Car crashes and witch doctors

We’ve had really bad internet here for the last few weeks, hence the lack of update.  It’s still not 100% back to normal, but at least I can occasionally check emails!

I’ve spent the last week or so doing the monthly game counts.  We were so lucky recently as we managed to see three leopards within about 5 days!  The first of these three happened only a few minutes after I was telling the other people in the car that leopards are so hard to spot as they stay in the bushes a lot and we probably drive past loads without realising!  Odd coincidence!  That first leopard was a beautiful subadult male, sat only a few metres from the road and was staring intently at us.  At one point he shuffled his footing around, as a cat would do before pouncing.  I was a little concerned for a brief moment that he’d come flying through the window at us! The second sighting was in the late afternoon: we came round a bend, and there he was, sat beautifully under a tree and had obviously just been hunting the group of warthogs we’d just scared away – oops!  The final sighting that week was a brief glimpse of a leopard dashing across the road with a small antelope (probably a duiker or steenbok) dead in its mouth.  The sighting wasn’t too far away from the first leopard we saw, so I assume this is his territory, where he likes to hunt on the border of the field, where he can sit in the bushes and wait in ambush for prey to step a bit too close!

A lot of volunteers, interns and students come and go here all the time: most people are only here for a few months, so there are a lot of welcomes and farewells.  We had a leaving party for two volunteers last weekend, which was fancy-dress and Africa-themed.  I had devised a great outfit idea with a friend here where she’d come as Cleopatra and I’d go as the mummy of Cleopatra.  However, upon trying to wrap cheap, crappy toilet roll around myself with it splitting and falling off every 5 seconds, I decided that outfit wasn’t going to work.  I had 30 mins to think of a new outfit and get ready, so in a brief spout of inspiration, I decided to go as a witch doctor  (mostly because I had literally nothing else to dress up as).  This meant that I basically just came dressed as myself, just with a bit more eye make-up and backcombed hair than usual!  We all had a great night (with Ryan MCing the Africa fashion show, which was pretty hilarious).  There was a wide diversity of outfits, from a Masaai warrior to an alien invasive plant species and from a bird watching tourist to a chameleon (complete with coiled tongue – ingenious!).

A few weeks ago, I heard a commotion outside the office and went down to find a large group that had gathered around the back of the clinic.  Apparently a zebra spitting cobra had nestled itself under a box and the snake handler had been called to get it out.  The saliva from one of those could make you go blind, so it’s a good thing we managed to move it elsewhere!

I’ve been ridiculously busy this past weekend organising and managing a Chamber of Mines conference here at CCF.  I wasn’t aware that being an Ecologist meant doing 1,001 other tasks that are not ecology-related, but I am growing to realise that working for an NGO in Africa means you have to be very adaptable and help out wherever is needed.  This meant cleaning dishes, waitressing, managing staff and making sure everything ran smoothly.  All the miners had a great time and apparently left us a nice donation at the end, which was good!  It felt kinda weird hosting a conference for miners at a conservation organisation, knowing how destructive mining can be to the environment.  This wasn’t helped by the fact that the miners arrived in their own personal jets – obviously “carbon footprint” means nothing to them.  It does give validity to those NGOs who can make their own money and don’t have to answer to donors, who may have ulterior motives for their funds.  I remember WWF being outted last year for having to answer to Monsanto’s funding, which meant ensuring that their palm oil plantation research made Monsanto look in good light.  Morals and ethics in fundraising is a dubious minefield.

As you may have gathered from my previous entries, cars here at CCF are a continual problem.  We have many cars here, but most of the time they’re in our garage or in town being fixed.  We’ve just got back the “Cheetah Bus”, which is an old, clapped-out 10-seater Nissan safari vehicle.  I had planned to go out on a night game count a few days ago and was given the bad news that there were no other vehicles available other than the Cheetah Bus.  Now, I have had my driving license since I was 17, but I only drove for about 6 months and then went to University, and haven’t really driven much since (other than a short spout in South Africa, where I nearly got into two car crashes!).  Suffice to say, I’m not the most confident or safe drivers out there.  This does not make for a good combination when faced with three high-paying volunteers in the back of a large vehicle that I’ve never driven before when it’s dark and I don’t really know what route I’m meant to be taking, along with the fact that the bus itself wasn’t 100% fixed.  We started the count OK, but after 10 mins I missed my turn, went down the track about 20 seconds before realising we’d come the wrong way.  I started to reverse, but reversing a bus in the dark down a narrow track with potholes, puddles and bushes is not the easiest task in the world.  The volunteers I was with thought I was doing a three-point turn in the road, but I was wanting to reverse back to the fork in the road to continue back on the path we should have been on.  Unfortunately, this miscommunication lead to us being stuck in a hole and the bus not being able to get out.  I tried my best, but unfortunately burnt the already-damaged clutch out.  Fortunately a) I had brought a radio out with me, b) we got signal, and c) there was someone in the office at night that could answer our distress call.  Within 15-20 mins we had our valiant saviours that had come to collect us. 

Only two days later I had to drive 8 volunteers out to our fenced game reserve for a 12-hour waterhole count.  This meant getting up at 4 am to get them in the bus by 5 am so they could start at 6.  The only vehicle large enough to hold that many people was unfortunately that damned Cheetah Bus.  It was dark, I was tired, the windscreen was dirty and the wipers weren’t working.  This didn’t bode well….   I managed to again take a wrong turn in the road, but realised almost immediately my mistake.  Once again, I tried to reverse with the help of my delightful volunteers, who evidently weren’t looking where we were going and we managed to reverse (at slow speed) into a post.  Not only that, but the bus didn’t want to start again.  Oops.  We were in the pitch black, at night, no one would be up for hours, and the bus with 8 volunteers on who were under my care were stuck.  Fortunately after a few tries the bus decided to cooperate and we were on our way again.  However, I think all the volunteers had lost what faith they had left in my driving skills, and for the rest of the journey they all sat extremely quietly other than giving me back-seat-driver instructions on “there’s a puddle/post/hole there” every few minutes, which only added to my frustration and lack of confidence in my driving.  Thankfully after an hour and a half (the journey normally took less than an hour) all volunteers were safely dropped off at their respective waterholes.  However, I now have to go collect them again in the same dreaded bus, and currently it’s thunderstorming outside.  Hmmm…

I realised yesterday that had I stayed in Antelope Park that I would be finishing up my contract in the next week and returning back to the UK.  I am so glad that I can stay in Africa longer than I had first expected, as I am definitely not ready to go “home” just yet.  Talking of which, I also worked out that in the last 3.5 years I’ve lived in 8 houses in 5 countries in 3 continents.  I’m not even sure what “home” is any more!  When thinking about all this, I calculated that within these six months that I’ve been away so far, I haven’t withdrawn any cash, I haven’t used debit card and  I’ve spent less than £5 on my phone.  Quite a refreshing feeling knowing that I can be removed, at least partially, from that part of reality!

Heard some sad news from ALERT - apparently one of the lionesses gave birth to 3 cubs, which were then promptly eaten by another lioness.  Doesn't bode well for the success of the project :(

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