Erindi, elephants and flat tyres

After being noticeably ill for a week because of my spider bite, my manager decided that I needed a break from CCF.  As a couple of staff members were going to Erindi Private Nature Reserve for a weekend anyway to collect two radio collars for two cheetahs we are giving them, he thought it’d be nice for me to go along too.  What a great suggestion!
We left last Friday morning and set off for a 3-hour journey to the reserve.  The place used to be a private hunting lodge until, 5 years ago, they decided to turn it into a nature viewing destination instead.  It’s home to the Global Leopard Project run by a lovely lady called Natasha, who knows more about leopards than anyone I have ever met before.   I’d heard of Erindi a couple of years ago from an ITV documentary with Steve Leonard (from Vet School/Vets in Practice) and had wanted to visit ever since – especially to see Natasha and her leopards!
Upon arriving, we were escorted to a delightful buffet lunch with oodles of yummy food to choose from.  We then relaxed on our veranda overlooking a waterhole for a while and watched the antelope laze about in the early afternoon sun.  I was amazed at how big and beautiful my own personal room was – the bathroom was bigger than my entire room back at CCF!  The bed looked far too inviting not to do a satisfying running star jump onto.  
At 3pm, we wandered along to the main lodge house for high tea, whilst we waited for Natasha to finish off some work before taking us out into the bush.  She has spent over 10 years tracking leopards, learning their intimate lives and habituating them to human presence.  She now knows every leopard in the 76,000 hectare reserve, along with their relations with other leopards.
We drove out into the veld in her trusty Landrover complete with radio telemetry equipment built in.  We started to pick up a good signal from Honey, one of the leopards she has been tracking for some time now, who also happens to have a young cub.  However, leopards being leopards, who extremely secretive, especially around their cubs, it was unlikely that we would stumble across her little one.  Natasha is an absolute pro when it comes to listening to the beeps coming from the telemetry equipment – she can tell how far away the animal is, if it is walking towards or away from her, if the animal goes behind a bush or tree, and even the speed that the individual is moving!  With finesse, she found Honey walking along a drainage line in the thick acacia bush.  I was amazed at how the Landie just drove over prickly thorn bushes like nothing; that vehicle is a tank!
For the entire afternoon and early evening, we followed Honey around, watching her undertake her territorial marking behaviour.  It was surprising to see just how at ease she was around the vehicle and endearing to hear Natasha talk so proudly and fascinatingly about “her” leopard.  By night time, it was harder to follow her, as she melted into the bush and disappeared within a second.  It was cute to see her climb a tree and sit in there like a typical leopard.  We decided by 7 pm that we should leave her to her own business, and instead went to go track a herd of newly-relocated elephants.  The stars were absolutely magnificent that night and we could clearly see the Milky Way as we waited on a dirt road for the elephants to cross over to the dam on the other side.  Alas, even though the telemetry equipment was telling us that the herd were probably less than 50 m away, they didn’t show their faces.  We decided to give up and go back to the lodge for dinner, although on the way back, noticed freshly broken trees along the way, and realised that the ele’s must have been literally just behind us and we didn’t notice!  It’s crazy to think how large the animals are and how quietly they can trundle through the bush.
Back at camp we had another delightful buffet and then went to go relax on the deck overlooking a large dam.  To my surprise, a small herd of white rhinos were drinking only 20 m away from us, on the other side of the dam!  Male kudus posed on the bank, showing off their magnificent curly horns, whilst large fish jumped around in the water.  After a long day, we decided to retire to our rooms for a fresh and early start the next day for our morning game drive.
By 4 am I was wide awake (gotta love insomnia!) and decided to make full use of my beautiful bathroom.  It was great to pamper myself for once!  By 5:30 I wandered to the lodge for an early breakfast and overdosed on mouth-watering hash browns and toast.  We promptly left at 6 am with our guide, Tim, of whom we had told beforehand that we were dying to see African wild dogs on our drive.  Within 15 mins of leaving camp, we came across a pack of wild dogs snoozing in the early morning sun – what luck!  The pack had obviously just finished eating as their bellies were about to pop with food and maribu storks surrounded the group, trying to pick up the leftovers.  The dogs groomed each other, rolled around in the dirt, yapped and whimpered at each other and cuddled up.  It was great to see.
We then drove off in search of larger game: rhinos and elephants.  The great thing about Erindi is that the staff are all so knowledgeable about the bush and the animals that they’re searching for that they know exactly where to find these animals.  Only 10 mins after leaving the wild dogs did we find a lone large white rhino bull meandering about the veld.  Rhino ears really make me think of Shrek, and this huge creature bumbling about in the greenery was certainly adding to my analogy!
After that, we decided it’d be a good time to stop for morning coffee (and Amarula for those who partake in alcohol).  It was a good thing we stopped, as we realised that we had got a flat tyre.  Whilst we drank and admired the sun rising, our guide adeptly changed the tyre (we did offer our help but he politely declined).  I then noticed with concern that there was fresh rhino spoor all around where we had parked, but Tim reassured us that we were safe.
We drove off after hearing on the radio that elephants were close by.  We came across a lone male ele in the bush, apparently known to all staff here as Stompy.  Stompy had been in musth for approximately 4 months now and was coming to the end of this grumpy teenager-like behaviour.  However, being that this is a wild animal with enough power to overturn our truck with ease, we approached with caution.  He looked like he was in a good mood today, thankfully!  He watched our truck with intelligent curiousity.  Then, another male elephant cross the road some 150 m away; for some reason, this seemed to set Stompy off.  His temporal glands started to leak, he shaked his head, approached the vehicle and stared at us all whilst intently sniffing us with his trunk.  Tim, our guide, told us not to be worried; he has never attacked a vehicle before.  That didn’t make me feel any more comfortable as Stompy circled our vehicle, staring us down.  During all this, I decided it would be a great idea to film our last moments on earth before we got flattened by a randy, angry elephant.   Towards the end of this video I made of our time at Erindi, you’ll be able to see what happened next….

After speeding off from the grumpy Stompy (with him running full-charge at our vehicle), we then found two male giraffes by the fenceline looking to be having a conversation with a group of females and young on the other side of the fence.  Our vehicle unfortunately scared away the female group, but the males didn’t seem that bothered by us.  In fact, it appeared that the presence of unobtainable females had made them somewhat frustrated, as the pair decided to partly court, partly box each other.  Again, what a great YouTube moment: I decided to film this.  Alas, the couple didn’t get it on whilst they had an audience, so we left them to it.
We arrived back at camp just in time for second breakfast (what a great idea!) and then lazily packed up our stuff before driving back to CCF.  On the dirt road back to the motorway, we drove past a couple of farm workers clearing part of the road.  They pointed at our vehicle and I instantly thought that it was because maybe we had a flat tyre.  We pulled over to realise that our front left tyre was entirely flat – oh dear!  Not wanting to have to admit that a group of three females can’t change a tyre, we decided to not go back to the workers for help: we could do this by ourselves!  We got out the jack and then went looking for where the spare tyre was.  It was under the car and screwed on in such a way that we couldn’t work out how to get it off – oh dear, again!  We stood there, baffled, when we realised that one of the workers must have seen us being dumbfounded by this conundrum and came to our rescue.  He retrieved a long metal pole from the back of the truck and stuck it into a hole in the back to turn some unseen screw to get the tyre off from the bottom of the truck – genius!  Given the whole day, there was no way we would have figured that one out!

Sadly, either the pole wasn’t very well made, or the guy didn’t know his own strength, and he broke part of the rod off.  Gaby, our vet, got under the car to help the guy unscrew the tyre by hand.   This man didn’t know any English at all, and we know no Afrikaans, but fortunately Gaby knows German, so somehow we managed to communicate in stilted sentences.

We somehow got the tyre off and then went to pump the jack up.  We got the flat tyre off and were about to put the spare on.  However, this jack is probably meant for a small Ford Fiesta type car, not a heavy 4x4 truck like what we had.  As the guy laid under the car to wind the jack up a little more, it slipped under the weight of the car, dropping the entire car at an angle onto the front left wheel axle – only centimetres from the guy’s head!!!  We were not in the mood for accidentally killing some innocent guy trying to help us change a tyre!!!!  As the jack was wound up by the same broken rod that unscrewed the tyre, it was hard work to get the jack to push the car off the ground.  Finally, after over an hour since we’d stopped, we finally got the spare on.  The second flat of the day – what are the chances!  We drove off after saying a big thanks to our heroic rescuer, who was smug with a fresh $50 note in his pocket.

What an eventful 24-hours!


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