Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I can honestly say that coming home from Africa was one of the hardest things I've had to do. Everything about leaving that place just felt so wrong. I remember the details of that day so clearly as it was quite miserable, not because I didn't want to be home, more because I didn't want to be away from Venetia. I missed my family and friends terribly as I always do, but I left Africa with the feeling that I was leaving my heart behind. Everything else had kind of lost its luster. I recall spending my entire flight from Johannesburg to Amsterdam trying to figure out how I could eventually get back. I was half-crazed with the idea. The first words I said to my mom after stepping off the airplane in Portland were, "Mom, I have to go back." She could see it in my eyes.

Before leaving for Africa I had secured a great apartment in Seattle with one of my best friends. I knew it would be a bit of a struggle finding work when I got home, so I headed back up to Seattle and hit the ground running. Before I knew it, I had three jobs. It wasn't long before I realized that I was burning the candle at both ends, so I scaled back to the two jobs that paid the bills; Restaurant (Bastille) and Nannying. I have never worked restaurants nor have I ever been a nanny, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. As it turned out, I fell in love with all the people that I was privileged to work with at Bastille and I got to care for a sweet little baby named Alistair, and his sister Lila and brother Emerson. My days were full and I fell into bed exhausted at night, but I loved it.

I was a busy bee over the summer, but I did find time to do a few fun things. For my 30th birthday my mom gave me something I've always wanted; skydiving. It was the best thing I've ever done. And to top it all off, my uncle Dennis was my tandem. It was amazing.

I also was lucky enough to get to go on several Stingray pub-crawl rides with my peeps in Seattle. Thanks guys, you made my summer...again.
In early August, I got an email that changed everything. The email was from Venetia, and it was everything I was hoping for, all the way back to my time in Patagonia. I was officially being invited to go back to Africa as an intern. My decision was made for me. Africa was calling, and I would answer without hesitation, no matter what it took. I gave notice, bought my tickets, worked out what felt like mountains of details, and now here I am, sitting in Atlanta, waiting to board my flight back to that beloved place. I can't begin to tell how this feels. In so many ways it feels like I need to pinch myself. How did any of this happen? How did I get so lucky? I know it's true love because I'm giving up good coffee and hot baths to go live in tents often shared by mice, too many spiders to count, and bats that pee on your face.

And then there's Franco...

I'll arrive tomorrow morning, around 8 am Pacific ST, and Franco will be there to fetch me. From there we'll stay in Pretoria for a night, and then we're off to Venetia. I have no idea what lies ahead, all I really have is the love from all of you behind me. And that's enough, no matter what. I already feel like the luckiest soul alive simply for that.

To be continued...

I figured I might include a favorites page, complete with all that has Africa steeling my heart.

New good friends

The newly invented "Mopane Shades"-for the days you forget your sunglasses...
And friends who gladly wear them with you.
Chris, our fearless leader
Being out on drive
The geography: In this picture you can see Botswana to the left, Zimbabwe to the right, and South Africa in the foreground.
Cultures of the past
Cultures of the present
The enormity of it: This is an elephants print around my boot.
Teaming wildlife
Baobab trees
Pesky vervet monkeys

Hornbills (Zazoo anyone?)
Horny Bill, our beloved
The tireless dung beetles

Never knowing what you'll come across (perhaps a chameleon)
The nightly show in the sky
The gorgeous birds (lilac-breasted roller)
The curiosity of the giraffes
Breath-taking moments
The fiery African Skies
In light of the African Wild Dog's critically endangered status, there are a lot of focus studies and rehabilitation efforts in Africa at the moment. Packs are becoming more and more scarce and are mostly limited to wildlife reserves. There is a lot to love about these spindly little creatures, beginning with those lovely satellite dish ears!

During our time at Venetia, two wild dogs were habituated in a bohma (large fenced-in area used as transitional space to get the animals acquainted with both new domain and the pack). We were fortunate enough to go watch them feed on a couple of occasions.
Wild dogs are known for their keen hunting abilities. They hunt as a pack mind and communicate constantly with one another with yips and cries to bring prey down.
Unfortunately a number of factors have greatly diminished the species' numbers; the largest factor being the advancement of human population onto ever shrinking hunting grounds. They also fall victim to competition, including the lion.
Wild dogs are beautiful, complicated animals. I hope that the efforts prove to be enough to save the species.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

When I journeyed to Africa I had a lot of hopes. Not expectations, just hopes. One of the greatest of them was to see the almighty lion. The Kings of Africa.

I'll never forget the first time we saw them. We went on afternoon drive after we hadn't found anything during morning drive. I was on telemetry which meant that I was responsible for honing in on the signal given off by the radio collar worn by one of the adult females, Thika. As we drew closer, the frequency dropped from a +2 down to a -5. At a -2.5 you must sit down in the vehicle because you're within view of the animals. At a -5 you're nearly on top of them and everyone in the Mahindra is searching madly through the scrub for any sign or movement to indicate the pride.

As the frequency reached a thumping -5, I held the aerial of the telemetry high above my head. As I spun it around, searching for a stronger signal in any direction, it became clear that it was strong in all directions, meaning they were very close to us. Adrenaline was coursing through me and I was more excited than I can remember feeling in a long time. At that moment Kim whispered, "Holy shit, they're right behind us!!" I froze. I don't know if I thought they'd eat me if I moved, or if I was just in shock with the thought that a pride of wild lions sat just behind our truck. I slowly lowered the aerial and turned. Tears came to my eyes instantly as my breath caught in my throat. There they were; beautiful, stoic, and wild. We had found the pride.
The pride is six deep and is led by a massive boy named Blade. The two adult sisters, Thika and Pikanin are responsible for the majority of the hunting. Three cubs were born a little over a year ago--they have not yet been named.

The pride wanders continuously, searching the woodland savannah for their next meal. They hunt in the cool of night, and sleep through the intense heat of the day. They typically need to eat every 2-4 days.
Always watchful, their curiosity is mingled with caution.

The cubs are always more restless and eager to play.
I couldn't stop taking pictures of this little girl.
She's curled up for the afternoon next to her aunt Pikanin.
This is the mark of an Apex predator. Blade hardly even opened his eyes upon our arrival. He simply slept, undaunted by our presence.
The male cub is showing early signs of an impending mane. While it begins sparse and fair, it will soon grow into the same thick, full mane that his father bears.
As his mane grows in, his father will begin to see him as competition and he will eventually have to leave the pride.
In the mean time, he'll enjoy the same protection and comfort of the pride that his sisters do.
As sweet and cuddly as they look, I constantly had to remind myself that these are wild lions. They look docile, but even a movement as simple as standing up in the truck could reap havoc.

This is my favorite picture. This is one of the female cubs who happens to be the most curious. She could never seem to let us go. She was always the last one to watch us.

Blade's role in the pride is simple; procreate and dominate. His territory is his to protect, and along with that, his pride. He doesn't typically do the hunting, that's left up to the females. He will fight for his territory if necessary, which in turn protects his pride.
Every now and again he will separate himself from the pride and wander off on his own. During this time he typically won't eat as he doesn't hunt unless necessary. It's believed that he is looking for other mates and establishing his territory. It is during these periods that we can hear Blade on the reserve, up to 5 miles away, roaring somewhere in the darkness. He gives four short grunts followed by one longer roar. The shorter roars are communicative; he's calling out to his pride. The longer roar is territorial, establishing his home and that which he'll fight to protect. It's an amazing sound, one that rumbles in your bones like thunder and drives to the surface that long forgotten primal fear.
One early morning, around 4 am, I woke up to the exciting and terrifying sound of Blade's night chorus. He was really close, that much was clear by the sheer volume of his roars. Susan, one of the staff, ran out with the telemetry and picked him up on a -5. He was in camp, wandering through in search of his pride. I've never felt a feeling like that, exhilaration paired with pure fear. It was glorious and I lay in my bed holding as still as I could so as to hear every sound of this beastie.
Here Blade's testing the air, probably picking up our scent.

The insisors of a male adult lion can reach four inches in length. Here he is mid-yawn.

Such a pretty boy.