Again, the only reason it bothers me is because its reminiscent of a younger me. But on the whole, everyone seems to be getting along just fine. It overall seems much less cliquey than the first month did.

But we'll see if that changes next week, as we're losing one person and getting two more! A couple, this time! Will their love-a-dove-dove antics throw everything into whack? Or will their passion burn like a controlled bush fire (which we are actually planning on doing next week, which I'm looking forward to). We'll see how it all progresses, but I'll tell you one thing for sure: I'm going to be relaxing this Sunday. Ahhhhhh!

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