Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Darting the Leopard

Remember how I said that my job often involves some wild and crazy things? Well this week it involved the organization and coordination of darting a leopard, and cleaning his camp. It involved a lot of planning, coordination, and a bit of stress, but it went perfectly.

I'll start from the beginning. We have a leopard, Shiloweni, who lives in an enclosure just outside of camp. He became too comfortable around people, got too close, and was going to be shot if he continued living in the wild. While he was initially being transported, he woke up and bit down on the steel bars of his cage - breaking his canines completely. Now he has no canines, and could not hunt in the wild. So, he lives with us. We feed him every day so that he won't try to run away (there's no such thing as a leopard-proof fence, even though ours is very electric) and he lives a pretty cushy life. Every day the kids go up on a platform outside his cage to look for him, and usually they are able to see him.

He's been here about two years, and in that time no one has been inside his camp. The owners thought it would be a good idea to get the vet to have a look at him, just to make sure he is healthy. So, we called our local vet, Peter Rogers, to come and dart the leopard and check on him. But while he was asleep, we figured we should also clean out his camp to take out all the bones from his meals of the last two years. So of course, as Volunteer Coordinator, it was decided that I would be the one person in charge of this operation. I had a lot of help, obviously, from all the other people in charge, but it was my voice that told the volunteers the plan, and where they needed to be when.

We split the camp into quadrants, and had a cleanup team in each section. Two by two they were able to come take their pictures with the sleeping leopard, and even the kids got to come touch him and take pictures with him. They couldn't believe how soft he was, and one kid told me, "He's so beautiful!" Of course I got to take some photos with him as well.. it was such a special treat. At first I thought maybe he would wake up and we would all die, but then I thought, oh well, I get to touch a leopard!

The organization was a bit tricky, and it was a bit stressful at times, but what an opportunity. It's my last week as coordinator next week, and I'm glad I can add more crazy experiences like this to my resume.

Here I am, coordinating important things over the radio:
Here the vets are checking Shiloweni's mouth:
Here the volunteers are getting started cleaning:
 Here I am organizing the kids for their photo op:
 Here the kids are so excited:
Here is my turn with the leopard!
 Here are all the impala and guinea fowl bones we took out of the camp!

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Panorama Route

There are a bunch of excursions around the area that volunteers usually go on. Of course I thought I would space them out over the course of my six months here, but then it got down to the last month or so and I realized that I hadn't done a lot of things I wanted to do! So for starters, I've extended my ticket two weeks, to now leave at the end of February instead of on the 11th. This is giving me time to go to Capetown, and probably also to Swaziland. Pretty cool.

It also means that last week I went with a group of three volunteers on what is known around here as "The Panorama Route." It is a gorgeous drive through the Drakensberg mountains that stops along the way at some beautiful vista points, and ends in the town of Pilgrim's Rest for lunch. It takes you along the edge of the Blyde River Canyon, which is the third largest canyon in the world, and the largest "green" canyon, meaning that it is lush and green instead of dry and brown (like the grand canyon). It was really beautiful! Since it's better to show than tell, here are a bunch of photos:

This is the lookout known as the "three rondawels" (the three circular hut-looking forms on the left). That's the Blyde River running in the canyon below.

 Overlooking the canyon:
 Down at the base of the canyon:
 "Bourke's Potholes," another scenic spot where the water has done amazing things to the walls along the river.
 This is really such a beautiful country. Vistas like this just when you're walking around.
 After a short climb to the lookout known as "God's Window," overlooking the lowveld.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Floods of 2012

There's always some new adventure happening at Daktari. This past week, we've been dealing with the aftermath of huge flooding all around our area. The nearest town, Hoedspruit, was declared a state of emergency as people were airlifted off their flooded houses and all roads in and out of town were blocked. Some parts of the area had over 600mm of rain in less than two days. Here at Daktari we were lucky enough not to experience too much damage. However our dam burst, turning our main road in and out of camp into a rushing river. We were stuck in camp for about three days before we towed our bakkie (pick-up truck) across and parked it on the other side. Now whenever we want to come in and out of camp we have to take off our shoes, walk across the muddy river, and then get in the car. It's bush life, for real.

Here are the kids' dorms with all the rain puddling around:

This is a picture of what used to be our dam. Before, we would take our dogs on a walk each morning over the top of the dam, connecting to the sheer rock face shown ahead. It was possible to walk in a straight line - not so much anymore.

Of course when big things happen it changes around my program a bit, and I have to think on my toes. The day the dam burst was Wednesday, which is the day we take the kids next door to Makalali so they can meet the staff and learn more about job opportunities. Obviously we were stuck in camp (and so was Makalali, for that matter) so taking the kids there wasn't an option. We had a whole morning to fill and nothing in the program to fill it with. So I decided that the kids shouldn't miss out on their scheduled job opportunities lesson, OR their scheduled game drive.

The volunteers were champs, they each picked a job, dressed up appropriately, and answered the kids' questions about what it's like to do their job. Then Destry, who played the part of "ranger" took the kids on a pretend indoor game drive. The other volunteers held up pictures of animals, and the kids stopped to take pictures and learn more about them. The kids really enjoyed themselves, and I think the volunteers did too!

If anyone ever asks me again at a job interview if I am capable of thinking under pressure and/or being flexible... I think I will have a lot of these experiences to call upon. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Trip to the Primary School

I'm writing about something that happened a few weeks ago, but I never had a chance to share and I've been meaning to. For those who haven't been paying attention, my friend and fellow long-term volunteer Risette has started up a new project at Daktari called the Outreach Project (donate here). She's working with the kids when they return to their schools to continue their environmental education, help their communities, and eventually find jobs in the ecotourism field. Some of the kids from one of the club had the great idea to go to the primary school and talk to all the little kids about taking care of the environment. I wasn't at that visit, but the headmaster was so inspired that he started a competition to see which grade could pick up the most trash around the village (of which there is so, so much).

I was lucky enough to go along with Risette and the three girls from the eco club to present the prizes to the kids after they had finished the competition. It was so cute, especially to see the little kids with bags of trash bigger than they are! The big girls had a great time handing out the candy to the little kids, and the kids were so excited. It was also nice just to be around smaller kids for a little while!

I will share some photos from the visit. I'm looking forward to a short trip to the Kruger Park before Saturday when we get seven new volunteers for me to train. It's a bit daunting but should be fun too - I can't believe I come home in less than six weeks!

Proud kids with their big bags of trash:

One of the older girls handing out candy:

Can you find me?

Risette, me, the headmaster, teachers, and a bunch of kids:

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year from Daktari! I hope everyone is happy and healthy and that your end of 2011 is as fun and adventure-filled as mine has been. Speaking of adventure.. just after writing my last post I woke up not feeling so great, and by the evening had developed a high fever. I don't know if you've ever had a fever when it's 110 degrees outside, but it is not very fun. I know what you're thinking, and no, I did not have malaria (thank god). I did, however, have a seriously bad throat infection ("massive tonsillitis," in the words of the doctor) and was knocked out for over a week. It took two rounds of antibiotics, two trips to the doctor, and a lot of caretaking from my friends here before I was up and at it again. I was in isolation; completely out of the program for most of the last week of volunteers for 2011. It was really sad because it was a super fun week, and it was my last week to spend time with our three long term volunteers who had been with us for about three months. The schools were already closed by that point, so we invited the children of our local staff to come do the program. It was so fun to see how proud the parents were of their kids, and to give them the opportunity to see where their parents work. One of our staff members, Senior, has a seven year old daughter who she brought for the week. Obviously she could not participate in a lot of the program, but our volunteers had a great time making up activities for her and hanging out with her in the pool. Here's Senior and her daughter, Malebo:
On my last day of health, I went swimming with the kids after lunch. It was a super, super hot day, and we had a really good time. Here's me and one of our favorite kids, Grace, who we also invited for the week:
When I finally emerged from my isolation chamber, all the kids and volunteers were gone. Just a few days later, the directors left for their Christmas holiday, leaving Risette and I in charge of the camp. We have had three families (sponsors and friends of the directors) enjoying a holiday here, who just left today, and we have been working really hard. Taking care of all the animals (including four baby squirrels and a baby warthog) and office work with a bare bones staff is tough, but very satisfying to make sure that everything runs right. Tonight it is just the two of us and one volunteer, Destry, who is helping us take care of the camp while everyone's gone. In a week the whole program starts up again with seven new volunteers and new kids - so I have to try and get some rest in before it gets crazy again! 

I am leaving out a lot of important things, but hopefully I will have time to update again before everything starts up. I will leave you with some more photos of animals around camp! 

It's always one of my favorite things when different kinds of animals eat together. Here we have our blind donkey, Eeyore, two of our tame squirrels, and two guinea fowl all sharing a meal of birdseed together. 

This little guy is a baby warthog named Kevin. His owners went on holiday for the past week, and we got the pleasure of pig-sitting him. He needs a lot of food, and a lot of attention, but it was nice having him around! 

Here I am hand feeding one of our duikers, Lizzy. 

More soon!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Squirrels, Snakes, Vacation

It has been too long! In my defense I took a lovely week-long vacation from Daktari, and since I've been back it's been super busy! As we approach the holidays we have fewer volunteers, which means more time in the program for me. We have one more week with kids, and then a few weeks of "holiday" - where I am going to stay on site and look after all the animals while the volunteers and the owners are not here. It will either be very easy or very hard, not sure which one yet!

As the holidays approach, we do a lot of talking about celebrations from all over the world. At the end of November, just before I left on my trip, we did a makeshift "Thanksgiving" with all the volunteers. There is one other American here, a 19 year old from Massachusetts named Sofi, and together we brainstormed how we could bring the important parts of the holiday to Africa. Unfortunately there was no turkey involved, but we bought some chickens to eat instead of the previously scheduled ravioli, which we thought was perhaps the least Thanksgiving-y meal possible. After the meal we ate delicious apple crumble and went around the table saying what we are thankful for. It was lovely - we really do all have so much to be thankful for being here at Daktari!

Tonight we are celebrating the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas. It basically means a "Secret Santa" type game with poems and gifts, I think we're skipping the black-face portion though. Do a little google search for Zwarte Piet if you want to know what I mean.

In other news, it is squirrel central around here. They fall from our thatched roofs onto the floor and their mothers don't come get them. We feed them with syringes for a few weeks, then slowly ween them onto solid foods. I never thought I would be comfortable with 4 squirrels running all over me before, but it now seems perfectly normal. At the moment we have released four, have five currently in a cage, and are still syringe-feeding a new baby. Our new baby is still being fed every three hours during the day and every four hours at night - and he still hasn't opened his eyes even though we've had him over a week!
He's currently sleeping in my shirt - Risette and I pass him back and forth all day and take turns feeding him. He's so sweet! My other baby, Buddy, is practically a grown-up now, and no longer needs regular feedings but instead eats in his cage all day. We will release him with his family group of squirrels in the next few days! I snapped this shot of him a few days after I found him on the floor next to my bed, this is in the classroom with the warthogs sleeping in the background:

It's also sort of been snake central around here! While I was gone there was a black mamba, a super deadly snake, in the little hut where we keep our extra animal food. Since then there have been a few boomslangs, a bunch of harmless snakes, and most recently a baby python! Ian brought the python around and let us all try him on:

I suppose I should also update a bit about my trip. I went with another long-term volunteer here at Daktari, Beccs, who is from the UK. We picked up our car on Saturday morning in town and took off driving south to the coast. We were gone a total of a week, and traveled I don't even know how many kilometers. We went to St. Lucia, which is a nice beach town with tons of beautiful wildlife on an estuary, and then to Durban and the beaches around. We did tons of driving and tons of beach time and had a lot of fun. After bush living it was so nice just to sleep in hotels, take long hot showers, use electricity, eat in restaurants, and go shopping. And to the casino. The most exciting news for me is that I drove basically the whole way from Durban back to Hoedspruit (upwards of 13 hours), and I now feel that I have mastered the art of the stick-shift. I tried to pick just a few photos from our trip:

Look! Driving stick on the wrong side of the road! Champion!
 I think we probably saw literally 100 people waving flags on the roadside. SA has lots of these types of jobs that were created to employ people. Sometimes they are waving flags and you literally cannot figure out why. 
 Driving to the beach at Cape Vidal in St. Lucia - just stumbled upon this beautiful white rhino on the side of the road. Rhino was the one animal I didn't see on my last trip to Africa, so I'm thrilled with this sighting! We just drove along watching him for as long as we wanted. 
 We took a boat ride on the estuary in St. Lucia - and were greeted by a pretty amazing hippo show. 
 Sunset from the roof of our hostel in Warner Beach, Kwazulu Natal, just south of Durban. 
 Beccs on the beach at Thompson's Bay, between St. Lucia and Durban. After walking through this crazy hole in a rock, we were on a beach with no one else. It was awesome. 

It was a really lovely trip, and it's lovely to be back at Daktari! Can't believe I leave in only two months!

If you haven't already, and you're interested, you should "Like" Daktari on facebook or follow us on twitter at @Daktariafrica. I'm now in charge of updating both, so it's a good way to stay connected when I don't have time to blog! More soon.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Awards, Chiefs, Crocs

In the past few weeks I have gotten to go out of Daktari on some interesting small trips. One of course was the ChildLine presentation that I wrote about in my last post. Then this previous Friday we went to the town of Polokwane, about a three hour drive away, to attend an Early Childhood Development Awards ceremony presented by the SA government and funded by Absa bank (one of the biggest banks in SA). We have applied for a grant from Absa ourselves, and were invited by the woman who runs their Corporate Social Investment to attend this ceremony to see some of the other work they do and to meet other people working with children in the area. I was allowed to come along mostly because of my connection to ECD, and it was a really interesting ceremony. It was a very glamorous affair with nice tablecloths and a full lunch, etc. What's really weird about things in this country is that punctuality is just not expected. We were, of course, on time around 10am for an event which was supposed to run from 10am to noon. We sat at our table and waited. And waited, and waited, and waited. Eventually, around an hour and a half later, they got started. With no apologies, and not even a reference to how late they were. It is kind of unreal in a cultural awareness type of way. The rest of the ceremony varied between interesting and boring, but what was cool is that it is a ceremony to award the best creches and practitioners in Limpopo, so it was actually oddly related to the work I was doing in Bloem!

Then this morning I got to go into The Oaks village and meet the Chief! Didn't know I would ever be appealing to the chief of an African village, but that's what we did today. Risette and Thabo and I left around 7:15am and drove to the village for an 8am visit with the Chief. We were visiting to ask him if he would support Daktari and especially our Outreach Program. He was an older man, around 70, surrounded by about 10 men and two women who made up his committee. Thabo translated for us into Sepedi as we described what we do here and asked for his support. Ideally we would love if he would attend any ceremonies we do in his village or at the high school, and if he would sign a letter of support that we can add to our letters of support from the municipality in our proposal for sponsors. It was a short meeting (with surprisingly no waiting!) and he agreed to support us, which was great.

Today, while the kids were at Makalali, I got to help feed our two new baby crocodiles. They don't usually eat when it's cold because they're cold-blooded and don't have enough energy to digest when it's cold outside. If they eat when it's cold for too long they can even get sick as the undigested food rots in their stomach. Gross, huh? Anyway we have a volunteer here now who is really good with reptiles, and she helped show us how we can help them eat. We basically rubbed small dead mice all over their faces until they ate. All in a day's work!

I'm looking forward to a big driving trip down to St. Lucia and Durban with one of my fellow volunteers next week, my first real traveling since I've been here! I will take loads of pictures!